Madeira Mondays: The Surprisingly Interesting History of Ketchup

Ketchup is a staple in many American households. As someone who grew up in the States, I can attest to its ubiquity and our fridge always contained at least one half-used bottle of Heinz. And we were not alone – surveys show that 97% of kitchens in the US contain a bottle. That’s a lot of ketchup! It’s clearly a household staple for many and it’s also a well-known component of American fast food (burgers and fries and ketchup).

But while I was reading Dan Jurafsky’s book The Language of Food a few weeks ago, I learned about the interesting global historical origins of American tomato ketchup, a history involving international trade, exploration and a heck of a lot of fish.

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Jurafsky is an American linguist at Stanford University and his book overall looks at how the language we use to describe food has evolved, and also how the foods themselves have evolved over time. ‘A surprising history of culinary exchange-a sharing of ideas and culture as much as ingredients and flavors-lies just beneath the surface of our daily snacks, soups and suppers,’ the blurb promises. As a lover of food, language and random historical trivia that you can use to annoy people at dinner parties (just kidding, kind of), I wanted to read it. It’s a fun read and there are chapters on, for instance, ‘Why Ice Cream and Crackers Have Different Names’, but the story that really caught my eye was the history of ketchup. I couldn’t believe it had such a complex and fascinating origin! So where does ketchup come from?

Our story begins in Ancient China (bet you weren’t expecting that!)…

Thousands of years ago, the people living in Southern China had to come up with a solution to preserve the fish and shrimp they caught. So they salted and fermented the seafood into rich, savory pastes. This fermented fish became widely adopted throughout ancient China and people even started fermenting other things too (like soybeans, which led to an ancient version of miso).

Fast forward to the 16th century, when Southern China was a trade center and a bustling port region, with traders coming and going. As Fujianese traders (Fujian is a province in Southern China) and seamen set out, they took their ke-tchup (‘preserved-fish sauce’ in Hokkien – the language of southern Fujian and Taiwan) with them. These Fujinese people went to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Then British and Dutch merchants arrived to Southeast Asia, looking for spices, textiles and porcelain – things they could sell at a high price back in Europe. There, the traveling Brits and Dutch developed a taste for arrack, an early ancestor of rum (made from fermented rice together with molasses and palm wine), and also for this new food called ke-tchup. 

The stuff those European sailors were eating at sea was bland (salt pork, dry crackers) so they livened it up with this new tasty sauce, bought off Chinese merchants. (There are a lot of different spellings of ketchup, by the way, as a result of the English, Dutch and Portuguese speakers trying to write down the Chinese word with our Roman alphabet. So we get ‘ke-tchup’, ‘catsup’ ‘catchup’ etc.)

By the early 18th century, the British were making and selling ketchup themselves. Charles Lockyer, a trader for the East India Company who went to Asia in 1703, writes in his Account of the Trade in India: 

Soy comes in tubs from Japan, the best Ketchup from Tonqueen [Northern Vietnam]; yet good of both sorts, are made and sold very cheap in China…I know not a more profitable Commodity.

He doesn’t know ‘more profitable Commodity’!

So this guy would buy tubs and tubs of ketchup (which is still fish sauce at this point, by the way!), bottle it and sell it for high prices to rich people in England. So now ketchup has arrived to England. But because it was too expensive for ordinary people in England and the colonies to afford, people started to make their own.

Here’s a recipe that Jurafsky has found from a 1742 London cookbook, in which (Jurafsky points out), the fish sauce has already taken on a British flavor, by adding shallots (‘eschallots’) and mushrooms into the mix. But there is still fish in it – note the anchovies!

Mushrooms soon became the MAIN ingredient.

This other recipe, demonstrated by historical interpreter John Townsend on his YouTube channel, shows you an example of an 18th century ‘mushroom ketchup’.

From 1750-1850, the word ketchup meant a dark sauce typically made of mushrooms (like the one Townsend makes in the video!). So the fish is starting to fade away, but we still don’t have any tomatoes. THAT comes in in the 19th century and probably starts in Britain. Jurafsky has found a recipe from 1817 for ‘Tomato Catsup’ (and, of course, tomatoes originated in the New World, so effectively this British recipe blends a food from the Americas into a dish first invented in China).

By the mid-1850s, a uniquely American ketchup started to develop (thicker and sweeter than the British version). By the 1910’s Heinz was making and selling it. (Their spelling of ‘ketchup’ instead of ‘catsup’ also consolidated that as the most popular spelling in America). Heinz dramatically increased the amount of vinegar to preserve it longer.

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So there you have it! Our modern tomato ketchup…with its origins in Ancient China.

So what does this all…mean? Like, why does this stuff matter?

Well, if you’re me, it matters simply because it’s interesting! The foods that we eat, that we might think of as typically ‘American’, for instance, are often the product of complex human migrations and a variety of factors and influences that we don’t even know about. We’re eating history. Global history, at that.

According to Jurfasky, it matters also because ‘ketchup’s history offers us new insights into global economic history’. He explains that, if you subscribe to a traditional Western model of Asian economics, China turned inward around 1450 and became isolated and economically unimportant, until the West brought Asia into the world economy in the 19th and 20th centuries. But, Jurafsky says: ‘the vast production of trade of ke-tchup (not to mention arrack and less delicious goods like textiles and porcelain) well into the eighteenth century tell a different tale’. While the Chinese government might have officially banned sea travel, these bans were ignored and Chinese sailors continued to go out and trade on a massive scale. British merchants (like our friend Charles Lockyer from before) talked of fierce competition with Chinese traders and harbors crowded with Chinese ships. China was an economic powerhouse by the late 17th century and European sailors went to Asia generally because that’s where most of the world’s trade took place. Europeans merchants flocked there to buy silks, porcelain, arrack, and ketchup.

