Anita's Reviews > Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln

Mary by Janis Cooke Newman
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's review
Oct 11, 2010

really liked it

Mary Todd Lincoln was the third eldest of six children of her parents. Her mother died on puerperal fever at the birth of her last child when Mary was six. Mary showed disturbing signs of extreme grief at the loss of her mother, something the stoic Victorians regarded as weak and unnecessary behaviour, exacerbated when her father married again within a year of Eliza Parker Todd’s death.

The story opens with Mary’s admittance to the sanatorium, a portrait of a perfectly sane woman discussing with her doctor how she might get over her derangement and enter real life again. Mary recounts the courtroom scene where witnesses are called to testify to her increasingly bizarre behaviour, which may have seemed odd, but in modern times, could simply be attributed to a woman having a breakdown after witnessing the murder of her husband.

Mary’s despair when her elders son, Robert, not only fails to defend her, but stands a chief witness to her derangement, his coldness made me feel this travesty was simply a way for a son to absolve himself of responsibility for an ageing parent.

However Mary’s behaviour since the death of her husband in that theatre, was certainly bordering on the mentally unstable, so in a way I can understand why her family believed they were protecting her. Little did Robert Lincoln know the regime in the sanatorium bordered on abusive. But then the views on mental illness in 1875 were very different to today.

When Mary meets Abraham Lincoln, she is already in her early twenties and feels she must marry soon. She charmingly describes him as ‘homely’ and with hands that ‘broke china and sent plates of sandwiches crashing to the floor’. Mary’s married sisters disapprove of her growing attachment to him due to his lack of money and the fact his mother was rumoured to be illegitimate.

However Mary’s longing and her physical passion for Mr Lincoln sends her to his bachelor room on a mission of seduction on New Year’s Eve 1840. However her plan backfired, for although Mr Lincoln gave in to his passion and ‘took her honour’, the depth of her desire apparently terrified him and he refused to ask for her hand.

As a result of his conflicted mind, Abraham falls into a deep melancholy. Mary, however is a resolute young woman and doesn’t give up on him. She begs him to marry her and promises to ‘curb her passion’ for the ugly man with the large hands.

Without betraying any more of their story, I was very aware that the threat of madness is always prevalent in the characters and the mores of the times. Any expression of deep emotion, whether it be love, grief, passion or despair is often labelled as ‘lunacy’ and the behaviour as well as the person would expect to be shunned.

Mary craved affection all her life and received very little, from her parents, her husband, even her children, all of whom she adored. Her cold, distant son, Robert repaid that adoration with having her committed to Bellevue Sanatorium, a cruel fate for a woman of passion whom they clearly misunderstood and didn’t love enough to try and understand.

Mary has an unshakeable faith in Mr Lincoln’s ambition, although she also has to fight with the fact she was also the Victorian equivalent of a shopaholic.

Ms Cooke Newman builds up an excellent portrait of a seriously disturbed child, who would eventually be ambushed by grief again in adulthood and finally the widowhood which breaks her fragile mind. She also describes life in the deep south before the Civil War beautifully, with scents of lemon verbena and mint juleps on a sun baked porch.

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