Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleonby Michael O'Brien, Cassandra Campbell (Narrated by)
Early in 1815, Louisa Catherine Adams and her young son left St. Petersburg in a heavy Russian carriage and set out on a difficult journey to meet her husband, John Quincy Adams, in Paris. She traveled through the snows of Eastern Europe, across the battlefields of Germany, and into a France then experiencing the tumultuous events of Napoleon's return from Elba.
Early in 1815, Louisa Catherine Adams and her young son left St. Petersburg in a heavy Russian carriage and set out on a difficult journey to meet her husband, John Quincy Adams, in Paris. She traveled through the snows of Eastern Europe, across the battlefields of Germany, and into a France then experiencing the tumultuous events of Napoleon's return from Elba. The prize-winning historian Michael O'Brien reconstructs for the first time Louisa Adams's extraordinary passage. An evocative history of the experience of travel in the days of carriages and kings, Mrs. Adams in Winter offers a moving portrait of a lady, her difficult marriage, and her conflicted sense of what it meant to be a woman caught between worlds.
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Mrs. Adams in WinterA Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon
By Michael O'Brien
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLCCopyright © 2010 Michael O'Brien
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSAINT PETERSBURG
She was in a hurry, because anxious. And she disliked partings, all the business of embraces, regrets, and promises. So she began the journey and left the city without ceremony, while her friends were distracted at Sunday dinner, which in Saint Petersburg occurred at five o'clock. The Moika Canal sat frozen close to her small, leaking apartment, and the deep snow and the hour deadened sound. The unsteadiness of the horses, the ordering of the servants, the instructing of the postilions, the care of a small boy, the disposition of a heavy carriage on runners and a sled behind, the noise of three languages, the heaving of luggage, and the storing of provisions made a muffled confusion in the dusk.
She was right to be anxious, because she was committing herself mostly to strangers. Though she knew her servant John Fulling, the postilions were anonymous and she barely knew the French nurse, Madame Babet, who had only been employed that day. And there was a rough soldier called Baptiste, a prisoner of war she had agreed to take westward in exchange for his ser vices. Baptiste worried her.
To be sure, she had pieces of paper that were reassuring. There was a Russian passport from the State Board of Foreign Affairs, which had been issued five days before. Written in German, "in pursuance of the edict of His Majesty, the Sovereign Emperor Alexander Pavlovich, Ruler of all the Russias, etc., etc., etc," it gave her leave of absence and free passage from his empire. The minister of the interior, Osip Petrovich Kozodavlev, had given her the obligatory padarojna, or order for post-horses, and sent commands that she should be well treated by all the postmasters on the road "on pain of punishment." (Punishment from such a man was not something to contemplate lightly, for he was the tsar's spymaster and prison warden.) There was her French passport, signed in the name of the French ambassador by his secretary, but "au Nom du Roi," the restored Louis XVIII. The Prussian ambassador had given her yet another passport "im Namen seiner Majestät des Konigs von Preussen," which had a comforting ring, since she knew the Prussian king well, had danced with him, and trusted to his protective kindness. Then, too, she had hidden bags of gold and silver, as well as letters of credit to bankers along her way. For she was a fine lady of lofty rank, someone of fur and turquoise rings, someone who knew the tsar, the tsarina, a king or two, and aristocrats beyond number and often beyond remembrance. In crude post stations, in flea-bitten inns, she would be someone who might elicit deference, even fear. She would manipulate this response.
To her surprise, she was a little sorry to leave. For most of her time there, she had disliked the place, with its biting cold winters and humid listless summers, and she disliked the "gaudy loneliness" of being almost the only woman of her kind in the city. In Saint Petersburg, she had found few friends and little comfort. On that twelfth of February-as it happened, her fortieth birthday-she entered her carriage with trepidation. All her life, she had lacked confidence and seen the world as a challenge she could not meet. This journey would be a test, or so she came to think.
Being only seven, the boy had as yet little history that anyone cared to record. He was known as a child of quick passions, so wild that his mother could find him difficult to manage. But he was sweet and needy, someone who tried hard. He had lived almost all his short life in Saint Petersburg and there acquired an unstable mix of cultures. He was formed by a German nursemaid, parents who often spoke French, and servants who were Russian. English was only his third language, and he wrote letters in it blunderingly, with a pained sense of inadequacy. The city had made him grow up faster than was usual, for the Russians were uninterested in the innocence of childhood, and treated children like him as small adults. When not yet three, he had attended in fancy dress the palace of the French ambassador and opened a ball by leading out the ambassador's illegitimate daughter (at three and a half, his senior by about six months). Afterward there had been an "elegant supper" with "oceans of Champaign for the little people." For this hothouse growth his mother had been grateful in this last year, for he had discerned that she needed reassurance and had offered her "little tender assiduities; attentions gentle and affectionate" beyond his years.
