Madeira Mondays: 2020 Recap

I’ve had several discussions with friends recently about time and our perception of it during this very strange year.

It feels, to me, that January 2020 was about a thousand years ago – so much has happened since (a global pandemic, a turbulent US Presidential race, an altered state of life for everyone)! But it also feels that January 2020 was only a minute or two ago, considering that also so little has happened since (vacations canceled, jobs lost, a string of blurring and indistinct days as we’re all stuck inside).

Whether you feel like time has passed slowly or quickly for you – or if (like me!) you feel that it has passed quickly AND slowly – I’d encourage you to look backwards and think on anything you’re proud of this year. Even if what you’re proud of is quite simply just making it through this year!

For me, one of those things I’m proudest of is all of these Madeira Mondays posts. It’s brought me joy to write them, and the consistency of it has kept me sane during the ups and downs of the creative freelancer’s life. Some weeks are full of exciting creative work – writing, editing, researching, teaching, performing – while some weeks are full of the not-so-nice side of this work – constant rejections, negotiating contracts (thankfully with the help of my union!), tedious funding applications, and oh, did I mention the constant rejections?

Through all the highs and lows of this year, including launching a new poetry book, Madeira Mondays has been there for me. And I’ve heard from several of you that it’s been there for you too! A couple of you have reached out and said that it’s something you look forward to starting your week with, and that makes me so happy to hear – especially this year, when we quite desperately need things to look forward to!

I’ve done some reflecting on the year that has passed and pulled out just a handful of my personal favorite Madeira Mondays posts from 2020. We’ve covered so many topics, from 18th century underwear, to swear words, to the surprisingly interesting history of ketchup. I’ve reviewed tons of historical books, films and TV shows, as well as visited historic sites in Scotland and the US. We’ve covered so much ground this year despite, well, literally not covering that much ground!

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The Best of ‘Madeira Mondays’ (2020)

Most unexpectedly delicious recipe…

That would be absolutely be switchel! This ’18th century energy drink’ with lemon and ginger was delicious, and I’ve made it several times since. If you want to learn the recipe and how I made it, check out the post from June.

A very tasty glass of Switchel!

Best film I’ve watched set in the 18th century…

I’ve watched quite a few historical films this year, but my personal favorite (and this is quite subjective) was: Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s a queer love story set in 18th century France, and while it wasn’t perfect, I thought it was pretty darn good. Lots of broody, moody, melancholy shots of girls standings on cliffs staring out into the horizon. Yup, I loved it.

My ‘most read’ post…

This one wasn’t actually decided by me but by you and all the people who read Madeira Mondays, but by far and away one of my posts has been the most viewed this year: my analysis, from July, of Tracy K. Smith’s poem ‘Declaration’, which is an erasure poem based on the Declaration of Independence. The post talks about slavery and its ‘erasure’ from the declaration, as well as the power of poetry to explore historical silences and this has by far been the most viewed post of 2020.

Something that is especially meaningful about this is the fact that I can see that several people who read the post actually clicked the link to read the Declaration itself, from the US national archives. This brings me joy because if you’re an American, this document belongs to you, in a sense. I’m thrilled that my post is encouraging further engagement with it!

My favorite site visit…

I love visiting historical sites (if you work at or run one in the UK and would like to chat about the possibility of me visiting, please do get in touch!), but of course this year didn’t allow for many! I think my favorite site visit though was from this summer, when I went to the Highland Folk Museum, and saw a recreated rural 18th century village. I was glad to be able to provide a sort of virtual ‘tour’ of it, for you.

One of the turf houses we explored on our visit to the Highland Folk Museum!

My favorite historical fiction novel I read this year…

This is, again, purely down to personal tastes. I don’t know if this book is objectively the STRONGEST (in terms of style, structure, etc.) but it’s certainly the one that has stuck with me most and that’s: Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow. This was written back in the 1950’s and while it has its limitations, it’s suspenseful, punchy, and totally sucked me in. I really enjoyed this sweeping drama about a plucky young seamstress in Revolutionary War South Carolina. It’s got some good characters and thinking of the last line still gives me chills (I’ve actually got chills as I’m writing this now!).

Best non-fiction history book I read this year…

I’d say that’s: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. This popular book (which I believe came out in 2019 or 2018) follows the lives of the five women who were killed by Jack the Ripper in Victorian London. It’s an excellent portrait not just of them, but also of the society in which they lived. I think the historical research also seemed pretty sound (I’m not a historian, but I’ve worked with historians and read many books by both historians and journalists about history, and this was just my impression!).

Most fun post to write…

That would probably be my post talking about how I researched/wrote one of the poems from my second poetry pamphlet, which was released in July: Anastasia, Look in the Mirror. These posts looked at how I researched the Salem Witch Trials, and what influence had had on my poem, ‘The First Afflicted Girl’. Since I wrote this poem a while ago, it was fun to reflect back on how it was built. Much of my PhD focused on how creative writers access the early American past (through primary sources, like letters and diaries, but also secondary sources, other media etc) and so it was great to reflect on that poem and its beginnings. Hopefully that post is inspiring for fellow historical fiction writers, especially.

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And that’s it, folks! My favorite posts from 2020.

What have been your favorite ‘Madeira Mondays’ from this year? 

What are you proud of having accomplished this year, even if (especially if!) it’s something ‘small’ (i.e. keeping a plant alive, talking regular walks, learning a new skill etc.)?

This was taken in the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, during my trip to visit my step-sister there in October 2019

Also, I wanted to let you know that this will be the last Madeira Mondays for 2020. But I’ll only be away for two weeks, and then back on Monday January 4th, with a whole new batch of these posts for 2021!

