turning 70 years old.

This year I turned 70 years old and it has been an adjustment.  It just sounds old.  I am not that forever young person who wears clothes too young for me and considers plastic surgery or dieting to better resemble my younger self.  Yet, this birthday was a bit of a trial.  It was my dear friends who kept me afloat during the unexpected turbulence of this particular reality.

I turned to a writer who often speaks of her friends, her gardens and her life.  I have begun reading May Sarton’s journal “At Seventy” and have gratefully found a way to approach this time of my life.  She wrote poetry, essays, novels, but it is her journals that speak to me.  One of the books always on my shelf is her “Journal of a Solitude.”

“I am here alone for the first time in weeks to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange–that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life, unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened.”

When I first read that I felt a kinship with this writer.  Now, how perfect for me to discover her book/journal “On Seventy”.  So much of the journal is quotidian: garden work, flowers, friends who stop by, talks she must travel away from her home to give.  Her writing calms me, it offers perspective, and best yet, it has led me to dig out an old, unused journal and begin my own “On Seventy.”

                  “It is order in all things that rests the mind.”

Out of that sense of order, of rest, of writerly encouragement I have found my way back to writing my fiction.  One book “finished” and ready for the task of agent hunting, the other actually begins to develop form in my mind and the research has direction at last.  Lady Mary: here I come.


Resolutions 2019

This was intended to be an end of 2018 essay.  On December 31 I finished and placed into a drawer the very final last version of Madison Rhapsody.  This is the book I have been working on for over a decade.  It is about the changes created in the 1960s, about loss, and memory.  It has been a very personal story.   And I am really glad to have put the last word to it.

So now, I am writing a beginning 2019 essay….thus, the title.

I am looking forward to researching in earnest England in the late 17th century-early 18th century.  Lady Mary Wortley Montague traveled to Constantinople in 1718.  If I am to show the reader how extraordinary this overland trek really was I will need to explain the physical and psychological restraints women faced, even this privileged aristocratic woman.

I have some natural resistance to studying those times, dare I say lack of interest?  Lady Mary was an influential and ambitious woman during a very political time.  (Although, I am beginning to understand that all times are very political when looked at closely. alas!)  There were challenges to the Crown and internal conflicts between the Whigs and the Tories.  All as nasty as anything we see in the 21st century. (Again, alas!)  To me, this is all beside the point of what I want to tell.  But it is background; it is the  milieu Lady Mary inhabited, and made her who she was.

Lady Mary was a strong, intelligent woman manipulating her political environment for the benefit of her husband’s success.  But, she also wrote and published and participated in an active intellectual society.  Among others, but the most famous today, 300 years later, was Alexander Pope.  He was friends with her, seemingly lusted after her, and eventually turned against her.  She was the target of some of his most public and vicious criticism in his poetry.  Apparently, the Dunciad lambasted her.  This is future research for me.

While in the Orient Lady Mary, whose beauty had been ravaged by smallpox when she was about 20 years old, learned about inoculation for smallpox and brought the information back to England. She and many of her royal friends inoculated their children.  Twenty years later, during another outbreak of the disease, the male medical establishment encouraged inoculation and took credit for it.

Lady Mary was a domineering woman with a weak inattentive husband, a spoiled irresponsible son and a daughter married into a family of political insiders.  In later life she developed a passion for a bisexual Italian and followed him to Italy.  There she lived on her own, visiting English friends, perhaps having an affair, feeling healthy as she aged, writing advice to her daughter and husband and despairing of her son.

All of this is interesting, all of it worth writing about

All of this is the weeds I must get through and understand to sail out into what I think is the most remarkable part of her life.  She traveled overland in 1718 across Europe to Constantinople.  She embraced every adventure.  She recorded it all with intelligence and enthusiasm.  In the foreign East she found ways within the confining structure of her class and times and gender to visit a Harem, to befriend people, to learn about Islam.  She embraced the new and different fearlessly.

