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The Emancipator's Wife: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln

The Emancipator's Wife: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln

4.0 21
by Barbara Hambly

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As a girl growing up in Kentucky, she lived a sheltered, privileged life filled with picnics and plantation balls. Vivacious, impulsive, and intoxicated by politics, she is a Todd of Lexington, an aristocratic family whose ancestors defeated the British. But no one knows her secret fears and anxieties. Although she is courted by the most eligible suitors in the


As a girl growing up in Kentucky, she lived a sheltered, privileged life filled with picnics and plantation balls. Vivacious, impulsive, and intoxicated by politics, she is a Todd of Lexington, an aristocratic family whose ancestors defeated the British. But no one knows her secret fears and anxieties. Although she is courted by the most eligible suitors in the land, including future senator Stephen Douglas, it is a gangly lawyer from Illinois who captures her heart. After a stormy courtship and a broken engagement, Abraham Lincoln will marry twenty-four-year-old Mary Todd and give her a ring inscribed with the words “Love Is Eternal.”

But their happiness won’t last nearly so long. Their first child will be born under the gathering clouds of a civil war, and three more follow. As Lincoln’s star rises, the pleasure-loving Mary learns, often the hard way, the rules of being a politician’s wife. But by the time the fiery storm of war passes, tragedy will have claimed two sons, scandal will shadow her days as First Lady, and an assassin’s bullet will take Lincoln himself, leaving Mary alone and all but forgotten by the nation that owed her husband its survival.

Yet it is in the years to come that Mary Todd Lincoln will truly come into her own. In public, she will fight to preserve Lincoln’s memory even as she battles a bitterly contested insanity trial. In private, she will struggle with depression and addiction as she endures the betrayals–both real and imagined–of family and friends.

With a gifted novelist’s imagination and a historian’s eye for detail, Barbara Hambly tells a story of astonishing scope, richly peopled with real-life characters and their fictional counterparts, a tour-de-force tale of power, politics, and the role of women in nineteenth- century America. The result is a Mary Todd Lincoln few have seen and none will forget–the fascinating, controversial woman of whom her husband could say: “My wife is as handsome as when she was a girl and I fell in love with her; and what is more, I have never fallen out”–Mary Todd, the woman who loved Abraham Lincoln.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"From its perfect title to its beautiful poignant, last scene, this is a wonderful portrait of one of the most important, complex, and misunderstood figures in American history—a brilliant novel of the Civil War."—Max Byrd

"Touching...Hambly has a knack for bringing historical figures to life in all their flawed humanity."—Publishers Weekly