So, in effect, every time that you put ketchup on your hamburger, you’re a part of that story. A story of European and Chinese merchants, of British cooks and American companies. A story of Ancient Chinese fisherman who wanted a way to preserve their catch of the day. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty cool.

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Trout, Grouse, Tomatoes’ from Robert D. Wilkie, 1877. It can be found in the Boston Public Library and I accessed it via Wikimedia.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Emily Dickinson’s Poem about Waiting

This isn’t the post I planned on writing today. I planned on writing about the (surprisingly fascinating!) history of ketchup and how it links to international travel and trade in the 18th century. BUT last week was a very full week for me work-wise. So instead of spending today researching ketchup (and don’t worry – that post is coming!), I wanted to share a lovely and timely poem from one of my favorite early American writers: Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) lived in Amherst Massachusetts and led a quiet, isolated life at home. Although she had only a handful of poems published in her lifetime, she is widely regarded now as one of the great American poets. I wanted to share her poem with you which begins ‘Will there really be a morning?’ (It doesn’t have a title. None of Dickinson’s poems were titled in her original manuscript, so if you ever see one of her poems printed with a title, that was added by an editor).

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Emily Dickinson, at about the age sixteen or seventeen, in the only authenticated portrait of her after childhood

I’ve not studied Dickinson’s life and work academically, and I’m not sure if there is any known ‘origin’ of this poem (if, for instance, some event in her life is known to have inspired it). But what I do know is that ever since I read it for the first time, it has seemed to me a poem full of yearning, of waiting, of unanswerable questions (‘Will there really be a morning? Is there such a thing as day?’). As the speaker waits for ‘morning’ to arrive, they wonder what morning even is (‘has it feathers like a bird?’). It strikes me that it is the perfect poem to read right now when it seems like we are all waiting: for news, for lockdown to end, for…something. It’s an impatient poem, where the speaker seems desperate for information, calling out for wiser, more experienced people, to reassure them (‘Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!’). And I think all of us can relate to at least some of those feelings and emotions right now.

Here’s the poem:

Will there really be a morning?

Is there such a thing as day?

Could I see it from the mountains

If I were as tall as they?

 

Has it feet like water-lilies?

Has it feathers like a bird?

Is it brought from famous countries

Of which I’ve never heard?

 

Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!

Oh, some wise man from the skies!

Please tell a little pilgrim

Where the place called morning lies!

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I hope you enjoyed the poem, and that you’re having a good start to the week.

Would you be curious to have more posts about Emily Dickinson? I was thinking of reviewing the new TV series about her – Dickinson – which came out last year in 2019, and also the comedy film Wild Nights with Emily (2018) which is a queer reinterpretation of her life.

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:

  • Emily Dickinson: Collected Poems (I’d suggest trying to find an edition where the poems aren’t titled, if possible!)
  • The Poetry Foundation’s page on Emily Dickinson has a lot more info about her life
  • A Quiet Passion, the 2016 film from Terence Davies about Dickinson’s life was pretty good!
  • The Emily Dickinson Museum’s website has lots of info about her too

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: 18th century fashion on RuPaul’s Drag Race

Every Saturday morning, I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.

I look forward to it all week and the campiness, silliness and joy that the show brings has really given me a lot of happiness during this difficult time. My partner will attest to this, but I get very into the show as I am watching it – usually curled up with a blanket and a cup of coffee – cheering on my favorite queens as they ‘lip sync for their lives’. These performers can sing, dance, act, design clothing, write song lyrics etc. etc. And one of my favorite aspects of the show is seeing all the clothes! So imagine my happiness when one of my favorite queens, Gigi Goode, rocked not one but TWO 18th century inspired outfits this season!

In this post, I wanted to take a closer look at these outfits and reflect a bit on how Gigi’s fashion interprets the 18th century for a modern drag/theatrical context. (Also I just want to talk about how cool these outfits are!!)

For those who haven’t seen it, RuPaul’s Drag Race is an American TV show where drag queens vie for the title of ‘America’s Next Drag Superstar’. The contestants have to compete in a series of challenges including singing challenges, acting challenges, fashion and design challenges etc. It’s at once a parody of other reality TV shows (e.g Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model), or at least that’s how I’ve always read it, AND very much its own thing.

Now drag as an art form has a rich history and while it’s something that I’m interested in, I don’t pretend to have a vast knowledge of modern drag culture (I did take a class during my undergrad degree which was mostly about drag and gender on the Renaissance stage though, so if you want to talk drag in SHAKESPEARE’S day, I can do that!). But Drag Race combines lots of elements I love: theatricality, humor, sly satire, etc. It’s deeply fun while at the same time deeply subversive. And it often references pop culture and occasionally history, which brings me back to Gigi’s outfits!

Gigi is known as a ‘look queen’ which means her strengths lie primarily in her fashion choices (although she is a very multifaceted performer, as we’ve seen throughout the season). I knew from the moment that she appeared on the show in a chic pirate outfit, complete with tricorne hat, that I was going to enjoy her theatrical style.

