Madeira Mondays: Reflections on the Stay-at-Home Literary Festival

As some of you may know, I’ve been working for a literary festival this spring called the Stay-at-Home! Festival.

The festival is entirely virtual and was founded last year by CJ Cooke: a professor at Glasgow Uni (I met her during my Masters and PhD there) and an author of popular psychological thrillers and poetry as well. She founded the festival last year during the first lockdown: at a time when few people knew what Zoom was, let alone how to use it! It was really well attended in year one (145 events, 220 authors over 2 weeks) and debuted as one of the biggest literary festivals in the UK. This year, the festival received some generous funding from various sources and was able to run again for a second year and Carolyn (aka CJ Cooke!) invited me to join the core festival team.

Throughout the two-week festival, which ended last week, I kept thinking about Madeira Mondays and what aspect of it I wanted to share with you. There were writing workshops, talks on all sorts of topics (fossils, motherhood, death and grieving, monsters, the environmental crisis, happiness, the body…) with a focus on diversity in the publishing industry as our central theme this year. Since most of our events are now available to watch on our YouTube Channel, I have decided to pick out a couple of events that are inspired by and centered on history or historical fiction to share with you.

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Madeira Mondays: ‘For I will consider my cat, Jeoffry’

‘(Christopher Smart’s) poem about his cat is to all other poems about cats what The Illiad is to all other poems on war.’ – TS Eliot

These days, lots of people post pictures of their pets online. We can see these pictures as little tributes, little celebrations of these animals – their cuteness, their ridiculous quirks, their personalities. Back in 18th century London, Christopher Smart, a ‘mad’ poet living in an insane asylum, wrote a tribute to his feline companion, an orange cat called Jeoffry, in the form a poem. The lines that he wrote about Jeoffry became some of the most famous words ever written about a cat in all of English literature, and over the ages, Jeoffry has become a bit of a literary celebrity.

Oliver Soden’s delightful little gem of a book Jeoffry, The Poet’s Cat: A Biography (2020) imagines the life of Jeoffry the cat himself and his misadventures in Georgian London.

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Madeira Mondays: The Lost Pirate Kingdom (TV Show Review)

This was really awful. 

You’re very welcome to stick around for the rest of this post (and I hope you do!!) but if you’re going to take one thing out of it, it’s the above sentence. Netflix’s new ‘docuseries’ The Lost Pirate Kingdom (2021) was really, really awful. 

It’s one in a new trend of ‘history’ documentary films which features interviews with historians interspersed with extended live action reenactments (aka imagined fantasies) of historical events. This format worked surprisingly well in The History Channel’s Washington last year (which I reviewed here). Washington worked because it had a really star-studded line up of leading historians. It also worked because it had, if I remember correctly, a higher percentage of historians talking and a lower percentage of reenactments than Pirate Kingdom has, although I could be wrong. In any case, I enjoyed Washington just fine and found the reenactments there quite restrained and engaging…rather than the sensational, graphic, needlessly violent and terribly CGI-ed reenactments we find here.

I can’t speak at all to the calibre or credentials of the people interviewed in Pirate Kingdom because I’m not as familiar with this historical community. The period that this ‘docuseries’ looks at is the early 1700s, after the War of Spanish Succession, when piracy flourished in the Caribbean. It looks at the lives (and, more likely, the legends) of some of the most famous pirates who lived then: people like Blackbeard (who was a real guy), Samuel Bellamy, Anne Bonny etc.

And, like I said, I’m no pirate expert, but I smelled a rat even in the show’s introduction, when a voiceover that sounds exactly like David Attenborough (but thankfully wasn’t!) told me that this series was about pirates who were the ‘real forefathers of modern America.’ What? I only watched the first episode, so I didn’t stick around long enough to find out what exactly that means, but are they trying to suggest that America was founded not by like, the actual founders, but…pirates? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. By the time they said that, which was about five minutes into the episode, I was already experiencing sensory overload from all the random action on screen and still reeling from the fact that I’d just seen shots of a woman being raped. In the introduction!! (This is how we’re introduced to the famous female pirate Anne Bonny. The not-David Attenborough voiceover says that ‘not all pirates were men!’ and then we see shots of a lady being raped, before holding a knife to her attacker’s throat. Presumably, this is Bonny.)

In addition to the sexual assault moment, there’s also a pretty lengthy torture scene and lots more violence. And I’m not averse to any of these things in film. In fact sometimes they’re necessary to tell a story! And I’m sure that life aboard pirate ships really was awful. But these things just seemed like sensational set pieces there to hold your interest. I felt so patronized by it: like the filmmakers thought I would lose interest if another violent thing wasn’t thrown at me every five minutes.

