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The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams

by Louisa Thomas

Hardcover, 500 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $30 |


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The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams
Louisa Thomas

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NPR Summary

An intimate portrait of the British-born wife of John Quincy Adams details her significantly different upbringing from her husband, their tempestuous marriage, their wide range of residences and her efforts to forge her own sense of self.

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Excerpt: Louisa

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2016 Louisa Thomas


The first time Louisa Catherine Johnson saw John Quincy Adams, she thought that he looked ridiculous. When he came to dinner at the Johnsons' house in London, on Wednesday, November 11, 1795, the young American diplomat was dressed in a strange boxy Dutch coat so pale that it appeared, absurdly, almost white. Watching him talk at the table, though, she did like him. He seemed spirited, showing no signs of exhaustion after a long and difficult journey from Holland, where he was the United States' representative. He was handsome, with penetrating, dark round eyes under a pair of peaked eyebrows, and a mouth that was full and strong. He liked a good story and a good glass of wine. Only twenty-eight years old, he was already a high-ranking diplomat—and the son of the vice president of the United States. No one who met him could miss his intense intelligence. Still, after John Quincy had gone, the girls sat in the parlor and joked a little about his unfashionable attire. They were drawn to men who wore well-cut jackets, men who arrived at dinner looking ready for a gallop. John Trumbull, an artist and frequent guest at the Johnsons', who had brought John Quincy to dinner, tried to convince them that Mr. Adams was "a fine fellow and would make a good husband." The sisters laughed.

More than a month passed before John Quincy came back, and Louisa did not miss him. She was twenty years old, clever, and charming, though she could be shy, and she and her sisters were accustomed to being objects of admiration. There were seven daughters in all— beguiling, lively, and lovely—and their mother, Catherine, knew how to exploit their good looks. (A seventh child, a son named Thomas, was at boarding school and then across the Atlantic at Harvard.) Catherine was petite and pretty, with a sparkling wit and a talent for putting guests at ease while keeping them on their toes; she was, Louisa remembered, "what the French call spirituél." When they were little, Catherine had dressed her children in matching clothes and marched them into church by twos. "We were objects of general curiosity and permit me to say admiration to the publick," Louisa would remember with a touch of unembarrassed pride. When they were older, the girls had ostrich feathers for their hats, buffons of starched muslin, and hairdressers to curl, sculpt, and powder their hair. They ordered gloves by the dozen. The three oldest—Nancy was twenty-two, two years older than Louisa, and Caroline eighteen, two years younger— had already been introduced to society, and society was happy to be introduced to them.

There were frequent visitors to entertain them, dinners with dignitaries, merchants, scientists, ministers, British abolitionists, wealthy American plantation owners, young men and old. Their elegant house, No. 8 Cooper's Row on Tower Hill, perched above the Thames and the Tower of London, was known as a welcoming place. Visitors from the United States were treated especially well. Louisa's father, Joshua Johnson, a merchant from Maryland, was the American consul in London, appointed by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1790. He interpreted his responsibilities liberally. (Perhaps a little self-interestedly, too, which was not uncommon for a consul.) His ships carried Americans' mail to and from the United States; he found them a doctor when they were sick; he pled their case when they were in trouble; he offered his house as their haven. Americans came to Cooper's Row to collect their letters and stayed for tea. They came to discuss a trading scheme and found themselves at dinner. After dinner they would linger for card games, conversation, and music in the parlor. They came for the comforts of the sofa in the parlor, the oil paintings on the walls, the cook in the kitchen, the harp in the corner, and the eleven servants who would suddenly appear at their elbow to whisk away their finished plates or materialize in the drawing room with a glass of good brandy. They also came, perhaps, for the women.

Louisa barely noticed John Quincy's reappearance at the dinner table in December, but he returned and returned again. He could be found on Tower Hill almost every night. He would linger after dinner with the sisters to watch their skits, play their games, and listen to their laughter. He teased them and was teased; they called him "Mr. Quiz." He sat on the sofa next to Louisa and held the end of a string as Louisa threaded spangles on it for her embroidery. He loved watching them perform—Nancy played the pianoforte, Caroline the harp, and Louisa sang. "Evening at Mr. Johnson's. His daughters pretty and agreeable . . . Late home," he would record in his small, strict handwriting, logging his visits to the Johnsons' night after night.

He was drawn to them, this warm feminine circle—to the sound of a soprano voice, the mellifluous laughter, the suggestion of a life not of strain and hardship but of modestly easy luxury. It was so different from the atmosphere of expectations in which he'd been raised, so different from what he told himself he wanted. He noted the difference and it disturbed him; yet he could not seem to stay away.

