Mary is a fictional biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln. Without knowing a great deal about the real Mary Lincoln, I found this an engaging and engrossing read.
I had a vague sense of having read somewhere that Mrs. Lincoln was mentally ill, and in fact while I was reading this novel I ran across a random reference from someone in an online forum who made passing mention of the fact that “Mrs. Lincoln was completely batshit.” Like so many nineteenth-century women she seems to have suffered from a variety of poorly-understood neuroses, compounded by copious use of the popular treatments for nervous disorders, including laudanum. Her eldest (and only surviving) son Robert had her committed to an insane asylum for a period of time, although she eventually got out of there and lived independently for her last few years.
Mary Todd Lincoln as re-created by Janis Cooke Newman is a very sympathetic character, a woman whose problems seem to have stemmed largely from having been born in an era when women’s choices were so restricted. Newman’s Mary is passionate about things — particular sex and politics — that ladies weren’t supposed to be passionate about, and restricting those passions forces here to seek other outlets, such as compulsive shopping. She was responsible for turning the White House from a rather shabby house into a show home, but ran up scandalous bills doing so.
She also saw more than her fair share of tragedy — not only her husband’s assassination, but the deaths of three of her four sons. The remaining son, Robert, is portrayed in this novel as having little natural warmth or sympathy for his mother; he is glad to have her locked out of sight in the madhouse, and the reader’s sympathy is entirely with Mary in her struggle to prove herself sane and get out of there.
The portrait is, no doubt, one-sided, and critics have pointed out that Newman takes a very free hand with historical fact in order to support her own version of Mary Lincoln’s story. But I don’t read historical fiction the same way I read history — as a writer of historical fiction myself, I recognize that there’s far more bias allowed than even the inevitable bias that creeps in to the writing of history. Newman’s responsibility was not to tell the “true” story but to tell a good story, using the facts we know about a long-dead woman. In this, I thought she succeeded admirably.