Book Review: Louisa
by Louisa Thomas
Penguin Press, 2016
“She was not a modern woman, but she had a kind of modern voice,” writes Louisa Thomas in her new biography of Louisa Catherine Adams, the London-born wife of John Quincy Adams. That voice, at once pointedly intelligent and reflexively self-doubting, was captured most fully in recent years by Margaret Hogan in her anthology of the woman’s various writings, A Traveled First Lady; and the intrepidity of the woman who would become America’s only (so far) foreign-born First Lady was exuberantly dramatized in Michael O’Brien’s Mrs. Adams in Winter; and the complex interplay between the private and the public woman was captured with beautiful insight and tender honesty by the late Margery Heffron in her Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams. Given such predecessors, a reader might legitimately wonder what Thomas’s book, Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams can add to this new wave of re-assessment.
Quite a bit, as it happens. Thomas, a former writer and editor for Grantland, brings to her by now well-chronicled subject the same combination of skills that has made the books of, for example, Stacy Schiff such necessary reading: in addition to being thoroughly grounded in a wide range of source material, Louisa also brims with intelligence and pith. This is the most effortlessly readable life of Louisa Adams that has yet appeared.
It tells her whole story, from her youth in England to her marriage to prickly, difficult John Quincy in 1797, to her world travels in connection with her husband’s diplomatic postings, including a stint in the English countryside that tended to highlight some of the temperamental differences between husband and wife, as Thomas engagingly puts it:
London had a centripetal pull. “London is uncommonly gay this winter, but we do not partake of its pleasures in consequence of our residence in the country,” Louisa wrote to Abigail. “We begin to find it very inconvenient.” “We” is not quite accurate; her husband found not the distance of London but the very existence of London inconvenient.
Perhaps the part of Louisa that Louisa herself would have found most uncomfortable to read is also the book’s most consistently fascinating strand: the less-than-perfect aspects of this famous marriage, most of which Thomas has had to ferret out of the gaps and inconsistencies between his written accounts (or lack thereof) of marital tensions and hers. The psychological acumen Thomas brings to this sifting of the written evidence is often quite thrilling in a quiet kind of way:
They fought. When John Quincy questioned her methods of teaching Charles his prayers, Louisa stormed off. He called her “suspicious and jealous.” She accused him of coldness and neglect. In his diary, he was silent about these shows of anger. He never censured her. At the same time, he acknowledged that he could not always control his temper. In letters and in her own diary, she anticipated and tried to preempt his disapproval, which could be bullying. She begged him not to criticize her – only to have him respond, “If I am angry, I am sure it will be more for your sake and that of your children than my own.”
Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams has been oddly and unevenly served by the normally-conscientious folks at Penguin Press. Despite its obvious merits and scholarly aspirations, the book was allowed to go to press without a bibliography, for instance, and although it sports an attractive cover designed by Darren Haggar, readers are never informed that the silhouette they’re looking at on the dust jacket is one of Louisa Adams taken from life.
But such considerations have to be weighed as minor against the sheer conversational accessbility of the book as a whole; Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams becomes at once one of the best First Lady biographies in an increasingly competitive field.