Madeira Mondays: An analysis of Tracy K. Smith’s ‘Declaration’

To mark the 4th of July, I’ll be spending the next couple of ‘Madeira Mondays’ looking at various artistic responses to the Declaration of Independence. Some incredibly powerful and serious artworks, some quite lighthearted and silly.

For international readers, the 4th of July is an annual American holiday celebrated to mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was a document signed by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776, in which the 13 American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. “(T)hese United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States,” the document reads. It also explains why they are declaring their independence, listing out the colonists’ grievances with King George III (they list his ‘abuses and usurpations’ in a basically bullet point list format: ‘He has done THIS wrong and also THIS and, oh wait, THIS too!’). This document was mailed to the King who was, understandably, not happy about it and the Revolutionary War kicked off in earnest (there had already been some smaller battles). If the Americans had lost the war for independence, those that signed the Declaration would certainly have been executed for treason. But, as you know, history went another way!

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The famous painting ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1819) by John Trumbull, accessed via Wikipedia

It’s a beautifully written document (you can read a transcription of it here) and is widely viewed as a sort of mission statement for American democracy. Its author, Thomas Jefferson, wrote some famous and enduring phrases in it such as:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It’s a powerful declaration of not just American rights but also human rights. Yet, whose rights were we talking about here? The 18th century was a time when women had few rights. They were basically, legally, their husband’s property (they obviously couldn’t do things like vote but they also had no control over their finances, their bodies, their children etc.). It was also a time when Africans – women, men and children – were forcibly being kidnapped and sold into bondage to labor on the American continent. I’m talking of course about American slavery, the institution with effects and impact that we can see throughout American history (from the American Civil War, through to segregation and Jim Crow) and are still seeing today (through mass incarceration and urgent calls for criminal justice system reform).

But slavery was an issue on the American founders’ minds too and contrary to popular belief, many of them did know that it was wrong. Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration, called slavery a ‘moral depravity’ and a ‘hideous blot’, while also benefiting from the institution and enslaving more than 600 people over the course of his life. Others, like my personal favorite of America’s founders (for various reasons) John Adams from Massachusetts, was vehemently anti-slavery and never kept any enslaved servants on principal. Yet it would take a civil war the following century, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, to officially end it.

Slavery was (and is) part of the American story and it remains a great irony that the men who wrote so eloquently about liberty and freedom in the Declaration were, themselves, keeping other people enslaved. It’s this topic which is taken up in former U.S Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith‘s poem ‘Declaration’.

You can read and listen to the poem here.

‘Declaration’ is an erasure poem. An erasure poem takes a preexisting text and makes a poem by erasing or removing words from it. In this case, Smith takes the Declaration of Independence as her starting point and erases words until a new poem is left. As you read her poem, you can quite clearly see what it is evoking: slavery.

There are several reasons why ‘Declaration’ works so well. Firstly, the form itself. Erasure poetry is by its nature a bit radical and iconoclastic because you’re hacking away at an existing document and making something new. It’s rebellious, just like the Declaration itself. Yet it’s also about erasing things, removing them from sight, which is exactly what the founders did with slavery, which is never mentioned in the Declaration. Jefferson had written a passage about it, basically blaming the institution on the King, but it was struck out, Jefferson claimed, at the insistence of other southern colonies. So it isn’t there. Smith’s poem inverts this original erasure, turning Jefferson’s words against themselves so that the poem now focuses on slavery and the original intent of the document (about the white male colonists’ grievances with the King) has been erased.

The poem also changes the meaning of the pronoun ‘he’. In the original document, this ‘he’ referred to King George III (e.g ‘He has obstructed the Administration of Justice…’). But now this ‘he’ is more nebulous and tough to pin down: he could now be white slavers, but also America, generally, or the institution of slavery personified.

