Category Archives: 19th century life

Sunday Review: Painting the Light by Sally Cabot Gunning

I was first drawn to this historical novel because it’s about an artist. As it turns out, the subject of painting plays less of a role in the story than I’d hoped, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

Ida Russell has been battered by life’s storms. Before the story opens, every member of her family of origin has died from drowning: her father and two brothers by accident, her mother by suicide. Before these tragedies, Ida was a promising painter and art student in Boston. However, lonely and weighed down by grief, she decides after an all-too-brief courtship to marry Ezra Pease, a sheep farmer from Martha’s Vineyard.

After the marriage, Ida discovers to her chagrin that Ezra is a lazy farmer, an unkind husband who alternates between inattention and disparagement, and a habitual gambler who takes part in nightly poker games in town. The charm he displayed during their courtship has vanished, along with her family property, which he sold as soon as he had the legal right as her husband to do so. The running of the household and many of the duties of the farm fall to Ida, leaving her no time to paint. Two years into their marriage, Ezra and Ida are barely on speaking terms.

Ezra and a friend named Mose open a salvage company, and the work occasionally takes them away from home—absences that Ida relishes—but that business doesn’t prosper any more than the farm does. Shortly after the novel begins, Ezra and Mose leave for a salvage job in Rhode Island. While they are away, a terrible storm hits, and their company boat catches fire and sinks. A ship named the Portland traveling to Rhode Island also sinks with great loss of life. A few days afterward, Ida is stunned to receive a letter from Ezra written just before he and Mose were about to board the ill-fated vessel. Although their bodies never wash ashore, they are presumed dead because only a small portion of those lost in the Portland are ever recovered. Although Ida retains little love for her husband, losing another person to drowning feels like an unnecessarily cruel trick of fate.

As Ida sets to work trying to make sense of her husband’s assets, she encounters Mose’s brother, Henry Barstow, a man she’s met before and liked. They team up to settle the estate and see if anything remains for either of them to inherit. Ida’s financial situation is dire. Ezra’s lies and deceptions—and the destruction of the salvage boat—have left her with nothing to live on but the grudging support of her husband’s aunt. Complicating matters, Ida finds herself more and more attracted to Henry, who is married but also in a foundering relationship.

Ida makes many discoveries through the course of the story—about her husband, about secret schemes, and about the island residents it takes her so long to come to know. Most importantly, she learns to rely on herself and to feel confidence in her own opinions rather than society’s dictates. 

Highly recommended.

Leave a comment

Filed under 19th century life, American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction

Sunday Review: Where the Light Enters by Sara Donati

This novel is the sequel to the 2015 novel The Gilded Hour, which I also enjoyed.

Where the Light Enters takes place in New York in 1884, and through it, the reader gets to glimpse both those who are comfortably well off and those who are struggling just to survive. As in the previous novel, the two main characters are Doctors Anna and Sophie Savard. Anna is a surgeon. Sophie is a double rarity—not only a female physician, but also a multiracial one—which causes her to experience double-pronged discrimination. 

Anna and Sophie are cousins, but because both were orphaned as children, they were raised together by an aunt and are as close as (or possibly closer than) sisters. The story opens at a particularly difficult time for Sophie; she is returning from Europe, where her husband went to be treated for tuberculosis—without success. Now, as a widow who has inherited a substantial estate, she must decide whether to return to her medical practice and how else to carry on with her life when all she wants to do is grieve the man she has loved since they were children.

In the previous book, the two doctors—and their midwife aunt—came under the scrutiny of Anthony Comstock because of his crusade against the propagation of knowledge about birth control. Comstock appears in this novel as well, falsely accusing one of the cousins of urging a patient to have “an illegal operation,” i.e. an abortion.

Anna is married to Detective-Sergeant Jack Mezzanotte, whose large Italian family plays an important role in both books. Shortly after their marriage, Anna and Jack take in three Italian immigrant orphans, but the Church objects to the children being raised by people who aren’t “good Catholics.” The fate of the three Russo children is a thread that continues into Where the Light Enters.