If you’ve enjoyed this series, please do recommend this blog to a friend, or share with them any of the posts you’ve enjoyed! That really means a lot to me, as our little community of curious minds grows. And if you want to further support me and my work, a great way to do that is to order one of my books! There is more information about all of them on my publications page, and you can order my latest, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, on the publisher’s website here.

Most of all, I want to thank you all SO MUCH for reading. Many of you have blogs yourselves and thank you for writing those, as they’ve provided so much solace and entertainment for me during this really difficult time.

Have a wonderful holiday season, and see you all in 2021 my friends!

PS Today’s Featured Image is: ‘A British man of war before the Rock of Gibraltar’, By Thomas Whitcombe. (This ship represents us sailing off, towards 2021 and new adventures together in the new year!)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Revisiting ‘A Christmas Carol’

As an author, I’m often asked: ‘What are your favorite books?’ Interviewers ask this, school children ask this, my undergraduate students ask this. People even ask it if you’re not an author, as a sort of get-to-know-you question at parties or on dates. For us book lovers, this is an impossible question, which is why it’s best to memorize a few authors/books you can rattle off whenever you’re asked, a sampling of your tastes. If you’re an author, it’s also a chance, I think, to give people a sense of what your writing will be like, by citing people who have inspired you. I often preface it with something like, ‘Oh, I love so many books. I couldn’t pick a favorite!’

But this is a lie, my dear Madeira Mondays friends. I do have a favorite book, but I’m usually shy to mention it. Because mentioning it makes people think of awkward school plays and also the muppets. But my favorite book – the one that brings me the most joy and satisfaction and warmth when I read it – is definitely A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

You’re probably familiar with the story of A Christmas Carol, because there have been SO many adaptations of it – from modernizations (see: Scrooged) to classic ‘straightforward’ adaptations (see the aforementioned: The Muppet Christmas Carol). But in case you’re not, this was a novella published by Charles Dickens in 1843 (so we’re deviating from our 18th century remit a bit today, dipping into the mid 19th century!). It follows the story of a greedy, isolated old man called Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited by three ghosts (the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future) who show him the error of his ways. Over the course of the story, Scrooge learns about the values of charity and compassion and emerges from the experience transformed into a kinder, more giving, person.

One of the things that makes this book so brilliant is that it is hilarious. Yes, the themes in it are serious and Dickens takes them seriously. His concerns about poverty in London and social injustice motivated him to write the book at all. He considered writing a political pamphlet about the plight of London’s poor, but instead settled on exploring his concerns in a Christmas narrative because he thought this would reach more people. (Dickens also needed the money. When he started writing A Christmas Carol, sales of his previous book Martin Chuzzlewit were falling off.)

Yet he takes these very serious themes and crafts the most lighthearted, lovely, engaging and, as I mentioned, funny story. We see that humor from the very beginning of this story. The first paragraph ends with ‘Old Marley (Scrooge’s former business partner) was dead as a doornail’. Then the entire second paragraph is just a funny musing about why exactly we say, ‘dead as a doornail’, when we really should probably say ‘coffin-nail’:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

We know right away that we’re in good hands and this is going to be a bit of a silly romp, rather than a polemic. And it’s not just that the narrative voice is splendid. This is Dickens we’re talking about so the characters’ dialogue is also brilliant – vivid and fun. Take this exchange between the ghost of Jacob Marley, the first apparition to appear, and Scrooge.

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

I love that line: ‘There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’ You hopefully get my point by now – the book is a lot of fun.

Jacob Marley visits Scrooge in one of the original illustrations from the book’s first publication in the 1840s (The image is public domain, from the British Library)

But it’s also got such striking and vivid descriptions, which I promise will surprise you, even if you’ve already seen a version of it on film or at the theatre. Take Dickens’ surreal and strange descriptions of the Ghost of Christmas Past:

For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away.

Is it too much to say that the murky, morphing figure of the ghost represents our dim and ever-fluctuating understanding of the past? No. No it’s not. I’m saying it.

Not only is A Christmas Carol full of humor and genuine surprises, but it’s also full of compassion. There is never a time, since it’s publication, when its themes haven’t been relevant to us: the importance of caring for those around us (our family, our work colleagues), but also those we might never meet. It’s also quite revolutionary, in a sense, because Scrooge actually does give money away, at the end of the book. He merrily tells his employee Bob Crachit, at the end of the book: ‘I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family (…)’. It’s not just a book about being generally nice to people, but rather about someone who puts their money where their mouth is, as it were, and endeavors to better the lives of those around him through financial assistance.

Charles Dickens in 1842, the year before he wrote A Christmas Carol, painted by Francis Alexander and accessed via Wikipedia. (He looks so different from the bearded, older version we’re most familiar with now, right?)

I called this post ‘Revisiting A Christmas Carol’ because it’s something I do every winter. I’m serious. I reread the book pretty much every year. (It’s short! You could easily read it in a day!) I also liked the reference to the ghosts ‘visiting’ Scrooge, but ALSO I called it that because most people are already familiar with the book, or think they’re familiar with it, but it’s well-worth a revisit. Or a read for the first time. There’s a reason it has stayed around for this long.

And yes, it’s a bit over-the-top. Yes, it can be cheesy! But I love it, and like all types of love, it can’t always be explained. But, if you read it, I hope you love it too.

Have you ever read A Christmas Carol? Or what’s your favorite version of it that you’ve seen in film/TV/live theatre?

And do you have a favorite Christmas tale in any genre (Love Actually? A Christmas Story? How the Grinch Stole Christmas? Die Hard? etc.)?

