Madeira Mondays: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Book Review)

It is officially autumn, which means time to crack out the ghost stories and gothic tales (For a brilliant ghost story anthology, by the way, I’d recommend Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh!). Last week I decided that I’d check out Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for the first time and, let me tell you, this story was a delight and a surprise.

The Headless Horseman, as you probably know, is the tale of a superstitious schoolteacher called Ichabod Crane who moves into a village in rural late 18th century New York (right after the Revolutionary War). It’s a dreamy place and, when people visit, the ‘witching influence of the air’ makes them ‘begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions’. One of the apparitions that is known to haunt the town is the spirit of a Hessian soldier who lost his head to a cannon ball in a battle during the Revolution and rides out nightly looking for it. But who, or what, is the headless horseman? And what are the chances that Ichabod might have a run in with him, before this story is done?

Legend of Sleepy Hollow U.S Postage Stamp, from October 1974. Image accessed via Wikipedia

I knew a little bit about Sleepy Hollow before reading it, but what I was so surprised by was the lighthearted tone of it. I expected it to be quite serious and gothic, but I’d mostly call it a playful and affectionate satire of the New York Dutch community that Irving was raised around. In fact, by the time he wrote Sleepy Hollow, Irving, who grew up in New York, had already written A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker.‘Diedrich Knickerbocker’ (amazing name!) was a character that Irving created – a crusty old Dutch-American historian. Writing under the name of Knickerbocker, Irving’s A History of New York, lightly satirized self-important local histories and politics (which, you could say also applies to Sleepy Hollow!). It also chronicled Dutch-American traditions, including those surrounding Christmas. I talk about this in my blog post about the history of Christmas in America, but lots of our modern Christmas traditions come from the Dutch. Irving’s A History of New York is significant because it captures some of the Dutch traditions that would later become Christmas staples (hanging stockings by the fire, for instance, is a Dutch thing!).

Diedrich Knickerbocker, as a character, appears here in Sleepy Hollow too, in the framing story. The entire tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman is presented as something that Knickerbocker overheard. It’s a fun and quite modern (or even post-modern?) device to have a humorous fake persona like this. Irving (the cheeky fellow!) even tried to stoke controversy and interest in his work by putting ‘missing persons’ ads in local newspapers – looking for Diedrich Knickerbocker!! People really believed that Knickerbocker existed and even offered a reward for his return. This kind of play with authorial personas and invented ‘found’ histories actually makes me think of something like His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, a novel which came out a few years ago and tells a story using fictional historical documents. (Burnet told me in an interview once that many people read the novel and thought it was real!)

In any case, this is a very playful way to create a story – such an unexpected delight. Another delightful aspect was all the autumnal descriptions in Sleepy Hollow:

As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn. On all sides he beheld vast stores of apples; some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees; some gathered into baskets and barrels for market; others heaped up in rich piles for the cider press.

Doesn’t that description just make you smell and feel the sights of autumn? There are ‘yellow pumpkins’ lying around and ‘turning their fair round bellies to the sun’. You can also find plenty of scrumptious descriptions of autumnal treats (the New York Dutch were known for their desserts) including ‘the doughy doughnut’, ‘apple pies, and peach pies, and pumpkin pies’ and ‘delectable dishes of preserved plums’. Irving is clearly a man after my own heart – I can never get enough descriptions of food in books.

So I’d definitely recommend Sleepy Hollow for a very fast and pleasant autumn read. It’s a short story, not a novel, so you could easily blaze through it in one sitting. It’s available online through Project Gutenberg, free and easy to access! I printed it off and read it with a cup of tea – which I’d highly recommend.

I hope that you’re having a nice start to the season and let me know what you think of Sleepy Hollow. Have you read it before? Does it seem like your type of thing? Have you seen any of the adaptations of it? I’m considering watching the Tim Burton version now – let me know what you think of that film, if you’ve seen it!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane’ by John Quidor (1858).

‘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: 18th century fashion on RuPaul’s Drag Race

Every Saturday morning, I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.

I look forward to it all week and the campiness, silliness and joy that the show brings has really given me a lot of happiness during this difficult time. My partner will attest to this, but I get very into the show as I am watching it – usually curled up with a blanket and a cup of coffee – cheering on my favorite queens as they ‘lip sync for their lives’. These performers can sing, dance, act, design clothing, write song lyrics etc. etc. And one of my favorite aspects of the show is seeing all the clothes! So imagine my happiness when one of my favorite queens, Gigi Goode, rocked not one but TWO 18th century inspired outfits this season!

In this post, I wanted to take a closer look at these outfits and reflect a bit on how Gigi’s fashion interprets the 18th century for a modern drag/theatrical context. (Also I just want to talk about how cool these outfits are!!)