This is the Lady Mary who excites my imagination.  And this is the project for 2019, 2020, etc.   NOW, how to deal with all those pesky weeds!

Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

As I continue reading biographies to find out how best to write about Lady Mary I am continually delighted by new(to me) books about, and new insights into the lives of women of accomplishment from earlier centuries.  I have recently completed a wonderful book “Romantic Outlaws” by Charlotte Gordon.

romantic outlaws

This is a dual biography, written in alternating chapters about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.  Initially I was doubtful that alternating chapters could satisfy, but I was wrong.  The time from Mary Wollstonecraft’s birth in 1797 until Mary Shelley’s death in 1851 expanded time and women’s experience for me.

This book tells the story of two very intelligent, independent-minded and rebellious women, each of whom has left an indelible impression on all modern women, whether we are aware of it or not.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a child of the Enlightenment.  She was an intellectual.  “She had strong opinions-‘truths’- she would have said-that she wanted to express in what she called a ‘masculine’ style: bold, honest, and eminently rational rather than trivial, weak and flowery, the unfortunate list of adjectives attributed to ‘feminine’ writing by most in the eighteenth century.”  She wrote columns in journals of the day.  What she learned and shared with all of us was that rationality does not need to be abstracted from sentiment.  She believed and determinedly lived her life blending both logic and grand passions.  There has often been a confusion, for mainly feminists I think, about a strong rational woman who fearlessly gave into her passion and obsession with her lovers.  I do not think she would have seen a contradiction.  One should not cancel out the other.  A passionate life need not cast a shadow over a rational life.

Mary Shelley was more than the woman who wrote Frankenstein or the poet’s wife.  She, too, was an independent-thinking, strong woman who loved fiercely, maintained an intellectual life which included much writing and reading Greek (among other accomplishments she shared with Shelley, the poet).  What is remarkable to me, is that she actually incorporated in her personality and her life all that her mother believed and tried to live.  She also endured the loss of her mother at her very birth, the deaths of four children and her husband’s dramatic drowning in Italy.  She faced down all varieties of scandal by choosing to live her life true to herself.

This quote from the book is about Mary Wollstonecraft, but I think it applies to Mary Shelley, as well.  “Mostly, her deeply held beliefs sustained her.  On the one hand, she was unique, the first of a genus, but like all women she had endured prejudice and hate; her sufferings, though specific to her, exemplified the injustices that others also had to suffer; and it was the general experience that she wanted to expose.  If she could show her readers what it felt like to be powerless, what it was like to be a woman without legal recourse, poor, abused and at the mercy of others, if she could reveal the root causes of human suffering and misogyny, then perhaps she could galvanize her readers and save others from the same miseries.”

I love these two women thanks to Charlotte Gordon’s “Romantic Outlaws.”


At the ripe age of 66 I started to learn music.  I’m taking singing lessons.  It comes as a surprise to learn I have a reasonably good ear and pitch memory, and that I am a soprano.  I expected to be more Bonnie Raitt than Julie Andrews.  This is all beside the point except it’s made me think about music in all contexts.  Also, beside the point is that as I learn to read sheet music and count rhythm I feel as though I’ve learned the secret handshake, that I’m in the club, and that I can join the chorus.  I have joined one!

So, that’s all about me.  Now, on to how this makes me think and hopefully apply it to writing historical fiction.

We are so lucky to be alive at the time of recorded music (Muzak excepted).  Prior to the 20th Century music was heard in church, by minstrels and troubadors, in tribal and formal Western dance, at chamber concerts, in work songs and lullabyes.  A person either sang, or played an instrument, or attended a community event where music was performed by others.  If you were wealthy you could commission music to be written or attend private concerts.  If you were middle class, i.e. possessed something like disposable income, you might attend chamber concerts at Assembly Hall dances.  If you were poor you relied on yourself and friends and family to carry on the familiar ballads, folk songs and lullabyes you grew up listening to.

