Book Review: Louisa Catherine – The Other Mrs. Adams
by Margery M. Heffron
Yale University Press, 2014
The hush of sanctimony that falls over a book when its author dies during its composition is an almost involuntary thing, and nobody would have teased it more than Margery Heffron, who died while still hard at work on her monumental biography of Louisa Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams. Heffron did enormous amounts of original research and cheerfully dragooned dozens of friends and family members to do likewise, in archives and collections scattered over half the Western world. The resulting biography would have been powerful and groundbreaking – and very likely 800 pages long – but our author developed pancreatic cancer, and as her brother puts it in his short and affecting Acknowledgment: “she simply ran out of time.” As it is, her book Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams, at long last here, ends in 1825 with John Quincy Adams’s inauguration as President of the United States, and it clocks in at something under 400 pages. It never reaches the years Louisa Adams spent as the most influential and discussed hostess in Washington (her regular weekly soirees were fervently sought-after invitations), nor the years she spent as mistress of John Quincy’s household during his unprecedented return to Congress after his presidency ended. The spiky, superbly intelligent letters she wrote by the hundreds from 1825 to her death in 1852 are never mined for the full weight of treasures they contain, and one of the most complex and least predictable marriages in American political history only gets half the chronicle it would have received had fate been kinder.
We can make some estimate of how toweringly definitive that full volume would have been by how fantastic this partial completion is. Heffron is a spirited, elegant writer, and although she assesses her evidence with an impartial squint, she’s unabashedly partisan as well; she quite correctly states that Louisa Catherine has been relatively overlooked by biographers (excepting the minor surprise 2010 hit that was Michael O’Brien’s Mrs. Adams in Winter, about the month-long journey Mrs. Adams made across war-torn Europe from St. Petersburg to Paris in 1815), and the neglect mystifies her:
She deserves more. Like Jacqueline Kennedy, Louisa was a refined and lovely young woman who married into a powerful Massachusetts with political ambitions and dynastic aspirations. Among her greatest challenges was to stake out a place within the larger-than-life Adams family. Neither John nor Abigail Adams was originally enthused with their son’s choice of a privileged, English-born wife. (“I would hope for the love I bear my country that the Syren is at least half blood,” Abigail wrote to John Quincy.)
“The Syren” was born in London in 1775 and grew up in France, where her American-born father took his family during the turbulent years of the American Revolution. After the war, the family returned to London, and Louisa resumed the normal life of a well-bred 18th century city girl. These early chapters from Heffron’s book read like something out of Jane Austen, and thanks to the copious letters and biographical sketches we have, it’s never hard to see which Bennet sister we’re dealing with:
Louisa had long seen herself as somehow different from her sisters and the other young women she met in society. They might spend their days flirting and gossiping, but she held herself to a different standard. “Music and reading were the only things in life I thought worth living for excepting to laugh at all the oddities which fell on my way.”
By far the greatest oddity that fell her way in those years was a young American diplomat named John Quincy Adams, whom she met in 1795 and with whom she carried out a courtship that could only be described as tempestuous. Adams was nearly thirty, beak-nosed, and had been serving his country since his childhood; he was already one of the most formidable intellects America had ever produced, and in Louisa he encountered a mind every bit as strong and literary as his own (“Your style of writing is more than good,” he grudgingly conceded to Louisa early on, in an admission no Adams liked to make, “It is excellent”). He was even at this early point a prickly, contrary sort, and his initial reluctance to commit to marriage first infuriated Louisa (Heffron reprints one letter in particular that must have tanned JQA’s cheeks when he first read it) and then filled her with a calm determination to become the life-steadying wife of this strange and vaguely inhuman man. Her wit and vivacity quickly won over John Adams – indeed, it’s safe to say the father fell in love with her before the son – and although Abigail Adams was a much harder and longer conquest, the heart of the book is of course the slowly-blossoming relationship between the halting, misstepping young lovers. Thanks to JQA’s frequent diplomatic postings, that relationship was as much epistolary as anything else, and Heffron is keen to the possibilities of that:
In what may have been their true introduction to one another – and in what remains today a rare opportunity to listen in on a conversation between two intelligent, passionate individuals – the couple’s weekly letters crossed the North Sea from June 1796 to June 1797.
They married in 1797, and there followed years of traveling (including the storied stay in Russia, where Louisa knew both the fascination of being a celebrated ornament in the court of the Czar and also the heartache of losing a baby daughter), until John Quincy Adams was named James Monroe’s Secretary of State in 1817 and the family settled in Washington for Adams’s long political career. It was here, amidst the boisterous and slightly manic social scene Washington has always presented to the world, that Louisa Adams found a world well-suited to her rare combination of talents. It was here she could closet statesmen and writers alone for hushed, intense discussions, and it was here she could wield the particular kind of power possessed only by that rare and frightening breed, the Washington hostess. She was as much of a high-strung hypochondriac as her husband, but she took to this new world like a natural – and as Heffron points out, she brought to it some unprecedented qualifications quite beyond her easy command of French:
Very few women in Washington, or in the country as a whole, rivaled her combination of wide reading, accomplished writing, and talent as a musician. None brought to the White House her keen understanding of diplomacy, nourished by long experience in the royal courts of Prussia, Russia, and Britain.
The story of “the other Mrs. Adams is only just reaching its great climax – the presidency, for which Lousia herself was far more suited temperamentally than her husband (a fact lost on neither of them and resented by each in their own way) – when this marvelous book comes to its abrupt end. An outline at the end of the book gives the reader an idea of where the story would have gone had the storyteller not died, but those details, culled from the enormous Adams literary archive, will have to be filled in by somebody else. As it is, we get the fascinating prelude to that story, done about as well as we can ever hope to have it done.