For those who haven’t seen it, RuPaul’s Drag Race is an American TV show where drag queens vie for the title of ‘America’s Next Drag Superstar’. The contestants have to compete in a series of challenges including singing challenges, acting challenges, fashion and design challenges etc. It’s at once a parody of other reality TV shows (e.g Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model), or at least that’s how I’ve always read it, AND very much its own thing.

Now drag as an art form has a rich history and while it’s something that I’m interested in, I don’t pretend to have a vast knowledge of modern drag culture (I did take a class during my undergrad degree which was mostly about drag and gender on the Renaissance stage though, so if you want to talk drag in SHAKESPEARE’S day, I can do that!). But Drag Race combines lots of elements I love: theatricality, humor, sly satire, etc. It’s deeply fun while at the same time deeply subversive. And it often references pop culture and occasionally history, which brings me back to Gigi’s outfits!

Gigi is known as a ‘look queen’ which means her strengths lie primarily in her fashion choices (although she is a very multifaceted performer, as we’ve seen throughout the season). I knew from the moment that she appeared on the show in a chic pirate outfit, complete with tricorne hat, that I was going to enjoy her theatrical style.

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Gigi reprises her pirate outfit on last week’s episode

Gigi’s outfits always have a sense of drama and story about them. In fact, her mother is a costume designer and they often collaborate on Gigi’s looks. Gigi’s inspiration comes not only from the fashion world but from elsewhere too, as she discusses in this Vulture interview:

I like to think that my drag is inspired by things that aren’t necessarily in the world of fashion. I’m really heavily inspired by intangible women, cartoon women like Daphne from Scooby Doo, who I just did a look on. Things like careers, and household objects, anything can inspire me.

And apparently the Revolutionary era provided one of those inspirations. In Season 12’s Episode 9, ‘Choices 2020’, on the runway Gigi strutted out dressed like an 18th century redcoat soldier. In her voiceover, she says: ‘I’m giving you head-to-toe Quaker Oat’s fantasy’ which made me chuckle (she’s referencing, I presume, the label of this brand of oatmeal). ‘My hair is period, historically accurate,’ she adds. ‘I’ve got a red velvet coat. Bitch, I am it.’ The judges made their quips. The fabulous Rachel Bloom, guest judge for that week, said: ‘Talk about a John Hancock. Or lack thereof.’ ‘She’s crossdressing the Delaware,’ Ru remarked.

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Gigi in Season 12, Episode 9: ‘Choices 2020’

Bloom also wondered, during her critique at the end of the show, if Gigi was dressed as an American officer or as a redcoat. ‘Maybe you’re Benedict Arnold,’ she mused, referencing the infamous American officer who defected to the British.

These are the sorts of outfits that Gigi’s look is alluding to, and I’m guessing you can see the resemblance! (The fellow on the left is not in military regalia, whereas the guy on the right – British General Burgoyne – is. But you get the overall look!)

I enjoyed so many things about Gigi’s outfit, but in particular the enormous white feather sticking out of the tricorne hat. In general, I think it was quite cool that Gigi designed the outfit based on 18th century men‘s fashion, not women’s, because this was a time period when much more flamboyant, colorful and ornate outfits were the norm for men, as opposed to now, when the black and white suit still reigns supreme. Why can’t we bring back looks like these for men’s fashion, I ask?

I also liked the little nods to period details in Gigi’s look, such as the ribbons tying up her stockings (that’s really how people kept their stockings up) and, of course, the white wig. Men at this time would have often worn wigs and, as Gigi notes, this one perfectly suits the period style. I also liked the enormous red bow tying back the wig. An 18th century gentleman probably wouldn’t have worn an enormous red bow like that, but rather a simple black ribbon tying back his wig, but it all contributes to the sense of heightened theatricality (an 18th century gentleman wouldn’t have worn black stiletto boots either!).

Seeing Gigi’s outfit also made me think of the time that I crossdressed to give an academic presentation at Trinity College Dublin last year, on representations of John Adams in popular media.

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My ‘John Adams’ outfit last autumn for Trinity College’s HistoryCon 2019

Anyways, I tip my three-cornered hat to Gigi, for making this history nerd’s day, and if my historical fiction ever gets adapted into film, I think that Gigi should play everyone.

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Any other fans of Drag Race out there remember this outfit? Which has been your favorite outfit (or favorite Queen?) of the season? Who are you rooting for in the finale? (I think it’s obvious who I’m rooting for!)

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: 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.

*

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: A Visit to the Museum of the American Revolution

I have wanted to visit the Museum of the American Revolution ever since I saw this CBS special about it. The museum opened very recently (2017) and last month, during my first ever visit to Philadelphia, I finally managed to stop in and see it for myself!

