I’ve been reading deeply in Henry Adams’s work as part of research for The American Slave Coast, particularly his nine volume history of Jefferson and Madison’s administrations, The History of the United States of America, and all he has to bring to them around the Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase, the San Domingue Revolution and the War of 1812. An historian whose great grandfather was the second POTUS, whose grandfather was the POTUS ousted by the Jacksonians and notable among the very many Bloody Andy’s personal nemeses -- Jackson referred to John Quincy Adams as the Arch-Fiend of Hell -- whose own father was a co-founder with Charles Sumner of the abolitionist Free Soil Party, Henry Adams brings the perspective of the actors in these subjects that other historians cannot.
As well as history Adams wrote two novels, Democracy, during the happy days of living in Washington D.C. with his wife Clover, and Esther, when they both were no longer as happy -- and neither of them really knew why they were no longer as happy. Partly because of Clover's nature, and partly due to Henry's. I keep seeing them quite like Newland and Mary Archer in Wharton's The Age of Innocence.
Esther was published in 1884, modeled to a degree on Clover's frustrations with the condition of being a woman in this world that allows so little scope for independent action and agency. Clover Adams famously committed suicide in 1885 by drinking one the chemicals that she used to develop her famous photographs. Though Esther is a painter, while Clover was a photographer, there are too many similarities in their condition not to notice them. One then thinks of Kate Chopin's The Awakening in which the artist- protagonist, Edna Pontellier, commits suicide, the reason for which has remained a puzzle for many readers to this day.
There are many reasons Kate Chopin may have known about both the novel Esther and Clover Adams's suicide, if only because at some point her social circles likely included, if not personal acquaintances, someone who knew someone who knew the Adamses and their sad history.
Natalie Dykstra's Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life (2012),covers the novel Esther in pp. 151 - 159.There's no mention of Kate Chopin or The Awakening's Edna in this biography of Clover Adams. Once one knows both sets of work and circumstances, it is hard not to speculate.
There are problems with this biography. As one example, Dykstra says Henry Adams practiced journalism after his post-Harvard study in Europe in 1859, but he did not. Henry says in his Education of Henry Adams that he read law in a prestigious Boston law firm from which he was rescued by his father, Charles Francis Adams. His father had been called upon by Lincoln to become minister of the U.S. Legation in London, charged with the mission to keep Britain from recognizing the Confederate States of America, and get the Liverpool shipyards to stop building ironclads for the CSA. Charles Francis Adams took Henry, his youngest son along as his private secretary, a well-established Adams’s pattern by then.
Nevertheless this work is a useful addition to the reader looking to learn more of the culture and manners of polite society in the Gilded Age.