Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research
21 December 2009
15 December 2009
Literary Cocktails, Jane Austen, and Discovering Characters
In November, I visited New York and had the great treat of staying with Lauren and sharing a wonderful evening of drinks and writer talk with Lauren and Leslie. That's the three of us to the left right at the appropriately named Bookmarks in the Library Hotel. Leslie wrote a great post about our evening on her blog. While discussing research methods, Richard III's marriage, and the vagaries of a writer's schedule, we sipped literary-themed cocktails (Leslie had the Dickens, which I think was brandy based, and Lauren and I both had the Hemingway, which had vodka, elderflower liqueur, and a float of sparkling wine).
I’m fortunate to have a lot of great friends, but there are some things that only fellow writers understand, particularly fellow writers who write in a similar area. Like all the Hoydens, Leslie, Lauren and I write historically set books. Even more specifically, Lauren and I both write books about espionage during the Napoleonic Wars. A few minutes after I walked through Lauren’s door, we were sitting on her sofa sipping wine and discussing the finer points of obscure Napoleonic intrigues, the challenges of writing books that cross genres, the delights and frustrations of primary source research, “what’s next” in both our series. We went on talking the whole trip, over brunches and dinners and cups of tea. We saw a riveting production of Hamlet with Jude Law and a great cast and talked about the Shakespearean references in both our books. We talked about Jane Austen, who plays a role in one of Lauren’s upcoming books, in light of the wonderful exhibit at the Morgan Library.The exhibit was fabulous. I got chills looking at Austen’s letters, trying to decipher the words, noting that her handwriting was neater in the manuscript pages of Lady Susan than in the letters to her family, seeing first-hand the the crossed lines (turning the letter and writing crosswise to get the maximum use out of expensive paper) one reads about in Austen and other 19th centuries writers. There esearch gems such as a board game from 1809 called Journey Round the Metropolis: An Amusing and Instructive Game with pictures of London sights and an 1811 book called Ellen or the Naughty Girl Reclaimed with instructional stories for children illustrated by cut out figures. I think a rather prosy relative will present the book to young Jessica Fraser in one of my future novels. Jessica will enjoy playing with the cut outs but wrinkle her nose at the text.
The exhibit also included a print of a portrait Austen said was Jane Bennet Bingley. I’ve always loved the letter of Austen’s in which she talks about attending an exhibition and finding a portrait of Mrs. Bingley. She adds that she looked for a portrait of Mrs. Darcy but didn’t find one, which she puts that down to Mr. Darcy not wanting to let go of any portraits of her. What I love about this letter, as I told Lauren, is that it shows Austen imagined her characters having a life outside the pages of her novels.
Which is just what Lauren and I were doing throughout my visit (including at a wonderful brunch at the Atlantic Grill in the picture below). Talking about our characters, their pasts, their interconnections, events we envisioned for them in the future. Questioning each other about spoilers for future books (fortunately neither of us minds knowing spoilers) and how various characters’ paths might cross. Of course we both write series, which lend themselves to this sort of speculation, but I’ve always loved continuing the stories of books I read in my head after I turn the last page. I think it’s one reason that the books I write have always been interconnected.
I love the idea of Austen looking for her characters among the paintings at an exhibition. Much as today we look for our characters while watching a movie or turning the pages of a magazine. Such as when I watched the recent adaptation of Little Dorrit and thought Matthew MacFadyen would make a wonderful Charles. Or thinking how like Mélanie Eva Green was in Casino Royale. (Though neither of them was who I had in mind when I wrote Secrets of a Lady or Beneath a Silent Moon).
When I blogged about this on my own website, Susan commented, "I’ve certainly seen photos or paintings or actors who make me think of a character in a book: On reading Mary Balogh’s 'The Notorious Rake' I immediately pictured Daniel Day Lewis as Lord Edmond Waite. When I read 'Atonement', I thought Heath Ledger would make a perfect Robbie Turner. Much as I like James MacAvoy and think he’s totally adorable, he just doesn’t have the physical presence I thought Robbie should have. And I don’t see Michael MacFadyen as Charles. I like MacFadyen, but I think of Charles as having stronger features and coloring — an external expression of his passion and intelligence. Richard Armitage fits my image of Charles much better, but you are the author so you are certainly entitled to see whomever you like in the role."