The Johnson sisters could sense the increasing attention from this almost-stranger, serious and somewhat supercilious, though not unable to smile. He was unusual—but then, there were ways in which they were unusual too—and perhaps Louisa most of all.

. . .

She was almost an outsider by birth. At the time the American Revolution broke out across the Atlantic, when she was only two months old, her father was the buyer for a firm based in Annapolis. He was a proud American patriot unafraid to show his allegiance, which meant that it became neither safe nor profitable for him to live nearly in view of the Tower of London. When Louisa was three, her family moved to Nantes, France, where Joshua worked for a time as an agent for the nascent American government and tried to establish his own business. His house there, on L'Île Feydeau, in the middle of the Loire River, the part of town fashionable among the newly rich, became a frequent meeting point for Americans passing through— Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, and dozens of others, including John Adams, perhaps with his middle son in tow. They came for business, and perhaps for pleasure; Joshua Johnson projected a sense of living well. His apartments were in a mansion called "Le Temple du Goût"—the Temple of Taste. Rows of wrought iron balconies curved and curled into delicate tendrils; long windows opened like doors; the fireplaces were made of marble; and the ceilings soared. Later, Louisa blamed Le Temple du Goût for encouraging a certain showiness and ruinous cupidity in her mother, but it molded her own aesthetic as well. Long after she had been to the Hermitage, to the Tuileries, to Peterhof, to Sans Souci, she would remember Le Temple du Goût as a singular marvel, elegant and perfect.

She remembered her childhood, she would later say, like a dreamscape. She wouldn't remember the revolutionaries who came to tea, though—they meant little to her then, and anyway, she often wasn't home. Her parents sent her to a Roman Catholic boarding school located in Le Temple du Goût, up the mansion's spiral staircase. The Johnsons weren't Catholic, and Joshua probably wasn't too interested in formally educating his tiny children at that point. (Americans in France sometimes enrolled their children in Roman Catholic schools; Thomas Jefferson—highly skeptical of religion—sent his daughter Patsy to a convent.) But Catherine was frequently pregnant, all the Johnsons often sick, and Joshua prone to feeling overwhelmed. The school left an impression on Louisa, though the only nun she could later recall was the one who brought toys. What she would remember were the trips to convents and cathedrals, where she would stand in the tinctured light and then drop to her knees to pray before the cross. She was imprinted with a certain sacerdotal sensitivity, an openness to awe. She also would remember the French she learned.

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."

John Hewlett did bring her around to a more or less conventional religious view (although, she would write in 1825, "I am not quite sure that some people do not think me a little of a fanatic even now"). But he did something that Joshua did not intend when he asked John to minister to Louisa: he listened to her, talked with her, recommended books for her to read, and treated the child with unusual respect. On her visits over the years, he and Louisa would engage in "serious conversation." His wife, too, treated her with unusual attention and care. Elizabeth Hewlett was "a very eccentric woman of strong mind and still stronger passions." She was a woman for the age of sensibility— but also a counterpoint to the woman Louisa would have encountered in popular advice manuals of the day. Elizabeth was not quiet and delicate; she did not blush and fade. So forceful was her personality that her neighbors, including the formidable Mary Wollstonecraft—the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman—found her bossy and intimidating. (Wollstonecraft, at the time a local schoolmistress, complained of Elizabeth's power over John Hewlett: "How he is yoked!")

John Hewlett, Louisa wrote, "led me early to think." Thinking was not something that most young women were encouraged to do. John Hewlett was something of a radical. He ran a boys' school in Shacklewell and was a sizar of Magdalen College at Oxford, and he would go on to have an illustrious career as a scholar and preacher, but in the 1780s and 1790s, his friends included famous dissenters and writers, and he had unusual ideas about the education of young women. Even as he was encouraging Louisa, John was urging Mary Wollstonecraft to write an essay about her ideas about the education of young women, which he carried to the publisher himself. Though Thoughts on the Education of Daugh­ters was less explosive than Wollstonecraft's more famous work, it still had an incendiary message: a woman should learn to think for herself.

