Madeira Mondays: Emily Dickinson…teen rebel?

A couple of months back, I wrote a blog post on Emily Dickinson‘s poem about waiting. In that post, I mentioned how Dickinson was one of my favorite poets, especially as I was growing up, and how I have many of her poems memorized. Around that time I also mentioned that I was thinking about watching the new Apple TV series Dickinson, starring Hailee Steinfeld, inspired by the life of Emily Dickinson and a couple of you said you’d be curious to know what I thought of that series. Well – I’ve now seen Episode One of Dickinson entitled ‘Because I Could Not Stop’ and wow – there’s a lot going on in this show.

In Episode One alone, we meet ‘Emily Dickinson’, reimagined as a rebellious and slightly emo teenager who says things like ‘I’m just chilling’ and ‘Hey bro!’ She’s got big literary ambitions and a conservative family (including a mother played by 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Jane Krakowski). We get a sexy steam-punk personification of ‘Death’ in a top hat. We get modern pop music. We get a secret lesbian romance. We get, in short, a lot of stuff. (Who knew so much was going on in rural 19th century Massachusetts?)

Let’s get one thing out of the way, right off the bat: Dickinson isn’t interested in historical accuracy. They make that abundantly clear from the first scene when Emily is asked to get water from a well. She complains that her brother doesn’t have to fetch water. When her sister responds that her brother doesn’t have to do chores because he is a boy, Dickinson says, ‘This is bullshit.’ Now, we can’t know how the real Emily Dickinson spoke, sure, but she was a pious woman living in rural New England at the time of the American Civil War, so…I think we can safely say that she didn’t talk like this. And that’s the whole point of the opening scene – the show is letting you know immediately that they’re going for this sort of irreverent mish-mash of historical characters in period clothes mixed with deliberately anachronistic, modern dialogue and, in many cases, modern attitudes too.

A daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson at age 16 displayed at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst (Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images), accessed via The Poetry Foundation Website

I’m actually not sure what to compare this to – in terms of style. The fun and irreverent mix of modern and historical makes me think of Hamilton, but that seems almost unfair to Hamilton, given that Hamilton harnesses modern music in its historical retelling for a strong thematic purpose. By telling a historical story in the contemporary musical language of rap (and by starring a multiracial cast), it’s saying that these stories belong to contemporary, multicultural America. It’s also drawing a parallel between the struggles of an 18th century man, Alexander Hamilton, and the struggles of modern immigrants. It’s also just an innovative musical choice and, when you’re watching it, the music feels fresh and even revolutionary, which conveys the fresh and revolutionary ideals of the man it’s about (notice that King George III doesn’t rap, but the revolutionaries do!).

Maybe Dickinson is doing something similar. Are they trying to show that Dickinson is ahead of her time, by having her speak in a way that is…ahead of her time? Notice that her mother and father don’t talk as casually or in as modern a way as Emily does. They speak in a more ‘period’ fashion. But I think the whole acting-like-a-modern-teenager thing is more for comedy than anything else (at least from Episode One). The tone is actually a lot more similar to something like Drunk History (which Jane Krakowski has actually been a part of) than Hamilton.

I’m really not sure yet if I liked Dickinson. I thought that it would be more like Reign, a teen drama ‘based’ on the life of Mary Queen of Scots which was popular a couple of years ago. I liked Reign because it was basically a soap opera. Crazy stuff (betrayals, affairs, secret plots) were in basically every episode and it didn’t take itself very seriously. I am worried that Dickinson might be taking itself too seriously, or working its way there. I think I’d like it more if it stayed in the more lightly comic tone – I actually laughed out loud once or twice when I was watching it!

I think too that some of the dialogue in Episode One was really heavy-handed, but that might just be because it was the first episode. There’s a lot of exposition and lines like ‘I don’t want to get married! You know that!’ and ‘You’re afraid, Emily? You’re not afraid of anything!’

I am curious to see where it goes though. I’d be fine if they heightened the fun (more steam-punk Death in a carriage!) and played down the family drama stuff, but I’m worried it might go the opposite way. But we’ll see.  I’ve seen/read a few other representations of Dickinson’s life, both quite serious – The Belle of Amherst (a play) and A Quiet Passion (a film from 2016) – but I’ve not seen anything quite like this before.

Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) and ‘Death’ (Wiz Khalifa) in Dickinson

I might watch Wild Nights with Emily (2018)which was a purely comedic film, about her supposed romantic relationship with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, to compare it with this series (since I think that interesting aspect of Emily’s life will play a big part in this too).

Let me know what you think of Dickinson! I would be so, so curious, if you’ve seen this series, what you think of it? Should I keep watching? Does it improve from this or go downhill? And if you’ve not seen it, what do you think of the sounds of it? (Also excuse that Dickinson falls slightly outside of our ‘Madeira Mondays’ 18th century remit, since it is technically about the early 19th century! But I figured you wouldn’t mind!)

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

PS And speaking of poets and poetry, I also wanted to let you know that I’m doing a poetry performance online this week with the brilliant ‘spoken word cabaret’ Sonnet Youth.  I’ll be reading poems from my new pamphlet, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, alongside three other excellent Scotland-based poets. It’s a free to watch video stream, with the option to donate to charity if you’d like. It’s on Thursday, 17 September 2020 from 20:00-21:30 and the event link is here

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Is A Tale of Two Cities worth reading?

Charles Dickens was very much a man of his time.  Much of his fiction (almost all) was inspired by the world around him: specifically, the plight of the London poor. One of his most famous works (which happens to be a favorite of mine!), A Christmas Carol, was partly inspired by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several homes for London’s destitute children. He famously used to take long walks alone, all around London, and observe the world around him, getting inspiration for his books. Dickens and his characters – Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, David Copperfield etc. – are basically synonymous with 19th century London. Which is why I think it’s so interesting that one of his most famous novels – A Tale of Two Cities – isn’t set in Dickens’ familiar stomping ground, but rather in the late 18th century, during the French Revolution and The Terror.

