|Louisa Catherine Adams
Over at The New York Review of Books, Susan Dunn reviews three new books on John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa Catherine. They are:
Fred Kaplan, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary
Margery M. Heffron, Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams
Margaret Hogan and C. James Taylor, ed., A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams.
Here is a taste of Dunn’s review:
In Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams, Margery Heffron’s insightful and entertaining though unfinished book—the author died before she could carry the story beyond 1824—we enter deeply into the damaged family life of John Quincy and Louisa. Each had a lot to put up with in the other, and for half a century, they both did. At the heart of this marriage was the husband’s limited awareness of his wife’s existence. Adams’s diary records page after page of political debates and visitors to their house, but his references to his wife were little more than a frequent “Mrs. Adams very unwell.”
During the first years of their marriage, John Quincy was so engrossed in his Senate work that “he had scarcely time to speak to the family,” Louisa grumbled. Their letters to each other often contained expressions of affection—but any warmth between them cooled as soon as they were together. “I already long for your return,” Louisa once wrote to her husband when he left Massachusetts for Washington, but she added that “so it is, I can neither live with or without you.” Perhaps neither of them was born to be happy, he because of the huge burden he carried as the standard-bearer for the Adams dynasty, and she because of her bottomless sense of insecurity.
Diplomatic postings abroad failed to alter the marital dynamic. In gloriously beautiful St. Petersburg, Louisa resentfully complained about the dark boredom of her marriage; her idea of happiness, she remarked, extended “beyond the pleasure of passing every evening one hour together, the one party sleeping and the other sinking into absolute silence or gaping for want of something better to do.”
Fortunately there were a few breaks in the dullness and solemnity. One, included in a fine new sampling of Louisa’s writings, A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams, edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor, was Louisa’s forty-day trip by road in 1815 from St. Petersburg to Paris, where John Quincy had summoned her. It was a rough voyage, rare and risky for a woman of her status, accompanied only by her young son Charles Francis, a nurse, and two servants. Later she composed a memoir of the experience, not only from pride in this accomplishment, but to encourage women to cast off the “fancied weakness of feminine imbecility.” Yet too often, Heffron suggests, Louisa herself had recourse to such traps of female weakness. Were not many of her bouts of illness, fainting, and exhaustion a reaction to the repression of her independent spirit, a desperate recourse to “feminine imbecility” in her campaign to elicit affection from her remote husband?
Louisa Adams was highly intelligent, well educated, and well read. She was a talented writer, as her diary and letters—most notably the correspondence she maintained with her father-in-law, after the death of his wife Abigail—reveal. She was also ambitious; but, with few outlets for personal aspirations, she channeled that ambition through her husband. From early on in their marriage, she spurred John Quincy to seek political power, reminding him, as Heffron writes, of what “both regarded as his destiny—as well as his duty.”