I actually wanted to hear what the historians were saying, but they cut away from them so quickly I had trouble keeping up. 

Honestly, don’t watch this. I don’t blame the historians, and I don’t blame the actors (who all seemed fine). I actually don’t even blame the people who scripted the reenactment scenes because sometimes the dialogue in them was pretty good, when it slowed down long enough to let people speak to each other. I blame the entire concept and the overall execution. I don’t need some guy yelling ‘I’m Blackbeard! Arrg!!!’ directly to camera for me to be interested. And I’m not alone. People like pirates. The material is inherently interesting. If they just slowed down and let it breathe (and let us breathe) for one minute, maybe we could have engaged with that material in some sort of real way. 

I didn’t even touch on the ‘historical accuracy’ of this because I don’t feel like there’s any need. Hopefully people know that what they’re watching is as ‘historical fiction’ as any novel, despite the historians present. 

I wish I could say The Lost Pirate Kingdom was ‘good bad’, because I love films that are so ridiculous they are good (see my review of Beyond the Mask). But this is tasteless. Can we call it an exploitation film? Maybe. I’ll say it’s exploitation adjacent. But, then again, that’s too high praise because the ‘exploitation’ in those films is often done in a knowing way and as part of a genre. This is just blood and guts, murder and mayhem which is un-self-aware and no fun. And in the guise of ‘education’ no less!! No thanks. 

I can confidently say that this is my least favorite thing I’ve ever watched for Madeira Mondays. At least nobody talks in ‘pirate speak’? Although I wouldn’t put it past them in future episodes. 

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing: 

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘A French Ship and Barbary Pirates’, a painting from 1615, accessed via Wikimedia

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

Madeira Mondays: These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly (Book Review)

”I merely wish to smoke. Sparky can forgive that. You, on the other hand, wish to know things. And no one can forgive a girl for that.” – These Shallow Graves

One of my favorite films growing up was Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Not typical fare for a teenage girl, sure, but I liked seeing old New York – the glitzy and the grimy. I don’t have any particular desire to live in New York City but it really is a fascinating place, isn’t it? A little Colonial Dutch outpost that slowly became a commercial mecca and now a world center of finance, culture, food, fashion, you name it. And seeing old New York (specifically 1890’s New York) was one of the coolest things about reading These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly. The book is a Young Adult mystery novel, published in 2015, which follows an upper class society girl who dreams of becoming a reporter and gets mixed up in the city’s underworld when she starts investigating her father’s mysterious death. 

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Madeira Mondays: The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton (Book Review)

What if Sherlock Holmes boarded a 17th century ship? What if, on this ship, there was a series of dark and unexplained happenings: animals slaughtered, strange marks appearing, and, eventually, people murdered. How would Holmes go about solving these crimes and unmasking, as it were, the ‘devil’ lurking in the ‘dark water’?

While Stuart Turton’s novel, The Devil and the Dark Water, of course doesn’t actually feature Sherlock Holmes, it’s obvious that’s what he’s referencing with his central character of Samuel Pipps (who calls himself a ‘problematary’ because, as Turton clearly knows, the whole concept of ‘detective’ wasn’t around in the 17th century, when this book is set). Pipps, and the other characters in the novel, use deductive reasoning to solve the mysterious murders happening on their ship, as it travels from Batavia (present day Jakarta), in the Dutch East Indies, back to Amsterdam. They follow clues, they speak and think very much like Holmes himself. Continue reading

Madeira Mondays: Yellow Fever in Colonial Philadelphia

“The horrors of this memorable affliction were extensive and heart rending.” – Samuel Breck, 18th century merchant, on Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic

In mid August, 1793, the first Philadelphian died from what would become a devastating epidemic of yellow fever. By the end of October, the city had lost nearly 5,000 people – 10% of the entire population.

In the last Madeira Mondays, we looked at 18th century medicine in general – how people thought diseases spread and what they did to try and fight them – and this week we’re going to be diving into how that looked in practice with one specific and fascinating example: Philadelphia’s infamous yellow fever outbreak.

What was the disease? Who were the major players trying to combat and contain it? And how did it change the city afterwards? Continue reading

Madeira Mondays: A (very brief) intro to 18th century medicine

In the last Madeira Mondays post, we looked at a really riveting Young Adult novel: Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. If you didn’t catch that post, this great little book is historical fiction, inspired by the outbreak of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in…1793 (as it says in the title!). For this week’s post, I had planned on diving into the real history behind yellow fever: what it is, how it spread in the 18th century, and what doctors used to treat it. However, I realized that I couldn’t really talk about that without first doing a brief overview of 18th century medical knowledge in general. Which is a really fascinating and complex subject in itself! Continue reading

Madeira Mondays: Fever, 1793 (Book Review)

Ever since Covid-19 broke out across the world, there’s been a lot of talk about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. I’ve also heard historians, especially medievalists, called upon to talk about the bubonic plague of the 1300’s, and I’ve seen Daniel Defoe’s 1722 book, A Journal of the Plague Year, added to many people’s reading lists! All of this makes sense. People are curious about pandemics of the past and how people coped (spiritually, physically, psychologically) with rampant infectious diseases.