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Gigi reprises her pirate outfit on last week’s episode

Gigi’s outfits always have a sense of drama and story about them. In fact, her mother is a costume designer and they often collaborate on Gigi’s looks. Gigi’s inspiration comes not only from the fashion world but from elsewhere too, as she discusses in this Vulture interview:

I like to think that my drag is inspired by things that aren’t necessarily in the world of fashion. I’m really heavily inspired by intangible women, cartoon women like Daphne from Scooby Doo, who I just did a look on. Things like careers, and household objects, anything can inspire me.

And apparently the Revolutionary era provided one of those inspirations. In Season 12’s Episode 9, ‘Choices 2020’, on the runway Gigi strutted out dressed like an 18th century redcoat soldier. In her voiceover, she says: ‘I’m giving you head-to-toe Quaker Oat’s fantasy’ which made me chuckle (she’s referencing, I presume, the label of this brand of oatmeal). ‘My hair is period, historically accurate,’ she adds. ‘I’ve got a red velvet coat. Bitch, I am it.’ The judges made their quips. The fabulous Rachel Bloom, guest judge for that week, said: ‘Talk about a John Hancock. Or lack thereof.’ ‘She’s crossdressing the Delaware,’ Ru remarked.

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Gigi in Season 12, Episode 9: ‘Choices 2020’

Bloom also wondered, during her critique at the end of the show, if Gigi was dressed as an American officer or as a redcoat. ‘Maybe you’re Benedict Arnold,’ she mused, referencing the infamous American officer who defected to the British.

These are the sorts of outfits that Gigi’s look is alluding to, and I’m guessing you can see the resemblance! (The fellow on the left is not in military regalia, whereas the guy on the right – British General Burgoyne – is. But you get the overall look!)

I enjoyed so many things about Gigi’s outfit, but in particular the enormous white feather sticking out of the tricorne hat. In general, I think it was quite cool that Gigi designed the outfit based on 18th century men‘s fashion, not women’s, because this was a time period when much more flamboyant, colorful and ornate outfits were the norm for men, as opposed to now, when the black and white suit still reigns supreme. Why can’t we bring back looks like these for men’s fashion, I ask?

I also liked the little nods to period details in Gigi’s look, such as the ribbons tying up her stockings (that’s really how people kept their stockings up) and, of course, the white wig. Men at this time would have often worn wigs and, as Gigi notes, this one perfectly suits the period style. I also liked the enormous red bow tying back the wig. An 18th century gentleman probably wouldn’t have worn an enormous red bow like that, but rather a simple black ribbon tying back his wig, but it all contributes to the sense of heightened theatricality (an 18th century gentleman wouldn’t have worn black stiletto boots either!).

Seeing Gigi’s outfit also made me think of the time that I crossdressed to give an academic presentation at Trinity College Dublin last year, on representations of John Adams in popular media.

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My ‘John Adams’ outfit last autumn for Trinity College’s HistoryCon 2019

Anyways, I tip my three-cornered hat to Gigi, for making this history nerd’s day, and if my historical fiction ever gets adapted into film, I think that Gigi should play everyone.

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Any other fans of Drag Race out there remember this outfit? Which has been your favorite outfit (or favorite Queen?) of the season? Who are you rooting for in the finale? (I think it’s obvious who I’m rooting for!)

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow (Book Review)

On the cover of Celia Garth, there is a beautiful blonde woman peering out at you serenely. Behind her, there’s a harbor front (presumably Colonial Charleston, where this book is set). The woman on the cover is lovely, but she also has a definite Mean Girls vibe – she knows she is good-looking and well-dressed and there’s a strong possibility she’s not gonna invite you to sit at her lunch table. But she also looks sharp and observant, like she sees things.

I love this cover, because to me it incapsulates what I liked most about Celia Garth – the titular main character. Celia Garth’s main strength is its characterization, particularly its depiction of Celia herself who, as this cover image suggests, is attractive, vain, serene, and intelligent. An interesting young woman who proves an captivating viewpoint character as we explore the turbulent final years of the Revolutionary War in British-occupied Charleston.

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My copy of Celia Garth

Celia Garth was published in 1959 and it follows the story of Celia, a young orphan in Colonial South Carolina who comes from money but finds herself needing to work in a dress shop to pay the bills. She’s a talented seamstress and, wanting to prove her worth, she accepts a commission from a Mrs. Vivian Lacy – a glamorous older woman with exacting requirements and expensive taste (I pictured Glenn Close, because that’s who I would cast if I was going to make this a movie!). But soon her career goals are overshadowed by the trauma of the Revolutionary War. The British army arrives to Charleston and some quite grizzly disasters befall Celia and people she loves. The book becomes a story of survival – how to survive mortal danger, but also grief. And there are parts of it that are genuinely quite moving.

As I mentioned earlier, the real strength of this book is the characters. Celia herself is wholly believable and complex from the start. I enjoyed how she takes a lot of pride in her appearance and is judgmental of people who are less conventionally attractive than her (this is kind of unpleasant to read but it’s realistic, especially for a naive, pretty young woman). She’s also whip smart, stubborn, and always making bold choices with consequences (an ‘active’ character, as it were). But her client Vivian was my favorite character by far. She had a very Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey vibe, if you’ve seen that show, and she was always throwing out sassy little aphorisms. To a pregnant acquaintance, Vivian says: ‘I know these nine months seem endless. But Nature takes her time. You cannot hurry a tree, or a baby, or a hard boiled egg.’ Aside from Vivian and Celia, you get a whole host of other colorful characters: the laid-back and good-natured Captain Jimmy Rand (who had ‘an ugly, engaging face, scooped at the temples, bony at the jaw, with a wide mouth and a look of being amused by life in general’), the witty daredevil Luke who fights with Francis Marion’s men in the swamps, and a whole bunch of other people besides.

