Mrs. Adams in Winter

What a terrific book!

Some readers, if they had the misfortune to be assigned The Education of Henry Adams in school, may remember Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams—she is Mrs. John Quincy Adams, the ancient grandmother whom the young Henry, with his usual morose sensitivity, perceives as not really belonging to Boston, or to the great Adams family, but to Washington or Europe and to another century. Though she sits peacefully in her old-fashioned room, with her books and her tea service, “a vision of silver gray,” her precocious grandson rightly guesses that for many years her interior life “had been one of severe stress and little pure satisfaction.” And he imagines that from her non-Bostonian blood—she was born in England, educated in France—he had inherited his own lifelong sense of alienation, of being out of place in the world he was born into, “not of pure New England stock, but half exotic.”

Historians have generally passed quickly over Louisa Adams. She is known as the somewhat unhappy, somewhat difficult wife of the sixth President (and daughter-in-law of the second). In the enormous files of the Adams family papers repose many of her unpublished writings—plays, poems, memoirs, and, almost unnoticed until now, two brief accounts of her remarkable journey in 1815, alone except for servants and her eight-year old son, from Saint Petersburg, Russia, to Paris, there to meet her waiting husband. From these, the English historian Michael O’Brien has fashioned an irresistible adventure story and a brilliant portrait of Louisa Adams that ought to rescue her for good from half exotic obscurity.

Novelists sometimes insist that there are really only two possible plots in literature: somebody goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. And these, of course, are the same plot, from two different points of view. O’Brien, writing history like a novelist, begins with the first. It is February 12, 1815, five o’clock in the afternoon in Saint Petersburg, and forty-year-old Louisa Adams is just climbing into her berline, a large enclosed four-wheel carriage drawn by six horses. She intends to travel in this carriage for approximately forty days, over some two thousand miles, going on a good day between six and nine miles an hour. She is leaving Russia, and the court of the Tsar, after a residence of six years during which her husband served as American minister plenipotentiary, because John Quincy Adams is in Paris now, after helping to negotiate in Belgium a treaty between Britain and the United States to end the War of 1812. And he has summoned her.

The first half of Mrs. Adams in Winter reconstructs the journey in fascinating detail—we learn the distances between post stages, the ritual by which new horses and postilions are hired at each new inn, the medicines, tools, weapons that a long-distance traveler must pack. We shiver with Louisa as she contemplates the somewhat dangerous face of her servant Baptiste, we marvel at the crazy quilt of passports and papers she carries and the different coins she must use—thalers, groschen, pfennigs, ducats, florins, kreutzers, louis d’or—and such is O’Brien’s empathy and skill, we feel both her vulnerability and pride as she jolts and bounces over ice and snow, a woman on her own in a vast, unfriendly, frozen world, but in control for once, making her own decisions in life.

O’Brien pauses often to describe the towns she passes through. Some of them suggest aspects of her background and character. Wittenburg, where Martin Luther nailed up his ninety-five theses, leads to a discussion of her religion. In Dorpat she does not bother to stop and see the university, because universities were places for men only. A highly theatrical person herself, in Riga she happily attends a play, though among her husband’s many rules of life was one “to make no acquaintance with Actresses.” Seeing from the road the castle of a scandalous Englishwoman, she is reminded of the not quite respectable sexual behavior of her own mother and grandmother (and her own tense and dutiful virtue). Entering Prussia, she recalls her miscarriages, the death of her infant daughter, the episode when someone gave her a box of rouge and her husband commanded her to wash it off after she was bold enough to sample it.

Stroke by stroke a personality emerges, until in Berlin, in a long, shrewd discussion of her marriage, we begin to understand Louisa Adams not only as traveler, but also as stranger come to town. Like any woman in her time and place, she has subordinated her life to her husband’s. But her husband’s family, so completely anchored in the cold, stony soil of Massachusetts, is nothing like her own gay, comfortable family in London, or her Southern cousins in Maryland. Worse, her husband’s career as diplomat and politician has required her to move over and over again, from residence to residence, city to city, country to country. She was, as O’Brien says, always “a migrant and a visitor.” “Her life was measured out in packing cases.”

More alien still is her husband’s character. If John Quincy Adams is probably the most intelligent person ever to occupy the White House, he is also the least likable, a man so harsh and rigid that he seemed to wear, as one of his sons wrote, “an Iron Mask.” O’Brien sees him clearly: “a bleak pessimist who presumed things would go wrong and, hence, that the essential art of life was learning to live with disappointment.” For that matter, in his diary Adams saw himself quite clearly, too: “I am a man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners.” Doubtless the wrong husband for anybody, certainly for the complex, sensual, and insecure Louisa, who would entitle one of her memoirs “The Adventures of a Nobody.”

But on the road she turns out to be somebody. For two-thirds of the way through her journey she learns that Napoleon has escaped from his exile on Elba and is advancing toward Paris with fourteen thousand rebel troops. A woman traveling alone through a scene of civil war, she is warned in Frankfurt not to continue. And truly, she had already witnessed enough evidence of Napoleon’s destructive genius. At Hanau her route had taken her through burned villages and fortifications, past wrecked houses and immense piles of bones in the fields from a murderous battle two years earlier, after his retreat from Moscow.

But despite every warning, she bravely pushes ahead into France. Here, in a series of thrilling episodes, her Russian carriage lumbers down the road in the midst of hordes of drunken, shouting soldiers. Fists pound on the doors, bayonets are thrust through the windows—at one point only the intervention of a gallant Bonapartist general saves her from death (or, she imagines, worse). O’Brien’s splendid, exciting prose carries her through, fearful, faithful, determined to reach Paris and her husband, her single point of safety in a world collapsing. At the outskirts of the capital she directs the driver along the Boulevard Poissoniere and down the Rue de Richelieu toward the hotel where she thinks he is staying. As O’Brien poignantly notes, in his memoirs John Quincy Adams remembers that he was waiting for her in his rooms: “In her memory, he was not yet there.”