Recommended Further Reading:

PS Today’s featured image is of the title page of the first edition of the book

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: The Yule Candle

I’m really into Christmas, which is usually a time for me to travel back to the USA to visit family and friends (although, alas, that cannot happen this year). But I’m also into the ritual of the holiday (and holidays in general) and using this time, every winter, to check in with myself and think about the year to come. And I think that’s especially pertinent this year, when it has been a pretty rough year globally (I think we can say!). It’s useful to reflect, right now, on where we’re coming from and moving towards.

I also love that Christmas traditions don’t just give an opportunity to connect with ourselves and our own family/friends, but also with other people who have celebrated the holiday (and more generally, this entire time of year) for centuries.

The drawing room of The Georgian House in Edinburgh, where I volunteer as a historical guide

The next couple of posts are going to be suitably Christmas/wintery themed (I hope that’s okay with everyone!), focusing on different traditions/recipes/things to do with the Georgian/Colonial period. The first one I wanted to mention was: The Yule Candle.

I mentioned yule candles in my post last year, Christmas in a Georgian Townhouse, which is a good general look at Christmas in the 18th century. If you’ve not read that one, definitely have a look for a broader sweep of Christmas traditions in this period.

Here’s what I wrote about Yule Candles last year, in that post:

One tradition practiced by many in this period was the Yule Candle. It was a big white candle lit by the head of the household at sunset on Christmas Eve and then allowed to burn throughout the night. It was believed to be bad luck if it burned out before Christmas morning. In Scotland, the Yule candle was not to be purchased, but given as a gift to the family and typically sat on the dining table where Christmas Eve dinner was eaten.

What I didn’t go into last time, was the deeper historical origins of The Yule Candle, and how it – like most of the 18th century Christmas traditions – had it roots in pagan traditions. As Kathryn Kane notes in her blog post on ‘The Yule Candle in the Regency’:

Yule was a pagan celebration around the winter solstice in which many peoples of Northern Europe had engaged for centuries, long before the birth of Christ. Because this was the time of year with the shortest days and the longest nights, much of the celebration was centered on fire, seen as substitute for the Sun (…)

Basically, pagan ‘Yule’ celebrations were all about fire – bonfires, burning logs. This celebration was calling light back into the world, during these really short, dark days. The Yule Candle was later co-opted and repurposed for Christian celebrations as a symbol of Christ, the ‘light of the world.’ And by the 18th century, the Georgians burned yule candles, yule logs, etc. to celebrate this Christian holiday and the whole festive season. (You can even hear mention of Yule logs in the famous Christmas song ‘Deck the Halls’ written in 1862. ‘See the blazing yule before us…fa la la la la…‘)

If you want to learn more about the ancient rituals of Yuletide, I’d suggest an absolutely beautiful picture book by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Carson Ellis: The Shortest Day

It was published last year and it’s a lovely book about celebrations of the winter solstice and also how rituals connect us with previous generations. I loved the grey, wintery colors – which really reminded me of two Decembers ago, when I went to Sweden at Christmas time – contrasted with the warmth of the flickering fires and candles. It’s a perfect seasonal read.

From ‘The Shortest Day’

While I don’t think I’ll be lighting a Yule Candle this year, I do think it’s a very interesting tradition, and I’ll definitely be lighting candles generally! And enjoying their soft glow – welcoming back longer, brighter days into the world.

Recommended further reading:

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Benjamin Franklin and the ‘respectable’ turkey

There’s a song in the musical 1776, which features Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams arguing about what what bird should be used as America’s national symbol. Adams suggests it should be an eagle, Jefferson suggests a dove, and Ben Franklin suggests…a turkey. This song – called ‘The Egg’ – is such a delight, like the rest of the musical. There are some lovely three-part harmonies from the three men as they bicker good-naturedly about what bird it should be.

Adams argues passionately for the eagle, saying it’s a ‘majestic bird’. Franklin disagrees, saying the eagle is ‘a scavenger, a thief and a coward, a symbol of over ten centuries of European mischief.’

‘The turkey is a truly noble bird,’ Franklin argues in the song. ‘Native American, a source of sustenance for our original settlers, an incredibly brave fellow…’

Of course, in real life, as in the song, it was decided that the bald eagle would be the national bird. But, with Thanksgiving coming up, this song got me wondering if Franklin really did want our national bird to be a turkey…rather than an eagle?

Well the short answer, my friends, is that it’s a myth.

The Franklin Institute writes this:

The story about Benjamin Franklin wanting the National Bird to be a turkey is just a myth. This false story began as a result of a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter criticizing the original eagle design for the Great Seal, saying that it looked more like a turkey. In the letter, Franklin wrote that the “Bald Eagle…is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.”

However, while the story as a whole might be a myth, as you can see from that quote, Franklin didn’t seem to like eagles very much, calling the eagle a bird of ‘bad moral character’ because he’s a scavenger. Franklin also writes that the turkey is “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.” So, the Franklin Institute explains, while Franklin didn’t suggest the turkey for one of American’s national symbols, he did defend the turkey against the bald eagle.

Franklin goes so far as to say: ‘For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country.’

A painting featuring turkeys, and other birds, the 17th century, accessed via Wikimedia

So 1776 gets it ‘wrong’ in the sense that Franklin didn’t actually suggest the Turkey for the national bird, BUT they also get it quite right in the sense that Franklin did say turkeys would have been a better symbol for the country. I’m not sure how seriously we should take Franklin’s musings – it seems like he was, in typical Ben Franklin fashion (and fashion of the time), kind of intelligently waffling. But maybe he was actually disappointed, I don’t know!