Another reason it’s so powerful is the use of frequent ’em’ dashes (those are the longer dashes), which is the only punctuation that Smith seems to have added (although you could think about all the white space as a kind of punctuation). The em dashes seem to indicate where the phrase continues in the original document but words have been removed e.g. ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.’ from the original becomes ‘he has plundered our-/ravaged our-/destroyed the lives of our-‘ in Smith’s poem. In addition to reminding us that this is an erasure poem and words have been removed, all those dashes, also suggest, to me, that in some ways these crimes remain unspeakable. The phrase: ‘Taken away our’, followed by an em dash, is an example of this. Taken away our…what? Our lives? Our spirits? Our humanity? The reader is forced to fill in that awful blank.

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Photo I took in December 2017 at Magnolia Plantation, South Carolina, of a slave cabin on the site

The poem ends on one of these dashes and it’s quite significant, I think, that the final two words are: ‘to bear’. This suggests to me several meanings. Firstly, enslaved people forced to bear (or carry or pick up) tools, but also to bear children, perhaps (sexual violence against enslaved women was pervasive). Yet it also suggests that people are still ‘bear(ing)’ the legacy of slavery now. The poem isn’t finished (there is no end stop), which suggests that the effects of slavery aren’t finished either. It is something that we as a nation must ‘bear’ too.

Smith’s poem cleverly subverts a document which, by its very nature, erased the lives of many. Her words, instead, foreground and express their suffering, while at the time time suggesting that this suffering is inexpressible. It’s a powerful poem and one that reminds me how poetry can change the way that we look at our history and our world.

Let me know what you thought of the poem. Had you read it before? What did you notice about it? Next week, we’re looking a very different artistic response to the Declaration of Independence. Hint: It’s a movie. Any guesses?

Recommended Further Reading:

PS Today’s Featured Image is of an 1823 facsimile of the Declaration, and 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: Writing Poetry about the Salem Witch Trials

In last week’s post, I shared part-one of my poem ‘The First Afflicted Girl’, from my upcoming poetry pamphlet Anastasia, Look in the Mirror. This week, I wanted to look more closely at the story behind the poem. And I don’t just mean the historical story that inspired it, but also how I wrote the poem itself. But first: if you’ve not read last week’s post, you might want to take a look at that one first and have a wee read of the poem (this post will probably make more sense if you do!).

‘The First Afflicted Girl’ is a persona poem. A ‘persona poem’ is a poem that adopts the voice of a specific character (maybe a historical character, a fictional character, etc.). In this case, the poem adopts the voice of Betty Parris who was one of the ‘afflicted children’ during the Salem Witch Trials, who accused others of being witches. Her short entry on Wikipedia says that she, alongside her cousin Abigail, ’caused the direct death of 20 Salem residents: 19 were hanged…(one) pressed to death.’ But Betty was a child – can we really say she caused those deaths? A nine-year-old child didn’t hang those women, a community did. What I’m saying is, that’s pretty harsh, Wikipedia!

But, nevertheless, Betty played a key role in this tragic episode, and several years ago I became curious about her life after reading A Delusion of Satan by Frances Hill (a very gripping nonfiction account of the Salem Witch Trials). Hill describes Betty as ‘impressionable’ and ‘steeped in her father’s Puritan theology that made terrifying absolutes of good and evil, sin and saintliness and heaven and hell.’ Hill also writes that: ‘Unsurprisingly, (Betty) was full of anxiety.’ These descriptions drew me to her, perhaps because ‘anxious’ and ‘impressionable’ were probably two words that could have been used to describe me as a kid, alongside imaginative (we’ll get to imagination in a moment).

Frances Hill

Who was Betty?

For starters, Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Parris was the daughter was the daughter of Salem Village Reverend Samuel Parris. In 1692, she lived in Puritan Massachusetts in her father’s home with her eleven year old cousin Abigail (who plays a part in my poem). She also lived with an enslaved couple of Caribbean origins, Tituba and John Indian. It was unusual for a New England family at the time to keep slaves, and, at least from Hill’s account, it seems that Tituba was a constant presence in Betty’s life (maybe even more so than her mother, who I chose to make absent entirely from my poem). Betty would have known Tituba since infancy. It’s impossible to know the complex dynamic between little Betty and Tituba, but both Betty and Abby were certainly dependent on her – which is why Tituba’s presence is woven subtly throughout the poem. She’s always there, usually doing household chores to keep the home running (in part-one, for instance, she’s blowing air from the bellows into the fire).

