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Reviews: Past Books Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Historical novels blend fiction with fact. Striking a cautionary note, author Thomas Mallon declares, “Nouns always trump adjectives and in the phrase ‘historical fiction’ it is important to remember which of the two words is which.” Conceding that in providing information the genre of historical fiction can’t measure up to a literally true account of a past event, Mallon notes that too often the facts of a past incident are only partial and inconclusive.

Researching Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Washington’s Ford Theater on the night of April 14, 1865, Mallon became intrigued with the young couple apparently in the state box at the time of that immensely fateful murder. In addition to the obviously-exhausted Lincoln and his too-youthfully-dressed and foolishly-bejeweled wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, the only others in the box were Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris. Mallon discovered in the accounts of Henry’s and Clara’s pasts and in the data concerning the unfolding of their tragic futures the outlines of a gripping but, by no means, wholly connected story. Expertly applying imagination, inference and extrapolation, he conjured up the outstanding novel, Henry and Clara.

Known facts about the Harris and Rathbone families offered him the perfect opportunity to suggest the reality of a pivotal era in U.S. history. In discussing his novel, Mallon contends that the historical novelist’s primary obligation is to literature, not to history. He underscores the necessity of “telling a good story.” In Henry and Clara he does just that, proffering a riveting love story, a psychologically deep narrative, as well as an authentic, crisply focused historical tale.

The book opens in Albany, New York, in 1845. Clara Harris first lays eyes on Henry Rathbone on the church steps after his father’s funeral. Though she is only 11 and he three years younger, she immediately wants him to notice her. There soon follows another funeral, that of Clara’s mother. Some three years later Clara’s father, Ira Harris, a prominent New York State supreme court judge, marries Henry’s mother. Mallon mentions that upon the death of her husband, she had inherited “piles of Rathbone money.” As step-siblings in the large blended family, Henry and Clara are unaccountably attracted to each other and quickly become soul mates. Henry could be “his truest self in Clara’s presence.”

By the time Henry is enrolled at Union college in Schenectady, New York, a forceful and mutual sexual attraction exists, and Clara is positive that she is in love with Henry. From the outset of the novel, Mallon plants the seeds of Henry’s instability, writing that though he “had brains and a certain rhetorical flair,” he was “more than a little mercurial.”

While establishing the characters of Henry and Clara, Mallon creates Ira Harris’s persona. Immeasurably valued by his daughter Clara, the affable Judge Harris is a politician of “probity and perspicacity.” Ira Harris believes that “large matters of destiny were impervious to manipulation by individuals,” an opinion belied by the novel’s climactic event. For at least a dozen years the Republican Party ignores Harris – who has stepped down from the New York supreme court – never granting him positions of consequence. With beleaguered spirits, he leans on Clara’s vitality. She is, indeed, his source of both comfort and pride.

But at last, in a sudden political ascent, Harris is elected to the U.S. senate from the state of New York, and the blended Harris/Rathbone clan settles in a house behind Lafayette Square, just a stone’s throw from the White House where President Abraham Lincoln and family are in residence. We are not surprised when the Harris family’s pleasure in living in such proximity to power is diminished by its daily fear of siege from the Confederate Army. Mallon has woven the thread of Civil War buildup into his narrative from the book’s very beginning. When Henry joins the Union Army’s Twelfth Infantry Regiment, he and Clara become secretly engaged. One of the Harris relatives predicts that the war will change Henry, that it will “purge him of all that aggression he has inside.” The prediction proves false.

Instead, Henry’s letters to Clara unveil a neurotic inconsistency. While serving as a recruitment officer, Henry confides: “I long for killing with an ardor that frightens me. But that is what we were assembled to do. Perhaps I’ll have the chance to do it soon and exhaust the worst that’s in me on what others call the national purpose.”

In another letter he reveals: “My fears are not really for myself. They are of myself. I wonder what this war will unleash inside me, what it will do to my will and spirit.”

In the same letter he brings up the subject of the Lincolns’ unassuageable grief over the death from illness of their 14-year-old son, Willie. Scathingly, Henry writes, “The President’s grief for his son is ill-proportioned to the merely abstract sorrow he [feels] at reports of grown men dying in quantity just across the river from Washington…Madam President should come downstairs and come out to the hospitals so that she can see all the boys older than Willie, but still boys for all that, dying far from their own mothers’ comforting arms.”

Through the vivid letters Henry writes while serving in the front lines, Mallon depicts the conflict deep within Henry – disdain for the war vs. elation in battle. Henry’s intelligence and his gift for expression shine through his letters to Clara. For example, he writes: “The passions of the individual are a glorious mystery before which we should tremble with respect; to see them squandered, spilt, for the dry creeds of the old men who insist upon this war, far away from where it is actually fought, is to feel one’s spirit crushed.”

Henry participates in one of the war’s bloodiest clashes, the Battle of Antietam in which 5,000 were killed and 20,000 wounded. In a later battle staged near an enormous pit made by the enemy’s exploding bomb, Henry comes close to dying. Chillingly, Mallon writes: “By the time a burial truce was declared, he had lost the strength to bat the flies away from his wound. He lapsed into unconsciousness after vaguely reasoning that he should try to keep his eyes open and move some part of his body lest the teams of soldiers coming through with shovels proceed to bury him with the rest of the dead.”