A Tale of Two Cities is a work of historical fiction, and it takes place between London and Paris (those are the titular ‘two cities’) in the 1780’s and 90’s. I was drawn to it because I love A Christmas Carol (the book) and also because I was curious to see what Dickens, a man writing in the 1850’s, had to say about the late 18th century. The equivalent would be someone now writing about the 1960’s. There’s still a removal of time, but a much smaller one than if it were me or you writing about the 18th century.

A Tale of Two Cities is also considered a ‘classic’ and while I think that one shouldn’t feel any pressure to read any book simply because it’s well-known and famous – that goes for ‘classic’ as well as contemporary lit – I do think Dickens (like Shakespeare) is an author whose work has endured for a reason. Or several. One reason, I think, is that Dickens (again, like Shakespeare) can be read on two levels – for entertainment value (if you purely want a rollicking good read!) and also on a more analytical, thematic level. His books are amusing but also rich and thought-provoking. He’s a bit over-the-top sometimes, but he also writes with so much empathy and with close observation of humor behavior. And his outage at societal inequalities is sadly still quite relevant, just as it was in the 19th century.

So now you know what I think of Dickens generally, but how was A Tale of Two Cities specificially? A ‘classic’ worth checking out, or one to skip?

Overall, I really liked this novel. No surprise, because I like Dickens’ writing and I like the 18th century (as you know!). But there’s a lot to like here even if you aren’t crazy about either of those things.

It tells the story of one family that is caught up in the events of the French Revolution, and it asks a lot of questions about justice and guilt. One man is basically asked to pay for the crimes committed by his cruel, aristocratic family on the Parisian poor. He has rejected his family long ago and deplores their actions, but the revolution is imminent and the oppressed want blood. How do we make amends, when our ancestors and sometimes even our close relatives, have committed atrocities or acts of oppression? And how far is ‘too far’ when it comes to gaining justice and retribution for the crimes of the past?

My copy had brilliant black and white illustrations – like this one.

These questions are always interesting and I think they’re especially interesting in Dickens’ hands because this is a man who really fought for the rights of the London poor and has a clear empathy for the oppressed French poor and makes it clear why they revolted. We see that, to certain aristocratic nobles, these poor people’s lives are meaningless and expendable  A boy is crushed to death under a nobleman’s cart wheel and the noble doesn’t bat an eye. A noble looks down at one of his tenant farmers, on the verge of death, ‘as if he were a wounded bird, or hare, or rabbit; not at all as if he were a fellow creature.’

Yet Dickens also condemns the violence of the Revolution fairly explicitly. The primary antagonist of the story, the sinister Madame Defarge, is an embodiment of the Revolutionaries’ desire for revenge and for heads to roll (quite literally). She is a ‘ruthless woman’ with an ‘inveterate hated of a class’ which has turned her into a ‘tigeress.’ She’s violent, excessive and without mercy, but we do see why she’s this way and how she personally has been abused by members of the upper class. So her behavior is, at least, understandable. It’s this keen sense of specifically class-based oppression throughout that makes Dickens a good writer for this subject, because he’s quite ambivalent – the violence is reprehensible, but he gets why it happened. And he’s aware that it could happen again.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.

One of my favorite things about the book was Dickens’ descriptions of people. No surprise, the characters were super vivid and easy to visualize, down to the smallest player. A random jailer is described as: ‘so unwholesomely bloated, both in face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water.’ And all of the main characters are vivid, and relatively complex, except one: Lucie Manette. She’s worse than Mina in Dracula. She has no personality or life outside of her self-sacrificing devotion to her husband and father. Dickens seems to have no interest in either her bodily or intellectual reality – she has a child and it grows to the age of a toddler in the space of about a paragraph or two. (How do these events change her?!) She’s gorgeous, everyone loves her and would do anything for her – in short, she’s a very silly and unexamined character. With another author I’d let it slide but there’s no excuse for it when Dickens can create a character like Sydney Carton – the sarcastic, drunken, intelligent, self-loathing, spiteful yet surprisingly tender character who plays a central role in the novel’s climax.

Sydney Carton is great and, quite frankly, the whole book is pretty great too. It asks if a man, a family, even a society, can be redeemed. It isn’t spoiling much to say that, for Dickens, the answer is yes. I’m a bit more cynical, but even so, it’s nice to hope.

It would be perfect reading if you enjoy things like Poldark, or other dramas set in this period revolving around one family. I cried a lot at the end of the book, actually. Dickens can be a bit melodramatic, but his earnestness gets me every time.

Let me know what you think of A Tale of Two Cities: have you read it before? Did you read it in school? Do you plan on reading it in the future? I’d love to have any reading recommendations from you as well, particularly any spookier books as autumn approaches!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Bonaparte aux Tuileries – 10 August 1792’, a painting depicting Napoleon (who would later become Emperor of France) witnessing a mob attack on the Tuileries Palace.

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

 

Madeira Mondays: Rob Roy (Film Review)

I rewatched Rob Roy (1995) yesterday for the first time in about twenty years. As readers of this blog will know, I recently went on a trip to the Highlands and toured the Highland Folk Museum, as well as Culloden Battlefield. During this trip, one of my friends kept bringing up the film Rob Roy. She insisted that it was full of gorgeous Highland scenery and that it touched on a lot of the topics that we’d been learning about during our museum explorations – the Jacobite uprisings, the dissolution of the Highland Clans etc. I’d seen Rob Roy as a kid, but couldn’t remember much about it.

After returning from our trip, I hesitated, at first, to re-watch this film because the only thing that I did remember about it was that it contained a very hard-to-watch rape scene. This particular scene has really stuck with me since I first viewed it, perhaps because it was one of the earliest depictions of sexual violence that I saw on screen. (I’m honestly not sure why my dad let me watch Rob Roy – I think he had probably forgotten this scene was in it!) But, in any case, I was missing the Highlands and I was curious to see how all these topics that we’d been learning about played out in the film. So I watched it.

One of the gorgeous sights from our recent Highland trip. This was taken on the drive from Fort William up to Mallaig (where you catch the ferry to Skye).

