A Year of ‘Madeira Mondays’!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favorite posts from October 2019-October 2020

  1. The John Adams Miniseries (TV Show Review)

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

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

2. The Witch (Movie Review)

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

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

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

4. The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

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

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

5. The Patriot (Film Review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firstly, the stuff I liked!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, for stuff I didn’t like so much…

1 – So much Benedict Arnold stuff

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

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

2 – ‘Can I offer you some water?’

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

3 – The level of violence was unnecessary

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Grace and Frankie…and John Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Madeira Mondays: Yearly Wrap-Up

Three months ago, I started a series of blog posts all about early American history and historical fiction. I am currently researching and writing a novel set during the American Revolution and, as fiction writers out there will know, writing can be a bit of a lonely and solitary process. You spend a lot of time in your own brain and sometimes it’s nice to reach out and chat to actual people with similar interests! During the research process, you also stumble across all sorts of interesting historical tidbits that don’t really have a place in the book, but are fun to share and discuss!

So that is why I started this blog series. To connect with people who might also be interested in, for instance, the history of Christmas in America or how to make a whipped syllabub. Or people who love historical books and novels as much as I do and want to swap recommendations! I started it to meet those who already had an interest in 18th century America, but also to talk with people who just simply love learning and are curious to explore the past with me.

So thanks to everyone who has read any of these blog posts! I plan on continuing this series into the new year, so any recommendations would be most welcome. You can see a wrap-up below of the posts that I’ve done thus far, but if there’s a particular topic you’re curious about, do let me know! Would you like to see more recipes for early American food and drinks? More book and film reviews? I wrote part of my PhD on the musical Hamilton, so I’d be happy to talk about that! Or perhaps more about my experience as a re-enactor in Edinburgh? Anything to do with early American history or historical fiction, I’d be up for discussing.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading ‘Madeira Mondays’ thus far and have a wonderful start to 2020! x

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Me in costume at The Georgian House in Edinburgh. Photo by Melissa Stirling Reid.

Madeira Mondays 2019

Film and TV Reviews

The John Adams Miniseries Part I (This post goes into the reasons why I think you should watch HBO’s miniseries John Adams, based on the life of America’s 2nd president and his role in the American Revolution!)

The John Adams Miniseries Part II

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Photo from John Adams, featuring Laura Linney as Abigail Adams and Paul Giamatti as John Adams

The Witch Film Review (In this Halloween-themed post, I analyze the atmospheric horror film The Witch, which is about isolation, superstition and fear in colonial New England!)

The Patriot Film Review Part I (I discuss the good things in Roland Emmerich’s melodramatic but fun film about the Revolution in South Carolina.)

The Patriot Film Review Part II (I talk about the things which do not work in The Patriot! I have some issues with this movie…)

Book Reviews

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes Book Review (For this post, I revisited a childhood favorite book about a teenage spy in Revolutionary Boston! This book really withstood the test of time.)

Mistress by Chet’la Sebree (An analysis of a beautiful new poetry collection published this year and inspired by the life of Jefferson’s enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings. The collection was written by Chet’la Sebree, who was a Visiting Fellow the same year as me at Thomas Jefferson’s home: Monticello. This collection is perfect if you want to learn about this mysterious and fascinating woman from American history.)

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Recipes

Syllabub Recipe (Delicious recipe for a colonial era drink, basically like an alcoholic frappuccino!)

History

Christmas in a Georgian Townhouse (All about my experiences as a re-enactor in Scotland and how the Georgians celebrated Christmas.)

Christmas in Colonial America (A very brief history of how Christmas was celebrated in the colonies. Want to learn about the origins of Santa Claus? Or how many of our modern Christmas traditions came to be? This post is for you!)

Visits to Historic Sites or Events

A Visit to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, USA (My trip to the recently opened museum of the American Revolution and recommendations of what to see there if you visit!)

Trinity HistoryCon in Dublin, Ireland (A re-cap of an academic conference at Trinity College Dublin on the intersections of history and pop culture. I presented there on representations of John Adams in pop media!)

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Display of recreated 18th century objects you might find in a colonial shop, at The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia

Thanks for reading and see you next year! x

PS Why is it called ‘Madeira Mondays’?