Jack’s work as a police detective is another thread that ties both books together. In the first novel, he and his partner Oscar try to solve a series of six grisly murders that were apparently intended to punish women for seeking an abortion. The investigation of those cases continues into the second novel and grows more urgent when new cases arise that appear to be related to the earlier murders.

For me, the characters are what make this book an unforgettable experience. I loved Anna, Jack, Sophie, and Rosa especially, but all of the main and secondary characters are vividly drawn. The author does an adequate job filling the reader in on the essentials from the earlier story, so it’s not necessary to read the two novels in sequence, but I recommend doing so.

Leave a comment

Filed under 19th century life, American history, Book Reviews, Historical fiction

Oneida: Perfectionism and Free Love

John_Humphrey_Noyes

For the next few months, I will be writing about various utopian communities that I have been researching as background for my next historical novel. The first one is the Oneida Community.

The founder of Oneida was John Humphrey Noyes, who lived from 1811 to 1886. In 1831, Noyes experienced a religious conversion at a revival meeting led by Charles Grandison Finney at the tail end of the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious fervor in the United States that lasted about forty years. Finney was one of the theologians of the period who believed in the doctrine of Christian perfectionism, the idea that believers could be free of sin after their conversion.

Noyes was heavily influenced by this doctrine. After his conversion, he wanted to attain sinlessness, but he was not sure how to achieve it. He began to attend seminary, first at Andover and then at Yale, but his academic studies did not provide the answer he sought. One night in 1834, after preaching a sermon whose theme was, “He that committeth sin is of the devil,” Noyes had a mystical experience as he lay awake in bed. He felt “a stream of eternal love” flow through him three times in succession, and after that, he believed that his heart was clean, his life was sinless, and that God lived within him.

Within two years following this epiphany, he had started a community of “Bible Communists” in Putney, Vermont. Members lived together, worked together, worshipped and studied together and eventually held all property in common. In his most controversial move, Noyes began to preach free love and his own unique doctrine of complex marriage. Each female adult member of the community was the wife of all the men, and each male adult member was the husband of all the women. The reason for this is that exclusive ties of monogamy were considered the source of jealousies and problems. In complex marriage, sexual relations were permissible among any consenting heterosexual partners as long as the men pulled out before orgasm to prevent pregnancy. The community practiced selective breeding, deciding as a group who would be allowed to have children together. As soon as children were able to walk, they were taken from their parents and raised by the community so they would not be corrupted by the worldly teachings under which their parents had been raised.

Needless to say, such practices were highly controversial in the mid-nineteenth century. Noyes was arrested for adultery. Jumping bail, he moved to Oneida, New York, and established a new community. There, the Oneida Community developed successful industries, including the manufacture of a particularly effective steel trap, silverware, and embroidered silks.

Despite their economic success, the community was regarded with suspicion and hostility by their neighbors because of complex marriage. In 1879, Oneida abandoned the practice at their founder’s recommendation. Noyes and a few followers moved to Canada. The remaining members also gave up their socialist institutions and reorganized their businesses as a joint stock company, which continues in operation today.

Leave a comment

Filed under 19th century life, Research

Research Photo Sunday

More photos from my trip to Conner Prairie, last summer.

IMG_0158

IMG_0160

IMG_0162

IMG_0163

6 Comments

Filed under 19th century life

Doing Distressing Research

Because of my current treatment plan (for breast cancer) and my resulting emotional fatigue, it’s been hard to get excited about working on the new novel. Another reason for my reluctance was the type of research I was doing.

The novel I’m planning to write is based on the true experiences of a woman who was taken captive during one of the most brutal Indian wars in U.S. history. To get a broader background, I decided to read a 400-page book on the beginning of the conflict. I have to say, it was one of the hardest reads I’ve done in a long time. The book went into excruciating detail about the violence committed during the conflict. Some of it was really barbaric.