That curiosity is what drove me to read Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is a YA (Young Adult) novel published originally twenty years ago, but it definitely has a lot of relevance today. It’s about an epidemic that you may not have heard of: the outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793. Continue reading

‘Nothing of Floods’: A Poem

I felt compelled to share a poem with you today.

I recently received the sad news that my grandmother in Texas – who I was very close with – died of Covid, so I wanted to post a poem that I wrote several years ago about her.

Like many poems, it’s a blend of fiction and fact. In many ways it’s about the stories that we tell ourselves to understand the world and each other. My grandma and I didn’t see the world in exactly the same way. She was very religious, a Southern Baptist, specifically, and this brought her a lot of peace and comfort. I’m not religious at all. As I grew up, there were times when this caused some friction and I was really forced to reckon with how I could love and respect someone so much, who saw the world so differently? Who I disagreed with in so many fundamental ways? Of course, I don’t have any ‘answers’ to those questions. But I suppose poems are more about asking questions than they are about offering answers.

I wrote this poem in early 2018. It was commended in the British Army’s Poetry competition on the theme of ‘Armistice’ (to commemorate the one hundred year anniversary of the armistice which ended WWI) and first published in their prizewinners anthology, Writing Armistice. I really liked responding to this theme. For me, it was interesting that an ‘armistice’ doesn’t mean necessarily the end of a war, but instead it’s a formal agreement to stop fighting and to work towards peace.

I loved my grandmother. And love isn’t always smooth or simple, as you know. Sometimes divides cannot be crossed. But sometimes, they can be. I am thinking of her today, and I’m thinking of all of you, hopeful that you haven’t lost someone during this time. But if you have, I’m so very sorry and you’re not alone. I’m doubly sorry if you’re apart from your family and friends as well, which makes these things extra hard to endure.

I’ll be back next week with more historical and literary explorations for you. (I’m excited about this upcoming ‘Madeira Mondays’ in particular, which is about a great historical novel that explores disease in early America). Until then, thank you so much for reading, it means a lot, and I hope you like the poem.

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Nothing of Floods

Grandma, when I pinched the skin
on the back of your hand
it made mountains, slow to sink
back to land.

We watched movies with kids singing
Jonah and the Whale –
I imagined bone rafters,
swamps of grey stomach sludge,

and Noah’s Ark –
horse eyes through wooden slats,
sea spray in a man’s beard
like dew on grass.

I said, ‘I prefer Tolkien
or Grimm’s’ –
dwarves in damp caverns,
talking trees,
Elf writings on rock.

You screamed, ‘This is not a fairy tale.’

But not as much as you screamed
when I asked why God
was not a woman?

You said
I would go to hell.

I called you naïve,
for believing those things,

as rain clattered down
on your tin trailer roof.

We didn’t speak for a while.

When we talked again
it was about jewelry,
traffic, butter in mash potatoes.
Nothing of floods, sons of God,
vengeful Pharaohs.

Sometimes I dream of a manger –
crisp straw poking holes
in our cotton dresses,
heavy barnyard smell
draped over our shoulders,
slick newborn with fat cheeks
sobbing.

Outside, the moon tugs at water.
I pull up loose skin on the back
of your hand. You kiss my forehead
as stars whir with delight
because they are memories
flung through time,

whether or not
you believe it’s magic.

 

Madeira Mondays: Great Expectations (Book Review)

‘I never had one hour’s happiness in her society, and yet my mind all-round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death.’ – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

I was meant to read Great Expectations at university. I know that because I have a distinctive memory of one of my professors, who was also my undergraduate dissertation supervisor, Phillip Mallet, discussing and dissecting the ending of this book in front of our Victorian novel class. I nodded along like I knew what he was talking about (It was not the first time I had sat through a lecture on a book I hadn’t read!). And while Phillip Mallet was an excellent lecturer, I’m glad I remember very little of what he said because this book was so full of twists and turns, it would have been a shame to learn about them all secondhand.

Which is why I will try – for today’s Madeira Mondays – to discuss this book without spoiling it. What I can spoil is that: I thought it was amazing. I enjoyed it even more than A Tale of Two Cities, which I reviewed last summer. What makes it so great, you ask? Well I shall endeavor to tell you (spoiler free!!), so you can decide if it sounds like a book you’d enjoy too!