Which goes to the fascinating idea of how the reader is a partner in the story and each reader reads a slightly different book. (Actually, having watched North & South several times while doing holiday preparations, I could definitely see Richard Armitage as Charles; of course it's hard to quarrel with Richard Armitage as just about anyone :-).
14 December 2009
For most of the Georgian era pregnancy itself doesn’t seem to be something that was celebrated or treated as something to be memorialized. The safe delivery of a child certainly was, and it is that, not the pregnancy, that tends to show up in letters and diaries. In contrast to the myth of pregnant women being “confined” alone and unseen, most reports show that they were out in public attending (and even hosting) events right up until the end.
There are few examples of clothes that were devoted specifically to maternity. There are several possibilities as to why this might be (and the truth is probably some combination of them all). Firstly, most images show that women simply wore their normal clothes, with editions such as aprons, shawls, and special waistcoats to cover the growing belly (the apron was so common a symbol of pregnancy that little girls playing dress-up would wear one when playing “house” and pretending to be pregnant). The fact that women’s skirts rode up in the front, or that things didn’t close fully doesn’t seem to have been of much concern. Secondly, if they did make special clothes, they probably altered them after, or passed them on to be worn by friends and family until they were worn out. Thirdly, they simply weren’t considered important enough to save.
There are also descriptions of women wearing stays during their pregnancy, as well as an etching of a pattern for them (c. 1771).
For more information on pregnancy and early motherhood see “What Clothes Revel” by Linda Baumgarten. It has a whole section on this topic, complete with many excerpts from period diaries and letters.
Image, clockwise from the top right: An 18th century quilted gown laced over a matching waistcoat for pregnancy; The same gown as worn when not pregnant; A gown designed for a nursing mother, c. 1825-1830. The top panel lifts to expose an underbodice with slits; Detail from Diligence & Dissipation, c. 1796 The unwed pregnant woman is shown descending the stairs, her belly covered by an apron.
11 December 2009
Little Men in Floppy Blue Pajamas
Have you ever taken a train through the High Sierras? Through mile-long tunnels and along tracks that cling to mountainsides overlooking deep canyons?
The most spectacular and dangerous routes were hacked out solid rock by hand by small (110 lb), tough, energetic Chinese laborers who hauled off the earth and rock in tiny loads and, as winter approached, worked 3-shift, 24-hour days and slept in tent cities at night.
Back in 1865 what were seen as those strange little men with their dishpan straw hats, pigtails, and floppy blue pajamas proved themselves the equal of burly Irish immigrants also hired to work on the railroads. At first, the railroad bosses judged the Chinese too frail and unmechanical for such work. [Had they known history, of course, they might have recognized the tremendous grit and cleverness of the Chinese, exhibited in the building of the Great Wall (also hacked by hand out of mountainsides) and the invention of clocks, gunpowder, paper, ceramic glaze, etc.]
The little Chinese men–actually farm boys from Canton–came to California originally to rework tailings of gold mines left by the ’49ers. Finally formed into railroad crews of from 12 to 20 men with their own cook and Chinese headman, the men proved quick to learn, slow to complain, and unfailingly punctual! (Irish workers were said to be a headache–promoting strikes, drinking up their earnings, and brawling.)
The Chinese amazed everyone: they didn’t strike; they didn’t get drunk; they bathed every day and drank boiled tea instead of the dirty water that sickened everyone else. They did gamble and occasionally had fights among themselves, but overall they were looked on as disciplined, efficient, reliable working machines. They were called Celestials. (The Irish were called Terrestrials.)
Clearing the path for the laying of railroad track encouraged competition among crews. Fifty-seven miles from Sacramento the Central Pacific Chinese crew ran into a shale mass in the flank of the Sierra, 200 feet above the gorge of the American River. Track would have to be laid along a ledge with no footholds, 1400 feet above the raging river below.
The Irish took one look and began protesting because it was so dangerous. The Chinese took over and triumphed. Lowered down the face of the cliffs in wicker baskets, the Chinese crews pounded holes in the rock, stuffed them with black powder, and set fuses. They were then hauled out of danger, and when the smoke cleared the hunks of rocky mountainsides had come tumbling down. The Chinese crews lost not a single man during this dangerous enterprise; they were paid $35 per month and that didn’t include food or lodging. They lived in on-site wind-whipped huts or dank caves and ate Chinese delicacies shipped from San Francisco and prepared by the Chinese camp cook.