It’s not like I’ve never done this sort of research before. As a textbook editor and writer, I have covered some really horrible periods of history in which humans have committed unspeakable horrors against each other. Immersing myself in such knowledge always depresses me. I remember one three-week period in which I had to write a chapter on Reconstruction. Having to spend all my working hours dealing with stories of lynchings and the other forms of terrorism inflicted on the recently freed slaves left me feeling so sad and heavy. I was never so glad to be finished with a chapter!

With that assignment, at least, I knew I’d be done after a relatively short time. In contrast, my novel will probably take me a couple of years from research to final revisions. As I read that book that described attack after attack, I began to wonder if I’m really up to dealing with this oppressive material—especially since I’m already dealing with other stressors.

Well, for the time being, I’ve decided to soldier through. I’m just going to have to alternate the upsetting reading with research about more pleasant things, such as fashion or native culture. Fortunately, my main character didn’t personally witness too many barbarities, so I can limit my exposure to that material should I need to. At least, that’s the plan for now.

16 Comments

Filed under 19th century life, Research

Sunday Check In

Last week I was adjusting to daily radiation treatments, so I never got around to writing my own or reading other people’s blog posts. This afternoon, I decided that I’m not going to be able to catch up reading other blogs, so I’ll just try to start fresh tomorrow.

One thing I did last summer was to go to an interactive history museum as early research for my next novel, which is set in a frontier area. I think I might make it a regular practice to post a few pictures from that every Sunday. And I’ll start today.

split_rail

barn

crockery

9 Comments

Filed under 19th century life, Research

19th Century Life: Visiting Cards

Yesterday, as I was making breakfast, I found myself thinking about the 19th century custom of leaving visiting cards. I’m not an expert, but as I understand the custom, when two people had a mutual acquaintance or perhaps met casually at a social function, the visiting card was a way to check out whether they might develop a relationship. The scenario went something like this:

Mrs. Hopewell called on the home of Mrs. Fotheringale and left a card with a servant.

If Mrs. Fotheringale was interested in pursuing the acquaintance, she would call on the home of Mrs. Hopewell and leave a card.

Then Mrs. Hopewell would know that if she called on Mrs. Fotheringale during visiting hours, she would be admitted into the house.

And Mrs. Fotheringale could call on Mrs. Hopewell.

Thus, a social acquaintance was established.

I see a contemporary parallel in blogging, don’t you? I stop by a new blog, and “like” a post. The blog owner might then come by here and “like” a post. I visit his blog again and leave a comment. He might return the favor. Then we decide to follow each other’s blogs.

As they say, the more things change, the more  they stay the same, n’est-ce pas?

9 Comments

Filed under 19th century life

19th Century Life: Literature of the early 1800s

One of the many reasons Betsy wanted to live in Europe was to take part in literary society. It’s difficult to imagine this now, but two hundred years ago, there really wasn’t such a thing as American literature.

In contrast, British literature was flourishing.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns had published his poems in 1786. Perhaps the best-known is “To a Mouse,” with this famous stanza:

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley.
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

It’s usually translated into English as follows:

But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

PG 1063Burns Naysmithcrop

Robert Burns, by Alexander Nasmyth, via Wikimedia Commons

In England in 1798, William Wordsworth had published his Lyrical Ballads, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which has these famous verses:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Gothic novels, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794) were just beginning to be published. This would become a popular genre in the following decades.

France and Germany, too, had a wealth of literature during that time period.

In contrast, what did the United States have in the way of accomplished writers? Well, during the late 1600s, a couple of Puritans named Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor had published beautiful devotional poems. Here is one of the most well-known of Taylor’s stanzas:

Make me, O Lord, thy spinning wheel complete.
Thy Holy Word my distaff make for me.
Make mine affections thy swift flyers neat
And make my soul thy holy spool to be.
My conversation make to be thy reel
And reel the yarn thereon spun of thy wheel.

