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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

28 October 2009

Oldies and Goodies: Zane Grey


I’ve been on an “oldie” reading kick of late, spurred in part by my Ladies Lit book club’s selection of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage as our October book. Published in 1912 and set in southern Utah in 1871, the novel is an eye-opener on a number of levels.

Zane Grey is credited with launching “the western” as a literary genre. The East (which at that time extended up to Missouri) was fascinated by things western, and especially so in the years following publication of Riders. Grey brought to life the hard-bitten characters of the Old West, the gunman, the cowboy, the strong but ruffly female. Reading the work now may be a study in stereotypes and cliches about character, but Grey had a tale to tell and he told it the only way he knew how.

Riders addresses the issue of the Mormons in Utah, the prejudice they endured because of their practice of polygamy and the prejudice they inflicted on the non-Mormon “Gentiles.”

“That year, 1871, had marked a change which had been gradually coming in the lives of the peace-loving Mormons of the border... villages to the north had risen against the invasion of Gentile settlers and the forays of rustlers. There had been opposition to the one and fighting with the other. And now Cottonwoods had begun to wake and bestir itself and grown hard.”

Grey thought there was a middle ground, and he set out to make the Mormons understandable, even acceptable, to his readers. At issue is a young Mormon woman’s right to befriend a Gentile. In the process of writing the book, however, Grey created characters who represented the worst of a religious sect’s narrow-mindedness so that any astute reader could see that the “bad guys” were not the gun-slinging rustlers but the hide-bound religious elders themselves.

This “message” of the work is not (in my view) what made Grey’s publishing fortune. Instead, for me, it’s the really terrific descriptions of the Utah landscape. The word “purple” occurs 62 times (I was told by a Kindle reader). The “purple sage” is beautiful.

“Her clear sight intensified the purple sage-slope as it rolled before her. Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to the west. Dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between, stood out strikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up the gradual slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that faded in the north. Here to the westward was the light and color and beauty...a vast heave of purple uplands, with ribbed and fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, and gray escarpments. Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoon shadows.”

This passage made me want to visit southern Utah! Preferably during a thunderstorm, which Grey describes thus:

“Black night enfolded the valley... He felt the dogs huddle closer to him. Suddenly the dense, black vault overhead split asunder to vividly clear and luminously bright in his sight. Upreared (sic), vast and magnificent, the stone bridge glimmered like some grand god of storm in the lightning’s fire. Then all flashed black again - blacker than pitch - a thick, impenetrable coal-blackness. And there came a ripping, crashing report. Instantly an echo resounded with clapping crash. The initial report was nothing to the echo. It was a terrible, living, reverberating, detonating crash. The wall threw the sound across... from cliff to cliff the echo went in crashing retort and banged in lessening power, and boomed in thinner volume, and clapped weaker and weaker till a final clap could not reach across the waiting cliff..... The golden glare vanished; all was black; then came the splitting crack and the infernal din of echoes.”

Yeah, he used a lot of adjectives, but I could feel the thunder in my ears.

Here is Grey’s description of a horse race:

“When Wrangle’s long mane, lashing in the wind, stung Venters in the cheek, the sting added a beat to his flying pulse. He bent a downward glance to try to see Wrangle’s actual stride, and saw only twinkling, darting streaks and the white rush of the trail. He watched the sorrel’s savage head, pointed level, his mouth still closed and dry, but his nostrils distended as if he were snorting unseen fire. Wrangle was the horse for a race with death. Upon each side Venters saw the sage merged into a sailing, colorless wall. In front sloped the lay of ground with its purple breadth split by the white trail. The wind, blowing with heavy, steady blast into his face, sickened him with enduring, sweet odor, and filled his ears with a hollow, rushing roar.”

Wow.

Source: Riders of the Purple Sage, by Zane Grey, Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, New York, 1912.

La Recherce du Buildings Perdu

Please forgive me if this post isn’t quite as coherent as it should be. I just stumbled off a plane a few hours ago, after spending a week in Paris, wearing holes in my shoes looking for buildings that weren’t there. Just to make it more ridiculous, I already knew they weren’t there. Some of them succumbed to age, some to fire, others to the grand schemes of Baron Haussmann. (Hmph. Boulevards. Who needed them?) But it was instructive to see where they might have been, to situate them on my mental map and try to imagine what they might have looked like when they were still in situ.

The first building that wasn’t there was the old Prefecture, which formerly lived on a cul de sac called the Rue de Jerusalem on the Ile de la Cite, not far from the Quai des Orfevres. Elizabeth Sparrow, in her book, Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1815, describes it as a “sinister place” with “vaulted ceilings and walls [] supported by great timber stays… subdivided with mezzanine floors accessed by endless winding corridors and steep, narrow ladder like staircases”. Brilliant for sinister interrogations, not so great for modern working conditions. The building burned down in 1871, presumably lamented by none of the personnel who had to work there. The Ile de la Cite was extensively renovated by our old friend Baron Haussmann, so the Rue de Jerusalem can only be found by extensive squinting at old maps and pacing up and down the same bit of Quai, muttering, “Here. It must have been here,” until Parisians give you strange looks and walk their dogs on a wide berth around you.

