Madeira Mondays: The Yellow Wallpaper (Book Review)

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity – but that would be asking too much of fate. Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it. – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper

I wanted to share with you a ghost story this week!

It is almost Halloween, after all. I went back and forth about which story to pick, and ended up settling on a story that was written in the 19th century, not the 18th, although it’s set in an old 18th century home. It’s about a woman who has been feeling unwell (a ‘temporary nervous depression’, she calls it) and travels with her husband to a fading ‘colonial mansion’ one summer, a space where she can (presumably) recuperate. Her husband, John, is a physician and forbids her from writing, or doing work of any kind, until she feels better. But the woman begins a series of secret journal entries, chronicling her growing obsession with the ‘yellow wallpaper’ which surrounds her, in the room where she’s being held.

At first the wallpaper is just an eyesore, ‘one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin’, but slowly it seems as though the pattern comes to life. It watches her. It moves. It is like the bars of a cage and, behind it, she sees a woman held prisoner, desperate to escape.

I’m talking, of course, about The Yellow Wallpaper written by celebrated American writer and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). 

The book cover from 1901. Stetson was Gilman’s first married name, which she sometimes went by.

This is quite a famous short story but one that I hadn’t actually read until a couple of weeks ago. Quite simply: I loved it. I loved everything about it, really. I loved the themes in it: the repression and infantilization of women at the time in both marriage and in medicine (she’s treated like a child by her husband, who is also her doctor, and her own beliefs about her own health are ignored), the importance of creativity and self-expression.

It is full of vivid and unsettling imagery and I could see this wallpaper so clearly through the narrator’s eyes, as she slowly descends further towards insanity:

…when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smoldering unclean yellow…

The story is on one level a critique of a specific psychological practice of the time to treat ‘nervous’ women, known as the ‘rest cure’. Gilman herself had suffered from postpartum depression, and was prescribed the ‘rest cure’. She wasn’t allowed to write or have any kind of mental stimulation – all she could do was ‘rest’ (which meant enforced seclusion and bed rest). Her doctor told her to:

Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time…Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.

(As quoted in the ‘Introduction’ to Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh)

The ‘rest cure’ was a treatment advocated by Silas Weir Mitchell, who is actually mentioned by name in The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman eventually rebelled against the ‘rest cure’, which had only worsened her condition, and began writing again. When she finished The Yellow Wallpaper, she sent a copy to Mitchell, but never received a response.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman c. 1900, photo via Wikipedia

Interestingly, according to this article I found from the American Psychological Association, the cure that Mitchell prescribed to women was very different to the one he suggested for men:

While Mitchell put worried women to bed, he sent anxious men out West to engage in prolonged periods of cattle roping, hunting, roughriding and male bonding.

So…women had to shut themselves away inside, and stop engaging in any sort of self-expression. Men should get out there and…ride some horses! It was called the ‘West cure’. I laughed so much when I learned about this, because it so clearly illustrates the misogyny and the cultural stereotypes of the time. Women were told to go back into the home, into the domestic sphere, while men experiencing what we might think of now as depression and/or anxiety were encouraged to just get out there, go outside and do some ‘manly’ activities (like hunting or herding cattle).

In any case, Gilman’s story is inspired by her experiences with the ‘rest cure’ and its negative effects, but it’s also a timeless story about how important it is for everyone to be able to express themselves. The narrator finds it a ‘relief’ to write. There is a great irony that everyone around the narrator wants her to stop writing (‘I verily believe (John’s sister) thinks it is the writing which made me sick’), but in reality it is the writing which is keeping her alive.

But is this a ghost story, Carly, you might ask? Well…I think so! And not just because I read it in the ghost story anthology, Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh. It’s quite a gothic tale (spooky old house, a woman in captivity, heightened emotions) for one. But it’s also a ghost story because the narrator is haunted by the yellow wallpaper. More broadly, she’s haunted and tormented by the confines put upon her by her husband and the male-dominated medical establishment of the time.

I know I’ve made it sound quite heavy, but it’s a brilliant story, very readable, and free to read online (it’s available here on Project Gutenberg).

Happy reading and happy halloween, my friends!

‘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!

 

A Year of ‘Madeira Mondays’!

Exactly one year ago, I sat down to write my first ‘Madeira Mondays’ post. My initial idea for this series was that it would look at early American history and historical fiction. I have always been passionate about early American history, from a surprisingly young age. See (rather grainy) photographic evidence below of me in high school alongside some of my history teachers. We dressed up in 18th century garb when a Declaration of Independence broadside came to the school. Our job was to educate the public about the document and, oh boy, was I thrilled to do it!

