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O’Brien’s ‘Mrs. Adams’ Envisions A Nuanced Past

'Mrs. Adams in Winter' by Michael O'Brien (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

By Grace E. Jackson, Contributing Writer

“I am turned woman of business,” remarked Louisa Catherine Adams in January 1815, having received a letter from her husband, John Quincy Adams, inviting her to make the journey from Saint Petersburg to Paris. Her husband had not specified a time limit, but Mrs. Adams began making arrangements for her immediate departure, accompanied by her seven-year old son. She was thrilled to be leaving Russia after having suffered the wearying expense of expatriate living, the oppressive politesse required by her regular engagements at the Tsar’s imperial court, and six years of seemingly endless winters. But she faced a two-thousand mile journey in freezing conditions across a continent traumatized by more than a decade of war between Napoleon and the European allies, to meet a husband with whom her relationship had always been fraught—especially since the death of their infant daughter three years before.

In “Mrs. Adams in Winter: a Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon,” against the background of Adams’ troubled marriage and peripatetic life as a diplomatic wife, British historian Michael O’Brien marshals an impressive array of sources in order to recreate Mrs. Adams’ journey across Europe. The result is an agreeable mix of biography, travelogue, and historical narrative—a book whose form is as hybrid as its subject. O’Brien describes Louisa Catherine Adams as “migrant, transnational, bicultural, bilingual,” and proposes to read her journey as an expression of those qualities, as well as in explicitly gendered terms as an example of “a woman acting in the name of other women.”

While “Mrs. Adams in Winter” does not fully deliver on its promise of this nuanced portrait, it succeeds admirably in reconstructing the quotidian details—cultural, financial, geographical—of overland travel in the early-19th century. We learn of the staple food of travelers in Prussia, “beer soup,” a mixture of beer, egg yolks, wheat and sugar; of a road-tax imposed on greased wheels; and of nights spent in post-stations, a kind of 19th-century motel where one slept in a cubicle with waist-height boards for walls. Through Mrs. Adams’ eyes, we see evidence of the Napoleonic conflict. In Eastern Prussia, she is alarmed by the thinned population, by clusters of unprotected women on the streets, and half-burned houses. Later, she passes the harrowed battlefield of Leipzig—scene of the biggest battle in Europe before World War I—where human skeletons are still strewn on the charred ground among scraps of leather and smashed muskets. And into this chronological narrative of life on the road, O’Brien skillfully weaves a series of telling anecdotes from Louisa Catherine Adams’s experience as a wife, mother, and American expatriate in Europe.

O’Brien sensitively profiles the relationship between Mrs. Adams and her husband, who became the sixth president of the United States a decade after Louisa made her journey through Europe. For most of his career, John Quincy Adams was deeply involved in his recreational study of the classics, of “Tacitus and Cicero, Massillon and Madame de Stael, the Bible and Milton”—often to the detriment of his relationship with his wife. Ever since their courtship and marriage in 1797, his bookishness and introversion had sat uncomfortably with his wife’s disposition, which was vulnerably romantic, although tempered by a worldliness granted by her upbringing in the “swirling world” of London. After meeting Quincy Adams in England, she had offended him by laughing at his earnestness, “as fashionable young women in London did at awkward young men from Massachusetts.” Later, they would fall out over Louisa’s desire to wear rouge in order to attenuate the “cadaverous” pallor of her complexion, which offended her husband’s puritan sensibilities. He insisted on wiping her face himself. She reflected in her memoir later, “All my beauty was clean washed away.”

The most moving and instructive anecdote appears at the end of the book, when O’Brien describes the death of the Adams’ only daughter, also named Louisa, in 1812. The baby’s protracted and painful death from dysentery and fever, over a period of four months, engendered a profound and lasting depression in her mother, who began to pine for death herself: “I feel that all my wishes center in the grave,” she wrote in her diary. To this haunting episode, O’Brien attributes Louisa’s determination to complete her epic journey alone, three years later. But it also allows the author to complicate his impression of John Quincy Adams, who for once grew distracted from politics, and grieved deeply for his daughter. O’Brien quotes from a letter written to his mother, Abigail Adams, in which he describes the child’s sufferings as so severe that “the sight of them would have wrung with compassion a heart of marble.”

In his acknowledgments, O’Brien refers to “Mrs. Adams in Winter” as a “literary experiment.” This description matches the book’s digressive structure, which shifts constantly from past to present and back again. Because of this, the narrative feels saturated in memory—although O’Brien’s restrained prose prevents the emergence of the lyricism or deep meditation from which his account could benefit. Nevertheless, “Mrs. Adams in Winter” is an informative and diverting—if not engrossing—read. Towards the end of the journey, O’Brien describes the provenance of his most valuable source, Louisa Catherine Adams’ own memoir of the journey, which she wrote down twenty years later, in 1836. Having encountered numerous obstacles to remembering, she was the first to concede its unreliability: “those who may read this memento mori, must endeavor to extract light from the chaos which lies before them; and I wish them joy of the trouble.” In “Mrs. Adams in Winter,” Michael O’Brien takes up her challenge, and succeeds commendably in bringing to light her story—a story that might otherwise have remained in the shadow of the family into which she never truly fit.

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