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Historical Fiction

Material Girl

Reviewed by Julia Livshin
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page BW07


A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln

By Barbara Hambly. Bantam. 608 pp. $25

One would think that Mary Todd Lincoln's status as the grand dame of conspicuous consumption -- the first high-profile shopaholic -- would have won her a cult following by now. Any gal who could purchase 84 pairs of gloves in the span of one month was clearly ahead of her time. (One wonders for the sake of modern-day comparison how that would tally up in Jimmy Choos.) Shopping as recreation, as relaxation, as an escapist narcotic has millions of avid practitioners these days. But you've got to respect Mary Lincoln's kind of unbridled acquisitiveness: "She sometimes found things in her luggage, returning from a trip, that she barely recalled purchasing at all."

Mrs. Lincoln has not fared well in the eyes of history. She's derided for her material excesses, which she could not bring herself to curb even during the deprivations of the Civil War, and has been written off as a shrew and a madwoman -- a sadly unworthy companion for our most beloved president and a blight on his memory. In her massive fictional biography, Barbara Hambly fleshes out the historical record to put before us a compassionate and evenhanded portrait of the 16th first lady. She doesn't shortchange her heroine's imperfections -- the violent temper, the brazen sense of entitlement, the devious streak that's responsible, Hambly provocatively suggests, for cornering Lincoln into a shotgun wedding. But her Mary Todd Lincoln is also a woman with a genuinely good heart who suffers acutely for her manic outbursts and is battered by tragedy.

Growing up in antebellum Kentucky, Mary came from the cream of Lexington society and was "a belle to her lace-gloved fingertips." Hers was a carefree existence of cotillions and taffy-pulls, of paying afternoon-calls and shopping for "earbobs" (earrings) and ribbons. She lived in a world in which men "would gallantly offer their arms to help women cross puddles that they assumed the women didn't have the brains to walk around." Mary could dance and flirt with the best of them, but she was also quick-witted, feisty, unusually well-educated and keenly interested in politics. She longed, above all, to join the all-male clusters engaged in heated political debate in her father's drawing room, among them Henry Clay and other prominent Whigs. For all her stepmother's warnings about the perils of bluestockingdom, there was little chance that Mary was going to make some nitwit planter's son a retiring, agreeable wife.

The chronological narrative juxtaposes Mary's early years -- her growing restlessness in Lexington; her budding abolitionist sympathies; her move to Springfield, Ill., the exciting new capital thrumming with political energy, to live with her married older sister; her tempestuous courtship and marriage to an uncouth backwoods lawyer named Abraham Lincoln -- with flash-forwards to the spring and summer of 1875, 10 years after President Lincoln's assassination, when Mary is 57 years old and Robert, her eldest and only surviving son, arranges to have her tried for insanity and committed to a lunatic asylum.

Asylums provided a not uncommon way for the rich to deal with unruly female relatives, and Mary's behavior in the interceding years had grown increasingly erratic. There were embarrassing incidents like the 1867 Old Clothes Scandal, when Mary attempted to have her White House wardrobe auctioned off to raise money to pay her debts, and her public battle with Congress over her widow's pension. After her third son's death, she suffered from delusions; she heard voices speaking to her from the floors and walls, had recurring visions that Chicago was on fire (again), and during a trip to Florida became irrationally convinced that Robert was deathly ill and rushed back to Chicago to be at his side.

The intriguing supposition at the core of Hambly's narrative is that Mary's bouts with mental illness, if not sufficiently exacerbated by having to bury three children and witness her husband's assassination, were further aggravated by an addiction to the sedative potions so readily prescribed to ladies in distress. With names like Female Elixir, Indian Bitters, Dole's Quaker Cordial and Braithewaite's Patent Nerve-Food, these medications were, unbeknownst to their takers, heavily laced with opium and alcohol. Mary, who suffered from migraines all her life in addition to other physical ailments, took the remedies in quantity and mixed them indiscriminately.

In a neat twist, Hambly has Mary's story intersect with that of John Wilamet, a fictional runaway slave who fled to Washington City in 1862 with his mother and siblings. Mary befriends him on his first, dark day in the "Promised Land." When Mary is confined in May 1875 to Bellevue Place, a private sanitarium in Batavia, Ill., John is working there as an assistant to the doctor in charge, and they renew their acquaintance. His interest in mental health stems from having watched his mother's struggles with severe and debilitating mood swings, and from the outset he recognizes in Mary a kindred spirit, someone "who could show such kindness one moment and such termagant fury the next." At his suggestion, Mary begins to wean herself off the medicines administered by the doctor to tranquilize his charges into woozy contentment.

The author of an eight-book mystery series set in 1830s New Orleans, Hambly does panoramic history very well. In The Emancipator's Wife, she summons the languorous gentility of the antebellum South as persuasively as she does the clamor, filth and meat-packing stench of post-Civil War Chicago. And she manages to capture, with a light hand, the elusive bond between "Molly" and Mr. Lincoln that endured the snowballing hardships of their lives. •

Julia Livshin is a staff editor at the Atlantic Monthly.

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