“It wasn’t until my fourth or fifth sip of tea this morning that I noticed Miss Nancy Carson was missing her eyebrows. I promptly set the cup down and stared at her across the breakfast table. I wanted to make certain she had not simply hidden her brows under too much white pomade. The girl is at an age where she has begun to prepare her toilette, and painting takes practice to master. But her brows were not covered up. They were gone.”
That’s the opening paragraph from my new historical short story – ‘Feminine Absurdities’! It was published last month in CALYX magazine. You can listen to an audio recording of the full story right here.
‘Feminine Absurdities’ is set in 18th century New York City during America’s Revolutionary War. As many of you will know, that’s the war when the American colonies fought for independence from Great Britain. But that’s not what my story is about. My story is about a schoolteacher who notices that something is wrong with one of her pupils. Her eyebrows are gone! But what’s actually wrong with the girl might be deeper and darker than it first appears…
As with many works of art: there were a few separate things that came together in my mind to inspire this story. I thought I’d explore writing inspiration a little in this blog post and talk about how this historical short story came to be.
The first piece of inspiration was an amusing anecdote I encountered while doing some historical research for a different project. In order to write a scene, I was reading about 18th century ‘dressing glasses’ and ‘dressing tables’ (you know – just typical reading!). If you’re curious what I mean, here’s a watercolor painting of one (this image is from the 1930s, but it shows perfectly what an 18th century mirror/dressing table might look like!)
I came across an unusual anecdote in The Power of Objects in the Eighteenth-Century British America by Jennifer Van Horn, in her chapter about dressing tables and female cosmetics. Van Horn recounts the story of a a tutor in Virginia called Philip Fithian who wrote in his journal that ‘Miss Nancy Carter (…) in some whimsical freak, clipt off her Eyebrows.’ However Nancy claims that someone did it to her while she was sleeping. Fithian does not believe her. He writes: ‘I am inclined to think it is an experiment She has been making on herself to see how she can vary the looks of her face. It made me laugh . . . to think how early and how truely She copies Female absurdities.’
There was something so haughty and dismissive about the Fithian’s account and also something so bizarre and striking about his student Nancy’s claim that someone else clipped off her eyebrows. While Fithian may have been right – Nancy might have just cut them off to see how it looked – why would she deny it? Why blame it on someone else?
It made me think about how make-up and clothing and other ‘vain’ or ‘superficial’ things have often been a way for women, in many different eras, to exert some control over their bodies. Bodies can also be sites of self-expression and if there’s one thing that young women in Colonial America were encouraged not to do, it was to express themselves.
And that got me thinking about something I’d read in Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution by Ruma Chopra, about the looting and sexual assaults that happened in NYC when the British Army arrived to quell the rebellion. Chopra provides a quote from a British Colonel John Peebles who talked about ‘shocking abuses’ that went on outside of public notice. (I’m sorry to say that this didn’t surprise me one bit. That’s what occupying armies usually do.)
So I transplanted the story of Nancy’s mysterious missing eyebrows to NYC during the Revolution and I made it set in a house with a group of women quartering a young soldier. (Another inspiration for the story was the film The Beguiled, the Sofia Coppola one, which is set during the American Civil War and features a young officer going to stay at a finishing school.)
I also chose to tell the story in an epistolary way (through a series of diary entries), which can be kind of a cheesy conceit, but I think it works well because it creates a kind of claustrophobia. My narrator is talking, effectively, to nobody. To herself. And, as the mystery unravels, we come to feel how isolated and vulnerable these women are in an occupied city.
There was more information in an earlier draft about the Revolutionary War itself and how our narrator is actually a Loyalist (aka she didn’t want the colonies to break from Great Britain at all). She’s not a radical or a rebel or in any way particularly progressive or glamorous. There are a lot of historical fiction books (many of them excellent) about ‘extraordinary’ women who were progressive and ahead of their time. Here, I’m more interested in ‘ordinary’ women who, in quiet but no less profound ways, figured out how to survive in difficult situations.
Thanks so much for reading! If you enjoyed the post, have a listen to the story. You can also buy a copy of the magazine and read it there, along with other excellent stories and poems by women. CALYX is an American literary journal that only publishes women and it’s been around since the 1970s. They’re known for ‘discovering’ writers early in their careers and have published the likes of Barbara Kingsolver, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and one of my favorite poets of all time: Pulitzer prize-winning Sharon Olds (if you want a poetry collection that will break your heart – check out Stag’s Leap!). I feel very honored to be published in a magazine that has championed women writers for so long and there’s no better place, I think, for this story about these women of the American Revolution.
Recommended Further Reading:
These were some of the books I used for research…
- The Power of Objects in the Eighteenth-Century British America by Jennifer Van Horn, especially the chapter on dressing tables
- Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution by Ruma Chopra
- Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home 1760-1860 by Jane C. Nylander
- Diary of Anna Green Winslow, a Boston school girl of 1771
And if you’re keen to learn more about historical short stories, check out…
- Astray by Emma Donoghue (my review)
- My blog post on Karen Russell and historical short stories about American history
And if you’re after more of my writing, check out:
- My new historical short story ‘The Window Bride’ (set in early 1900s Baltimore, about an Italian immigrant family, based on my own family history)
- Blog post on writing poetry about The Salem Witch Trials
- My new sci-fi novella All the Orphans in the Galaxy (Speculative Books, November 2022)!
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every first Monday of the month and thanks for reading!
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2 thoughts on “Madeira Mondays: My new historical short story ‘Feminine Absurdities’”
It was a very enjoyable listen! We were driving back from Bastrop TX and Jon & I both shouted – wait this can’t be over!!!
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Thanks so much for listening!! I love listening to stories and podcasts while traveling. Makes the time go by so much faster!! And you’ll be happy to hear then that I’m editing a brand-new novel so there will be longer reading/listening material soon 🙂 Hope y’all are both well!! x