I have whinged on at great length lately about my annoyance with characters in historical fiction who fight against the mores and customs of their times because they’re today people in a yesterday world. I whinge, in part, because I’m writing an historical and thus I contend with the same problem–but also because I’m always irritated when I encounter it in an otherwise enjoyable story.
Understand: I’m not against characters who are at odds with their place in life and the expectations of the people around them. Of such things are heroes (and heroines) made. But how do you write a convincing I-am-of-my-time-but-at-odds-with-it character? You could do a lot worse than study the history of Mary Ann Todd Lincoln, the wife and widow of Abraham Lincoln.
I was raised on Lincolniana; I have a dim memory of watching a very sweet musical about Lincoln’s early years (and his supposed romance with Ann Rutledge, who died young and broke his heart, so that he settled for the shrewish Mary Todd and was never happy again…*) when I was just a kid. I remember reading a picture book with wonderful ’30s illustrations of the tall, lanky Abe helping his younger half-brother leave footprints across his step-mother’s whitewashed ceiling. And, at some point in my teens, I read an article in American Heritage** about Mary Todd Lincoln that gave full credit to the notion that she was a millstone around Lincoln’s neck, his shrewish partner in a loveless marriage, da-da-da-da-da-da…
Sometime in the ’80s I picked up Mary Todd Lincoln, a biography by Jean Baker. I only got around to reading it this week; it’s fascinating. Baker is clearly a sympathetic biographer, but she’s not blind to Mary Todd Lincoln’s faults or the extent to which she was the author of her own miseries. And for someone interested in a character whose character makes her contend against her own time, it’s a gold mine. Mary was a middle child, bright, energetic, hot-tempered and temperamentally needy, whose father had too many kids to be engaged with them, and whose mother died when she was small. Her stepmother (with whom none of the Todd children had anything like a decent relationship) had another huge number of kids–in all, I believe Mary had something like 14 siblings and step-sibs. So here is this girl whose nature is to crave attention, lost in a sea of family–and a well-to-do, educated family which was important in the town where she grew up. She was fascinated with politics (in part because her father was). Talented, clever, ambitious, more educated than most of the young women around her (she went to boarding school far longer than she might otherwise have done, in order to get out of her step-mother’s household), and…needy, she was totally at war with her culture. Young women were supposed to be shy, retiring, unassertive, leave the heavy lifting and the heavy thinking to their husbands. She had no scope for her own energies, accepted wholesale that her worth and her work would be in support of her husband–but she could not rein in her need for acknowledgment.
Abandonment was a huge theme in her life: her mother died early and abandoned her. Her father abandoned her to marry her step-mother. Three of her four sons died early (Eddie, as a child, of tuberculosis; Willie, graceful, bright, and hands-down her most beloved son, of typhus; and Tad as a teenager of pleurisy). Her husband was murdered at her side. And Robert, her eldest and only surviving son, had her committed as insane. Through all of this, because of her nature, Mary Lincoln could not be what her society expected of her: silent, patiently suffering, withdrawn. She mourned loudly; she was self-aggrandizing. Today she’d probably be diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder: then she was simply considered unwomanly and, ultimately, insane.
Mary Todd Lincoln was as incapable of being what her society demanded of her as she was of flying–partly because of nature, partly because of nurture. Reading this biography I see her doing things that I know are going to blow up in her face–lobbying Congress fiercely for a widow’s pension, attempting to sell her used wardrobe (the Queens of Europe did it–why couldn’t she?) to raise money–I want to take her aside and say “no, honey, no. This can’t end well.” Because in a war between community and personality–unless the personality in question is significantly more able to finesse the culture than Mary Todd Lincoln was–the community is going to win.
Really: go find this book. It’s heartbreaking and enraging and a totally fascinating text for anyone writing about people in another time and place.
* If anyone else remembers this musical, please let me know. I have songs from it rattling around in my head, and I don’t think I hallucinated it. The Ann Rutledge story, btw, was largely expanded on and exaggerated after Lincoln’s death by Mary Todd Lincoln’s enemies (of whom she had a budget) in order to discredit her as a grieving widow.
**I was raised on American Heritage and loved it and learned a lot, but I have to admit, with hindsight, that their discussion of women in American history was often, to put it kindly, condescending and misogynistic.
Madeleine Robins is the author of two contemporary novels and seven historical novels; she is working on number eight, set in medieval Italy. You can check out her short fiction on her BVC bookshelf.