In fact, one of my main criticisms of the book was that there were simply too many characters. I couldn’t keep track a lot of the time or remember who was related to who. These wealthy southern planter families were often inter-related, sure, but I think a family tree would have been useful to remember everything. That simple addition would have made a big difference.

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A lovely Colonial house in Charleston, South Carolina, taken during a research trip I took to Charleston in 2017

While I had no major issue with the overall historical accuracy of the book (which is saying something, because my whole PhD project looked at the lives of women in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War), it should be noted that slavery simply isn’t a concern in the book at all. There are enslaved characters (Marietta, Vivian’s enslaved maid, is a prominent secondary character and I got a good sense of who she was), but the institution as a whole is simply…there.

Now, that could have been a choice on author Gwen Bristow’s part to show the past through Celia’s eyes, and Celia (a white woman from a wealthy background living in the early South) would have accepted slavery as a fact of life (abolition doesn’t really become a big thing until the next century). But the knowledge of what is happening to these enslaved people hovered just out of sight, like a strange specter, as I was reading the book. There’s one moment when Vivian is meeting Celia for the first time and Celia feels like ‘something put up for auction.’ I don’t think Bristow was trying to evoke slavery here at all, but this line only served to remind me that, just a few streets away, not only were things being put on auction, but people were too. The book just doesn’t address slavery at all, so if that’s a topic that you want explored in more depth, in fiction, then I’d say look elsewhere (look to, for instance, Beloved by Toni Morrison. Or if you want something about this time period, why not try Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, or even the poetry collection I reviewed last year, Mistress by Chet’la Sebree?).

Another aspect of the book I didn’t love is that it majorly glorifies American officer Francis ‘Swamp Fox’ Marion and majorly attacks the infamous British officer Banastre Tarleton. I’ve talked about these figures in my post about the movie The Patriotbut suffice it to say here that Tarleton’s legacy as a ‘butcher’ might be more grounded in legend than in fact. But I was more inclined to accept the Evil Aristocratic British Baddies v. Noble American Farmers dichotomy here than in The Patriot, because this is the war as CELIA sees it. And Celia is furious at Tarleton and psyched about Marion, as many South Carolinian patriots were at the time. So, fair enough.

My final critical comment is that the book kind of peters out, rather than building to a strong climax. I won’t give anything away, but Celia gets involved with helping the rebels and this doesn’t develop in a satisfying way, I thought. But the ending itself (as in, the last few pages) was quite moving.

I would compare this book to one that came out last year – City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. Although that’s set in 1930’s and 1940’s New York City, it also features a young seamstress coming of age during wartime and all the colorful characters she meets.  There are even similar sorts of characters in both books. But books also have fun frivolous moments but also deal with the trauma of war. I would also recommend Celia if you enjoy things like Outlander (which I’ve not actually read, but I’ve seen a bit of the show and I understand that parts of it are set in colonial Charleston!).

It does not surpass Johnny Tremain as my favorite book I’ve read set during the Revolutionary War, but overall I quite enjoyed it. The prose is solid, and the characters are vivid and memorable. It was predictable, but I still cried twice while reading it, which is a testament to Bristow’s characterization. I wanted the best for Celia and her pals. And I would quite happily pick up another historical novel by Bristow, and there are apparently several!

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An iconic South Carolina sight – the live oaks twisting together in a sort of tunnel/roof. I believe I took this photo near Magnolia Planation.

Do let me know what you think about this book. Does Celia sound like something you’d be curious to read? Any other recommendations for historical novels that I should pick up? (Speaking of other novels, I have some exciting news about the one I’m working on, so stay tuned for that, later this month. AND stay tuned for more news about my new poetry book, which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press in July!).

PS Today’s Featured Image is from the cover of Celia Garth. If you buy this edition, from the 1950’s, please PLEASE don’t read the book jacket. The synopsis there gives so much away about the plot and even though it’s a fairly predictable story, you don’t want to spoil it!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past.

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

Madeira Mondays: The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

Many of America’s most famous poets lived during the 19th century: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), and Walt Whitman (1819-1892), for example. But there was already a literary tradition beginning to blossom in America in the 18th century as well and one of the literary darlings of colonial America, celebrated both nationally and internationally, was Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784).

Phillis Wheatley rose to prominence as a popular poet in early America, despite the fact that she was a woman, an African-American and a slave. Phillis Wheatley had a remarkable and in many ways quite a tragic life. She’s not a figure that I know a lot about, but I’ve always been curious to learn more, especially since I saw a first edition of one of her books at the Museum of the American Revolution last year. So, in honor of her upcoming birthday – May 8, 1753 – I’ve done a little bit of research into her life and writings, so that I could introduce you (or perhaps re-introduce you!) to this important figure in American literature.

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Phillis Wheatley’s book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773. I took this photo during a trip to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia last autumn.

Who was she?

Born in 1753, Wheatley was kidnaped from her home in West Africa at a young age, brought to America and sold into slavery to the Wheatley family. The Wheatleys, noticing that she was very bright, taught her to read and write. Sondra A. O’Neale of Emory University writes, in her short biography of Phillis Wheatley on The Poetry Foundation’s website, about Phillis’ classical education at the Wheatley house:

Soon (Phillis Wheatley) was immersed in the Bible, astronomy, geography, history, British literature (…) and the Greek and Latin classics of Virgil, Ovid , Terence, and Homer. In “To the University of Cambridge in New England” (probably the first poem she wrote but not published until 1773), Wheatley indicated that despite this exposure, rich and unusual for an American slave, her spirit yearned for the intellectual challenge of a more academic atmosphere.

