Melodramatic phrases comfort the soul

I saw someone on Tumblr talking about John Wilkes Booth’s death today, and his last words were so melodramatic I was fascinated. Here’s the whole story, from his Wikipedia article:

Before dawn on April 26, the soldiers caught up with the fugitives, who were hiding in Garrett’s tobacco barn. David Herold surrendered, but Booth refused Conger’s demand to surrender, saying “I prefer to come out and fight”; the soldiers then set the barn on fire. As Booth moved about inside the blazing barn, Sergeant Boston Corbett shot him. According to Corbett’s later account, he fired at Booth because the fugitive “raised his pistol to shoot” at them. Conger’s report to Stanton, however, stated that Corbett shot Booth “without order, pretext or excuse”, and recommended that Corbett be punished for disobeying orders to take Booth alive. Booth, fatally wounded in the neck, was dragged from the barn to the porch of Garrett’s farmhouse, where he died three hours later, aged 26. The bullet had pierced three vertebrae and partially severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him.

In his dying moments, he reportedly whispered, “Tell my mother I died for my country”. Asking that his hands be raised to his face so he could see them, Booth uttered his last words, “Useless, useless,” and died as dawn was breaking. In Booth’s pockets were found a compass, a candle, pictures of five women, including his fiancée Lucy Hale, and his diary, where he had written of Lincoln’s death, “Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.”

Who were the other four women?? Also, “Useless, useless”! It reminds me of two other really dramatic life-and-death stories: Henry II muttering “Shame, shame on a conquered king” before dying, and this one about the robber baron Henry Clay Frick (anarchist Alexander Berkman tried to assassinate him after Frick’s Pinkertons attacked striking steelworkers, killing 7):

The bullet hit Frick in the left earlobe, penetrated his neck near the base of the skull, and lodged in his back. The impact hurled Frick off his feet, and Berkman fired again, again striking Frick in the neck and causing him to bleed profusely. Carnegie Steel vice-president (later, president) John George Alexander Leishman, who was with Frick, was then able to grab Berkman’s arm and deflect a third shot, saving Frick’s life.

Frick was seriously wounded, but rose and (with the assistance of Leishman) tackled his assailant. All three men crashed to the floor, where Berkman managed to stab Frick four times in the leg with the pointed steel file before finally being subdued by other employees, who had rushed into the office. As the police entered the room, guns drawn, Frick reportedly yelled, “Don’t shoot! Leave him to the law, but raise his head and let me see his face.”

“Raise his head and let me see his face”! It’s like something out of a movie. Do people naturally behave like this in times of crisis? Or do they do it out of a sense of what’s expected of them because they’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of theater/movies? And is that even a meaningful distinction? Speech, being communication aimed at someone else, inherently has an element of “for effect” in it. And raising a child without ever telling him a story isn’t “natural” either (well, I guess especially if you were doing it to find out how he reacted when you shot him). It’s fascinating.

Let's see Paul Allen's card.

My friend Cecilia got her new business cards! Aren’t they fantastic? I would be insanely, murderously jealous like in that scene from American Psycho (it won’t let me embed, sorry!) if my own fantastic business cards, designed by Gwen, had not arrived yesterday!

(I remain murderously jealous of Cecy’s photography skills; alas, my camera is not great and my ability to hold my hands steady is worse.)

I even have a silver card-case around somewhere given to me by my uncle. I’ll have to dig it up for conferences.

In other news, today I was looking up “fairy” in the OED to figure out if a different spelling was standard in the Regency, when I came across the first quote for “fairy” as a slang term for a homosexual man:

1895 Amer. Jrnl. Psychol. VII. 216 This coincides with what is known of the peculiar societies of inverts. Coffee-clatches, where the members dress themselves with aprons, etc., and knit, gossip and crotchet; balls, where men adopt the ladies’ evening dress, are well known in Europe. ‘The Fairies’ of New York are said to be a similar secret organization.”

1. Was this really relevant to the American Journal of Psychology?

2. Cross-dressing coffee-clatches! It sounds so boring and like so much fun at the same time. (No offense to my friends who like to knit and crochet—it’s just not my thing.)

