Madeira Mondays: The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

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

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

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

Who was she?

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

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

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

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

What did she write about?

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

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

What happened to Wheatley?

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

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

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

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

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Recommended Reading:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: A cheap and delicious 18th century recipe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potato Pancakes from 1732

Ingredients:

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

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

How to make them

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

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

Step 3: Mash them!

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

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

Step 6: Flatten the potatoes into little pancakes.

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

And that’s it! Serve hot.

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

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

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

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

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Inside a Georgian Drawing Room

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

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

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

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

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

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The drawing room at The Georgian House

Firstly, what is a ‘drawing room’?

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

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

Why is it called a drawing room?

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

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

What sort of activities would happen in the drawing room?

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

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

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

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Portrait of Anastasia Robinson, circa 1727, via Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

 

 

Madeira Mondays: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Stay in and Watch: Spoken Word Poetry

I’ve recently been recommending some great books to check out during this period of lockdown. But, as a poet myself, I would be remiss if I didn’t throw some poetry recommendations in there too! And as a spoken word poet, I was especially keen to recommend to you some poetry that you could watch (instead of just read) right from the comfort of your couch!

So here are live performance of four brilliant poems. I tried to create a varied list in terms of subject, style and delivery. I hope you enjoy!

1 – ‘Dinosaurs in the Hood’ by Danez Smith

I have watched some of Danez Smith‘s poetry performances, I kid you not, dozens of times.

Their blend of humor and lyricism and social criticism and dynamic performance style has inspired me as a performer for years. This particular poem, ‘Dinosaurs in the Hood’, gives me chills – it’s about the representation of people of color in mainstream cinema and it is searing, but it’s so SO funny: ‘I want scenes of grandmas taking out raptors with the guns they hid in the walls.’ It’s about today, but it’s also about a hope for the future where ‘nobody kills the black boy’. And that ending! Wow. They end the poem at exactly the right moment.

2 – ’59’ by Harry Baker

A fun, witty poem from a mathematician/poet: Harry Baker. Lots of clever wordplay (which Harry is really known for). I’m a sucker for a good pun. Puts a smile on my face each time I see it.

3 – ‘Polos’ by Katie Ailes

This video from American poet Katie Ailes (who, like me, has made her home in Scotland!) is really special because it blends poetry and dance.

It’s about beauty standards and the unintentional ‘lessons’ about perfection that a beloved ballet teacher instilled in her pupils.

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Katie Ailes, photo by Perry Jonsson

4 – ‘It’s amazing what you can get on the internet these days’ by Jemima Foxtrot 

‘Come with me baby. Your lips taste like anchovies. And thankfully for you, they’re my favorite food.’ 

Jemima Foxtrot is a hugely innovative performer and one of the things I love about her work is the mixture of poetry and song. You can see that here, in this short poem about a crummy internet hook-up, which, like all her work, manages to stay grounded in the day-to-day while soaring past that also to speak to other issues, like wealth and isolation in a big city.

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So there we have it, friends! Hopefully there was something in that list for you. This is a teeny tiny sample of poets whose work I enjoy (being a spoken word poet myself, I’ve had the great opportunity to see/meet brilliant poets at festivals, gigs, and literary events for the last few years and have lots to recommend!).

And, on a serious note, there are a lot of amazing performance poets out there (and performance-based artists period: actors, dancers, musicians etc.) who are struggling at this time, due to the cancellation of all public events. So if you like any of these poets, do give them a like or a share, because it does help these artists and for more people to see their work! Or better yet – buy their books and support the arts. All of the poets I’ve linked above have books out and I’m sure would appreciate your support at this difficult time. Plus, you would get some great poetry to read – a win-win!

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Thanks for reading and let me know what you thought of these poems!

