Mrs. Adams’ Big Adventure

A historian tries to make a “nobody” somebody.

The first of the densely intricate studies now known as microhistory appeared in the early 1980s, charming readers with their marvelous stories, appealing protagonists, and worlds depicted with novelistic richness. Historians were intrigued, too: Microhistory offered techniques to excavate the lives of obscure people otherwise unknowable—Natalie Davis’ ex-soldier/accused impostor, Martin Guerre; Carlo Ginzburg’s miller/heretic, Menocchio—and to produce new insights into the social orders they occupied. The possibilities seemed endless. You could write about almost anyone, it seemed, and make him or her matter.

Even a melancholy first lady, one of the more obscure, who styled herself a “nobody.” Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of John Quincy, presents a tough subject for the standard first lady biography. Her most commonly noted distinction is that she was the only president’s wife to be born abroad (in England). She was overshadowed for years by her imperious mother-in-law, and by the time she reached the White House in 1825, she was depressed and reclusive, her isolation deepened by the bitter politics of the election that won her husband the presidency.

She was, like many women, a writer of diaries and letters. But Louisa also experimented in later life with memoirs and autobiography. Her most ambitious piece, written in 1836, was an unpublished account of her trip across Europe in 1815, a travelogue about, among other things, what she saw of the tail end of the Napoleonic wars. Michael O’Brien, prizewinning historian of the antebellum South, spotted tantalizing grist for a microhistory—something very different from his Conjectures of Order, a monumental study of the slaveholders’ intellectual history. The idea was that a close study of this one interlude, built up from her memoir, could yield what standard biography could not: a compelling portrait of an individual’s experience of a tumultuous historical moment. It’s a kind of Tolstoyan task: A minor character would open a vista into the epic history. For microhistory to lead to the big questions, though, the protagonist must be up to the task. Louisa, intriguing on her own terms, alas resists even his skillful efforts to enlist her in the greater cause.

O’Brien begins Mrs. Adams in Winter in St. Petersburg, Russia, where John Quincy Adams served from 1809-14 as the first American minister to the czar. O’Brien’s perfectly pitched description of Adams’ awkward position in the swarming, sumptuous court illustrates, as no generalizations could, just how marginal to the affairs of the great powers was the shaky little republic he represented. The vacuity of the position nearly drove him mad, his wife wrote toward the end. The Russians regarded the United States with diffident contempt. From the beginning, it was a grueling round of anxious socializing, stretching Adams’ modest republic salary to the glittering demands of entertaining and being entertained.

In 1814 Adams left for Paris, much relieved, to help negotiate the treaty that ended the War of 1812. Louisa followed nearly a year later, more in a spirit of escape than of fond farewell to Russia. With her small son and a nursemaid along with two male attendants, she traveled in the dead of the Russian winter, perilous for anyone. As a woman accompanied only by servants, she greatly compounded the risks. Historians often flirt with fiction when writing this kind of sustained narrative, and O’Brien goes further than most, structuring the trip as a thriller, wherein perils will be confronted and more will be revealed. “She would need to hazard a Europe crowded with battle-weary soldiers poised to renew war or enforce peace, and populated with nervous inhabitants unsure about strangers.” It’s suspense that O’Brien is after as he jumps back and forth in time—flashbacks, then on to Paris—and shifts between tight focus and panorama. Chapters end abruptly in the mode of a page turner. Louisa crosses the battlefields of northern Europe and picks up the line of Napoleon’s retreat, where exhausted soldiers lay down and died in the snow. Europe had been at war for 20 years, and the world she traveled through was reeling.

O’Brien needs Louisa to engage, however tangentially, with the big historical issues. At times he seems to be suggesting some sort of parallel between her own rootlessness—moving between her adopted country and the Continent, emotionally withdrawn from a cold, uninterested husband—and the uprooted people she encountered. He needs more than a suggestion, however: If Louisa Adams is going to count in history, we need to see how history counted for her. But it is not clear that it does: At least, the quotes from the memoir supply little evidence of anything except memories of passing impressions.

At the same time, as a character Louisa does not quite coalesce. Passages of traditional biography are interspersed throughout the book—engaging, nuanced discussions of her high-spirited childhood in a prosperous London merchant’s family, the pressures that pushed her to marry John Quincy, the burden of her bossy mother-in-law’s disapproval. But these never come together to produce a psychologically defined portrait. In the manner of a novelist, O’Brien claims access to her inner thoughts, but we never get a strong sense of what kind of consciousness is producing them. Seamlessly weaving his language into hers, his analysis into snippets of her prose, he evokes a probing mind that finds little basis in the record Louisa left behind.

The scene he portrays, however, is fascinating. Louisa traversed a region still remote from the forces of modernization, a landscape out of Grimm’s fairy tales. The effects of war were everywhere. O’Brien describes scenes of epic wreckage. In their mammoth maneuvers, both armies had lived off the land. They left behind scorched earth, ruined farms, and depopulated villages. Corpses had once made the road impassable in places; as spring came on, bones and rags of uniforms littered the newly plowed fields. But the brevity of Louisa’s own descriptions attests to a woman preoccupied with speed and safety, storing up impressions on the fly. And who wouldn’t hurry?

Initially, the party faced the normal perils: the terrible cold, slovenly lodgings, accidents, and attacks by highway robbers. In Germany, Louisa discovered the terms had changed much for the worse: Napoleon has escaped Elba and was on the march with an army that grew exponentially each day. Suddenly, war was not just a memory. In France, the party ran into a contingent of Napoleon’s newly mustered Imperial Guard headed for Paris. The men, rowdy and excited to be on the move, mistook her party for Russians; they could have robbed them, raped the women, killed them all—but they didn’t. It proved a hypothetical brush with death, the kind survivors relate with gusto years later. The danger that hovers over the narrative peters out.

Louisa’s luck presents O’Brien with a problem: how to finish a story that has no climax. As the party nears Paris, the historical thriller falters, and O’Brien shifts to psychological drama to bring the book home. Here is where the biographical passages need to add up, to redirect attention to what the book now depicts as a recuperative journey—a quest to repair a damaged sense of self. “She had grown in the sense that this journey had a symbolic significance, that it had become a commentary on her life.” She would prove she mattered, O’Brien explains, not only to herself but to the world. The question is why, and he again ratchets up the suspense, this time in a different key. “To understand why she felt this need to prove herself, why she had this bleak urgency, one must understand her marriage, the thing toward which she was traveling.” 

Novelists can invent motivations; historians can’t. At this point, O’Brien brings up the death of the Adams’ little girl back in St. Petersburg, turning the journey into a passage between disabling sorrow and reimmersion in life. But it’s a strained explanation, if, indeed, any explanation at all is required. A child’s death is often a hidden caesura in a woman’s life—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich found such a buried rift in Martha Ballard’s biography in a moving section of A Midwife’s Tale. Louisa’s grief saturates letters that now, at this turn, he quotes from her St. Petersburg past. But O’Brien can’t turn the journey into a rehabilitative one without some concurrence from Louisa, and she doesn’t provide any. Louisa made it safely to Paris, but she remains stubbornly on the margins of history, resisting the invitation of a most attentive biographer to throw herself into even a small role in a brilliant short study of war and peace.Become a fan of  Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.