The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Courting Mr. Lincoln
Courting Mr. Lincoln
by Louis Bayard

Hardcover (23 Apr 2019), 352 pages.
(Due out in paperback Feb 2020)
Publisher: Algonquin Books
ISBN-13: 9781616208479

From the prizewinning author of Mr. Timothy and The Pale Blue Eye comes Courting Mr. Lincoln, the page-turning and surprising story of a young Abraham Lincoln and the two people who loved him best: a sparky, marriageable Mary Todd and Lincoln's best friend, Joshua Speed.

When Mary Todd meets Abraham Lincoln in Springfield in the winter of 1840, he is on no one's shortlist to be president. Rough and reticent, he's a country lawyer lacking money and manners, living above a dry goods shop, but with a gift for oratory. Mary, a quick, self-possessed debutante with a tireless interest in debates and elections, at first finds him an enigma. "I can only hope," she tells his roommate, the handsome, charming Joshua Speed, "that his waters being so very still, they also run deep."

It's not long, though, before she sees the Lincoln that Speed 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. But as her relationship with Lincoln deepens, she must confront his inseparable friendship with Speed, who has taught his roommate how to dance, dress, and navigate the polite society of Springfield.

Told in the alternating voices of Mary Todd and Joshua Speed, and rich with historical detail, Courting Mr. Lincoln creates a sympathetic and complex portrait of Mary unlike any that has come before; a moving portrayal of the deep and very real connection between the two men; and most of all, an evocation of the unformed man who would grow into one of the nation's most beloved presidents.

Louis Bayard, a master storyteller at the height of his powers, delivers here a page-turning tale of love, longing, and forbidden possibilities.

Courting Mr. Lincoln

had a notion of running upstairs to Mary's bedroom and mending themselves before the looking glass. But the back stairs were blocked by kegs, and Mercy was anxious about leaving Mr. Conkling alone for too long, and so they were just inching back into the main hall when a gentleman guest, leaning indolently against the wall, chose that moment to swivel round.

"Why, there you are, Miss Todd," he said.

Joshua Speed's coat fit him as lightly as feathers. His boots looked as if they had been blacked at the door. But what struck Mary most forcibly was his hair, which had lain hidden from view during their last encounter and which now rippled in chestnut waves down to his collar. A prodigal mane that had the effect of both lengthening and poeticizing his face. Yes, she thought, this must have been how Lord Byron looked, training his gaze upon some Alpine lass.

"Good evening," she remembered to say. She slid a damp tendril off her face and glanced into the empty space where Mercy had just stood.

"I fear I've come too late to make it onto your program," he said.

"Oh." She stared at the tiny book still dangling from her wrist. "I believe I have a waltz open... ."

"Then," he said, "the night is not lost." He bent over the program, wrote out his name in a light, casual hand. "How those flowers become you."

"I regret to inform you they are silk. Give me a few more weeks, and I shall have real ones to conjure with."

"I hope you will set one aside for me, then."

She smiled and shifted her eyes just to the west of him. An attitude of maidenly abstraction, refined over some years, that had the usual effect of calling out another compliment, more lavish than the previous. In this case, Mr. Speed said only: "There's someone you should meet."

He swung his head around in an arc of expectation—only no one was there. With no great delicacy, he leaned in the direction of the foyer and beckoned with his arm. Against all expectations, a figure came lumbering toward them.

Her first impressions arrived singly, refusing to be reconciled. An El Greco frame, stretched beyond sufferance. A mournful well of eye. A face of bones, all badgering to break through.

From here, all was confusion. Mr. Speed, who gave every sign of wanting to remain, was being called away, and Mary was reaching out a hand to stay him, and at the same time, this other man's hand—massive and elemental—was extending toward her, and it was this hand in which her hand now unaccountably rested, like a starfish on a boulder, and Mr. Speed was already slipping from view, and Mr. Speed's friend, scarcely audible, was saying something to her. He was saying ...

"I know who you are."

But the effect of being recognized was not so tonic as it had been with Mr. Speed. Now it only discomposed her.

"You must forgive me," she said. "I failed to catch your name."


"Ah ."

Her brain went scrambling; her smile, by way of compensation, stood still.

"I believe you are known to me as well. By repute... ."


"I mean my cousin has spoken of you. John Stuart, yes?"

He nodded, with such an emphatic motion that his chin came nearly to his chest.

"You ..." She ventured an inch further on the limb. "If I'm not mistaken, you are partners, are you not? In Cousin John's law practice... ."

"Guilty." He was silent for a time, then roused himself enough to add, "I'm glad you mention Congressman Stuart. I owe him a great deal."

"Well, he—speaks very highly of you, Mr. Lincoln." Was that true? "He tells me ..." What? "He says you are quite the force. In the courtroom, I think."