Likewise, many of the old prisons in which that demmed elusive Pimpernel and his buddies would have been detained are no longer there. The infamous Temple Prison, demolished in 1860, is marked only by the Temple Metro stop. The Metro as a form of torture? Perhaps. But not the right kind. (And certainly not nearly so bad as the New York subway.)

The book I was researching opens with a scene in the Abbaye Prison, where a hapless conspirator in an 1804 plot to kidnap Napoleon (more about that in a later post) was being put to the question. Abbaye wasn’t just a clever name. It was called that because it was part of the Abbey of St. Germain de Pres. These days, only the Abbey church remains, but it does retain, in front of it, some of the large, round old cobbles that you can see in contemporary pictures of the old prison. Inside the church, one can also find a plan marking out where the various buildings of the Abbey would have been in the 18th century before they were knocked out for the laying out of boulevards. I’ve never been good at spatial relations, but my guess, from the map, is that the rough location of the old Abbaye Prison would have been somewhere across the modern Blvd St. Germain, where a few shops are now. It is an interesting mental exercise to try to knock out all the shops, the people, the traveling accordion player (yes, there was a traveling accordion player) and the very streets themselves to imagine the older city as it would have been at the time.

Even buildings that do still exist have to be mentally rejiggered prior to use. On my last day in Paris, I took a day to go to Malmaison, Napoleon's wife's country house (avez vous la plume de ma tante? it does sound like a French exercise, doesn't it?). Although the façade is largely what it would have been in 1804, it’s missing some bits. There would have been a tent-like building off to the side, housing the servants, as well as a small theatre that was put up so that the family could participate in amateur theatricals. The rooms that once belonged to Josephine’s children, Hortense and Eugene de Beauharnais, still teenagers when she purchased Malmaison, have been knocked together to form a showcase for the Imperial china collection. Yep. Cue more wandering around, muttering, “But the wall must have been here!” or "No! Why 1805? I needed 1804!" followed by growling noises. Fortunately, the guards were very blase, clearly used to the strange behavior of Americans, even ones who pace around with little notebooks, muttering.

The building I most regret is the Tuileries Palace, the official residence of the Consular (soon to be Imperial) couple. This picture is me, looking mildly sulky, standing somewhere around the site where the old palace would have been (that's the Louvre in the backround). It's rather amazing that one can just lose a whole palace. It was rather big. And stony. But it was burnt down in 1871, its empty shell finally demolished a good decade later, leaving only the arch in the middle and the Jardin des Tuileries to mark the memory of where it once stood.

Do you have any favorite missing buildings?

23 October 2009

A World to Fall in Love With?

The Jane Austen/Warren Hastings connection Lauren posted about recently got me thinking about another kind of Austen connection: Not, this time, of reach beyond the circumscribed geography of her life, but rather of the density of connection within her books, as three or four families in a country village (to use Austen's own words) become a palpable community that resonates with shared (if sometimes contested and often unspoken) experience.

When I began writing romance, one rule I encountered was not to create too many minor characters. Which is a reasonable enough stricture for a beginning writer, and most particularly one bound by the Iron Law of Thou Must Foreground the Romance Plot.

But as I continue, I find myself so taken with the idea of a world built upon the interlaced lives of its characters (major and minor), that I'm increasingly willing to stub my writerly toes on the boundaries of the genre (especially when I'm fortunate enough to have readers like Tumperkin, who's blogged so eloquently of my efforts to try to create a web of character relationships).

And if it's chutzpah to stub my toes (and bang my head) against something Jane Austen did so brilliantly, not to speak of more or less having invented... well, no guts, no glory. I want a hero and heroine who can live not just for and with each other; not just behind the well-guarded estate gates of Pemberley; but in a community, even a society.

I want to try to model what's so often implicit in social relationships: the delicate and almost unspeakable matters of social class and cultural capital, as not only to mark power and opportunity but to wonder what "value" really is.

Because while there's a kind of fairy tale thrill in having a viscount marry a scullery maid (as in my first shot at romance, The Bookseller's Daughter), it seems to me a deeper and much touchier business for to create a pair of lovers who try to negotiate the smaller stuff -- old money versus new, aristocracy versus "trade."

Which is why, when I began to research post-Waterloo England for my domestic spy story The Slightest Provocation, I became fascinated by the contentious relationships between the old landed aristocracy like Kit's family, versus the middling people in the professions or in trade, like Mary's brewer father.

And which is also why (as you may have surmised from a whole lot of my posts) I spend a ridiculous amount of my research time simply rereading Emma -- the only one of Jane Austen's novels bearing the name of an individual protagonist as its title just happening to be (snarkily, paradoxically, Jane-ishly) her most brilliantly elaborated group portrait, a mini-world of tiny, all-important social distinction.

The paradox is easy to miss, partly because part of the world of romance fiction is already, traditionally, a world of wanting a more romantic world than you find yourself in.

