Mrs. Adams in Winter A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon

Michael O'Brien




Trade Paperback

384 Pages



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A Pulitzer Prize Finalist

Early in 1815, Louisa Catherine Adams and her young son set out from St. Petersburg to meet her husband, John Quincy Adams, in Paris. She traveled through the snows of eastern Europe, down the Baltic coast to Prussia, across the battlefields of Germany, and into a France, then experiencing the tumultuous events of Napoleon's return from Elba. Along the way, she learned what the long years of Napoleon's wars had done to Europe, what her old friends in the royal court in Berlin had experienced during the French occupation, how it felt to have her life threatened by reckless soldiers, and how to manage fear.

The journey was a metaphor for a life spent crossing borders: born in London in 1775, she had grown up partly in France, and in 1797 had married into the most famous of American political dynasties and become the daughter-in-law of John and Abigail Adams.

The prizewinning historian Michael O'Brien reconstructs for the first time Louisa Adams's extraordinary passage. An evocative history of the experience of travel in the days of carriages and kings, Mrs. Adams in Winter offers a moving portrait of a lady, her difficult marriage, and her conflicted sense of what it meant to be a woman caught between worlds.


Praise for Mrs. Adams in Winter

"O'Brien's compelling [and] . . . splendidly researched work . . . makes for the best of reading."—Phyllis Meras, The Providence Journal

"This enthralling, vividly written book tells the story of an amazing journey in extraordinary times undertaken by a most uncommon woman . . . [O'Brien] displays admirable psychological insight into Mrs. Adams' usually complex personality and general gestalt . . . Mr. O'Brien has done a superb job of really understanding one of our lesser known first ladies."—Martin Rubin, The Washington Times

"A splendid success . . . In addition to his vivid portrait of the European countryside, its history, and its notable personalities, O'Brien includes well-placed and often lengthy digressions that combine to form a sort of biography of Mrs. Adams . . . Mrs. Adams in Winter contains the best biography yet published of Louisa Adams . . . O'Brien's elaborate description of Europe's post-road system as it existed 200 years ago helps make his book such a pleasure to read."—Paul C. Nagel, The American Scholar

"O'Brien's subtle and sinuously original book provides a detailed reconstruction of the journey and what it meant to make it . . . It was daring of O'Brien to find the core of Louisa's journey in the notion of a woman raising her head in a society that had no place for the elevation. Daring, but his brilliantly argued portraits of Adams versus Adams make it convincing."—Richard Eder, The Boston Globe

"This innovative and creatively told personal history of a forgotten figure bound by marriage to an ambitious American statesman bristles with insight into the era. Witty, informed, sophisticated, and moving; essential reading."—Stewart Desmond, Library Journal

"Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, a woman who spent her life in voyages both literal and metaphorical, above all longed to leave her mark on the landscape of the life she passed through. The noted historian Michael O'Brien gives Louisa her voice, assuring her place in history as a woman ‘who was,' as she put it. Take these twin journeys, rendered with precision and grace by a master—across the dramatic frozen landscape of Napoleon's Europe, and deep within the mind and heart of one of the most compelling characters in American history."—Catherine Allgor, Presidential Chair and Professor of History, University of California at Riverside

"Louisa Catherine Adams is an unjustly forgotten figure in American history, a formidable woman with a keen eye for the smallest details of political life. Now comes Michael O'Brien with a fresh, engaging account of Mrs. Adams's 1815 journey from St. Petersburg to Paris. It is a brilliant conceit, beautifully executed, and O'Brien succeeds admirably in capturing the complexities of the woman and her times."—Jon Meacham, author of American Lion

"O'Brien's narrative is richly contextual, encompassing not only the great personalities of the age, whom Mrs. Adams met, but penetrating the secrets of a complicated marriage . . . A wide-sweeping historical survey and original intellectual journey."—Kirkus Reviews

"Though much has been written about Abigail Adams, the feisty First Lady and Revolutionary War heroine who captured the collective imaginations of generations of Americans, little interest has been paid to her daughter-in-law, Louisa Catherine Adams. Married to John Quincy Adams and the only First Lady to be born and raised outside of the U.S., she spent her formative years in England and France, never setting foot upon American soil until she was twenty-six years old. Her full-length biography is a fascinating one, but historian O'Brien has extrapolated an incredible adventure to serve as a metaphor for her life and times. During the winter of 1815, Mrs. Adams and her young son set forth from St. Petersburg, Russia, traveling overland through battle-torn Europe for 40 days, to meet her husband in Paris. Years later, Louisa penned a memoir of that arduous journey, and O'Brien has adeptly filled in her gaps with historical and sociological texturing. This compelling combination of biography, travelogue, and adventure does an admirable job resurrecting one of the many forgotten females in the annals of American history."—Margaret Flanagan, Booklist

"Beginning her nearly solitary winter trek from St. Petersburg to Paris in 1815, Louisa Adams experienced 40 days of independence from the constrictions she suffered as wife to future American president John Quincy Adams. Recounting her journey in minute detail, O'Brien, Cambridge professor of American intellectual history, juxtaposes her encounters with a dazzling array of fashionable nobles with ruined towns and impoverished survivors struggling in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. O'Brien effectively highlights Louisa's unease as a European-bred, naturalized American descended from a mother's illegitimate birth, who marries into the intimidating Puritan family of John and Abigail Adams. Using a range of sources, O'Brien reconstructs memories omitted in Louisa's memoir and delves into a 50-page diversion on her marriage, slowing the travelogue's pace. Readers of American and European history will exult in the informative contrast of postrevolutionary American values and the glittering European and Russian courts, which steadfastly ignored the horrific effects of continental warfare."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



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SHE WAS IN A HURRY, because anxious. And she disliked partings, all the business of embraces, regrets, and promises. So she began the journey and left the city without ceremony, while her friends were distracted at...

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  • Michael O'Brien

  • Michael O'Brien is Professor of American Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810–1860, which won the Bancroft Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History.