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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 March 2010

Surprising Voices


The first funeral I ever attended was one of those wacky affaires enlivened by jaw-dropping moments when the assembled throng could not believe the Dear Departed’s Best Beloved had chosen something so totally opposite of anything the Dear Departed would have favored while above ground.

I had no idea what was happening or what to do next. Mercifully, my uncle’s partner came to the rescue. He had been raised by his grandmother, a Victorian lady of high principles who was an avid newspaper reader. Every day she scanned the obituaries column to find the most promising funerals to attend, hoping to find dynamic family interactions. After years of attending funerals under her tutelage, my uncle’s partner knew very well just how strongly life can pulse even at graveside.

He also left me with a residual fascination for obituaries. If I find the obituary page in a newspaper, I will read it – because there’s almost always unexpected history in a person’s life. Whether it’s a celebrity or an everyday person, a political genius or a scientist – it doesn’t matter to me. I’ll at least glance through the person’s history to see how their story came together.

Historical editions of newspapers are fascinating, too. If nothing else, they give me a feel for how contemporaries felt about the Dear Departed. “One of the most sagacious statesmen that England ever produced” said the London Times about Sir Robert Peel in 1850, as compared to the New York Times Magazine’s description of a CIA founder, “conservative politics, social views that included crude prejudice against Jews and blacks and a manner that could veer from fawning on the great to public abuse of menials.”

Then there are the obits that make me want to meet the people involved. “At Paris, also, he met the Countess d’Agoult, well known in the literary world as ‘Daniel Stern,’ who for years remained attached to him. By her he had three children – a boy who died in infancy, a daughter, also dead, who married Emile Ollivier, the statesman who went into the Franco-German war ‘with a light heart,’ and a second daughter, the widow of Richard Wagner, who survives her father,” said the London Times about Franz Liszt.

Or, “Mrs. Garrett Anderson Anderson remained the only female member of the British Medical Association until 1892…Recently her powers were failing; but she was fond of going to London stations to wish God-speed to soldiers starting for the front. Mrs. Garrett Anderson’s sister is Dr. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, to whose husband the blind Postmaster-General she acted as medical advisor. Her son, Sir Alan Garrett Anderson, last August succeeded Sir Eric Geddes as Controller of the Navy; and the first list of appointments to the new Order of the British Empire, which we published last August, contained not only his name among the Knight Commanders, but that of his sister, Dr. Garrett Anderson, among the Commanders, as ‘organizer of the first hospital run by women at the front,’” wrote the London Times about Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

And, even more simply, “It was one hot day when she decided her oldest son Thad plow that she decided her children wouldn’t spend their lives following a mule through the South Carolina dirt,” said the Philadelphia Daily News.

I also enjoy reading obits for samples of period prose. “That he might perfect his formidable military machinery he provoked unpopularity by laying heavy burdens upon Prussia, by exacting what seemed in those days to be an unendurable blood-tax, and by setting the popular Chamber at defiance when it refused him the indispensable money votes,” complained the London Times about Bismarck.

Or, “He often participated in scientific meetings, where he could be irascible while amusing his colleagues with profane asides,” said the New York Times about Maurice Hilleman, a microbiologist who’s saved probably more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century.

Obits may be occasioned by death but they’re full of life, a treasure trove for a historical novelist.

Do you read historical newspapers, too? What hidden corners do you like to mine for voices from the past?

1. Marilyn Johnson. The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. Harper Perennial, New York, 2006.

2. The Times. Great Victorian Lives, An Era in Obituaries. Gen. Ed. by Ian Brunskill, ed. by Prof. Andrew Sanders. Times Books, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2007.

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7 Comments:

Anonymous Jane O said...

I don't suppose 2007 qualifies as historic, but I did enjoy the obit for David Muffet in the London Times. It begins:

David Muffett, who has died aged 88, applied the skills he had honed when dealing with cannibals in colonial Africa to battling education ministers and teaching unions in his role as chairman of Hereford and Worcester County Council education committee.
A huge, lumbering bear of a man, 6ft 2in tall and nearly as broad, with a booming voice and bristling moustache, Muffett looked rather like a cross between Falstaff and Captain Mainwaring.
He spent 16 years in the colonial service in northern Nigeria, where he claimed to have been one of only two Britons whose name passed into the native Hausa language: "Aka yi masa mafed" (literally "One did to him Muffett"), meaning "Justice caught up with him".
Muffett liked to regard himself as a hard-riding "bush DO" (district officer) of the old school and he allowed nothing to stand in the way of justice and good administration. Yet although he was ebullient and thick-skinned, he was always sensitive to local tradition.
In 1960 he apprehended the Tigwe of Vwuip, a northern Nigerian tribal chief who had eaten the local tax collector. The Tigwe had apparently been so impressed by the man's ability to acquire money on demand that he had — understandably — decided to try to assimilate his powers.
It was not so much this particular misdemeanour that bothered Muffett; what really worried him was the fact that a UN delegation was due to visit the area, and "I wasn't about to have one of them eaten. I considered that it would be a highly retrogressive step."
The Tigwe, who was surprised to learn that the colonial authorities disapproved of his eating habits, was duly sent to jail — but only "until the delegation had departed beyond the reach of his culinary aspirations."

6:30 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Aren't obits a wonderful glimpse into life, Jane? Who'd have thought the cannibal lifestyle might cause problems with a UN delegation? LOL

7:59 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Oh my goodness, Jane! What a great obit !! Am I the only one who finds poetic justice in a tax collector being eaten by a cannibal?

What a fascinating post, Diane. I do read obits out of sheer curiosity about the people who live in this town all their lives simply to glean those little tidbits I never would have imagined about them.

I know there is a book around here somewhere that has unusual obituaries in it - complete with the odd details of the deceased's death. "He was trampled by his bull, Domino, and wasn't found for three days."

10:17 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a great post, Diane! I love historical newspapers. U.C. Berkeley has the Morning Chronicle on microfilm. I love pouring through it. You can see what play was playing at what theater on what night. There are great fashion notes and notes of who's going in and out of London, and also transcripts of Parliamentary debate and foreign news.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Ah, Louisa, you never know who somebody was until you read their obit, do you!

Tracy - I read the New York Times constantly for research since it's available online. Now, if they'd only stop squeezing a dozen inches of newsprint into a single PDF page, I'd be a very happy woman. But the things you can learn are fabulous!

1:28 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

I must admit that any newspaper older than a few days holds a tremendous fascination for me and makes putting out the recycling a long, drawn out affair. The classifieds tend to be very revealing--and did you know you can read The Bath Chronicle online going back to the 18th century? I won't give a link since I don't do html after 10 pm but it's pretty easy to find.

7:00 PM  
Blogger librarypat said...

I don't make a habit of reading obituaries, but on occasion have seen some interesting ones. I went to a funeral this past Sunday. It was truly a celebration of the man's live and his love of his family, friends and his music life. The strength and love shown by his children and friends as they related anecdotes of his life and played the music that meant so much to him was the best testament to what a fine person he was.
We visit old cemeteries and read tombstones. You can learn much from the inscriptions and signs found there.

7:37 PM  

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