A lot of the lyrics of the song ‘The Egg’ are quite evidently paraphrases from Franklin’s letter to his daughter. For example, in ‘The Egg’, fictional Franklin calls the turkey ‘an incredibly brave fellow who would not flinch at attacking a regiment of Englishmen single-handedly.’ And, in the real letter, Franklin says the turkey is ‘a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.’ The writers are clearly playing off the real quote. (And I love this image of a turkey attacking a British red coat – it’s just so goofy and also so Ben Franklin to me somehow!)

So, as with most historical fiction, it’s quite hard to draw clear cut lines between something being ‘accurate’ and ‘inaccurate’. This small example from 1776 just goes to show that something can, in a way, be accurate and inaccurate at the same time!

I wish a happy Thanksgiving to my American readers – whether you eat turkey or not. If you do, you can tell your family about this story! (I don’t eat meat, as I mentioned in my last blog post, so I usually eat something called ‘Tofurkey’ if I’m celebrating Thanksgiving/Christmas in the USA – it’s actually really good! I know that sounds impossible, given the silly name, but it is! This year I’m in Scotland and will be having a nut roast, which is another good option for those of us who don’t wish to eat Ben Franklin’s ‘respectable’ bird!)

‘A Turkey in a Landscape’ by Peter Wenceslaus, accessed via Wikimedia

What do you think about the turkey vs. the eagle as a national symbol? What is the bird (or national animal/flower etc.) of your country/state and do you think it was a good pick?

PS If you find yourself in the mood for some poetry tomorrow, I’ll be doing a reading at the American University of Dubai tomorrow (Tuesday November 24). It’s at 6 pm Dubai time, so you’d have to calculate what time that is for you! It’ll be a one hour poetry reading over Zoom, and it’s free and open to the public. I’ll mostly be reading poems out of my new poetry pamphlet published this summer, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror. If you fancy coming along – here is the Zoom registration link!

Further Reading/Viewing:

Today’s Featured Image is Alfred Schönian (1856-1936) — ‘Colorful Feathered, 1936’, accessed via Wikimedia.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Sussex Pond Pudding

I watch The Great British Bake Off every year and this year I was especially looking forward to it – a bright spot of sweet, gentle television in what has been a particularly tumultuous year.

For any who might not be familiar, this is a popular British TV show where amateur bakers from across the UK ‘compete’ (I use this word loosely, because it’s quite a friendly show) to be crowned the winner. They make everything from breads to cakes to ice creams, and each week their skills are tested in a surprise ‘technical challenge’. For ‘the technical’ they all have to bake something, often historical, that they may not have ever heard of before. They are given only a sparse recipe and a set of ingredients. It’s meant to be a test of their general familiarity with all types of baking and also their overall baking instincts/skills.

This week, the ‘technical challenge’ was an 18th century dessert: ‘Sussex pond pudding’.

What is ‘Sussex pond pudding’?

The dish Sussex pond is first recorded in Hannah Woolley‘s 1672 book, The Queen-Like Closet.

The Bake Off hosts explained ‘Sussex pond’ like this:

‘Prue (the judge) has popped back to the 1700’s for this technical. She would like you each to make two Sussex pond puddings. Your puddings should be made with suet pastry and when steamed should be golden. When cut into your puddings should ooze out, creating a lemony, surup-y pond.’

The version of ‘Sussex pond’ that the bakers had to make on the show contained an entire lemon, in the center of the pudding, which is (according to my research) a modern addition to the recipe (historical versions don’t call for lemon).

A Sussex Pond pudding, photo via Wikipedia. (Sussex, by the way, for international readers, is a place in southern England, where I’ve never visited actually!)

While I hadn’t heard of ‘Sussex pond’ in particular, I did know that boiled puddings were all the rage in the 18th century. And when I say ‘pudding’, American readers might be picturing a custard-like substance that you might eat as a kid. No no no. In the modern UK ‘pudding’ refers to ‘desserts’ (i.e. ‘What’s for pudding?’ means ‘What’s for dessert?’) . And in this case we’re talking about a boiled/steamed pudding which is a traditional British type of ‘pudding’. (British readers, feel free to correct me if any of this is wrong! I’ve lived in the UK for ten years now and still sometimes get confused when I hear the word ‘pudding’ and picture American ‘pudding’!)

Jas Townsend talks all about the history of the word ‘pudding’ here in his video on how to make a ‘Boiled Plum Pudding’. He says that the word pudding is based on the Old English word for gut and stomach. And the original puddings were organ meats mixed with grains and cooked in stomachs or intestines. (If you’re familiar with haggis, that’s like an old ‘pudding’). These puddings were boiled for many hours in intestines, until the early 17th century when they started making them in cloth sacks, instead of intestines, and the meats were taken out.

Townsend also explains in that video that typical 18th century boiled puddings featured four key ingredients: flour, milk, eggs, fat (usually suet – more on that in the second). They are cooked by wrapping them in a cloth and boiling them (or steaming them)  in water.

A recreated 18th century kitchen hearth, at The Georgian House in Edinburgh where I volunteer

On the Bake Off, many of the competitors were unfamiliar with one of the key ingredients of Sussex pond: suet.

What is suet?

As one of the bakers explained, the savvy Edinburgh lad Peter (who I’m rooting for to win!): ‘Suet is the lovely protective fat from animals that surrounds the livers, the kidneys.’

Townsend explains it in lots of detail in his video on suet and its many uses in 18th century cooking. He says that: ‘Suet is the fat from the loin and kidney region of beef and mutton.’ Apparently it’s a firmer sort of fat than the fat from other parts of an animal. I don’t eat meat, so even the look of suet kind of turns my stomach, but it was a real asset for 18th century bakers, and the modern bakers on the Bake Off were all given jars of it to use – I enjoyed their confused reactions!