Being middle-aged and having hair streaked with gray, the boy's mother had a longer history. In appearance, she was petite and slim, though many years of a grueling social life-balls, dinners, fêtes, conversazioni-had added some weight. She was not sure this was a bad thing. ("At our time of life fat is very becoming.") She dressed fashionably, but she had never been a belle. She stopped no conversations when she entered a room, nor did she occasion pitiful stares. She was the middling sort, a girl and then a woman usually thought very pretty with her "heavenly blue-eyes," though her prettiness arose as much from her personality and what she did with words as from her form. She came from a family that had been acutely aware of physical appearance and had good reason to be. Her own mother had been "very lovely," "exquisitely delicate, and very finely proportioned." Her father was "the handsomest man" she ever saw, and this opinion had more basis than daughterly prejudice. Her eldest sister had an easy and graceful deportment, a fair complexion, auburn hair, a dimpled mouth, beautiful teeth, and hazel eyes with an "expression it is impossible to describe, for their brilliant gaiety seemed to call on those she looked on to be as gay and as happy as herself." Among such riches, she had felt herself inadequate, less attractive.
Her wit had been too sharp to encourage brainless young men in drawing rooms, but people of urbanity thought of her as a peer, though only eventually. When young, she had been as "timid as a hare," had disliked to go into society, and had been a wallflower when forced into assembly rooms. Over time, painfully, she had acquired the knack of sociability. But she had a persistent sense that she entered society as an alien, scrutinized with skepticism by those who belonged. This anxiety meant that she made herself a close student of how society worked, of its rules and regulations, those plain and those implied. She was a closer student of those who inhabited society, for studying them helped her survive. She was sharply aware of glances, the placement of a jewel, the lifted eyebrow, the snigger in the corner, the candid smile. She warmed at kindliness, shrank from cynicism, and was offended by hypocrisy. She was not a natural inhabitant of an eighteenth-century or Regency salon, though there was nowhere else for her to live.
She thought of herself as proud and haughty, a trait that went back to her childhood, when she used to stand aside from schoolgirl cliques and so had been mistrusted. In fact, she needed to connect, for she was sentimental, readily amused, and liked parties where there were gossip, smiles, English country dances, and a lingering past midnight. But she preferred a society of those she knew and trusted. She did not need to be the center of attention, but she disliked being ignored, too, and she knew the entitlements of her rank. This delicate balance was not easy to accomplish, especially for those who had to deal with her. Her emotions lay very close to the surface. Anger, happiness, and fear registered on her face and in her movements quickly, and as quickly changed. This led some to think her shallow, even insincere, but it was not so. With her, emotions ran deep, too deep. She was less sure whether her reason ran as deep. Over the years, her greatest problem was a body that seemed always to betray her, and she was never sure where body ended and mind began. So fevers and aches, nerves and agitation, were hard to disentangle. Had her body given way because her mind was weak, as she feared that people thought? Or had her mind given way because her body was weak? She did not know.
Her last days in the city had been frantic, because the decision to leave had been unexpected and abrupt. For nearly a year, she had been alone and drifting, unsure about what would happen next. Her taste for independence had been modest, but being "dreadfully isolated ... in this great City" had fed the taste. Over that time, she had grown used to running her own life. Apartments had been rented and changed, the city abandoned in summer for a rural dacha, horses and carriages bought and sold, drunken servants dismissed and replacements employed, unwonted duties assumed, all upon her own authority. To the skeptical, she had pleaded necessity. "I have been obliged to do many things," she said. Often her mood had been bad. She had been "sick and cross," and restless about the sacrifices she was being asked to make. On the other hand, there had been plea sure in this moment of detachment. She had always been forced into care with money, because someone else had kept the books, the margins had been slim, and wearying homilies about thrift had been commonplace. Now, unmonitored, she felt freer to buy a new carriage and new clothes-"I have been under the necessity of expending [more] for my toilet than usual on account of the fetes"-and there was little conviction in her remark that "I am very sorry for it but I could not withstand the temptation and indulged myself." She was not really sorry.
A letter had come only three weeks before and had precipitated her going. It had invited her to Paris. It had advised breaking up her establishment, selling whatever furniture she did not wish to keep, packing up the rest, and leaving it to be forwarded to a destination as yet obscure. If she wished, she could leave as soon as possible or wait until spring. But, in either case, the letter suggested traveling with a "good man, and woman servant," and perhaps "some Lady or person of your acquaintance." If she left promptly, when it was still deep winter, the letter recommended using only a kibitka, a large sled, in which she would need to wrap up warm against the chill. The roads would furnish "very tolerable lodging for the night, at any of the Post houses," the letter said.