Madeira is a fortified wine from Portugal and it was hugely popular with the American colonists. George Washington in particular really loved it, but it was also enjoyed by Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. AND it was the wine drunk by the Continental Congress to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Cheers!

 

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!

 

Madeira Mondays: The John Adams Miniseries (Part II)

Last week, I delved into my reasons (#1-3) why you should watch HBO’s John Adams. I touched on the acting, the cinematography and why I liked the somewhat gruesome depictions of small pox.

This week I’ve listed reasons #4-6 of why I think it’s worth a watch. I’ll talk about how they use primary sources and why now would be the perfect time to pour yourself a pint of cider (John Adams’ favorite), or a glass of Madeira, and watch this show.

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John (Paul Giamatti) and Abigail Adams (Laura Linney)

#4 The show incorporates historical documents in interesting ways

A lot of lines from John and Abigail’s letters to one another are woven into the show. As a side note: these letters are well worth a read and, in my opinion, a lot more vivid, engaging and romantic than some fiction that I have read, simply because John and Abigail were both such excellent writers living through such interesting and turbulent times! It’s a shame for them that they had to spend so much time apart, but it’s a good thing for us because we have all these letters! And quotes from their letters are woven into the dialogue in this show in fairly naturalistic ways.

One of my favorite quotes that they use comes from an exasperated letter John sent to Abigail from Philadelphia on October 9, 1774. He bemoans the slow moving Continental Congress, which he thinks is all talk and no action. He writes:

‘I believe if it was moved and seconded that We should come to a Resolution that Three and two make five We should be entertained with Logick and Rhetorick Law, History, Politicks and Mathematicks, concerning the subject for two whole Days, and then We should pass the Resolution in the Affirmative.’

It’s a funny quote (Adams was funny) and I’m glad they figured out a fun way to incorporate it into the show about his life. In John Adams, the character of John says something very similar when he is lamenting Congress’ inaction at a dinner one evening. I was delighted to see that they’d managed to weave in lots of other lines as well from their letters. It gives you a clearer sense of their real personalities, their sense of humor, and the way people spoke back then.

#5 It showcases a different kind of leading man

I enjoy the fact that neither Adams (nor Paul Giamatti) is classically attractive or charming in an obvious way. Giamatti’s Adams is short, grumpy, belligerent, vain, but also principled, decent, honest and loving. Most big budget film and television shows, not just about the Revolution but more generally, feature much more conventionally attractive leads, both in temperament and in appearance, and I personally enjoyed seeing this harsh, grumpy little man as our main character. There’s something that feels fresh about it.

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John Adams being grumpy as he defends the British soldiers accused of itentionally murdering civilians during the Boston Massacre. Adams really did this in life. He believed everyone should get a fair trial and successfully got them acquitted. When reflecting on his life, he considered it ‘one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.’

And this series is about Abigail almost as much as John, which is also really cool to see and their relationship (in real life and in this series) is/was incredibly loving and supportive and dynamic and endlessly interesting to learn about.

Also we see that while John was away practicing politics, Abigail was living out the consequences of those political decisions, as she tries to keep her family safe and alive throughout the war – fighting off diseases, dealing with food shortages. The real Abigail was deeply invested and informed about politics, but she often had to focus on her family. She wrote to John on Sep 8, 1775:

‘As to politicks I know nothing about them. The distresses of my own family are so great that I have not thought about them.’

#6 It conveys the chaos and uncertainty of this time period

One of the things that truly makes me giggle when I hear people talking about the founders in glowing and overly idealized ways is that these dudes were questioning themselves at every turn and were making it all up as they went along. Declaring Independence (and the war that followed) was chaotic, fraught, messy and the outcome was uncertain. The real Adams was full of self-doubt. He wrote in his diary in 1774, as war loomed:

‘We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, education, in travel, fortune – in everything. I feel unutterable anxiety.’

‘Unutterable anxiety’! That quote gives me a lot of hope when I think about the turbulent political times we’re in now (as I write this, we’re in the middle of an impeachment inquiry of President Trump). There has always been animosity and upheaval in American politics and these fellows, the founders, were just doing the best that they could. We never have individuals ‘fit for the times’. We just have people who do the best they can. But America’s founders were full of questions, worries and self-doubt – as smart people usually are. I love how the show captures this and even includes Adams saying a very similar line to the one I quoted above, about not feeling adequate enough for what this historical moment requires.

