Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Lamp Lighter

Growing up I remember having a vague confidence in my ancestors.  Vague because they were reduced to neat little facts in my mind, like one or two signs of visible fruit - apples or pears - on the family tree.  My mother had a copy of one branch of the family that her uncle compiled, a zigzagging course of names and dashes that had my name clear at the bottom.  I'd been told we could trace our family back to the 1500s somewhere in England, that we had ancestors on the Mayflower (possibly William Bradford himself), and that one of our forefathers lit the lantern in the Old North Church (Christ Church) in Boston on the night of Paul Revere's ride.

Vintage Photograph of Christ Church, or the Old North Church, in Boston, Salem St.
My mother has been delving more and more into our family histories of late, and has opened for me a compelling story about our lamp-lighter ancestors.  John Pulling Jr is my seventh great-grandfather.  He is indeed mentioned on the Old North Church websiteOn 18 April 1775, vestryman (a leading member of the church body) John Pulling and sexton (caretaker) Robert Newman hung lamps in the steeple window of the church to warn colonial citizens that the British were on their way to Lexington and Concord. Revere rode on across the harbor, spreading the word in person. H.W. Longfellow, who wrote the poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" honoring his ancestor, does not mention John Pulling.  If you look up the story on Wikipedia, the grand bastion of drive-through history, John Pulling is absent and the credit for lighting the lamps goes to Robert Newman. 

(As a side note, Michelle and I walked the Freedom Trail a few years ago and our Yankee-garbed guide gleefully told us that Revere was drunk that night.  I sincerely doubt this - it would be a gargantuan effort for a man to ride a horse through the dark, over the Boston Harbor while evading British troops and successfully warn the colonists for what would be the battle of Lexington in a state of intoxication.  The idea sullies the efforts of these men.) 

John Pulling Jr, a Mason and a merchant, was married to Sarah Thaxter McBean.  This was the second marriage for both.  She was first married to Duncan McBean, a landowner/businessman, who died shortly after their return voyage (presumably) from the Caribbean.  Their infant child also died on that journey.  John's had two children from his first marriage to Annis Lee, John and Annis. Together, John and Sarah had two more children, Martha and Sarah, called Sallie.  Sallie is my sixth great-grandmother. 

John and Sarah both strike me as strong, passionate people.  John, a vestryman (leading member of the church), was part of the Sons of Liberty with Revere.  On 16 December 1773, John was one of a group of men who, protesting the British tax on tea, went to Boston Harbor and threw an entire shipment of tea into the water - the incident was later dubbed the Boston Tea Party.  John Pulling stashed tea in secret compartments in his writing desk.  That desk has since gone to another branch of the family - but it most certainly does exist. 

Paul Revere and his fellow Sons of Liberty were doing everything they could to thwart British advances by hiding munitions and arming themselves, as tensions grew and battles erupted in the colonies.  They had a simple code planned for a lantern-signal: one by land, and two by sea.  On this particularly night, the British troops moved faster than predicted, and Revere borrowed a horse and ran west to warn the colonists while Newman and Pulling ran up to the steeple and briefly flashed two lanterns in the window.  This alerted the colonists, but also alerted the British, who converged on Christ Church.  

The Old North Church looking toward Boston Harbor.  by Chris2fer

They apprehended Newman who had climbed out of a window.  During the subsequent - and no doubt unpleasant - interrogation, Newman gave up John Pulling's name.  Now indicated in the treasonous act, the British searched John's home, which was in the neighborhood but did not find him or his family.  John was actually hiding in a wine cask in the cellar.  Sarah, having sewn the family's silver and strips of tea into her petticoats to get it passed the British, had fled with the children to Cohasset, Mass. to hide in a cooper's shop (that's a maker of barrels and casks).  According to our sources, the shop was little more than a shack.  Sarah would later give Martha in this hiding place.

