Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon, by Michael O’Brien, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 380 pp., $27
In 1815, in the dead of winter, an American woman is traveling with her small son from St. Petersburg to Paris in a Russian-style coach. Near Paris, a crowd of French soldiers and camp followers mistakes her for a Russian and gathers around the carriage, seeking revenge for their recent defeat in Moscow. The woman, who speaks French like a native, bravely leans out from the carriage, waves her handkerchief, and shouts, “Vive Napoleon!” Taken aback, the mob echoes the cry, spurred also by a rumor that the lady in the carriage is Napoleon’s sister going to Paris to join her brother in his return from exile.
This thrilling encounter grows even more appealing when we realize that exactly 10 years later, the woman in the carriage would become the United States’ sixth first lady. She was Louisa Catherine Adams, who Michael O’Brien has made the principal subject of Mrs. Adams in Winter, which he calls “a literary experiment,” referring to its blend of biography, travel writing, and history. The experiment is a splendid success.
O’Brien’s achievement is due in large measure to his decision to celebrate Adams’s astonishing 40-day, 2,000-mile journey across wintery scenes where wounds from recent battles were still fresh. In addition to his vivid portrait of the European countryside, its history, and its notable personalities, O’Brien includes well-placed and often lengthy digressions that combine to form a sort of biography of Mrs. Adams. In this somewhat unorthodox fashion, he recounts her career from her birth in England in 1775 to her death in Washington in 1852, where in tribute to her memory, the U.S. Congress adjourned—the first time a woman had thus been honored.
Mrs. Adams in Winter contains the best biography yet published of Louisa Adams. Until recently, biographers tended to brush her aside in their haste to exalt Abigail Adams, her mother-in-law. With this book, O’Brien takes the lead among scholars who lately have found Louisa worthy to stand beside Abigail in talent and achievement. Indeed, by recounting Louisa’s winter journey, O’Brien chose to chronicle the very achievement in Louisa’s life that she herself later thought merited recording as she sought to be remembered as a “somebody.”
Her own narrative of the journey, written in 1836, serves as one of O’Brien’s principal sources, along with many other documents drawn from the massive collection of Adams Papers held by the Massachusetts Historical Society. He incorporates writings by Louisa’s contemporaries, who themselves had traveled the same route, as well as local histories and biographies of noteworthy people in the places she passed through. Numerous period maps and prints supplement the text. The skill with which O’Brien combines these sources with Adams’s story should leave many readers with the feeling that they have traveled alongside the future first lady.
Before starting her journey, Adams had lived in St. Petersburg for five years with her third son, Charles Francis Adams, then age seven, and her husband, John Quincy Adams, the United States minister to Russia. In 1814 he was summoned to Belgium to join the American delegation for negotiations to end the War of 1812. When the Treaty of Ghent was assured, he moved on to Paris, where he directed his wife to bring their son and join him while he awaited official notice of his new appointment as U.S. minister to Great Britain. On February 12, 1815, with time only for hurried preparations, Louisa began her trip.
After discussing what had brought the Adamses to Russia and their experience in St. Petersburg, O’Brien follows Louisa through the five principal geographic segments of her journey. The first took her from St. Petersburg to Riga in the Baltic region. From there she went to Berlin, where she and John Quincy had lived 15 years earlier. Then on to Eisenach, Frankfurt, and the final stretch to Paris. Her sizable carriage, called a berline, required four horses and sometimes six, which had to be changed at least once a day. Wheels were switched to runners when the roads were snow packed. Two security men rode with two drivers, and Louisa shared the cabin with Charles and a woman who helped care for him. They occasionally slept in the carriage rather than in the post stations, which could often be repulsive and even menacing.
O’Brien’s elaborate description of Europe’s post-road system as it existed 200 years ago helps make his book such a pleasure to read, especially when he pauses to discuss topography, biography, and local history. Of particular value is a biographical sketch of Queen Luise and her Prussian court. The Queen had been a friend of Louisa and John Quincy Adams when the couple lived in Berlin.
Of all O’Brien’s asides, the most significant are those that combine to form Louisa’s biography. Among the best is a lengthy account of the difficult early relationship she had with John Quincy and his family. Here O’Brien introduces a version of something that remains uncertain: Louisa’s maternal Nuth family genealogy. He contends that her English grandfather Nuth never married while siring 22 children, including Louisa’s mother, Catherine Nuth. He also questions the union of Louisa’s parents, her father Joshua Johnson, a Maryland trader doing business in London, with Catherine Nuth, thereby casting doubt over the legitimacy of Louisa herself. O’Brien attributes much of Louisa’s often skeptical outlook concerning herself and her marriage to this burden of scandal.
Nowhere is O’Brien more skillful in touching upon the mingled emotions Louisa felt toward herself and her husband than in what he infers were her feelings at the moment of her arrival in Paris. O’Brien cites John Quincy Adams’s description of his return to his hotel on March 23 from an evening at the theater. Expecting Louisa, he found she had not yet arrived, but soon afterward welcomed her and their son. Only one sentence, however, constitutes O’Brien’s final paragraph of Mrs. Adams in Winter: “In her memory, he was not yet there.” Here the book ends abruptly, on a pathetic note sounded by a wife who had endured an often tortuous journey only to meet an indifferent husband in his hotel room.
Had O’Brien not stopped here, he could have shown that Louisa closed her travel joyfully and began one of the happiest intervals in her long marriage. Her husband was appropriately astonished and admiring as she described her journey. Then, having said that Paris made him feel like a 20-year-old, he and Louisa devoted the next weeks to enjoying the city’s sights and theaters. Amidst this frolic was a delightful four-day visit to General Lafayette in his castle.
Even more pleasant days were to come. When confirmation of John Quincy’s appointment as minister to England arrived, the Adamses crossed the Channel on May 23 and began a two-year stay in London, a city they both loved. To Louisa’s joy, her two oldest sons, whom she had not seen for six years, joined them. With the duties of his diplomatic post more enjoyable than strenuous, John Quincy became an amiable husband and father.
On June 15, 1817, Louisa and her family sailed for the United States, where John Quincy would become secretary of state. For Louisa, the voyage from London to Washington propelled her into a different and much more difficult life. As the years passed, she found increased satisfaction in remembering 1815 and her wintery journey across Europe.