What was Betty’s life like?

The days were quite monotonous for young Puritan children. Endless chores (sewing, helping with the cooking, spinning etc.). Families were mostly self-reliant (making many items there at home, like candles and clothes). Hill writes about how there was ‘little play or amusement’ for kids and, as they grew older, no entertainment or hobbies. The only books they had were religious ones. Most strikingly to me, there were few outlets for the little girls to imagine. Hill writes:

Young women of that time and place had nothing to feed the imagination, to expand understanding or heighten sensitivity. There were no fairytales or stories to help order and make sense of experience. Were was no art or theatre (…) boys enjoyed hunting, trapping, and fishing, carpentry and crafts. For girls there were no such outlets for animal high spirits or mental creativity.

This made me wonder: what would it have been like to be a little girl like Betty? What might the mind conjure up, if you had no outlet for your imagination? What might I have done, if I had been born in this environment?

So how did that research contribute to the poem?

The monotony of Betty’s existence is something I wanted to convey with the language of the poem, which uses frequent repetition (‘days and days and days/of lighting fires’). And if a young girl like Betty were to feel anything but content with these days of boredom and drudgery, then they would probably have interpreted these feelings as sinful and wicked. That’s why I bring in Betty’s repeated thoughts: ‘I am not wicked/I do not want to be wicked.’ These lines come immediately after she talks about ‘wanting/to be in bed instead of/sewing, washing, sweeping.’ ‘I do not want sunshine’, she tries to assure herself, but already, from a few stanzas back, we know that she ‘dream(s) her cheeks are burned by sunlight’.

A few lines later, when Betty says the ‘outside is not different/from the in’, that line refers to the house being dark inside and out because it’s the dead of winter. But, on another level, it’s also her hope that her internal world and what she presents outwardly are the same. Of course, they’re not the same. Inside, it’s tumultuous and full of conflicting desires and self-chastisement, even if on the ‘outside’ she’s playing the part of an obedient child who doesn’t ‘want sunshine’.

The final three lines of part-one, ‘We burn the candles/and keep them/burning’, also works on two levels (I hope!). This is a physical description of the setting meant to convey just how dark it was during those bleak winter months, but also ending that section on the word ‘burning’, and isolating the word like that, on its own line, is suggestive of the witch trials that are to come (keep them burning). Although no women or men were burned alive in Salem, this imagery does evoke witch trials generally, I think. It’s a sinister note to end on, suggesting bad things to come, and the poem definitely takes a turn for the increasingly more sinister and strange in parts two and three, as Betty becomes more physically, emotionally and psychologically distressed. In the poem, as in life, she begins speaking incoherently, having violent convulsions, and eventually causing everyone around her to conclude that she has been ‘bewitched’.

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‘Witchcraft at Salem Village’ engraving from 1876, accessed here

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Of course, each reader will get something different from the poem, and just because I intended for something to be read a certain way, that doesn’t mean that it will be! Overall, in the first section, I really wanted to convey Betty’s fear of being ‘wicked’, the physical discomforts of her life, and the fervent religion beliefs of her time. Section two explores Betty’s dabbling with fortune telling (and her increasingly morbid thoughts) and finally her descent into ‘hysteria’. My poem ends before the Witch Trials actually begin. (I won’t say exactly how it ends! For that, you’ll need to read the full poem in the book!)

In reality, what happened was that Betty and Abby accused three (vulnerable) women of being witches: Sarah Good, a homeless woman; Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman and (perhaps most tragically and most predictably) the woman who had cared for them, Tituba.