In the end, most of the bakers didn’t nail the ‘technical challenge’, mostly because they didn’t steam their ‘Sussex ponds’ long enough. It makes sense. If you’re not familiar with historical recipes like this, you wouldn’t guess that it takes so long – like two hours – to steam. So the result was that many of them weren’t cooked!

I really enjoyed this episode of Bake Off (which is Series 4 – Episode 8 ‘Dessert Week’), but ‘Sussex pond’ is not something I’ll be trying to make any time soon. As those of you who have been reading this blog a while know, I enjoy making 18th century food and drinks from time to time – which sometimes goes well (see: ‘Switchel‘) and sometimes goes very badly (see: ‘Flip‘). But I think I’ll give this one a miss. I’ve tried these types of puddings before, and I’m not the biggest fan. But what do you think?

As one of the judges, celebrity baker Paul Hollywood, said during the episode: ‘Steamed puddings like this go so far back in British history, it was what we were known for.’ So they do have a rich history and you can give Prue Leith’s modern recipe a go here if you’re curious!

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

‘I hope yet I fear’: John and Abigail Adams on living through turbulent times

‘I feel anxious for the fate of our Monarchy or Democracy or what ever is to take place. I soon get lost in a Labyrinth of perplexities, but whatever occurs, may justice and righteousness be the Stability of our times – and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted, by patience and perseverance.’ – Abigail Adams to John Adams, November 27, 1775

John and Abigail Adams were, in many ways, an unlucky couple. They had to spend a lot of their married lives apart: when John was serving in the Continental Congress (which declared the American colonies independent from Great Britain), when he was later serving as an Ambassador to England. Although this time apart is unlucky for them, it is quite lucky for us, because they wrote some of the most beautiful, profound, romantic, and insightful letters to each other during those turbulent times.

Although Abigail’s gender kept her from engaging in the public sphere directly, she was hugely intelligent and followed the developments of the American Revolution closely (as well as experiencing, first hand, the effects of the war: the loss of friends, food shortages, the constant threat of violence). She wrote about all of this.

These were two amazing people who shaped their world and ours. Adams and his peers wrote many of the laws and established the system of government that everyone in America still lives under today. John and Abigail were also quite progressive people by our modern standards (they were both, for instance, very against slavery). Like so many of the founding generation, it’s very easy for them to take on a sort of mythic quality in our imaginations now. But what I love about reading their letters to each other, and Adams’ journal entries, is seeing how freaked out and anxious they were…pretty much all the time.

They were deeply religious people and trusted in God, and they were early New England people so they were gritty and used to physical and mental hardship. But they were also human beings who were, quite understandably, nervous wrecks a lot of the time. Abigail worried about John’s safety, of course, but also about the fate of the war against Great Britain and about what would happen after, even if the colonies won. Who would write the new laws? What sort of government would there be?

Adams greatly missed his family when he was away and worried constantly about the ‘Ocean of Uncertainties’ before him and the thirteen colonies. He worried about the safety of his family, as well as his own safety (although he doesn’t mention this directly, once he’d signed the Declaration of Independence, he knew he’d committed high treason and would be executed for it if the revolution failed). He ends one letter, on May 22, 1776, with the simple sentence: ‘I hope yet I fear.’

In a diary entry from two years earlier, June 25, 1774, he wrote about his fears and his feelings of inadequacy:

I muse, I mope, I ruminate (…) The Objects before me, are too grand, for me and multifarious for my Comprehension. – We have not Men, fit for the Times. We are deficient in Genius, in Education, in Travel, in Fortune – in every Thing. I feel unutterable Anxiety. – God grant us Wisdom, and Fortitude!

‘We have not Men, fit for the Times.’ AKA ‘we’re not up for this challenge’, the challenge of the present. He worries there aren’t people smart enough, cultured enough, good enough to meet the historic moment. This is a peek behind the curtain, as it were, to the very human worries going on backstage, as America was moving towards becoming the first ever colony to break from its mother country and towards becoming a republic that would last for centuries. John Adams was so worried.

The reason I chose to write about the Adams family (the 18th century one, not the TV one!) today is because this past week can be summed up, for me, in those words that John Adams wrote: ‘I hope yet I fear.’

Although it seems like things are moving in the direction which I believe, with my whole heart, is the only way forward for the country – the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – it has still been a nerve-wracking week. We’ve had a President trying to undermine and stop the voting process – that’s scary. This is, in many ways, a dark moment, and it’s tough during dark moments to find that ‘patience and perseverance’ that Abigail talked about in the opening quote of this post.

I don’t know how everyone else is feeling, but I can tell you that I’ve been nervous, on edge, fearful and have cried…more than once, mostly out of exhaustion and sheer build up of emotions. Like Adams: ‘I muse, I mope, I ruminate.’ BUT I also have so much hope that we can meet the enormous challenges of the present moment: the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change etc.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that even if you personally feel overwhelmed right now, or like you don’t have the energy or the skills to rise to this moment and to affect positive change in the coming weeks and months and years – you are enough. You are ‘fit for the Times.’ And we, as a nation, are enough. We’ll get through this.

John and Abigail’s letters and diaries remind us that it’s very human to doubt one’s own abilities and to fear for the future. But I truly believe, as they believed, that the country is heading towards something very bright indeed.

I hope that you are keeping well during this momentous election season, and, for my readers who are not American, I hope that this post offers something for you to think about too! I am thinking of you all, and hope that you are safe and well.

I’ll be taking this upcoming Monday off from ‘Madeira Mondays’, since I anticipate needing a break from being online next week. But I’ll be back with another ‘Madeira Mondays’ post the week after, November 16th! As always, thank you for reading, my friend.

