Sunday, January 3, 2010

Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage – Book Review

Christmas brought a nice addition to the library here for Friends of 1776. A lot has been written about this famous Presidential marriage, their letters, and the well-known salutation, “My dearest friend”.

This book is not about the many letters and wide variety of topics they cover, although Gelles quotes extensively from them. Rather, this book is biographical n scope, bringing great detail to the personality traits of both people. This marriage had its share of triumph, great personal tragedy, and strong disagreements. If I can describe the marriage in a few words, it was a marriage of separation. Nothing turned out as one might expect. The author focuses on Abigail in greater detail than for John. She was a typical late 18th century woman, from a solid “good family”. She was also brilliant, very intelligent, and surprisingly modern in outlook.

Considering what Abigail had to face, alone, over decades, I have no idea how she coped. Fortunately, in spite of many periods of illness, for children and family, she had basically a healthy constitution.

When illness struck around her, she did what she had to do. She was not a whiner. She knew how to pick extraordinary friends. Many of the letters’ substance are dominated by domestic problems. Why did this happen? Gelles effectively explains that from the beginning of their marriage, John more and more abdicated home life for a life of public service, calling for prolonged absences from Massachusetts and his growing family. Once, later, it was for five years!

Also, the extraordinary time it took for correspondence to reach its destination, weeks, often months, left Abigail to often have little contact with John. The time factor for correspondence is well handled in this book.

In a way, the marriage was very modern. Leaving Abigail at home on the farm in the Boston suburb (Braintree), John goes to the city to pursue his career and financial future. People recognized his talents quickly. He was invited to join he right political and legal organizations, where he rapidly met many influential people. In many modern marriages, he would catch a late commuter train, meanwhile leaving his wife to deal with the plumber and the children’s schools.

When Jefferson wrote our Declaration of Independence, it was John Adams who put it into place. John earlier had recognized the special talents of George Washington and pushed for his selection of general of our revolutionary army. But the more John rose in importance and prestige, the less chance he had to build his wealth. His earlier highly esteemed legal practice couldn’t grow. Thank goodness for Abigail’s abundant energy; much later Abigail was essentially the family financial manager. Her aim was not to amass riches, but to stay out of debt, the danger was all farming operations. She was successful at that. It showed again that in this marriage, both partners were good at what they did. Throughout these long years, they maintained their mutual affection and respect. They never took each other for granted.

So many years of their marriage played out in the Revolutionary War, with campaigns and battles over a large area. I do criticize this book for rather neglecting the military history. Important, decisive battles are often given scant attention. But maybe this can be justified by the fact that John was never a military leader.

Everything in Abigail’s background would predict that she was a sober, righteous New England housewife. But when she began to accompany John on diplomatic missions, she acquired an elegance and culture perfectly suited to her new social position (particularly in Paris and later London). She maintained a friendship with Jefferson. She attended the theater, ballet, concerts and recitals, and saw important landmarks as a tourist. She began to enjoy and appreciate some of the outstanding furniture and décor of the late 18th century. She was no country bumpkin from the farm.

Did John miss a great deal because his family life was essentially subject to the demands of his public life? I think you will judge this for yourself.

If anything, the devotion and compatibility in this marriage was particularly strong in their later years. Deaths of adult children were a terrible grief for them, but not described as morbid. The presence of many grandchildren was a great satisfaction and happiness for them now being together, retired, back on the farm, John’s most lasting preference for his whole life.

This portrait of a marriage shows why it earned an absolute right to be considered an outstanding Presidential marriage. Maybe Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s much briefer days together as celebrities also earned an outstanding designation, or perhaps that of Franklin and Eleanor.

But Gelles has drawn up a portrait of two extraordinary people, living in extraordinary times. I don’t think a reader will ever tire of them. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

Abigail: 1744 – 1818; John: 1735 – 1826
Lived in Braintree, Family Farm
Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage Edith B. Gelles, author. William Morrow, 2009. 285 pp.

Notes: Over a century later another celebrated marriage, that of the last Czar and Czarina of Russia, Nicholas and Alexandra, was also known for their voluminous correspondence through tumultuous times. See A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra Their Own Story. Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko. Doubleday, 1997. 667 pp.

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