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Adams and some of his fellow Continental Congress members walking down the street in Philadelphia

And it’s probably worth mentioning here that one of the reasons I think this time period is so fascinating to learn about is that these are the men who wrote the U.S constitution, who created the political system that Americans are still living under right now. In this way, their lives touch our own every day.

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Like I said above, I could go on about the series and Adams himself, but I think I’ll leave it there for now! I hope that you will consider giving the series a try if you’re looking for a unique and well-acted piece of historical fiction, or a sort of companion piece to Hamilton.

Have you see the John Adams miniseries? Or do you have another favorite film or TV show about this period or about the American Revolution?

If you want to hear more about any of this and happen to live in Dublin, do come along to my talk at Trinity College in November. It’s an academic conference, but geared towards the public and all the presentations will be very accessible. My presentation is titled: ‘Obnoxious and Disliked’: John Adams’ Legacy in Popular Media, from 1776 to Hamilton.

Til then I remain your humble and obedient servant,

C. Brown

‘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 each week and any questions or suggestions feel free to get in touch.

Madeira Mondays: The John Adams Miniseries

Last week, for my first Madeira Mondays post, I reread a childhood favorite book set during the American Revolution: Johnny Tremain. For this week’s post, I thought I’d recommend a favorite TV series. This is the show that I consistently recommend to friends who enjoyed Hamilton: An American Musical and are looking for another story about this time period. And I actually think that John Adams pairs really well with Hamilton because these two historical men (John Adams and Alexander Hamilton) did not get along in real life. So the John Adams series is a nice counter-point to Hamilton. It’s the ‘other side’ of the story, if you will. In Hamilton, John Adams is lampooned as the villain (he doesn’t even appear onstage at all!), but in this show, Alexander Hamilton is the antagonist (which kind of confirms the refrain of Hamilton’s last song, right? It’s all about ‘who tells your story’).

Now I could go on about the historical figure of John Adams (and I will in future posts!) because his life is a particular interest of mine. Part of my PhD research was actually looking at different representations of Adams in popular culture and I’ll be delivering a talk all about this at Trinity College Dublin’s HistoryCon in November this year!

But this post is only going to focus on why I think John Adams (the HBO miniseries) is worth a watch. Do stay tuned for more Adams related content in the future though, including discussions of the musical 1776 (another recommendation if you like Hamilton!), of the Pulitzer Prize-winning David McCullough biography of Adams that this miniseries series is based on, and more about Adams’ badass wife, Abigail (I have already started a document with a bullet point list titled ‘Why Abigail Adams was amazing’). I had so much to say about this miniseries alone that I even had to split this up into TWO posts, so that gives you an indication of how much I love talking about John Adams and his life and times.

john adams

John Adams (Paul Giamatti) looking characteristically quizzical and cranky.

The John Adams miniseries was released by HBO in 2008 and directed by Tom Hooper. It follows the life of Adams from 1770 (the time of the Boston Massacre) through his fight for independence from Great Britain, his rocky presidential term (from 1797-1801), and his death in 1826. (Fun Fact: Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence!). The series stars Paul Giamatti as Adams, Laura Linney as Abigail Adams and even a small appearance by the guy that everyone seems to be obsessed with at the minute: Andrew Scott, the ‘Hot Priest’ on Fleabag. He’s not a ‘hot priest’ in this one, but he’s a hot soldier. Have I convinced you to watch this series yet?

But aside from the brilliant cast, here are some reasons why John Adams is worth watching!

#1 The acting is excellent throughout

As an actor myself, I have to say that one of my favorite scenes in any film ever happens in this show. It is the moment when John Adams, who is the Ambassador for the (newly free) United States of America and has to pay a visit to King George III. Imagine the awkwardness of that visit!! Actually, you do not have to imagine because it’s all in Paul Giamatti’s expressive face as he meets King George (Tom Hollander). In this magnificent scene, Adams is humble yet proud, intimidated but self-assured. I love the creative choice not to have any score in the background of the scene. It’s just silence. It’s just awkward. It’s just magnificent. You can watch it here.

