THE ADAMS WOMEN Abigail & Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters By Paul C. Nagel Oxford University Press. 310 pp. $19.95
Paul C. Nagel's "The Adams Women" quotes a 1790 letter from Mary Smith Cranch to her sister Abigail Smith Adams, musing on the trials of their sex. "You and I have been better wives than the world will ever know," Mary writes, "or give us credit for."
Nagel does not quote the judgment of another Adams on the subject of female anonymity -- Henry's in "The Education" -- that the 19th-century American woman lives on only as "the man saw her," but his book is another significant correction of history's tendency to silence on the distaff side. Beginning at the beginning, with the wife of the founding Adams, John Adams' redoubtable Abigail, and her sisters Mary and Elizabeth, and ending with another doughty Abigail, "Abby" Brown Brooks, the wife of Charles Francis Adams, Nagel recaptures the thought and acts of these privileged women as they suffered and supported a great American dynasty.
Introducing the stoic Mary, wife of the financially hapless postmaster Richard Cranch, Nagel justly alerts us that her life "wearies the observer even after two centuries." It is equally true of Elizabeth, wife of the alcoholic parson John Shaw, and of Abigail's own daughter, "Nabby," who symbolize strong, dutiful women forced to contend with bumbling, bibulous husbands, serial pregnancies and miscarriages, death and deformity of progeny, the ministrations of the medical profession, and swarms of dependent, consuming relatives, as well as the terrible roller coaster of material fortune. ("The Adams Women" strikingly depicts how unstable early 19th-century wealth was. Distinguished citizens are seen hastening away from creditors; business partners are as wont to steal funds entrusted to them as to invest them.)
The story here is not one of sentimental, patronizing ennoblement through adversity or even, primarily, of belated redress of gender balance sheets. It is about the replacement of colonial-era sexual parity and collaboration in work and bed by the coming Victorian ideology of separate and unequal spheres.
The feminist apology informing Nagel's book is the more persuasive for being unobtrusive. Indeed, some readers may wish for more psychological probing behind the remarkable correspondence of these Adams women, especially the letters between the strong-willed Nabby and her domineering mother. On the whole, however, the larger meaning of their words speaks for itself. When Abigail, whose divided mind encompasses both dutiful submission and sharp awareness of compounding inequities, laments that "it is a most dangerous thing for a Female to be distinguished for any qualification beyond the rest of her sex," Nagel's point about the "pedestalizing" of the 19th-century female is as compellingly made as that of more didactic feminist scholars.
In Nagel's well-received "Descent From Glory," the penchant of Adams men for smug rectitude and emotional tightness ran as a rough thread through the large weave of Puritan triumph and decline. Seen through the eyes of his Adams women, the Adams men run a good deal to misanthropy and misogyny, John and, especially, John Quincy having to be regularly humanized in private and public by ruses, seductions and occasional mutinies. Even the urbane and more sentimental Charles Francis had to be chiseled, then blasted, out of congenitally crotchety bachelorhood by his extremely wealthy Massachusetts father-in-law. But it is Louisa Catherine Adams, suspect by mother-in-law Abigail for her rich (but soon bankrupt) Maryland paternity and fashionable London upbringing, who makes "The Adams Women" come alive.
No acquiescence for Louisa. White House parties were seldom gayer nor congressmen more beguiled than during her reign in the second Adams presidency. She regularly rebelled against John Quincy, sending him packing to Braintree, the ancestral home, while she traveled about alone. Yet this woman, who charmed Berlin and St. Petersburg society, titled her diaries "Adventures of a Nobody." Nagel's interesting book leaves one pondering the judgment of Louisa's grandson, Henry Adams, that "the American woman of the nineteenth century was much better company than the American man." The reviewer, who teaches history at Rutgers, is the author of "District of Columbia: A Bicentennial History.