Courting Mr. Lincoln

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 07 May 2019

Member Reviews

I was sent this book by the publisher and found it to be quite interesting! I enjoy most books about Lincoln, and this certainly had a different angle, looking at just a small porting of Lincoln's life and the two competing people in his life for his heart. Mary Todd, and Joshua Speed. This book was so wonderful of a blend of history, and historical fiction that it read so smoothly. I'm sure there will be a lot of people offended by the suggestion that Mr. Lincoln could be romantically involved with a man. So be it. It doesn't pretend that this WAS the case. What it does however, is shouts out how much this man had the ability to love. The book was a delight. Well done Louis Bayard! Thank you Algonquin for an ARC of this book for an honest review.
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Oh, my. I just looked at that cover again. So much can be gleaned just from looking at the top and bottom hats laid over each other. This is a book about a love that never did dare to speak its name.

Do you know anything about Joshua Speed? I did not, before this book. Apparently he was Lincoln's landlord/roommate in Springfield with a bit of Henry Higgins thrown in as well. I don't know how much of this book has been researched and how much of it is pure fiction, but the detail is intricate.

I've spoiler-warninged this review, so I'll just come out and tell you the idea behind the book. It's implied as strongly as possible without stating outright that Joshua Speed and Lincoln were lovers as well as friends. Lincoln needed Speed in order to become more polished, as well as for his companionship. Speed, an upper-class gentleman slumming by running a general store, lacked purpose before Lincoln came into his life. Speed became Lincoln's entry into Springfield society and essentially was also a helpmeet for Lincoln, planning social gatherings and introducing him to the right people. He saw Lincoln's potential and caught fire, and Lincoln was appreciative of both Speed's position and his mind. 

There are two points of view in this book, and although one of them is Speed's, most of the book is from the perspective of Mary Todd. Mary has come to Springfield to land a husband, but her outspoken character and bluestocking interest in politics has the boys intimidated. In Lincoln she finds an intelligent, thoughtful man who treats her as a person. Mostly. 

Oh, poor Mary! The book portrays her as an innocent who knows nothing of queerness, and she simply can't understand the dynamics in play in her relationship with Lincoln. While others in Springfield watch with eyes aslant as Speed and Lincoln make the social rounds together, all she sees is a man who seems interested and all but perfect for her, but then who can't commit. 

Mary doesn't realize that one of the matrons of the town has taken it upon herself to help Lincoln reach his next level politically. While Speed has helped Lincoln tremendously, if Lincoln is to progress further he needs a wife to help grease the wheels of society, give him respectability, and perform as social helpmeet. While Lincoln is willing to be guided by this matron, Speed is hurt and confused by the change in their relationship.

Honestly, my heart ached for everyone in this story. In that day and age, Speed and Lincoln could be roommates, could even clandestinely have a relationship, but not one that could withstand the light of day, not if Lincoln had ambition. Speed can't let go, Lincoln doesn't want to hurt Speed, and Mary doesn't have any idea why her beau runs hot and cold with her. 

Bayard writes this all intricately and delicately. In fact, at times I wished that he'd come out and said more instead of implying everything. It's true that he's playing with fire here with Lincoln's godlike stature in American history, and it's impressively courageous to even raise this topic, but perhaps one outright statement about these men's love would have disposed me more kindly towards the character of Lincoln. We never know Lincoln's thoughts throughout the book, and he's not the kind of man to speak without thinking, so is he using Speed and/or Mary? How much does he care about them? Is he sad at changing his relationship with Speed or does he feel that everything has a season, and now it's time for marriage? Bayard does his best to write Lincoln as a sympathetic character and largely succeeds, but my sympathies lay more with the two people who both want him in their lives, but can't both have him. 

At the end of the book, there's an extremely touching scene that brings home the loneliness of those men who pursued respectability but perhaps longed for another life. Although Mary is nominally the main character in the book, really she's the odd one out in her own marriage. The situation wasn't fair to anyone. 

I don't know how this book will be received. I think the writing is brilliant, like most of Louis Bayard's books. As an out gay man, the issue of closeting and how relationships were straitened by societal convention has to be close to his heart. I would have liked him to go a bit further, but I suspect that many will feel he has gone too far already. This deserves to be a book club book, with all the sales and discussions that go with it, but I don't know if we as a society are ready for that yet. Maybe?
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Courting Mr. Lincoln, by Louis Bayard, was disappointing in many respects.  It tells the story of the courtship of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln against the suggestion that he was romantically involved with his best friend, Joshua Speed.  Bayard presents not a shred of fact to support this proposition although a case, albeit weak, can be made.  I don’t envy a creative novelist having to deal with historical characters of such renown.  Unfortunately, these complex historical characters come across as flat and one-dimensional.  

