Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States of America, had glossy brown hair, chestnut eyes, and was fluent in French. Her prettiness was ordinary, but her charm and spirit of mischief were rare. Louisa was intelligent and self-deprecating. In Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon, historian Michael O’Brien reveals she also struggled with depression, felt underestimated by mother-in-law Abigail Adams, and resented her nomadic life “measured out in packing cases”.
As a narrator, the introspective, observant Cassandra Campbell seems intuitively matched to tell the story of Louisa Adams, a complicated survivor of 14 pregnancies, nine miscarriages, and one stillborn birth. Mrs. Adams in Winter is factually based on Louisa’s 1840 memoir, Adventures of a Nobody, which recounts her 2,000-mile, 40-day journey by horsedrawn carriage, accompanied by 7-year-old son Charles, from the royal courts of St. Petersburg, Russia to Paris, where John held a diplomatic post.
Louisa’s travels began February 12, 1815, on her 40th birthday. Drooping from a grueling social calendar, she noted that Russian winters were relentlessly stifling, the homes of the wealthy heated to suffocation. Louisa was weary of being always bundled in fur.
Campbell paces her reading to Louisa’s conversational rhythms, even slipping fluidly into French and Russian, her accent in both languages so unstilted, it never distracts from Louisa’s anecdotes of filthy inns, meals of “beer soup”, and the gritty landscape of a Europe haunted by the Napoleonic Wars. While you may long for more details on such run-of-the-mill topics as Adams nursing hangovers after a fancy ball, O’Brien’s claim that Louisa is a “woman acting in the name of other women”, renders Campbell’s plaintive, respectful interpretation of the future First Lady that much more compelling. Nita Rao
Early in 1815, Louisa Catherine Adams and her young son left St. Petersburg in a heavy Russian carriage and set out on a difficult journey to meet her husband, John Quincy Adams, in Paris. She traveled through the snows of eastern Europe, down the Baltic coast to Prussia, across the battlefields of Germany, and into a France that was then experiencing the tumultuous events of Napoleon's return from Elba.
Along the way, she learned what the long years of Napoleon's wars had done to Europe, what her old friends in the royal court in Berlin had experienced during the French occupation, how it felt to have her life threatened by reckless soldiers, and how to manage fear.
The journey was a metaphor for a life spent crossing borders: born in London in 1775, she had grown up partly in France, and in 1797 she had married into the most famous of American political dynasties and become the daughter-in-law of John and Abigail Adams.
The prizewinning historian Michael O'Brien reconstructs for the first time Louisa Adams's extraordinary passage. An evocative history of the experience of travel in the days of carriages and kings, Mrs. Adams in Winter offers a moving portrait of a lady, her difficult marriage, and her conflicted sense of what it meant to be a woman caught between worlds.
©2010 Michael O'Brien (P)2010 Tantor
“This innovative and creatively told personal history of a forgotten figure bound by marriage to an ambitious American statesman bristles with insight into the era. Witty, informed, sophisticated, and moving.” (Library Journal)
"Readers of American and European history will exult in the informative contrast of postrevolutionary American values and the glittering European and Russian courts, which steadfastly ignored the horrific effects of continental warfare." (Publishers Weekly)
"[A] fresh, engaging account of Mrs. Adams’s 1815 journey from St. Petersburg to Paris. It is a brilliant conceit, beautifully executed, and O’Brien succeeds admirably in capturing the complexities of the woman and her times." (Jon Meacham, author of American Lion)
I listened to this book after listening to a book on John Q. Adams to get more information on his wife. I found the first part of this audio book hard to listen to. The first part deals too much for me on the people in Russia and Germany, which I'm not very educated on. The second half was much more interesting becasue it dealt with Louisa and JQA. Not so much on her journey from St. Petersburg to Paris,France but it was interesting to hear her story of their marriage and their children.
I am disappointed with this book. It should have been called The Biography of Mrs. Adams. I thought it was disorganized, it kept bouncing in and out of the past, no hint of chronology. There was so much detail about stuff that had nothing to do with Mrs. Adams' trip. Every once in a while, the author would get back to the trip, I guess just to keep the thread of continuity alive. I have read other biographies, and I kept wondering why I bought this book. I had a feeling of cotton in my mouth it was so dry, and my eyes started to cross. Sorry, just my opinion. Mr. O'Brien did a fantastic reasearch job, but just didn't quite put it together correctly for this title.
If you want an exhaustive and BORING lesson on German and Russian history than this book is for you. There is little of Mrs. Adam's trip in this book that it is a wonder the author chose this title. When the author does get around to talking about the actual trip, with its dangers and pitfalls, it is interesting. But what happens is at each stop she makes the author will then go on to describe, in the most detailed boring manner possible, the history of all the people, places, houses, customs and so on. By the time she gets 'back on the road' you've forgotten you were even listening to a book about a journey from Russia to Paris. You end up hating her, hating JQ Adams, the Adams family, and just about everyone else in the book. Another side point, I hated the way the narrator pronounced all the foreign names in the book. Sounded like bad high school German. Save your credits/money. Instead get a copy of Louisa Adam's memoirs if you want the real story.
Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. C.S. Lewis
The story is well researched, and there is so much to learn here - how "post roads" worked in Europe, the scattered ruins of castles that still littered the countryside like dinosaur bones of the feudal system, the shifting alliances of the powers of the day.
If I were editor on this project I would make one change - just as the journey reaches it's penultimate point, with Louisa across most of the continent and Napoleon returned and growing stronger - just then the book takes a long detour to describe the background of Louisa's state of mind - everything from the details of her marriage to her miscarriage in St. Petersburg. These are interesting facts, too, but their placement in the book detracts from the story of the journey, and if I were editing I would rearrange the chapters for better continuity.
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