I find it interesting that music plays so minor a role in so much of 19th century literature.  And I find it disappointing not to read mention of music in the copious letters of Lady Mary Whortly Montague.  Other than a brief description of what we call Belly Dancing which she provided from her time in Turkey we know nothing about her experiences with music.  She lived many years in Italy in the 18th century and does not mention opera.

In the effort to find a way into writing about Lady Mary I am reading lots of biographies.  I recently finished The Baroness by Hannah Rothschild.  This is a wonderful book, and happily filled with music!  Hannah Rothschild tells the story of her errant great grand aunt who was born into the wealth, style and expectations of the 19th century Rothschild dynasty.  Rebellious by nature and growing up through the tumultuous first half of the 20th century (which century is not tumultuous???), she was an adventurous woman.  The music comes in because she was fascinated by the new Jazz.  After hearing a recording of Thelonious Monk her life took an entirely unexpected and eccentric turn.  She devoted herself to him and to Bebop musicians in New York.  It is a fascinating story and was truly fun to read.  I am happy to report the author’s POV gave me an insight into how I might approach Lady Mary’s story.

In the great tradition of procrastinating writers I made notes, intended to begin writing, and then decided to read yet another biography.  This time the story of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley called Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon.  One of these days I will begin the Lady Mary book.  Maybe when the snow falls!

Guest Post ~ “The Jane Austen Project” ~ by Kathleen A. Flynn

This excerpt is filled with so much detail I felt myself there. This is what I think historical fiction does best. I am looking forward to a delicious immersion in the whole book.

Jane Austen in Vermont

Dear Gentle Readers: I welcome today Kathleen A. Flynn, author of the just-released The Jane Austen Project, a time-travel tale wherein we will find ourselves in 1815 Regency England and meet up with Jane Austen. Kathleen includes here an excerpt from the first chapter – you will want to read the rest after this intro!

The Jane Austen Project

This excerpt is from early in the first chapter. Our time travelers, Rachel and Liam, have arrived in 1815, regaining consciousness in a field in Leatherhead, Surrey, a town that is now on the edge of greater London but at that time would have been well out of the city. With only the period-correct clothes on their back and a small fortune in fake banknotes concealed under those clothes, they pull themselves together and start on foot to the nearest coaching inn, the Swan. Their plan is to take rooms for…

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Emma Hamilton

While in London recently I attended the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to see the exhibit called “Emma Hamilton. Seduction and Celebrity”.   She is mainly known, if at all, as the woman who was Lord Nelson’s lover.  But, that was only one part of an interesting life.

emma hamilton

She was born in 1765 to a blacksmith and his wife, a strong-minded woman.  Her mother brought her to London about 1777 and little is known about her life.  It seems she was a servant girl, a backstage theater girl, probably a prostitute.  Then, about 1781 she, reportedly an ‘astonishing beauty,’ was “taken up” by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, a well known rake.  She became pregnant; he did not respond to her pleas, her letters, he did not take care, or apparently care.  She was friendly with (probably danced on table tops for) Lord Greville.  When she appealed to him regarding her pregnancy he agreed to take her in if she gave up her child and abandoned all those she knew except for her mother. Despite heartbreak at losing her daughter she agreed, and she and her mother became housemaids in the service of Lord Greville.   Emma became his lover as well.  When he tired of her he sent her on to his uncle, the ambassador to the court of Naples, William Hamilton.  William Hamilton was genuinely smitten and in love with her.  When his first wife died he married Emma.  During their twenty-five years together she grew into an educated, respected wife, a great beauty and entertainer, and a women of some political influence.

