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Review: Courting Mr. Lincoln, by Louis Bayard
Algonquin, 2019. 379 pp. $28

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of ambitions in politics must be in want of a wife.”

No, that’s not how this richly imagined novel about Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd begins, but it could have. For Bayard’s tale recalls Jane Austen in its wit, keenly observed social conventions, and chief object, finding love amid the teacups and calling cards, the glances and tacit declarations of acceptance or rejection. But this is Austen with broader humor, because Lincoln arrives in Springfield, Illinois, blissfully unaware of said social conventions, and the way he learns, and his reaction to his studies, is often hilarious.

Then, too, the narrative has a sharper, more serious tone, because the mud-plagued streets of Springfield have nothing like the gentility that Elizabeth Bennet & Co. would recognize, and some of the mud is metaphorical, flung by politicians at one another. The two principals here are lonely, tortured people, for whom marriage, as every reader surely knows, will bring many heartrending trials. And the chief obstacle to their betrothal isn’t Mary’s snobby, married sister Elizabeth, with whom she lives, but the psychological pain with which Lincoln lives.

With that inescapable, tragic overlay, Bayard does a remarkable job of evoking the lightness in both lovers; her wit and intelligence, his qualities that other men lack. As his close friend Joshua Speed puts it, Lincoln says what he believes and believes what he says. This characteristic is so startling that other men beg for his opinion on every matter under the sun. Be it known also that when Mary first meets him, he reminds her of a spindly pine tree, so a little moral strength helps.

Joshua and Mary are the two point-of-view characters, not Lincoln. That choice offers three crucial advantages, which Bayard deftly exploits. First, Lincoln’s intense feelings of unworthiness, which often prompt a deep withdrawal into himself, remain suggested but properly enigmatic, so the reader shares Speed’s and Mary’s frustration that he’s unreachable. Second, Speed has undertaken to school Lincoln in etiquette and social graces; since they both live above Speed’s dry-goods store (with two other men), they’re often together. Though aware that a more refined Lincoln will make him fitter for female company — partly the purpose, for he’ll need a wife if he’s to advance in politics — Speed resents his friend’s success with Mary. Jealous of Lincoln for getting the belle of Springfield, and of the belle for intruding on a perfectly good bachelor friendship, Speed has mixed motives throughout.

That unusual window allows the narrative to explore and comment on the bounds of friendship and courtship in a deep, thought-provoking way. Friendship is much easier to test, define, and judge, whereas marriage is a speculative option, at best. It’s also apparent that Speed is courting Lincoln too, for his own purposes — hence the title. Yet none of that prevents Lincoln’s preparation for social respectability from reaching high comedy, especially when the merchant tries to teach the backwoods lawyer how to waltz.

But if dancing befuddles the long-limbed Lincoln, friendship can be just as awkward:

They had taken their time warming to each other. Joshua at first blamed the difference in their upbringings, but he came to see that it ran deeper, that his own reticence was in the nature of a host unwilling to presume too much on his guest, whereas Lincoln’s was soul deep. It didn’t matter how innocent the question Joshua lobbed his way. How do you take your coffee? Would you care for some hardtack? Would you like Charlotte to wash your linen? Lincoln enfolded himself around each query, then disgorged the briefest and least revealing of replies. Always with the faint air of regret, as if he had been tricked into abandoning his Fifth Amendment protections.

If Courting Mr. Lincoln has a notable flaw, it’s the repetition, the alternating perspective of Mary and Speed going over the same events. To be sure, they offer very different views of them. But even though I understood the literary convention, which Bayard invokes without calling attention to it — the characters wouldn’t, would they? — the narrative still surprised me. I wound up thinking, Wait a minute; I read this before.

But that’s no reason to fault a superb love story, which I highly recommend. And though each of us likely imbues Lincoln with the virtues we wish to see in him, I came away from this portrayal marveling at how our most thoughtful, compassionate president, mortified at hurting anyone or anything, oversaw our country during its deadliest, most divisive conflict.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, where this review appeared in shorter, different form.