Madeira Mondays: Washington Miniseries Review (Episodes 2-3)

‘Within the colonies, within families, there was division. There were loyalists and patriots living within the same house. This was a civil war.’ – Alexis Coe on the American Revolution

A few weeks ago, I posted my review of Episode One of Washington, the History Channel’s new documentary series about America’s first president: George Washington. Today we’re talking Episode Two (‘Rebel Commander’) and Three (‘Father of His Country’). I’d recommend having a read of that first blog post if you want to know more general information about the series: who they interview, the format etc. I’ll be chatting more here about specific things I enjoyed about these last two episodes and things I wish they’d done differently.

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Will the real George Washington please stand up? (This is a painting of Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797)

Firstly, the stuff I liked!

1 – Nicholas Rowe is much better in these last two episodes

Scottish stage actor Nicholas Rowe portrays Washington in the live-action reenactments that the show uses to dramatize Washington’s life. These scenes are woven throughout the interview clips with historians, biographers, and politicians. I had some complaints about Rowe in Episode 1, where he failed to convince as the charming younger Washington who was meant to dazzle all the ladies, but he does a much better job playing the older, resolute General under stress. I especially liked his understated delivery of the orders to go and find Benedict Arnold, after he learns of Arnold’s betrayal. Rowe looks ready to scream but then says with a quiet fury: Go. Get him. Now. I got chills.

2 – Really gets across how difficult it was for Americans to win the Revolutionary War

It’s impossible to overstate now how crazy it was for a handful of disparate colonies to take on the world’s great superpower of the time. There was no guarantee that the Americans would win and, in fact, quite the opposite. Lots of people, quite reasonably, thought they would surely lose and did not support the rebellion. And, as Alexis Coe points out in the quote at the start of this post, there were often loyalists and patriots in the same family! The British army and navy were the best in the world, and the colonies literally had no army until the Continental Congress decided to try and make one. Washington’s struggle to whip these non-professional soldiers into shape, to keep their spirits up, to get supplies, to prevent mutiny, all while trying to fight the best army in the world is all conveyed well in the show.

I especially liked the scene when the British army arrives in New York in 1776 and the New Yorkers, and rebel army, look out and see all the warships. King George wanted to intimidate the colonists and he sent the largest British expeditionary force to ever be assembled. When the New Yorkers saw all the impressive warships amassing in their harbor, they were all like…shit. I remember reading an account of the time from a guy in New York who looked out over the harbor and said: ‘It looked like all of London was afloat.’ So Washington did well to highlight that moment.

3 – Also conveys how Washington set the precedent for Presidential behavior

Winning a Revolution is just step one. Then you need to establish a new government which will not devolve into a new kind of tyranny. Washington makes it clear how important it was that Washington himself did not become an emperor or a tyrant, but rather stepped down after two presidential terms. It argues that he didn’t even really want to be president in the first place, but took the job because he was a national war hero and people loved him. He wanted to be at home in Virginia. But there was nobody else who could take that role (John Adams certainly had a rough time as the second U.S President). The show makes it clear how the republic could have failed, if we didn’t have someone like Washington at the helm in those fragile, early days.

Now, for stuff I didn’t like so much…

1 – So much Benedict Arnold stuff

The story of Benedict Arnold is inherently interesting (spy craft, intrigue, betrayal etc.). And maybe it’s just because I’m pretty familiar with the story already, but I felt that we had too much of a focus on this, purely for the sake of drama. The second episode actually ends on an Arnold related cliffhanger. I think you need to make mention of Arnold, a continental officer who was secretly helping the British, but felt the amount of time devoted to this whole saga was kind of excessive.

I also felt that the amount of focus on Hamilton was a little excessive. I’m guessing it’s because of his fame from the popular musical, but I was more okay with this than the Arnold stuff, because at least Hamilton was Washington’s second in command and always with Washington during the war.

2 – ‘Can I offer you some water?’

Okay, so this is a pedantic point, but there’s a scene during one of the reenactments when Washington is meeting with one of British General Howe’s top officers and Washington offers him ‘ale or water’? I’m already skeptical that he would offer him ale. That’s something people would have in a casual tavern, probably not what a General would drink with a high ranking British officer at a formal meeting though. I’m guessing they would drink wine like Madeira (yay!) or maybe sack (a fortified white wine from Spain)? Or port? But even if he did offer him ale, he definitely wouldn’t have offered him water! Water wasn’t sanitary to drink during this time and only those who could afford nothing else would drink it. If I was that British officer guy, I would have been super insulted if the American General offered me water. I would have been like: ‘No, I don’t want your crappy sewer water! Geez, you guys are a lot worse off than I thought.’

