Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly by Jennifer Fleischner

The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave

The subtitle should read something more like Parallel Biographies of Women from Opposing backgrounds and the Story of their Relationship, since they don't actually cross paths until 2/3s through the book. I liked this book because it was fascinating and readable. I always find it interesting to read about details of the period.

I find very little to admire in Mary Lincoln. She probably had some abandonment issues (her mom died when she was six and her stepmother sent her away to a boarding school), made manifest by her neediness, emotional instability, and compulsive spending. One of the most interesting things about her, I thought, was that, according to this author, she pretty much guilted Lincoln into marrying her. She had great political aspirations, always claiming she was going to be married to the President some day, but it seems that Lincoln ultimately married her out of a sense of obligation and honor. I'd be interested to read more about Lincoln himself.

Elizabeth Keckly is the antithesis of Mary Lincoln. Resourceful and hardworking, she was sensible and smart with a good head for business. She was ambitious and practical. She was born into slavery, the daughter of a slave mother and white father. As a mulatto, she was given work in the Big House, tending the children (she practically raised many of her half-siblings and their children), sewing, and helping around the house. Eventually she was sent to live as the slave of one of her half-brothers and his wife in another town. She was raped there by a white neighbor, had a little boy, and eventually bought her and her son's freedom. She went on to open her own business as a renowned seamstress, ultimately sewing in the White House.

The "remarkable friendship" between Lizzy and Mary is founded more on the fact that Lizzy was reliable and dependable than anything else. Jennifer Fleischner claims that Mary felt safe and comfortable with Lizzy because of Mary's early experiences with a black "Mammy", although there also appears to have been trust and respect on both sides of the relationship. Elizabeth Keckly wrote a memoir, Behind the Scenes, about her years sewing for Mary Lincoln in the White House and in a way, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly is Fleischner's way of defending Elizabeth Keckly and her motives for writing the expose, which ended their friendship. According to Fleischner, Keckly's motives were pure and she intended only to help Mary but it backfired.

While it's never the main story, there is quite a bit of backdrop with the Civil War.

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