Excerpt from Louisa by Louisa Thomas, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams

by Louisa Thomas

Louisa by Louisa Thomas X
Louisa by Louisa Thomas
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2016, 512 pages

    Apr 2017, 512 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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The school was only upstairs from her parents' family, but to judge from how much she liked to come home—even if it meant falling sick—it felt far away. With her mother, the lessons were of a different order. Louisa learned to dance on top of a table. Catherine dressed her children in the latest French fashions, in silks and tiny hoops, and took them to children's balls, where they were exhibited, admired, and "perfectly ruined by adulation and flattery." One of Louisa's earliest childhood memories, a kaleidoscope of colors and textures, was of a party—in fact a wedding. Late in her life, she could still picture the bride of her father's coachman: the f lowers on her dress, the flowers in her hands, the flowering flush upon her cheeks. The bride opened the ball, Louisa wrote in 1825, "with all the gaiety of French sprightliness." In 1781, Joshua rejoined his old partner Charles Wallace and another Annapolis merchant, John Muir, to form Wallace, Johnson & Muir, focusing on commission trade with Europe. Two years later, when Louisa was eight, with the end of the Revolution imminent, the Johnsons returned to London. They moved into the graceful mansion on Tower Hill, a short walk from the fortress and the long artery to the sea below it. Louisa and her sisters were sent to a boarding school in Shacklewell, near Hackney, about four miles north of Tower Hill. The school aimed at preparing middle-class English girls to become marriageable young women; it was run by a headmistress named Elizabeth Carter, who was well read, somewhat narrow minded, and very fat. Students were taught drawing, needlepoint, how to play the harp, and sloppy French—all considered necessary adornments for a wife.

Louisa was young and shy, which at times could make her seem haughty; the other girls called her "Miss Proud." Later in her life, she would remember a persistent feeling that she did not fit in. She had arrived at school wearing a stiff silk dress, as was the style in France, and chattering with her sisters in French only to find her schoolmates wearing high-waisted frocks with pretty sashes and f lowing chemise skirts, speaking in proper English idioms coded with signals of birth and bearing. Louisa and her sisters, she wrote in "Record of a Life," "became objects of ridicule to the whole school." But Louisa was also proud. Being different might mean being something more than ordinary. There was power in that. She had an innate f lair for the dramatic. A story about the first time she went to a church service with her schoolmates in Hackney is telling: when a teacher told her to kneel to pray, she "fell as it were dead upon the floor." Echoing what she'd heard from the nuns at the Catholic school she had attended at Le Temple du Goût, she declared that she was surrounded by "hereticks." Likely, her fear of heresy and hell was real and overwhelming; young and impressionable, she had been influenced by what the nuns had told her. But her response was assertive and perhaps a little strange, since her own parents went to an Anglican church (and, when she was home, she likely went with them), and since her sisters seem to have had no similar trouble. She was sensitive, and she had a sense that those around her believed and behaved unlike her.

What happened next, after the fainting, was also characteristic: Louisa fell so "ill" she had to be removed from school. This time she did not go home. Instead, her parents, distracted by the demands of their growing family, their own frequent illnesses, and the vagaries of a merchant's business, sent her to stay with family friends, John and Elizabeth Hewlett. Parents could be remote, if not seemingly indifferent, in the eighteenth century; nonetheless, sending Louisa to friends seems harsh. Yet Louisa came to see it as a blessing. It shaped her independence and intellect at a very early age. Elizabeth Hewlett was the widow of another American merchant who had remarried a young, bold-minded Anglican minister named John. Louisa's father, Joshua, deferred to John Hewlett in religious and educational matters—not so much, it seems, because he admired Hewlett's renowned scholarship as because he admired his connections. Anglicanism made sense for a socially ambitious family in England, and Joshua did not care what dogma his daughters actually believed. He had been raised on a Chesapeake plantation, where women were worshipped but not for their independent minds. What mattered was that his daughter not make a fuss. A lady was not supposed to disagree with the minister's creed, much less faint upon the floor. Joshua asked John Hewlett to coax Louisa into line. "As in regard to women he always said there was little danger in believing," Louisa later wrote of her father, but "there was destruction in doubt."

Excerpted from Louisa by Louisa Thomas. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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