MUSIC

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!

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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 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!

The more things change, the more they stay the same

This expression came to mind most recently while I was reading about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She was a woman of profound intellect with many literary accomplishments. She was, for her times, a ‘mover and shaker’.  And yet, we hardly know her.

One accomplishment that draws me to such a fascinating woman from the late 17th and early 18th century is that she is responsible for bringing knowledge of small pox inoculation to England.  She had had the disease and it left her scarred.  When she was living in Turkey in 1717 she learned about their custom of inoculating children.  She had her young son engrafted then and there.  When she returned to London she shared the information with friends, some of whom had their young children inoculated.  In 1721 London experienced another epidemic of small pox and Lady Mary watched many of her friends become afflicted and die. She began to advocate more wildly for prevention, but physicians disagreed about whether prevention or treatment was more important.  A power struggle ensued between the College of Physicians who cared for the wealthy members of society and the Apothecaries who cared for and treated the poor.  The apothecaries were charged with “quacking about in the office of physicians.” (I completely LOVE that the use of Quack in reference to false and ignorant medical skills goes back to 1659, so says the OED!)  From arguments of treatment to who administers that treatment and ultimately to religious leaders disbelief the gamut of disrespect and paranoia sounds sadly familiar to the modern ear.  I’m thinking of reactions to HIV/AIDS and, more recently, Ebola.

Reverend Edmund Massey actually preached an “anti-inoculation sermon”.  Warning that inoculation “negates the two spiritual functions of disease”: divine punishment and divine testing.  A popular pampleteer, William Wagstaffe, complained that this medical procedure came from ‘non-physicians’ and was “stemming from a country inferior.”  He could not support an “experiment practiced only by a few Ignorant Women, amongst an Illiterate and unthinking people.”  He suggested that inoculation was a poison and “an artful way of depopulating the Country.”  The opposition press to the Royal family protested that it was “female inspired and Turkish.”

In response to this outpouring of prejudice the (male) physicians who were medically progressive and advocates for inoculation decided to undermine and bury the important contribution that women played in bringing this Oriental prevention to England.  They chose to accentuate the scientific aspects only.

Thus, it has taken me 300 years to learn that Lady Mary was the progressive voice of saving lives and bringing inoculations to the West.  Who else don’t I know about, yet?

are stories from the sixties historical fiction?

I have always thought about historical fiction in terms of past centuries. By past centuries what I mean is not my own time.  But, I was brought up sharply to the passage of time and possibility of expanding my understanding of what is history because of a recent conversation.   I volunteer at the local survival center and meet a wonderful cross-section of people there.  On this particular day I was talking with a college student.  When I asked her what she was reading and she said a biography of Marilyn Monroe I was surprised, but intrigued.  The more we spoke, the more it became clear that she considered Marilyn Monroe an historical figure. That certainly gave me a new perspective on time, aging, and my reference points.

How can Marilyn Monroe be history? How can movies from the 1950s be considered history?  I was alive for them!  I realize how simplistic this is when I think about my 96 year old mother’s reference points: The Great Depression, World War II.  Certainly, despite her age, she doesn’t think  of her life as history. To me, however, both of those events are historical.

This line of thought leads me to wonder whether I could market my book about my college days in Madison, Wisconsin in 1970 as historical fiction. Of course, the very thought makes me uncomfortable and reflect on my own age. But it now seems likely that 1999, which is the ‘present’ part of the book and 1970, which is the flashback part of the book could/would be read as history by some people.

Does anyone have an opinion about this?

 

Lady Mary Wortley Montague and the Turkish baths

I am reading a biography of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Isobel Grundy. It is the most detailed and academic biography I’ve ever read, filled with footnotes and references.  These are gifts to me as I work to bring into focus what it was like for a woman to travel in 1717.

Today my intrepid, aristocratic Lady Mary has finally arrived in the Ottoman Empire. Her first visit to Eastern culture is in Sofia, capital of present day Bulgaria.  When she visits the Turkish bath house a transformative phase in her life begins.  She is delighted beyond all measure.  Grundy says, “As usual, Lady Mary was alert to what was and what was not different.”