3. Now I want an action movie called “The Fairies of New York.” It would be about a secret organization of sexy cross-dressing spies at the turn of the century.

This is not the post you're looking for

I should be actually posting soon–I got my business cards and A Lily Among Thorns bookmarks in the mail today, Gwen and I went to see the new Robin Hood movie, and I have a fabulous signed book to give away–but in the meantime here are two things I found hilarious while reading the first twenty pages or so of Lactilla, Milkwoman of Clifton: the Life and Writings of Ann Yearsley, 1753-1806 by Mary Waldron:

1. Someone wrote a scathing critique of Hannah More’s writing under the pen name the Revd. Sir Archibald MacSarcasm, Bart. OMG GENIUS.

2. In a footnote to a passage beginning, “Johnson thought of the imagination as that power of the mind to evoke what is not ‘really’ there and consequently as a potential threat to stability and order,” Waldron cites an article entitled “Some Limits in Johnson’s Literary Criticism.” I’m not sure I can really explain why this struck me as so funny. It just…I immediately pictured the author of the article making a list of possible titles, as so:

“Dr. Johnson Was Kind of an Asshole You Guys”
“I Kind of Think Johnson’s Literary Criticism Is Crap”
“No Seriously He Thought that ‘Imagination’ Was a Threat to the Social Order”
“He Said It Worked Against Morality and Religion”
“Also Did You Hear that Thing He Said about Women Preachers Being Like a Dog Walking on its Hind Legs”

“Dr. Johnson’s Thoughts on Books: An Epic Debunking”

Hmm, better, but not quite there yet, he thinks.

“Hester Phrale Should Probably Have Poisoned His Food”

No, no! You have to sound like a professional!

“Some Limits in Johnson’s Literary Criticism”

Ah, yes, perfect.

Of course I haven’t read the article, nor do I know a thing about the author or his feelings about Johnson. But this is what I will IMAGINE using my powers of IMAGINING things which are not “REALLY” there! Take that, Dr. Johnson!

Image credit: “Dr. Samuel Johnson” by Joshua Reynolds, via Wikimedia Commons.

A chip off the old family iceblock

Had a lovely geeky bonding moment with my co-worker today. We were talking about the Declaration of Independence, as you do, and then 1776: the Musical, which he wants me to see, and John and Abigail Adams, and that reminded me of something in my high school American history textbook, which I loved.

ME: It was really dramatic and it always gave everyone’s heights.
CO-WORKER: That’s hilarious.
ME: Like it said, “John Quincy Adams was 5’9″ and a chip off the old family iceblock.” [Disclaimer: I made up that height. It is probably wrong.]
CO-WORKER: Wait a minute. I had that same textbook!

Awesome! We agreed that it also had really good pictures to go with everything. (Another favorite turn of phrase was something like, “this poured holy oil on the flames of conflict.”)

In other news, my critique partner Susanna Fraser (the Kindle edition of whose book is now available for pre-order), has unveiled her placeholder website. Or rather, her husband has. I died laughing when I saw it. It is ADORABLE. It starts, “Susanna Fraser is an author based in Seattle. She goaded her husband into making this website for her, even though he is busy and preoccupied. This site is a demonstration of why you never hire family to design your website for you,” and goes from there…


So, tomorrow is July 4th. The anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress.

Here’s the second paragraph:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. “

If my research has taught me anything, it’s that in 1776, these truths were anything but self-evident. “All men are created equal,” governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”—in England at this time period that was radicalism. “Democracy” was a dirty word to many. And I’m really, really proud to be part of a country that started out from that point. (Well, started out from that point in theory, at least.)

And now for something a little sillier (but that totally makes me cry—I’m a sap, I admit it!): Captain Kirk reading the Preamble to the Constitution.

The House of Commons opera hat

I’ve been doing some research on the British Parliament for my next book, and wow. I forget how much OLDER the UK is sometimes, and how much more time they’ve had to accumulate customs.