3 – The level of violence was unnecessary

I’m not one to shrink from too much violence onscreen, but context is important and this is the sort of documentary series that could easily be shown in schools etc. (there are so many legit historians interviewed in it), if not for the overly graphic moments of violence. I was okay with this in Episode One, but it started to grate on me in Episodes Two and Three. We have another scalping in Episode Three, and a tarring and feathering. While this level of violence works great in the HBO John Adams miniseries (which also shows a tarring and feathering), it felt out of place here in an otherwise pretty sanitized, educational production. The moments of violence stand out as unnecessary.

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Those are just a few thoughts I had on Episodes Two and Three. Overall, I found these episodes less engaging than Episode One, but that might have been because I was more familiar with the information in them. But still the balance of reenactment to interview works pretty well, the production quality of the reenactments is overall fairly high (despite Martha Washington’s awful wig in the last few scenes) and I liked how they wove in information about slavery throughout too.

I’d be curious to know what you thought of Episodes Two or Three, or indeed of the entire series? Did you learn anything new about Washington’s life? What did you think of the format: reenactment mixed with interviews? I don’t know much about Washington’s life so I’m especially curious to know if there’s anything you think Washington got wrong? Let me know!

(Today’s featured image is Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1851), acceded via the Wikimedia Commons. I was actually fortunate enough to see this image in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and it was breathtaking. The real painting is enormous and you can see all the colors of dawn. And, of course, Washington wouldn’t have stood like that. It would have tipped over the boat. But it’s still a great painting!)

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

 

 

 

 

Stay in and Read: The Girls by Emma Cline

‘Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.’
Emma Cline, The Girls

Last week, I promised to recommend a few books that would be perfect reading material during these upcoming weeks of ‘self-isolation.’ Today I wanted to recommend to you one of my favorite books: The Girls by Emma Cline!

This book was all the rage a few summers ago. It has a splashy, sensational premise – a fictionalized retelling of the Manson murders, from the perspective of one of the girls in the cult – but this book is SO much more than that. It is, at its core, an exploration of teenage loneliness and longing, and specifically the extraordinary lengths that young women will go to to feel loved, appreciated, seen. It’s a heartbreaking book, but one that is so exceptionally well written and so evocative of late 1960’s California – the oppressive heat, the ‘drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets’, and ‘the sweet drone of honeysuckle thickening the August air’.

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My copy of The Girls. I love the developing polaroid cover image!

The Girls tells the story of Evie Boyd, a middle aged woman reflecting back on the summer of 1969 when, bored and alone, she fell in with a wild group of girls. They are teenage runaways, living on a ranch outside of town which is presided over by a manipulative and charismatic man called Russell. The book alternates between the past and present, as young Evie falls in deeper and deeper with these girls and their actions escalate from petty vandalism to something much, much darker.

This narrative distance from the summer of ’69 is absolutely essential, because it lets older Evie ruminate on why she became involved with these girls and gives her a level of self-awareness, maturity and insight that she wouldn’t have had as an early teen. I remember seeing an interview with Cline where she mentioned that the 1960’s was kind of a metaphor for teenage-hood itself in the book (Is ‘teenage-hood’ a word? Let’s make it a word!). When you’re a teenager, everything is heightened, extreme, exciting, full of promise.

I should say that I know nothing about the real Manson murders, except for the fact that our culture seems to be obsessed with them. Just last year, Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood came out! But I’m not interested in the details of the real murders and the book isn’t either, so if you’re looking for a grizzly story – this isn’t the one. Without giving anything away, the book REALLY isn’t about the murders at all, but rather about Evie’s coming of age and her relationship with one of the girls in the cult, Suzannah, who she becomes infatuated with. In fact, one of Cline’s major strengths is that she is able to really capture the nuances of teenage girl behavior and friendship:

Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.