What’s the book about?

Great Expectations (1860) is a coming-of-age story. It’s probably one of the most famous coming-of-age stories in the English language, I’d say? It tells the story of a young orphan called Phillip, nickname ‘Pip’, who, in the famous first scene, encounters a terrifying escaped convict in a graveyard, demanding Pip’s help. ‘Keep still, you little devil,’ the convict cries, ‘or I’ll cut your throat!’ The convict is described as vividly as you would expect from Dickens, who is a MASTER at character descriptions, and zooming in on little details of people’s clothing or physicality to give you an amazing picture of who they are. The convict, who we later learn is called Magwitch, is described as:

A fearful man, all in course grey (…) A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

Can’t you see the convict? I can. And, again without giving anything away, this book is populated throughout with many similarly vivid characters – from the terrifying and tragic Miss Havisham, jilted at the altar and who still, many years later, wears her wedding dress and haunts her own dilapidated manor house, to her beautiful, serene, cold-hearted protegee Estella.

Pip meets Magwitch in the graveyard. A publicity still from a 1917 adaptation of the book from Paramount Pictures, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Pip must navigate complicated and, at times, heart breaking interactions with all these people as he grows up and tries to ‘better’ himself and improve his social class in Victorian England. Along the way, he makes mistakes (so many), which leads me on to why I think this is probably the best Dickens book I’ve read so far. Pip is probably the most believably human character I’ve encountered in a Dickens novel (keep in mind, I’ve only read A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and this one). I love Dickens, as you know, but usually he’s one for larger than life characters, who sort of STAND for something (greed, corruption, etc.) rather than having characters who just feel like people. Great Expectations certainly has a lot of those larger than life figures, but because it’s a first-person narrative (this is Pip telling his story), and Pip just feels so human and fallible, I thought it was the most complex and involving of his books I’ve read.

What does Pip do that is so human and realistic? Well, he makes a lot of bad choices. Namely, and this doesn’t give too much away, he immediately falls in love with Estella who is, to put it bluntly, an asshole. We (the readers) know it. Pip knows it too. Dickens knows it. Everyone knows it. She’s so mean to him, for years, and yet…he’s infatuated with her, dreams of marrying her etc. I totally believed this. It’s such a poor choice to pursue her, and yet. People do this kind of thing in real life all the time. They become enamored with people who aren’t nice to them, they idealize their beloved and they let people become symbols, in a sense, making them more than what they are. For example, Pip loves Estella because in many ways she represents the refined, upper class life he so craves. If he can have her, he can have that, etc.

Again, I don’t want to reveal too much, but Pip makes so many selfish and short-sighted decisions, while, overall, being a fairly decent person. He’s never so awful or so cruel that you strongly dislike him, he’s mostly just a bit careless and self-centered (as people often are!). By the end, I totally believed in his humanity and I very much wanted him to be happy. But what is happiness? Is he going to have to learn to redefine what it means to him over the course of the book…who knows?? (hehe)

Also, as a bit of an aside, Dickens gets a lot of flak for his portrayal of women. I can understand that. In the three books of his I’ve read, none of the women reach near the complexity of a character like Pip, or A Tale of Two Cities‘ wonderfully compelling Sydney Carton. His women are interesting – no-one can say that Miss Havisham isn’t interesting!! – but they’re extremes. They’re extremely eccentric, or extremely angelic, or extremely violent, etc. I’m not sure we can entirely blame Dickens for this. Did his society encourage him to consider the internal complexities of the women around him? Probably not. Did he speak openly and candidly with women (his wife, friends, sisters) about their lives? Probably not. I’m just saying that Dickens in many ways was an author who wrote what he knew, and I don’t think that he knew, or could possibly even imagine, what sort of fears, hopes, desires, dreams would be in the heart of a little girl like Estella, versus a little boy like Pip. It’s a limitation of his writing, but not one that ruins it for me, by any means. I loved this book.

‘I entreated her to rise’, an illustration of a scene between Pip and Miss Havisham towards the end of the book, from an 1877 edition of Great Expectations. Image via Wikimedia Commons

One final other ‘flaw’, in my opinion, is that the middle of the book drags a bit, but the first section and the final section were incredibly paced and made up for a bit of a lull in the middle.

I’d recommend Great Expectations if you’re into character-led stories, whereas I’d recommend A Tale of Two Cities if you’re into more action-led stories. That book was a lot about justice, redemption, protests, mercy, whereas this one is a lot about inheritance, class, and how, as we grow up, our values and our priorities change. Even though Cities was set in the 18th century (my time period!), I think I preferred this one. I’m a sucker for a good first-person story and this is probably one of the best I’ve ever read.

‘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!