On one page of my book (The Great Palace by Christopher Jones) I see:

“The Mace, the symbol of Royal authority, must always be present when the House is sitting. Without it, the House is totally powerless.”

(More on the Mace from Wikipedia. And here’s a picture.)

On the next page:

“The Serjeant-at-Arms[…]is the only person in the Chamber allowed to wear a sword.”

Two pages later:

The House of Commons snuffbox. It is kept by the Principal Doorkeeper. Any Member may ask for a pinch of snuff before going into the Chamber.”

How awesome is that? According to Wikipedia, “A floral-scented snuff called ‘English Rose’ is provided for members of the British House of Commons at public expense due to smoking in the House being banned since 1693. A famous silver communal snuff box kept at the entrance of the House was destroyed in an air raid during World War II with a replacement being subsequently presented to the House by Winston Churchill.” (The new box was made from the timber recovered from the damaged Chamber.) Nicholas Fairbairn, an MP until 1995, was known during his tenure for being the only person to actually use the snuff.

What is even more awesome is that I cannot possibly feel the least bit superior, because it turns out the US Senate has ceremonial snuffboxes too!

But my very, very favorite is this:

The House of Commons opera hat. The collapsible top hat which Members must wear if they want to raise a point of order during a division [their word for a vote].”

And there’s a little picture of an old top hat sitting on a bench.

I was desperately sad to discover that this custom had been discontinued following a recommendation of the Select Committee on the Modernization of the House of Commons:

“64. At present, if a Member seeks to raise a point of order during a division, he or she must speak ‘seated and covered’. In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television. We do not believe that it can be allowed to continue.”

Another beautiful image was provided by Hansard’s record of the discussion on the issue:

“We recommend a new procedure for raising points of order during a Division. At present, we have the opera hat, and, although some Members may feel that they look particularly fetching in it, it makes the House of Commons look ridiculous when someone wearing the hat is trying to raise a point of order from a seated position while everyone else is milling around and going to vote.”

(Sidenote: If anyone writing historical romance with a political dimension doesn’t already know about the online Hansard’s, here it is! It is saving my life with things like dates of parliamentary recesses, when bills were proposed, &c.)

Can anyone find a picture of the opera hat? Preferably being worn. My Google-fu is failing me.

ETA: Dave was kind enough to write and share this video of the opera hat in use! Thanks Dave!!

Plus ça change…

I’ve been doing research for my next book, and stumbled across something that reminded me of an important point about writing historical fiction.

A few years ago I came across the following quote by William Hazlitt (from a series of lectures he gave in 1818): “I am a great admirer of the female writers of the present day; they appear to me like so many modern Muses.”

What a patronizing jerk! I thought. Those women aren’t there to inspire YOU, they’re artists who do their own creating!

Then, while reading the essay “Representing Culture: ‘The Nine Living Muses'” by Elizabeth Eger in Women, Writing, and the Public Sphere, 1700-1830, which discusses this 1779 painting by Richard Samuel, I came across this passage:

“As Marina Warner has argued in her study of the allegory of female form, [the muses’] symbolic power is so universal that it seems that we are not meant to associate them with real women, let alone women artists. She is correct to make this point in a contemporary sense–we have for the large part lost a sense of the individual characters and functions of the muses, let alone the possibility that they might refer to real women. The muses form an allegory of ideas, in which the personification of abstract aesthetic categories is the primary device[…]Samuel, however, has painted his peers–living women who practiced the arts they represent[…]

Images of the muses or muse in the twentieth century have tended to be voiceless sources of male creativity rather than vivid practitioners of the arts. […C]ertain male poets, such as Robert Graves, have been responsible for perpetrating the myth of the muse as an eternally feminine and passive figure of inspiration. The Romantic and modernist concentration on the individual act of literary creation has tended to focus on the poet’s communication with the muse as an intimate and often highly sexualised relationship, obscuring the classical tradition of representing the muses as a group of independent, active, wilful and manipulative practitioners of the arts.”