Tituba survived, but many people did die as a result of the ensuing witch trials (nineteen hanged and one man pressed to death). I don’t have an answer as to ‘why’ the real historical Betty behaved the way she did. There were probably numerous contributing factors that led to her odd behavior. There are certainly many factors that led to the Salem Witch Trials generally, including long-standing superstitions (witch trials had been going on in Europe for years) and complex relationships and rivalries between members of Salem Village and Salem Town. As for the girls’ affliction: there’s a theory (put forward by psychologist Linnda Caporael in the 1970’s) that blamed their abnormal behavior on the fungus ergot, which can be found in rye and might have caused hallucinations. But this theory is not really supported by historians, as explained very well in this blog post from a history student and tour guide in Salem.

In any case, my poem is not trying to explain exactly what happened to the girls, and it’s certainly not delving into the complex origins of the trials themselves. What I am trying to do is explore a certain state of being, a state of boredom, fear and anxiety that might have taken hold of this ‘impressionable’ nine-year-old girl. Hill also notes, and I agree with this argument, that this is a time when women weren’t allowed any sort of public voice, and had little to no power in their homes, so even feigning this kind of ‘affliction’ would have given the girls a kind of power. People would have listened to them, taken them seriously, an intoxicating prospect for a Puritan girl, even if it had deadly consequences.

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Examination of a Witch (1853) by T.H. Matteson, accessed via Wikipedia

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Within my book, this poem is also positioned right before a poem about my own experience of ‘Abstinence Only’ sexual education in a Texas public high school, very much an anxiety-inducing experience and one more aimed, in my experience, at scaring young people than educating them. Through this ordering of poems, I’m trying to draw (unsettling) parallels between past and present, and to raise questions about how young people are ‘educated’ then and now. 

So that’s a bit of insight into the research and thinking behind this poem! (There are much cheerier poems in the pamphlet too, I should add! The aforementioned ‘Sex Ed’ poem is actually really funny – I hope!). If you’d like to read more, the whole poem is in Anastasia, Look in the Mirror (available for pre-order here).

And if you’d like to learn more about Salem generally, here are a few ideas:

Recommended Further Reading/Listening/Viewing:

Books:

Movies:

  • The Witch directed by Robert Eggers (one of my favorite films! I wrote about it last Halloween here)

Podcasts:

‘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 First Afflicted Girl’ (A Poem)

The Salem Witch Trials is well-trodden territory for fiction writers. Perhaps the most famous fictional representation of this tragic episode in early American history is Arthur Miller’s play ‘The Crucible’ (1953). Miller wrote this play as an allegory, drawing parallels between the fanatical 17th century Puritans accusing people of being witches and the ‘Red Scare’ of the 1950’s, when the US government accused many people (including himself) of being communist. But beyond ‘The Crucible’, there’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables (1851), as well as several modern novels, including the YA novel A Break with Charity (1992) by one of my literary heroes, Ann Rinaldi. This is in addition to TV and movies ranging from the silly (think Hocus Pocus) to the serious, as well as dozens of non-fiction accounts from historians and journalists alike about what exactly happened in Salem Massachusetts that fateful winter.

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I never intended to write a poem about the Salem Witch Trials, for the very reason that it’s pretty well-covered ground. But several years ago I was reading a non-fiction book, A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials by Frances Hill, and I became fascinated with her depiction of a somewhat ‘minor’ character in this story: Betty Parris. Betty was a little girl who, in the winter of 1692, started showing strange and abnormal behaviors (barking, hiding under tables, having fits). The adults around her decided that she was bewitched, so naturally the question arose: Who had bewitched her? Betty and her cousin Abigail started naming names, and this is what started The Salem Witch Trials.

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‘Captain Alden Denounced’, a sketch from 1878, author unknown, accessed via Wikimedia

Betty’s story really interested me. What was going on with her psychologically and physically? What was her life like? What events might have led up to these strange behaviors and her peculiar ‘illness’? I don’t have answers for most of these questions, but they inspired a three-part poem, ‘The First Afflicted Girl’, that is in my new poetry pamphlet – Anastasia, Look in the Mirror.

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I’m going to share the first part of the poem here and then next week I’ll talk a bit more about Betty’s life and my historical research, what I hoped to achieve with the language, as well as what themes I wanted to explore overall in the poem.