John, disguised as a fisherman, rowed a skiff to Nantasket (up the beach from Cohasset).  He joined Sarah and the children in Cohasset where they hid until the British left Boston later in the war. The family had fled with very little in the way of belongings, and had only each other.  John was never caught, but his life was changed.  A traitor to the Crown, his property was seized and he lived as a fugitive, in hiding and suffering, until his death nearly twelve years later.  He died at age 51 and is buried in Boston. 

After John Pulling died, Sarah took the children to live in the town of Abington. There Sallie would marry Isaac Reed.  Their daughter Lucy would eventually marry her second cousin, Jesse Reed.  To make the situation even more confusing, Sarah herself married (for the third time) another Thomas Reed, Isaac's father.  And the rest is history.  (My great-grandmother was a Reed who married a Poland.  My grandmother married a Pike.  My mother married a Boston.  From Sarah and Sallie on down we have a history of strong women in our family.  Not to cast all of my fathers and grandfathers aside...)

But it isn't "just" history.  I am connected to a family legacy - not of famous poems and bronze busts in museums, ballads and paintings and statues - of sacrifice and loyalty to family.  John Pulling Jr in every way exemplifies what it means to be an American and a Christian.  He committed treason; had he been caught, he most likely would have been executed.  Dying an early death, leaving his family destitute and exiled from home, is not a pretty story.  But what is beautiful about it is its plainness, its honesty, and its hope in something beyond the reach of the British Empire, beyond the grave. 

The next time I am in Boston, I will definitely visit the Old North Church, find the pew that bears my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather's name (if there is one), and thank him for being there all those years ago to strike a match and light a lantern, knowing full well what would happen next.  I can only imagine what that felt like.

Old North Church #3 by Tim Sackton

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Real Ghost Stories

This summer I was told a ghoulish story after dark in an old Civil War-era cemetery.  

A group of friends and I had spent the afternoon out in the country in our friend Neal's uncle's pasture in south central Nebraska shooting pistols, shot guns and scope-rifles.  This was a new experience for many of us city folks.  We'd climbed into the back of Neal's pick-up - some of us hanging on in the back - and he took us over hills and ruts and around grazing, jaded cows to the place where he'd set up targets.  We plugged our ears, shot at Diet Coke cans with a scope-rifle, hit clay pigeons with a shot gun and generally had a good time as the sun went down and the full moon showed its face.

Neal told us the pasture we were shooting in was not far from the site of an Indian battlefield.  It turned out to be the prelude to the night's next activity.  He took us over dirt roads and onto a path that meandered down through and behind a corn field.  At the end of this road was the Farmers' Valley Cemetery - complete with the Nebraska marker - tucked away out of sight. 

I took this photo as we left.  It was about 11 or midnight. 

Among the graves were Civil War veterans and their families, some of the first settlers of in that area, children who had died young in skirmishes with the Sioux.  It was the quintessential prairie graveyard, small and understated, rich in history.  We walked around with flashlights, looking for names of the veterans, amazed that the stones were still legible even after 150 years.  Then, as the night breeze picked up and got chilly, Neal told us a chilling tale.

He and his brothers had been staying in a cabin not far from where we were standing one night several years ago when they heard the sound of hammering and incantations. Needless to say, they lay in terror that night.  The next morning, one of the flat stone-slab graves had been broken into and the body removed.  Later on, a group of satanists were arrested in connection to the theft.  Neal told us with a deadly-serious expression that these satanists had planned to smoke the bones.  When we saw the grave, the stone shards were patched, but the evidence of their task remained.  A chill traveled down my spine.  Something rustled far off in the trees,  or perhaps in the corn field.  My spine tingled.  We all shivered. 

It was hard to tell with Neal's expression if he was kidding us, or if he'd invited friends along to scare the living daylights out of us.  We saw no ghouls, living or otherwise, but I know I felt something... some awareness of the past that hadn't been there before.  The dark deeds of others can mark a place in ineffable ways.

I kept thinking about the story of the theft of bones and how the real mysteries of this world are the living ones. 

