On April 14, 1865, an engaged couple, Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, accepted the Lincolns’ last-minute invitation to join them in their box at Ford’s Theatre. For the nation, the impact of that night’s tragedy would be felt at once; for Henry and Clara, the denouement of their own private tragedy occurred years later.
Henry and Clara follows the titular couple from their childhood in Albany, New York, where Henry’s widowed, ambitious mother sets her cap at Clara’s widowed father, Ira Harris, whom Pauline Rathbone sees as a promising politician. A marriage soon follows, and young Henry and Clara find themselves stepbrother and stepsister. Though neither child cares much for the other’s parent, Henry and Clara soon gravitate toward each other, and as they mature their feelings grow into romantic love. Before they can marry, though, they must overcome the opposition of their parents, and the outbreak of the Civil War throws yet another obstacle into their path.
There is another difficulty, one the determined and devoted Clara doesn’t much want to acknowledge: Henry. For Clara, the mercurial Henry is Byronic, but the horrors of war soon disclose how fragile Henry’s psyche truly is. Nonetheless, Clara, deeply in love and not willing to give up easily, presses on with her marriage plans, even after the Lincoln assassination strips yet another layer of sanity from Henry.
Though the story Henry and Clara tells is a tragic one, Mallon’s wry narrative voice and his sharp eye prevent it from being a gloomy one. His characterizations are superb, with Clara, the main viewpoint character, being a particular success. Even as Clara becomes more isolated and her situation more grim, she never turns into the pathetic victim she might have become with a less skilled author.
If there’s a rough patch in the novel, it’s at the beginning, where the immersion into Albany politics may be too much for some readers. Persevere, though, and you’ll be well rewarded. This was one of the best historical novels I’ve read.