There are things I know are different about the Regency gentry: they talked differently and dressed differently, duels were a reasonable way to resolve an argument, a woman who had sex before marriage was “ruined,” and not paying a gambling debt was worse than stiffing your grocer. I know those things because they’re big things and I can’t get away with not knowing them. (Although I still remember how shocked I was the first time I realized that “democracy” was a dirty word in mainstream society during the Regency! If I’d thought about it, I would have figured it out–but because positive associations with democracy are such a basic thing to me, I didn’t think about it.)

But it’s not just the big things that shift over time. Little things were different too, even things that seem “instinctive” or “obvious” to me. The muses represent X to me, so they must have represented X to a Regency person, because that is just what the muses are! But no, the human mind is a wonderful and fascinating thing, and many ways of thinking about things that seem self-evident are really just a product of culture.

Culture changes, even the little things. And if I want to write historical romance that really pulls the reader into another time and another world, if I want to really do justice to my time period, then I need to be as aware of that as possible.

(Of course, in searching for the quote for this post, I discovered that William Hazlitt goes on to say, “I could be in love with Mrs. Inchbald, romantic with Mrs. Radcliffe, and sarcastic with Madame D’Arblay”…so, I guess the women writers are just there to inspire him. He then mocks a series of women poets with such zingers as:

“Miss Baillie[‘s] tragedies and comedies, one of each to illustrate each of the passions, separately from the rest, are heresies in the dramatic art. She is a Unitarian in poetry. With her the passions are, like the French republic, one and indivisible: they are not so in nature, or in Shakespeare.”

Oh, snap! I’m now picturing his lecture as a stand-up comedy routine that bombed horribly. Probably that’s another anachronism, but hey, the more things change, the more they stay the same, right? Clearly I should have trusted my instincts about Hazlitt.)

“Is it true, the dreadful story about you and Currer Bell?”

I recently talked about Thackeray’s dislike of Regency clothing. One of my favorite historical anecdotes about unfortunate coincidences and social awkwardness is about him and Charlotte Brontë.

I’m not actually sure how many times I’ve read Jane Eyre. The scene where Mr. Rochester talks about how there’s a thread from his chest to hers, and if they were separated he might take to bleeding internally—I swoon every time. A few years ago, I got a copy that reprinted the preface to the second edition. I laughed and laughed. Here’s the relevant bit in its entirety, because you don’t really get the scale of the fullsome earnestness otherwise:

“There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and as vital—a mien as dauntless and daring. Is the satirist of Vanity Fair admired in high places? I cannot tell; but I think if some of those amongst whom he hurls the Greek fire of his sarcasm, and over whom he flashes the levin-brand of his denunciation, were to take his warnings in time—they or their seed might yet escape a fatal Ramoth-Gilead.

Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, Reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day—as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterize his talent. They say he is like Fielding: they talk of his wit, humor, comic powers. He resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture: Fielding could stoop on carrion, but Thackeray never does. His wit is bright, his humor attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud, does to the electric death-spark hid in his womb. Finally, I have alluded to Mr. Thackeray, because to him—if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger—I have dedicated this second edition of Jane Eyre.

Currer Bell.
Dec. 21st, 1847.”

Now, Thackeray is a very Victorian, moral writer, and he does have social/political/moral points to make with his books. But he’s also a snarky guy who doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. And Charlotte Brontë is a genius, and Thackeray loved Jane Eyre, but…her sense of humor isn’t really her strong point, is it? I can’t imagine Thackeray reading this incredibly sincere, dramatic, serious dedication without laughing yet also being sort of vicariously embarrassed. I don’t think his intention was ever to save anyone from a fatal Ramoth-Gilead*, you know?

So I laughed, and I thought no more about it. But THEN I was reading a biography of Thackeray that my dad had lying around the house and discovered there was more to the story!**

Thackeray’s wife, like the first Mrs. Rochester, was mentally ill. Which Charlotte Brontë would have had no way of knowing. But there was ALREADY a rumor going around that “Currer Bell” was Thackeray’s children’s governess, getting back at him for his unflattering portrayal of her as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (which came out in serial form the same year). So when this dedication was printed a lot of people saw it as proof.