Blizzards in the winter of 1866-67 all but stopped progress, but the Chinese continued to bore tunnels through solid rock, even though the men were often cut off by snow and had to eat stockpiled food while dodging avalanches. Tunnels were cut under the snow for access from lodging to work site.
The Great Track-Laying Race occurred after this bitter winter when both sides, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, were to connect in the desert. By this time, the Central Pacific crews included Irish men. For a time the Irish and the Chinese crews competed in clearing grading, with neither side warning the other of impending explosive blasts.
The Great Race between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific began when each railroad owner wanted to beat the other to the connecting. Guess who won?
The Central Pacific’s combined Irish-Chinese crews managed to lay 10 miles of track in 12 hours and thus proved their superiority. The burly Irishmen would lug the iron track sections and drop them in position, and the Chinese would hammer them in place, by which time there would be another section of track waiting.
Thus was America built.
Source: The Railroaders [The Old West]; Time-Life Books, New York.
09 December 2009
Law and Literature
In retrospect, that isn’t entirely true.
It isn’t just that I took terribly useful vocational classes at law school like Ancient Athenian Trials, on the theory that you never know when you might want to write a crime thriller set in Ancient Athens (apparently, there are still embarrassing pictures of me in Ancient Greek garb defending Eratosthenes floating around out there somewhere. Thank you, Harvard Law School Gazette). Law has all sorts of bearings on the world I write about and the characters I create, whether they realize it or not. The chance decision of a legislator or a judge can change the entire course of a character’s life—even when that decision takes place years before in a case that has nothing at all to do with that character.
It makes more sense than it sounds. My favorite example of this is Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753. You know all those novels where the lead couple is frantically dashing towards Gretna Greene? The entire elopement industry, in both fact and fiction, was spurred by this one piece of legislation, which decreed that the marriage of individuals under the age of twenty-one required parental consent, as well as that banns be published or a special license acquired in order for the marriage to be deemed valid. Marriages contracted in Scotland, which had its own set of laws, were not subject to these requirements, hence the mad dash for the nearest town across the border: Gretna Greene.
I’ve been thinking about this because the indirect consequences of impersonal legislation play a defining role in the lives of the characters in my latest book, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, which is set in India in 1804. Under the Governor-Generalship of Lord Cornwallis (yup, the same Lord Cornwallis who was forced to surrender to those pesky Colonials at a little place called Yorktown), laws were passed banning anyone with one Indian parent from serving in the East India Company’s army or civil service, the main source of income and advancement in British India. This meant that any offspring of an English father and Indian mother were banned, by birth, from most means of gainful employment. Only the more lowly trades remained open. James Skinner, later famous as Skinner of Skinner’s Horse, was apprenticed to a printer, from whom he ran away. Many took service as mercenaries in the armies of local rulers, a practice which exposed them to suspicion from both sides when war broke out between the British and the Mahratta Confederacy.
In The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, my hero, Alex (based loosely on a real life figure, his compatriot, James Kirkpatrick, Resident of Hyderabad), whose mother was Welsh, is reliant upon the Company for his livelihood, first as a captain in cavalry regiment, later as a member of the diplomatic corps. At the same time, his two half-brothers, product of his father’s liaisons with local ladies, are both banned from following in his footsteps, a source of deep conflict for Alex, who finds it difficult to serve and uphold an institution which excludes his family—although, for financial reasons, he has no choice but to do so. Cornwallis’ legislation, passed when Alex’s younger brothers were little more than toddlers, changed the whole course of his life and provides much of the backbone for the book.
So perhaps law has had an impact on my writing after all…. And if you’re looking for an attorney to defend an ancient Athenian, I’m your girl!
04 December 2009
Bronte on the block
I am glad that Ms. Austen left no DNA behind.
Don't count on it. It seems that all the time possessions, papers and other artefacts come out of the woodwork as collections are sold or treasures unearthed in attics. How long before someone finds Jane Austen's hairbrush?
