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: A Vist to Culloden Battlefield

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

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

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

Culloden Battlefield, shrouded in mist

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

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

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

The Culloden Vistor Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madeira Mondays: National Treasure (Film Review)

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

National Treasure (2004) is a deeply silly movie.

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

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

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

National Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Discovering an 18th Century Energy Drink

Those who have been reading this blog for a while know that I like to try out historical recipes. Sometimes, my culinary experiments go pretty well: like the time that I tried to make a frothy whipped syllabub. Sometimes, they don’t go well at all: like the time I made an absolutely vile warm rum drink called ‘flip’. And, sometimes, these experiments succeed wildly, and this wild success was what I experienced when I made ‘switchel’ for the first time yesterday. Damn! This drink was excellent. A refreshing, invigorating, slightly tart and slightly sweet, healthy and easy-to-make historical drink that I’m thrilled to have stumbled across.

I made this drink in part as a celebration of some goods news: the historical fiction novel that I’ve been working on was long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Award! For those who might not be familiar, Mslexia is a popular magazine in the UK, and they run an international competition every two years for debut novel manuscripts by female authors. It was a tremendous honor for my manuscript to be long-listed. Some amazing novelists, and in particular historical novelists, have won or been long or short-listed for this award in previous years (Imogen Hermes Gowar who wrote The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, for instance), so it was a real thrill to have my manuscript long-listed. As a poet who has been transitioning to fiction writing these last few years, it was also a major confidence boost to be recognized for my fiction, as well.

And speaking of poetry…I also made switchel to celebrate receiving the first copies of my brand new poetry pamphlet – Anastasia, Look in the Mirror – which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press next month on July 2nd! I can’t wait to share this book with you, and I have several posts lined up already focused on: what it’s about, how I researched and wrote it, etc. So stay tuned for that! For now, back to switchel. 

What exactly is ‘switchel’?

‘Switchel’ is a summery drink that was widely enjoyed in 18th century America, but versions of it date back much, much earlier. It’s made typically with water mixed with apple cider vinegar and ginger, and then sweetened with something (like molasses or honey or maple syrup). It’s a drink that thirsty American farmers would enjoy after a hot day harvesting the hay, thus its nickname of ‘haymaker’s punch’. It’s a drink meant to quench the thirst and revive the body, which is why I think of it as an historical ‘energy drink’.

It goes by several other names besides ‘switchel’. You could call it: aqua forte, ginger-water, haymaker’s punch, Yankee beverage, or (my personal favorite) swizzle.

How do you make it?

This is one of the best things about switchel: it’s super easy to make!

The version that I made combines two recipes: this recipe from the Townsend’s YouTube Channel (a favorite channel of mine, as frequent readers of this blog will know!) and a recipe from Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England by Corin Hirsch (a very fun book if you’re interested in food and old New England-y things).

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Here’s what I used:

  • 5-6 cups of cold water
  • Quarter cup of maple syrup
  • Quarter cup of lemon juice
  • Half a tablespoon of powdered ginger

I mixed all of those together in a pitcher and that’s it.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s often made with apple cider vinegar, but I didn’t have any of that on hand and Townsend had recommended that you could use lemon juice instead. But I’d be eager to try it out with apple cider vinegar. And for the maple syrup, you could also use honey or molasses.

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I poured some into a jar with a slice of lemon and there you go!

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What does it taste like?

In a word: refreshing!

I was very uncertain about adding the ginger, but honestly this tastes like a delicious mixture of ginger-beer and lemonade. It would be an incredibly refreshing drink after working outside on a hot day. My partner and I drank all of it very quickly and it’s so simple to make that I might make more very soon. (It would also make for an excellent mixer to go with vodka, I think, or rum…).

I’m not at all surprised that its popularity is apparently on the rise! According to this article from The Guardian, modern versions of this drink are becoming popular with: ‘the types of people who ride vintage bicycles, raise chickens and keep bees on their roof.’ I laughed a lot when I read that because while I don’t do any of those things – I have no bike, I don’t eat chickens, and I’d be too scared to keep bees – I probably fall loosely within that ‘hipster’ demographic.

Whether switchel is actually ‘threatening to dethrone kombucha as the next hip health trend’, as the article predicts, remains to be seen. But if it does become as popular as kombucha, I think it is deserved!

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Have you ever heard of switchel? I would not be surprised if it is already a trend in America and I just haven’t heard of it! Here in the UK, I’ve not seen it anywhere. But I would definitely buy it if I did.

If you try making your own switchel, I would be so delighted to hear about it! (As you can see from the recipe above, it’s extremely simple to make and you could maybe even rustle up a version of it with things already in your kitchen!).

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Harvest Rest’ by George Cole c. 1865

‘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: 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: 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!

 

 

Madeira Mondays: The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (R through Z)

This is the final installment in my series of three posts looking at historical slang words! The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose (1811) has been an endlessly entertaining historical source, a compendium of ‘vulgar’ phrases, swears, oaths, insults, drinking games and much more. If you missed the first two posts in this series, you can find them here and here.

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Now I’m pulling out the best words in this unusual little dictionary from the letters R-Z. I hope that you enjoy them and let me know which is your favorite. Mine is probably ‘sea lawyer’ and ‘spoil pudding’. Happy reading!

RIGMAROLE. Roundabout, nonsensical. He told a long rigmarole story. (Good to see that this one has stuck around! Although I often hear it used more in the context of something being long and complicated, e.g. ‘signing up for that thing required filling in lots of papers, it was a huge rigamarole!’)

SAINT GEOFFREY’S DAY. Never, there being no saint of that name: tomorrow-come-never, when two Sundays come together. (See you on St Geoffrey’s Day aka NEVER!)