The best and the worst thing that I can say about Rob Roy is that it does what it says on the tin. It’s a sweeping adventure story about a Robin Hood-like figure who fights to retain his family’s ‘honor’ in the changing landscape of early 18th century Scotland. The film even begins with effectively a thesis statement that explains exactly that to the viewer. The opening text reads:

At the dawn of the 1700’s famine, disease and the greed of great Noblemen was changing Scotland forever.

With many emigrating to the Americas, the centuries-old Clan system was slowly being extinguished.

This story symbolizes the attempt of the individual to withstand these processes and, even in defeat, retain respect and honor.

Not many films start out with such a precise thesis statement, or baldly admit that their story ‘symbolizes’ anything. I don’t actually think that this explanation was necessary either, because all of that becomes quite clear as the film transpires.

This is a story (based on stories about a historical figure turned folk hero) where wider societal change is, in a sense, embodied in the struggles of one ‘traditional’ Highland man (Rob Roy aka Liam Neeson) who refuses to cope with the ‘modern’ avarice, corruption and greed of those around him (as if greed was a new thing haha!).

Tim Roth as Archibald Cunningham (left) and Liam Neeson as Rob Roy (right). I can’t remember precisely when this moment is from in the film, but it’s a safe bet that Rob Roy is ‘defending his honor’ from the smarmy Englishman.

This film is all about ‘honor’, which was quite an important concept to 18th century men -remember that the signers of the Declaration of Independences pledge their ‘lives, fortunes and sacred honor‘ to the cause. ‘Honor’ is actually the last word of the Declaration of Independence. (There’s a very interesting article here on Mount Vernon’s website exploring the changing concepts of honor in Colonial America, from something that was linked explicitly to upper classes, to something that ordinary citizens could have, as well).

In writing this blog post, I’ve realized that ‘honor’ is actually a rather tricky concept to explain or to define. In the 18th century, I think it sort of equates to ‘reputation’. But the way that it was defined also depends a lot on gender. When we think of a woman’s ‘honor’ there’s a sexual connotation and we think of chastity, ‘purity’.

‘Honor’ is defined by Rob Roy in the film as something like morality and ethical conduct. Rob Roy explains to his sons that his ‘honor’ prevents him from ever ‘mistreat(ing) a woman or malign(ing) a man’. It is ‘what no man can give you and none can take away’. It is, in short, his moral compass and system of personal ethics.

Throughout the film, Rob Roy’s code of honor is set against the dishonorable behavior of the nobles who effectively cheat him out of quite a lot of money and engage in other sneaky and also violent actions against him, most notably the aforementioned rape of Rob’s wife Mary MacGregor (Jessica Lange). Yet even that horrific act is part of this larger narrative of ‘honor’. The principal reason that the glib aristocrat Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth) rapes Mary is to drag Rob Roy out of hiding. Now that his wife has been assaulted, Rob Roy’s ‘Highland honor will have to be satisfied,’ Cunningham remarks.

I actually quite liked this emphasis on ‘honor’ as a theme and how, at every turn, Mary MacGregor’s approach to life is much more sensible and pragmatic. In a way, she’s the foil to Rob and his obsession with honor, even more so than the amoral Cunningham. She sees that Rob’s inability to do or say anything bad about anyone ever, or to do anything sneaky or under-handed at all, will get their family into trouble one day. And, indeed, it does.

Lange gives a dignified and emotive performance as Mary – I really believed that she was a sturdy lady who had borne several children, survived rough Scottish winters and was more than capable of stabbing people in the throat (no spoilers, but she may or may not stab someone in the throat).

When the film succeeds, it does so based on the performances of Lange and also Roth, whose despicable character of Cunningham is far more interesting to watch than Rob Roy ever is, because – unlike Rob – he has flaws (quite a lot of flaws – he’s a murderer, rapist, thief, abandons his pregnant girlfriend, only cares about money etc.). Rob seems to already BE a folk hero – always doing good, always caring for others – not someone whose actions inspired legend.

Another area in which the film succeeds is the choice to show extended sword fighting sequences which were really marvelous to watch. Roger Ebert apparently called one of these sword fighting scenes ‘one of the great action sequences in movie history’ and I’d buy that. The final climactic sword fight is long (ten minutes?) and tense – lots of intricate choreography.

Tim Roth as Archibald Cunningham (right) shows off his fancy sword fighting skills

The landscape is also, of course, breathtaking and it gets plenty of screen time. The whole thing was shot on location in the Highlands and you can absolutely tell. I can’t fault Michael Caton-Jones on the direction – he gets good performances out of his cast and really lets the setting shine.

So would I recommend it? Well, if you’re a fan of Braveheart or Outlander or be-kilted dudes, you’ll certainly like this. And if you’re someone, like me, who enjoys 18th century history and sweeping period dramas, in general, then there’s plenty here to like. It’s just nothing special, largely because of the lack of humanity in the central character. When someone is such a good person, a righteous person, a caring person, they eventually stop seeming like a person, at all.

Let me know what you think of this movie, if you’ve seen it. If not, let me know if it sounds like your cup of tea (or dram of whisky)!

Recommended Reading:

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

 

Madeira Mondays: A Vist to Culloden Battlefield

There’s a misty moor in the Scottish Highlands where, over 250 years ago, a battle took place that shaped the course of world history forever. I’m talking about Culloden, the site where Jacobite forces clashed with British government troops in a harrowing fight and one that would ultimately mark the end of the 1745 Jacobite Rising and the dissolution of the Scottish clan system. It was also, interestingly, the last battle fought on British soil.

When you go to visit Culloden yourself, there are ultimately two key elements to see: the battlefield itself and a shiny new visitor center, which explains the lead up to the battle, how the fighting went down, and also the legacy of Culloden. I have to admit, when we went to see this site two weeks ago, I knew very little about the battle, or anything leading up to it. Even though the 18th century is the time period I study, and even though I have to know about Scottish history to engage knowledgeably with guests in my volunteer job as tour guide at The Georgian House in Edinburgh, I didn’t know very much about Culloden in particular. I know more about 18th century social history and  the American Revolution (which took place about 30 years after Culloden).

