Madeira Mondays: Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow (Book Review)

On the cover of Celia Garth, there is a beautiful blonde woman peering out at you serenely. Behind her, there’s a harbor front (presumably Colonial Charleston, where this book is set). The woman on the cover is lovely, but she also has a definite Mean Girls vibe – she knows she is good-looking and well-dressed and there’s a strong possibility she’s not gonna invite you to sit at her lunch table. But she also looks sharp and observant, like she sees things.

I love this cover, because to me it incapsulates what I liked most about Celia Garth – the titular main character. Celia Garth’s main strength is its characterization, particularly its depiction of Celia herself who, as this cover image suggests, is attractive, vain, serene, and intelligent. An interesting young woman who proves an captivating viewpoint character as we explore the turbulent final years of the Revolutionary War in British-occupied Charleston.

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My copy of Celia Garth

Celia Garth was published in 1959 and it follows the story of Celia, a young orphan in Colonial South Carolina who comes from money but finds herself needing to work in a dress shop to pay the bills. She’s a talented seamstress and, wanting to prove her worth, she accepts a commission from a Mrs. Vivian Lacy – a glamorous older woman with exacting requirements and expensive taste (I pictured Glenn Close, because that’s who I would cast if I was going to make this a movie!). But soon her career goals are overshadowed by the trauma of the Revolutionary War. The British army arrives to Charleston and some quite grizzly disasters befall Celia and people she loves. The book becomes a story of survival – how to survive mortal danger, but also grief. And there are parts of it that are genuinely quite moving.

As I mentioned earlier, the real strength of this book is the characters. Celia herself is wholly believable and complex from the start. I enjoyed how she takes a lot of pride in her appearance and is judgmental of people who are less conventionally attractive than her (this is kind of unpleasant to read but it’s realistic, especially for a naive, pretty young woman). She’s also whip smart, stubborn, and always making bold choices with consequences (an ‘active’ character, as it were). But her client Vivian was my favorite character by far. She had a very Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey vibe, if you’ve seen that show, and she was always throwing out sassy little aphorisms. To a pregnant acquaintance, Vivian says: ‘I know these nine months seem endless. But Nature takes her time. You cannot hurry a tree, or a baby, or a hard boiled egg.’ Aside from Vivian and Celia, you get a whole host of other colorful characters: the laid-back and good-natured Captain Jimmy Rand (who had ‘an ugly, engaging face, scooped at the temples, bony at the jaw, with a wide mouth and a look of being amused by life in general’), the witty daredevil Luke who fights with Francis Marion’s men in the swamps, and a whole bunch of other people besides.

In fact, one of my main criticisms of the book was that there were simply too many characters. I couldn’t keep track a lot of the time or remember who was related to who. These wealthy southern planter families were often inter-related, sure, but I think a family tree would have been useful to remember everything. That simple addition would have made a big difference.

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A lovely Colonial house in Charleston, South Carolina, taken during a research trip I took to Charleston in 2017

While I had no major issue with the overall historical accuracy of the book (which is saying something, because my whole PhD project looked at the lives of women in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War), it should be noted that slavery simply isn’t a concern in the book at all. There are enslaved characters (Marietta, Vivian’s enslaved maid, is a prominent secondary character and I got a good sense of who she was), but the institution as a whole is simply…there.

Now, that could have been a choice on author Gwen Bristow’s part to show the past through Celia’s eyes, and Celia (a white woman from a wealthy background living in the early South) would have accepted slavery as a fact of life (abolition doesn’t really become a big thing until the next century). But the knowledge of what is happening to these enslaved people hovered just out of sight, like a strange specter, as I was reading the book. There’s one moment when Vivian is meeting Celia for the first time and Celia feels like ‘something put up for auction.’ I don’t think Bristow was trying to evoke slavery here at all, but this line only served to remind me that, just a few streets away, not only were things being put on auction, but people were too. The book just doesn’t address slavery at all, so if that’s a topic that you want explored in more depth, in fiction, then I’d say look elsewhere (look to, for instance, Beloved by Toni Morrison. Or if you want something about this time period, why not try Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, or even the poetry collection I reviewed last year, Mistress by Chet’la Sebree?).

Another aspect of the book I didn’t love is that it majorly glorifies American officer Francis ‘Swamp Fox’ Marion and majorly attacks the infamous British officer Banastre Tarleton. I’ve talked about these figures in my post about the movie The Patriotbut suffice it to say here that Tarleton’s legacy as a ‘butcher’ might be more grounded in legend than in fact. But I was more inclined to accept the Evil Aristocratic British Baddies v. Noble American Farmers dichotomy here than in The Patriot, because this is the war as CELIA sees it. And Celia is furious at Tarleton and psyched about Marion, as many South Carolinian patriots were at the time. So, fair enough.