Yes! They were convinced that Jane was a Mary Sue for Charlotte Brontë and that Jane Eyre was about her and Thackeray’s forbidden love!

This rumor was so popular it was still going around THIRTEEN YEARS LATER. In 1860 Thackeray was at a dinner party, and an American lady asked, “Is it true, the dreadful story about you and Currer Bell?”

Thackeray said, “Alas, madam, it is all too true. And the fruits of that unhallowed intimacy were six children. I slew them all with my own hand.”

I love Thackeray a lot.

Now I’m wondering if Georgette Heyer was inspired by this misunderstanding when she wrote Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle.

*I looked up Ramoth-Gilead, in case any of you were wondering. Apparently the reference is to 1 Kings 22: all the prophets except Micaiah tell King Ahab he’ll win if he fights to take back Ramoth-Gilead from the Syrians. Micaiah says, “I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd: and the LORD said, These have no master: let them return every man to his house in peace.” Ahab gets really mad and throws Micaiah in prison and goes into battle anyway. Of course he loses and gets killed.

…It doesn’t say whether they let Micaiah out of prison after that.

**For this post, I confirmed the details in Love’s Madness by Helen Small.

I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous

One of my favorite artists is Kate Beaton. She draws whimsical, energetic, hilarious webcomics–and a lot of them have historical subjects! One of my favorite Regency-themed ones is this one about Prinny.

Anyway, when I was visiting New York a few months ago and went to meet my editor Leah, I wore my Napoleon-eating-cookies t-shirt. Alissa, an assistant editor at Dorchester, asked me about it, so I sent along a couple of comics with my contract. (Okay I need to take a moment. Typing “my contract” is still very exciting for me.)

So Leah went to the Museum of Comics and Comic Arts festival and MET her! I am so, so jealous. Kate even drew her a cute sketch of Jane Austen being long-suffering about the hot men in her head and their unreasonable demands. Check it out here in Leah’s blog!

One of the things I love about Kate Beaton is the way she draws historical clothing. She captures so much personality and period detail with a few simple lines. And this probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but I love historical clothing. I’ll admit to a soft spot for Georgian fashion (powder and patch!), but I really, really adore Regency-era stuff too.

Guess who hated Regency fashion? Thackeray. His novel Vanity Fair takes place over about ten or fifteen years (not sure exactly) surrounding the Battle of Waterloo. The recent movie with Reese Witherspoon had FABULOUS costumes–Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ haircut in that movie is one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen, and I’m not even a big fan of his. But when Thackeray drew his illustrations, he used contemporary (late 1840s) clothing. Here’s his explanation:

“It was the author’s intention, faithful to history, to depict all the characters of this tale in their proper costume, as they wore them at the commencement of this century. But when I remember the appearance of people in those days, and that an officer and lady were actually habited like this–

Image credit: Vanity Fair (1848) by Thackeray via Google Books

I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous; and have, on the contrary, engaged a model of rank dressed according to the present fashion.”

I have always found this absolutely hilarious, because to me, 1840s clothes are SO much less attractive.

But remember how, until a couple of years ago, everyone was so hideously embarrassed by the eighties? It was impossible to look at eighties fashion and find it even remotely attractive. And now you see sort of modernized, sexy depictions of eighties fashion around sometimes, and the nineties are starting to seem a little embarrasing (oh dear God, the shoulderpads! the HAIR! Watch an episode of “Lois and Clark” sometime and you’ll see what I mean).

When I was in elementary school (early 90s) there was NOTHING more horrifying than bellbottoms. I remember watching some kind of educational film made in the seventies when I was about ten, and every time a pair of bellbottoms came on screen the entire class would start laughing. And then flared jeans and peasant blouses came back in style, and “That 70s Show” took 70s fashion and made it look pretty adorable, and pictures of the 70s don’t seem quite so appalling anymore. (They’re still a LITTLE appalling.)

Is there a ten-to-twenty-year rotation on this stuff? Was Regency fashion Thackeray’s equivalent of the eighties?

And how can the same outfit seem so great at the time, so awful a few years later, and kind of cute and nostalgic after a couple of decades?