So when I arrived to Culloden (which is overseen by the National Trust for Scotland, the same organization that runs The Georgian House – yay!), I was ready to learn. What I did not expect was quite how atmospheric it would be. On the morning we arrived, the fog was thick and the grass still slick from a storm that had passed the night before. The air was gray but the green field littered with bursts of purple heather. It was quiet, solemn and verging on spooky.

Culloden Battlefield, shrouded in mist

Our group split up and while my partner and my friend explored the battlefield itself, I went into the Visitor Centre (which is basically like a small museum, although there’s also a gift shop and cafe). We all wanted to go inside the museum portion, but we’d waited until the night before to book slots and could only get one, which my group graciously let me have (as the resident 18th century enthusiast). I also got in for free as a National Trust volunteer, which was a nice perk.

The museum is set up more or less chronologically, so that you can go through it and see what happened before and during the Jacobite uprising, from both a Jacobite and ‘government’ perspective. Who were the Jacobites? They were a group of mostly Scottish people who believed that the Catholic Stuart family had a right to the British throne. The Jacobite army comprised a lot of Highland clansmen and it was led by Charles Edward Stuart, or ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. They had achieved some successes fighting British government troops before Culloden, but at Culloden they were roundly defeated by the Duke of Cumberland. Their rebellion was over.

The museum does a really fantastic job of explaining this complex time period and the battle itself. The building is quite somber and looks almost like a military fortress, which adds to this atmosphere of seriousness – after all, 1,600 men were killed in this battle (1,500 of them Jacobites). And, from what I learned, there was a lot of brutality in the aftermath of the battle too, when the government troops were searching for the fleeing, defeated Jacobites – killing, pillaging, etc. along the way. So it is a somber site.

The Culloden Vistor Centre

It’s a very engaging museum though and one of the elements that I liked most was the room where you could ‘immerse’ yourself in the battle itself. There were four screens, one on each wall, that featured re-enactors depicting the battle and it is quite immersive. To be in the middle of four screens, all full of heavily-armed dudes shouting, is overwhelming and does give a sense of the intensity of the fighting.

I also loved seeing the artifacts of the time. One disturbing item that stuck with me is a sampler from a young girl in a London. A ‘sampler’ was a piece of fabric where girls practiced their embroidery – maybe their ABCs, or they might sew images of a house or a bible quote or something. This girl had sewn a picture of a British redcoat stabbing a Jacobite soldier (I think the little girl had someone in her family who fought in the British army) and her caption was something like, ‘Killing the Highlanders!’ Apparently propaganda was rampant in London about how the ‘unruly’ highlanders in Scotland were rampaging and needed to be crushed etc., but there was something very sad about seeing this image on a little girl’s sampler, which is usually something full of benign images like birds, houses, trees.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time for me to do a full exploration of the battlefield itself, but I was assured by the rest of my group that it was a fascinating sight. There are markers throughout about troop movements, flags marking where different army front lines were and where exactly the fighting took place. So it would be a particularly interesting sight for anyone who is keen on military history. There are also memorials too, for different clans that took part in the fighting.

All in all I was very impressed with Culloden as a historical site and have pretty much nothing critical to say about it! The only bummer of our visit (the fact that we couldn’t all get into the museum) was very much our fault for not being more organized about booking the tickets – so anyone looking to visit, especially during Covid, do book your museum visit in advance online. It’s very easy to do.

I hope that was an interesting little jaunt into Scotland’s past. I would highly recommend a visit if/when you’re ever in the area. Like the Highland Folk Museum featured in my last post, I think Culloden has a special significance to fans of Outlander (which I’ve never read, but have seen a couple of episodes of!), but it would be an interesting place to visit even if you don’t know anything about Scottish history and if you have no connection to Diana Gabaldon’s sweeping time-travel romance series. It’s a carefully created and even-handed museum, and a striking Scottish geographical landmark. Let me know if you do visit, or have visited before, and what you thought about it – I’d be curious to know!

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

Madeira Mondays: A Visit to the Highland Folk Museum

Nestled in the Cairngorms National Park, about an hour east of Fort William, you’ll find the Highland Folk Museum, a site dedicated to exploring domestic life and culture in the Scottish highlands. It’s an 80 acre open-air museum full of replica buildings, recreating different eras of Scottish history from the 1700’s through to the 1960’s, including an entire 18th century village (where an episode of Outlander was shot).

I’m a sucker for these sorts of open-air, living history museums and I’ve visited several of them: Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA, Skansen in Stockholm, Sweden, and the ATSTRA Museum in Transylvania, Romania (more on that another time perhaps). I’m so passionate about social history (the academic way of saying the study of how people lived), so on our recent trip to the Highlands, we decided to stop off at the Highland Folk Museum to learn more about the region and its history. And I’m so glad we made the stop because, honestly, this place provides quite a unique experience!

The Highland Folk Museum was the brainchild of Dr. Isabel F. Grant, who studied British folk life in the Highlands, and was inspired by the Scandinavian open air museum movement to start a museum of her own. This museum was first opened in 1944, the first open-air museum on mainland Britain.

It’s a truly unique place. First of all, the setting itself is unbeatable. 

My friend Margherita exploring the pine woods on the folk museum grounds
The recreated 18th century village, ‘Baile Gean’, Gaelic for ‘Township of Goodwill’

The 80 acres of the museum are verdant and lush, with sweeping views of the surrounding highland countryside. We visited on a sunny day, but even if you encountered typical Scottish fog or light rain, it would still be a pretty spectacular landscape to explore.

We unfortunately only had about an hour and 45 minutes for our visit and, ideally, we would have had more. We had to prioritize and since one of our party (*waves*) studies and writes about 18th century history, we knew we had to see the 1730’s village, which meant that we skipped tons of great looking stuff in other parts of the park: a recreated 1930’s sweets shop, a 19th century school house, and a post office from the 1910’s, to name just a few!