When I began ‘Madeira Mondays’, I had just finished up my PhD, a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow, and my research there had focused on how creative writers access and represent the American Revolution specifically. Part of my doctorate had also involved writing a full-length historical fiction novel set during the American Revolution. So my life, for three years, had effectively been all 18th century, all the time. And I really wanted to communicate some of that knowledge (and enthusiasm!) to the wider community somehow, and to make friends online who were similarly interested in history, books, and generally learning and chatting about the past. (My friends and family in life are brilliant as well, don’t get me wrong! And many of them do follow the blog – hello!).

I named the series ‘Madeira Mondays’ after the fortified Portuguese wine that was popular in 18th century America (there’s a great article here from a historian about the history of Madeira). Wine is something drunk socially at gatherings and I wanted this blog to be a gathering, of sorts, and a place to share.

‘Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam’ by John Greenwood, c. 1752-58. Located at the St Louis Art Museum. Looks like those guys are enjoying a LOT of Madeira!

Gradually the series widened out, so now I focus not just on early American history, but 18th century history more generally. I do live in Scotland after all, and there’s so much brilliant history here from that time period!

Today marks the official one year anniversary of ‘Madeira Mondays’, which means I’ve written over fifty posts about everything from 18th century swear words to the surprisingly interesting history of ketchup. There have been tons of historical film and book reviews, as well as a look at the links between 18th century fashion and RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve talked about my experience as a reenactor, and my writing process for writing some of the historical poems in my new poetry pamphlet. I’ve cooked recipes, attended conferences and visited historic sites here in Scotland and further afield. I’m proud of myself for sticking with it and can’t quite believe it’s been a year of ‘Madeira Mondays’!

I think the most fulfilling thing though has been connecting with people online – you! Many of you who follow this blog and enjoy ‘Madeira Mondays’ have blogs of your own, which I’ve loved reading and discovering. Your thoughtful and enthusiastic comments and suggestions here have been a real joy for me, encouraging me to keep this series going and also, quite honestly, making me feel more globally connected during this time of isolation. Writing is always a solitary endeavor, so this blog has been a way for me to balance that, to share and look outwards.

Also – and fellow creative writers I’m sure can relate to this – there is something very satisfying about writing a blog post, when you’re in the midst of working on a long-form creative project like a novel. A blog post is short and sweet and FINISHED within an hour or two. Whereas a novel can take months or, more likely, years.

What I’m trying to say is: thank you for reading this series! I hope that it has been engaging and that you’ve taken something from it. To celebrate ‘A Year of Madeira Mondays’, I’ve picked out five of my favorite ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts from the last year. I’ve picked a couple from the start of the project, since quite a few of you are more newly subscribed, in case you wanted to get a glimpse of the ‘back catalogue’. (They’re also a good place to start if you’re totally new to ‘Madeira Mondays’ and want a sample of what I cover on the blog).

My favorite posts from October 2019-October 2020

  1. The John Adams Miniseries (TV Show Review)

This was one of the first posts I wrote and I think it’s one of the best. It analyzes the HBO series John Adams, about the life of America’s 2nd President. Part of my PhD looked at representations of John Adams specifically in popular culture, and this post was in conjunction with a talk I gave at the Trinity College Dublin as part of their History Conference 2019.

Me dressed up as John Adams to deliver my paper at Trinity College Dublin. The conference was free, fun and open to the public and the organizers said ‘costumes are encouraged.’ As you know from the start of this post, I need no encouragement.

2. The Witch (Movie Review)

This post looks at one of my favorite movies set in early America – The Witch by Robert Eggers! A spooky and cleverly made film set in Puritan New England. It’s about an evil witch who lives in the woods…or is it?

3. A Forgotten 18th Century Drink (‘Flip’)

This is one of my favorite posts because my attempt to make this 18th century drink went so horribly wrong. It was one of the nastiest things I’ve ever (tried) to drink and this hilarious failure sticks in my mind.

4. The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

I’m really proud of this post which showcases the life and writing of one of America’s first poets: Phillis Wheatley. She was internationally famous in her day for her poetry, respected and admired for her work, which is remarkable considering that she was not only a young woman but also a former slave. Her life is interesting but also tragic. Have a read!

This is an original copy of one of Wheatley’s books, which I saw at The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, in October 2019.

5. The Patriot (Film Review)

This post looks at one of the most famous movies depicting the American Revolution, The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with this movie (it’s so ridiculous, but I’m fond of it because I enjoyed it so much as a kid). This post is a two-parter and is, effectively, a rant. ‘Historical accuracy’ is a complex topic, and, as a writer myself, I’m not usually one to care too much about small creative changes made in order to tell a better story. But if you really want to see me come down on a film for its egregious and nonsensical alterations to American history – this is the post for you!