Austen had already written about romantic, poetry- and novel-reading heroines (Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility and Catherine Moorland in Northanger Abbey) who couldn't "read" the worlds around them any more than Bridget Jones can read hers. But handsome, clever, rich Emma Woodhouse doesn't even have the excuse of female Quixotism to excuse her misapprehensions: she does what she does merely from a youthful excess of self-importance, an intolerance for the ordinariness of village life.

While as for the Austen fan who might be led to similar misapprehension -- like one who once announced she particularly enjoyed the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma movie because that Emma is liked by everyone in Highbury.... Well, I'll be more tolerant of this readying than Emma might have been. Because part of the responsibility must surely be ascribed to the Austen Industry's desire to keep us falling in love with that well known and adorable green-lawn-and-white-muslin England that never existed -- most especially not in the world of Jane Austen's imagination.

Here's an experiment for those of you who love re-reading Jane Austen: Read Emma with special attention (no skipping!) to everything tiresome Miss Bates and infantile Mr. Woodhouse have to say. You already know the Emma/Knightley story well enough; this time follow the apothecary Mr. Perry on his rounds and take note of Mr. and Mrs. Cole, Mrs. Goddard, the Martins, perhaps even the Cox family.

In other words, try to read it just once with the romance plot relegated to the background.

(While also endeavoring to wipe your memory clear of Gwyneth Paltrow and especially the far-too-pretty Jeremy Northam. The 1996 TV Emma with Kate Beckinsale and a powerful, peremptory, looking-his-age Mark Strong is much more to the point -- though not surprisingly, unavailable available on DVD.)

But the important thing is to try and keep your readerly attention on what the "minor characters" say and do.

I think you'll be as surprised as I was, to trace the patterns of social mobility and conflict as business is done and fortunes rise in quiet, boring Highbury during the moment we call the Regency (which is also the moment just before the Industrial Revolution embarks upon its mad tear from steam power and the railroads to global warming and the world wide web).

And you might also be surprised how much information is shared and exchanged between these minor characters. As Miss Bates says, "What is before me, I see." Try seeing it with her, as her world practically lifts off the page and into orbit on the depth, power, and density of Austen's realization.

It's not exactly a world to fall in love with.

But it might be an interesting and challenging one to fall in love within.

To which I also want to add a word of correction to my previous post last month about sickness and related matters in Regency England, about consumption in the nineteenth century imagination -- wondering whether the disease might have had a sort of unspoken presence in Emma.

I wasn't entirely right. It's not unspoken; it's genteelly spoken. When Jane Fairfax falls ill (during the darkest period of the novel for many of its characters) the local apothecary Mr. Perry reports nothing touching the pulmonary complaint, which was the standing apprehension of the family...

But I was right in the long term. Particularly at at time when tuberculosis (consumption, the pulmonary complaint) was understood as hereditary, Miss Bates (whose sister died of the disease) is clearly filled with apprehension every time her sister's daughter Jane catches the sniffles. And the sensitive circumlocution of Mr. Perry's report is particularly touching in that given the state of medical science, sensitivity was probably the only thing he could realistically offer anyone who fell ill in Highbury.

Finally, though, the big question here is, Is Emma a romance novel? Chicklit? Realist fiction? Or even (with all its misunderstandings, all that stuff you have to strain to hear and interpret) a precursor of the genteel mystery novel? (Remembering as well that one of the smartest cinematic interpretations of the novel ever was called Clueless.)

Contemporary advocates for the respectability of today's popular romance genre want Jane Austen firmly in our corner.

History hoydens -- writers and readers both -- what do you think?

(note: I'm at the New Jersey Romance Writers Conference, but I will try to check in for discussion)

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21 October 2009

Legends of Sleepy Hollow


Thoreau's grave
In 1855, a cemetery was configured on Bedford Street in Concord, Massachusetts, to conform to the aesthetics of the popular Transcendentalism movement, of which some of the area's favorite sons, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May) were followers. Transcendentalism typically rejects the emphasis placed on organized religion in order to attain an ideal state of spirituality, instead relying on one's personal intuition to achieve a spiritual state

The landscape of Sleepy Hollow cemetery was intended to mimic a natural garden, completely devoid of the typical formality associated with such repositories for the departed where coffins lie in serried ranks beneath the soil.


one of the oaks to which Emerson referred in his speech below. He was absolutely right.


On September 29, 1855, Emerson delivered the consecration speech, stating that a cemetery could not "jealously guard a few atoms under immense marbles, selfishly and impossibly sequestering [them] from the vast circulations of nature [which] recompenses for new life [each decomposing] particle. . . . When these acorns, that are falling at our feet, are oaks overshadowing our children in a remote century, this mute green bank will be full of history: the good, the wise, and the great will have left their names and virtues on the trees... will have made the air tuneable and articulate."





The result is as much a pineatum as a place to pine and ponder, holy ground in many ways.





