British historian O’Brien (American Intellectual History/Cambridge Univ.; Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810–1860, 2003) pursues Louisa Adams’s 40-day trek through a Europe in the process of transformation.
The Mrs. Adams in question is not to be confused with Abigail Adams, the Colonial matriarch and wife of the second president. Rather, Louisa Catherine Adams was her London-born daughter-in-law, the wife to Abigail’s son John Quincy Adams. In early 1815, as her husband had been recalled to Paris after serving as minister to Alexander I’s court in St. Petersburg, Adams was requested by letter to join him. The trip involved a grueling journey by carriage with her young son and the French nurse over the rough, frigid terrain of Russia and Prussia and through Germany to Paris. The Adamses had not seen each other in nearly a year, and Louisa was anxious to leave St. Petersburg, where the couple had been stationed for a few years. She was weary of costly court appearances, ready to close the chapter on a painful recent period involving the death of her baby girl and wondering, as O’Brien suggests, how her marriage to the evidently chilly, undemonstrative Quincy Adams would hold up. After weeks of preparation, they set off by kibitka (Russian sled), averaging 64 miles a day for the 2,000-mile trip. They passed hundreds of post stations, each one requiring the payment of taxes, and the overall cost came to $1,984.99, about $28,000 in today’s money. O’Brien’s narrative is richly contextual, encompassing not only the great personalities of the age, whom Mrs. Adams met, but penetrating the secrets of a complicated marriage.
A wide-sweeping historical survey and original intellectual journey.