Kate Chase Sprague was born in 1840 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the second daughter to the second wife of a devout but ambitious lawyer. Her father, Salmon P. Chase, rose to prominence in the antebellum years and was appointed secretary of the treasury in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, while aspiring to even greater heights.
Beautiful, intelligent, regal, and entrancing, young Kate Chase stepped into the role of establishing her thrice-widowed father in Washington society and as a future presidential candidate. Her efforts were successful enough that The Washington Star declared her “the most brilliant woman of her day. None outshone her.”
None, that is, but Mary Todd Lincoln. Though Mrs. Lincoln and her young rival held much in common—political acumen, love of country, and a resolute determination to help the men they loved achieve greatness—they could never be friends, for the success of one could come only at the expense of the other. When Kate Chase married William Sprague, the wealthy young governor of Rhode Island, it was widely regarded as the pinnacle of Washington society weddings. President Lincoln was in attendance. The First Lady was not.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival begins in March 1861 when a grand ball was held at the White House. Socialite Kate Chase and her father, Salmon Chase, are guests of the newly inaugurated President and his wife. In an exchange with the First Lady, however, Kate is given the impression that Mary Lincoln does not like her and will never like her. There are several reasons for her attitude, including the fact that Kate’s father also sought the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860. If he had won the election, Kate would be First Lady. The next chapter then goes back to 1858 and the lead up to that election. This novel is not so much about the rivalry between two women, but more of a biography about Kate.
It is difficult to learn about a person from a work of fiction. As portrayed, Kate Chase comes off as prideful; caring mostly about her place in Washington society and how to get her father elected as President in the 1864 election. She compares the Lincoln White House and Administration – even war issues – to what she and her father would have done if he had won in 1860, and almost always concludes the Chase way would have been better. Just when you think you might like her, she says or does something to completely destroy such thoughts. This only changes after she marries William Sprague. By all accounts, he was not a good husband to her. Before she married him, she was good friends with Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay. Even though I knew the sorry outcome of Kate’s life, I found myself hoping she would have married him instead.
This is a long book and, at times, it shows. It is also a heavy one, dealing as it does with the war in its entirety and the many political machinations. Most of it appears, from my limited knowledge, to be historically accurate and Chiaverini lists plenty of sources at the end including personal letters and the well-known Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. One annoyance is the constant use of “Father” in regard to Chase. If this was a book written in the first person from Kate’s perspective then the usage might have been acceptable. Instead, it comes off as colloquial and out of place. I wonder, however, how much of a rivalry there really was between Kate Chase and Mary Lincoln, especially given what we know now about Mary’s apparent state of mental health. If there was a rivalry, I do not feel it was on a political level. Instead, it is possible that Mary felt insecure when compared to Kate’s social acumen as it has been reported that Mary found it difficult to negotiate many of her duties as First Lady.
Thank you to Dutton for my free electronic copy of Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, which I downloaded from NetGalley. No review was required.
Publisher: Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Group
Publication Date: 14 January 2014
Page Count: 432