Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Mrs Lincoln

Title: Mrs Lincoln
Author: Janice Cooke Newman
First Published: 2009

My Rating: 5/5


May 20th. Mrs Mary Lincoln admitted today - from Chicago - Age 56 - Widow of ex-President Lincoln - declared insane by the Cook County Court May 19th - 1875. This is the Patient Progress Reports for Bellevue Place Sanatorium.Incarcerated in an insane asylum after committal proceedings instigated by her own son, Mary Lincoln resolves to tell her own story in order to preserve and to prove her own sanity. Mary Todd Lincoln the original 'First Lady' is a figure of some notoriety in the USA: British readers introduced to her for the first time will encounter a fascinating, complex and captivating heroine of history.

Now, I am a Brit girl with leanings towards being South African, and I know next to nothing about American history ... and must admit, have little desire to learn much more. My heart always sinks a little when one of the challenge in the GoodReads Seasonal Reading Challenge requires us to read a book about an American president, an American war, or some incident in American history. I have visited America, and loved it, and just about every American I have interacted with has been perfectly lovely. I admire their patriotism. I sometimes wish us Brits could be a bit more like our American cousins. But still, I'm not that keen on reading about American history. So when one of the Summer challenge tasks was to read a book about Abraham Lincoln or his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, my heart sank a little lower ...

I went to the library and was just browsing generally when I saw this book. It was set aside from the other books on its' shelf and looked a bit lonely. I looked closer and saw the title ... and it seemed like it was meant to be, so I checked it out. I started reading it the next day, and I was gripped from the first page!

The story is told from Mary's viewpoint as she looks back on her life from the lunatic asylum where her son has had her committed. Mary is a middle child, and although loved, somewhat neglected. Her beloved mother dies in childbirth, her father cannot give Mary the affection she needs, her younger siblings understandably require a lot of attention and her older sisters are disinterested and mean. Mary meets and falls in love with the poor, gangly and not very handsome Abraham Lincoln and they live in an environment of poverty and restrained passion until Abraham becomes President. Mary endures a difficult life full of sadness and loss which unsurprisingly causes her to fall into a depression. She overshops and overspends in an attempt to protect what she has left, attends seances to contact her beloved children and husband and is eventually committed to a lunatic asylum by her son who is a hard, dispassionate and cold creature.

Throughout the novel I felt huge sympathy for Mary, a warm and passionate character who was forced to deal with great losses and personal tragedy as well as the huge stresses of being the President's wife. Perhaps a woman born before her time. I found the portrayal of the other ladies in the lunatic asylum interesting and comparisons could be drawn with mental health issues that are prominent today. The ladies in the asylum were looked down upon by the rest of society, and not treated with the simple respect that was offered to "normal" ladies.

All in all, this is a very powerful and very readable novel of American history. I flew through the 500 or so pages and was engaged with the story and the characters from the beginning. I would recommend this to anyone who likes reading historical fiction - I think Philippa Gregory fans would really enjoy this.