Click here to read reviewer Karyn Johnson's take on Mary: A Novel.
Mary Lincoln, widow of the assassinated president, is but a footnote in history at the time of her incarceration in Bellevue Place Sanitarium, under the care of an arrogant physician who follows the strict orders of Mary’s own son, who can no longer tolerate his mother’s indiscriminate spending and failure to control herself in public. In her own words, Mrs. Lincoln is “unsettled by the ten year anniversary of my husband’s killing. But not deranged.”
Facing the dilemma of most women of the era who do not behave appropriately, or according to the strict censures of a rigid society, Mary is placed where she can do no further harm to her son’s career. Nor is she able to gain access to her own money. Diagnosed as hysterical, the doctor later blames Mary’s condition on the “unfavorable humors of an older woman’s womb.”
Without the doctor and her son’s permission, Mary will never escape the confines of the hospital, a fact that affects her actions dramatically as she tries to humor men who will not be satiated. Mary, at fifty-six, knows only that she must please to ever gain her freedom. In her incarceration, the former First Lady has been driven to put pen to paper, filling the sleepless hours of the night with her memories, to “make me forget that I am locked in a madhouse… and keep me sane.”
Beginning her history at six years old with her mother’s death in Lexington, Kentucky, Mary writes of a life cursed with excess and loss: her first meeting with the man who would be president; their tumultuous courtship and marriage; Lincoln’s congressional career; the Civil War, the loss of three of her four sons; a long flirtation with Spiritualism; a short foray into infidelity and its consequences; the fated night at Ford’s theater; years of prescribed drug therapy (chloral hydrate and laudanum) and her distressing stay at Bellevue.
Aside from the events that mark the passing decades, Mary’s life is suffused with an overabundance of passion, unacceptable in her position, coupled with the raging grief of her unbearable losses. Even her husband is intimidated by the strength of Mary’s passion. The years of the Civil Wars have unnerved Mary so thoroughly that she begins spending in excess, believing that things will bring her the security she craves.
To her detriment, it is this very habit of overspending that eventually convinces the judge that Mrs. Lincoln is, indeed, certifiably insane. Until her release from Bellevue through the offices of a Suffragette lawyer, the tale resonates with the revelation of one woman’s fate when she veers from the acceptable, monitored by those who determine her sanity.
A victim of her own insecurities and the male predilection for denying female participation of any significance beyond the home, Mary is most assuredly a woman of her times. This is a telling portrait, Mary’s male contemporaries suffering her excesses, importuned by a “weaker sex” desirous of equality in an unending battle of the sexes.