The First Afflicted Girl

I.

I whisper Wake up, Abby,
as floorboards creak above and sawdust
falls on us like snowflakes.

Up there, Tituba blows air into the fire,
wakes it up. I want to burrow
like a field mouse back to sleep.
I dream my cheeks are burned by sunlight
but I wake and cannot feel the ends of me.

I pull on cloth, teeth knocking,
Wake up, Abby, shaking her shoulders
and we go up the stairs, clat clat clat,
and huddle by the heat, hold our palms
out to catch it. I think it is morning
but now the days fog into nights
and days and days and days
of lighting fires.

The Lord is in the candles
for He is in everything that is good,
like the pale sunlight when we walk
to see Mary Walcott,
for He created Light
and the Devil is in the cobwebs
and the nights when cold is biting
me. And in the wanting

to be in bed instead of
sewing, washing, sweeping.
I am not wicked.
I do not want to be wicked.
I do not want sunshine.
I light the candles,
see my face in dark glass.

Now the outside is not different
from the in.

Both are gray in winter.
We burn the candles
and keep them
burning.

If you’d like to read the whole poem and hear more of Betty’s story you can check out: Anastasia, Look in the Mirror which is out on July 2, 2020 and is now available for pre-order here from Stewed Rhubarb Press! Betty is only one of the many characters you’ll meet in the book which explores female desire and sexuality from a range of historical and modern perspectives. (Most of the poems are funnier and more light-hearted than this one as well, by the way!) There’s lots more information about it on my book announcement blog post here.

‘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!

(PS Today’s Featured Image is “The Witch No. 1 Lithograph” by Joseph E. Baker c. 1892, from The Library of Congress, and accessed via Wikimedia)

 

Madeira Mondays: Mid-Year Wrap-Up

It’s the middle of the year (June) and the middle of the month (the 15th), so I figured what better time to do a mid-year recap of all the ‘Madeira Mondays’ that I’ve posted so far this year, as well as a look ahead at what topics I’m hoping to cover in the second half of 2020.

This blog series is all about early American history and historical fiction, but the topics I’ve looked at range pretty far and wide, so I’ve organized this list in terms of category (‘On Films and TV Shows’ ‘On books’ ‘Recipes’ etc). You can easily scroll down to the category that might be of most interest to you. I’d also love any suggestions and feedback on which topics you’d be curious about as I move forward – more on that at the end of the post!

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Display of items that would have been found in an 18th century American shop, at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia (November, 2019)

Madeira Mondays January-June 2020

On Films and TV Shows

Washington miniseries Episode 1; Washington miniseries Episodes 2-3 (Reviews of The History Channel’s new miniseries about the life of America’s first President, George Washington)

Behind the Mask (Review of film set in Revolutionary War Philadelphia, directed by Chad Burns)

Grace and Frankie and…John Adams (A look at the popular TV series Grace and Frankie and its surprising links to early American history and John Adams)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Film review of Celine Sciamma’s 2019 film about a romance between two women in 18th century France)

18th century Fashion on RuPaul’s Drag Race (A look at how drag queen Gigi Goode incorporates 18th century fashion into her outfits)

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Scene from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, featuring Noemie Merlant as Marianne (right) and Adele Haenel as Heloise (left)

On Books

Thomas Jefferson, James Hemings, and French Cooking (Book review of Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée by James Craughwell, about how Jefferson and his enslaved cook James Hemings brought French cuisine to America)

Historical Short Stories (On Karen Russell and her historical fiction short stories)

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold (Book review of non-fiction book about the lives of the five women who were killed by Jack the Ripper)

Celia Garth (Book review of this novel by Gwen Bristow, first published in the 1950’s and set in Revolutionary Charleston, South Carolina)

Emily Dickinson’s Poem about Waiting (Analysis of a poem by Dickinson)

Recipes

A Forgotten 18th Century Drink (Making ‘flip’, an 18th century warmed rum drink)

A Cheap and Delicious 18th Century Recipe (Making potato cakes from an 18th century recipe)