In August, just weeks after the group of us had been there, an eighteen year old was arrested for vandalizing over 50 tombstones in Farmers' Valley.  He was charged with criminal mischief, and the local community rallied together in September to begin repairing the damage.  A Journal Star article conveys the sense of loss this act created; the cemetery is history, personal history, and it must be guarded and cared for and visited.  I am so glad I saw it when I did.

I've found the Farmers' Valley Cemetery on Rootsweb, which tells the story of Marion Littlefield's death in battle with the Sioux, the arrival of Scottish settlers to the area, and the hard lives that were lived out here.  This little slice of history is just south west of Henderson, Nebraska in Hamilton Co.  Oh, the stories this ground can tell.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Adventures in Logophilia Day 19: Michaelmas

Today's word is Michaelmas (noun, of course), the feast day of St. Michael, otherwise known as the Archangel Michael. 

I chose Michaelmas because I'd meant to write about it on September 29th and subsequently forgot.  Michaelmas is a milestone date in the medieval calendar: harvest-time, formerly a holy day of obligation, and recognized as the fall quarterly when accounts were settled between peasants and their overlords.  One of my favorite, oft-read books as a child was Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, depicting life from the point of view of a thirteen year old girl in England in1290 .  It's brilliant.  I still read it to this day actually, because it paints a vivid picture of the feast days, the uncertainty of life and the wonder that inhabited the world in those days.  Michaelmas was one such feature and showed the peasants "settling accounts" with (and trying to cheat) Catherine's father, and the entire community feasting and carousing.  Lammas (first of August, marking harvest) and Michaelmas marked the passing of time, the days before All Hallows and the coming on of winter, like our own Labor Day or even this rash of football Saturdays that spread across town.  (Even more appropriate as this football team's color is an unmistakable shade of red.)  I remember being absolutely fascinated with celebrations long-gone that sounded like Christmas.  That was before I understand what the "mass" implied and some of the mystery went out of it, but still... curiosity is and always has been fuel for me.

Michaelmas, I came to learn some years ago, is how Oxford and other British universities mark the beginning of the autumn term, called Michaelmas Term.  The first week of classes (called North Week) begins the first week of October.  The spring term is Hilary, the summer term is Trinity. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Adventures in Logophilia Day 12: Ossuary

Rendered in more rudimentary calligraphy is today's word...

An ossuary (noun) is a depository box for the bones of the dead.  Creepy, no?

Why on Earth didn't I save this for Halloween, you ask?  Well, on a basic level, I say, creepiness is not bound to one particular day.  Anyway... in perusing the lexicon today, I came across this word and was struck with a memory.  I first learned that "bone boxes" or mortuary chests existed when Michelle and I studied abroad at Oxford and took a trip to Winchester Cathedral.  As I remember it, there are six such chests situated on the presbytery levels of the cathedral, each containing the remains of Anglo-Saxon (and one Danish) king of England.  I believe these bones were buried deep in the crypt of the "old minster" and were moved to a place of honor when the new cathedral was built in the 1100s.  Occupants of these chests include Cynegils, Aethelwulf, Cynewulf, Ecgbert, Cnut, Emma (wife of Aethelred the Unready and Cnut) and an assortment of bones that could be Edred (who could also be someone named Edmund). 

What I find to be so fascinating about the ossuaries is how old they are (we're talking pre-1066 here), and how certain facts are lost with time, how a few of these kings made no impression on history at all (or were erased from history), or were mixed up.  These mysteries only prompt discussion.  Like the mystery of Richard III's bones in Leicester and those of the Princes in the Tower thought to be unearthed from under the staircase of the Tower of London, there is always the knowledge that we will never know - and probably never should - what or who rests inside.  Here is a website with more interesting tidbits on these memorials.

This is the only clear picture I have from Winchester of one of the mortuary chests.  We were allowed to take photos, but the flash of my camera could only go so far.  Yet, even from here, you can see how ornate these chests are, beautiful in their ancientness. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Whimsical Wednesday (Jillian)

There have been quite a few little news tidbits in the writing world-at-large in the last week, and I thought I'd compile them here for a Whimsical Wednesday.  Ready? 

