Literature, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, does not reduce reality but gives us a higher sense of what is real. In particular, love stories might not be the most true to the “reality” of this current world.
Knights in shining armor rarely appear on the modern landscape.
One look across a crowded room does not often result in a life long romance.
And few men can woo their ladies with beautiful song, dance, or poetry.
But we hold up these ideals of love not so that we are disappointed with our own prosaic lives, but so we can recognize the full beauty of Love as it was meant to be.
So when a love story exists as reality, all hope is renewed.
The Love Story:
John and Abigail Adams.
I cheat. I know.
But hey, their letters are published in a book! And, they most certainly a story, albeit a slightly quieter one than in fiction.
Therefore, I will maintain that they are part of the literary tradition. Their letters are beautiful, and definitely part of the American literary canon.
I was dithering about trying to choose my favorite fictional loving relationship – everything from Anne and Wentworth in Persuasion to Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado - and could not make up my mind. But a then a friend posted a selection of the Adams’ correspondence, and their romance struck me afresh.
These letters, written while Abby was at home with the children at Braintree John was either riding the circuit, away in Boston for his law practice, attending congress, or being an ambassador to France, convey a glimpse both what amazing people they were individually, and how well they suited each other and made their relationship work.
Without dramatics or extremes – other than a revolutionary war and the subsequent creation of Country and Government – these two created one of the most beautiful love stories in both history and literature. Through the medium of day-to-day concerns and discussions and even something like arguments, their tender, intimate, sweet, respectful love for one another is immediately apparent.
Their relationship is not centered around themselves, but their personal union is a source of stability, joy, and grace for the people they know, from their neighbors to their children.Indeed, these personal letters reveal their biggest plans for the future of their beloved new country. Their love for each other radiates outward into a love for the world, and practical plans to make that world better.
Their letters reveal a mutual concern over the country and its formation, and frank discussion of necessary freedoms and reforms. Abigail gives a compelling argument for more freedom for women in this new country! And John has marvelous ideas not only for for forming a government, but forming a flourishing culture.
They both worry over the mortal and immortal care of their family, and spend time developing a course of education for their children. And not just the course of study, but how to make the children fond of their readings. John wrote,
“The Education of our Children is never out of my Mind. Train them to Virtue, habituate them to industry, activity, and Spirit. Make them consider every Vice, as shamefull and unmanly: fire them with Ambition to be usefull—make them disdain to be destitute of any usefull, or ornamental Knowledge or Accomplishment. Fix their Ambition upon great and solid Objects, and their Contempt upon little, frivolous, and useless ones. It is Time, my dear, for you to begin to teach them French. Every Decency, Grace, and Honesty should be inculcated upon them.”
The sentence, “My dear, it is time you began to teach them French”, just kills me with its casual endearment, absolute assumption of ability, and complete trust. I cannot wait for the day that my husband remarks, “my dear, it is time we began to teach the children Old English”.
And the sweet chiding and teasing and endearments between the two! Abigail opens a letter with the rebuke, “I wish you would ever write me a letter half as long as I write you!” and lists all the information that should like to receive. John drily replies, ” You justly complain of my short Letters, but the critical State of Things and the Multiplicity of Avocations must plead my Excuse” . . . an refers her to pamphlets he has enclosed.
They can share every worry and thought, exchange news and discuss how it applicable to their lives, from concerns over the state of the farm and state affairs, to sharing the latest studies on child development. They remark on their readings and experiences, sharing what they have studied, thought, and learned. They both have an appreciation of beauty and joy that seems to have been nourished by their association with each other. Their discussions and shared experiences brought to the fore those aesthetics and virtues needed in so young a country.
They are both friends and lovers. They have the kind of best relationship, where they work together and truly share their lives.
The affection between them is clear through every subject they discuss and in every tone they use. John’s endearments for Abigail are at once teasing and sweet, from “Miss Adorable”, to “Portia”. And Abby return with intense and lively description of home life, including her husband as much as possible despite his absence.
Their love, while singularly bereft of heroic rescues and grand adventures or gestures, is perhaps best exemplified in these simple, tender, and beautiful letters.
To me, it is the height of romance that John can address a letter simply to, “Dearest Friend”, and close with, “I am, with the tenderest Affection and Concern, your wandering John Adams”.