My final critical comment is that the book kind of peters out, rather than building to a strong climax. I won’t give anything away, but Celia gets involved with helping the rebels and this doesn’t develop in a satisfying way, I thought. But the ending itself (as in, the last few pages) was quite moving.

I would compare this book to one that came out last year – City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. Although that’s set in 1930’s and 1940’s New York City, it also features a young seamstress coming of age during wartime and all the colorful characters she meets.  There are even similar sorts of characters in both books. But books also have fun frivolous moments but also deal with the trauma of war. I would also recommend Celia if you enjoy things like Outlander (which I’ve not actually read, but I’ve seen a bit of the show and I understand that parts of it are set in colonial Charleston!).

It does not surpass Johnny Tremain as my favorite book I’ve read set during the Revolutionary War, but overall I quite enjoyed it. The prose is solid, and the characters are vivid and memorable. It was predictable, but I still cried twice while reading it, which is a testament to Bristow’s characterization. I wanted the best for Celia and her pals. And I would quite happily pick up another historical novel by Bristow, and there are apparently several!

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An iconic South Carolina sight – the live oaks twisting together in a sort of tunnel/roof. I believe I took this photo near Magnolia Planation.

Do let me know what you think about this book. Does Celia sound like something you’d be curious to read? Any other recommendations for historical novels that I should pick up? (Speaking of other novels, I have some exciting news about the one I’m working on, so stay tuned for that, later this month. AND stay tuned for more news about my new poetry book, which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press in July!).

PS Today’s Featured Image is from the cover of Celia Garth. If you buy this edition, from the 1950’s, please PLEASE don’t read the book jacket. The synopsis there gives so much away about the plot and even though it’s a fairly predictable story, you don’t want to spoil it!

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

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

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: 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!

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: Thomas Jefferson, James Hemings and French Cooking

Thomas Jefferson is known for several things.

He is considered one of America’s ‘Founding Fathers’ and is probably most famous for writing The Declaration of Independence in 1776, a list of grievances that the American colonies sent to King George III which kicked off the American Revolution.  He’s also been in the press recently as Monticello, his home (which is now a museum and research center), grapples with how to represent the more uncomfortable truths about Jefferson’s life: namely that he kept hundreds of slaves (despite expressing a belief that slavery was morally repugnant) and fathered several children with an enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings.

So, he was a complicated man. And an endlessly interesting one.

I was actually fortunate enough to live at Monticello for a month in 2016 as a visiting research fellow while I was working on my PhD. During that time, I got to know Jefferson pretty well. And one of the most interesting aspects of his life that very few people know about is that he was a major foodie. This guy LOVED his wine and his culinary experimentation; he tried growing all kinds of things at his home in Virginia.  So it is no surprise that when he went to France in 1784, as an Ambassador of the new United States of America, he was keen that one of his slaves, James Hemings, go with him and be trained up as a French chef. So Jefferson and Hemings struck a bargain. If Hemings learned how to become a French chef in Paris and returned to Virginia to teach another slave the skills of French cookery, then Jefferson would free him. Hemings agreed.

This story, of James Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, their intertwined lives and culinary journeys, forms the basis of Thomas J. Craughwell‘s book Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America

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It’s a fascinating story and Craughwell’s short, entertaining book covers their time in France as well as their return to the early Republic, when Jefferson became President and attempted to introduce French cuisine to the United States. Some of the foods that Jefferson and Hemings brought back included things we consider staples now, like macaroni and cheese and ice cream. Although they can’t be solely credited with introducing these to America, these foods certainly weren’t popular at the time, so Hemings and Jefferson were some of the first.

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Photo taken in the kitchens at Monticello in Virginia

One of the best things about Craughwell’s book is its informal, highly-readable style, from a non-fiction author who apparently wrote about many different historical subjects (from President Lincoln to Urban Legends). It’s an easy and accessible overview for those who aren’t too familiar with the time period. As someone who studies this period, I also learned some new things too, namely about the origins of modern French cooking (good and simple sauces, fresh ingredients sourced daily) and how its emphasis on simplicity was actually a reaction to the excesses of the Court of Versailles.

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From The Georgian House, recreated 18th century townhouse where I volunteer in Edinburgh

But as a whole the book felt a little too short and superficial. I wanted more description of the food James learned to prepare in Paris, and more about James in general as a person. Craughwell isn’t a historian and he does acknowledge that it’s difficult to find information about James, who did become a chef de cuisine, a master of French cooking, in Paris and was eventually freed by Jefferson. His story has a tragic end however: he committed suicide while drinking at the age of just 36.