Discovering an 18th Century Energy Drink (Making ‘switchel’, a refreshing summertime drink popular in early America)

Historical Research

Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (A-F); The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (G-P); Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (R-Z) (A series of posts about the best words from Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a compendium of 18th century slang)

Hamilton wasn’t wearing any underwear (An in-depth look at 18th century men’s underwear)

The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley (A look at the life of Phillis Wheatley, a young African-American writer who was a celebrity in 18th century Britain and America and one of the first American poets)

The Surprisingly Interesting History of Tomato Ketchup (A look at ketchup’s history, from ancient China through to today)

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Exhibitions and Historic Sites

Runaway Slaves in 18th Century Louisiana (A visit to The Cabildo museum in New Orleans Louisiana in January 2020, and a look at their exhibition Le Kèr Creole (The Creole Heart): Runaway Slaves, Music, and Memory in Louisiana)

Inside a Georgian Drawing Room (A visit to The Georgian House in Edinburgh, run by The National Trust of Scotland, where I volunteer as a costumed historical guide)

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The Drawing Room at The Georgian House where I volunteer in Edinburgh, Scotland

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I’ve really enjoyed writing and researching these posts and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them. So what’s next for Madeira Mondays? Since I have a new book coming out next month, there will be a couple of posts on the research I did for that and how I went about writing some of the poems (many of the poems are inspired by history). I also have plans to read two books by Laurie Halse Anderson in the near future. One of these I’ve read before – Chains – about an enslaved young girl in 18th century New York City who gets involved with the Revolution. The other book – Fever, 1793 – is about the outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia in the late 18th century, and I’ve never read this one. But I know Anderson is a brilliant writer (she’s most famous for her 1999 novel Speak, which is a really harrowing but beautifully written book about a teenager’s experience with sexual assault).

In terms of shows, I plan to watch Dickinson (the new TV series loosely inspired by the life of Emily Dickinson, which looks like a lot of silly fun). And, in honor of the upcoming 4th of July, I’d like to do a post or two about the musical 1776, about the signing of the Declaration of Independence (I also researched this musical as part of my PhD, so I’ve got a lot to say about it!).

Which posts have been your favorites thus far? Are there any historical fiction books/TV series/films that I should know about? I’ve also toyed with the idea of asking some of the Early American historians that I met through my PhD to do a guest post (or perhaps an interview) for the blog, so let me know if that’s something you’d be curious to see!

As always, thanks so much for reading. Hope to see you next Monday! x

 

My New Poetry Pamphlet: ‘Anastasia, Look in the Mirror’

Big announcement today, my friends: I’m delighted to introduce you to my new poetry pamphlet – Anastasia, Look in the Mirror – which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press on July 2nd, 2020!!

For those who might be new to the blog, HELLO! I’m happy you’re here. I’m Carly, an author, spoken word poet and academic. Here on this blog, I mostly write about random historical tidbits (like the history of ketchup or 18th century fashion on RuPaul’s Drag Race), review books and occasionally muse about the writing process. But TODAY I wanted to tell you a little bit about my new poetry pamphlet, which has been four years in the making…

So, what’s this book about?

Here’s the description of Anastasia, Look in the Mirror from the Stewed Rhubarb website:

This pamphlet from Scottish Slam Poetry champion Carly Brown explores acts of looking out of and in to oneself. The heroine of an erotic novel stares at her own reflection and doesn’t recognise herself. Scottish painters look for inspiration in fin-de-siècle Paris, and a girl in 17th-century America goes looking for trouble and inadvertently kicks off the Salem Witch Trials.

In these lyrical and witty poems, Carly Brown deftly mixes personal histories, introspection and political truths, bringing new, surprising and necessary images into sharp focus.

If you’re curious to see a sample poem or two, you can read three of the poems from the collection here in the Glasgow Review of Books. Or you can check out this spoken word poetry video for my poem ‘Reading Fifty Shades of Grey’ which is the first poem in the pamphlet (the pamphlet title is actually taken from a line in this poem).

