*It’s been a while since I’ve posted a Book Note. I don’t intend these to be official reviews – mostly because I only post on books that I enjoyed enough to write about. If I don’t enjoy it at least that much, it isn’t worth my time to tell you about it. That said, just because I don’t post about a book that I have read doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. To see what else I’ve managed to read this year, hop on over to the My Reading page. I love getting suggestions on books to read so feel free to pass along your favorite recommendations either in the comments on this post or on the My Reading page.
I read the epilogue of Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters when I was about 2/3 of the way finished. It didn’t matter. The epilogue was written a couple hundred years ago. In fact, most everything in this book had already been written. The job for author Diane Jacobs was to weave excerpts and analysis into a penetrating and compelling story.
Jacobs starts with a grabbing angle – the life of Abigail Adams, and her sisters, as revealed through their written correspondence. For me, it was less about Abigail Adams specifically, and more about glimpsing the Revolutionary War and founding days of our country through the eyes of women. But that was not the focus of the story – rightfully so – the story was about how their lives intersected, strengthened, and emboldened one another. Jacobs pulls in correspondence from husbands, children, and other sources, but it is the letters of the three women who drive the story.
The letters of Mary, Abigail, and Elizabeth take us through marriage; moving; childbearing; homemaking; small pox inoculations; caring for nieces and nephews when one sister was away or unable to; hosting parties; religious beliefs, disbeliefs, and realities; poverty; excess; local and international travel; political opinions; family hierarchy; deaths; and everything in between. By focusing on the perspective of the sisters, Jacobs is able to describe the female predicament of revolutionary America through the eyes of women who understood and mostly accepted their given sphere of influence, but they were not so insipid as to believe it must always be so. She can talk about the female writers of Europe who influenced their opinions, she can recognize the men who respected their frankness in discussion – if not accepting practically their implications, and she can demonstrate the potential power of women in myriad situations if they are shrewd enough to work within and around their circumstances. Jacobs did this well – and without it reading like a feminist manifesto.
Key to her success in that regard was in integrating the bigger picture. Jacobs could take the political affairs of the day and insert them into the biography because the ridicule that John Adams faced from the press, His Rotundity, affected Abigail, too. She could discuss politics because Abigail was a voice of influence for her husband and because her sisters were keen participants in the philosophies shaping the national agenda – not for the sake of pressing a female advantage but simply because they valued an educated and informed conscience.
Religion also contributed to the big-picture perspective that kept the biography from devolving into a literature review of thwarted feminine angst. The sisters appreciated that their beliefs impacted how they expected society would act. They grappled with the ideas of place, title, serving the poor, access, slavery, and others through the lens of their religious upbringing. In the end, though a modern reader today would cringe at the restricted views of female influence, the book was not about how three otherwise ordinary women rose beyond the limits of their day to achieve notoriety and greatness. It was about three sisters writing their way through lives that were certainly exceptional but not exceptions (well, maybe Abigail’s was a little bit the exception).
Jacobs’ analysis and observations are perceptive – particularly in noting changes of opinions or tones that the sisters exhibited over time. She obviously had a lot of material to cull. The one area though that was lacking was the storytelling. I imagine the writing advice, “Show, don’t tell” only partially applies to biographers. Their material is already there. They don’t have a blank slate on which to describe lavish details or create new plot twists. Some of the information and scenery is already rendered more authentically by the subject. Perhaps in this case, even more so. Still, there is something…still something….that was missing to give this book a more impactful impression. I enjoyed it. I particularly appreciated the unique angle that Jacobs pursued through all of the sisters to give insight into Abigail’s own life. I just didn’t finish with the sense of fascination and wonder that I’ve grown to appreciate in well-written biographies.
So, to go back to my original statement on Jacobs’ job as a biographer to create a penetrating and compelling story: penetrating, yes but compelling, no. Definitely a good read, not a great read. A must for Revolutionary historians and those interested in women’s history, but not on my own list of must-read recommendations for the genre: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff and Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.