But today I'm cheering on the Bronte Parsonage Museum, because it's the day when Christies of NY is holding an auction of items from the William E. Self Library which includes a first edition of Wuthering Heights, owned by her sister Charlotte and with Charlotte's pencil notes for a second edition. The Museum naturally feels that the book, and the other Bronte items should be in the museum. I agree--I think it would be a tragedy if these items disappeared into the hands of a private collector--and I'm wishing them luck.
Also coming up this month, yet more Bronte items on sale through Sotheby's in London on December 17, when Charlotte's writing desk and Emily's drawing box will go on the block. (Photos courtesy of Sotheby's.)
Sotheby's is a fantastic research site, as well as a massive timesuck, by the way. The same auction also includes the only known letter from Byron to Stendhal, in which Byron defends the character of Sir Walter Scott:
I have known Walter Scott, long and well, and in occasional situations which call forth the real character - and I can assure you that his character is worthy of admiration, that of all men he is the most open, the most honourable - the most amiable...
The letter is dated May 29, 1823 when Byron was preparing to leave for Greece.
There's also a letter from Shelley regarding the publication of Frankenstein, in which he represents a "friend" who is not available to discuss the manuscript or terms of publication, written on August 22, 1817 when Shelley and Mary were living at Great Marlow in Buckinghamshire.
I know when I'm researching or blogging about historical items my first thought is that I'd love to own something like this. I'm hoping that the Bronte Museum has raised enough money to buy the books and furniture that surely belong there, because if they are bought by a private collector it's very unlikely any of us will ever see them.
Yet at the same time I understand the lure of owning something that was used by a known person, or a letter written by a favorite author.
What do you think? What would you like to own and what would you do with it? Donate it to a museum? Gloat over it, wearing cotton gloves, in the privacy of your own climate-controlled vault?
UPDATE: The results of the auction have been posted at BronteBlog. Not all bad news.
03 December 2009
Jane Austen and Galileo's fingers
The kind of history news I love--straight from the CNN headlines: "Galileo's Missing Fingers Found in Jar" and..."What Really Killed Jane Austen?"
Apparently, three fingers were cut from Galileo's hand on March 1737 and a tooth removed from his lower jaw, when his body was moved in Florence (removing body parts as relics from the sanctified dead was a common practice at the time).
The jar with two of the fingers and the tooth went missing in 1905, and only recently resurfaced when somebody brought them to a museum in Florence. The actual cause of Galileo's death remains to be determined...but at least now with fingers and a tooth, there is enough DNA to spare for testing--which could shed some light on the blindness that afflict Galileo late in his life and during his final illness. To read the whole article check out: http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/11/23/galileo.fingers/index.html
Today CNN posted: What Really Killed Jane Austen?
Now in almost every bio I've read or seen about here, the assumption was that she died of consumption, or tuberculosis...but apparently a doctor asserted in a paper he published (in 1964) that she died of Addison's disease (a failure of the adrenal glands). Katherine White, a social scientist who is a coordinator of the UK's Addison's Disease Self-Help Advisory Group says no way---Jane had none of the symptoms: headaches, sleepiness, slurred words, difficultly remembering words--that Jane Austen even wrote a comic poem to her sister 48 hrs before her death was proof she did not suffer from Addison's.
Without DNA, the retrospective diagnosis of Addison's disease (a condition barely recognized in Jane's lifetime) or lymphoma (another refuted cause of her death), will never be proven. Tuberculosis, which rampant in her time even amongst the middle class (milk was unpasteurized), is still the best guess.
Personally, I am glad that Ms. Austen left no DNA behind. We will really never know what killed her. Even the image of her posted here (a painting by Ozias Humphry, believed to be of Jane when she was about 14) is not a sure thing---but I'd prefer to have a mental image of her just like this.
Most of us I am sure, don't really need to know what really killed Jane Austen, or even Galileo. The work they left behind has given them immortality.
But the deaths of historical figures interest me, mostly because so many were premature or untimely. Have you ever researched the final hours of a famous historical figure?
02 December 2009
Margaret & Peter: The Princess and the Equerry
By then Townsend’s marriage to Rosemary Pawle was headed for rocky shoals. In August 1950 he was promoted to Master of the Household, a permanent position requiring a one hundred percent commitment to King George.
Resigned to the inevitable, on October 31, 1955 Townsend declared, “Without dishonour, we have played out our destiny.”