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And that’s it! Five posts from my first year. I hope you enjoy them!

Which ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts have been your favorite ones, so far?

Thank you so much, as always, for joining me on this blogging journey. I publish a new ‘Madeira Mondays’ post every Monday, and if you’d like to subscribe and follow along, please do! I’ll see you next Monday.

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: 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!

 

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.

Stay in and Read: Dracula

Most of us are looking ahead at a lot more time spent at home these next few weeks. So I thought I’d recommend a few excellent books that would make for perfect reading material during this time of ‘self-isolation.’ The wonderful thing about books is that, even if you are at home alone, they can provide a source of company and a means of imaginative escape. You can travel to distant lands (in the case of today’s read, 19th century Transylvania!), meet new people, and lose yourself in someone else’s adventure.

I’m going to try and recommend books which I think are especially ‘immersive’, that really plunge you into another place and time. These happen to be my favorite sorts of books anyway, so I’ve got lots of recommendations!

First up is a thrilling piece of gothic fiction! I read it for the first time last year and simply could not put it down and that is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

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My epic copy of Dracula that I found a few years ago on sale at a gift shop. I thought I’d just use it as Halloween decor, but eventually read the book itself.

You might be familiar with one of the many film versions of this book, but trust me – the original book itself is well worth a read! It’s atmospheric and suspenseful and, in my opinion, no film version has ever captured the true spirit of the book. For me, Dracula is the original Scooby Doo. At its heart, it’s about a group of people who are trying to solve a mystery and defeat a dastardly villain intent on destroying their society. Lots of films try to make this into a romantic story, but to me it’s a tale of friendship and camaraderie.

If you don’t know the story of Dracula, I actually don’t want to give too much away (because the less you know, the more exciting the story is!). But it’s about a count with supernatural powers who tries to invade Victorian England. We follow various characters who try to figure out how to stop him, starting with the young lawyer Jonathan Harker who is imprisoned in Dracula’s castle in Transylvania at the start of the book. We also meet his fiancée Mina, her close friend Lucy, a goofy Dutch doctor who is an expert in the occult (I pictured Christoph Waltz for some reason), a Texan cowboy, an English Lord and a whole bunch of other people. All these people have to come together and try to stop Dracula’s plan, which is to turn more people into vampires (See, I bet you didn’t know that there was a COWBOY in Dracula? He plays a pretty big role too…). So in many ways it’s an appropriate story to read right now: one where smart people all come together to stop a dangerous contagion.

One of the things that makes Dracula such an engaging read is its epistolary style. It’s told in a series of letters and the occasional newspaper report which gives it almost a ‘true crime’ feel. The reader is piecing together the story, just as our characters do.

Another things that makes Dracula exciting to read, if I’m perfectly honest, is that it’s sexy. There is also a genuine terror in it of sex, particularly female sexual power. You have to read this book in the context of its own time (it was first published in 1897) and don’t except what we would call now ‘well-rounded’ female characters. Women are either pure and virtuous, like Mina, or literal demons who have fallen under Dracula’s power and want only to seduce and destroy men. But the female vampires definitely ARE super sexy. Take this passage when Harker encounters a vampire lady in Dracula’s castle:

The fair girl went on her knees and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, til I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on her scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat.

When people think of ‘classic’ novels, I think they imagine that these books are dry or tedious. That’s often not the case and it’s definitely not the case with Dracula (see passage above). Dracula is a strange window into Victorian fears (fears of female sexuality, fears of foreign invasion, fears of animal desires and impulses) and a damn good read. It’s one of my favorite books and, coincidentally, I’ve actually been to Transylvania (which is a part of modern day Romania!). I went there before I had read Dracula – one of my partner’s good friends lives there. But, now that I have read Dracula, I can picture even more vividly the haunting settings of Bram Stoker’s book: the mist-shrouded Carpathian mountains, the crumbling ancient fortresses, the steep ravines. But you don’t need to go to Romania to experience the world of Dracula. Just curl up with this fabulous book and let yourself fall under its spell.

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Stay tuned for more reading recommendations, and don’t forget to check out my series Madeira Mondays, every Monday, where I talk about early American history and historical fiction!

Do you have any reading recommendations for me? What books should I sink my teeth into (okay, there had to be one Dracula joke!) during this period?

I hope you’re well, and thanks very much for reading!

Madeira Mondays: Historical Short Stories

When we think of historical fiction, we tend to think about novels. It seems like a collective decision was made, somewhere down the line, that fiction set in the past should be EPIC in its scope. That historical tales were best suited to sprawling tomes with many sequels. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good historical novel (I’m writing one as we speak!). And I understand the appeal of getting wholly immersed in another time period, which one can do with a novel: learning about the minutia of life, meeting a big cast of characters, covering several years etc. BUT there is also something to be said for the short story as a medium for exploring history too.