She wrote an elegy for a reverend, George Whitefield, which brought her first national acclaim (as it was published in Boston, Newport and Phildelphia) and then international acclaim, as it was published in London too.

Shortly after that, she travelled to London, where she was welcomed by prominent artists and dignitaries. Her book was published soon after: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), the first volume of poetry by an African American.

What did she write about?

Her poetry is very 18th century in its style, for sure. She writes in rhyming couples mostly, with a lot of allusions to classical themes and literature. A lot of her poems were celebratory of America and America’s victory over Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. In 1776, she wrote a letter and poem in support of George Washington, and he replied with an invitation to visit him (he was in Massachusetts at the time), saying that he would be ‘happy to see a person so favored by the muses.’

She also comments on slavery from a Christian perspective in her poem: ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’. In the same article by Sondra A. O’Neale I quoted from above, O’Neale talks about Wheatley’s influence on fledgling abolitionist movements of the 18th century: ‘Wheatley was the abolitionists’ illustrative testimony that blacks could be both artistic and intellectual (…) her achievements a catalyst for the fledgling antislavery movement.’

What happened to Wheatley?

She was eventually freed from slavery in the mid 1770’s.

She was so incredibly young when she became famous and unfortunately some difficult years lay ahead of her, despite her connections to the rich and famous of her time. She married a free black man who ran a grocery store and experienced years of poverty during the Revolutionary War. She had been struggling with poor health all her life and died at the age of just 31.

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So had you heard of Phillis Wheatley before? If you grew up in the USA, did you study her in schools? I never did, which seems a shame because she was one of the country’s earliest poets and has such a unique personal history.

As an American poet myself and someone who loves 18th century history, it was fascinating for me to learn a bit more about who she was and I hope you found it interesting too! I definitely plan on reading more about her in the future.

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Recommended Reading:

PS Today’s Featured Image is by Edward Colyer, ‘Still Life’ ca. 1696, accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Stay in and Read: The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers

‘People usually start their lives with being born. Not me, though. That’s to say, I don’t know how I came into the world (…) I could have emerged from the foam on the crest of a wave or developed inside a seashell, like a pearl. Then again, I might have fallen from the sky like a shooting star.’ – from The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers

Several weeks ago, when this quarantine began, I promised to post some recommendations here for fun and immersive books to read during this period of isolation. I’m here today with another one of those recommendations! I just finished reading The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, one of the most imaginative books I’ve ever read.

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It’s a fantasy adventure story for children about the adventures of a blue bear as he travels through an extraordinary land, filled with giants, trolls, hobgoblins, tiny pirates and giant evil spiders! Bluebear recounts his adventures of getting trapped inside a tornado, crossing a desert made of sugar, and even traveling to other dimensions. If that sounds ludicrous, it’s because this book is ludicrous. It’s an epic adventure story that manages to be both exciting and a satire on adventure stories. Take, for instance, when Bluebear is about to die and he is rescued at the last moment by a flying reptilian creature named ‘Deus X. Machina’ or ‘Mac’, for short. (Deus ex machina is the literary term for when a plot problem is suddenly solved by an unlikely occurrence).

The humor in this book actually reminded me a bit of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s smart, zany and often satirical, usually poking fun at literary tropes (like deus ex machina). But it’s also so incredibly light-hearted and silly, so it manages to work as a simply a fun tall-tale! I loved meeting all the wacky characters that Bluebear encounters.

But what really makes the book special is all the artwork. The author, Walter Moers, is also a cartoonist, and it really shows because these drawings are alive with emotions and sometimes take up an entire page spread – like this one, when Bluebear is trapped inside a giant’s brain!

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The Featured Image for this post is of a marvelous map, at the start of the book.

And you also get to see illustrations of many of the wacky characters Bluebear meets. Here’s an illustration of his friend Fredda, a hairy imp:

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By now you’ve hopefully gotten a good sense of what this book is like and if it’s up your alley or not! I will say that it’s very episodic, and doesn’t have much of a ‘plot’. It’s a series of tales and adventures, although it is loosely structured as an autobiography of Bluebear himself, as he recounts his first 13 lives (Blue bears have exactly 27 lives, of course!).

I would recommend this one if you enjoy witty adventure stories, like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or even The Hobbit, or if you’re looking for a fun and unusual children’s book, although I’d say this is for slightly older children, not really little kids, because it does have some scarier bits. It’s a similar scariness level to The Hobbit, I think. So if you’re looking for a fun, smart, and zany adventure story – then Bluebear is your man. Or, rather, your bear.

Moers is actually a German writer and, from what I’ve gathered, this is a famous book in Germany. But growing up in the US, I never heard of it! Which is a shame because I would have loved it as a kid. Ah well, it’s never too late!

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If you enjoyed this recommendation, you might want to stick around and check out the other great books I’ve suggested for this period of quarantine: Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Girls by Emma Cline and a series of spoken word poetry videos!

And let me know what you think of BluebearDoes it seem like your cup of tea? Have you read it already? Is it really famous but I’m just now finding out about it (possible)? 

