Book review

Fanny & Joshua: The Enigmatic Lives of Frances Caroline Adams and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

by Diane Monroe Smith (Thomas Publications, 1999, 403pp, ISBN: 1-57747-046-X, $30.00).

 

Review by: Rosemary Pardoe

 

While reading the various books about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, most of us must have wondered from time to time exactly what he saw in his wife, Fanny Adams Chamberlain. I confess that I, for one, have tended to think of her as a bit of a "cold fish'. Now Diane Monroe Smith, in this superb biography of Fanny and Lawrence, has shown us just how wrong we've all been.

 

Someone asked me recently how to bring the person one is writing about to life (not that I'm an expert on this!). My response was 'Quote, quote, quote' - that is: use as many of the subject's own words as possible. Diane Smith has taken this route, choosing to allow Fanny and Lawrence to speak for themselves through their letters to each other, and to and from relatives and friends. Her own contribution to the text, however, is a great deal more than just linking commentary: it provides a strong and insightful narrative thread, giving not only the historical and personal context but much else besides. This, combined with the vast amount of research which she has done, resulting in major new discoveries and connections, makes Fanny & Joshua a truly excellent volume.


There are some 'facts' about Fanny which everyone knows, or thinks they know: for instance, that she originally wanted a sexless marriage; and that, while Lawrence was fighting on Little Round Top at Gettysburg, she went gadding off to New York on a shopping spree, leaving her husband in ignorance of her whereabouts. Both 'facts' are, as Diane Smith reveals, a long way from the whole truth.

 

As far as the first is concerned, it appears that Fanny had a perfectly natural (especially for those times) young woman's fear of childbirth, coupled with the belief that if she delayed having babies and continued to work, they could marry sooner. As for the second, Fanny was in New York in July, 1863 - that is unquestionable; but she went there from Washington, where she had been waiting for a pass to visit Lawrence. When the pass was not forthcoming as a result of a smallpox outbreak in the 20th Maine, she had travelled back only as far as New York, in the hope that she might be able to return to visit her husband, and perhaps in the fear that she might be needed should he fall ill or be wounded.

 

Unfortunately, letters which she sent to Lawrence and other family members to keep them informed of her whereabouts were delayed or failed to arrive (not an uncommon occurrence in the War), and in the ensuing weeks she looked in vain for a message from Lawrence telling her what to do. He, meanwhile, assumed that she had gone back to Maine. On May 26, his sister Sae wrote to Tom Chamberlain giving him the news of Fanny's continued absence and adding: "Did you ever hear of such a thing?' Previous books have maintained that Tom must have withheld this information from his brother until after Gettysburg, presumably to avoid worrying him. In fact, even as late as mid-June, as Diane Smith has now shown, Lawrence was aware that Fanny was not yet home - he just did not know where she was, since by then he had no reason to believe she was still in New York.

 

Overall, the impression left by Fanny & Joshua is of two strong, dynamic characters, sometimes too strong for their own good, although I find that I like them both very much. During their long marriage there were periods of estrangement, not only by force of circumstance but also by choice: at one point it even seemed that all love was lost, but it, or at least a deep affection, returned. This huge book paints the most thorough and accurate portrait of Fanny and Lawrence to date (though you'll need to look elsewhere for battle descriptions); as such it's an essential for even the most limited of Chamberlain bookshelves.

 

Oh yes, and Diane Smith does offer a very reasonable hypothesis to explain that disturbing line from a letter which Lawrence wrote to Fanny in the early 1850s, before they were married: 'You remember the jar in the cellar-way. He would have been three weeks old to day"!