Having read many biographies of the Lincolns from Sandburg to Goodwin, I admit to being a tough critic of fictionalized versions. Nonetheless, I appreciate NetGalley and Algonquin Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book.
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I guess I've been living under a rock because until this novel I've never heard any mention that Abraham Lincoln was rumored to be gay. Courting Mr. Lincoln is about his early years in Illinois - where he met Mary Todd and where he lived with his good friend Joshua Speed and two other boarders above Speed's shop. The novel is told from the perspectives of Mary and Joshua which served to give depth to the characters and added to my empathy for both. I've always thought Lincoln seemed like a sad man, consumed with melancholy, and that feeling continues with Bayard's Lincoln. In contrast I was intrigued by Speed's magnetic personality. No one could escape his pull. I'd want to sit next to him at a dinner party.  For me this was an enjoyable read with sparkling dialogue that kept me turning the pages. Courting Mr. Lincoln is a different look at our 16th President and I'm glad I read it. I feel compelled to read more about Joshua Speed. I love when that happens.
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"Men don't always know what they need.  That's why God made women."

COURTING MR. LINCOLN is a work of historical fiction, and an entertaining read, but not quite what I was expecting.  In a nutshell, I was hoping for more connection....personal (wooing) time between Abe and Mary Todd; whereas, it seemed a greater portion of this novel is spent on Abe's friendship with Joshua Speed....the two making for instant strange bedfellows with Mary and Speed often in competition for Abe's sole attention.  

I favor books about civil war times, Abe Lincoln in particular, and this one begins in 1839 with a young Mary Todd traveling from Alton to Springfield, Illinois in search of change, a man and hope for a better life and future.

When she arrives at her domineering sister Elizabeth's home, she is disappointed in the appearance of the ugly mud-daubed cabins, muddy streets and primitive environment; and it sure is not love at first sight when she eventually meets the awkward giant of a man Abraham with his unkept appearance and uncouth ways....but things do subtly change thanks to Eliza Francis whose mission in life is playing Cupid to any unattached Whigs and eligible young ladies who might further their political aspirations.

Told from alternating viewpoints of Mary and Joshua, it was fun watching a young, penniless tender-hearted farmer Abe turned lawyer/politician learn to dress properly, waltz and get the hang of the proper etiquette under the tutelage of his handsome, new friend, roommate and store proprietor Speed.  Springfield society was not easy nor was the applied practice of medicine of the thanks.

COURTING MR. LINCOLN has an interesting take on the Lincoln-Todd-Speed relationships and I very much enjoyed and recommend it.  There is talk of politics, and a bit about slavery, but it does not explore the civil war or Lincoln assassination.  The epilogue does, however,  summarize Mary's sorrowful end.

***Arc provided by Algonquin Books via NetGalley in exchange for honest review***
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Having lived not too far from his memorial for more than 30 years, Abraham Lincoln is definitely one former president I think of fairly often. Daniel Day-Lewis' masterful, Academy Award-winning portrayal (in Lincoln) also lives in my mind—so much so that I was hoping Steven Spielberg might've changed history and let him survive that fateful night at Ford's Theater.

I've even envisioned him as a vampire hunter.

All this to say, as much as I feel like Mr. Lincoln is a familiar historical figure, I wasn't prepared for the mesmerizing poignancy and humor of a younger Lincoln in Louis Bayard's terrific new book, Courting Mr. Lincoln. And the former president himself wasn't the only one to get a spin different than the way he has usually been portrayed—almost all I've heard of Mary Todd Lincoln chronicles her mercurial nature and her paralyzing grief, but in Bayard's hands she is a fascinating character.

Courting Mr. Lincoln opens with a young Mary Todd arriving in Springfield, Illinois in 1840, where she is to live with her married elder sister until she finds a suitable husband. But Mary is an intelligent young woman with a quick tongue and a wicked sense of humor, qualities not prized in women of that time. She also has a tremendous knowledge of politics, which she isn't afraid to demonstrate in conversation, and she knows it will be difficult to find a man who is her intellectual equal.

She first thinks she has found it in shopkeeper Joshua Speed, a handsome and charming young man more than willing to hold up his end of a conversation. She certainly knows it won't be Speed's roommate, Abraham Lincoln, a country lawyer and local politician who has never quite scrubbed the "country" off of him. Tall, gangly, and awkward, he'd rather blend into the background then stand out, but his gift of oratory wins him more than a few fans. But little by little, Mary finds herself surprisingly charmed by this man, whose awkwardness belies his quick wit and kind heart.

