Whenever I visit a Stately Home (or anybody else’s), one of the first things that I look at are the bookcases. The books in those bookcases are very revealing about the owner’s personal tastes.
Letters can be equally revealing. I’m currently reading Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters by Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner. The book is heavy-duty reading (717 pages!), but it’s enjoyable because the Turners use it to show new aspects of Mrs. Lincoln’s personality. The letters are accompanied by historical sections that explain what was going on in Mary’s life at the time and the Turners also do an excellent job of explaining the recipients of those letters.
When Mrs. Lincoln is mentioned in many history books, the writer often mentions that she had mental problems. But I’m inclined to cut her a huge amount of slack. She lost some of her dearly loved sons, not to mention the horror of having her husband shot right beside her.
There was a lot more to her. She was intelligent and savvy in Illinois political circles, was one of the first people to see how great Abraham Lincoln would become, and visited sick soldiers in Washington hospitals. To her, Abraham Lincoln was part husband and part father, which made it all the more crushing when he was killed.
She also tried to get jobs for people who needed them and came to be First Lady when the U.S. was disintegrated into civil war. Washington society snubbed her when the Lincolns first came to the White House, which would be hard for anyone to tolerate.
Mrs. Lincoln also had to deal with some vicious journalists and some betrayals by her own people. Thank goodness social media wasn’t around then. Poor lady would have been several memes.
The Turners make it clear that Mary Todd Lincoln wasn’t a perfect person (!) but there are numerous sides to her personality and you can more clearly see why Abraham Lincoln chose to marry her. It’s an interesting self-portrait of a woman and First Lady who was a lot more complex than historians traditionally depict.