But the 18th century village was well worth seeing even if, during Covid times, it was a rather different experience, I’m guessing, than what you’d usually get.

My understanding is that there are typically several costumed historical interpreters about, showing you how to make crafts or telling you more about life from the period they are portraying, but, in this case, we were met with only one (very knowledgable and friendly!) interpreter in the recreated village.

Also, I think that more of the buildings are typically open, but several had to be shut due to (as I understood it) there not being proper ventilation inside them, to comply with safety standards. Buildings were made back then to keep in heat, and these ones had no windows, which would have been good for insulation, but not so good when you’re trying to prevent the spread of a pandemic!

Still, despite these necessary restrictions, it was very cool to see ‘Baile Gean’ and how the museum had depicted rural life in the highlands in the 18th century.

The buildings were made from natural materials, as they would have been then: timber frames, walls of turf, a thatched roof of locally collected vegetation like heather, bracken or reeds.

One example of a 1730’s house. This was one of the larger houses, which was interpreted as the home of the Tackman, or the principal tenant. The Tackman collected rent from the other tenants to pay to the local laird, their landlord.
Another home in the village. This one was built into the side of the hill.
Me outside another house in Baile Gean. (I was wearing a mask, but took it off briefly for the pic, since we were outside.)

I’d definitely love to come back and see this village again, because I do think that it would be a very different experience. For this trip, I’d purchased a guidebook at the entrance of the museum, which proved more or less essential in learning more about these buildings. If I hadn’t had that, it would have been quite difficult to figure out what I was looking at – given the lack of signs around the buildings themselves. So I’d definitely recommend grabbing a guidebook, especially if you’re visiting during Covid, when fewer interpreters will be about. The book was only a fiver and considering that entrance to the park is FREE, it’s well worth it, to get that extra bit of information.

Overall, I was surprised that my favorite thing about my visit to The Highland Folk Museum actually wasn’t the 18th century portion of the museum, but some of the 1930’s and 1950’s buildings (which were recreated in much more detail, possibly because these artifacts are simply so much easier to come by than ones from the 18th century).

The tailor’s shop was a particular highlight for me (As a side note, I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek Deep Space Nine recently and the tailor’s shop also made me think of my favorite fictional ‘tailor’, Garak. And if you understand my Deep Space Nine reference, then you’re amazing and we definitely should be friends). The tailor’s shop was originally build by Andrew MacPhearson for his son Donald on his return, wounded, from WWI. It was recreated to look as it had in the 1930’s.

The front room of the tailor’s shop
The office/construction room of the shop

All in all, it was a fascinating visit and, as I mentioned earlier, I would love to go back and see it again. There was so much stuff I missed! If you go yourself, I’d really recommend allowing at least three hours to explore. It’s a massive property and there’s so much to discover. It would make a great day or half-day trip, if you’re staying in Fort William, like we were. Plus, it’s free to visit!

More information about the museum and how to book a time slot to visit can be found here.

Thanks so much for reading and I hope you enjoyed seeing the photos of the trip. Let me know which elements you liked best and stay tuned for more 18th century explorations coming up, as I’ll be chatting about a visit to Culloden Battlefield in a future post!

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

Madeira Mondays: Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden

One of the things that I love most about living in Edinburgh is that there are always more historical sites to visit. Even though I volunteer as a tour guide at The Georgian House and have visited most of the major historical sites in the city (Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace etc.), I’m a little embarrassed to admit that, until last week, I’d never been to Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden.

This is a particularly striking omission on my part given that 1 – I love learning about Edinburgh’s history and 2 – I love gardens. I used to spend lots of time in Glasgow’s Botanical Gardens, when I lived there, and I’ve even co-led a writing workshop there, a couple years back. Basically, it was high time that I checked out ‘the Botanics’ (as everyone here calls the garden) and as soon as they opened back up after lock-down, I booked a slot to go and visit. (Side note: It’s free to visit, but you do have to book a time slot at the moment).

The history of the garden dates back to 1670, when it began as a small patch of ground in Holyrood Park, overseen by two intellectually curious and well-travelled doctors, Robert Sibbald and Andrew Balfour (Sibbald was also the first professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh). As you might know, Edinburgh was a site of Enlightenment learning and particularly medical expertise in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1683, James Sutherland wrote a catalogue of all the species of plants in the garden at that time: Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis : or, a catalogue of the plants in the Physical Garden at Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Plant Catalogue

The Royal Trust / Copyright: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020 (Photo accessed via The Royal Trust Collection Website)

If there’s one thing that I know about the Enlightenment, it’s that those guys loved – for better or for worse – to find and catalogue stuff. So it’s really no surprise that, as the British Empire expanded, the gardens expanded too. It changed locations twice and ended up at its current location, at Inverleith, in 1820. Imagine having to transport all those plants!

I wish that I could tell you that I learned lots more about the Botanics’ history during my trip there, but, quite frankly, I was too busy enjoying being surrounded by all the diverse plant life and catching up with the friends I met, who I hadn’t properly seen for months (we had a long period of strict quarantine in Scotland). It is truly an immense garden – and you could easily spent a half-day (or full day!) wandering around.

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A hedge maze in the gardens. Apparently the little building on the other side of it is full of all kinds of shells (my friends told me), but it’s closed at the moment.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the enormous tree fossil, outside a Victorian greenhouse (which was, wisely, still closed!).

Another highlight for me was the Chinese garden and I found the bridge and the tranquil waterfall so relaxing.

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There were plenty of benches for sitting and socially-distanced chatting, as well as some lovely fountains.

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And you could also find helpful historical tidbits scattered throughout too, for those, like me, who enjoy that kind of thing.

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I’m certain that I only scratched the surface of the garden (the top layer of soil, if you will) and its 350-year-old history, so I’ll definitely be going back soon. I also have a historian friend who studies 18th century botany, so let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d be curious to learn about.

If you’re ever in Edinburgh in the future, it’s well-worth a visit and I know I’ll be taking the next group of friends or family who come to visit me here.

