Behind the Headliners: Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters by Jennifer Chiaverini

For author Jennifer Chiaverini, one of the great joys of writing historical fiction is the opportunity to bring little-known or forgotten historical figures to the forefront of a story. Her latest book, Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters (William Morrow, 2020) describes the lives and relationships of Mary Todd Lincoln’s relatively unknown sisters. These women lived extraordinary lives in their own right, and were present during a particularly transformative time in America’s history. Chiaverini uses their life stories and viewpoints to illuminate the tragic times they all endured. In particular she reveals their relationships with Mary to help bring their famous sister into focus.

This is Chiaverini’s third study of Mary Lincoln’s life and character. The two other books in her series also show Mary from the perspectives of little-known women who knew her well: her dressmaker and friend, the former slave Elizabeth Keckly, and Kate Chase Sprague, a social and political rival during Mary’s White House years. Chiaverini explains: “I’ve chosen to study Mary Lincoln from the perspective of significant people in her life – her confidante, her rival, and her sisters. They were able to observe Mary closely in moments of triumph as well as tragedy, and so they knew her as a real woman, full of flaws and virtues and surprises like any other. Because of my narrators’ unique perspectives, the Mary Lincoln that readers discover in my novels is a far more nuanced woman, shaped according to their perceptions and biases.”

Mary Lincoln’s relationships with her sisters were some of the most important in her life. They also held the key to unanswered questions that had been haunting Chiaverini for almost a decade. While researching and writing Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (Penguin Publishing Group, 2013) the author became aware that the sisters were estranged at the time of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. But the fact that Mary did not call any of her sisters to her side at the time of that great loss left many questions in Chiaverini’s mind. Why did Mary not summon her eldest sister, Elizabeth, who had helped raise her after their mother died? Why did Mary not seek comfort from her beloved Little Sister, Emilie, who was also a widow and might have been uniquely capable of consoling her? When Mary left the White House and returned to Illinois, anguished and grieving, why did she not go to her sisters, and why did they not come to her? “I found it very curious,” she says. “Mary Lincoln experienced many tragedies during her years in the White House, but two were particularly devastating—the loss of her young son Willie to illness, and the assassination of her beloved husband. After Willie died, Mary was absolutely distraught. Elizabeth Keckly, her dressmaker and confidante, cared for her in her distress, but her son Robert Lincoln also summoned his aunt Elizabeth Todd Edwards, her eldest sister. For many weeks, Elizabeth lived at the White House and looked after Mary until she was able to leave her bedchamber and resume some of her ordinary daily activities. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, however, Mary did not ask any of her sisters to come to her, nor did Robert summon any of his aunts, so her care fell to Elizabeth Keckly and a few other friends. If ever there had been a time to reconcile, this should have been it. So eventually I decided to investigate and to tell the sisters’ stories.”

author Jennifer Chiaverini

The author’s historical interests are world-wide, but regardless of the time period, Chiaverini chooses courageous, extraordinary people for her narrators, people who have been relegated to “the margins and footnotes” as she calls them, allowing readers to witness significant events in world history through eyes unfamiliar to most. She has already been inspired to write about the women of the World War II resistance group known to the Gestapo as Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra), and also about Elizabeth Van Lew, who built and operated an extensive spy ring for the Union Army during the American Civil War. Currently, the author is working on a historical novel about the woman’s suffrage movement in the early twentieth century United States. The story is told from the perspectives of three lesser-known activists: Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells, and Maud Malone.

Chiaverini says that for her, the biggest challenge in researching and writing about historical people who lived behind the headlines is doing so in a way that pleases everyone. “That,” she declares, “is simply impossible!” She goes on to reflect, “I suppose my biggest success has been telling these stories in a way that enthralls readers and inspires them to learn more about history.”

With her drive to explore little-known historical characters, Jennifer Chiaverini provides new perspectives on the more recognizable people who lived at the forefront of history.


About the contributor: Lee Ann Eckhardt Smith’s love of history and storytelling has driven her writing career. She is the author of two non-fiction social history books and magazine articles about writing engaging memoir and family history. Find out more on her website. 



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