Louisa Adams’ Moving Adventure

Remember the Beverly Hillbillies? The Clampetts strike oil in the Ozarks and move to Beverly Hills in a rags-to-riches sitcom of the 1960s.

Beverly Hillbillies Moving Van, courtesy Google Images
Beverly Hillbillies Moving Van, courtesy Google Images

 

Of an entirely different era and social class, diarist Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of the 6th American President, John Quincy Adams, writes about multiple moves – both in European nations where John Quincy was diplomat and in the United States serving variously as senator, secretary of state, president, and finally congressman again.

LouisaPortrait

Woman on the Move

After the birth of her third child, “as soon as she could rise from her bed, she lifted the lids of her empty trunks and opened her packing cases to prepare to leave for Washington. She was ‘a wanderer’ again.” (140)

In her boldest move, Louisa traversed the passage from St. Petersburg to Paris while Napoleon rampaged through Europe. She traveled 2000 miles in 40 days, a journey almost unheard of for a woman alone.

Louisa and Son Charles’ Wild Ride

In 1815, while John Quincy was gone to Paris, Louisa in St. Petersburg had to “sell the furniture, dispose of the house, and buy a carriage that could carry her across the continent” to Paris. She needed supplies: food, drink, clothing, maps, tools and enough medicines for a small apothecary. She had read the map herself, not having heard from her husband, and unflinchingly set her course.

Her largest expense was the carriage, “a berline, a large vehicle with four seats and glass windows, all balanced on an elaborate suspension of springs intended to smooth the rough ride.” Leaving St. Petersburg, the carriage was outfitted with sleigh runners. Wheels were packed when she met melting roads traveling west and south. (206)

She sewed gold and silver into her skirts to hide her wealth from robbers and from her male servants. (206)

Touch of Humor:

During the sojourn, though her two male servants were armed, she put on her son’s military cap and held his toy sword so that what she hoped was a menacing silhouette would show through the carriage window. (221)

True to her declaration when she married Adams, “When my husband married me, he made a great mistake if he thought I only intended to play an echo.” (8)

Her Most Moving Adventure

Louisa, often sickly and afflicted with self-doubt, recorded her grief in “Diaries of a Nobody.” After all, she was often geographically separated from her husband during his ascendance to power, she suffered multiple miscarriages, all of her children except Charles preceded her in death, and she struggled with erysipelas, a skin inflammation.

But her vividly told “Narrative of a Journey from Russia to France” enabled her to tunnel “her way out of depression with the sharp spade of her sardonic humor . . . .“ (396)

She wrote about Baptiste, innkeepers, haggard soldiers she has passed on the road, frightened faces of the women she met, cries of Vive Napoleón! She remembers the practical difficulties she had overcome: the moment the carriage wheel had come loose, the problem of procuring servants, the dangerous decision to ford a half-frozen river. She wrote about her growing confidence, which rippled out of her descriptions and into her voice. (411)

“Her story was her own. No other woman in America had experienced anything like it. But she made its lessons universal. It was a story about women and what women could achieve . . . . She wrote: ‘Under all circumstances, we must never desert ourselves.’” (411)

Move for Equality

At 62, in an era when a woman’s life span was about 40, she was blossoming. Like the Grimké sisters of Charleston, with whom she corresponded, she championed women’s rights and the freeing of slaves.

The Lesson of a Cracked Washbasin 

Cracked Washbasin, Google Images
Cracked Washbasin, Google Images

John Quincy and Louisa Adams observed their 50th wedding anniversary, a milestone almost unheard of in the mid-1800s. Before she died, Louisa presented her daughter-in-law Abby Adams with a cracked washbasin, symbolic of the naked faces bent toward it sometimes joyful and other times full of inconsolable pain, mirroring life itself. (444)

Want More Louisa?

Writer and editor Louisa Thomas has written a stunning account of a memorable woman entitled Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams, 2016.

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Thomas’ biography sings with color as she describes an incandescent sun on their approach to St. Petersburg, which edged “the statues with fire and [made] creamy walls blush.” (90)

You can read my full review here.


Your turn: Can you recall any other historical characters with moving stories?

One of your own to tell here? Go right ahead.

Coming next: Mother’s Sky View: The Beautiful City

Purple Passages: Secrets of Grimke House, Charleston

“Heidi, would you mind stopping by 329 East Bay Street before we leave town?”