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Hello from the Botanics!

I hope that you’re keeping well and that you’ve been finding things to take solace in and enjoy, during this strange time.

Recommended Reading:

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

 

Madeira Mondays: The Unbinding of Mary Reade (Book Review)

Let’s talk about pirates!

I was super excited when I checked out The Unbinding of Mary Reade from my local library a couple of weeks ago. This historical fiction novel by Miriam McNamara came out in 2018 and it’s inspired by the life of a real 18th century (female!) pirate by the name of Mary Read. I knew nothing about Mary Read going into the book, but I’ve since learned a little bit about her and her status as one of the legendary English pirates of the early 18th century, the so-called ‘Golden Age of Piracy’.

We’ll come back to the real historical Mary’s life in a moment, but I went into this book without any of that knowledge and I’m reviewing it now as a novel. And, unfortunately, as a novel, I don’t think that it wholly succeeded, despite the super exciting premise of a queer lady pirate going on an adventure in the Caribbean (cue Pirates of the Caribbean theme music…).

I’ll start with some of what works about the book. At its core this book is really a romance, between Mary Reade and another female pirate called Anne Bonny (also a real person). And some of the sensual scenes are really well written without being explicit – it’s a Young Adult book, so it’s still appropriate for that audience. Bodies melt into each other like ‘candle wax’ and the characters are always covered in gritty sand (okay, so maybe that’s not sensual, but it is specific and probably realistic). In general, the setting was well described – colorful parrots fly overhead, the sea is shining under the hot sun etc.

I also liked the character of Anne Bonny, the female pirate who our protagonist Mary becomes enamored with. Anne was an excellent combination of manipulative and vulnerable, capable and helpless, totally over-confident at times and totally self-pitying the next. She’s gorgeous and bold and brash. As a poor woman in the 18th century, the odds were not in her favor and she has learned to manipulate the men around her and play the system, using her sexuality to gain safety and favors, but we see her coming up against the pervasive lack of fairness and unequal treatment of women at that time, which all works great.

Unfortunately though, the cons outweighed the pros for me with this book. My main issue is that there wasn’t a lot of pirate stuff in it. No buried treasure? Maps? Sword fighting? None of that? These are things we expect from the genre. I wanted a queer pirate treasure island, I guess – whether or not that’s historically accurate is another matter (it probably wasn’t) but you come to expect some of those trappings from pirate stories. A lot of pirate life probably was waiting around for opportunities to arise, as the characters do in this book, but that’s not as fun to read about.

Also I wasn’t a fan of the book’s structure. It flashes back from past to present, in alternating chapters, which was often confusing and didn’t add much. I think those flashbacks would have been better if they had simply been woven into the main body of text, not set off in separate chapters.

Additionally, the dialogue was often a little clunky and on-the-nose (there’s a bit when two characters scream at each other: ‘You don’t understand what it’s like to be me!’ ‘Well you don’t understand what it’s like to be me!’). And throughout the text there didn’t seem to be much of an attempt at taking on an 18th century manner of speaking. Often I prefer a lighter hand when it comes to adopting a historical voice, but I didn’t feel like McNamara was enjoying or reveling in any of the amazing language of this time period, which was full of very distinctive and colorful phrases.

Overall though I think my main criticism was quite simply the lack of adventure. I think buried treasure is mentioned but then it’s dropped. I would have preferred the primary driver of the plot to be something non-romantic (Mary wants to find treasure and get rich, for instance) and then have the romance with Anne Bonny growing slowly throughout their adventure together. But that’s also an entirely different book. 

When I went to read a bit about the real Mary Read after finishing this book, I was also a bit taken aback by all the changes McNamara made to her life. Not because the author doesn’t have license to change whatever she wants (of course she does!), but because I just don’t understand why some of these changes were made. Why change so much? The real Mary was married before she became a pirate, for instance, which I think could have made for quite an interesting backstory (although possibly not as appropriate for YA?).

Also, as a side note, I’m unclear why the character’s name is spelled with an ‘e’ in this book (Reade) but most sources I’ve found online refer to her as Mary Read (without the ‘e’). I’m guessing these are just variations of the spelling of her name (it was fairly common in the early modern period, especially when many people still couldn’t write, to have multiple spellings of your name). But I’m just curious!

To sum it all up, in the end I’d still recommend this book if you’re after an unconventional love story between two women, but not if you’re looking for a pirate story. It was a disappointing read because I just have this writerly feeling (I could be wrong!) that McNamara was one or two drafts away from this book being really great, but that what we’re reading just isn’t quite finished yet. Which is sad because it’s such a fascinating story about a really unique historical person. I’d certainly pick up another book by her in the future.

What have you been reading recently? Any suggestions?

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718’, accessed via Wikipedia

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

 

Madeira Mondays: Astray by Emma Donoghue (Book Review)

‘Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways – they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of their place, out of their depth.’ – Emma Donoghue, ‘Afterword’ in Astray

I’ve read several books by Emma Donoghue. She writes about lots of things I’m interested in: American history, sexuality, fairy tales, travel and migration. It’s this last theme that she takes up in her 2012 short story collection – Astray – about travelers of all sorts: those who, by choice or by necessity, have to leave their homes and arrive at a new place where, more often than not, new difficulties await them.

cover Astray

It’s not my favorite book of Donoghue’s that I’ve read (that would probably be her 2010 bestseller Room) and it’s not my least favorite (that would sadly be her 18th century historical novel Slammerkin). Astray sits somewhere in the middle. There are some excellent stories, and some disappointing ones. Overall it’s a very mixed bag.

I’ll start with the positives. I think Donoghue’s #1 strength, whether she’s writing stuff set in the past or the present, about children or adults, about men or women or people whose gender identity is beyond the binary, is voice. She’s brilliant with voice. Her writing is strongest, I think, when it’s in first person and she has this amazing ability to create a unique rhythm for the way each character speaks, and to use distinct and period/age appropriate expressions. It’s no surprise she lists in the Afterword that Charles Dickens in her ‘favorite novelist’. Say what you want about Dickens (who also had his strengths and his weaknesses) but the guy was amazing at writing dialogue and his characters’ voices really jump off the page. Donoghue is the same.