"Oh. Well." He gave the punch bowl a stare. "I don't have a great deal of book learning, so I expect I'm able to speak to juries at their own level."

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Courting Mr. Lincoln by Pierre Bayard. Copyright © 2019 by Pierre Bayard. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

A novel about the brilliant future president and the two people who knew him best.

Print Article

19 out of 21 of our First Impression Reviewers rated Louis Bayard's latest novel, Courting Mr. Lincoln, 4- or 5-star for an average overall rating of 4.4.

What it's about:
As a quick skim through American history could show, it's often tough being First Lady; your husband's opponents are vicious while you are alive, and historians even more damning once you are dead. This is certainly true of Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary. The Mary Todd Lincoln of popular lore is unsympathetic; it's hard to grasp why Lincoln married her. In this exquisitely written slice of historical fiction, Louis Bayard brings to life the 1840s social milieu of Springfield, Illinois, where brilliant, ungainly Abraham Lincoln is getting his start in politics, and pretty, plump strong-willed Mary Todd is in town looking for a husband. Using historical details with light, accurate touch, Bayard serves up a Mary that Lincoln could find attractive: intelligent, politically engaged, and socially prominent. Among other winning personalities is Joshua Speed, Lincoln's friend and confident, who smooths Lincoln's rough edges (Julia E).

Our readers felt this novel is historical fiction at its finest:
Historical fiction seems to be among the most difficult of genres to write; you have to create a "character" that competes with a pre-existing idea the reader has of that person, honor what history has shown us, and yet create your own world, your own story - all while battling the additional challenges of a period piece, which can so easily create caricatures instead of characters. I am happy to say that Louis Bayard has overcome these problems and created a beautiful and engaging story that feels more like a time machine than a work of fiction (Sarah H). The author has quite an eye for historical detail and the book is filled with both humor and poignancy (Sandra L). His skillful use of 19th century turn of phrase and nuance of speech is perfect (Diana C).

Many appreciated the delicacy of Bayard's approach to Lincoln's relationships:
The exploration of the relationships between Mary Todd, Lincoln, and Joshua Speed is beautifully captured. Much of it pulled at my heartstrings! (Sandra L). The descriptions of Lincoln's disquieting social awkwardness and the not-so-subtle suggestion of a deeper fondness between Lincoln and Speed is deftly interwoven throughout the prose, exposing the complicated intricacies of such feelings between men of a certain social standing in the mid-19th century (Diana C).

The highlight, though, was his portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln:
Bayard's Mary Todd is not the crazy harridan political rivals and some historians have painted her, but a charming and thoughtful young woman interested in politics who falls in love with the somewhat uncouth Lincoln (Suzette P). I especially enjoyed the way in which the author described her unabashedly engaging men in conversation, particularly focusing on subjects that were never discussed in mixed company such as politics and current events (Diana C). I recently read Michelle Obama's Becoming in which she discusses her life with an up-and-coming Illinois politician. I enjoyed comparing the two - pondering the accomplishments of Michelle and thinking about the sorts of things Mary Todd could have achieved if she had not been limited by the historical period in which she was born (Suzette P).

Some readers found the story dragged at times:
I rated this book 4 stars because at times it did progress slowly (Doris K). I found it a slow read and it didn't always hold my attention (Mary Jane D).

Nevertheless, Courting Mr. Lincoln received high praise from most of our First Impression reviewers:
Bayard's book is superb, and I highly recommended it (Suzette P). It's perfect fodder for book clubs in search of brilliantly crafted historical fiction (Julia E). The novel is also appropriate for young adult readers - lightly written, with no overt violence or sex (Marcia F). History lovers will cherish this (Diane S).

Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Publishers Weekly
This charming love story delicately reveals the emotional roller coaster of two inexperienced adults traversing the unknown realm of love while trying to meet the demands and expectations of society.

Bayard (Lucky Strikes, 2016) runs his narrative on parallel lines, one seen through Mary's eyes and one through Joshua's. Inserting Joshua, a real-life friend from Lincoln's Springfield days, adds dimension to a familiar story and, along with a richly imagined setting and complex characters, makes this a worthy addition to the fiction-about-Lincoln bookshelf.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Not a lot of action, but in Bayard's skilled hands, three complicated people groping toward a new phase in their lives is all the plot you need.

Author Blurb A.J. Finn, bestselling author of The Woman in the Window
A miracle; an exquisite story exquisitely told. This glorious novel, big-hearted and clear-eyed, features the most uncanny incarnation of our sixteenth president since Daniel Day-Lewis strode onscreen in Lincoln. If you love Jane Austen, or Hamilton, or fiction - of any era - that transports and transforms in equal measure, look no further. 'Whatever you are, be a good one,' Lincoln urged. Courting Mr. Lincoln is a good one - as good as storytelling gets.