Basically, this is a pamphlet jam-packed with topics that I love – poems about early American history and Scottish history, about sex, about literature – all brought together in a gorgeous package. I can’t thank Stewed Rhubarb enough for the beautiful design. Just take a gander at the cover!

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Here are some really lovely things that people have said about my poetry in the past:

Brian Donaldson, The Scotsman: Wit, warmth and wisdom aplenty [] The future health of spoken word seems safe in their hands.

Haley Jenkins, Selcouth Station: With each poem there is a refreshing comedic integrity but also a brilliant truth that both enlightens and terrifies.

Maria Sledmere, US Studies OnlineHer poems delivered sass and wit, while using lush imagery and spirited accents to render themes of identity, politics and belonging […] Brown’s performance gave a sense of reaching across discourses, time, and space to invite empathy, understanding, and productive cultural exchange.

Aug 2019 Pic 3 LP Perry Jonsson

Me performing at the Scottish Storytelling Center at the Loud Poets Fringe Show, August 2019. Photo by Perry Jonsson.

What exactly is a poetry ‘pamphlet’?

In the USA, pamphlets are also referred to as ‘chapbooks’. This means a short poetry collection, usually under 30 pages, rather than a full length collection, which are more like 50-100 pages. It’s common for new poets to release a pamphlet or two before putting out a debut full-length collection (More about the distinction between pamphlets and collections here if you’re curious).

This is actually my second pamphlet. My first one – Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone – was published back in 2014. That book was a collaboration between myself and American artist Lydia Cruz. It sold out its first edition, but copies of the second edition are still available online in the Loud Poets’ Etsy shop here.

Who is publishing it?

Stewed Rhubarb is a spoken-word and literary publisher based in Edinburgh.

I wanted this pamphlet to be published by them, because I’d been reading and admiring their books for years. They’ve published Jo Clifford, Harry Josephine Giles, Hannah Lavery, Rachel McCrum and many other brilliant writers. I love that Stewed Rhubarb is Scotland based (like me), that they champion spoken word (many of their writers perform live in some capacity), that their list is diverse, and also (quite frankly) that they make very beautiful books.

How am I feeling about the fact that soon Anastasia will be out in the world?

In a word: excited! Of course, it’s strange to be launching this book during a pandemic. There was meant to be a launch party here in Edinburgh, and one in Glasgow, next month to celebrate but of course that can’t happen. But I’m still looking forward to sharing this book with you – even if I can’t do that in person, just yet!

I also want to take this time here to thank my diligent and creative editor Katie Ailes, as well as James Harding and Charlie Roy at Stewed Rhubarb. I’d also like to sincerely thank everyone who joined ‘The Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb‘, the successful crowdfunding campaign that Stewed Rhubarb ran last year to help cover the costs of publishing my pamphlet as well as three others. If you supported that, I can’t thank you enough.

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Over the next few weeks, I’ll be publishing a few different blog posts here about the historical research and inspiration behind the book, as well as the editing and publication process. So be sure that you’re following the blog to receive those! And do let me know if there’s a particular aspect of the book, or the poetry writing process, that you’re curious about and I’ll see if I can do a post on that too. In the meantime…

You can pre-order the book now: Link HERE

Avid readers and writers will know that pre-ordering is a great way to support authors, because it shows publishers that there is a demand for their book. So if the book sounds like your cup of tea and you’d like a copy, now would be a perfect time to grab one! 🙂

Thanks and happy reading xx

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PS The Featured Image for this post is a painting entitled ‘Hip, Hip, Hurrah! Artist Festival at Skagen’ by Peder Severin Krøyer c. 1888

Madeira Mondays: Discovering an 18th Century Energy Drink

Those who have been reading this blog for a while know that I like to try out historical recipes. Sometimes, my culinary experiments go pretty well: like the time that I tried to make a frothy whipped syllabub. Sometimes, they don’t go well at all: like the time I made an absolutely vile warm rum drink called ‘flip’. And, sometimes, these experiments succeed wildly, and this wild success was what I experienced when I made ‘switchel’ for the first time yesterday. Damn! This drink was excellent. A refreshing, invigorating, slightly tart and slightly sweet, healthy and easy-to-make historical drink that I’m thrilled to have stumbled across.