  • Today, Stephen King announced that he is penning a sequel to The Shining, his third novel, to be published next year, entitled Doctor Sleep.  It follows Danny Torrance, who was a young boy in The Shining, and whose father succumbed to evil spirits that inhabited a winter hotel.  This was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson, generally thought to be one of the scariest films ever.  I've seen parts.  I was properly freaked out.  I am just amazed at Mr. King's work ethic, this drive to create.  If you're a King fan and want to know more, here is his website:
  • Last week, we heard from Mandy Patinkin (read article here) about why he left the violent television show Criminal Minds several years ago.  He says his role as a criminal profiler was "very destructive to my soul and personality," and Criminal Minds was not the show he thought it would be.  He has made a very good point about the sort of destruction that we take for granted on television these days. 
  • For history buffs, you may be following the news that the grave of Richard III was found in Leicester, Great Britain, at a site underneath a car park (parking lot) where the Grey Friars church was believed to have stood.  Richard III had a short, tempestuous reign and was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.  His body was paraded through the town by the victorious Tudors and buried at the church, which was later lost in obscurity.  The skeleton in question appears to have signs of scoliosis - perhaps resembling the hunchback of Shakespeare's play (though not quite), and an arrowhead through the neck.  DNA testing will commence to see if he is in fact the lost king.  If he is, he may be entitled to a state funeral, five-hundred twenty-seven years after his death.  The Telegraph as all the intrigue
  • The trailer for The Hobbit was released today.  The Telegraph has the trailer embedded here.  I am excited to see these beloved stories come to life once again, and see Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage and Benedict Cumberbatch among familiar faces... although the latter, also known as Sherlock Holmes (Freeman being Watson), may not be particularly recognizable.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Adventures in Logophilia - Ab Inito (Jillian)

It has been two months since I've put words into this blog.  It has been four years since Michelle and I launched this project, and life continues to meander, ebb and flow in different directions, in different moods.  We've been busy bees, going to school and writing novels.  I completed my grand endeavor, a novel, on 1 September, and as I go through the process of writing query letters and sending them out and waiting for responses, I'll be here resting from the long slog of the last fifteen months.  Depending on the weather (both figuratively and literally), I might document some of my experiences in the black hole that is publishing. 

But what will hopefully bring me to the blog on a regular basis is my lexicon.  I have been collecting fun, interesting, complicated, brilliant words for the last several years, and now have a whopping 2100 at my disposal.  I've gathered this definitions from Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries, but they are paraphrased and illustrated here in my own words.  Where better to explore them than Daedalus?  I won't blog on them all, of course, because that would take me six years.  I'll blog on the words that are most useful, most special to me.  Hopefully, you will find yourself becoming a logophiliac as well.

I'll begin at the beginning with...

Ab inito is an adverb from the Latin, meaning "from the beginning." 

Contrary to popular belief, in my opinion, Latin is most certainly not dead.  Though no one goes about this day in age striking up conversations in Latin, it is everywhere.  We still read it, pour over it, become captivated by the sound of its language, the way it's sung and spoken in some Christian circles.  Latin provides the foundation for so much of our language, and sometimes asserts an authoritative voice into an other wise dull statement, a grain of wisdom into what could be a shabby string of words.  Maybe it is like the physical vestiges of the Roman empire left standing all over Britain (Hadrian's Wall).  Or maybe it just sounds cool.  We could all do with a little more Latin in our daily lives!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Six Hundred Years Ago... (Jillian)

Today is a phenomenal, once-in-a-century occasion. Today, the 6th of January 2012, is the six-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc. Born in 1412, she would die at nineteen, burned at the stake by her English enemies. Hers is a story that has endured the centuries, one that had inexplicably become personal to this humble writer. Despite the ways in which we have misconstrued and misunderstood her, we still remember her better than many figures of our own more "enlightened" age.

I could write (and probably should) write a book about her. As far as stories go, hers is both history and legend. She has become a symbol beyond a saintly martyr to represent feminism, French nationalism and even new age groups. Questions abound. Was she crazy or did she actually hear the voices of saints? Was she a witch as the English claimed her to be? Did she actually lead the ragtag French army to victory, crown a king and pave the way for a stronger, united France?