This exhibit was one of the most comprehensive I have ever seen.  Emma Lyons Hart Hamilton was a friend and muse for the painter George Romney.  He called her his “Divine Emma.”  From 1782-1791 he painted her portrait 70 times in historical themes, sketches, society portraits.  She was beautiful, intelligent, sensuous, theatrical…..and not yet 21 years old.emma-drawing.jpg

While in Naples the Napoleonic wars raged, putting the court of the Queen of Naples and Sicily at risk.  When Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson visited Naples, Emma and William Hamilton enlisted his aide to secure safe passage for the Queen and her retinue.  They became friends and eventually, Emma and Nelson became lovers.  This appears to have been a grand, real, passionate love.  However, because Nelson was a hero to the British (a married hero) and Emma was of poor reputation (despite a respectable marriage) she was seen as a manipulator and a bad influence.  She was not approved of because of her birth, her class, her employment (entertainer), and now because she held sway over Lord Nelson.  Yet, the lovers persisted in returning to England, living on a shared estate, having a daughter together.  He added a codicil to his will “I leave Emma Lady Hamilton therefore a Legacy to my King and Country that they will give her ample provision to maintain her rank in life. I also leave to the beneficience of my country my adopted daughter Horatia Nelson Thompson.”   Alas, when he died at Trafalger in 1805 the King and Country, so grateful to their hero but saddled with prejudice, did not honor his last wishes.

Emma Hamilton died impoverished in Calais in 1815 at the age of 49.  This wonderful exhibit goes a long way to redeeming a powerful and interesting woman who lived in an intolerant time.

A Proposed 18th Century Tax Bill Targets 27-Year-Old Spinsters…And Their Cats!

this is too wonderful not to share.

Mimi Matthews

‘As the supply alluded to is to be levied upon all old maids, beyond a certain age, and intitled to certain yearly or other income; I make no doubt but both Houses of Parliament will speedily manifest their hearty concurrence thereto.’
The London Magazine, 1777.

A Visit to Grandmother by John Raphael Smith after Thomas James Northcote, 1785.(Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium) A Visit to Grandmother by John Raphael Smith after Thomas James Northcote, 1785.
(Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium)

The 1777 edition of the London Magazine includes an interesting letter to the editor in which a gentleman—who signs himself as ‘A Friend to the Community’—has appended a proposed bill to levy a tax of ‘6d. in the pound’ on old maids. He claims that this tax will generate revenues of nearly £300,000 per annum, a sum which could then be used to help fund the British war against the American colonies. The proposed bill begins by stating:

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Aphra Behn

As I begin in earnest my research and work to write about Lady Mary Wortley Montegue I have decided to read lots of biographies.  I hope it will reveal a way clear for me to do justice to this woman whose life I believe will interest a wider audience.  I have recently completed “Reconstructing Aphra. A Social Biography of Aphra Behn” by Angeline Goreau.

Aphra Behn is credited with being the first woman to earn her living by her writing. She lived from 1640-1689.  Yes!  In the 17th century a strong, literate, adventurous woman participated in the intellectual conversations of her time in London.  She wrote many successfully performed plays and was well known, then.  If any English Majors have even heard of her it is probably by knowing of the book called Oroonoko.  That book, she claimed, was a biography of an educated African slave who lived in the colony Surinam at the same time she was there as a young woman.   The veracity of it has long been questioned.  The author of this biography has done enough research to make a convincing claim that Oroonoko was a real person.  But, even if not, then this is a early work of fiction: a novel long before Daniel Defoe “invented” the novel.

What interests me the most about this woman who wrote, earned a living, experienced adventures in the world and was known by other writers of the era is how completely she has been sidelined and mostly forgotten, instead of celebrated. This is obviously the same issue I have with Lady Mary’s reputation.

The Restoration period was a time of what was referred to as ‘loose morals’.  No doubt people reacted to being freed from the religious strictures imposed by Cromwell and his administration.  The Restoration refers to the return of the monarchy.

Aphra Behn, perhaps the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, was educated and well traveled when she settled in London. She had been to debtors’ prison once and did not want to return.  Thus, she used her skills to earn a living.  She wrote bawdy, witty plays like most of her fellow writers.  As the era waned she was increasingly condemned for her lewdness.  “It is curious that the first woman to write professionally for the English Stage began her career when the morality of English Drama was at its lowest.”  Damning with faint praise by the Cambridge History of English Literature, indeed.