Further Reading:

  • Most of the quotes from this post came from My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor (which is an entertaining read and, I kid you not, more romantic and exciting than a lot of novels I’ve read)
  • My previous posts analyzing The John Adams HBO miniseries
  • My post on the TV series Grace and Frankie and its relationship to John Adams and LGBT+ activism

PS Today’s Featured Image is of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, taken on my trip there last year

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) Movie Review

Heads will roll. – The tagline for Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

Last Halloween, I rewatched Beetlejuice (1988) directed by Tim Burton. It was zany, silly, macabre, but also quite a smart satire of ‘yuppie’ culture and a celebration of the quirky and bizarre in all of us. It was colorful and strange and (especially for the time) unique. Plus there are some simply iconic scenes in it.

I think that Beetlejuice is really an example of Burton at his best. By contrast, with 1999’s Sleepy Hollow staring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, we have Burton at his most…bleh.

I choose Sleepy Hollow as my Halloween viewing this year because I had recently read the source material: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. For anyone who hasn’t checked out my Madeira Mondays post about it, I look at the history of Irving’s tale, published in 1820.

Irving’s original story is actually a bit like Beetlejuice (a quirky satire of the contemporary society that Irving was living in), and I think it has more in common, in terms of tone, with Beetlejuice than with the straightforward, semi-serious gothic Sleepy Hollow movie. The original Sleepy Hollow story is spooky at times, yes, but it’s overall pretty lighthearted and (in my opinion) a bit of a joke. It’s not gory, like this movie, and it’s frankly a lot more fun to read than this was to watch.

When I turned off Sleepy Hollow, after an hour and forty odd minutes of periodic boredom (with a pick-up of pace towards the end), I was left with a very ‘meh’ feeling about the whole film. I was also left with two main questions: 1 – Does it work as an adaptation? 2 – Does it work as a film in its own right?

Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

Does it work as an adaptation?

I often listen to The Flop House podcast (which is about ‘bad movies’) and recently they were discussing what makes a good adaptation. I can’t remember which host was saying this (perhaps Dan McCoy?) but he said that a ‘good’ adaptation is one where the creator figures out what it is they like about the original and then tries to explore than in a new medium. I really like this concept. It’s not about getting every single plot detail ‘right’, because film will have different demands than a book and vice versa, but rather figuring out what quality or aspect of a thing you really like, and then trying to translate that. (So maybe, for Lord of the Rings, it’s the epic sense of adventure you want to preserve? Or, with a Harry Potter book to film, it might be a feeling of cozy whimsy, or a focus on the coming of age narrative etc.)

I think, here, Burton and company picked out ‘spooky tale about Halloween hauntings’ from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and really leaned into that, without examining what the original Sleepy Hollow is really about. I would argue that the original story  is mostly about superstition, how you shouldn’t believe everything you hear, etc. It’s also a little bit about inheritance and the film does lean into that – it’s not giving too much away to say that the film’s plot, like so many ghost stories, does involve an inheritance.

But the decision to reimagine Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) as a proto-Sherlock Holmes detective here, who packs his steam-punk goggles to go and investigate murders committed by the ‘headless horseman’ in Sleepy Hollow is such a strange choice (Ichabod Crane, in the original story, is a superstitious man and his fears are exploited by others in the town). This Sherlock Holmes rational/clues-driven detective stuff is also so Victorian to me that it feels out of place in the Colonial American setting, and is totally different from the book – although perhaps they didn’t want a lead who was a foolish as Crane from the story?

All in all, it’s not a particularly ‘faithful’ adaptation (in terms of themes, plot, character etc.), nor is it one that subverts/challenges/reimagines the original in any way. It just took the bare bones of the story and ran with that. Which, you could argue, is fine…but I didn’t like where they ran.

Does it work as a film?

If we put the source aside, it’s a decent film in its own right and it overall looks very good. Everything is muted, grey and black, and it would be a good thing to put on in the background when you’re carving pumpkins or something, because it does have a lot of spooky imagery: gnarled trees, glinting Jack-o-lanterns, etc. Knowing what Burton can do though, I think he could have pushed the mis-en-scene (all the bits on screen like set, costumes, props etc.) even further and made everything look stranger.

Also, and this is a pretty specific critique, the costumes look way more 1770’s and 1780’s to me than 1799 (when the film is set)…by this time, people were wearing more empire waist dresses and there is nary an empire waist dress to be seen! But maybe the town of Sleepy Hollow, being so remote, is a bit behind, fashion wise…

Finally, be warned that it is a little gorier than I expected, but I am a bit of a baby when it comes to horror movies (I never watch them). This one wasn’t ‘scary’ at all, but there was some blood and guts, so if that’s not your thing then I’d give it a miss. (Although the tagline did promise that ‘heads will roll’ and boy, did they ever!)

*

That’s about all I have to say about Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, my Monday friends! A very decent film, but nothing exceptional!

What do you think of Sleepy Hollow?

What do you think makes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ adaptation? Do you have a favorite book to film adaptation? 

I hope you had a nice Halloween on Saturday, if you’re into that sort of thing (which, as you know, I am!).

(Also, since tomorrow is the US Presidential election, I wanted to send a gentle (yet urgent!!) reminder to all of my American readers to: VOTE. If you’ve not already…VOTE!!)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: The Yellow Wallpaper (Book Review)

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity – but that would be asking too much of fate. Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it. – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper

I wanted to share with you a ghost story this week!

