- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 28, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

PORTRAIT OF A MARRIAGE

By Edith B. Gelles

William Morrow, $26.99, 352 pages

Reviewed by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers

There is no slackening in our nation’s interest in the Founding Fathers. Ever since David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on John Adams and the subsequent HBO series, Americans cannot seem to get enough of Abigail and John. Historian Edith B. Gelles is no stranger to the Adams family. Her previous books include “Abigail Adams: A Writing Life” and “Portia: The World of Abigail Adams.” She now embarks on a fascinating study of their marriage, giving us a dual biography as seen through their eyes.

“If, as the saying goes, some marriages are made in heaven,” the author writes, “the Adams marriage was.” Abigail’s younger sister envied the fact that Abigail had found a mate who was intelligent, educated and appreciative of women who displayed similar qualities. In 40 years, the couple exchanged more than 1,200 letters. In careful script, the letters began, “Dearest Friend,” before launching into detailed firsthand accounts of their marriage, political and social life or observations of 18th-century leaders: George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin. Luckily for historians, Abigail and John continued sending missives long after their eyesight dimmed and palsy made the hands of John tremble so much his handwriting became difficult to read.

Ms. Gelles has provided a balanced portrait, and her mastery of the period’s issues and history is evident on every page. Her treatment of the family - the alcoholism of son Charles, impoverishment and early death of daughter Nabby, and triumphs of son John Quincy - are written with understanding and sensitivity. With equal clarity, she explains John’s political ideas, his view of a “natural aristocracy” and his contribution to the Republic.

But it is her strength as a feminist historian that makes her treatment of Abigail the most gripping. When, in 1776, an outbreak of smallpox instilled fear throughout the country, Abigail made sure she and her family were among the first to be inoculated (then considered a radical course of action). No less controversial were Abigail’s ideas for women’s education. Women were among the first teachers of children; she emphasized that standards for them should be the same as for men.

One of the most entertaining sections deals with the period when John was stationed in France and England. For the matronly and polite Abigail, influenced by Puritan New England standards, the marital, religious and social relationships of France were all tainted by vice. She was flustered by the flirtatious, jaunty, confident air of French women, and her breathless observations, written in letters to her sister, are among the funniest quotes in this book.

Nor was Abigail enamored of British aristocracy, dress or manners. The loose ways of fashionable Brits in Bath were almost as distasteful to her as the mores of the fashionable French of Paris. Before we dismiss Abigail as a prude (even in the context of her own day), we must note in fairness that what dismayed her most about Europe was the plight of poor women, starved and taxed to support the pomp and show of aristocratic power and wealth.

As Ms. Gelles observes, living abroad provided Abigail with a larger perspective for evaluating her own country. “When I reflect upon the advantages which the people possess in America,” Abigail wrote, “the ease with which property is obtained, the plenty which is so equally distributed, the personal liberty and security of life and property, I feel grateful to heaven who marked out my Lot in that Happy Land.”

Sharing the Adams’ love of country, music and intellect was their contemporary, Jefferson, a man Abigail praised as being “one of the choice ones of the Earth.” John Adams and Jefferson formed a strong bond while in Europe. One can imagine them ambling along, deep in conversation as they visited British historic houses (John’s choice) or gardens (of prime interest to Jefferson). Oh, to have been in such company! When the two famously parted ways, Abigail continued writing to Jefferson. (The men resumed the friendship as elderly ex-presidents.)

The presidency was a period of “splendid misery” for both Abigail and John. She hesitated joining her husband long after his inauguration. When she dutifully joined him in the new capital city of Washington, she found a “romantic wilderness” full of trees and stumps. Marketing was done in Georgetown, the “dirtiest hole I ever saw.” John confided matters of state to his wife as part of his inner circle. She in turn unburdened herself in letters to her sister (tactlessly, if not hazardously, as the author points out). Their marriage survived long bouts of separation, as much as five years at a stretch.

Once united, they resumed their relationship as before. “To people of a later century,” Ms. Gelles states, “their uncomplicated, complete acceptance of each other - changed as both of them were - seems improbable.” Until the end, they harbored no regret at having chosen each other as partner, though Abigail wisely reasoned that perhaps the main reason their marriage worked so well was that each compromised. When Abigail died of typhus in 1888, her husband lamented, “I wish I could lie down beside her and die, too.”

It was a love story for the ages, based on generosity of spirit, loyalty, trust and mutual respect. Ms. Gelles explains the history of the time extremely well, and her accessible and friendly narration provides for an entertaining, scholarly portrait. If readers find the book less satisfying or moving than that of Mr. McCullough, undoubtedly it will prompt them to read further into the period and examine Ms. Gelles’ equally masterful and captivating treatments of the world and writing of Abigail.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the editor of “Mencken & Sara: A Life in Letters” and “Notes on Democracy.”

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