The First Lady and the Rebel
By Susan Higginbotham
Published by Sourcebook Landmark
What it’s about?
Mary and Emily are sisters. As civil war breaks out across the United States, they find themselves following their husbands to different sides of the conflict.
Mary is married to President Abraham Lincoln at the centre of power in Washington DC, while Emily is married to Confederate General Hardin Helm.
As the war and politics divides the country and the Todd family, Mary and Emily struggle to support their husbands, young children and their relationship with each other.
What I think:
It’s clear that a lot of research has gone into this novel. There’s lots of details of the battles, troop movements and the key figures of the period.
The dual narrative begins and ends with Mary and Abraham Lincoln – opening during their courtship in 1839 and ending with the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s death.
Despite being written from the point of view of the women, neither have much control over their destinies. Both follow where their husband’s careers lead them.
Of the two women, I found Emily to be the most engaging. As there are fewer historical records pertaining to her life it may be that the writer had more scope for imagination when writing her parts of the story.
Mary Lincoln is less appealing. She is often selfish, rude and entitled. Her extravagance wartime is extraordinary when compared to the hardship and suffering of others the glimpse into the domestic life of an earlier White House is interesting reading and the writer brings this vividly to life.
The politics of the war is somewhat glossed over. Emily and the southern Todds own slaves yet she does not really engage with debates about the morality of slavery. The impact the Emancipation Proclamation has on her own slave, Maggie, is completely missed by Emily who seems oblivious to the changes that are coming to society as she is more focused on the day to day management of her household.
I didn’t really know much about either woman before reading this book and it has certainly sparked an interest. The details of what happened after the scope of the novel show the fascinating lived both women led continued. The author includes some recommended reading if you want to find out more.
Thank you to Netgalley for this advanced copy in return for an honest review.