While those around Lincoln know he needs a suitable spouse if he is ever to run for higher political office, it is difficult to permeate his relationship with Speed, who literally made Lincoln the man he is, teaching him to dress and carry himself properly, showing him how to dance and handle himself in social situations. The friendship between Speed and Lincoln is closer than nearly any bond, and neither is sure they want to end it for the sake of propriety or Lincoln's ambitions.

This is a fascinating, moving book about friendship, family, social obligations, ambition, and love. Each of these is difficult to navigate now, much less in the 1840s, and Courting Mr. Lincoln demonstrates the challenges that Mary, Speed, and Lincoln each faced in choosing between what was expected of them and what they wanted for themselves. Reading this book, you can only wonder how much Lincoln truly wanted to be president, and how much he did what others wanted of him instead.

The book's narration alternates between the three characters, and is at turns funny, poignant, and utterly compelling. Even though I knew inevitably what would happen, I still wondered how Bayard would get his characters to their ultimate destination, or, much like I wished of Spielberg, whether he'd alter the course of history for the sake of the story. (I don't know which would have made me love the book more, honestly.)

I don't read a lot of historical fiction, but I really loved this book. It's a special story that made these characters seem vivid and almost modern even against the backdrop of the 1840s. I'd love to see this story made into a movie, if for no other reason than I'm sad the book has ended.

Bayard is a tremendously talented storyteller. It's hard to believe I've never read any of his other books, but I'm going to need to remedy that!!

NetGalley and Algonquin Books provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!
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I love COURTING MR. LINCOLN by Louis Bayard. It is a book of historical fiction that portrays the young Abraham Lincoln as he is beginning his political career. The point of view shifts from Joshua Speed, Lincoln's best friend, to the young, politically minded Mary Todd, who is attracted to Lincoln. This shift in point-of-view drives the character development as we learn so much about the two narrators and the people in their orbits.

The writing is also excellent and beautiful. I can't wait to share this wonderful book with our patrons.  I know they will enjoy it as much as I have.
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Interesting 'take' on the courtship of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln.  We are given a glimpse into the courting 'rituals' of the time and the part that friends and neighbors played in making these matches.  Mary,  just a bit past being the 'catch of the county' and on the verge of spinsterhood (a mindset almost unbelievable in our own day and time) was encouraged to take a second look at the up-and-coming young lawyer.  Lincoln, preoccupied with his legal practice and fledgling political career, was only vaguely aware of Miss Todd until some of the matrons of Springfield arranged for them to meet again and again.  We view this courtship from Mary's point of view and that of Joshua Speed, Lincoln's roommate and bedfellow for several years.  A refreshing look at a much-visited topic.
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Courting Mr. Lincoln

Even those non-history buffs (like me) will enjoy this book and probably be motivated to investigate further concerning the life and times of President Lincoln.

You can smell the historical facts scattered through the telling but the poignancy comes from the authors rendition of three regular people searching for their place in the world.

You find A. Lincoln obsessed with the political arena, Mr. Speed obsessed with wanting peace and loyalty to and from Lincoln and Mary struggling with her political progress along with the demands of appropriate behavior in the time's culture.

I found an intriguing addictive read from a great storyteller.  Hooked from page 1 and sad to see it end....I just wanted more!  I felt immersed in the feelings and actions of each of the wonderfully developed characters and well known figures.  Literary license aside, it made me feel like I just gained great insight into their lives and minds.  

I would classify this more of a romance novel utilizing facts about a legendary president that may be better received by the female audience.  But...I think it's a must read for anyone wanting to feel just a little closer to the Lincoln legacy!

Four Stars ****
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Louis Bayard's novel is about the pre-marriage relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd and Lincoln and his friend and roommate Joshua Speed. The novel is based on the myth created by gay activist Larry Kramer that Speed and Lincoln had a sexual relationship. Kramer claimed to have evidence but he never made it public.

I have read several books on Mary Todd Lincoln and had my own idea of her personality. 

The novel begins when Mary arrives in Springfield to her sister's home to find a husband. The frontier town of 1,500 is described as primitive. I had read that Mary was well pursued and admired as a girl, but Bayard gives us a woman tipping into spinsterhood, surrounded by inferior suitors--except for Joshua Speed, who is dapper and handsome but standoffish with the ladies. Mary is at times audacious and has an unwomanly interest in politics.

Speed introduces Lincoln to Mary. Lincoln is stereotyped as a country bumpkin who must be educated to fit into society, a job Speed takes on. Bayard does not really convince me why Mary becomes attached to Lincoln. His character is the least developed. I had read that Mary strongly believed in Lincoln's political future. The book includes their falling out and coming back together leaving the lovelorn Speed to marry a woman who is happy to avoid the physical obligations of marriage.