It is almost Halloween, after all. I went back and forth about which story to pick, and ended up settling on a story that was written in the 19th century, not the 18th, although it’s set in an old 18th century home. It’s about a woman who has been feeling unwell (a ‘temporary nervous depression’, she calls it) and travels with her husband to a fading ‘colonial mansion’ one summer, a space where she can (presumably) recuperate. Her husband, John, is a physician and forbids her from writing, or doing work of any kind, until she feels better. But the woman begins a series of secret journal entries, chronicling her growing obsession with the ‘yellow wallpaper’ which surrounds her, in the room where she’s being held.

At first the wallpaper is just an eyesore, ‘one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin’, but slowly it seems as though the pattern comes to life. It watches her. It moves. It is like the bars of a cage and, behind it, she sees a woman held prisoner, desperate to escape.

I’m talking, of course, about The Yellow Wallpaper written by celebrated American writer and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). 

The book cover from 1901. Stetson was Gilman’s first married name, which she sometimes went by.

This is quite a famous short story but one that I hadn’t actually read until a couple of weeks ago. Quite simply: I loved it. I loved everything about it, really. I loved the themes in it: the repression and infantilization of women at the time in both marriage and in medicine (she’s treated like a child by her husband, who is also her doctor, and her own beliefs about her own health are ignored), the importance of creativity and self-expression.

It is full of vivid and unsettling imagery and I could see this wallpaper so clearly through the narrator’s eyes, as she slowly descends further towards insanity:

…when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smoldering unclean yellow…

The story is on one level a critique of a specific psychological practice of the time to treat ‘nervous’ women, known as the ‘rest cure’. Gilman herself had suffered from postpartum depression, and was prescribed the ‘rest cure’. She wasn’t allowed to write or have any kind of mental stimulation – all she could do was ‘rest’ (which meant enforced seclusion and bed rest). Her doctor told her to:

Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time…Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.

(As quoted in the ‘Introduction’ to Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh)

The ‘rest cure’ was a treatment advocated by Silas Weir Mitchell, who is actually mentioned by name in The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman eventually rebelled against the ‘rest cure’, which had only worsened her condition, and began writing again. When she finished The Yellow Wallpaper, she sent a copy to Mitchell, but never received a response.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman c. 1900, photo via Wikipedia

Interestingly, according to this article I found from the American Psychological Association, the cure that Mitchell prescribed to women was very different to the one he suggested for men:

While Mitchell put worried women to bed, he sent anxious men out West to engage in prolonged periods of cattle roping, hunting, roughriding and male bonding.

So…women had to shut themselves away inside, and stop engaging in any sort of self-expression. Men should get out there and…ride some horses! It was called the ‘West cure’. I laughed so much when I learned about this, because it so clearly illustrates the misogyny and the cultural stereotypes of the time. Women were told to go back into the home, into the domestic sphere, while men experiencing what we might think of now as depression and/or anxiety were encouraged to just get out there, go outside and do some ‘manly’ activities (like hunting or herding cattle).

In any case, Gilman’s story is inspired by her experiences with the ‘rest cure’ and its negative effects, but it’s also a timeless story about how important it is for everyone to be able to express themselves. The narrator finds it a ‘relief’ to write. There is a great irony that everyone around the narrator wants her to stop writing (‘I verily believe (John’s sister) thinks it is the writing which made me sick’), but in reality it is the writing which is keeping her alive.

But is this a ghost story, Carly, you might ask? Well…I think so! And not just because I read it in the ghost story anthology, Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh. It’s quite a gothic tale (spooky old house, a woman in captivity, heightened emotions) for one. But it’s also a ghost story because the narrator is haunted by the yellow wallpaper. More broadly, she’s haunted and tormented by the confines put upon her by her husband and the male-dominated medical establishment of the time.

I know I’ve made it sound quite heavy, but it’s a brilliant story, very readable, and free to read online (it’s available here on Project Gutenberg).

Happy reading and happy halloween, my friends!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Inside an 18th century bedroom

A few weeks back, I took you inside The Georgian House with me and we visited an 18th century parlor. We talked a bit about education, the hobbies and pursuits of the Georgian elites, as well as globes and mapmaking, tea ceremonies and more. If you’re curious to read that post, you can check it out here!

This week, we’re going back into The Georgian House – the recreated 18th century townhouse here in Edinburgh where I volunteer. The townhouse is a ‘show house’, not a traditional museum, so if you were to visit you could see a house fully furnished with 18th century art and objects, giving you a sense of what daily life was like back then for those living in Edinburgh’s New Town. Each room in The Georgian House offers a glimpse into a different aspect of the past, and it’s very hard for me to pick a favorite, but I do love showing visitors around the bedroom, which is where we’re heading today!

The bedroom in The Georgian House

In the photo above, you can see the elegant four-poster bed (made in 1774 for Thomas Hog of Newliston, near Edinburgh). A bed is, of course, totally something you’d expect to find in, well, a bedroom, so no surprise there, but what a lot of guests are surprised by is how multifunctional bedrooms were in the 18th century.

Seating in the bedroom for socializing

These days, I think we tend to think of bedrooms as quite private spaces, perhaps tucked away on the upper floors of houses and not really a space where you’d gather if you had friends over. But – and I could go into this in greater depth in another post – the concept of private, individual spaces was different back then. In the 18th century it was still very common (even in wealthy households) for bedrooms to be shared among members of that family and, as you can see from the photo above, bedrooms were also places for socializing with guests. The bedroom at The Georgian House might have been used as an informal breakfast room, or ladies sitting room – which would have allowed the hosts the show off their four-poster bed – which was a bit of an 18th century status symbol!

Another difference between bedrooms then and now, which guests often find surprising, is that there were no coat hangers during this time period! Clothes were folded up and stored in drawers, rather than hung in wardrobes. Coat hangers weren’t invented until the later part of the 19th century, so you won’t find a wardrobe or a closet in an 18th century bedroom for hanging up your clothes! (This is so interesting to me – how this one invention really changed the whole layout of a space.)

