A house divided against itself cannot stand, Abraham Lincoln warned us. But a book divided against itself stands up quite nicely in Louis Bayard’s wonderful “Courting Mr. Lincoln.”
The new novel from Bayard, whose previous historical fictions include dandy murder mysteries solved by Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim (“Mr. Timothy”) and by Edgar Allan Poe (“The Pale Blue Eye”), alternates between the perspectives of two people who are “Courting Mr. Lincoln.” One, of course, is Mary Todd, who meets the young lawyer soon after moving in with relatives in Springfield, Ill., in the 1840s. The other is more of a surprise: Joshua Speed, who was Lincoln’s roommate — and, in an arrangement that was apparently not uncommon at the time, possibly his (platonic) bedmate.
There have long been whispers that Lincoln might have been bi-curious, and gay activist Larry Kramer went quite a bit further than whispering, but Bayard does not pretend to know what we cannot know about Lincoln. His Lincoln and his Speed would both consider themselves straight and, in fact, they lived at a time when the word “homosexual” was not yet in use. But the novel’s version of Speed clearly has a crush on the shy, awkward Lincoln, and, although Speed doesn’t fully understand his impulses, that crush leads him to interfere with the affection he sees developing between his roommate and feisty Mary Todd.
That’s where Bayard’s alternating structure pays off: We get Mary’s witty version of events first, often ending with her puzzled about why Lincoln behaved peculiarly on an evening walk or at a fancy picnic, and then we get Speed’s take on the same events, which helps us understand what Mary doesn’t know.
The structure is suspenseful and revealing of the contrasting ways in which two vivid characters see the object of their affection: Speed, whose love for his roommate puzzles even him, and Mary, a smart and resourceful woman who has the misfortune to live in a time when smart, resourceful women had few options. (After her sister reminds her that proper women appear in the newspaper only three times: when they’re born, married and buried, Mary retorts, “Much as I hate to disappoint … you, I intend to be in print dozens of times before I’m played out.”)
Although Lincoln gets the title role, it is Mary Todd who claims center stage through two score and seven chapters of “Courting Mr. Lincoln.” Stubborn and occasionally impolitic, Bayard’s version of Mary resembles one of Jane Austen’s spirited heroines, and the string of misunderstandings that keep Mary and Abraham apart for most of “Courting Mr. Lincoln” is straight out of “Sense and Sensibility,” whose ornately uncivil language and sharp-tongued humor Bayard also purloins.
Like Elinor Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility” or Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice,” Mary Todd is too much woman for most of the insecure, weak-willed men of her era. It’s a tribute to the man who eventually marries her — the future 16th president of the United States — that he recognizes what a strong, unique person she is. And it’s a tribute to Bayard’s entertaining novel that he has imagined a love story for Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln that embroiders the truth but that also fits perfectly with what we know about these very famous figures.
Courting Mr. Lincoln
By: Louis Bayard.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 379 pages, $27.95.
Event: 7 p.m. April 30, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.