Julia Livshin
The author of an eight-book mystery series set in 1830s New Orleans, Hambly does panoramic history very well. In The Emancipator's Wife, she summons the languorous gentility of the antebellum South as persuasively as she does the clamor, filth and meat-packing stench of post-Civil War Chicago. And she manages to capture, with a light hand, the elusive bond between "Molly" and Mr. Lincoln that endured the snowballing hardships of their lives.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Hambly (A Free Man of Color, etc.) has a knack for bringing historical figures to life in all their flawed humanity. This touching portrait of Mary Todd, a brilliant but troubled belle in Kentucky when she meets Abraham Lincoln in 1839, recounts Mary's personal struggles and triumphs and describes the general state of women in the 19th century, as well as supplies an evenhanded overview of the political and practical issues surrounding the emancipation of the slaves. With her sharp intelligence, social skill and standing, and political astuteness, Mary seems the perfect partner for Lincoln. But her emotional problems hobble her from the start and worsen over the years under the tremendous strain of political life and with the terrible loss of three of her four sons as well as her husband. Ten years after Lincoln's assassination, Mary's sole remaining son is fighting a court battle to have his mother declared insane. Told from her own perspective and that of some fictionalized historical figures like Frederick Douglass, Mary's story, including her hard-won insight into her own difficulties and her addiction to her laudanum-laced medicine, is moving. Despite a jarring abruptness to some of the changes in point of view and the slow pace of the narration, the novel paints a full, nuanced picture of a talented, tormented woman. Agent, Frances Collin. (Feb. 1) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Hambly's (Days of the Dead) enthralling new historical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln demonstrates the same sense of place and period detail as her popular Benjamin January series. Moving back and forth in time through the mid-19th century, Hambly depicts Mary's life in Lexington, KY, as a flirtatious Southern belle who resents her stepmother, craves her father's attention, and slowly becomes aware of the different worlds of men and women, whites and blacks. Her explosive temper and debilitating migraines were a critical factor in her daily activities. Alternating chapters describe how Mary's son Robert had her declared insane and committed to a private sanitarium; throughout, there is stream-of-consciousness commentary from Mary, which adds another level of narration. Hambly goes beyond Mary's relationship with Lincoln, her shrewish behavior, and the very real physical and emotional pain that led her to self-medicate with various "female" cordials containing opium and/or alcohol. She deals with the basic issue of how women were regarded at that time: as weak, hysterical, and constitutionally incapable of intellectual or financial ability. Issues of spiritualism, mental illness, addiction, race, and politics are interwoven, giving the reader a clearer understanding of their pervasiveness and influence. This sympathetic yet unabsolving portrait of a much-maligned figure belongs in all public libraries.-Ann Fleury, Tampa-Hillsborough Cty. P.L., FL Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A skilled historical novelist (Dead Water, 2004, etc.) limns an absolutely convincing portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln-and that's the catch. She's so depressing. In Hambly's evocation, her temper is execrable, her tongue venomous, her close relationships all problematical. With her husband, the legendary president, the descriptive word is strained; with her son Robert, it's savage. She's a grudge-holder and her enemies are forever, her friendships, for the most part, transitory. This is a woman who clings to paranoia as if it were her birthright. Hambly begins her story in 1875, ten years after that horrific night at the Ford Theater when John Wilkes Booth fired a bullet into the president's head, drenching Mrs. Lincoln in his blood. Wintry, better say glacial, Robert, having decided magisterially that his mother is insane, has convened what amounts to a kangaroo court and brought her before it. Predictably, she's judged to be as mentally incompetent as her son says she is and consigned to an asylum. Mrs. Lincoln does not go quietly, and while she rails against this latest betrayal, Hambly takes us back and forth in time to examine other betrayals. Even as an antebellum belle, she is tormented and tormenting. She meets Lincoln, is powerfully attracted, an attraction at first mutual. But he's wary, senses danger, attempts to elude her. She traps him with a lie. As first lady, she's a political cross for her husband to bear, which he does, patiently, even in the face of a hysterical demand that he fire-of all people-Ulysses S. Grant because she can't abide his wife. Is she crazy? Everybody who knows her knows she is, says someone closer to her than most: "Crazy though not insane." To be sure,there's gallantry in Mary Lincoln's struggle against her demons. But 600-plus pages with a disagreeable woman tends to undercut empathy. Agent: Frances Collin/Frances Collin Literary Agency

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Random House Publishing Group
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4.20(w) x 6.85(h) x 1.31(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Chicago   May 19, 1875

She was surrounded by enemies.

For the dozenth time Mary Lincoln glanced sharply behind her, heart hammering in her throat with both panic and rage.

Nothing. Bowler-hatted businessmen in natty suits bought newspapers from scruffy boys, barefoot in the spring heat. Tight-corseted women, the ruffled swags that trailed from their bustles sweeping the dirty sidewalk, paused by the windows of shops to admire and chat. Immigrant vendors in grubby corduroy yelled their wares from pushcarts—apples, kerchiefs, mousetraps, toys. A cab darted by along Clark Street, hooves clattering, iron tires banging, as it dodged around trolleys, carriages, drays of barreled beer.

Downtown Chicago on a spring morning. Heat swimming up from the sidewalk bricks; the stink of horse-droppings.

She knew she was being followed. For weeks now she'd been certain of it.

Who? she wondered. Why?

And quickened her step. The fear that had shadowed her all her fifty-seven years breathed again at her shoulder. Her feet were swollen in her tight black kid shoes and the snip of breeze that whispered from Lake Michigan died away, leaving her sweating beneath the thick black veils. Why didn't people get out of her way? She dodged past a dawdling woman by a shop window. Can't they see I'm a widow? I'm entitled to consideration on that score, aren't I? Even if they don't know whose widow I am.

Thinking about him, even after all these years, made her throat constrict with the grief that had never eased.

She had to get home.

She gazed longingly after another cab that rattled by—they all drove like lunatics in this town! There was money in her purse, and even more hidden in secret pockets of her petticoats, in case of emergencies. But cabs were so expensive. She'd spent enough that morning as it was. Nine pairs of lace curtains at Gossage's, so beautiful! But I really will have to save after this.