In the midst of our questions, the facts remain fascinating to me. We don't know the nature of her voices - but Joan had faith that they were real, that they were from God, and that their counsel was the only path to her rescue... even if that rescue happened to be through fire. Hers ultimately is a story of that awesome faith. She did not aspire to be a saint. She wore masculine clothing to protect herself. Somehow, against all odds, she rose from humble obscurity to meet the king, and he believed in her mission - so much so that he commissioned armor for her and gave her command of his army (even if the generals didn't much like her). This is HUGE. Why? Women in battle, much less leading battles from horse back in expensive armor was UNHEARD of in the Middle Ages.

At the start of her mission, she sent a request to the Church of St. Catherine de Fierbois to unearth an ancient sword that had been buried and forgotten behind the altar there since the 700s. The monks did as they were told, dug it up, wiped the rust off and presented it to her. There is also speculation that said sword was used by French hero Charles Martel in the 700s to drive the Saracens from France.

She chased prostitutes away from the army camp. Legend has it that she broke the above mentioned sword doing so.

She was injured in the Battle at Orleans in 1429. An arrow pierced her left shoulder, just an inch or two above the heart. The English were ecstatic. "We killed the witch!" they shouted. Joan was actually very much alive. She pulled the arrow out of her chest with her bare hands, mounted her horse and rejoined the battle. The French won their first major victory.

She reported that her voices told her sometime around the battle of Orleans, that she would have "a year and little more" before her mission would end in her capture. She was right. She was pulled backwards off her horse by Burgundian soldiers in that period of time, and sold to the English for a sum of 10,000 francs.

While imprisoned in the town of Beaurevoir, she disobeyed her voices and dared to jump from the tower in which she was held. She sustained few injuries and almost, almost escaped.

She was tried by the English Church, holding fort in Rouen, Normandy. They were determined to see her tried and killed as a heretic. To do so, they bombarded her with interrogations to confuse her answers, but she did not give into them. Their main argument (shoddy at best) was her use of men's clothes. They forced her into submission with the promise that if she wore a dress she could hear Mass and take the Eucharist. She recanted later on, on counsel of her voices, sensing a deception.

They burned her at the stake on 30 May 1431. The wood was wet, so the fire smoldered and she burned slowly and painfully. When she cried for a crucifix to be brought before her, one of the priests, taken by pity, complied. Her ashes were gathered up and thrown into the muddy Seine River, but it was reported that her heart did not burn. Whether or not it did, witnesses - monks and priests alike - murmured remorsefully that they'd just burned a saint. This is a recorded fact.

I know that she is with me today in her enduring story - though colored by legend and rumor of six hundred years it may be. She is strong enough to with stand that.


For a thoughtful article on her 600th birthday, read what Christopher Howse of the Daily Telegraph had to say.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Auld Lang Syne (Jillian)

The characters from It's a Wonderful Life get ready to sing "Auld Lang Syne."

As you well know, I get curious about life's little mysteries and find myself on mini-journeys to explore them. Today's is the phrase and song "Auld Lang Syne", sung not just at New Years Eve but also at funerals and farewell gatherings (thank you wikipedia).

I remember finding this song way in the back of a old children's Christmas carol book that my sister and I "improved" with crayon. I remember thinking - when I was old enough to read - that the phrase couldn't be English, didn't sound like any Christmas song I'd ever heard of and wondered what the fuss was all about when they sang it at the end of It's a Wonderful Life.

First of all, according to the wonderful Oxford Dictionaries, "auld lang syne" is an 18th century Scottish phrase meaning "times long past" or "for old time's sake." So... vernacular Scotch-English. Definitely nothing to do with Christmas, as was my original instinct all those years ago, crayon in hand. (Sorry, Mom!)