Although their poetry is still admired today, I doubt that their works had much appeal for Betsy. She was decidedly worldly in her tastes and interests.

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis in 1809

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis (1809), via Wikimedia Commons

In 1802, Washington Irving began to publish the first of his satirical essays. I can easily imagine Betsy reading and enjoying those. However, there really was not much else for an American with literary interests to take pride in. Irving’s fiction would not appear for nearly two decades, and the works of Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, and Thoreau would not be published until mid-century.

And perhaps most astonishing to me of all, in my research I discovered that New York City probably had only one theatre!

Once she arrived in Europe, Betsy was able to attend salons where intellectual ideas were discussed and meet famous writers and artist. She even became close friends with a few well-known women writers. I’ll talk about a couple of these later this week.

4 Comments

Filed under 19th century life

19th Century Life: American vs. European Cities

One question that my early test readers of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte asked me was why Betsy wanted to live in Europe so badly. What did she have against her own country?

In our current time period, when the United States is the most powerful country in the world and U.S. culture is a dominant global force, it’s hard to realize what the country was like two hundred years ago. The difference between living in an American city and living in a European capital was like the difference we’d experience between living in small-town Wisconsin and Chicago.

Look at the two graphs below, which I created using statistics I found on the Internet.

european cities 1800

U.S. cities

To further drive home the difference, here is an image of Paris in the early 1800s:

Place des Victoires by Victor-Jean Nicolle

Place des Victoires by Victor-Jean Nicolle, via Wikimedia Commons

And here is the description I wrote in the novel of Washington, D.C., in 1804:

The next day, Aunt Nancy took Betsy and Jerome on a carriage tour. After Congress had decided in 1790 to build the nation’s capital in a newly created federal district, President Washington commissioned civil engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant to devise a plan. Originally from France, L’Enfant wanted to construct a city in the European style with important buildings set far apart to allow for public gardens and plazas. At the time of Betsy and Jerome’s visit, the wide spaces between public buildings were occupied by a mix of uncleared land, small plots with cabins, and recently built houses—giving the city of Washington the disconcerting appearance of a sparsely settled wilderness with a few grandiose structures set down at random. Stories abounded of Congressmen going squirrel hunting within the city or getting mired in a swamp as they drove to their quarters at night.

Betsy was clever, ambitious, and interested in art and literature. Is it any wonder she wanted to be in Europe where the action was?

6 Comments

Filed under 19th century life

19th Century Life: Madeira

One of the most popular wines during the early years of the United States was the wine called Madeira. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed it, and according to some reports, the wine was used to toast the Declaration of Independence. Madeira comes from the Portuguese island of the same name, which has a rich volcanic soil. The early United States had no vineyards, so all wines had to be imported, and Madeira has special qualities that allowed it to survive the long, precarious ocean crossing.

During the Age of Exploration, ships often stopped by Madeira to stock up before a long voyage, so the wine makers began to add spirits to the wine during the fermentation process to help preserve it. The other interesting feature about Madeira happened by accident. An unsold shipment of wine returned to the islands and the wine makers discovered that the heat and movement the wine had been subject to during its travels had actually changed its flavor. Manufacturers wanted to recreate this quality, so they began to heat the wine  and expose it to oxygen. The resulting wine’s ability to withstand the rigors of lengthy voyages made it perfect to ship to the American market.

There are many styles of Madeira, made from different grapes. Some are dry, and others are sweet. The most popular variety in Baltimore, Betsy’s hometown, was a variety called Rainwater. It was a pale, delicate variety usually made from Tinta Negra Mole grapes. There is an interesting story about how it got its name. According to legend, some casks were left out on the dock and became diluted when it rained. The unscrupulous dealers sold the wine anyway, and lo and behold, their American customers liked it.

Rainwater Madeira is difficult to find now as it has fallen out of fashion. I’d love to try it sometime, though, just to taste something that Betsy must have tasted.

Leave a comment

Filed under 19th century life