Her first reaction had been astonishment, then confusion, then exhilaration, then action. ("I am turned woman of business.") She had instantly decided to go as quickly as possible. Tsarina Elizabeth Alexievna was to remark, with that sad kindness for which she was known, that "joy sparkled" in the prospective traveler's eyes and that "she had never seen a Woman so alter'd in her life for the better." The traveler had quickly decided, too, to stop on the way in Berlin, to pay her respects to old friends. But there had been much to do. It was necessary to put a notice in the imperial gazette, weekly for three weeks, to announce her name and age, her intention to depart, and her freedom from debts, to give creditors an opportunity to come calling if the last assertion was an untruth. She had to see her bankers, John Christoph Meyer and George Augustus Bruxner, who closed her account, agreed to look after some trunks, and gave her letters of credit. To Messrs. Schwink and Koch in Königsberg, they wrote with brief, formulaic, but delicate courtesy: "We do ourselves the Honour to introduce to you by the present Her Excellency ... who passes your Place on her Tour to Paris, to request you would advance her against her Receipt, what money she may want ... any Civilities & Services you may render Her Excellency will confer on us a particular Obligation." The practicalities of the household were harder. Furniture and goods proved difficult to sell, but expensive to keep and ship onward. Few had "ready money," though one gentleman offered her diamonds or pearls in lieu of cash, and she had been tempted to accept. No easier were the elaborate bureaucratic procedures. The Russian Empire was a police state and did not permit people to come and go readily.
Her French passport was dated February 7, 1815, according to the Gregorian calendar, and January 26 according to the Julian calendar by which the Russians kept time. On it, her party was described as "Madame Louise Catherine Adams et Monsieur Charles Francois Adams son fils, se rendant à Paris avec leur domestiques." It did not explain why Louisa Catherine Adams and her son Charles Francis Adams needed to make their way by road to Paris in the depth of winter and alone, save for the servants.
On its surface, the reason was simple. Her husband, John Quincy Adams, was two thousand miles away in France and they were to join him. They had been apart for nearly a year. He had been commissioned by his government to intermit his office as American minister plenipotentiary to the court of Tsar Alexander I and to join the commission charged with negotiating a peace treaty between the United States and Great Britain to end the war that had been waged halfheartedly since 1812. So he had left her in Saint Petersburg in April 1814 and followed a meandering route from Russia, to Sweden, to Denmark, and on to Ghent in the Netherlands, where the treaty was concluded in the last days of that same year. By way of reward for his labors, partly at her urging, he had gone on to Paris. There he waited, reluctant to return to the cul-de-sac that was Saint Petersburg, a place that had come close to burying his career. Poised and hopeful of better things, easier to imagine in a Parisian spring than a Russian winter, he waited, partly for her.
She was leaving with many memories, some of which she had already set down in diaries, some of which she was to drag up from the back of her mind much later, when it seemed important to remember. They were not simple memories. There was little nostalgia, at least not for Russia.
She remembered how she had come. On August 5, 1809, she had left her house at the corner of Boylston and Nassau Streets in Boston, gone north to cross the Charles River bridge to William Gray's wharf in Charlestown, and there embarked on the Horace, which was to sail directly to Kronstadt, the port of Saint Petersburg. She was in a motley party. There had been nine of them. There was herself, her husband, and their third son. There was her young sister Catherine, pretty, flirtatious, indiscreet, and witty, "without one sixpence in the world [and] not even clothed properly." There was John Quincy Adams's disreputable, silent, and gentlemanly nephew William Steuben Smith, who was to be his private secretary, and two other young New Englanders (Alexander Everett, Francis C. Gray) who were coming as diplomatic attachés, for the experience. There was Martha Godfrey, who had for a year been Louisa Adams's cook and chambermaid, and "a black man-servant named Nelson," who was from Trinidad. The ship's crew had numbered nineteen: Benjamin Beckford, the captain; Nathan Poland, his mate; George Louder, the second mate; John Laighton, the clerk; Noah Jewett, the carpenter; William Cooper, the ship's boy; John Johnson, the steward; and twelve seamen. Some of these were never to return from Russia, because in Kronstadt, cholera was waiting.
The voyage had taken a slow eighty days. On it, the young male travelers had begun jealously to quarrel, which Mrs. Adams had noticed. She took it as an ill omen, for it was possible they would be years together, cooped up during long, claustrophobic winters in Saint Petersburg lodgings, where the young men would encircle her sister.
Excerpted from Mrs. Adams in Winter by Michael O'Brien Copyright © 2010 by Michael O'Brien. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Michael O'Brien is the author of Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810–1860, which won the Bancroft Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History.
Actress and director Cassandra Campbell has narrated nearly two hundred audiobooks and has received multiple Audie Awards and more than twenty AudioFile Earphones Awards, including for Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman.
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