What thrills me about songs like this is its endurance through the ages. According to Wikipedia, it was a poem by Robert Burns in 1788, set to a traditional folk tune... which makes me think the tune, and perhaps the sentiment is hundreds of years older than we think. And yet, old as it is, we return to it and sing it without fail year after year in the presence of our loved ones.

Like the old Christmas carols that rose from Nativity plays (Coventry Carol), Gregorian chants (O Come O Come Emmanuel), or side-track legends (Good King Wenceslas), there is something undefinable but potent about these songs' ability to endure and inspire... that the past and the future are both not nearly as far away as we think them to be, and that with all the lessons we've learned and the hopes we've gathered, good things can happen.

New Years, so soon after Christmas, is soaked in Christmastide hope (and it's particularly true when you consider how Christmas doesn't official end until Epiphany, the 6th of January). Knowing the gift God has bestowed, we can go into the new year and leave the old behind with joy.

Here are the lyrics to this timeless song:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne? [days gone by/long time since]

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet
For auld lang syne!

And surely you’ll buy your pint-cup,
And surely I’ll by mine!
And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.


We two have run about the slopes
And picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
Since auld lang syne.


We two have paddled in the stream
From morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
Since auld lang syne.


And there’s a hand, my trusty friend!
And give us a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught
For auld lang syne!

May 2012 be full of discoveries and writing whimsies!

- Jillian

Friday, February 6, 2009

Trompe l'Oeil (Michelle)

Well, I have no idea how to pronounce it, and only recently learned how to spell it, but I have trompe l'oeil on the mind --- i.e., the artistic style which tries to make a flat painting look 3D and real. For example, this "dome" is painted on a flat ceiling in Gozo Cathedral, Malta.

I've been thinking about this because I recently spent yet another magic morning in the library doing research for the novel, stressing out about historical realism.

As I was walking out of the library, I thought of another metaphor to add to my previous discussion of the problem. It's like trompe l'oeil. Think about it: a representational painting creates the illusion that you are seeing into space (the much-vaunted "picture window"), but at bottom it is still just an arrangement of lines and shapes and colors on a flat canvas. Trompe l'oeil is the most extreme example of this principle, striving for an illusion that borders on trickery.

It's the same with historical writing: I want to make my reader think (s)he's seeing into history --- and to do so I'd better look at history pretty darn closely and replicate it as nearly as I can --- but the very nature of my project is illusion and craft. That's the nature of the beast.

And aren't the best stories, that pull us in and wrap us up, a form of trompe l'oeil? Why do we cry when Romeo and Juliet die, if there's not a part of us that thinks they seem real?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Salamanders, Part 2 (Michelle)

Happy New Year!

For those of you who were intrigued by the Renaissance idea that salamanders live in fire, I finally found that Thomas Browne reference. I'm on a mild pre-modern science kick, as that quote from Plutarch's Moralia also indicates.

Anyway, Browne, writing in 1646 or thereabouts, is actually debunking this idea with his "new science," but in so doing he describes the previous belief. Here we go, from the fantastically named Pseudodoxia Epidemica:

That a salamander is able to live in flames, to endure and put out fire, is an assertion not only of great antiquity but confirmed by frequent and not contemptible testimony...Pliny assigns the cause of this effect: an animal (saith he) so cold that it extinguisheth the fire like ice.
It hath been much promoted by stories of incombustible and napkins...which endure the fire, whose materials are called by the name of salamander's wool [how cool is that?!]; which many, too literally apprehending, conceive some investing part, or tegument of the salamander. [Browne goes on to explain how in antiquity the bodies of kings were burned in "salamander's wool" to keep their ashes pure. Goodness knows if this is true.]

There you go. A particularly arcane piece of whimsy to start off 2009. With the holidays behind, I hope to start posting a few more substantial things soon. But meanwhile, enjoy some eggnog!

Monday, December 22, 2008

History, Nuisances, Et Cetera: Part 3 (Michelle)

History just became that much less of a nuisance.