We were on our way out of Charleston during our recent road trip, and my niece Heidi graciously agreed to stop her SUV long enough for me to catch a snapshot of the Grimké House basking in the bright morning sun. Its open arms-double staircase once welcomed visitors with a hospitable hug. (Until recently it housed attorneys’ offices, so you can draw your own conclusion about its more recent history!)

Grimke House_Charleston_mod

This house was made famous by Sue Monk Kidd’s book of historical fiction The Invention of Wings. Here is an excerpt from my review:

“ . . . the novelist creates parallel stories representing two strata of early nineteenth-century America, alternating chapters with the voices of two engaging characters: the aristocratic Sarah Grimké and the hand-maid (creative name for slave) assigned to her, Hetty Handful Grimké. Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful. Over the next thirty-five years, both strive for a life of their own ‘bucking the constraints of cultural attitudes toward women and slavery, which Sarah and her sister openly challenged.'”

All the purple passages quotes today are pulled from the pages of The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd’s historical fiction about the Grimké family:

 

The Weather

“I slipped through the back door into the soft gloom, into the terror and thrill of defiance. The sky had gone cobalt. Wind was coursing in hard from the harbor.” (50)

(We experienced a Charleston, SC storm downtown as we entered this city May 7, 2015)

 

Mosquitoes

Mother Mary had ordered “the mosquito netting out of storage and affixed above the beds in anticipation of the blood-sucking season, but having no such protection, the slaves were already scratching and clawing their skin. They rubbed themselves with lard and molasses to draw out the itch and trailed its eau de cologne through the house.” (56)

(Disparity between the races no longer noticeable in Charleston today, at least to tourists. )

Wall-hanging on sale in Charleston on Market Street
Wall-hanging on sale in Charleston on Market Street

 

Despair

“My breath clutched at my ribs like grabbing hands. I closed my eyes, tired of the sorry world.” (280)

 

Missing Someone

Sarah’s unrequited love: “Nina was speaking now, her face turned up to Theodore’s, and I thought suddenly, involuntarily of Israel and a tiny grief came over me. Every time it happened, it was like coming upon an empty room I didn’t know was there, and stepping in, I would be pierced by it, by the ghost of the one who once filled it up. I didn’t stumble into this place much anymore, but when I did, it hollowed out little pieces of my chest.” (281)

 

Yearning for a better world

[Lucretia] “leaned toward me. ‘Life is arranged against us, Sarah. And it’s brutally worse for Handful and her mother and sister. We’re all yearning for a wedge of sky, aren’t we? I suspect God plants these yearnings in us so we’ll at least try and change the course of things. We must try, that’s all.’” (275)

 

The Pineapple: the universal symbol of hospitality seen everywhere in Charleston's interiors and exteriors
The Pineapple: the international symbol of hospitality seen frequently in Charleston’s interiors and exteriors. Daughter Crista purchased a pair of these.

 We must try, that’s all!

Share your words: your thought, a quote or story adds to the conversation. It’s always nice to meet you here!

Coming next: Jenna’s Rainbow Cake: A Pot of Gold?

Sue, Sarah, and Handful: Reviewing The Invention of Wings

Sue Monk Kidd, best known for her debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees, has published her third novel, the acclaimed The Invention of Wings (2014).

Courtesy, Riffle Books
Courtesy, Riffle Books

My Review

A full-page spread advertising Sue Monk Kidd’s latest work of historical fiction recently appeared in the New Yorker, which tells readers something about the stature of this work. Set in Charleston, SC, the novelist creates parallel stories representing two strata of early nineteenth-century America, alternating chapters with the voices of two engaging characters: the aristocratic Sarah Grimke and the hand-maid (creative name for slave) assigned to her, Hetty Handful Grimke. Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful. Over the next thirty-five years, both strive for a life of their own “forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love” as one reviewer characterizes it. Woven into the fabric of this novel is the alliance of the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who advocate for the equality of slaves and the rights of women.

While the unfolding plot intertwines other historical figures, both factual and imagined, Kidd held my attention with her metaphors and other descriptions. I was particularly intrigued with the exquisite quilts Handful’s cunning mother Charlotte fabricated, often using the image of blackbird wings as a triangular motif in the design. In the acknowledgements section, the author mentions too her reference to the American black folktale, from which she drew inspiration about “people in Africa being able to fly and then losing their wings when captured into slavery.”

