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: 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: The Witch

One of the trickiest things to capture, when writing fiction set in early America, is the fervent religiosity of that time. God was so much a part of people’s lives and everyday thoughts in ways that many of us (certainly me!) have difficulty even conceptualizing, let alone capturing in fiction. I’m not religious at all. Christianity has never been a part of my life in any overt way. Yet, back in the 17th century, Christianity created a system of beliefs that touched every aspect of life – your conduct, your marriage, your sense of right and wrong. It was something that people just believed in, the way that we now believe in scientific laws like gravity. (Of course, not everyone in early America was Christian, or the same type of Christian. Religions varied regionally and culturally etc. I’m thinking here mostly about the Puritan settlers in early New England).

So how do you capture, in modern books and film, the importance of Christianity and Christian belief back then? I think a lot of historical fiction writers just DON’T address it that much in their fiction, which is fine, but it is a major omission. And I like how sometimes novels and films, instead of avoiding or skirting around the religiousness of these historical people, dive headfirst into it, making faith, doubt and religious belief a major topic of the work itself. And no film does that better, in my opinion, than Robert Eggers’ The Witch: A New England Folktale!

Set in Puritan New England, this is a ‘horror’ film (more on that below) about a family that is banished from the village and has to make their way on their own in the wilderness. Now there are lots of things to appreciate about The Witch – from the 17th century language the characters speak (top tip: if you’re struggling at all to understand the dialogue, throw on the subtitles and that might help), to the creepy use of sound (notice how it cuts out at key moments and creates moments of eerie absence), to the cold color scheme of greys, blues and milky whites. All of these things are great.

But what struck me as I was re-watching this ‘New England Folktale’ recently – on a train travelling up the New England countryside from Philadelphia to Boston, no less – was that while ostensibly it is an evil witch in the woods who threatens this family throughout the film (a monster who, you could argue, does or does not exist literally), it’s really more about the very real physical and spiritual threats that faced settlers in early New England.

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The family sits down for a prayer before dinner

Isolation is a threat for the family – the first scene shows the village community literally shutting the village gates on them. Then, as the family leaves the village, their cart is slowly swallowed up by the dark trees. Communities provided joint resources, protection and safety, and also opportunities for companionship. Community kept you alive and to be cut off from it would have been horrifying.

But the woods themselves are also the threat in this film, they are the monster, which is made clear from the cinematography. It’s shot in a way which makes the woods look slightly taller and narrower. Looming. (Mark Kermode explains more about the filming here). But the threat of the woods is also clear from the dialogue. ‘We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us,’ the father, William (Ralph Ineson), tells the son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), when their crop of corn fails and they have to go out in search of animals in the woods, to eat or to trade the fur. Which brings me to yet another threat that the family is facing and that is the threat of starvation. Their crops have all died – the husks of the blackened corn are strung around the house to remind the viewer of this and to add a sense of withered, eeriness to the house – and the increasing tensions in the family are certainly due in part to their lack of food.

But there are other threats too that are less material. The son is hitting puberty and having sexual urges – finding himself gazing at his sister’s chest (the only young woman around for miles) – and the daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is fearful that she is wicked and sinful, that she has been ‘idle of (her) work’ and ‘disobedient of (her) parents’. She has played on the Sabbath and ‘broken every one of thy commandments in thought.’ ‘I know I deserve all misery and shame in this life and everlasting Hellfire,’ she confesses to God at the beginning of the film.

Thomasin’s confession felt so reflective to me of the real young girls who lived at this time and place, and who had a constant fear of being wicked, sinful and idle pumped into them. They had few outlets for their imagination other than to conjure up devils and spirits in their heads. There weren’t any entertaining fun or silly books to read, few avenues for personal expression. Thomasin is a threat to herself – her desire to play, her disobedience, and her friction with her parents condemns her to ‘Hellfire.’

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Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) in prayer

All of these threats come together in a sort of witches brew of complexity which feels both very reminiscent of the time, but also familiar to a modern viewer in terms of the tensions and rivalries within the family: the father’s feeling of guilt at not being able to provide for his family, Caleb’s excitement and fear over his own budding sexuality, the strained relationship between husband and wife after the loss of a child. And throughout all of this they are trying to make sense of their sorrows and feelings through their relationship with God (Why is God punishing them? Has he deserted them? Is he testing them?).

The Witch is a ‘horror’ film in the sense that it is frightening and concerned with fears, but, as someone who doesn’t usually enjoy horror films, I would say to check it out even if you don’t like horror films generally. There are few jump scares, little to no body horror, and I did not find it particularly disturbing. It’s not about a big scary monster. It’s about all of those internal and external threats I described. So I’d recommend it even if you don’t love horror films but want to see something eerie and atmospheric about the pain and difficulty of early New England life. And also if you want to see the single creepiest goat that you will ever see. Black Phillip still haunts my dreams. If you’ve seen this film, you will know what I’m talking about!

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Black Phillip, the goat, smiling his creepy smile.

 

And if you liked The Witch, or just want more seasonal/witchy Halloween reading, here are some recommendations.

Fiction:

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (novel set in late 17th century New England)

A Break with Charity by Ann Rinaldi (novel of the Salem Witch Trials)

– ‘Young Goodman Brown’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne (short story set in Salem about faith and sin)

The Crucible by Arthur Miller (the classic play about the Salem Witch Trials, kind of an obvious recommendation, but I had to include it!)

Non-Fiction:

A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials by Frances Hill (non-fiction,  a very engrossing historical account)

– The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to Present by Ronald Hutton

Happy Halloween!

‘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.