House of three gables: graves of Nathaniel Hawthorne's family. The author's headstone is the most modest one on the far left.


My husband and I visited Concord on Columbus Day. Other than the fact that I'd mentioned to Scott a few days earlier that "they have a lot of great authors living there, particularly dead ones," we arrived with no preconceived notions of the legendary New England town where "the shot heard round the world" was fired on April 19, 1775. After fortifying ourselves with breakfast we began to wander wherever our souls and the soles of our shoes took us.



"I wonder what 'Authors Ridge' is," I mused, noticing a sign. "Let's explore."



Ralph Waldo Emerson's grave




Authors Ridge lies on a hilltop within Sleepy Hollow cemetery. There repose the Alcotts, the Thoreaus, the Hawthornes, and the Emersons, including Ralph Waldo, who was buried there in 1882, twenty-seven years after he delivered his consecration address.




Louisa May Alcott's grave in the foreground; her father, Amos Bronson Alcott's grave looms large to its right


Perhaps it was that Transcendentalist intuition that led us (or me, with Scott in tow) to Authors Ridge. I'd mentioned all those famous dead authors just days before but hadn't known they shared a final resting place that is the American equivalent of the Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey. By the time I realized where I was headed, a discovery had become a pilgrimage.


And as I wept, rather copiously I admit, over Louisa May Alcott's tombstone and placed three small stones (a Jewish tradition) on her gravesite, adding a penny and a pine cone (the penny, because other pilgrims had already done so; the pine cone for some instinctive reason; it helped complete a sort of memorial wreath), Scott jolted me back to reality -- and the 21st century.


"Remind me again who she is."


"She wrote Little Women," I said. "Among many other things." And I began to rattle off a bit of her biography. "Haven't you read Little Women?"


"Um ... guys don't read Little Women," he replied.


Has something in your heart or soul ever led you on an unusual visit like this? Did you ever begin the journey, as I did, completely ignorant, only to make your discovery on your arrival at the destination? Have you ever wept at an author's grave? Whose was it?

19 October 2009

Rolinda Sharples

We all know this painting, used on zillions of book covers, and I love it. Technically it may not be the greatest painting in the world but it has a delightful quirkiness and great detail of faces, expressions, clothes. It's Rolinda Sharples' painting of 1817 (probably) of the Cloak-Room at the Clifton Assembly Rooms.
Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838) is a bit of a mystery. Go here, and you'll find her celebrated as an American woman painter. Everywhere else, including the Bristol Art Museum which houses this painting, you'll find she's a Bristol girl. She's a contemporary of the female offspring of the celebrated Peale family of artists, Anna Claypoole Peale, (1791-1878), Margaretta (1795-1882) and Sarah Miriam (1800-1885). I'll talk about them another time.

The Sharples family were, like the Peales, a multi-generational family of artists. Rolinda was the daughter of James and Ellen, both artists. She was born either in New York in 1794 or in Bristol or Bath in 1793; at any rate, the family moved to New York in 1794, where the family business prospered, and then after James died, the family moved back to Bristol in 1811. Rolinda and her brothers George, Felix, and James, Jr. became artists, and successful ones too. Rolinda trained with her mother, seen in this self-portrait and went on to exhibit in major cities, including at the Royal Academy in London.

One of her most famous paintings was the Trial of Colonel Brereton (1834) but I haven't been able to find a reproduction of it online. Answers.com sniffily reports that ... it is, like all her work, devoid of social comment or satire and also epitomizes her meticulous literalism and refers to her as a female provincial artist--that last comment obviously being two strikes against her. (Jane Austen, as we all know, was a female provincial novelist.)

She may, however, have been the first woman artist to have attempted crowd scenes, such as this portrait of the Clifton Race Courses.

In another crowd scene, of a group of people waiting to board a ferry, this detail shows her interest in faces and expressions and clothes, and also some very nice representations of children.

This portrait is allegedly of the young Charles Darwin, already messing about with plants.

I had a female character who was an artist in Dedication, my first book, and I've always wanted to write another. The artist I had in mind then was Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun, portraitist to aristocrats and royalty, but I'm more intrigued now by someone like Sharples, participating in the family art business.

I see a parallel between successful artists like Rolinda Sharples and writers of modern mass fiction, proving that we can be both skilful in our craft and enjoy commercial success. What do you think? And do you have any favorite artist characters in your own or others' novels?

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16 October 2009

What Do You Love in Historical Covers?



I just got my cover for AWAKENING HIS LADY, my upcoming release (December 1, 2009) with Harlequin Historical UNDONE eBooks. The story is set in 13th century England--another medieval! This line has a high level of sensuality and the stories are emotionally intense---all that conflict and heat packed into a shorter word count (10-15,000 words). I have to admit, as a writer, the short steamy historicals are challenge (but so fun to do---you have to grab your muse and keep her/him right there with you).

I love the cover of AHL---there's enough of the heroine's gown to say "historical" and the stone wall in the background subtly says "castle." The handsome hero and the lovely heroine look exactly like the characters in the book. Yeah, Harlequin cover artists!