As always, thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: A cheap and delicious 18th century recipe

I love potatoes. Mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes, baked potatoes, potato chips…they’re all great.

Today I wanted to share with you a super simple recipe for potato pancakes from the 18th century which I discovered on the brilliant YouTube channel Townsendswhere they recreate 18th century recipes. As the host John Townsend says in his introduction to this recipe:

Potatoes were an important part of the diet of the 18th century in Great Britain and in North America. They were important especially for the poorer sort of folks who didn’t have those expensive foods available. 

The recipe Townsend uses is originally from 1732 and, as he mentions in the video, it was a recipe you might use if you were eating a lot of potatoes and wanted to vary up how you cooked them. Or if you had old potatoes lying around. Or if wheat was too expensive. Apparently this recipe shows up in lots of different cookbooks of the time (he quotes from Primitive Cookery from 1767, which was a recipe book filled with inexpensive recipes).

Like everyone else, I’ve been in quarantine and thought now would be the perfect time to give this super affordable and tasty looking recipe a go!

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know that I love making 18th century food and drink, partly for book research and partly because it’s fun! Sometimes that turns out really well, like the time I made syllabub. Sometimes, the results are less appetizing, like the time I made ‘Flip’!

These potato pancakes were a moderate success (I’ll tell you more on that below), but, for now, let’s get into how I made these. This is my version of the recipe, inspired by the 18th century recipe I mentioned above and from Townsend’s video. Enjoy!

Potato Pancakes from 1732

Ingredients:

  • Some potatoes (it really depends on how many cakes you want to make. We used three medium sized potatoes)
  • Salt
  • Milk (about 1/4 cup)
  • Butter

And that’s it. If you think it sounds like we’re making mashed potatoes, you’re pretty much right!

How to make them

Step 1: Peel the potatoes and cut into bite-sized pieces.

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Step 2: Boil the potato pieces for about 15 minutes or until they’re tender. Then drain and let them cool.

Step 3: Mash them!

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Step 4: Add a big pinch of salt and a splash of milk (maybe like 1/4 cup or a teeny bit more, depending on how many potatoes you have). NB Don’t put too much milk here. You want the potatoes to retain a doughy consistency and if you add too much milk, they’re gonna be too runny).

Step 5: Add butter to a hot pan (like you’d do for typical pancakes)

Step 6: Flatten the potatoes into little pancakes.

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Step 7: Then put them into the pan. Flip them like pancakes after a minute or two on each side. They should be golden brown.

And that’s it! Serve hot.

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As you can see, they turned out pretty well in the end! They were a bit like hash browns, only more compact. We ate them with mustard, which wasn’t especially period appropriate for a poorer sort of 18th century person’s diet, but it was delicious. You could of course have them with ketchup. Or any sort of dipping sauce. I really wanted to try eating them with apple sauce and I realized that was because they reminded me a bit of latkes which I always ate with apple sauce at a friend’s for Hanukkah.

So the trickiest thing about cooking this, we found, was trying to keep the potatoes together when they were frying in the pan. Now, I grew up in the USA and I’ve had some experience flipping good ol’ American style breakfast pancakes, so I didn’t have as much trouble with this. But if you’re not as used to flipping pancakes, it might take some practice. I’d say: don’t flip too soon. And it’s a process of trial and error (our first few were definitely the messiest).

The real problem is that they don’t have flour to keep them all stuck together and make a heartier dough. But that was ‘authentic’ to the recipe, which was eaten by folks who would have made cakes like these if flour wasn’t something that they could afford. This is not like the sweet, rich and decadent syllabub recipe I made. This is hearty, simple food that will fill you up.

For me, these pancakes were, overall, pretty good. But my partner seemed to really enjoy them. So they’re worth trying out one afternoon if you fancy it and definitely let me know if you do!

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Film Review)

France, 1770. A tale of forbidden love, same-sex desire and painting. Sign me up! From the moment a friend of mine sent me the trailer for Céline Sciamma’s new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (or Portrait de la Jeune Fille En Feu, in its original French), I knew I would enjoy this movie. It ticks so many boxes of things I enjoy. It’s historical, it’s a bit gothic, it’s about female experiences and patriarchal limitations. I’m also a sucker for art about art. So I went into it with pretty high expectations. But what I did not expect was just how good this film was: it’s a subtle, sensuous, and frankly pretty faultless movie. It’s also just so. darn. romantic. And tragic. But we’ll get to that in a second.

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As I mentioned, the film takes place in France in the 1770’s (which, by the way, is the exact same time period in which the novel I am working on is set – so I loved seeing the costumes in this!). It follows a small cast of characters. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter, newly arrived to a drafty old mansion on the Brittany coast. She has been called there to paint Héloise (Adèle Haenel), a young aristocratic woman who will soon be married off to a Milanese nobleman. The painting will be a gift to this man, a lovely portrait of his new French bride. The only catch is: Héloise doesn’t want to have her portrait painted at all. She doesn’t want to be married off, either. So Marianne must paint her subject in secret, observing her with furtive glances on their walks on a windswept beach, or by the steep cliffs. Is there tension? You bet there is! Are those pauses pregnant with longing and unspoken words? You bet they are.

This is a film that is especially suited to its medium and by that I mean it’s a very visual film. Don’t get me wrong: the dialogue, when it happens, is excellent. Funny and specific and gives a great sense of character. But it’s a lot about looks, as slowly Marianne’s portrait of the surly but also surpassingly sweet Héloise emerges. But Héloise is also looking back at Marianne, observing this young woman who, unlike herself, has a professional career as a painter and has decided not to marry. Marianne wears masculine clothes and smokes a pipe (although this is not entirely uncommon for women of the time). Marianne is well-travelled. She’s heard symphonies. Héloise is entranced. They’re entranced with each other.