So Louisa began to imagine she might have a mind of her own, which further set her apart. "At school," she later wrote, "I was universally respected, but I was never beloved." While she was there, she and her best friend, Miss Edwards—another misfit, "an East Indian very dark, with long black Indian hair; not handsome, but looked up to by all the teachers as a girl of uncommon talents"—were the "decided favorites" of a teacher named Miss Young. By conventional definitions of the time, the Miss Young she described was hardly a woman at all. "Her uncle had her educated with boys for many years; and obliged her to wear boys clothes: and in this way she had in a great measure acquired something like a classical education," Louisa wrote in "Record of a Life." In Louisa's world, there was nothing natural about a lady who acted like a man, and Louisa would routinely express her uneasiness with women who did. Yet in the same breath, she would often also express her admiration. Miss Young was, Louisa wrote, "a most extraordinary woman." She was the kind of woman—strong, forceful, unconventional, educated, "masculine"—who would always both impress and confound her. Louisa flourished under her attention. Miss Young "conversed freely with us upon the books we read," and taught her and Miss Edwards how to recognize "the most beautiful and striking passages." She took the lessons to heart. When her father gave her a guinea, Louisa used it to buy the kinds of books Miss Young and John Hewlett had encouraged her to read: Milton's Paradise Lost and Regained and John Mason's Self­-Knowledge: A Treatise, Shewing the Nature and Benefit of that Important Science, and the Way to Attain It.

Louisa was pulled, then, between seemingly incompatible imperatives. A woman should not think for herself, because a woman pursued knowledge at the cost of a husband. When she recalled her purchase— as she did more than once, even into old age—she said she regretted buying those books and studying them closely. "How often since that time have I thought it injured me; by teaching me to scrutinize too closely into motives, and looking too closely at the truth," she wrote. Too closely at the truth! Understanding the truth was not the goal of a young woman's education. A wife did not need self-knowledge; she needed self-effacement. As Hannah More, the most popular author of her day, had written in Essays Addressed to Young Ladies, "Girls should be taught to give up their opinions betimes, and not pertinaciously to carry on a dispute, even if they would know themselves to be in the right." Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, another author whom Louisa read, taught herself Latin and Greek in secret and urged her daughter to teach her granddaughter how to hide a good education. Book learning, Lady Montagu wrote, should be concealed "with as much solicitude as she would hide crookedness or lameness."

When Louisa was around fourteen, she was taken out of school, and the point of her schooling was made plain: she had been educated to be married, not to learn about Milton's poetry or the science of self-knowledge. To this end she was brought home to finish her education— her embroidery, her dancing, her painting—under the half-mindful eye of the younger children's governess. Before long, she was introduced into society—which is to say, she was brought into the marriage market. The search began, as it were, for a man in possession of a fortune and in want of a wife.

What Louisa called "work" was mostly embroidery, stitching that was elegantly useless. Her daily tasks were made easy by the assistance of a team of servants—servants to wake her in the morning, to cook her food, to carry her plates, to drive the carriage to the theater or the park. In her spare time (and all of her time was spare), she painted or drew, or visited acquaintances, or received verses from admirers, or played games and gossiped. Some evenings, at parties or in the parlor, she danced. Some afternoons, she read novels that taught her to waste away from love.

Louisa romanticized her childhood, but imperfectly. As she herself evocatively put it, her youth was "fraught with bliss." She was, she would later say—protesting a bit much, perhaps—happiest at home, among her siblings and parents, singing to calm her father at the end of a long day, or perhaps rolling up the carpets and dancing. At parties and balls, she was "timid as a hare."

She had to be careful, too, because at those parties—at the Johnsons' rich friends the Churches, say, or the Pinckneys or the Copleys— she was tasked with remembering that she was different: she was an American. Learning to be an American, of course, was not exactly on the curriculum at Mrs. Carter's school, and it was hardly an identity her mother could impart to her. She had missed the critical experience of the first generation of those growing up in the United States, the Revolution itself. Most of her sense of it was formed, it seems, by whatever story or testimony she happened to hear from Americans visiting for tea or dinner, and from her father's stories, which generally played up his daring and dangerous actions on behalf of the rebels during the Revolution. He would describe visiting Americans in prison, or General Washington, "of whom he spoke with a degree of enthusiasm which fired our young hearts with the purest love and admiration." He would tell them how, on learning that he held Benedict Arnold's pen in his hand, he had picked up the pen with a pair of tongs and thrown it in the fire. He had named Louisa's younger sister, born in 1776, Carolina Virginia Marylanda. All of this made its impact, and it didn't. The girls were British by their habits. As a child, Louisa's favorite game was "duchess"; she answered only to Your Grace. But their Americanness was forcefully impressed upon them after Lord Andover took a liking to Caroline: the girls were told they must marry Americans.

Joshua planned "to get them to America before they fix their affections on any object here," he wrote to his brother Thomas, the first Revolutionary governor of Maryland, but business kept him in London. It helped that if Joshua could not bring them to America, he could bring Americans to them.