So no cabs.

And the crowds on the trolleys filled her with nameless but familiar dread.

Why were people following her?

Why that elusive half-familiar glimpse of bulk and movement that she'd seen again and again during the past eight weeks?

Newspapermen? Those vile vampires who'd dogged her every step, twisted her every word...called her Confederate spy and worse?

Or was someone plotting to kill her as they'd killed her husband?

Or was it all something she imagined?

She pushed that troubling suspicion away.

Movement in the corner of her vision—were things starting to appear and disappear again? Not another migraine, she thought in weary despair. I had one only yesterday, or was it the day before? Was the blazing shimmer that came and went only the reflection of the noon sun on the windows of the high buildings? Or the herald of yet another bout of nausea, blindness, pain?

Anxiety swamped the worry about being followed in a greater wave of panic. I have to get home! In her room she'd be safe. She could take her medicine before those kinked burning lines started to creep across her vision, before sick disorientation overtook her. The room would be hot and unbearably stuffy—mentally she calculated the cost of even the most modest chamber in the Grand Pacific Hotel against what her husband had left her, against the pension she had finally pried out of those tight-fisted ungrateful liars in Congress. But at least there she would be safe.

She could barely remember a time when she had not felt herself in danger.

A pack of ragamuffin boys flurried past her, like blown leaves among the crowd. Their treble laughter brought back the laughter of her own sons and the stab of grief was as piercing as if they had each died yesterday. Eddie scarcely more than a baby, crying with fever as he clung to her hand. Sweet-faced, sweet-natured Willie, gentle and always so worried about her, bringing her flowers from the weedy lots behind the Capitol. And Tad, flighty and willful, growing daily more like his father...

She squeezed her mind shut against Mr. Lincoln's image. She'd never thought of him as anything but Mr. Lincoln—or Father, when they were alone. His shadow rose behind the shadows of her sons: the looming gawky height, as if his body had been put together from a bundle of slats, the deft lightness of his touch. His hands had been huge, nearly twice the length of hers when they'd press them palm to palm and laugh....

After his death she'd given away everything he'd possessed, lest the sight of even his reading-glasses in a drawer surprise her with heart-crushing pain. In the ten years since then she'd visited hundreds of mediums, speakers with and summoners of the dead, begging for only a glimpse of him. Desperate to hear his voice again, to hear him call her "Mother," and see his smile.

Father, she thought, how could you have left me in this awful place alone?

The Grand Pacific Hotel loomed before her, story after story of stone and glaring glass. Only ten years, she thought wonderingly, since Washington's muddy unpaved streets, since the tumult of soldiers tramping by in the sticky night. Ten years since she'd heard the thunder of enemy guns beyond the river. Chicago with its macadam-paved streets, with its trolley cars and bustles and advertising posters and its thousands and thousands of immigrants, seemed like another world, as if she had somehow missed her way coming back from Europe in '71 and fetched up in some bewildering alien land.

Her anxiety lessened somewhat as she climbed the Grand Pacific's marble steps and crossed the lobby's acres of red plush carpet like a determined black bug scuttling for the baseboard. Almost home. Almost safe.

The Grand Pacific was expensive, with its French chef and its conservatory garden. But Abraham Lincoln's widow couldn't be seen to live in common lodgings. That much she owed his memory. And boarding-houses had always been abominations to her.

Mr. Turner, the manager, was understanding and kind. When she'd wake in terror in the night, he'd provide a reliable chambermaid to stay in her room with her at only a very modest charge. He was reassuring and helpful, if occasionally maddeningly stupid, during those spells when voices seemed to be speaking to her out of the walls and floor, when during her migraines she could see the spirit of an Indian warrior pulling the bones out of her face; when she'd wake in panic and terror, thinking she smelled smoke—when she'd see the city in flames, the wall of fire approaching....

Mary shook her head at herself as she climbed the stairs. The Grand Pacific was equipped with modern elevators but she'd never trusted such things. The reminder of her spells of confusion made her headache worse. Maybe it was all only her imagination. Though she only cloudily recalled what she did and said in her spells, it did seem to her they mostly came on her in the afternoons. All she had to do, really, was be a little careful about staying inside.