My two favorite stories in Astray, ’The Lost Seed’ and ‘Vanitas’, are told in two very distinctive voices by two totally vivid characters. In ‘The Lost Seed’ that’s a man in Puritan New England who starts accusing his neighbors of sex crimes and, in ‘Vanitas’ a bored and spoiled Creole teenager on a plantation, whose thoughtless actions have unintended, disastrous consequences for an enslaved maid. The main character in ‘Vanitas‘ comes across immediately: she’s a bored teenager with a flare for drama.

What both of these excellent stories share too, is that they put you into the minds of people who (not maliciously but certainly carelessly) did terrible things to others. Both characters are based on real people and I think these stories are stronger than many of the others because Donoghue has to work harder as a writer here to dig into these people’s motives, to guess why they behaved the way they did. The really tragic conclusion that she seems to have come to is that both of these people were deeply isolated and lonely. The reader feels for them, as well as condemning their actions, and this makes these stories have more tension and resonance than the sad but more straightforward stories like ‘Onwards’ about a London mother who has to resort to prostitution, or ‘Counting the Days’, about a marriage between two Irish migrants fleeing to Canada.

My main critique of the collection though, other than the hit-and-miss nature of the stories, is to do with the way it was put together (which may or may not have been Donoghue’s idea). After each story, there’s a brief historical note, where Donoghue explains what real books/newspaper articles/biographies inspired these fictional stories, and often she elaborates on how the ‘real’ people’s lives ended. For me, this information was interesting but should have been left to the end of the book. The stories are strong enough to stand on their own and often this research context was distracting.

In the case of the first story ‘Man and Boy’, about a circus elephant and his trainer, something that she mentioned in the historical note was a lot more interesting, in my opinion, than what she chose to write the story itself about, which got me thinking too much about that historical fact, rather than her story. Maybe it’s just because I’m conditioned to expect these sort of notes at the back of books, but they felt out of place in the midst of the collection and almost like she was justifying why she wrote what she wrote: I’d have liked for the collection to just let the stories breathe and include that at the back, for people who are curious about what inspired them.

All in all, if these are themes (travel, migration, American and Canadian history) that you’re curious about – this is a good book to pick up, especially considering how few historical fiction short stories are published these days (more on that in my post from earlier this year about my favorite author Karen Russell). Donoghue isn’t a didactic writer but of course these stories have a political resonance to reading them now (but, then, when does migration not have a political dimension to it? Has there ever been a time when societies didn’t try to shut their borders, demonizing the foreign ‘other’?). Donoghue clearly knows this and mentions in the ‘Afterword’ when discussing the story of the Johnsons, ‘economic migrants’ fleeing the Irish famine that: ‘Whenever I read headlines about human traffic gunned down crossing a border (…) I think of the Johnsons.’ So it’s an important time to think about and reflect on these topics of migration and immigrant experiences, which are always relevant, but perhaps especially so now.

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘The entrance to a harbor with a ship firing a salute’, by Joseph Vernet in 1761 and accessed via Wikimedia

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

Madeira Mondays: 90’s TV and Rip Van Winkle

This is a blog post about the past.

Yes, you could say that pretty much all of my posts are about the past, but, this one, in particular, is really about the past.

You see, recently I’ve been rewatching a favorite childhood show called Wishbone. Fellow children of the 90’s might also remember this show: about a cute Jack Russell Terrier called ‘Wishbone’ who imagines himself in great works of literature and then acts them out, with himself as the main character. It’s an adorable concept for a show, having a dog acting out classic stories (he wears so many cute outfits!!), and the show creator Rick Duffield explicitly said that he wanted to get kids excited about books and reading:

We believe this show can cultivate a new appetite for reading by making kids think it’s fun to get to know these books (…) it’s intended to be fun, action packed, clever and a way to get their first taste of great stories that can become a valuable educational stepping stone in their lives.

It definitely worked for me. It was one of the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) shows, alongside Reading Rainbow with LeVar Burton, that helped me fall in love with books.

There are always two plots in every episode of Wishbone. One plot is always about something happening in real-life (perhaps with Wishbone’s owner, a boy called Joe (Jordan Wall) or one of Joe’s friends, his mom Ellen (Mary Chris Wall) who is a librarian, or his wacky neighbor Wanda (Angee Hughes)). Then one plot is always a retelling of a classic story. These two plots are intercut with each other, and there are always parallel themes. For instance, the episode about Robin Hood has Joe helping a cafeteria lady in real-life sneaking food away to give to a homeless shelter etc.

It’s an extremely wholesome show, but not cringe-worthy. It’s sweet. And apparently the show was also known for not shying away from the darker elements of the retold stories (the Joan of Arc episode, for instance, has Joan being burned alive at the stake and the Jekyll and Hyde episode is quite spooky. The episode about West African folktales also talks pretty openly about the cruelties of slavery). A uniting theme across many of the episodes is the power and importance of stories.

Another cool element is that they often have behind-the-scenes footage at the end of each episode where the lighting or sound technicians, or the director etc. explain how they made that episode – which adds another educational layer, as well.

The episode that I wanted to talk about for Madeira Mondays is called ‘Digging up the Past’ from Season 1. In it, Wishbone imagines himself in Rip Van Winkle the famous short story written by American writer Washington Irving in 1819. It’s about a Dutch-American man in Colonial America called Rip Van Winkle who falls asleep in New York’s Catskill Mountains and then wakes up twenty years later…having missed the whole American Revolution. Basically, he wakes up in a new country!