SANDWICH. Ham, dried tongue, or some other salted meat, cut thin and put between two slices of bread and butter: said to be a favourite morsel with the Earl of Sandwich. (I thought it was interesting that a sandwhich was a recent enough food that they felt they had to include a definition of it, plus the fact that this definition pretty much still holds!)

SEA LAWYER. A shark. (I guess back then people were already poking fun at lawyers a lot. But I mostly included this one because it makes me picture a shark in a business suit.)

TO SHOOT THE CAT. To vomit from excess of liquor; called also catting.

SLY BOOTS. A cunning fellow, under the mask of simplicity.

SPOIL PUDDING. A parson who preaches long sermons, keeping his congregation in church till the puddings are overdone. (I’ve certainly been to some lectures given by ‘spoil puddings’!)

TARRING AND FEATHERING. A punishment lately inflicted by the good people of Boston on any person convicted, or suspected, of loyalty: such delinquents being “stripped naked”, were daubed all over with tar, and afterwards put into a hogshead of feathers. (I included this one mostly because of its connection to the American Revolution. This was something that Patriot mobs did to Loyalist citizens.)

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British propaganda print from 1774: The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man. The print depicts a customs official being tarred and feathered by a Patriot mob.

VICE ADMIRAL OF THE NARROW SEAS. A drunken man that pisses under the table into his companions’ shoes. (You will recall from my first post about this dictionary that an ‘Admiral of the Narrow Seas’ is one who throws up on someone across from him from drunkenness. So the VICE admiral is someone who pees on someone’s shoes. Both are oddly specific and I wouldn’t want to go drinking with either of these ‘admirals’, I have to say.)

WHIPT SYLLABUB. A flimsy, frothy discourse or treatise, without solidity. (This entertained me because syllabub was a popular dessert drink which involved whipped cream. So this phrase obviously alludes to that!)

WOLF IN THE STOMACH. A monstrous or canine appetite.

YANKEY, or YANKEY DOODLE. A booby, or country lout: a name given to the New England men in North America. A general appellation for an American.

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Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more discussion of this book in a future post when I talk about the origins of the Revolutionary War-era song ‘Yankee Doodle’.

(Featured Image: ‘A Midnight Modern Conversation’ by William Hogarth c. 1730 via 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: Trinity HistoryCon

‘Most of us began our love of history from something we saw on TV, in movies or other pop media.’

This was one of the opening remarks at Trinity History Con 2019, a two day long conference in Dublin at Trinity College, all about the intersections of pop culture and history. And that remark really stood out to me because I think it’s so true! Often the first time that we encounter history is through historical fiction – be that books, TV, films etc. For me it was reading books like Johnny Tremain about the Revolutionary War that ignited my curiosity in that whole time period. I know from speaking to other historical fiction writers, historians, and lovers of history that pop culture media often sparks a love or curiosity in a period that leads to academic research or just a lifelong fascination with a particular place and time.

In one panel at the conference, ‘How We Remember Her’, featuring actress Lotte Verbeek (from TV shows like Outlander and The Borgias), she discussed some of the different reasons someone might watch a historical fiction TV show like The Borgias: to get a sense of the past, to understand a bit, but also (perhaps primarily) to be entertained. Yet a show like that can also ‘open up a world for people’ who might otherwise know nothing at all about the time period and might now be encouraged to seek out further information.

The Borgias was one of dozens of pieces of pop media that were discussed at HistoryCon. While I was there, I saw talks on (to name a few!): Star Wars, Games of Thrones, Star Trek, and the Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life. There were presentations on Kate Bush’s song ‘Wuthering Heights’ and its relationship to the novel, as well as discussions on Charles Manson and American film. There was even a presentation from two St Andrews researchers, Christin Simons and Elena Romero-Passerin, who research 18th century mercantilism and botany respectively, on the history-inspired board game they have designed based on their research called ‘Mer-plant-ilism’. Basically, this conference was a dream event for a history nerd (and all around nerd, let’s be honest!) like me.

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Conference organizer and presenter Dawn Seymour Klos giving her talk on Leia Organa and 13th century English Women

But in addition to academic talks from researchers from all over the world there was also a brilliant sword fighting demonstration in a college square and a costume contest!

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Sword fight demonstration from Medieval Armoured Combat of Ireland in Fellows’ Square, Trinity College

I was encouraged to enter the costume contest and actually won third place for my John Adams costume. What do you think of the outfit? (We actually had to walk down an aisle and pose in front of a panel of judges and I imagined RuPaul there and calling out, ‘Category is: Revolutionary Realness’).

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My John Adams costume for Trinity HistoryCon

And what I loved in particular about the concept of HistoryCon was that it was free, fun and open to the public. We were told to structure our talks more like Ted Talks, so that the general public (and several people did just wander in on the day) could engage with the material and have something to take away. Academic researchers are often encouraged to do public engagement and to disseminate their research with the wider community, and that is built in to the whole ethos of this event. Breaking down those barriers between the academy and the general public, and hopefully sparking curiosity about the past and the various ways to study and interact with it, was the name of the game.

I, for one, had a brilliant time presenting on representations of John Adams in pop culture. I delivered my talk ‘Obnoxious and Disliked’: John Adams’ Legacy in Popular Media, from 1776 to Hamilton, dressed as Adams and I’m not sure when I’ll ever have the opportunity to do that again!

I learned a lot throughout the busy two days and made so many new nerdy, academic friends. So I’d like to thank the organizers at Trinity College for creating such a fun and accessible conference and for inviting us all to Dublin. Thank you! Live long and prosper.

‘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!