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Marianne (Noemie Merlant), right, and Heloise (Adele Haenel), left.

I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that these two fall in love (it’s made obvious in the trailer). At its heart, this film is a love story. But what I like most about the film is that we are made constantly aware – through their romance, through Marianne’s career (which is limited due to her sex), and through a sub-plot with Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), Héloise’s servant who falls pregnant on accident – that their lives are governed by patriarchal rules. Marianne casually mentions that she cannot draw nude male models, only female ones, because female artists are not allowed to observe naked men. ‘Is it a matter of modesty?’ Héloise asks. Marianne replies: ‘It’s mostly to prevent us from doing great art. Without any notion of male anatomy, the major subjects escape us.’

This is great. Sciamma doesn’t have to make Marianne say: ‘We’re oppressed! We’re women! It’s an unequal society!’ We just know from these examples.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Greta Gerwig’s recent adaptation of Little Women, which I liked for certain reasons, but it’s also concerned with limitations faced by women of the past, when trying to enter the public, professional world. And it definitely hits you over the head with these sorts of inequalities more overtly than Portrait does. Think of the speech that progressive artist Jo March makes in Gerwig’s Little Women:

I just feel that women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a women is fit for. I’m so sick of it. But I’m so lonely.

This is a good speech and delivered exceptionally well by Saoirse Ronan, but all of those same sentiments were encapsulated in Portrait, without needing to be directly said. This film is subtle and understated in all of the ways that I felt Little Women was not. And, granted, Little Women was a much cheerier, lighter, brighter, film overall. Whereas Portrait is more turbulent, moody, subtler, holds a lot more back. (Little Women is an American film, after all, and Portrait is a French one haha!). But still. They came out at almost the same time and explore many of the same themes, which is why I’m comparing them.

ANYWAYS, if you like these types of stories (about women who are ‘ahead of their time’, about forbidden passions, about slightly creepy mansions on windswept coasts), then you’re gonna LOVE Portrait of a Lady on Fire. While Portrait didn’t blow my mind – I don’t think it was doing anything exceptionally innovative or treading on especially new territory – I still think it was an excellent film. I cried several times. It’s also definitely one of the best films I’ve ever seen set during this time period, so if you’re looking for a brilliant, subtle, well-crafted historical film, then do check it out!

(PS All of the images in this post, including the gorgeous waves-crashing Featured Image, were accessed via IMDB)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Inside a Georgian Drawing Room

The novel Jane Eyre begins with young Jane sitting in the ‘drawing room’ of her aunt’s house. When I first read Jane Eyre as a kid, I remember pausing on that phrase – ‘drawing room’ – and wondering what exactly it meant. I gathered from context that a drawing room was some sort of living room, but why was it called a ‘drawing’ room? Was it a room where you went to draw stuff? I genuinely had no idea.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase before and been similarly confused – fear not! For today’s Madeira Mondays, we’re going inside a recreated 18th century drawing room, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about what these rooms were for, what sort of things you might find in them, and, yes, why the heck they are called drawing rooms in the first place! (Hint: it doesn’t have anything to do with drawing pictures!)

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A middle-class drawing room in London in 1841, painted by James Holland. Accessed via Wikipedia.

As a bit of background: before the Covid-19 shut-downs, I was volunteering weekly at The Georgian House in Edinburgh, sometimes even in costume (more on this in my posts about 18th century Christmas celebrations)! The Georgian House is a beautiful, restored 18th century town home: recreated to look as it did in 1800, when the Lamont family lived there, and it’s filled with furniture, art, and objects from the period. I cannot recommend enough a visit, once everything is open and running again, if you’re ever in town and at all interested in this time period (or simply want to learn more about how people of the past lived their daily lives!).

So let’s step into the Lamont’s drawing room at The Georgian House and learn about what this room was for!

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The drawing room at The Georgian House

Firstly, what is a ‘drawing room’?

Historically, a drawing room was a room in a large private house where visitors could be entertained. In the case of The Georgian House, the drawing room is the largest room in the home (30 ft x 18 ft and 14 ft high) and definitely the grandest – it was a formal entertaining space, furnished grandly to impress the guests of the Lamont family. The family would have spent the most money on furnishing this room in particular.

(For context about the family, John Lamont was a wealthy landowner. The square where The Georgian House is located, Charlotte Square, was home, in the Georgian period, to wealthy families but they were not necessarily all from the aristocracy. Some were prosperous lawyers, bankers, merchants etc.)

Why is it called a drawing room?

The name ‘drawing room’ comes from the word ‘withdrawing’. After a formal dinner, the ladies would all withdraw from the dining table to the drawing room upstairs, to socialize. The gentlemen would stay at the table and continue to drink (heavily), before rejoining the ladies later in the evening.

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Yours truly (in costume) gazing out the window of the drawing room at The Georgian House. (Ignore the not very period appropriate cars parked outside the window!)

What sort of activities would happen in the drawing room?

This space was more for evening activities, such as balls or larger gatherings, but the lady of the house might have used the room during the day, if she had some friends over for tea.

