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Mary: A Novel, by Janice Cooke Newman

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 8, Number 9

Reviewed by Ellen Beezy.

Newman says she wrote this book so that readers would understand and empathize with Mary Todd Lincoln, remembered by history as a difficult and self-centered woman. Not so, says the author. She has the fictional Mary writing her memoirs from a mental hospital, a woman before her time, a "proto-feminist" who was intelligent, poised, and so politically adept that she created the path that her backwoods husband followed to the presidency. Much of the book is based on first-hand accounts of conversations, documents, and newspaper articles, making it difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. This will be frustrating for anyone who is a Lincoln fan or a history buff, but anyone who loves chick-flicks or romance novels is going to love it.

The writing is excellent, and sometimes riveting, but it still leaves Mary's odd behavior unexplained. Born into an aristocratic slave-owning Kentucky family, Mary's mother died early, leaving this demanding child who tried the nerves of her stepmother. Mary was tossed out of the house and into a series of boarding schools. Afterwards she was sent to live with a sister in Springfield so that she might find a suitable husband. She did. According to the author, Mary took no time in seducing Abraham Lincoln. As a result, the sensitive Lincoln turned into a guilt-ridden, self-loathing blob, causing the infamous spell of melancholy where his friends hid sharp objects from him for fear he would commit suicide.

They do marry but the author, like most historians, can't tell us why. The fictional Mary, in spite of her constant tantrums and terrors, loved her husband and was devoted to her sons. Mary's special affection for her younger sons might have kept her emotionally grounded for a time, but her mental stability failed as she lost them one by one.

And the shopping! She felt that amassing material things would "keep my family safe," by surrounding them in a protective cocoon. More likely it was the laudanum. This opium mixture was the cure-all for everything including "wandering womb," the plague, and quieting unruly children-useful only for the last. Her use of laudanum, especially after her husband's assassination and Tad's sudden death, made her erratic behavior more erratic. Her remaining son Robert decides he's had enough and goes to court to force her into Bellevue Place Sanitarium. As written, these may have been her sanest days, at least as compared with the "lunatics" she finds there. Notably, this is the only time the author mentions friendship. The fictional Mary was a fond companion to one patient in particular, which begs the question, were there no friends at home in Springfield, or even earlier in Kentucky? Friendships may have kept her from believing in séances and "conjure women," or relying on political hacks for comfort and advice. It is not fiction that Mary Todd Lincoln was used and abused by them all. On the other hand, her friendlessness, if not the result of her strange behavior, could help explain her.

However, the facts of her life explain it much better. She witnessed the wounded and dying in the streets of Washington; she lost family members in the war; she knew the horrors of war first-hand. She lost her mother and three young sons. Most painful of all, her husband was struck down shockingly, publicly, and tragically before her eyes. There's no denying both Marys' suffering, pain, and loss.

Apparently, her great need for love made her think she could buy it and manipulate people to get it. Unfortunately, the facts are the facts. The fictional Mary does not change this Lincoln fan and history buff's opinion that Mary was a difficult and self-centered woman who let her needs destroy herself and all who surrounded her.

Thanks to Ellen Beezy for this review. Ellen is a government analyst, freelance writer and the author of, Travels with My Sister and The Long and Whining Road.