I found this wonderful website on medieval and Renaissance material culture yesterday. It's not an academic site, so like all internet sources it should be treated with caution; it seems to be run by a reenactor, as far as I can tell. But it chiefly consists of details from manuscripts and paintings containing particular examples of material culture (carriages; clothing; furniture; boxes; etc etc etc). It takes you directly to the contemporary sources, so you can at least get a sense of how people viewed these elements of their own culture.

As I find them, I will continue add links for similar websites on the Victorian Age, the Roman Empire, the Ming Dynasty, and whatever else I can find that might be of use to writers of historical fiction.

God bless the Society for Creative Anachronism, truly!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Endlessly Winter (Michelle)

It's sleeting like mad where I am today, so perhaps that's why the following quote struck a chord with me. Thanks to my friend Rachel for posting it as her gmail status today! :)

"Antisthenes says that in a certain faraway land the cold is so intense that words freeze as soon as they are uttered, and after some time then thaw and become audible, so that words spoken in winter go unheard until the next summer."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Part 2 - Why History is Such a Nuisance (Jillian)

Ah, I considered simply responding to Michelle's post in a normal reply, but then I got to thinking: this has been on my mind lately, so I will just add to her marvelous post. She is totally right - the focus of historical fiction is a bear to smooth out and find the right balance between history and fiction... but above all, no matter where a novel is set, it must be about the story. Other wise, pages will be filled with complicated, and essentially inhuman, words.

As a writer of historical fiction (medieval) I often find myself incensed at the mountains upon mountains of worthless historical fiction. I am not certain this is an occurrence of me being a snob or what. But honestly... *plaintive sigh*

I just finished The Illuminator and thoroughly wished I had not been tempted to buy it. It is exactly what Michelle describes below - an overly unkind attitude toward the past. It takes place in the late 1300s when John Wycliffe is spreading "heretical" ideas about the Medieval church - its corruption and a "big" push for equality among the gentry and the peasantry. However, the characters talk like they're lobbyists fully involved in the struggle... and not surprisingly, there is no attempt to show the Middle Ages as anything but bleak. According to writer Brenda Rickman Vantrease, love was non-existent except in lustful, physical consummation; there were no righteous and good holy men (they all seem to be either dangerous radicals or greedy, wealthy yes-men of useless popes... and during this time there were actually two), nor righteous and good laymen; women were always regarded as little more than sexual property; and all conflicts with evil royal regents and the Church ended in bloodshed... the list goes on.

But the Middle Ages is not so different from the the Dark Ages... or the Renaissance... or Victorian England... or World War Two... in the fact people were still human, feeling human emotions and making human mistakes. The world was no more black and white and bleak than it is now. The citizens of 2008 (almost 2009) live in the same world that citizens of 1390 did - it is simply a little older. Regardless of what ideals or religious fervor ordered their lives, they still have a story. The post-modern age revels self-indulgently in the thought that with our technology and increasing knowledge of our universe, we are somehow above the views and stories of the past... when in fact, it isn't true. The stories have color. They never were black and white.

When writing historical fiction for myself, I have been swept away in the knowledge that it is a profound balancing act. That history is more than just a backdrop for a story, but often the life-blood, and the characters cannot be mouthpieces for current ideas. I, too, worry over the technicalities - wondering if a monk would really enter a bedchamber to tend to a sick young woman... whether or not there would have been some gender-barrier preventing him from giving her solace. Or what of the reverse? Could a woman tend to a man?

It is a beautiful challenge... but one I take personally for the sake of the stories of the past.

(Thanks, Michelle, for writing about this!)

Why History Is Just a Nuisance (Michelle)

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." (L.P. Hartley)

"The perfect is the enemy of the good." (Voltaire)

Writing historical fiction convinces me of one immutable fact: history is a total nuisance. Mind you, it's a good nuisance, like the presence of other people in the world, or children clamoring for attention, or the need to eat. There are some things that "bug" us that actually make us fuller, better, or less selfish people.