Convalescing at the Harris residence near the White House, Henry is a tremendous source of worry. Mallon tells us that at first he was so profoundly silent that the family feared for his mental well-being. Clara sits quietly by his side, afraid to bring up the war or to attempt to discuss the future. Her connections to Henry had been severed like “an enemy’s rail lines.” She remarks to her father, “Papa, he is about to take leave of his senses. I have heard him muttering and singing as if he were somebody else entirely, miles away.”

To be sure, Clara’s growing friendship with Mrs. Lincoln serves as a distraction from her anxieties concerning Henry. Undoubtedly Clara is one of the First Lady’s closest confidantes, and the older woman dispenses social favors, including a much-coveted invitation to a White House dinner for Napoleon. Mallon traces the deteriorating mental states of both Henry and Mary Todd Lincoln.

At the time of the second Lincoln inaugural, Mrs. Lincoln manifests pathological behavior. “…In response to one of her husband’s ominous dreams,” Mallon discloses, “she had ordered a thousand dollars’ worth of mourning. She painstakingly explained to everyone in the Blue Room that this was a way of cheating fate, not abetting it. But no one felt the act’s strategic nature made it any less morbid.”

Despite the glumness generated by Henry and Mary Lincoln, Clara’s pleasure at her proximity to the most powerful president in the Republic’s history shines through the novel.

Her father, too, relishes his access to Washington’s men of influence. Using his connections, Senator Harris arranges for Henry duty at a Confederate P.O.W. camp and, later, a desk job in the provost marshal’s office just a few blocks away from the Harris residence. Mallon points out that though he was unstable, “Henry was commanding 18 clerks and messengers…dispersing hundreds of thousands of dollars to every regiment in the army.”

Unsurprisingly, the highpoint of the novel and the climactic moment for history are one and the same – the President’s assassination. And the idea at the core of the book is that Lincoln’s murder was the defining factor in the lives of Henry and Clara.

Before narrating the fatal occurrence at Ford’s Theater, Mallon insightfully remarks about the 16th president, “His presence spoke more of vulnerability than power.” At the time Mary Lincoln issues her fateful invitation to the theater, Henry and Clara have been engaged for some years, during which time Henry has remained frustratingly inscrutable about plans for a wedding ceremony. Indeed, the First lady had once publicly pronounced to her husband: “I insist that Major Rathbone and Miss Harris have their nuptials in the Mansion. In fact, I want you to give Clara away. Her papa can’t very well give his daughter away to a man who’s his son!”

Abe, according to Mallon, politely squelches the idea and then declares, “Senator Harris and I are occupied with less explosive affairs like the demobilization of the rebel army and the reconstruction of the union.”

History tells us that Henry and Clara were not the Lincolns’ first choice as companions for the production at Ford Theater of “American Cousin.” Mallon quotes from a newspaper notice that ran in the Washington Star on April 14th: “Lieutenant General Grant, President and Mrs. Lincoln have secured the State Box at Ford’s Theater tonight to witness Miss Laura Keene’s “American Cousin.”

Mary Todd Lincoln begins the evening in a cheerful mood. Mallon records, “Clara was happy to see her in such high spirits – she’d witnessed her low ones and her rages – but she feared her mood might be too good tonight, a dance upon a precipice; her high-spirited chatter made a jarring contrast to Henry’s silence and the President’s amiable exhaustion.”

We learn that Mrs. Lincoln fussily arranges everyone: the President in a rocker, herself beside him, Clara on a chair to her right, and Henry on a small sofa behind his fiancée. We learn, too, that “The President leaned over to show himself to the audience, which applauded and cheered just long enough to stop for a moment the action on the stage.”

It is through Clara’s consciousness that Mallon depicts the shooting: “The loud crack was some bit of strange business, like the burst of blue smoke she could see and smell. But that had to be wrong, she realized, turning left in her seat; the smoke was behind her. The box was filled with it, and before she could turn far enough to see Henry, she realized that he was on his feet along with another man who was now in the box, whose face she couldn’t see behind the smoke. There was a gleam which she suddenly recognized as the long, silver blade of a knife. The faceless man was plunging it into Henry. The man got over the railing, but she never heard him land on the stage because by now Mrs. Lincoln was screaming.”

Mallon’s description of the shooting’s aftermath tracks with most historical accounts. Two young military doctors burst into the box, lay the President on the floor and futilely try to blow breath into his mouth and nostrils. Next they carry the President’s limp form to a house across the street from the theater.

Catching up with Henry who has left ahead of her, Clara, despite her panic, comprehends the severity of the knife wound in his arm. Mallon recounts: “A strip of pink flesh hung like a ribbon through the rip in his sleeve. His face, pale and shocked, stared straight ahead as he moved like a phantom, steadied by an army major and propelled by the crowd.”