I love historical covers in general. Booksellers tell me that beautiful dresses (think of Susan Wigg's new historical releases. FABULOUS cover gowns) and headless historical men sell well---the hero can be in a kilt, breaches, or leggings---those elements get the historical reader's attention. As a loyal fan of the medieval genre, I certainly look for castles, swords, and armor, too. Throw in a knight on a horse and ya got me!

What do you look for in a historical cover? What kind of cover art tells you it's a historical romance? What kind of historical cover art makes you shudder?

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14 October 2009

The Elusive Pimpernel


I've always listened to music as I write, usually music that relates in some way to the book I'm writing. But lately, I've been watching movies while I write. Yes, I know, it sounds odd. But I find that having a movie playing in the background frees up my mind so I don't obsess so much and can get the words down more freely. Of course this only works if I've thought the scene I'm writing through in advance. And as with music, I watch movies that relate to the book I'm writing, which helps me escape into the world of the book.


Lately, I've found myself watching various versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel a great deal, which is the inspiration for this post. Like Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Pimpernel has been a favorite of mine since I was a child, and like Pride and Prejudice I first encountered the story when my parents took me to a revival of a movie version–in this case, the Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon movie from the thirties. From the movie I went to the Baroness Orczy’s book and then to subsequent film adaptations (when the Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour version first aired, I had a rehearsal and we didn’t have a VCR yet, so my mother tape-recorded it for me; I knew the dialogue to that version long before I finally got to see it). In college I was entranced to find copies of the later books in the Pimpernel series in the stacks of the Stanford Library (the Andrews/Seymour version is partly based on one of the sequels, Eldorado).

I saw the Broadway musical in New York when I was starting to write the book that is now Secrets of a Lady. It wasn’t until then that I quite realized how much The Scarlet Pimpernel had influenced me in devising my own story. Because what has always fascinated me about The Scarlet Pimpernel is its examination of a marriage that begins with deception, of the toll that deception takes, of the fear that one doesn’t know the truth about the person one loves most in the world, of the risk of trusting. (Nancy, my agent, talks eloquently about the power of the scene–which isn’t in any of the film adaptations I’ve seen–in which Percy, having maintained his impassive façade in front of Marguerite, kisses the steps where she’s walked after she’s left). Charles and Mélanie are very different people from Percy and Marguerite. The book's take on the French Revolution has a decidedly aristocratic slant, which hardly mirrors my own thoughts on that complex era (or those of Charles and Mélanie). But my fascination with The Scarlet Pimpernel’s portrait of a marriage definitely influenced me in creating Charles and Mel's story. Not to mention the appeal of intrigue and adventure and heroes who outwit their enemies through their own cleverness. The Pimpernel connection was what first drew me to Lauren's wonderful Pink Carnation books. I love the scene, cut from The Secret History of Pink Carnation but available on her website, in which Richard talks to Percy.

In the Baroness Orczy’s books and in the the 1934 Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon/Raymond Massey film, there is no suggestion of romantic involvement between Marguerite St. Just Blakeney (the French Republican actress turned aristocratic English wife) and Paul Chauvelin (an agent of the Committee of Public Safety). In the Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour/Ian McKellen and Richard E. Grant/Elizabeth McGovern/Martin Shaw adaptations and in the Broadway musical, Marguerite and Chauvelin are former lovers. When I blogged about The Scarlet Pimpernel on my own website, I commented that I thought this added an interesting layer to the story. Sarah countered that “The triangle is a useful dramatic device, but the books present two more layered and interesting characters.” Which made me think about what adding an additional romantic element does to this story and to stories in general.

I’ll confess that the romantic in me tends to enjoy the addition of romantic complications. But romance can easily become motivational shorthand–”she did it because she loves him”, “he wants revenge because he can’t forgive her for leaving him”, etc… I don’t think this is quite the case in adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel that include the romantic triangle. In both film versions and in the musical, I had the sense that Marguerite had revolutionary principles apart from her love for Chauvelin and that her feelings for both Chauvelin and the Revolution changed as the Revolution took a darker turn. I had the sense that Chauvelin had loved Marguerite but that he was a zealous and ambitious revolutionary whose first loyalty was to what he saw as the aim of the Revolution. I never thought that jealousy over losing Marguerite was his primary motivation (though it does tinge his actions, which creates nice ambiguity; and in the Grant/McGovern/Shaw version, I love the way Percy knows he can play on Chauvelin’s feelings for Marguerite).

I also found myself thinking about the romantic triangle that figures prominently in Secrets of a Lady. At one point Mélanie says, “don’t you dare shrug off what I did as romantic infatuation. Call me whatever names you like, but at least credit me with the wit to make decisions for myself. Do you think I’d have run the risks I’ve run and blackened my soul simply for the love of a man?” Mélanie recognizes the risk of reducing complex motivations to “all for love”. And yet in the case of Secrets of a Lady, I think the romantic triangle enriches the story, perhaps in part because much of the time Mélanie, Charles, and Raoul are all acting against their romantic inclinations.