I ended up speed reading through half the book. I do hope readers understand this is fiction! The portrait of Mary may surprise some readers who only know the yellow journalism view of her later life, the mad widow reduced to selling her clothing and sent to the asylum by her only surviving child. In the end, I see this as Joshua Speed's story, assuming he was in love with Lincoln.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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This rich historical novel is told by the two characters who supposedly loved Abraham Lincoln best, Mary Todd and Joshua Speed. The premise here is that the friendship between Lincoln and Speed could have been more than that and part of the reason Lincoln and Todd’s courtship was so bumpy. While I don’t know about the accuracy of this, I’d like to do more research on their friendship and appreciated the historical notes of the times.
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I read this as background reading for a First Impressions Promotion we ran on BookBrowse, as booked by Debra Linn, Personally, I enjoyed it -- and you can see our member-reviewer's comments at They rated it 4.4 stars
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Courting Mr. Lincoln provides a very different picture of Abe Lincoln. It does not concentrate on Mr. Lincoln but rather on Mary Lincoln as a young, lively, and attractive woman and on Joshua Speed, a 'special' friend of Lincoln's. The concept of gaining insight into Lincoln's early years and his relationships is intriguing. The history of the time period is well covered. But somehow, the story and the language just didn't come together for me.
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Bayard gives an intriguing portrait of Lincoln, Joshua Speed, and Mary Todd. Recommended for history lovers and fans of subtle, subtext-based queer romances.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it. It's a very subtle book in a lot of ways, and nails that feeling of mid-nineteenth-century mostly subtextual gay romances (akin to The Whale by Mark Beauregard), where there is longing and non-platonic feelings that can't quite be articulated (albeit they are much more articulated in The Whale). Speed and Todd both give really interesting portraits of Lincoln, and it's compelling to read from both their experiences. There is no explicit romance between Speed and Lincoln, and indeed it's almost frustrating (but in a good way) to read Speed's account of their friendship, and the things he can't quite articulate. I think it's a really compelling narrative of the ways in which sexuality/romance/friendship were constructed mid-nineteenth century. This book left me a bit unsettled, but in a good way.
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The wooing of a heart can be a tricky affair, easily disrupted by secret yearnings, and social mores. When an up-and-coming politician, the awkward and unpolished Abe Lincoln meets the well-connected Mary Todd, he’s intrigued by her sharp observations and political acumen. But the couple’s deepening intimacy roils Lincoln's relationship with his mentor and roommate Joshua Speed.  As the men’s emotionally-charged bond changes, Mary questions the feelings between her and Lincoln and Lincoln’s attachment to Speed. An exquisite historical reimaging of a love acknowledged, and longing denied.
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Courting Mr. Lincoln is a fictionalization of the relationship between Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln from the time they met in the frontier town of Springfield, Illinois. The other perspective included in the novel is that of Joshua Speed, Lincoln's closest friend. Mary's fiery personality and passion for politics draw Lincoln to her, but are their shared interests enough to overcome their differences?

I enjoyed this story, as I don't know much about Lincoln's background outside of his time as president. I know even less about Mary Todd, so it was interesting to get to know her better as well. The choice to alternate perspectives only between Joshua and Mary serves to maintain the air of mystery and reticence that has always characterized portrayals of Lincoln - we get to know him only through the eyes of others. As the title suggests, the novel focuses only on the courtship period of Lincoln and Mary, so do not go into this book expecting a window into Lincoln's presidential years. A fun read for fans of historical fiction.
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Courting Mr. Lincoln is the fictionalized account of the story of two very important people in Abraham Lincoln's early life - Joshua Speed and Mary Todd.

Mr. Speed is the man that Lincoln ended up boarding with - literally sleeping in the same bed with - when he arrived in Springfield. Speed was a shop owner, and they lived above the shop. They became very close, and Speed had a great deal to do with turning Lincoln into a proper gentleman that would be accepted by society, given his backwoods upbringing.

Mary Todd comes to Springfield to find a husband. Really. She was one of many siblings, and her older sister, who lived with her husband in Springfield, was sending for her sisters one at a time to find them suitable matches in Springfield. Mary proved a difficult case. She was introduced to Speed and Lincoln but never dreamed of a relationship. Well, if one was possible, it was certainly to be with Speed, and not the awkward Lincoln.

The story is told in alternating points-of-view between Mary and Speed. Living in Illinois, I found the history of Springfield to be particularly interesting. The romance between Lincoln and Mary was very tumultuous. At first, it was secret since Mary knew her sister would not approve, and then after they became engaged and everyone knew, they broke it off. Which meant that Mary was "used goods" and destined to be a spinster. All very dramatic.