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It’s an enormous undertaking, trying to present the entire Revolutionary War (plus its lead up and its aftermath) to visitors. Some of those visitors (like myself) might know a fair amount about this period already, but some might be learning about it for the first time. From the look of it during my visit, it seems to be a popular place to take school groups, but it’s also right by Independence Hall and all the other major Revolutionary War sites in Philly so I imagine it attracts all sorts of tourists and visitors, both local and international. Overall I think the museum does a really great job of presenting the war from various different perspectives (political, racial, geographical, etc.) and conveying that this was a complex conflict and not matter of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. I actually heard one of the tour guides saying to a group of what looked like eight or nine-year-old school kids, ‘Now what did I say at the beginning of the tour? The Revolution was nuanced.’ Even using the word nuanced with kids of that age made me smile and made it clear just how committed the museum was to trying to tell a multifaceted a story of the Revolution.

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Of course the Revolutionary War was experienced differently by everyone who was alive during that time, but I think they did a relatively good job of exploring some underrepresented perspectives that I certainly wasn’t taught at school: the dilemmas of the people of the Iroquois nations deciding which side of the conflict to align themselves with, for instance. There is also some exploration of how many enslaved men ran away to join the British army in exchange for their freedom.

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Dramatic display inside the museum about the people of the Oneida nation deciding who to ally themselves with

Overall it is a very battle centered museum – the rooms are basically arranged to explore chronologically the different military campaigns. Since I’m more interested in social history (a fancy way of saying ‘how people lived’) and day to day life for women at home during this period, it didn’t appeal to me as much. But I also recognize that those are my particular interests. The Revolutionary war was a war, after all, so I imagine many people are primarily curious about the different battles and military engagements. It’s just not my cup of tea.

That being said, there was still lots for me to see and enjoy there. Here are a couple of things that stood out to me as particular favorites from my visit.

Phillis Wheatley book: They had a signed first edition of the first published book of poetry written by an African American woman, Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley is a fascinating historical figure in American history and literature (a blog post about her is forthcoming!). She was born in West Africa, but forced into slavery as a child and transported to North America. She learned to read and write from the Boston family she served and ended up becoming a famous, celebrated poet in her day.

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Phillis Wheatley’s book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773

George III statue fragments: The book that I’m working on is set in colonial New York, so it was really cool to see two original fragments of the statue of King George III that was pulled down in NYC on July 9, 1776. I also learned that based on the fragments, it’s been concluded that the statue featured George III in a Roman-style toga, which I had not known before and actually impacted a scene in my book! (Fun fact: Most of the lead from the statue was melted down into musket balls by the Continental army during the war).

Toy broom and toy platter: I liked seeing the itty-bitty toys excavated from British Revolutionary Campsites around New York City, reminders that the children of British soldiers were going around with the army in North America. I’ve never seen little pewter toys like this before and it was a charming sight.

‘Women’s Property and War’ display: Something that a lot of people don’t know is that after the Revolution, there were ‘confiscation’ laws passed and the new government started seizing the property of those who had remained loyal to the King. A lot of my PhD was looking at the experiences of women in South Carolina who suffered during and after the war because of their husbands’ politics and who lost their property due to these laws. This display featured furniture pieces similar to the furniture that was confiscated from the Drinker family (Philadelphia Quakers who tried to remain neutral during the war). I’ve read Elizabeth Drinker’s diary, and obviously have a lot of personal interest in this topic, so I was happy to see this particular display, although I would have been happy with even more about it.

Tea: I’m a big fan of incorporating multisensory displays at museums and there was a box where you could smell one of the varieties of tea that was thrown into the Boston Harbor during the tea party. (It was black and green tea thrown overboard).

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The mirrors at the end: When you’re leaving the exhibition there’s a big mirror and it says ‘Meet the future of the American Revolution’ at the top. It’s a very sweet visual reminder of our connection with the past and I really like the idea of school kids peering up at themselves and seeing themselves as part of this story. (Did I tear up a bit? Yes. Yes I did).

So overall it was absolutely worth a visit and if you’re in Philly you could quite easily tie it in with a visit to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. You’ll leave with a really clear sense of what led to the Revolutionary War, as well as the key moments and battles. There’s also a rotating exhibition on the ground floor, so do have a look at what is on there when you visit.

Thanks for reading and I hope that it’s helpful for anyone considering a visit! Museums like this always make me think of the tremendous challenge of communicating such a sprawling conflict to people and this museum did a good job. And let me know, if you’ve been already, what you thought of the Museum of the American Revolution – I’d be very curious.

See you next Monday!

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