Is The Scarlet Pimpernel a favorite of yours? Did you find the book first or a film version? Do you prefer the story with the triangle or without? Can you think of other adaptations of books that have added a romantic element? Did it add to or detract from the story?

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09 October 2009

How Unpure the Puritans!


Alcoholic beverages in Early America? Who’d a thunk it?

It’s true. In New England, beer was the first alcoholic drink to gain favor, and the colonists learned to brew it from Indian corn. Beer was considered a good family drink: a handful of hops, a pail of water, and half a pint of molasses makes good beer. A little fresh-gathered spruce or sweet fern adds a nice flavor. Boil 2-3 hours and strain. Let it stand til lukewarm and pour into a clean barrel. For ginger beer, add 1 cup ginger and 1 cup yeast.

Having acquired a taste for the pleasant effects of such beverages, Early Americans began to experiment, and thus were developed cordials, shrubs, brandies, and “bounces.” Often the brews had interesting names: Elephant’s Milk, for example. “Take of 2 ounces of benjamin (balsam); 1 pint spirit of wine; 2.5 pints boiling water. Mix. When cold, strain, and add l.5 lb sugar.” [From Mackenzie’s 5000 Receipts, 1829]

Here’s a recipe for Cherry Bounce. Mix 6 lb ripe morellas and 6 lb black heart cherries. Put in a wooden bowl and mash up with a pestle or mallet to crack all the stones. Mix in 3 lb loaf-sugar and put into a demijohn or large stone jar. Pour on 2 gallons of the best double rectified whiskey (!). Stop the vessel and let it stand three months, shaking it every day during the first month. At the end of the 3 months, strain the liquor and bottle it. It improves with age.” [From Miss Leslie’s Complete Cookery, 1839]

Fruit and berries were often used for alcoholic concoctions, as in Blackberry Cordial: “Take the ripest blackberries, mash, put in a linen bag and squeeze out the juice. To every quart of juice add 1 lb beaten loaf-sugar (put into a large kettle and pour juice on it). Boil to a thin jelly. When cold, add a quart of brandy to every quart of juice. Stir well and bottle.” [From Seventy-five Receipts, 1838]

Some of the kickiest joy juice gets its punch from liquor that’s already been brewed! As in Rose Cordial: Put a pound of fresh rose leaves into a tureen with a quart of lukewarm water. Cover and let them infuse for 24 hours. Then squeeze through a linen bag till all the liquid is pressed out. Put a fresh pound of rose leaves into the tureen, pour the liquid back in, and let it infuse again for 2 days. Repeat until infusion is very strong.

Then to a pint of the infusion add half a pound of loaf-sugar, half pint of white brandy, 1 ounce of broken cinnamon, and 1 ounce of coriander seeds. Put into a glass jar, cover well, and let stand for 2 weeks. Then filter through fine muslin or blotting paper pinned on the bottom of a sieve, and bottle for use. [From Miss Leslie’s Complete Cookery, 1839]

For Rum Shrub: Make Rose Cordial as above; leave out the brandy and add 1 gallon raisin win, 6 lb honey, and 10 gallons good flavored rum!

Here’s a recipe that caught my musician’s eye--Troubadour’s Elixir. 2 lb Musk roses; 12 ounces jasmine blossoms; 8 ounces orange-blossoms; 1 ounce ravenzaranuts (haven’t a clue!); 2 drachms mace.. Macerate for 15 days in 3.5 gallons of alcohol; distill and add to the product a syrup made with 10 lb of sugar. Color with cochineal. [From The Art of Confectionery, 1866]

Absinthe, or Wormwood Ratafia: Steep 4 lb bruised wormwood leaves, 3 ounces juniper berries, and 2 ounces ground cinnamon in 4 drachms of angelica rum and 17 lb of brandy (whooee!) for 15 days. Distill the mixture to 12lb of liquor, and re-distill this to 10 lb. Then add 2.5 lb powdered sugar, 2 lbs pure water, and 8 ounces of double-distilled orange-flower water. [From The Art of Confectionery, 1866]

Apricot Beer, or Ratafia, is drunk more for pleasure than for health. Apricots are boiled in white wine and brandy with sugar, cinnamon, mace, and the apricot pits. Infuse for 8-10 days and strain. Strain again, cut the fruit in pieces, and infuse 1-2 days in brandy.

Ratafia is also made by bruising cherries and putting them into a vessel of brandy; then add cherry pits, strawberries, sugar, cinnamon, white pepper, nutmeg, cloves. Use 10 quarts of brand to 20 lb of cherries.

Usquebaugh: This is a strong compound liquor, chiefly taken by dram. It is made at Drogheda in Ireland. Take 1 gallon of best brandy; l lb raisins, stoned; 1 oz each cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom, crushed in a mortar; ½ ounce of saffron; rind of 1 Seville orange and 1 lb brown sugar candy. Shake well every day for 14 days. At the expiration of that time, it will be ready to be fined for use.