Of course it’s significantly harder to learn about James’ character than about Jefferson. Jefferson was a U.S President and a wealthy white landowner who left an enormous amount of documents behind him: things he bought, letters he wrote, etc. James was born into slavery and although he ended up being free and self-employed as a cook in Baltimore, his life is, understandably, much harder to trace. I talk about this in my post about Juan San Malo from New Orleans, but it is a challenge trying to uncover the lives of those like James who don’t leave behind the paper trail of men like Jefferson.

Yet perhaps more information about how other French chefs were trained at the time in Paris (What their daily rituals were like? What sort of recipes they were learning?) would have given more insight into James’ situation. This would have been a good way to bulk out the James sections and wouldn’t have required gaining more information about him specifically. I just felt that there wasn’t enough about his life, or enough about the food he made, honestly. A lot of it focused on Jefferson’s life and his family, which is fine but there are other books which cover this and in much greater depth. With this book, I wanted to learn about French cooking and James Hemings.

That being said, Craughwell has clearly hit on a fascinating story and if you’re looking for a fun and fast-paced read about food and Early American history, then this wouldn’t be a bad one to choose. I’m a sucker for stories about food and am of the firm belief that someone should make a movie about James and his culinary adventures in Paris, his complicated relationship with Jefferson, his bringing French cuisine to America etc. It’s an interesting and unusual story. So get cracking, Hollywood!

Recommended Further Reading/Watching

The Featured Image of today’s post is a still-life painting with oysters and wine from Flemish painter Peter Jacob Horemans, c. 1769, accessed via the Wikipedia Commons.

‘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: Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (Letters G to P)

I used to think that the Elizabethans had the best swear words. Shakespeare in particular really knew how to pen a vivid and hilarious insult: ‘Beetle-Headed, Flap Ear’d Knave’ ‘Canker-Blossom’ ‘A Fusty Nut with No Kernel’! But after reading The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose (1811), I’m now convinced that the Georgians might very well have had the best slang words and insults.

If you missed my first blog post about The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, this book is basically a compendium of 18th century slang, which ranges from the mild to the extremely crude. In that post, I went through some of my favorite words, from Letters A-F. This time, I’ll be choosing ones from G-M, with some added commentary from me in italics for good measure.

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Cover from recent (1980’s) edition of Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

The book is an entertaining read for those who want a peek at the saltier side of life for our 18th, and early 19th, century pals. So I hope that you enjoy these words from Grose’s peculiar ‘dictionary’ and special points to you if you manage to work any of them into conversation:

GALIMAUFREY. A hodgepodge made up of the remnants and scraps of the larder. (In all honesty, I just added this one because I like the look of the word and we don’t really have a word for this now, although we still do it, throwing together scraps/leftovers into a hodgepodge sort of meal.)

GAPESEED. Sights; any thing to feed the eye. I am come abroad for a little gapeseed. (I liked this one because the idea of ‘feed(ing) the eye’ is an interesting and bizarre mix of the two different senses…)

GIFTS. Small white specks under the finger nails, said to portend gifts or presents. (Okay, what?! Not only had I never really taken notice of those ‘small white specks’ under fingernails, although I think I know what they mean, but I had no idea they used to be thought good luck!)

GINGERBREAD. A cake made of treacle, flour, and grated ginger; also money. He has the gingerbread; he is rich. (‘He has the gingerbread!’)

GREEN. Doctor Green; i.e. grass: a physician, or rather medicine, found very successful in curing most disorders to which horses are liable. My horse is not well, I shall send him to Doctor Green. (There was something charming and kind of sassy about this one. ‘This horse looks pretty bad, Bill. Should we send for a physician?’ ‘Nah, let’s just send him to Doctor Green.’)

GRUMBLETONIAN. A discontented person; one who is always railing at the times or ministry.

HALF SEAS OVER. Almost drunk. (This book contains SO many words for different states of inebriation. It has words to describe being a little drunk, somewhat drunk, and entirely drunk. No matter what your state of drunkenness, don’t worry, there was a word for that!)

HICKENBOTHOM. Mr. Hickenbothom; a ludicrous name for an unknown person, similar to that of Mr. Thingambob.

MONKS AND FRIARS. Terms used by printers: monks are sheets where the letters are blotted, or printed too black; friars, those letters where the ink has failed touching the type, which are therefore white or faint. (This one was just interesting and kind of enlightening about problems that early modern printers had getting their print exactly right.)

POMPKIN. A man or woman of Boston in America: from, the number of pompkins raised and eaten by the people of that country. Pompkinshire; Boston and its dependencies. (I have a hard time telling if this is pejorative or not? I guess mildly so? But I just like the idea that there were so many pumpkins (which was a New World food) in America that people from Boston were called ‘pumpkin’! I also like the fact that it’s a term of endearment now.)

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Taken on a recent trip to Boston where there were, in fact, many pumpkins!

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Thanks for reading and stayed tuned for future posts when more silly, confusing, and fascinating historical slang words will be revealed!

