Bayard, Louis. “Courting Mr. Lincoln”, Algonquin Books, 2019.
Loving Abe Lincoln
Louis Bayard’s “Courting Mr. Lincoln” is the story of a young Abraham Lincoln and the two people who loved him best: the marriageable Mary Todd and Lincoln’s best friend, Joshua Speed. This is a story of strategy and desire that is original and fresh and has the keen political insight of presidential biographers. Louis Bayard brings us a Lincoln who is both real and revered and totally filled with humanity.
When Mary Todd meets Abraham Lincoln in Springfield in the winter of 1840, he is on no one’s shortlist to be president. He was not presidential but rough and reticent, a country lawyer lacking money and manners, living above a dry goods shop, but with a gift for oratory. Mary is a quick, self-possessed debutante with a tireless interest in debates and elections and at first finds him an enigma. She tells Abe’s roommate, Joshua, that “I can only hope “that his waters being so very still, they also run deep.”
This is quite a different Marry Todd than the morose character that she has been pictured by others. Bayard creates a sympathetic and complex portrait of Mary unlike any that has come before; and he provides us with moving portrayal of the deep and very real connection between the two men; and most of all, a look at the young Abe who would grow into one of the nation’s most beloved presidents. It did not take long before Mary sees Abe as the man that Joshua knows: “a man who, despite his awkwardness, is amiable and profound, with a gentle wit to match his genius and a respect for her keen political mind.” As her relationship with Lincoln deepens, she must deal with his inseparable friendship with Speed, who has taught his roommate how to dance, dress, and navigate the polite society of Springfield.
We learn about Abe Lincoln through the alternating voices of Mary Todd and Joshua Speed. Louis Bayard is a master storyteller who brings us a page-turning tale of love, longing, and forbidden possibilities. This is also an intimate look at the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, his best friend in Springfield, Illinois. Mary Todd who despite being known as the “Belle of Springfield” seems to want a deeper and more intellectual relationship with her future husband but she is constrained by the restrictions on women during her time. She often tried to have a freer life than was expected of her. In the relationship between Joshua Speed and Lincoln, we see the close friendship of two young men who try to establish themselves in careers and society. There is a hint at a possible sexual attraction between Speed and Lincoln but no conclusions. Instead we see in Speed a mentor, helping to educate Lincoln into the mores of society and facilitate his acceptance.
Bayard’s limiting the scope of this novel to Lincoln’s early days in Springfield, we get to see how the two important people in his life helped transform him from the bumpkin of his youth to the great statesman he became. The book is filled with rich historical detail and complex characters. This might be fiction but Bayard did his research well.
There are references to the childhoods of each of the characters and a coda at the end covering their later years, the book focuses on the time period immediately before Lincoln’s marriage, when he was a young practicing lawyer in Springfield, Illinois and slept in the same bed as his roommate, Joshua. Bayard’s rendition of the relationship between Speed and Lincoln is fascinating; “a deep yet unspoken love exists that is emotionally resonate.”
This is a charming love story that delicately reveals the emotional roller coaster of two inexperienced adults as they enter the unknown realm of love while trying to meet the demands of society. Here are three complicated people entering a new phase in their lives and we are very lucky to be with them