I’ll admit that I’ve never read the original Rip Van Winkle story (although Wishbone has succeeded in making me want to read it!). In the episode, the way that Wishbone addresses the themes of Rip Van Winkle in the present day storyline is by introducing the idea of Joe, the main character, having to do a report for school about something from his grandparents’ childhood that he wishes were still around today. He helpfully runs into an older woman, Dr. Brown (great name, if I do say so myself!), at the library. She is back in town after several decades away and Joe ends up figuring out that she used to live at his house, fifty years ago. Together they try to find a time capsule that she buried in the yard. So all of these intersecting plot lines parallel the story of Rip Van Winkle: a person who, like Dr. Brown, returns to his old village after decades to see that much has changed.

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The Talbot family and friends unearth a time capsule left behind by Dr. Brown. Characters from left to right: Ellen Talbot (Mary Chris Wall), Dr. Thelma Brown (Irma P. Hall), Joe Talbot (Jordan Wall), Wishbone (an adorable Jack Russell Terrier called ‘Soccer’ and voiced by Larry Brantley), Wanda Gilmore (Angee Hughes), Sam Kepler (Christine Abbott) and David Barnes (Adam Springfield).

The character of Rip Van Winkle is obviously played by Wishbone and to see him emerging from a bed of autumn leaves with an enormous fake beard was, obviously, very cute.

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Wishbone emerges as Rip Van Winkle from his long slumber

This episode, and indeed this entire series, is lovely. And, in a way, this episode itself is a time capsule for me personally, because I remember watching it as a kid. Looking at it now, it’s a bit like traveling back in time. Like unearthing something long buried that kind of looks familiar but also isn’t exactly how you recall it. But it also reminds me that while so much has changed about my life (from eight-years-old to twenty-eight – two decades, just like Rip Van Winkle!) there are some things that haven’t: I still love stories generally, especially ones about Colonial America, and I still love Wishbone.

Many of us are Rip Van Winkles right now, I think, because time is passing but we’re hibernating in our homes. And, when we emerge, the world will be different. It might be strange and a bit alien to us, like it was for Rip after his very long nap. But I think, like Rip, we’ll be able to adjust to it. Humans, and dogs, are quite resilient and adaptable. Or at least that’s what Wishbone seems to suggest.

PS Today’s Featured Image is Wishbone as Sherlock Holmes, from Mental Floss

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

 

Madeira Mondays: National Treasure (Film Review)

‘I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence.’ – Nicolas Cage as Benjamin Franklin Gates in National Treasure

National Treasure (2004) is a deeply silly movie.

It’s a movie that I vividly recall watching at the cinema in my hometown of Austin, Texas. I was around thirteen at the time, and, even at that age, I knew it was silly. It’s the story of American history buff/treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) who figures out that there is an invisible map on the back of the Declaration of Independence and decides to steal it before it falls in the hands of some baddies. What follows is a race against time as the FBI, and the baddies, try to track down Cage before he can decode the map and find the treasure of the Knights Templar (?), which has been hidden by the Freemasons (???). It’s a very Dan Brown-esque story (conspiracy theories, hidden ‘clues’, secret societies etc.).

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So when I decided to rewatch this for ‘Madeira Mondays’ (as part of my 4th of July inspired series of posts), I had one question in mind: Is this a fun enough watch that I would recommend it? Is it ‘good bad’ (i.e. so bad it’s actually funny to watch)? Or is it genuinely ‘good’ (i.e. works on the intended levels, as a satisfying action/adventure story?). Sadly, it falls somewhere in the middle and was, overall, pretty dull and too long. Which is disappointing, considering that it’s a story about a treasure hunt and I like most of the actors in it.

One of the things that keeps it from being ‘good bad’ is that the actors are actually too talented for it to really suck. Nicolas Cage is incredibly deadpan throughout the whole thing, and he has such a bizarre and unique charisma that it kind of works somehow. His love interest, Dr Abigail Chase (Diana Kruger) also works as a somewhat cerebral archivist who is both annoyed and intrigued by Gate’s treasure hunting antics (I also liked the choice to make her a German character – the actress is from Germany. There’s a good line when Gates notices her slight accent and asks: ‘You’re not American?’ And she says: ‘I am an American, I just wasn’t born here.’ Nice). And how could Sean Bean not work as the baddie (I’ve already forgotten his character’s name) obsessed with finding the treasure (guess he gave up trying to get The One Ring. Sorry! I had to make a Lord of the Rings joke!). These people are too talented for the film to really and truly stink.

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Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), Benjamin Gates (Nicholas Cage) and Justin Bartha (Riley Poole) defacing the Declaration of Independence in order to find a hidden treasure map on the back, Image accessed via IMDB

Also, I enjoyed that even the names in this are silly and on-the-nose. Mr. Gates is a treasure hunter, alongside Dr. Chase.

I also enjoyed the film’s fairly bonkers thesis statement, which is basically that extralegal things are totally okay sometimes, if you do them for the right reasons. Gates draws a hilarious parallel between himself and the men who signed the Declaration of Independence (which he correctly identifies as ‘high treason’ at the time), by saying that both he and they are doing something that is against the law, but they are doing it for the right reasons. The movie isn’t self-important enough to take this thesis very seriously, or to really interrogate this concept of when it is ‘okay’ to break the law, if you believe the laws are unjust. That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to see Sean Bean blowing up a 300 year old pirate ship (which is something that happens in this movie).

I’m not even going to touch on the ‘historical accuracy’ of this movie, because the movie clearly doesn’t care about that. But I don’t think you’ll come away with it having learned anything ‘accurate’ about early America (except maybe that the founders, by signing the Declaration, were doing something illegal at the time and would very much have been executed if they had lost the rebellion, as Gates points out).

So, sadly, I’d say don’t bother with National Treasure. Unless you are a particular fan of Dan Brown type stuff, or you love Indianan Jones and you want a somewhat crappier version of that. But, all in all, if you want a ridiculous movie about early America, I’d actually direct you to Beyond the Mask (which I reviewed earlier this year), which is an independent ‘Christian’ movie about an outlaw during the Revolutionary War (think: budget Zorro) and is much sillier, stranger, and ultimately a funnier watch than National Treasure.

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘A British Man of War before the Rock of Gibraltar’ by Thomas Whitcombe, created in the late 18th/early 19th century, 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!