Friday, March 19, 2010



By Michael O’Brien

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27

384 pages, illustrated


This enthralling, vividly written book tells the story of an amazing journey in extraordinary times undertaken by a most uncommon woman. Louisa Catherine Adams was left behind in St. Petersburg, where her husband had for some years been the United States’ minister to the Russian Empire, when he went off to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, which made peace with Britain after the War of 1812.

His next diplomatic assignment would be in London and he awaited her in Paris, so, early in 1815, accompanied only by her young son Charles Francis and his French nursemaid, she set out by carriage across a wintry Europe to join him, a journey of nearly 2,000 miles which took her some 40 days.

Such a trip necessitated the purchase of a heavy carriage in Russia, drawn by horses and driven by postilions: these, of course, had to be changed regularly in a voyage of this length. The expense of all this was enormous, the equivalent the author tells us of some $28,000 in today’s money, and if it purchased the most commodious degree of comfort available in those days before there were railways let alone highways, it was both distinctly uncomfortable and dangerous. Paved roads were an occasional treat.

Most of the journey was undertaken in appalling weather on thoroughfares that were treacherous on account of flood, mud and sundry other obstacles. “Labouring through the mud” near Konigsberg in the Baltic regions of Prussia, Mrs. Adams encountered a carriage which had overturned seven times already. She laughed off this news, saying she “hoped to escape the pleasure altogether.” Still, as the book soberly informs us, “Overturning was, in fact, not uncommon, and Mrs. Adams was unusual in never experiencing it.”

Although she was traveling across Northern Europe in February and early March, weather and rough road conditions would be only one of the factors complicating Mrs. Adams’ journey. At the time she set out, her destination was a city ruled once again by the Bourbon dynasty, Louis XVIII having retrieved the crown of his guillotined brother. The victorious Allies who had put him there were laboriously engaged in postwar planning for Europe at the Congress of Vienna in the wake of two decades of revolution and Bonapartist warfare.

Napoleon was, everybody thought, safely marginalized on the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba. All this would change dramatically during the 40 days Mrs. Adams was on the road and, traveling across France in mid-March 1815, she would find herself in the midst of Napoleon’s forces marching on the French capital in the wake of the Emperor’s unexpected escape from Elba.

As it turned out, Napoleon would beat Mrs. Adams to Paris by a couple of days. But traveling as she was in a coach identifiable as coming from the Bonapartists’ Russian enemy, she and her son found themselves in grave danger when surrounded by soldiers rallying to the resurrected emperor and were lucky indeed to escape unharmed. The account of this episode in these pages makes for thrilling reading and impresses the reader with Mrs. Adams’ fortitude and sang-froid - to say nothing of her excellent idiomatic French which might have aided her deliverance as much the high regard which these troops of La Grande Armee had for the United States.

Among the many unusual things about Mrs. Adams is that she is the only one of our first ladies who was not American born. She came into the world in London in 1775, the daughter of a Maryland father and an English mother, and became a citizen of the United States at age eight. She would not, however, see its shores until 1801, four years after she married John Quincy Adams in London and having lived with him since in Berlin, where he was American minister to Prussia.

Although this book is primarily about the remarkable journey she undertook across Europe, its author, Michael O’Brien, a professor of American Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge in England, manages skillfully to range back and forth from 1815 to give a consistently incisive and remarkably full picture of her life.

Moreover, he displays admirable psychological insight into Mrs. Adams’ unusually complex personality and general gestalt. His portrait of her is characterized by great sympathy for her difficulties in adjusting both to her nation, which was after all terra incognita to her, and to her husband (to say nothing of his extraordinarily challenging, if consistently welcoming and understanding, family):

“The central irony of [their] marriage was that, in the United States at least, a man who did not care about belonging did belong, and a woman who cared for little else did not. When in 1815 she left her friends in Berlin and traveled toward Leipzig [en route to Paris], she was traveling toward a life of cultural loneliness.

“This movement into the twilight was one reason why she liked the traveling, why she later remembered it with such fondness, and why she attributed so much importance to what she had done. It was not that, in traveling, she found places to belong, except perhaps Berlin. As she admitted, she was ‘alone, and without rank, a mere voyageuse.’ It was that, for those forty days, she was under no pressure to belong. … To be sure, the journey mimicked her life in that, over the years, she seemed always in transition and seldom at rest. In a deeper sense, however, it defied the pattern of her life, which had been marked by transitions she had not sought and changes she could not control.”

Drawing on the pointed recollections Mrs. Adams set down later in life and on voluminous correspondence, Mr. O’Brien has done a superb job of really understanding one of our lesser known first ladies and, in the course of so doing, also her equally enigmatic, albeit more familiar, husband.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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