But there are so many moments of excellent acting throughout, particularly of the nonverbal kind. The 18th century was a time when people were often less direct with their speech than we are nowadays, so a lot (I would imagine) of communication probably was nonverbal. And it is truly heartbreaking every time that John Adams has to leave his farm in Massachusetts to go and serve in the Continental Congress, or overseas in Versailles to beg the French for money to help the American War of Independence, and we have to see his wife Abigail (Laura Linney) react to the prospect of being left alone. Again. She’s stern, stalwart, someone who is used to bearing both physical and emotional discomfort (as many early New England women were), yet she’s just going to crack on with stuff and continue managing her farm. Laura Linney is great in this.

Laura Linney Adams

Abigail Adams (Laura Linney) looks after her children while Adams is in Philadelphia.

As another example: take a look at the solemnity on the faces of the Continental Congress, who just pledged their ‘lives, fortunes and our sacred honor’ to independence and who will surely be executed if the rebellion does not succeed. It’s a powerful and aptly solemn moment. And incredibly well acted.

#2 The series is kind of gross

This is not a series that shies away from the uncomfortable physical realities of life in the 18th century. And I’m not just talking about how everyone in this show has bad teeth and looks so haggard and sweaty all the time.

I’m talking about the unflinching depiction of small pox – we see diseased pustules and children covered in boils. It’s upsetting, yes, but it was a part of life. A lack of dirt and disease is usually one of the main criticisms that I have of period dramas, and I never like that everyone in them always looks so healthy and recently showered (I’m thinking especially of shows like Poldark, which I like for other reasons, but everyone just looks way too clean). I tend to prefer historical dramas that are either gritty and ‘realistic’, like this one, or hyper stylized and exaggerated (i.e. The Favorite). I think ones in the middle often fall flat, but that’s perhaps a post for another time!

One of the most upsetting scenes in John Adams actually is in the first episode when they show a man being tarred and feathered. The man (a British customs official) is stripped naked and paraded around town on a wooden beam. This, again, is tough to watch but stuff like that did happen. I think it’s included in the miniseries in part to illustrate the barbarism that both rebels and loyalists resorted to during this time and it works well. Jill Lepore has also suggested in this review in The New Yorker that this scene was included to help ‘explain the future President’s enduring fear of democracy.’ Adams didn’t hold a high view of human nature and believed in strong government, so perhaps the filmmakers were trying to give evidence of why he felt this way by having Adams look on in horror at the gruesome sight.

#3 It’s well shot

This is a show that makes great use of tilted, ‘Dutch’ camera angles. It’s a very interesting choice, given the aesthetic preference of this time period for symmetry. A neat, symmetrical, Wes Anderson style of shooting and composition would be more in keeping with the Georgian taste, but I think all of these weird angles are meant to visually convey that this isn’t the pretty, staid historical fiction that you might be used to.

Adams Dutch Angle

These are the tilted camera angles that I’m talking about. In this scene John Adams is ill and light-headed from just being bled by a physician, so the angle works well to illustrate his disorientation.

I think director Tom Hooper sometimes goes overboard with these angles, but often they work really well, especially when used to highlight moments when Adams feels unstable, unsure and out of his depth. Which is a lot of the time! One example of this is after the Declaration is signed, and he writes home to Abigail of what they have just done. He says in the voice over that ‘the break is made’ and then it cuts to Adams looking out the window, framed in this odd, tilted angle, so it looks like he’s on a ship that is pitching in the current. He’s unsettled. Unsure. Wholly aware of the ‘toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this declaration’.

But then, when he says to her that ‘through all the gloom’ he can ‘see the rays of ravishing light and glory’ (these are all real quotes from him, by the way), the angle changes and is no longer titled. He is in the middle of the frame, still standing in a darkened room, but between two bright windows. No weird, unsettling angle. Just a man looking outwards at a bright future, symbolized by the open windows before him. You can see this sequence at around 6 minutes into this clip. This is smart visual storytelling. And it’s continued throughout the show.

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I’ll be posting Part II next Monday, where I’ll talk a bit more about how the show uses historical sources and why I think now is the perfect time to re-watch it (or watch it for the first time!). But I’ll leave it there for the time being and see you next Monday.

Your humble and obedient servant,

C. Brown

‘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. You can follow this blog for posts every week and any questions or suggestions feel free to get in touch.