She was tough minded and unapologetic.  This is the epilogue to her play Sir Patient Fancy.  “I here and there o’erheard a coxcomb cry,/ Ah, Rot it —’tis a woman’s comedy,/One, who because she lately chanc’d to please us,/With her damn’d stuff, will never cease to tease us,/ What had poor woman done, that she must be/Debarred from sense, and sacred poetry?…/As for you half-wits, you unthinking tribe,/We’ll let you see, what e’er besides we do,/How artfully we copy some of you:/And if you’re drawn to th’life, pray tell me then,/Why women should not write as well as men.” Clearly she could give as good as she got!

In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf pays tribute to her.  “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.  It is she – shady and amorous as she was – who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.”

Research is such a pleasure, especially when I get introduced to these brave accomplished women.  I plan to share them as they become known to me.

thoughts on peace

Sigh!  Peace seems so impossible these days.

Here is a poem by Yehuda Amichai that gives me hope and comfort in small ways.


Not the peace of a cease-fire,

not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,

but rather

as in the heart when the excitement is over

and you can talk only about a great weariness.

I know that I know how to kill,

that makes me an adult.

And my son plays with a toy gun that knows

how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.

A peace


without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,

without words, without

the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be

light, floating, like lazy white foam.

A little rest for the wounds-

who speaks of healing?

(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation

to the next, as in a relay race:

the baton never falls.)


Let it come

like wildflowers,

suddenly, because the field

must have it: wildpeace.


thoughts on time

I am interested in how notions of what I have always taken for granted are, in fact, things, thoughts, ideas that have changed over history.  Time.  Time as we keep track of it is relatively new.  I don’t mean in the Einsteinian sense.  And I long ago learned about the different calendars (Julian vs. Gregorian).   No, I am surprised to learn that keeping track of daily time has been standardized for barely 100 years.  For context, let me say my father would be over 100 years old if he were alive.  So, suddenly in my ripe late middle age I’ve learned that time, as I’ve always known it, is a modern invention.

As with so much in history it came about slowly.  In the Middle Ages ‘liturgical time’ competed with ‘merchant time’.  During the Renaissance the Medici’s and The Church were intolerant of expressions of the future.  They seemed to actually want to monopolize time.  The biggest changes came with the Industrial Revolution beginning in the 18th century. The needs of capital and the mechanization of work replaced the rhythms of the natural world. Time was no longer something ‘passed’ as something ‘spent’.

This is my period of interest, where my attention is focused.  This is the period of time where Lady Mary Wortly Montagu and  Jane Austen reside. It strikes me as curious that I haven’t noticed a different kind of time there.

Time was standardized for the railroads in Britain on December 11, 1847.  They chose Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) which is still the worldwide prime meridian.  The USA and Canada lived with nearly 100 individual time zones until they too acknowledged GMT in 1883!  British colonies around the globe protested ‘colony time’.    Daily Savings Time created another issue.  Since I’m not a fan of it I will not go into that history, except to say in 1918 the Mayor of Bangor, Maine (a man after my own heart) actually declared local time secession in protest of the newly created standard time and daily savings time.  I’m more of a time passing, natural time girl.  That does not, of course, account for how I’m always early wherever I go, wear a wrist watch and even have a ‘dress up’ watch.

I love that before all official standardization (which is most of recorded time!) people kept time by calling noon the moment that the sun was directly overhead wherever they happened to be, or the day began when it was light enough to see the veins in a person’s hands.  It could be measured by something called a ‘pissing while’, or the time it takes to cook rice.  I found an old recipe from my husband’s grandmother in Kansas who measured how long to bake her pies by the amount of cobs needed to heat the oven.

My favorite item is that in 1835 a man named Henry Belville carried a chronometer through London giving out the correct time to the clockmakers.  His granddaughter continued the business of traveling from Greenwich to London to sell the exact time during the Second World War.  Unlikely, but true!