Henry stays for a while at the house where Lincoln has been transported. Due to Clara’s urgent pleas, however, soldiers soon accompany him in a carriage to the Harris residence. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Clara elects to stay with the hysterical Mrs. Lincoln rather than to remain at her fiancé’s side – a choice that Henry will forever resent. While Mallon’s record of the aftermath of the assassination is factual, he raises questions in the minds of readers about Clara’s reaction. In historical fiction a character’s behavior is often a matter of record, but that character’s motivation is fair game for speculation. Did Clara relish the limelight inherent in playing the part of Mrs. Lincoln’s most sympathetic companion?

Concerning Clara’s state of mind as she stays at the side of the First Lady, Mallon asserts “A strange feeling that she had been painted into history, inserted into a tableau, also kept her from moving. It was a terrible feeling, though at moments exhilarating…”

By this point in the book, Mallon has succeeded in spades in arousing reader curiosity about Henry’s conduct on the fateful night when he first noticed Lincoln’s assailant in the presidential box. Had he deliberately failed to stop the shooting because he hated Lincoln for sending so many young men to their deaths? Even worse, was he in cahoots with John Wilkes Booth? Or did he merely panic? Answers to those questions become an almost universal topic of public speculation and become central to the novel’s denouement.

Early in the morning Clara arrives home just one hour after President Lincoln dies. Henry is weak, bleeding profusely from the wound. Booth’s knife has sliced him from the elbow to the shoulder, cutting an artery, nerves and veins. Mallon notes that “though he is in and out of consciousness, [Henry] seems on the verge of telling her something…as if he were trying to communicate some vital matter that had been lost in the violence and chaos.”

Gradually the arm mends, but Henry’s confinement at home exacerbates his mental instability. Clara agrees with her father’s recommendation to postpone the wedding for one year. But finally, in July, 1867, Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone are married in Washington. Mallon describes Clara on her wedding day, “She was not a blushing bride but a woman nearly 33, at the height of a beauty lit by the mature intelligence beneath it.”

Because Henry is a wealthy man – he had inherited the Rathbone fortune – he does not seek any employment, but spends his time in vague endeavors like reading history and ruminating. The couple’s first 18 months of marriage are spent in Europe, and when they return to Washington Henry begins slipping up to New York to gamble and womanize. Their social life, so very important to Clara, dwindles as their acquaintances become wary of his fits of temper and grim withdrawals. As the years pass the couple produces three children and spends more and more time in Europe. The stays abroad are always Henry’s idea. Mallon quotes Clara’s diary:

“I am sick unto death of Europe, heartily and forever sick of holding the chain of my children’s hands as we rush for the next ferry or coach or street car…I would rather go out my own front door and look 10 times a day at Washington’s silly monument, still unfinished, than have one more glance at a perfect Saint Cloud.”

Yet Clara does not give up on Henry. During one of their brief stays in Washington, she manipulates to no avail to have him named a chargé d’ affairs in Copenhagen. His war record is impressive but “whispers of failure and unreliability” have trailed him in the years since. Each year on the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination newspaper reporters flock around, hounding Henry, asking, “Do you ever think how different the country might be if you had been able to stop Booth?”

During the final chapters of Mallon’s book, his tone gradually but deliberately shifts from matter-of-fact to ominous, and we apprehend that a horrific action is about to take place.

Too often, years after the event in question, a distraught Henry hurdles the familiar question at Clara: “Why did you leave me that night?” Mallon writes one of Clara’s answers: “I won’t go into this again, Henry. Yes, I did leave you. I let you go home to Papa’s in the company of a surgeon…I stayed the night with Mrs. Lincoln because that’s where people thought I was needed.”

To herself, however, she acknowledges questionable motives in her failure to accompany Henry home that evening. She worries that her actions were triggered by an instinctual love of publicity or, worse yet, that she feared if she went directly home Henry would tell her something awful, a hideous detail about his part in the tragedy.

Clara deteriorates as the years pass, her once stellar character slipping away as she watches Henry’s inexorable descent into madness. Though she loves her children passionately and oversees their upbringing vigilantly, she neither feeds her mind nor seeks out friendships.

By the time of the family’s departure for what turned out to be its final European trip, Clara felt she was dying. As Mallon writes, “She was expiring beneath the force of Henry’s misery, just as he was being crushed by the hateful history…in which he’d been caught.”

In Germany Henry appears pallid and gaunt and is suffering from a food aversion. Clara’s diary entry for November 30, 1883 reads: “The truth is I have never loved him more than I have this last month. I have wanted to wail with pity over him…He mutters more than ever of our hours in the box at Ford’s, forcing me to think of them, too.” Ironically she adds that she will be the last alive of the five persons who were in there once John Wilkes Booth had entered.

A short time after the diary entry, while the family resided in rented rooms in Hanover, Henry, in a state of frenzied madness, murders Clara, an action that is as inevitable as it is horrible. Clara dies on Christmas Eve at age 49. Still brandishing his pistol and bloody knife, Henry makes the book’s most significant revelation, shouting: “I did not do everything I could…I saw him open the door…I saw him stand there for a good five seconds. I never got up from my chair. I let him do what he did…I let it happen. I wanted it to happen.”

Mallon’s achievement in Henry and Clara has been to make a pivotal event in U.S. history memorable in a way no other book has even come close to doing.