Why are short stories such a brilliant form for historical fiction?

Well, for one thing, they reflect the way that the past often comes to us, which is in brief, fragmented, incomplete bursts. An old photograph discovered in an attic. A torn out page from a diary. Pieces of historical evidence often provide tiny windows to another world, but so much is left unknowable. Similarly, short stories are tiny windows into another world. A brief flash, a glimpse, but with much that you have to fill in and guess for yourself.

Also, maybe I am greedy, but sometimes I would rather read a collection with many different settings and characters, rather than commit to a whole book with just one time period and one setting. Enter Karen Russell. One of my absolute favorite writers. She writes both short stories and novels and many of her stories take place in the past – whether that is the old American West, 17th century Greece, or 19thcentury Japan. Lots of her stories are set in the present too. But all of her tales have fantastical or magical realism elements to them and they are all ridiculously well written. I actually feel wiser after reading her stories, like I have understood something new about human nature. Or, at least, have recognized something that I had not thought about before.

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I was so excited to read her new collection last week – Orange World – and it exceeded my (very high!) expectations. So, for today’s ‘Madeira Mondays’, I wanted to point you towards some of my favorite, historical fiction stories by Karen Russell! Even though, regrettably, none of her short stories are set in 18th century America (Please write a story set in 18th century America, Karen! Please!!), lots of them explore other periods of American history and the American landscape. Here are four of her stories that I recommend reading ASAP.

1 – ‘from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration‘, in St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Russell is an American writer originally from Florida, and many of the stories in her first collection, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, take place in a weird, heightened version of a Florida swamp. But she’s also clearly interested in the landscape of the American West and one of my favorite stories from that collection is titled: ‘from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration‘.  The title suggests a historical document, that the story we’re about to read is one from a larger collection of children looking back on their experience moving out west. But this expectation is playfully subverted in the very first line when we release that our boy narrator has a father who is a MINOTAUR. Yup. A Minotaur. Half-man, half-bull.

Thus begins a story that is really about myths: the myth of the American West (versus the harsh reality of life there), the myth of the Minotaur, the myth of this particular Minotaur character who, our narrator tells us, was once a famous rodeo star, AND about how parents seem like myths to their children, until we start to see their flaws.

You can hear Russell reading the beginning of the story here, to see if it might be your cup of tea!

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2 – ‘Proving Up’ from Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Russell’s second collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, is my personal favorite and there’s another story about the American West in it, although this one is much darker than ‘Westward Migration’. It is about the rapacious desire for land and ownership, and this dark greed manifests itself as a very dark force that threatens the characters, who are settlers on the American frontier. The ending is so sinister it took my breath away! Apparently it has also been turned into an opera.

3 – ‘The Barn at the End of Our Term’ from Vampires in the Lemon Grove

This is a goofy story which is dear to my heart, about US Presidents reincarnated as horses. Yes. Horses.

I actually wrote about it for part of my PhD thesis, which looked at different iterations of John Adams in fiction, because Adams the horse is a central character in the story. He tries to lead the other Presidents-turned-horses to rebel and break out of the barn. Sure, it’s a silly and fun concept, but it’s really about legacy and what kind of ‘afterlife’ these Presidents have in our imaginations. So it’s not so much ‘historical fiction’ as fiction ABOUT history. It’s also funny as hell and insightful.

4 – ‘Black Corfu’ from Orange World and other stories

Okay, so this story is definitely historical, but not set in America. The setting is the island of Corfu, 1620. I included it on this list because it is my favorite story from her latest collection and I’ve read it twice already. This story is about an ambitious, intellectual physician whose job it is to cut the hamstrings of corpses so that they do not rise from the dead and become zombies. He once aspired to be a great doctor, but his dark skin color and his class have prevented him from rising in his profession. When rumors start to spread that a dead woman has been seen roaming the island, the doctor is blamed and chaos ensues.

This story, like all of her stories, is about many things at once. Its themes are super relevant to us today, although they are explored in a historical context: class, race, science, superstition, ambition and the power of fear.

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Have I convinced you to read her yet? I hope so! And I hope that you will enjoy these strange historical stories as much as I do.

Recommended Reading:

Orange World and Other Stories; Vampires in the Lemon Grove and St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell (obviously!)

Voices Against the Wall: The Hilarious Terror of Karen Russell’s “Orange World and Other Stories” (in-depth review of Orange World and other stories) from the LA Times

‘Bog Girl’ by Karen Russell in The New Yorker (also featured in Orange World)

‘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!