Author Blurb Liza Mundy, bestselling author of Code Girls
In this sparkling tale of strategy and desire, Louis Bayard renders the origin story of the Lincoln-Todd marriage with a wit worthy of Jane Austen and the keen political insight of the best presidential biographers. When it comes to bringing our most revered historical figures to vivid life - and returning to them their full humanity - Louis Bayard has no peer. He is, quite simply, a master of the storytelling art.

Author Blurb Thomas Mullen, author of Darktown and Lightning Men
Courting Mr. Lincoln gives us a young Abe Lincoln as we've never imagined him. It's a moving portrait, told with cutting wit and intimately drawn detail, of three friends struggling to find their own identities against the weight of social expectations.

Author Blurb Mary Morris, author of Gateway to the Moon
In exquisite detail and luminous prose, Louis Bayard has taken what might have been a footnote in the history of Abraham Lincoln and made it the story. It is as if there was a secret door in Lincoln's life and Bayard has opened it and walked inside. Suddenly all the pieces fit. Utterly fascinating and brilliantly convincing, this is a terrific book that people will be talking about for a long time.

Author Blurb Christopher Bollen, author of The Destroyers
Superb, witty, gorgeously written. For the length of this dazzling, subversive novel, I was plunged so deeply into the sitting rooms and muddy streets of mid-nineteenth-century Springfield, Illinois, that I too had fallen in love with and had my heart broken by the awkward, young lawyer from Kentucky. Courting Mr. Lincoln is an essential read: it makes the past a human place.

Write your own review

Rated 2 of 5 of 5 by Carol T
Perhaps knowing a lot about the Lincolns is a disadvantage. This fictionalized account is pallid and flat. There are better, more interesting actual biographies. I doubt that I'll read anything else by this author.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Donna N. (Sherwood, OR)
Lincoln review
This is a delightful book about the other side of Lincoln. Having grown up in Illinois Lincoln was an especially important character in our history. The relationship with Mary Todd was always portrayed less favorably and I really liked the detail the author went to to give us another side.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Jean L. (Omaha, NE)
At the Beginning
Abraham Lincoln arrived in Springfield,Illinois, in 1837. He was born and raised in Kentucky. His family was dirt poor and he had little formal education. On a borrowed horse, a few law books, a change of clothes, and a personal debt of $1,000.00, Lincoln hoped that he could succeed as a lawyer. He was a real country bumpkin. The first person he met in town was Joshua Speed. He was a storekeeper who offered to provide him with a bed in the room above the store. Over the course of time, he taught Lincoln how to function in polite society. He groomed him for his ultimate future.

Mary Todd arrived in Springfield in 1839. She arrived with plenty of fancy clothes. Her family was a part of high society in Kentucky. Her hope was to find a husband. Her sister Elizabeth Edwards and her husband provided a home for her. Elizabeth took it upon herself to find an appropriate husband for her sister.

These two young people would never had met if they had stayed in Kentucky. The story of the courtship and marriage of Mary and Abraham is told through the eyes of Mary Todd and Joshua Speed. Often times the same event is described differently by the two storytellers. The social mores of Springfield and the complexities of the personalities of the couple made courting a real challenge. Added to that was the strong disapproval of Elizabeth Edwards to that relationship.

This is a book of historical fiction. The author,Louis Bayard, makes the reader feel like he/she has a ringside seat to the couple's courtship. Though it is never stated, he also makes a strong argument that without the support and love of Mary Todd and Joshua Speed there never would have been a President Lincoln.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Sarah H. (Arvada, CO)
Wonderful and imaginative
Historical fiction seems to me the most challenging of genres. You have to create a "character" that competes with a pre-existing idea the reader has of that person, honor what history has shown us, and yet create your own world, your own story. All while battling the additional challenges of a period piece, which can so easily create caricatures instead of characters. I am happy to say that Louis Bayard has overcome these challenges and created a beautiful and engaging story that feels more like a time machine than a work of fiction. I so appreciate the ride and the opportunity to take a peek into the world of Mary Todd and Mr Lincoln.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Dorothy G. (Naperville, IL)
As with other reviewers, I have always favored President Lincoln, as he was from Illinois, as am I, and because he came from nothing and made so much of himself. Ms. Bayard's style reveals layers of each character with each chapter. The relationships are given a depth and purpose which made me connect with them. The work behind the courtship, the friendships, and the politics is artfully layered making the book difficult to put down. I enjoyed learning of Mary's intelligence and her unusual enjoyment of politics, and, as with all the interesting characters, the author gives us the backstory on how these passions emerged. After reading, I realized that very many people were "Courting Mr. Lincoln" and I was mesmerized by them all. I will keep this book next to my biography of Lincoln and when sharing will recommend people with an interest in Lincoln read both.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Jane S. (Waterford, MI)
Courting Mr. Lincoln
Being a Lincoln fan I was really excited to be selected to read this Historical Fiction novel about the relationships between Lincoln and Mary Todd and Lincoln and his best friend Joshua Speed.