One final thing I wanted to show you in the bedroom is the medicine chest. This is probably my favorite object in the bedroom!

The medicine chest in The Georgian House

Most houses would have had some sort of medicine chest stocked with remedies for minor ailments. A visit from a physician was expensive, and, especially if you were located further outside of the city, it often wasn’t even possible. Or, at least, it would take the doc a long time to reach you! It was common (and I know this was true in Colonial America too) for the lady of the house to take care of the entire household, including servants, if one of them got sick, especially if it wasn’t something major. This medicine chest is from 1830 and retains 22 out of its original 29 bottles. Some of the contents are things we would recognize today – Epsom salts and peppermint oil, for example. Some are things that we definitely wouldn’t be able to get over the counter now, like laudanum, derived from opium.

The chest would have come with detailed instructions about how to use its contents and recommended doses. There were also books available at the time, such as the popular Domestic Medicine by William Buchan (1772), which explained home remedies for all sorts of things. It’s worth a flip through if you’re curious.

There are so many more aspects of the bedroom at The Georgian House that I could go into, but I’ll leave it there for now! I didn’t even touch on personal hygiene, bathing (or lack thereof!) and all that jazz, so if you’d like a post about about that stuff – let me know! In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a couple of recommended further readings, and thank you again for joining me this Monday! At some point in the upcoming weeks, we’re going into the dining room (yay! food!) and the kitchen (yay! more food!) of The Georgian House. See you then!

Recommended Further Reading:

William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1772) – Buchan was an Edinburgh physician and this book was popular in both the UK and the soon-to-be USA

Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home 1760-1860 by Jane Nylander (okay, so this one is technically not about Scottish homes of this period, but a lot of the customs were transatlantic and this is a great window into domestic life in this time period)

‘The Edinburgh medicine cabinet and the city high life’, article in The Scotsman newspaper (goes into a lot more detail about the dangerous over-uses of laudanum in the period)

And if you’d like to book tickets to visit The Georgian House, you can do that here. Definitely check their opening times (which have been reduced and changed due to Covid) and they recommend booking in advance! If you fancy coming along on this upcoming Saturday Oct 24th, I’ll be there (hi!) and would love to talk with you more about all things Georgian!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Making an 18th century sailor’s breakfast

Have you ever heard of something called ‘burgoo’?

Nowadays the word ‘burgoo’ refers to a hearty, spicy stew, typically served in the American South with cornbread or muffins. However, in the 18th century, ‘burgoo’ referred to a type of oatmeal porridge eaten by British sailors!

I first learned about ‘burgoo’ in this video I stumbled across from one of my favorite YouTube channels: Townsends. For those who don’t know, this is a brilliant (and weirdly relaxing!) educational channel featuring a re-enactor Jon Townsend who cooks 18th century recipes. You might remember Townsends if you read my post about making ‘Flip’ from earlier this year!

One of the things that I love most about the channel  is how excited Townsend and his team get about 18th century primary sources. He frequently reads from letters and diaries of the time, and uses them as a little glimpse into the culinary past. In this video – ‘Sailor Rations in the 18th Century – Burgoo’, he reads aloud from Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens. Spavens reflects on sailor’s rations (most of which consisted of beer, bread, beef…no fresh veggies and fruits, of course! No wonder they got scurvy from lack of Vitamin C!). Anyways, Spavens writes:

On Wednesdays we get burgoo boiled for breakfast and a pint of peas to make soup for dinner. On Mondays, no peas but burgoo for dinner.

So what was burgoo exactly? It’s majorly simple. It’s ground oatmeal boiled in water. Sometimes you got salted beef fat to go with it, or you might get molasses. Molasses, or black treacle (for British readers!) is a dark, sweet, viscous goo (seems like I’m using the word ‘goo’ a lot in this post!) which comes from refining sugarcane. On a ship, they’d be making it in giant vats, as Townsend explains. In his making of burgoo, he uses a ratio of 3:1 oatmeal to water.

After we watched this video, my partner (who eats porridge most days for breakfast) wanted to try his hand at making a ‘burgoo’, so we made it for breakfast, using the same simple method that Townsend did – adding hot water to oats. We put some molasses in too. Here’s the result, it’s not beautiful – but oatmeal isn’t a very photogenic food!

Homemade ‘burgoo’!

It was, predictably, a little bland.

We even added nutmeg (which Townsend suggests that officers might have had…but I’m a bit more wary of that. I don’t think that officers would have necessarily been eating burgoo at all, they might have had something nicer! And, even if they did have burgoo, they probably wouldn’t be grating nutmeg on it, unless they were a huge nutmeg lover and brought their own personal nutmeg stash with them to sea. Which, I guess, is possible. Nutmeg is delicious.) But even with nutmeg, it was bland.

In the end, I did a very un-period appropriate thing and cut up some banana to add to it, which sailor’s would definitely not have had! But I wanted to have a nice breakfast and the banana definitely was a game changer.

So that’s it! Burgoo is simple and warming and cheap (then and now). And it was fun to spice up breakfast with a bit of an 18th century inspired experiment. (We don’t really leave the house much these days, so gotta get those moments of entertainment where you can!)

What do you think of burgoo? Have you heard the word before? Does it seem like something you’d enjoy? Also, what breakfasts have you been enjoying recently in general? Granola with raisins and almonds is my go-to, but we’re going to try burgoo another time soon, possibly with more spices added to it!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Royal Charlotte – Indiaman’ by Robert Dodd, created between 1764-1785, and accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!