It’s also full of achingly insightful one-liners about the difference between growing up male and female. Evie, like so many real young woman, is taught that her value lies in how others perceive her, and throughout her childhood she ‘wait(s) to be told what was good about me.’ She waits to be noticed:

All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you- the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.

The Girls isn’t for everyone, but it is one of my top 10 favorite books and I think it would be the perfect, immersive reading experience for these slow, indoor days of ‘self-isolation’ and quarentine. It’s an inherently exciting premise: Cults! Murders! 1960s! But the quiet, cutting observations are what really stick with you, as they have stuck with me in the years since I’ve read it.

Do let me know if you give The Girls a try, and also feel free to recommend books to me as well! I love historical fiction (of course), coming of age stories and books with lyrical and lovely writing. But I’m a pretty omnivorous reader and read across lots of different genres and styles, so feel free to toss any recommendations my way. And be sure to check out last week’s post where I talked about another favorite book, Dracula!

Thanks for reading, and I hope that you are keeping well in these strange times.

Madeira Mondays: Grace and Frankie…and John Adams

I think most people have ‘their shows’, those they gravitate to when times are tough and they just want to zone out and relax. Aside from Gilmore Girls (my #1 feel-good show), I love to watch Grace and Frankie. It’s good, quality easy-watching TV, and today, I wanted to tell you a little more about it and its surprising connections to early American history! Read on, friends…

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Lily Tomlin, left, and Jane Fonda, right, star as the titular Grace and Frankie

Grace and Frankie is in many ways a radical show for network TV. It features two unconventional leading ladies – older women in their 70’s and 80’s – often talking frankly about sex, relationships and (small spoiler alert) trying to start a company where they sell sex toys! The premise is basically that these two women, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin), get stuck together when their husbands, longtime business partners, announce that they are gay…and marrying each other. So it’s a bit of an Odd Couple set-up: Grace and Frankie move in together when their husbands leave them. Grace is organized, severe, Type A. Frankie is a hippie, scattered, creative. They clash. Then they become besties. It’s cute.

The show has been running now for six seasons (the 7th one comes out later this year I believe and will be the last). But it’s a very relaxing watch because it’s funny, the stakes are low, and everyone more or less gets along with and loves each other.

But of course there is drama in the show, which brings me to how it ties together with American history! At the end of Season 3, Grace’s ex-husband Robert Hanson (Martin Sheen) becomes involved with a gay theatre company’s production of 1776. For those of you who don’t know – 1776 is a musical set during the American Revolution. It’s about John Adams and his push for the colonies to declare independence from Great Britain. Robert is cast in the leading role as John Adams, but his theatre company is plagued by homophobic protestors who try (and fail) to shut down the play.

Later, Robert wins an acting award for his portrayal of John Adams. He uses his acceptance speech as a platform for LGBT+ activism, citing Adams as his inspiration:

It was an honor to play John Adams, a man who stood up to things that were bigger and scarier and more powerful than he was. And you know we had a little taste of that during our run of 1776. We had to stand up to bullies, who were threatening to shut us down because we are a gay theatre group. But we did stand up. Because the show of eradicating intolerance must go on…I thank the one man who truly made all of this possible. John Adams.

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Martin Sheen as Robert Hanson, playing John Adams in a gay community theatre production of 1776 in Grace and Frankie

 

Robert’s statement that Adams ‘made all of this possible’ refers not only to how Adams inspired the musical, but also that Adams made America possible, a country where he has the right to stand up and express his beliefs. I found this scene very moving and I’ll talk more about the musical 1776, and its connections to modern progressive politics, in a later post.

So I would recommend Grace and Frankie not only because it’s cute, smart, sweet and enjoyable, but also because of its fun nods to American history. I hope that it brings you joy during this troubling time. Let me know if you’ve seen it in the comments below and please do recommend other ‘feel good’ shows. What are your favorites?

‘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!