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Me (right) in costume as Georgina Lamont (the family’s oldest daughter), next to fellow volunteers portraying John Lamont and a visiting guest, in the drawing room during our ‘Meet the Lamonts’ event last December. (BTW the Christmas tree, while lovely, was not Georgian and didn’t come into popular use until the Victorian period!)

At a party, the chairs would have all been pushed to the walls, to make space for dancing. When the ladies were rejoined by the men, there might have been card playing, or chess. In addition to dancing! Someone also might want to sing. Playing an instrument was an important social accomplishment of the time for the upper classes, and men and women might get up and sing a song or two. It’s my understanding that it didn’t matter so much how well you sang – this was more an opportunity for young people of marriageable age (and their families) to get a good long look at each other! But this was also a time when you had to really make your own fun (and, often, your own music!) so playing the piano could provide entertainment as well.

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Portrait of Anastasia Robinson, circa 1727, via Wikimedia

There is so much more to say about the ornate drawing room at The Georgian House, and so many objects there to delve into, but I’ll save that for another time. I had hoped to do a series of posts where I look at different rooms in a Georgian household – parlor, dining room, kitchen etc., using The Georgian House as an example. But unfortunately I don’t have all the pictures I wanted, to be able to show you all that I’d like, so we’ll have to wait until the house has opened back up again and I can get in there and take some more photos! I promise it’ll be worth the wait.

If you’re looking for more reading in the meantime, check out The Georgian House’s blog which featured another fellow volunteer (and mega talented costumer!), Emma Harvey, talking about 18th century women’s fashions.

(PS today’s Featured Image is by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier the Elder, ‘The Family of the Duke of Penthièvre (“The Cup of Chocolate”)’, circa 1768, accessed via Wikipedia)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

Madeira Mondays: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold review

Several years ago, I went to visit a friend of mine who lived in London. I got off the train at Liverpool Street station and set off to find her flat amidst the many pubs and red brick buildings crowded around Spitalfields market. I was surprised to see a tour group, led by someone in a top hat and cane. Then a second tour group walked by. Why were there so many tours? Then I was handed a flyer and it all became clear: Jack the Ripper tour. This area was the site of the infamous White Chapel murders, back in the 1880’s.

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The Police News from October 20, 1888, featuring the death of Elizabeth Stride (one of Jack the Ripper’s victims). The Illustrated Police News was an early British tabloid. Image accessed via the Wikimedia Commons.

You probably know this already, but for any who might not: in Victorian London there was a string of five brutal killings in the East End by a man whose identity is still unknown today. Jack the Ripper.

I didn’t end up going on any of these tours, however, and I found the whole idea of a Jack the Ripper tourism industry a little disquieting. I still do. Are we mythologizing and, in a way, celebrating this evil guy who butchered women?

I do understand the gothic Victorian allure of an unknown serial killer though and I totally get why people would be curious to learn more about the murders. But, even though I’m interested in history (as you know if you read this blog!) and especially 18th and 19th century history, I’m not a big fan of ‘true crime’ and I’ve never had any interest in learning more about the Jack the Ripper killings. That is: until I heard about Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

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This book is not about the grizzly details of the murders and it is not about Jack the Ripper at all. It’s about the five women whose lives were lost. What starts as a case study of their five lives, emerges as a fascinating social history of working class Victorian London itself. It is also an attempt to restore the humanity of five people who have been dismissed for a hundred and fifty years as ‘just prostitutes’ (By the way, Rubenhold’s research reveals that the majority of them were not sex workers at all).

It’s a fascinating and heart-breaking non-fiction account of how five very different women came to find themselves impoverished and vulnerable to attack. We follow the five victims – Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane – who each get their own sections of the book. What becomes clear over the course of The Five is how precarious life was for working class women at the time. Many of them start out in relatively safe and stable situations, but through one or two twists of fate, find their fortunes reversed. While they were not all prostitutes, what Rubenhold does highlight is the fact that they were all alone when they were killed and sleeping outside. They were homeless. Throughout the book, Rubenhold reveals just how challenging their lives were:

The cards were stacked against Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane from the day of their births. They began their lives in deficit. Not only were most of them born into working class families, but they were born female. Before they had even spoken their first words, they were regarded as less important than their brothers, and more of a burden on the world than their wealthier female counterparts. Their worth was compromised before they had even begun to prove it.

This book has been very hyped, but I think it lives up to the praise and popularity it has garnered. The research is detailed and it’s very well-written. And I agree with its mission of focusing on the forgotten lives of these women, tragically cut short by a brutal murderer. As this review in The Guardian points out: ‘Forests have been felled in the interests of unmasking the murderer, but until now no one has bothered to discover the identity of his victims.’ It is, quite frankly, appalling that it has taken us this long to bother looking into these women’s lives.

The Five is literally dedicated to the women who were killed by Jack the Ripper, but it’s figuratively dedicated to them as well. Dedicated to piecing together portraits of their lives and characters, dedicated to revealing how dangerous and unstable life was for London’s working poor, and dedicated to reminding the modern reader that no woman is deserving of violence. I was really impressed with it as a project and as an act of historical research, so I hope you’ll excuse the fact that it is technically about 19th century history (not 18th, like we would typically focus on for ‘Madeira Mondays’!). I was compelled to tell you about it, and hope that you will find it similarly interesting.

Let me know if you’ve heard of The Five in the comments below and if it sounds like something you might want to read! Next Monday, we’re going inside an 18th century home. I’ll be starting a string of ‘Madeira Mondays’ focused on different rooms in a Georgian household and what went on in each one: bedroom, parlor, kitchen etc.!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!