She pushed the thought out of her mind. Her heart was thudding and her feet, her back, her head were in agony. Her medicine would make her feel better.

And sometimes during her spells—especially at night—one or another of her sons would come to her, beautiful shining figures, smiling and holding out their hands in comfort.

Only Robert was left, of the four beautiful boys she had borne.

Mary paused on the stairs to get her breath, to rest the searing ache in her back. She supposed her shoes were not really made for walking long distances in, but she would not be like those absurd suffragist women who went around in Bloomer costumes and ugly boots. Her friend Myra had often expounded on "rational" dress. That really would give Robert a seizure, she thought, and smiled a little despite her discomfort at the recollection of her chronically disapproving eldest son. He thinks I'm eccentric enough without that.

Poor Robert. As she resumed her climb she wondered whether he suffered from an overdeveloped sense of his own importance, or merely a complete lack of imagination. Probably both, she thought. Such a stuffy man, even before he married that horrid girl...

Yet her heart ached with love for him, and for her granddaughter...Mr. Lincoln's granddaughter. Beautiful little Mamie. The terrible dream she'd had in Florida two months ago, the dream of Robert lying ill, dying just as Tad and Eddie and Willie had died, had brought her flying back here, desperate to save him, to push that terrible shadow away if she could. Desperate that he not leave her, as all the others had left her...

Mary paid a quick, grateful visit to the ladies' lavatory on the way down the hall. Hot weather always brought back the burning itches that had tormented her since Tad's birth, over two decades ago. Then at last, with a sense of having safely negotiated an unknown battlefield yet again, she unlocked her own room.

It was small, and, as she'd feared, already appallingly stuffy. Since Tad's death she'd found daylight almost too harsh to stand, but even the single gas jet burning in the heavily curtained room added to the already intolerable summer heat. She'd insisted on the least expensive room available in the hotel—really, her money disappeared so quickly!—but for that reason it was already too crowded for comfort. In addition to the eleven trunks she'd brought back from Florida with her—such a beautiful place, and the doctors there most sympathetic and helpful—she'd done a good deal of shopping in these past weeks. Mostly to pass the time, to get herself out—really, what else was there for a woman to do?—but there was no telling when she might get a house of her own, a home of her own, again.

Her plump hands shook as she put aside the packages from yesterday's shopping expedition (an album of poetry and twelve yards of exquisite jade-green satin, and shoes to match) and opened the cupboard, barely to be reached behind the trunks. She was definitely getting a migraine, and she could scarcely see the bottles as she took them out. Not that it mattered which was which. They're all the same, really. And Dr. Somers in Florida said they're all beneficial. Godfrey's Cordial, Ma-Sol-Pa Herbal Indian Balm, Dr. Foote's Sanitary Medical Tonic, Nervine, Hunt's Female Revivifier...

She poured them all in a tumbler and drained it, savoring the musky intensity, the burning comforting warmth that rose through her. She'd begin to feel better in a few moments....
A knock sounded on the door.

The delivery boy from Gossage's. That was quick. But it wasn't the delivery boy who stood in the hall when she opened the door. For a flashing, confusing moment, between the uncertain light of the curtained chamber and her own slightly blurred eyesight, Mary thought it was her husband.

Mr. Lincoln...

Was it, impossibly, him? As the others had appeared to her, had he finally come?

She blinked, then said uncertainly, "Mr. Swett?"

"Mrs. Lincoln." Leonard Swett took off his hat. It was the high silk hat of a professional that had deceived her migraine-dazzled eyes by adding to his six-foot height. Swett's face was lean, and he wore the same kind of beard that Mr. Lincoln had during the last few years of his life, a jawline Quaker beard without a mustache. Memories flared through her mind, of Swett and his wife, Laura—before Laura's incapacitating illness—coming to dinner at that little cottage on Eighth Street in Springfield. Of Swett laughing with Mr. Lincoln over this lawsuit or that, like boys who've trounced each other behind the schoolhouse, then dusted themselves off and shaken hands.

What was Mr. Swett doing here at her room? Why hadn't he sent up a card? Had he sent up a card, and she just didn't remember? No, of course not, she'd just gotten here herself....

"I do apologize." Mary spread her lace-mitted hands across the sable crape of her skirts and wondered how quickly she could get rid of him. She was exhausted, her head was throbbing, and, having taken her medicine, she wanted only to lie down.
Why hadn't he sent up a card and asked her to meet him in the lobby? A gentleman never came up to a lady's room.