The story flows easily, even though sometimes we get the same events told by the two different narrators, it worked well and I never lost interest. The relationship between Speed and Lincoln was particularly interesting. Speed had a hard time accepting that Lincoln was getting married -- they had both made a pact that they never would.

The narrative ends shortly after Lincoln becomes President, and really it skips from their marriage to the beginning of the presidency, which was almost twenty years. So this is the story of the "Courting" and not much else. We do get a glimpse of the end of Mary's life, back in her sister's home in Springfield, as well as a sentence or two about what happened to each of the other main characters.

All in all, a very interesting story and I really enjoyed it. However, I am profoundly disappointed that there isn't an author's note at the end explaining the variances from the truth. This seems to be required in a fictional account of a true story. Hopefully, this will be included in the final copy, because it almost made me not want to recommend Courting Mr. Lincoln. You will need to do some research, if you are like me, and need to know! Especially about the event that brought Lincoln and Mary back together after their engagement was over. Is that really what happened?

Courting Mr. Lincoln is marketed as an adult book, but I think teens who are interested in an entertaining historical romance will enjoy this one too.
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I’ve long admired Abraham and Mary Lincoln. To me, they are the most fascinating people in American history. In this telling of their story, author Louis Bayard focuses not on Abe’s assassination or Mary’s probable mental illness or shrewdness. Instead Bayard focuses on their courtship.  And here we get to see a calmer, more focused and a more womanly Mary Todd.

The novel is told from two viewpoints, that of Mary Todd and Lincoln’s BFF, Joshua Speed.  

In Mary’s sections, Bayard focuses on the facts from 1839-1842. He describes Mary’s arrival at her sister’s house in the growing capital of Springfield, Illinois.  She as there to catch a husband, but it is apparent that Mary is no wall flower. I won’t say she came off as aggressive, but she had a passion for politics as well as a keen intellect. Readers get to watch the couple’s first meeting, their secret meetings at a friend’s home that led to their engagement in 1840, the collapse of the relationship in 1841, and their reunification and marriage in 1842. If anyone came off as a shrew during this time, it was Mary’s sister, Elizabeth.  

In Speed’s section, readers have an opportunity to witness a 19th- century bromance. They went virtually everywhere together, lived together, and even slept in the same bed. But before we can label Lincoln as bisexual, readers must remember that their sleeping arrangement was bit uncommon during that time. Bayard subtly hints at Lincoln and Speed’s possible sexual relationship in the way that they word the same color vest to a party and took care of each other when they were very ill. There was also some touching of hands on hands and hands on shoulders when the other seemed to need a subtle. If readers are looking for definitive proof that the two men were intimately involved, it can’t be found.

The novel, for me, was not a fast read, nor was it as engrossing as I had hoped. However, the alternating stories were well told and provided a much deeper understanding of Mary Todd Lincoln and Joshua Speed. Therefore, “Courting Mr. Lincoln” receives 4 out of 5 stars in Julie’s world.
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Lovely novel which provides a more balanced view of Mary Lincoln than we normally see.  Bayard has written Mary's story more than Abraham Lincoln's, although this does meander through the early years of his career and he is, of course, the tentpole.  What made this especially interesting is the inclusion of Joshua Speed, Lincoln's best friend and, perhaps, lover.  Or something.  Hmm.  It's never explicit but it is intriguing.  This is told in the alternating voices of Mary and Joshua, and both are compelling.  Clearly well researched and carefully written, this ends with two epilogues from the perspective of each but set years apart.  Thanks to the publisher for the ARC.  Recommend to fans of historical fiction.  This will make you wonder, if you haven't before, how Mary Lincoln would be viewed were she alive today.
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Courting Mr. Lincoln marks my first encounter with Louis Baynard and while I enjoyed the experience, I have to admit I didn’t appreciate it quite as much as the majority of my peers. 

I found Baynard’s portrait of Mary Todd refreshing and I appreciated the emotional intimacy of the friendship he created between Lincoln and Speed. I found something relatable in the triangle of their existence and applauded the idea of a romantic relationship impacting the comradery of the other. 

Having said that, I found the tone of the novel subdued and sentimental. It did not strike me as saccharin, but I found it heavily romantic and without the ambiguity that would naturally drive such a narrative. I also struggled with the repetitive nature of the dual voices as Mary and Joshua have a tendency to ruminate over the same concerns, experiences, and circumstances. 

Atmospherically, I found the narrative thin but I would have no trouble recommending this piece to those who appreciate political dialogue and/or Lincoln enthusiasts.
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