Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Difficult Mrs. Lincoln

Poor Mary Lincoln. In her lifetime she became a figure of ridicule, pity and even disdain. Her reputation since has hardly improved. Most often she's been treated, at best, unsympathetically and at worst, she's been portrayed as a harridan, a mad woman and at the very least a considerable pain in the neck.

It wasn't until fairly recently, with the influence of Feminism in historical biography, that the poor woman has really found any friends in academe at all. Her most recent would be Catherine Clinton, who's new biography, Mrs. Lincoln: A life, has just been published. Clinton seems to have the requisite sympathy for her subject -- perhaps even to excess, considering her eagerness to answer every criticism quoted from contemporaries (and there's quite a chorus.) But however kindly meant, Professor Clinton's portrait indulges in the inexcusable habit of fictionalizing; dropping into Mrs. Lincoln's consciousness like a bird into a bath and then flitting off again, without quotation, reference, or any explanation of how the good Professor came to know so exactly the thoughts and feelings of her subject. Worse, Clinton, in her determination to rescue Mrs. Lincoln from her critics, is not above offering contradictory theories to explain the lady's excesses. One unintentionally funny example comes immediately to mind. Describing Mary's entirely understandable prostration at Lincoln's deathbed, Clinton explains how central being there for the moment of death was for the Victorian family, particularly the spouse. Mary Lincoln never got over missing the moment of her husband's passing. Clinton blames everybody in the room but Mary, as if the lady was denied her rights. But it took Lincoln hours to die, and in that time Mary regularly fainted and or became so vocally, wildly distraught as to have to be escorted from the room, thus spoiling the carefully stage managed tableau, and offending the solemnity of the occasion. Well, Clinton, blusters, Mrs. Lincoln was of Irish descent, and Irish ladies, it seems, tend to wail and keen!

It's all too much of muchness.

For a better, if no less sympathetic portrait, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, by Jean H. Baker, is a superior book in every way (one has only to compare the treatment of Lincoln's death in both.) Professor Baker's prose is less overheated, her research better integrated, and her understanding of her subject better grounded in the realities of daily life in Lincoln's White House and the period in general. No book I've read has ever come closer to making me, if not fond of Mrs. Lincoln, at least less likely to dread her recurrence on the scene. Recently republished with a new preface by the author, this would be the one to read.

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