Inside the five domed stone building where the women’s bath was but one marbled room with sulfurous hot springs she viewed 200 women.  They were naked, relaxed, drinking fruit juice, embroidering, plaiting one another’s hair, and all around appeared entirely comfortable.  Their good humor and friendliness welcomed her.  Egalitarianism was noteworthy since she did not know the status of one woman from another.  She did observe the absence of small pox scars which was something she had recently been afflicted with, and she also noted the lack of red marks from tight stays in clothing.

Grundy says “…to find unadorned, unemproved feminity free from lewdness or narcisssism or rivalry: this was a most happy denial of what her own culture had led her to expect.”

What strikes me to learn, but sadly doesn’t entirely surprise, is that when her letters describing this were published it created a scandal. She was accused of making it up, of not being delicate or lady-like.  As if that was not bad enough, in more recent times she has been accused of snobbery for not joining those women in the bath.

Reactions change according to the norms of the time, but what doesn’t apparently change is the fact that a woman reporter is judged first for her socially aberrant attitudes and then, if lucky, for what she is describing.

Fifty years after reading Lady Mary’s letters describing the Turkish bath, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painted this from notes he had made earlier.  Her letters were a powerful stimulus to the imagination.  And they still are!File:Le Bain Turc, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, from C2RMF retouched.jpg

traveling in wales

Wales is a delightful place to visit! We had a list of things to do which, naturally, was too long for the time we had.  Since neither of us was interested in driving on the wrong side of the road (a trip should be pleasurable, not scary) two places on our list were scratched off.  Public transportation (as wonderful as it is in Britain) could not easily take us up to Dylan Thomas’ home. And getting to and from Hay-on-Wye would have taken one day more than we had available.  I had hoped to get a picture of myself surrounded by uncountable numbers of books, but it was not to be. On the other hand, looking around my study I could probably accomplish that same thing right here!

We did go to Tinturn Abbey.  “Lines Written Above Tinturn Abbey” by Wordsworth might be one of those poems more famous for it’s name than the poem itself.  I read it before leaving for Great Britain and although I thought I knew Wordsworth and that poem….well, it was entirely unknown by me.

We took a train and a bus from Cardiff.  The lovely, small town where we caught the bus is situated in soft rolling hills. The bus driver was friendly and helpful.

tinturn abbey

Tinturn Abbey was looted and destroyed when Henry VIII left the Catholic Church. It is worthy of a visit and a classic poem (title!).  We found beauty and peace among the ruins left behind in this out-of-the-way countryside place.
inside tinturn abbey

My imagination moved into historical eras.  Thanks to Wolf Hall and Ivanhoe Tinturn Abbey was well populated as I quietly meandered through.

Jane Austen’s Chawton

I have just returned from a trip to England and Wales.  I traveled with my good friend, Lynn, who is a fellow ‘janeite’.  It was essential to visit Chawton where Jane Austen lived and wrote her novels.  We took the train from London to Alton, the nearest large(ish) town, and walked the remaining few miles.  Alton is a modern town but there are several buildings and churches from the 17th and 18th century.  So, despite fast moving cars on roadways and roundabouts we knew somewhere beneath the concrete our favorite writer had trod this same path.  The village of Chawton is quaint in that English pubs, grand houses, peaceful way.

Our first stop was the Chawton House Library.CHL with leslie

Chawton house library  As you can see from the pictures it is a 17th century estate. The connection and story behind it is one of my favorites to relate.  Jane’s oldest brother, Edward, by changing his last name to Knight, inherited the estates and fortunes of a childless relative.  This was one of his homes.  Because of his wealth he was able to support his widowed mother and two unmarried sisters (Cassandra and Jane).  They lived in a cottage down the road and they visited here and the other estates (as well as the other relatives) with great regularity.  The Austen extended family provided comfort, support and entertainment in a time when women’s activities were limited, especially if they had no money of their own.