But it was a basic tenet of Southern womanhood that a lady always gives a gentleman the benefit of the doubt. So instead of asking tartly if he'd been born in a barn, Mary explained, "I've just come in, and have not had time to change. What might I do for you?" She saw now that the boy from Gossage's was there, waiting in the hallway gloom, with two men in uniforms she did not recognize. Big men. A problem about the curtains? Probably the fault of that stupid clerk...

"I regret exceedingly that it is I who must perform this office, Mrs. Lincoln." Swett drew a folded sheet of paper from his coat. He held it out to her in his neatly gloved hand. "This is a writ of arrest from the State of Illinois. You are being charged with lunacy."

If he'd slapped her face she could not have been more surprised. In that first instant she wasn't even taken aback, merely confused, wondering if this were a dream. One of those weird visions, like the Indian spirit who tortured her during her migraines, or the voices that spoke to her out of the walls. Goodness knew she felt unreal enough, as if she'd put her foot down what she'd thought was a step in a familiar staircase, only to find no footing there.

But in Swett's pale eyes she saw that expression with which she was so familiar from a lifetime around lawyers and politicians. That gauging look, waiting for a reaction as a hunter waits for a turkey to step out from behind a bush.

"Lunacy?" Mary thrust her hands behind her. Time and time again she'd heard Mr. Lincoln say to clients, Whatever you do, don't take any paper they try to hand you.

Swett was still talking.

"...courtroom today—this afternoon, in fact—" He took out his watch, as if to emphasize to her how valuable everybody's time was. "—to defend yourself at a hearing..."

"What hearing?" She blinked at him, feeling nonplussed in the most literal sense of the word: at a point from which one cannot go on. He couldn't really be charging her with lunacy. She had to be mistaken about that. She was Abraham Lincoln's wife! "How can it be this afternoon? I need a lawyer...."

"A lawyer has already been arranged for you, Mrs. Lincoln."

"By whom?" Her voice sounded astoundingly calm in her own ears. She remembered all those times back in Springfield, when people would come to Lincoln's office asking for help. You could get a lawyer in a day, but seldom in an hour.

Robert, she thought. Robert will know how to get me a lawyer. He's a lawyer himself. He'll probably defend me; that way I won't have to spend any money. Her mind was working slowly, clogged with a dreamlike confusion. It was hard not to simply stare at the pattern of Mr. Swett's silver silk waistcoat. She must keep her mind focused.

Meet the Author

Barbara Hambly is the author of The Emancipator’s Wife, a finalist for the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction. She is also the author of Fever Season, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and seven acclaimed historical novels.

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The Emancipator's Wife 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
SuperReaderChick More than 1 year ago
This book was an awesome read! It's about 600 pages, but the story pulls you right in and they go by quickly. I really enjoyed how the author blended historical accuracy along with a fictional twist. This book made me want to read up further on Abe Lincoln, the Civil War, and the great fire in Chicago. If you like fiction mixed with history, this book is a good one for you. Also it would give book clubs many great things to discuss post-reading. Overall this book was a winner and I look forward to reading more of Ms. Hambly's books.
gailaleaGS More than 1 year ago
I'm a native of Springfield, Il. President Lincoln died April 15, my birthday. So I already felt a connection to this icon. This historical novel about his wife is a poignant story of her childhood, youth, romance with Mr. Lincoln, her deep political interest, and her deep sorrow from her many losses of close relatives, and of course, her husband. Very worthwhile read for me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I live in Springfield ,IL where Lincoln lived. I know and travel the streets that are talked about in this novel. This made it very special to me. This book told of the history of Lincolns personal life and what Springfield was like in the early days . Mary had a very sad life and this book really brought that out.
Jamie Eggleston More than 1 year ago
If you love history, this is an amazing look into Mary Todd Lincoln's life and the things she had to endure. Wonderfully written, characters were well round and drama made the book complete. Would definitely recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good read.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The story held my attention and was a pleasant read.
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If you are interested in the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, this book gives you a different perspective from her early childhood on.
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Barb Everist More than 1 year ago
I was sorry when i turned to the last page!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author starts the book with an apology to the confederacy for use of the word rebels but has no issue using the n word, that coupled with boring predictable characters makes it a total waste of 7 bucks