Metheglin: For half a barrel of metheglin, allow 48 or 50 lb of fresh honey. Boil an hour in 1/3 barrel of spring water. Skim and test: it should be so strong with honey that a cold raw egg will not sink when dropped in. Add a small dessert spoonful of ginger, and as much of powdered clove and mace; also a spoonful of yeast. Leave the bung of the cask loose till the fermentation ceases, then stop it close. After six months, draw off and bottle. It improves until 3 or 4 years old, has a fine color, and is a very healthful cordial. [From The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, 1846]

White Tea: Put 2 teaspoons of sugar into ½ cup good milk and fill cup with boiling water. [From Beecher’s Receipt Book, 1857]

Hot Milk Punch: 1 quart milk, warm from the cow; 2 glasses best sherry wine; 4 tablespoons powdered sugar, 4 eggs (yolks only, beaten lightly); cinnamon and nutmeg. Bring milk to a boil; beat up yolks and sugar together; add the wine; pour into a pitcher and mix in the boiling milk, stirring all the time. Pour from one vessel to another 6 times, add spices, and drink as soon as it can be swallowed without scalding the throat. [From Breakfast, Luncheon and Tea, 1884]

Koumiss (or Tartar Wine): Take fresh mare’s milk; add 1/6th part water and pour into a wooden vessel; let it ferment using 1/8th part of the sourest cow’s milk that can be got. A small portion of old koumiss will answer this purpose. Cover with a thick cloth, set in moderately warm place for 24 hours. The milk will have soured, and a thick substance gathered on its top. With a stick, beat til the thick substance is blended and leave to rest another 24 hours. Repeat agitation as before, til the liquor is perfectly homogeneous. This wine operates as a cooling antiseptic, a useful stimulant, cordial, and tonic, and may prove a valuable article of nourishment. [From Family Receipt Book, 1819]

Rhubarb Wine: Take 2.5 ounces sliced rhubarb; 1.5 ounces cardamom seeds, bruised and husked; 2 drachms saffron; 2 pints Spanish white wine and ½ pint proof spirit. Digest for ten days and strain. This is a warm, cordial, laxative medicine; may be given in doses of ½ to 3-4 spoonsful or more, according to the strength of the patient. [From Mackenzie’s 5000 Receipts, 1829]

Overall source: Early American Beverages, by John Hull Brown.

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07 October 2009

Scooby Doo meets Miss Austen and Mr. Hastings

A friend of mine has a theory that there are really only fifty people in the world, all the rest being nothing more than cardboard cutouts provided for verisimilitude. This, he claims, explains why everyone you meet already seems to know someone else you know. Forget six degrees of separation; it’s more like three.

This holds true for the historical landscape as well, in bizarre and unexpected ways. I just researched two books that were as different as different could be. One, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily (coming out January 12th, 2010! Yes, my publisher has programmed me to say that) is set in India during the Mahratta conflicts of late 1804. The other, still untitled, is set in Bath in late 1803 and involves none other than everyone’s favorite proto-romance novelist, Miss Jane Austen. Aside from being in roughly the same time period, they are, quite literally, a world apart.

Or not.

One of the most controversial figures in the history of Anglo-Indian affairs is a man called Warren Hastings. If you study colonial India, it’s impossible to avoid him. He bestrides the historiography like a colossus, a larger than life figure, whose trial in 1795—for crimes and misdemeanors during his tenure as Governor-General—was the show trial of the era. Think OJ and Madoff rolled into one. Edmund Burke wrote some of his most stirring prose in prosecution of Hastings, while the novelist, Fanny Burney, a staunch Hasting supporter, kept an account of the trial in her famous journals.

What, you might ask, has this to do with Miss Austen, chronicler of English country life? Foreign events seldom figure in her novels, much less events so foreign as the governance of Bengal. Yet, while India and Hasting may not have played a role in her prose, they were intimately connected with her personal circle. Austen’s aunt, Philadelphia, sailed off to India in 1752 to make her fortune the only way a young lady of some looks but no means could—by finding a wealthy husband. She landed an East India Company surgeon named Saul Hancock, whose fortunes were furthered by his close friendship with Warren Hastings, Governor of Bengal.

How close was this friendship? Historians have speculated that Austen’s first cousin Eliza Hancock (who, just to make things more complicated, would eventually marry Austen’s brother, Henry), was, in fact, the natural child of Warren Hastings. Evidence mustered in support of this theory includes the long childlessness of the Hancocks prior to Eliza’s birth, financial gifts from Hastings to Philadelphia, and a handsome settlement of five thousand pounds by Hastings on his goddaughter, Eliza. No less a personage than Lord Clive, victor of the battle of Plassey, claimed that Philadelphia Austen Hancock had “abandoned herself to Mr. Hastings”. Eliza herself named her firstborn son “Hastings”, in tribute to her generous godfather.