The second part of the story which I love as much is that sometime in the 1990s this house and land went up for sale.  The myth is that Nigel Nicolson (Vita Sackville-West’s son) spoke to a group of Janeites and mentioned that ‘if anyone here has an extra million dollars the house is for sale’.  Lucky for all, Sandy Lerner, a co-founder of Cisco Systems was in the audience.  She is a lover of early writing and decided to take on the project. Over the years she has restored and renewed this lovely manor house and grounds, and has transformed it into a research and learning center for the study of early women’s writing from 1600-1830.  Among other books one can find the original libraries of Jane Austen’s brother….and by extension some of the very books Jane Austen read. I plan to apply for an internship to study there.  Here is more information if anyone else is interested. info@chawtonhouselibrary.org. http://www.chawtonhouselibrary.org

We then wandered down the road to the JA house museum.  This is a lovely place to drift through, seeing the world she lived in and getting a feel for what that life might have felt like.  I was humbled beyond all expectations by the sight of her writing table, and scolded myself for requiring a computer, a room of my own, and just the right paper and pencils. Jane Austen's desk!  Genius doesn’t require more that a table and a quill pen, a quick wit and lively imagination.

We returned to London having spent a time out of time.

thoughts on light

I have been re-reading a yellowed article clipped from the New York Times in June, 2001.  In the Arts section was an essay about an art exhibit I regret never having seen, yet seems to live in my personal curio cabinet of ideas.

Artificial light changed the world.  We will never be able to see it as it was seen before gas and electricity lit it; as it was seen from the beginning of time until a mere two hundred years ago.  Imagine!  Oh sure, we can go to a desert or mountain top to experience the absence of artificial light.  But, can we really see what it must have been to live a day to day existence throughout one’s life without a flash light to guide us, a light bulb to read by? I struggle to put myself there.

The Carnegie exhibition posited that “light was different before the 20th century, and the way people experienced it was different.”   Literature, which shows us emotions, psychology, and physical life falls silent regarding light. Light is natural, essential, assumed, and incorporated into our lives.

Visual artists show us what life looked like.  Vermeer and Rembrandt, for two, painted the effects of natural light.  And then there is Monet, Van Gogh, Turner who tried to actually paint the light itself through reflections and changing qualities as it fell on objects.

Painting the light, striving to paint the light seems to me to be a heroic, even quixotic, endeavor.  Those artists determination and curiosity expand my world beyond words.  I am grateful to them.

While writing historical fiction we pay close, loving attention to details of clothing, transportation, finance, speech patterns, social norms.  It’s important to get it just right.  I like immersing myself in the time; projecting myself to there and then.  The one piece lost to me is how my characters, how people in the past, actually saw the world.  I can imagine how it smelled without plumbing, with food carts in the streets, with horses trotting.

We know today what morning light on a rainy day looks and feels like, just as we know the shadows that close in as daylight fades. But, happily, I click on a lamp to dispel the gloom of weather or night.  I wonder how must it have been to struggle day and night with tallow light or gas lanterns, and how dim the world away from those fragile lights appeared.

No, I have no desire to live in that darkness.  Yet, I can’t help but wonder what the world looked like without artificial light.

self publishing means self promotion

The research to find out how to self-publish was not nearly as fun as the research had been for Lena, but it was as necessary.  The amazingly insightful and talented women on the Women Writing the West List-Serve don’t know how much they inspired and helped me.  What I learned from them is that it is entirely possible to take charge of your publications and promotions, and that there are kind people willing to offer aid and comfort.

Sadly, I am not naturally or comfortably an advertisement for myself.  I published with Outskirts Press, I filled out the Amazon author page, I notified everyone I knew, I signed on to Facebook for those I didn’t know or didn’t know I knew, I joined Goodreads (great fun!). I placed announcements in the Historical Novel Society and the Women Writing the West catalogues.   Oh yes, I also regularly checked my sales ‘stats’ on Outskirts.

Then I allowed the distractions of the rest of my life take over.  I did not visit local bookstores to promote my book or offer to give a reading and I did not gift my local library with a copy of Sound of Her Own Voice. I did not even send an announcement to my local newspaper. I gave in to my natural inclination, no doubt, to the detriment of Lena.

This year I have promised myself to assert myself as a writer in the world while continuing to write the next book, which is wholly different.  I have printed post cards and business cards to promote The Sound of Her Own Voice.  More daring, for me, is that I have signed up to attend the Historical Novel Society’s annual meeting in June in Denver.  Since I’m paid up, I will actually go and learn the art of networking and promotion.  Stay tuned and wish me luck!!