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Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon Hardcover – March 2, 2010

24 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Beginning her nearly solitary winter trek from St. Petersburg to Paris in 1815, Louisa Adams experienced 40 days of independence from the constrictions she suffered as wife to future American president John Quincy Adams. Recounting her journey in minute detail, O'Brien, Cambridge professor of American intellectual history, juxtaposes her encounters with a dazzling array of fashionable nobles with ruined towns and impoverished survivors struggling in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. O'Brien (Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810–1860) effectively highlights Louisa's unease as a European-bred, naturalized American descended from a mother's illegitimate birth, who marries into the intimidating Puritan family of John and Abigail Adams. Using a range of sources, O'Brien reconstructs memories omitted in Louisa's memoir and delves into a 50-page diversion on her marriage, slowing the travelogue's pace. 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. 40 b&w illus., 1 map. (Mar.)
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From Booklist

Though much has been written about Abigail Adams, the feisty First Lady and Revolutionary War heroine who captured the collective imaginations of generations of Americans, little interest has been paid to her daughter-in-law, Louisa Catherine Adams. Married to John Quincy Adams and the only First Lady to be born and raised outside of the U.S., she spent her formative years in England and France, never setting foot upon American soil until she was twenty-six years old. Her full-length biography is a fascinating one, but historian O’Brien has extrapolated an incredible adventure to serve as a metaphor for her life and times. During the winter of 1815, Mrs. Adams and her young son set forth from St. Petersburg, Russia, traveling overland through battle-torn Europe for 40 days, to meet her husband in Paris. Years later, Louisa penned a memoir of that arduous journey, and O’Brien has adeptly filled in her gaps with historical and sociological texturing. This compelling combination of biography, travelogue, and adventure does an admirable job resurrecting one of the many forgotten females in the annals of American history. --Margaret Flanagan

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (March 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374215812
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374215811
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #739,934 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael O'Brien (b. 1948) is Professor of American Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge, a Fellow of the British Academy, and a Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society. He has written widely on the history of American intellectual culture. His book, CONJECTURES OF ORDER (2004) won the Bancroft Prize and was a Nominated Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History and his MRS. ADAMS IN WINTER (2010) was a Nominated Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography and Autobiography.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Christian Schlect VINE VOICE on March 7, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A great small history. The hard journey of Louisa Adams from St. Petersburg, Russia to Paris in 1815 serves here as a platform to tell of the life of John Quincy Adams' wife; their not untroubled marriage; the work of a diplomat and his spouse; the court of the Czar; the methods and mechanics of a long distance overland trip; and Napoleon's affect on the European countryside.

Abigail was not the only interesting woman who married an Adams.

Professor Michael O'Brien writes clearly and with easy authority on a multitude of interesting historical points. His book should win prizes.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Susan Shwartz on March 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you combine the history of travel, the last days of the Bonaparte era and the early history of the U.S. with the work of Henry James, you -may- have MRS. ADAMS IN WINTER.

This detailed, insightful account of Louisa Adams' journey with her son from Petersburg to Paris through what was a maze of countries and war zones is both an incredible journey in terms of travel and an odyssey of the mind of a complex woman who combined personal sensitivity with an awareness of her role in one of America's most prominent (and difficult) families.

I found the author's attempts to portray Mrs. Adams' feelings of alienation, insecurity and inferiority very moving: her sadness, and her identification with other women linked to powerful men, were concealed almost as well as her formidable Mother-in-Law might have liked under the guise of a lovely, accomplished, socially adept lady (in the old sense).

Adding to this book's particular appeal is the grace of its writing. Like Henry James and Jane Austin, the author focuses on the interior monologue and the small square of ivory, set against the backdrop of monumental events.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Loves the View VINE VOICE on July 31, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Through a discussion Louisa Adams' trip of 1815, Michael O'Brien draws a portrait of the life and character of Louisa Adams and the means, methods and costs of travel before the combustion engine and the tourist industry.

The initial chapter describes the pomp and pageantry of the Russian Court and the marginal American role in it. O'Brien moves on to the travel preparations and life on the post roads. The text is supplemented by illustrations of the towns, bridges, vehicles, buildings and a few portraits. There are interesting anecdotes about minor historical figures such as Elizabeth Chudleigh, Marquis Fillipo Paulicci, Queen Luise of Prussia and Claude Etienne Michel. There is a good map at the beginning with blow ups focusing on areas of interest. There is a good table of place names at the end and a good index. The supplemental parts of the book are well chosen and a big help to the reader.

The discussion and interpretation of Mrs. Adams' life and character, while good and worthwhile, seems to be forced into the narrative. For instance, "...coming within a mile of the town called by the locals 'Tschudelei'..." brings up the story of Elizabeth Chudleigh who like Mrs. Adams is English and has skeletons in her family closet. This segues into the narrative on Mrs. Adams' birth family. Similarly, the question as to why the threat of Napoleon's army does not deter Mrs. Adams from pushing ahead from Frankfurt to Paris (the answer appears to be family) prompts the discourse on the loss of her daughter, her stultifying marriage and her relations with her in-laws.

The book needs a more descriptive title. The "in winter" part suggests old age, but Louisa Adams is 40 and will live another 37 years.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By M. A Newman VINE VOICE on December 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is a very odd book indeed. It is sort of a biography of Louisa Catherine Adams and it is also a travelogue through Eastern Europe as she travels overland from St. Petersburg to Paris in the midst of Napoleon's 100 Days. While I have heard of this journey many years ago from relatives, I think this ultimately is a rather interesting read, not so much because of the story it tells, but the details it contains.

Michael O'Brien has constructed from a manuscript that Mrs. Adams wrote in the 1830s a tale not only of a physical journey but also a tale of the wife of the sixth president of the United States. His narrative is unusual, harkening back to John Marquand's flash back technique of story-telling. While I am fairly certain that while she was traveling across Europe that her entire life did not pass before her eyes, O'Brien uses this device to tell the reader something about Mrs. Adams's life up until 1815.

While the life is an interesting one, I think the real strength of this book are the thousands of details that O'Brien unearthed to give the reader a sense of what Louisa Adams encountered in her journey from the Tsar's court to the Paris of the 100 days. While I would give the book only so-so ratings as a biography (Henry Adams probably provides the definitive portrait of his grandmother in "The Education"), it is a marvelous book that provides a sense of what it was like to pass through Eastern Europe and on to the West.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on May 18, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The last few decades of peace are telling of a war-weary continent that has not avoided conflict for such long periods. "Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon" tells the story of the wife of John Quincy Adams, as she traveled through Europe after the long string of the Napoleonic wars which devastated the region. Her life was spent traveling much of the world, and has shaped much of her and her husband's politics. "Mrs. Adams in Winter" is a solid addition to any historical biography collection.
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