The foreignness of the past, the presence of certain historical facts that cannot be changed, and the stubborn refusal of historical people to see the world as we do all force us to admit that our own experiences and culture are not immutable, inevitable or superior to others'. Still, the initial irritation caused by such stumbling blocks in the creative process cannot be denied. Hence, the "nuisance." In any case, here, as promised, are a few initial reflections on the problems of writing historical fiction.

My own novel is set in 1513 (Is that the Middle Ages? The Renaissance? Ask six scholars, you'll probably get six different answers.), and while it contains more than a heavy dollop of fantastical events, I do want it to possess a measure of historical authenticity. In fact, that authenticity is pretty important to its main themes.

This means that I get frequent, frequent headaches about that authenticity --- in terms of dialogue, events, character reactions, settings, and on and on ad infinitum. Would friends of different genders, not sexually involved, have embraced after long separation? What finger would that woman's wedding ring be on? What did royalty travel in --- were there carriages yet? What would she be wearing? It's so hard to be personally authentic to my own vision and yet not to be modern!

It helps that I believe that there is a basic core of human nature, however shaped by culture and historical circumstance individuals might be. I'm not of the school, for example, that believes that no one fell in love until Chretien de Troyes invented it in the 12th century. Chretien gave us a language to talk about it that still influences us today, but affection existed.

But in some ways that makes my task harder, because it means that so many modern novels set in the Middle Ages and Renaissance offer very little guidance to me, as they take for their premise that life was simply nasty, brutish, and short. In fact, the only modern novels set roughly in my period that have been any help are Ellis Peters' marvelous Cadfael mysteries. Her characters seem authentically medieval (whatever that means) while displaying some of the humane qualities I am attempting to use in my own writing.

Then there is the question of dialogue. The article about M.T. Anderson, author of Octavian Nothing, that I posted last week, offers this interesting perspective:

He was so obsessed with getting Octavian's voice right that for the better part of six years, he restricted his reading to books written in or relating to the 18th century. He started speaking in "much longer sentences with a lot of semicolons," with the unintended consequence that his girlfriend mocked him for sounding like "some 18th-century [expletive]."

I admire this approach immensely, and I was actually doing something similar before I even read this article (she said smugly) by rereading a lot of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and historical non-fiction, as well as listening to audiobooks in the car of the same. These days, I often hear the cadences of Lord Peter Wimsey or the characters on Doctor Who in my I'm trying to clear out some of those modern cadences.

However, no matter what I do, I will always be writing by analogy. Unlike M.T. Anderson, I cannot perfectly imitate the speech and writing of the period, because then my characters would be speaking some form of late Middle English. (D'oh!) Rather, I have to figure out a way to evoke pre-modern speech patterns without sacrificing the immediacy that modern idioms will have for readers.

And this seems to be the heart of the matter in general, probably even for M.T. Anderson ---historical fiction is always an exercise in analogy, in making the past imaginatively accessible to modern readers. If you recreate the past absolutely perfectly, then you're just a Chaucer imitator, and there's nothing fresh about what you're doing.

To paraphrase a rather brilliant friend of mine, a modern reader's interest in an imaginary country depends, among other things, on its immigration policy. That policy must allow easy passage --- you can't demand that your immigrants memorize the whole Constitution verbatim, for example. That means, for me, that I can't demand of my readers utter historical authenticity or the ability to read Middle English. I am allowed a few anachronisms in the name of accessibility.

This, unfortunately, is anathema to my perfectionist spirit --- that part of me that is the consummate scholar. It's really hard to be both a scholar and an artist, but for some reason I persist in believing that it's possible. As somebody not all that wise once said (I think it was Voltaire, you see) --- "The perfect is the enemy of the good." If I get too hung up on authentic speech cadences or historical exactitude, the story itself will never be told. And there's the difference between a novel and a dissertation: the point of the novel is the story, not the historical accuracy.

I need to remain constantly limited by the strictures of history --- to feel the thorn in my side of that "nuisance" --- but I also need to know when to let go and allow the story to tell itself. Must everything in life be a balancing act?

p.s. If you get these posts via RSS feed and have gotten this one about sixty times, I can only apologize. The glitchiness of Blogger is driving me insane today!


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