I made this drink in part as a celebration of some goods news: the historical fiction novel that I’ve been working on was long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Award! For those who might not be familiar, Mslexia is a popular magazine in the UK, and they run an international competition every two years for debut novel manuscripts by female authors. It was a tremendous honor for my manuscript to be long-listed. Some amazing novelists, and in particular historical novelists, have won or been long or short-listed for this award in previous years (Imogen Hermes Gowar who wrote The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, for instance), so it was a real thrill to have my manuscript long-listed. As a poet who has been transitioning to fiction writing these last few years, it was also a major confidence boost to be recognized for my fiction, as well.

And speaking of poetry…I also made switchel to celebrate receiving the first copies of my brand new poetry pamphlet – Anastasia, Look in the Mirror – which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press next month on July 2nd! I can’t wait to share this book with you, and I have several posts lined up already focused on: what it’s about, how I researched and wrote it, etc. So stay tuned for that! For now, back to switchel. 

What exactly is ‘switchel’?

‘Switchel’ is a summery drink that was widely enjoyed in 18th century America, but versions of it date back much, much earlier. It’s made typically with water mixed with apple cider vinegar and ginger, and then sweetened with something (like molasses or honey or maple syrup). It’s a drink that thirsty American farmers would enjoy after a hot day harvesting the hay, thus its nickname of ‘haymaker’s punch’. It’s a drink meant to quench the thirst and revive the body, which is why I think of it as an historical ‘energy drink’.

It goes by several other names besides ‘switchel’. You could call it: aqua forte, ginger-water, haymaker’s punch, Yankee beverage, or (my personal favorite) swizzle.

How do you make it?

This is one of the best things about switchel: it’s super easy to make!

The version that I made combines two recipes: this recipe from the Townsend’s YouTube Channel (a favorite channel of mine, as frequent readers of this blog will know!) and a recipe from Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England by Corin Hirsch (a very fun book if you’re interested in food and old New England-y things).

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Here’s what I used:

  • 5-6 cups of cold water
  • Quarter cup of maple syrup
  • Quarter cup of lemon juice
  • Half a tablespoon of powdered ginger

I mixed all of those together in a pitcher and that’s it.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s often made with apple cider vinegar, but I didn’t have any of that on hand and Townsend had recommended that you could use lemon juice instead. But I’d be eager to try it out with apple cider vinegar. And for the maple syrup, you could also use honey or molasses.

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I poured some into a jar with a slice of lemon and there you go!

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What does it taste like?

In a word: refreshing!

I was very uncertain about adding the ginger, but honestly this tastes like a delicious mixture of ginger-beer and lemonade. It would be an incredibly refreshing drink after working outside on a hot day. My partner and I drank all of it very quickly and it’s so simple to make that I might make more very soon. (It would also make for an excellent mixer to go with vodka, I think, or rum…).

I’m not at all surprised that its popularity is apparently on the rise! According to this article from The Guardian, modern versions of this drink are becoming popular with: ‘the types of people who ride vintage bicycles, raise chickens and keep bees on their roof.’ I laughed a lot when I read that because while I don’t do any of those things – I have no bike, I don’t eat chickens, and I’d be too scared to keep bees – I probably fall loosely within that ‘hipster’ demographic.

Whether switchel is actually ‘threatening to dethrone kombucha as the next hip health trend’, as the article predicts, remains to be seen. But if it does become as popular as kombucha, I think it is deserved!

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Have you ever heard of switchel? I would not be surprised if it is already a trend in America and I just haven’t heard of it! Here in the UK, I’ve not seen it anywhere. But I would definitely buy it if I did.

If you try making your own switchel, I would be so delighted to hear about it! (As you can see from the recipe above, it’s extremely simple to make and you could maybe even rustle up a version of it with things already in your kitchen!).

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Harvest Rest’ by George Cole c. 1865

‘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 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!