In an even stranger intersection between homely Steventon and exotic Bengal, Warren Hastings’ only son, George, was sent home from India and spent some time boarding with Jane Austen’s parents in Steventon. Sadly, the climate of Hampshire did not agree with him; young Hastings died of diphtheria while under the Austens’ care, a sad circumstance for all concerned. Doesn’t it seem incongruous that the son of the controversial and flamboyant Governor-General of India, everyone's favorite example of the evils of decadent Oriental Despotism, should die beneath the modest roof of George and Cassandra Austen?



Naturally, I tried to think of a way to work all this into my Jane Austen book, but there wasn’t really a place for it—so I had to save it for this post instead, marveling at the coincidence that tied my two very different books together.

What strange historical overlaps have you encountered?

02 October 2009

Happy Banned Books Week

What's the last banned book you've read?

Because one of the pleasures of Banned Books Week (instituted by the American Library Association in 1982) is the fantastic booklists you get to contemplate -- of titles that someone somewhere sometime felt moved to hide from you -- happy reading memories and still unread wonders just waiting to jazz up a to-be-read pile that may have gotten too one-note or work-oriented.

Like the one I'm going to cut and paste below of 42 books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course's Top 100 Novels of the Twentieth Century -- all of which have been banned or challenged by someone somewhere:

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Ulysses by James Joyce
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
1984 by George Orwell
Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Their Eyes are Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Native Son by Richard Wright
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
There's some excellent information on the ALA's website about the circumstances surrounding how and why a book gets banned or challenged. Often it's about sex, sometimes religion or politics -- these days it's often about homosexuality. But sometimes it's something else entirely, as in 1983 when four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for the removal of Anne Frank's Diary because it was a "real downer." Welcome to Prozac Nation.

How many of the books on the list above have you read? Never read? Picked up and didn't finish?

When romance novelist Anna Campbell posted the list on Facebook, various Friends weighed in. I read 25 of them to the end and didn't finish 6 -- must get back especially to Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I now remember I put aside when I was first studying computer programming. And although I've read some of the Hemingway on the list, I've never seriously read the earlier, tighter Hemingway that I've always meant to. I read Rabbit Run when I was too young entirely to get it and skipped Rabbit Redux. Hmm -- wouldn't it be great to read the whole series front to back (not skipping the fantastic short story about the Thanksgiving after Rabbit's death)?

After I finally get around to Slaughterhouse-Five.


And if (like me for so many years), you've avoided In Cold Blood, I urge you to give it a try, as I did a year or two ago when prompted by curiosity after the spate of Capote movies. I'd expected voyeurism, thrill-seeking, beautiful but chilly language -- but though the language is beautiful, the surprise is the compassion. Capote's passage on the murdered teenage daughter's diary is a stunning meditation on youth and potentiality cut brutally, heartbreakingly, irrevocably short in the process of self-discovery.

My book count was good but not great -- historical romance novelist and hoyden reader Louisa Cornell has read every book on the list!

And I was fascinated to learn that not everybody loved The Catcher in the Rye, which book's opening paragraph changed my young life:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want the truth.

All that David Copperfield kind of crap. As my husband Michael put it years later, "I didn't know you were allowed to say things like that in a book." I didn't either, nor did I know it was possible to create prose that sounded so voiced -- I can hear The Catcher in the Rye in my first novel, Carrie's Story, written by Molly Weatherfield (and in the penname, which, if you want the truth, comes from Holden Caulfield's little sister Phoebe's penname, Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield.)

But we all have our own reading biographies, our personal histories and secret museums (to use the title of Walter Kendrick's book about the banned books tradition in English, beginning with the eighteenth century excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, when sexy art from classical times were exposed to the light of day, and gentlemen had to figure out how to keep this stuff away from people who weren't... gentlemen. (I posted about this last year -- my own inner secret museum always seems to go back to Enlightenment Europe).

We may even have personal aspirations in this line. Mine, I confide, is to be read on the sly by babysitters. I'm with women's fiction writer and book blogger Lisa Dale when she celebrates Banned Books Week by musing -- hilariously -- on the adventurousness and forbiddenness of reading. Not to say that anybody should ever ban any book. (Any -- got that? When Michael and I were part-owners of Modern Times Bookstore, an interview question Michael would ask job applicants was "What do you say when someone asks you to special-order The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?" And the answer? "Do you want cloth or paper?")

Luckily, no one ever did ask for that special order. But reading can be dangerous. In the sense that it makes you who you are, which isn't someone who anybody else could have made you be. In the sense that language is magical and powerful.

"Magic is real," they say in the book that's had me transfixed this week, Lev Grossman's very smart, deeply moving, and very adult fantasy novel The Magicians. Books, language, stories -- perhaps particularly when they're real enough for someone to ban -- bring us back to the real via the great circle route of the imagination.

This is a week for celebrating all that.

For bringing out our own readers' biographies (and perhaps how we became writers as well).

For making lists, counting how many you've read.

Recommending the one you like and slamming the ones you don't, and sharing it here if you've a mind to.


And -- if anybody knows, I'd love to hear it -- has a romance novel (historical or not) ever made it to a banned list?

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