PS Who is the dashing gentleman pictured in the Featured Image? He is 18th century English explorer James Cook, painted onto the wall of the bar at Brew York Beer Hall in York, England. (At least, that’s what I remember the bar staff telling me. I visited a few months ago and I may have been ‘half seas over’ when I spotted him!)

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: Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (A to F)

Do you know what it means to be a ‘dog in a doublet’? Or how you can become ‘The Admiral of the Narrow Seas’? If not – you’re not alone! These are obscure late 18th and early 19th century slang words that I discovered in Francis Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue!

So what is The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue?

The British Library explains it thus:

Francis Grose’s ‘Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’ was first published in 1785, and is a dictionary of slang words. Grose was one of the first lexicographers to collect slang words from all corners of society, not just from the professional underworld of pickpockets and bandits.

The words in this ‘dictionary’ range from the obscene to the mild. Some are creative and colorful, some are nonsensical (to us and perhaps even to people at the time!). Some are derogatory and cruel (especially many of the words describing women) and some are kind of sweet. Many of the phrases in it have to do with men’s leisure activities (e.g. drinking and card playing) or they are about sex. But there are various terms to do with practical jokes, games and a whole host of other topics too.

I found this book an entertaining read and have picked out a few choice words to share with you! But you can also have a read through the entire thing yourself here! It’s definitely NOT a suitable read for children (these are swear words, after all!) but for the adults who want a glimpse behind the curtain of propriety into the rowdier reality of 18th century language and life, it’s worth a look!

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There were so many great words that I’ve had to split this up into several different posts, so these are my favorite slang words from The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Letters A through F! I’ve included a few of my own comments (in italics) as well, because I could not resist.

So how do you swear like an 18th century person? Read on…

ADMIRAL OF THE NARROW SEAS. one who from drunkenness vomits into the lap of the person sitting opposite him. SEA PHRASE.

AMBASSADOR. A trick to duck some ignorant fellow or landsman, frequently played on board ships in the warm latitudes. It is thus managed: A large tub is filled with water, and two stools placed on each side of it. Over the whole is thrown a tarpaulin, or old sail: this is kept tight by two persons, who are to represent the king and queen of a foreign country, and are seated on the stools. The person intended to be ducked plays the Ambassador, and after repeating a ridiculous speech dictated to him, is led in great form up to the throne, and seated between the king and queen, who rising suddenly as soon as he is seated, he falls backwards into the tub of water. (Something I learned from reading this book was that men at sea had a lot of time on their hands and loved playing tricks on each other. There were other sea games listed and they were all just as silly.)

TO AMUSE. To fling dust or snuff in the eyes of the person intended to be robbed; also to invent some plausible tale, to delude shop-keepers and others, thereby to put them off their guard.

ANKLE. A girl who is got with child, is said to have sprained her ankle.

APRIL FOOL. Any one imposed on, or sent on a bootless errand, on the first of April; which day it is the custom among the lower people, children, and servants, by dropping empty papers carefully doubled up, sending persons on absurd messages, and such like contrivances, to impose on every one they can, and then to salute them with the title of April Fool. This is also practised in Scotland under the title of Hunting the Gowke. (So they had April Fools’ Day!)

ARSY YARSEY. To fall arsy varsey, i.e. head over heels.

BEDFORDSHIRE. I am for Bedfordshire, i.e. for going to bed. (This one was perhaps my favorite phrase I encountered. I am going to start saying this.)

BOTTLE-HEADED. Void of wit.

CAT CALL. A kind of whistle, chiefly used at theatres, to interrupt the actors, and damn a new piece. It derives its name from one of its sounds, which greatly resembles the modulation of an intriguing boar cat. (So this word was already around, but its meaning has shifted in the last few centuries. Also, what is an ‘intriguing boar cat’?)

DEVIL DRAWER. A miserable painter. (How often was this used?)

DOG IN A DOUBLET. A daring, resolute fellow. In Germany and Flanders the boldest dogs used to hunt the boar, having a kind of buff doublet buttoned on their bodies, Rubens has represented several so equipped, so has Sneyders.

DOODLE. A silly fellow, or noodle. (More on this word in a later blog post about the history of the song ‘Yankee Doodle’.)

FIRING A GUN. Introducing a story by head and shoulders. A man wanting to tell a particular story, said to the company, ‘Hark! did you not hear a gun?—but now we are talking of a gun, I will tell you the story of one.’ (I love that there used to be a phrase for this, when someone brings up a topic only so that they can talk about it more e.g. ‘Did I smell food? Speaking of food, when are we going to have dinner?’)

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I hope that you enjoyed these antiquated slang words, and let me know if you manage to squeeze any of them into conversation! Be on the lookout for the next round of ‘vulgar’ phrases in a future post.

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!