Tag Archives: 19th century

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.

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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.

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More research photographs

I usually do this on Sunday, but I had something else to post yesterday. (Another review of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. Yeah.)

These are more of the research photos I took last summer. I’m not sure I’m actually going to need these in my next novel, but it was too fascinating not to photograph.

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Outlining Historical Fiction

It feels as though I’ve been very slow at starting the new novel, mostly because of the distraction of cancer treatment. This week, however, I finally felt like I was getting somewhere. That’s because I stopped just reading about the historical background for the book. I actually started on the outline.

My method is pretty direct. I start by listing chronologically the main events from the life of the woman I’m writing about—at least, the ones that pertain to the period of the novel. Unlike The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, which covered a time span of more than 30 years, the next book will cover only a few months. Once I have my list of actual historical events, I’ll start adding fictional episodes as needed: events that fill in the gaps of motivation and character development. The third and final step will be to sort those roughly into chapters.

I still have a lot of reading and research to do yet, including a trip this summer to the area where the action of the novel took place. But as a writer, I’m happiest when I’m juggling research and more creative activities.

I also received some really terrific news today. I heard from a state historical society that they have three photographs of the interior of my main character’s house (taken before the attacking Indians burned it). And I can purchase copies. That’s going to be an invaluable help to me as I write.

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Research Photo Sunday

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

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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.

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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.

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Betsy’s Circle: John Carroll

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John Carroll by Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although Betsy Bonaparte’s family was Presbyterian, she had a Catholic wedding because Catholicism was the religion of the Bonapartes. The man who married Jerome and Betsy was none other than the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States.

John Carroll was born in 1735 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He came from a prominent family and was a cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of Maryland’s four signers of the Declaration of Independence. Because there were no Catholic schools in the United States at the time, John Carroll was educated in France and Belgium. He was ordained as a Jesuit priest in either 1767 or 1769. A few years later, in 1773, the pope issued a decree suppressing the Jesuit Order, largely for political reasons. Carroll traveled to England and then returned to Baltimore the following year.

After the American Revolution, Carroll became a leader of U.S. Catholics. In 1789, the Vatican appointed him the bishop of the diocese of Baltimore, which at the time included the entire United States. Carroll was consecrated the following year.

Bishop Carroll oversaw the construction of the first Catholic Cathedral in the United States, which was the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore. He was instrumental in the founding of Georgetown University and the establishment of St. Mary’s College and Seminary. Liturgically, he was ahead of his time in promoting the reading of the liturgy (the formal church service) in English rather than Latin. On the other hand, he was a slave owner and only toward the end of his life did he come to advocate the gradual freeing of slaves.

In 1808, Carroll became an archbishop with jurisdiction over four other bishops in the United States. He died in Baltimore in 1815.

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Book Review: The Hare with the Amber Eyes

The book I’m reviewing today is unusual: part history, part genealogy. The Hare with the Amber Eyes traces a collection of netsuke through several generations of a family.

But first things first. What are netsuke? A netsuke is a miniature Japanese sculpture that was used as a sliding bead on the string of a container such as a pouch or box. They were intricately carved from wood or ivory into a variety of forms: fruit, animals, tiny human figures.

Edmund de Waal, a British ceramic artist, inherited this collection of 264 netsuke from an uncle who was living in Japan. De Waal grew fascinated with the tiny, beautiful little objects and spent over a year tracking their history within his family. The collection was amassed by Charles Ephrussi, one of the sons of a wealthy Jewish banking family that originated in Odessa but had migrated to Paris and Vienna. Charles lived in Paris, where he was known as an art connoisseur during the period of early Impression and the second empire. He never married or had children, so his collection was passed on to a nephew who lived in Vienna.

For me, the Vienna section of the book was the most interesting: the story of a socially prominent and fabulously wealthy Jewish family during the days leading up to the German takeover of Austria in the late 1930s. It shed a new perspective on a well-known story. The book also documents what happened to the family during World War II and how the netsuke collection miraculously remained in the family’s possession even as the Nazis confiscated everything else of value they owned.

I recommend the book strongly to lovers of both political and social history. It was beautifully written and a fascinating read.

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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?

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