The two main characters in this book effectively invent their own wings, Sarah by tirelessly advocating for human rights and Handful by staging her own escape to freedom. Her often repeated refrain:

If you don’t know where you came from, you have to know where you’re going.

That's one determined woman
Sarah Grimke, one determined woman

 


Quilts

Have a look at some of handmaid Hetty’s exquisite quilts on this website. Possibly the best seamstress in Charleston, the quilting of Hetty and her mother Charlotte offered her freedom spiritually as she recorded her family’s history, and freedom physically too by enabling her to fashion a disguise that may have enabled her to escape.

Q & A with the Author

Website: Sue Monk Kidd
Website: Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd has created an intriguing story from mountains of research including historical dates and events, articles, letters, all inspired by viewing Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party referred to in my last post.

See the intriguing Q & A with Sue Monk Kidd, who observed separate water fountains, black women sitting in the backseats of white women’s limousines, and the story of Rosa Parks in her own youth.

  • How could the author visualize Hetty so vividly?
  • How is Hetty or Sarah like Lily in The Secret Life of Bees?
  • How could Sue recreate the dialect of 19th-century Charleston on paper?

Your turn!

Sue Monk Kidd was published first in Guideposts and Readers’ Digest. Do you remember her writing from back then?

Can you relate to any of the characters in Sue Monk Kidd’s writings? 

 

 

BooksNYorkerCover

Who’s Coming to Dinner? Food with Art

How do you see yourself – Kitchen Goddess, Diva of Design, Mom’s Taxi, Writer Extraordinaire, Care-Taker?

Artist Haley Hasler paints herself as a strong woman in super-abundant settings usually with children and often with food.

MOCAcloseup

Currently displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville, FL, Hasler demonstrates the resurgence of realism with bold strokes on large canvases. It is impossible to miss her exuberance. As she explains on her website, “The self-portrait confronts the viewer with an outward representation of the inner self.” And what an energetic self that must be!

She depicts her figures in fanciful costumes of daily life “balanced at the precipice of chaos” (a quote from the gallery that features her work.) Her paintings may recall life at home for you in days gone by, but I’m guessing on a less-grand scale.

Tooth Fairy - Hasler
Tooth Fairy – Hasler
Palomino - Hasler
Palomino – Hasler
Sunday Brunch - Hasler
Sunday Brunch – Hasler
Tea Party - Hasler
Tea Party – Hasler

Young girl peeks out from under the tea table while playing a violin as boy (possibly her brother) snoozes or at least pretends to.

MOCA permits photography of art works for non-commercial purposes
MOCA permits photography of art works for non-commercial purposes

* * *

Like Haley Hasler working in the same decade of the 1970s, artist Judy Chicago portrays not just one but 39 women in her famous work displayed in the Brooklyn Museum, NYC. And instead of a single canvas, Ms. Chicago’s installation entitled The Dinner Party features a huge triangular table measuring 48 feet on each of its three sides honoring famous women throughout history, each with a symbolic place setting: a napkin, utensils, goblet and a plate.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Also a part of this installation, on the Heritage Floor of the museum appear white tiles of gilded porcelain inscribed with the names of 999 more notable women. Among these is the name of Sarah Moore Grimké (1792 -1873) an American abolitionist and writer who did extensive public speaking opposing slavery and supporting women’s rights.

That's one determined woman
Here is one determined woman

Sarah Grimké is one of the dual protagonists in The Invention of Wings (2014), the much acclaimed historical novel by prize-winning author Sue Monk Kidd, who was inspired to write the book (she admits in her Acknowledgements) while viewing Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party installation. Sarah, speaker, writer, and suffragist, helped change the course of American history with her activism.

Sue Monk Kidd’s book with the two main characters, Sarah Grimké and her handmaid Hetty Handful, will be the topic of next week’s blog post. Stand by for action!

Maybe the words Diva, Goddess, Tooth Fairy or Activist don’t come to mind when you think of yourself. But you do have a title whether it’s Sister, Cook, Doctor, Teacher, Grandmother, a combination of the two, or something else entirely.

Tell us yours.