“Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams” offers a rich and thorough look at our country’s only foreign-born first lady.

Born and raised in England, Louisa Adams occupied a unique vantage point from which to view the fledging nation whose highest office her husband would ultimately hold. She was in many ways molded by the demands and expectations of her marriage to a powerful American statesman, but ultimately she lived a life that was uniquely hers, a life that author Louisa Thomas deftly chronicles in passages hair-raising and heartbreaking.

John Quincy Adams was thought by many to be cold and socially awkward, living deeply in his mind in a way that could alienate peers and family alike. Louisa compensated for this lack of social graces through her own enthusiasm and gifts for entertaining, learning and playing the roles necessary to facilitate his intended rise to the presidency. Yet, for all of this work in support of his career, John Quincy remained an often distant and unappreciative husband.

It’s easy, on one hand, to sympathize with this woman, saddled as she was with the responsibility of running a household (often in a foreign land, many times without help), raising children and promoting her husband’s political career even in his frequent absence. And yet, it was this very absence that may have allowed for Louisa’s personal development into an impressively intelligent and self-aware woman by the standards of the day, concerned as she was with questions of women’s inner lives and potential to gain access to the realms of the political and intellectual.

Louisa’s development as a writer is one of the book’s quieter but most compelling story lines. Bolstered by a largely epistolary courtship with John Quincy, and then the necessity of letter writing as a way to maintain contact with a family from whom she was often separated, Louisa moves over time from a shy and intellectually uncertain writer to a confident and prolific wordsmith.

“Write without fear,” she says to a niece, one of her many correspondents, “and put down on paper what you think, without thinking of what you must say.” It’s not a bad bit of advice, and strikingly bold for a mid-19th-century woman.

There are thrilling passages to read in “Louisa,” such as those describing her journey by carriage from St. Petersburg to Paris to reconnect with her husband, who’d moved on ahead of her.

Through fearlessness and creativity, she managed the 40-day, 2,000-mile journey through the Russian wilderness, dodging wolves, weather and deserted soldiers from Napoleon’s wars who were lurking on the roads in wait for travelers to rob (or worse). And when she arrived in Paris, miraculously on the exact day she’d written to John Quincy to expect her? He’d gone out.

 

Emily H. Freeman is a writer, and a teacher of writing, in Missoula, Mont.

Louisa
By: Louisa Thomas.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 500 pages, $30.