I found it a fascinating and thought provoking yet occasionally slow read that required persistence. But that persistence paid off with the well written descriptive narrative of Louis Bayard. This allowed me to picture the life of that era in Springfield Illinois, as if I were part of it.

I liked the back and forth between characters alternating between Mary's interactions with Lincoln and those of Joshua Speed. It allowed better insight into how the characters dealt with their feelings and relationship with Lincoln.

Overall, I would recommend this book, especially for those fans of Lincoln, and I think it would make a great Book Club Book.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Sylvia T. (Rancho Mirage, CA)
An Exceptionally Pleasant Read
Louis Bayard fictionalizes the early days of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln's relationship in this entertaining embellishment of American history. When Mary, seeking a husband, moves into the home of her brother-in-law in Springfield, Ill., she meets the awkward yet principled Lincoln, a lawyer and local politician. Chapters are alternatively narrated by Mary and Lincoln's witty roommate and friend, Joshua Speed, who grooms and guides Lincoln on his road to romance. The story shows two sides of Lincoln: a young, self-educated politician attempting to make sense of high society and a romantic attempting to pursue a serious relationship. As Mary becomes the belle of Springfield, Lincoln makes fumbling attempts to woo her and awkward appearances at fancy dinner parties. I enjoyed reading the entries of Joshua and Mary, who provided unique reflections on a man who is deeply troubled about the path his country is on. After Mary and Lincoln get over initial hurdles, they begin to steal away for "unchaperoned visits," but when their liaisons are discovered, the upper society of Springfield is temporarily scandalized by their secret courtship. This charming love story delicately reveals the emotional roller coaster of two inexperienced adults traversing the unknown realm of love while trying to meet the demands and expectations of society. It's an exceptionally pleasant read - one that keeps the pages turning despite time and necessities!

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Barb W. (Mechanicsburg, PA)
Courting Mr. Lincoln
Like many Americans, the story of Abraham Lincoln has always fascinated me, especially his story before he became 'famous.' I was excited to read a book focusing on his relationship with Joshua Speed and his developing relationship with Mary Todd, who would become his wife.

I liked that it was told in alternating points of view, as it gave us a chance to understand more about each of the characters in turn. At times, I was so wrapped up in the book that I had to remind myself that this is a work of fiction!

I've already recommended this book to several friends who enjoy historical fiction and will continue to do so when given the opportunity.


Print Article

History of the First Lady

FLOTUSCourting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard describes the budding romance between future President Abraham Lincoln and the woman who would become his wife and First Lady, Mary Todd.

Although the role of the President of the United States is described in depth in the US Constitution, the "job" of First Lady is one that has evolved over the years since George Washington was sworn in, in 1789. George's wife Martha wasn't referred to as the First Lady until a journalist used the term for her 40 years after her death; prior to that, the President's wife was referred to as "Lady" (e.g., "Lady Washington"), "the President's Wife," or "Mrs. President."

Frances Folsom ClevelandFrances Folsom Cleveland was the youngest woman to serve as First Lady - only 21 years old when her husband, Grover, started his first term in 1886. Pretty and vivacious, she was a popular figure with the public and press, and was often dubbed the "First Lady of the Land." When her successor, Caroline Harrison, took over, the title was changed to "First Lady of the Republic," but Frances regained her original nickname when her husband was returned to office after the next election. "First Lady of the Land" was subsequently used for the next few presidential wives and also was applied to those who'd formerly served in the role.

Around the turn of the 19th century, magazines and journal articles began to appear which highlighted the First Lady of the Land's formal social duties in the White House, her tastes in decor and dress, and family life. The public was fascinated by the lives of these remarkable women, and consequently this subject remained a popular one in the decades to come. The press gradually started shortening the title to "First Lady" during the early part of the century, but it was still a relatively meaningless phrase that carried no expectations until Eleanor Roosevelt took the stage in 1933. First Lady for the four terms her husband served and hence the nation's longest-serving First Lady, she refused to remain in the background, holding press conferences and public lectures on issues such as civil rights and women's equality. She created a much larger and more significant role for the President's wife, and subsequent First Ladies have attempted to emulate her, using their position for the public good.

Today the First Lady of the United States has her own Secret Service handle (FLOTUS) and her own staff. There's an unwritten expectation that she will choose a cause to champion, generally one that focuses on issues that appeal to women and also has broad non-partisan support, such as children's health or education. Upon retiring from the office, First Ladies frequently write memoirs about their time on the political stage and contribute to the National First Ladies' Library.

First Ladies (from left to right) Nancy Reagan, Lady Bird Johnson, Hillary Clinton, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, and Barbara Bush, May 11, 1994.
Frances Folsom Cleveland

by Kim Kovacs

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