I AM writing, right now. Really I am. Words have appeared where they weren’t before. But I’ve also just taken a little side research trip that I wanted to share (and remember!)
Without giving the game away, in my next book I have a character who is very ill one night and rumors of what went on cause a scandal that haunts her for the next twenty years or more. Naturally I need to get the medical facts right about what she says was happening, as well as what perhaps was actually happening on that night in Virginia, in October 1791. It was only a short internet jump from there for me to spend a good hour or so learning about the famous physician, Benjamin Rush. Here’s some highlights.
Benjamin Rush was born in Philadelphia in 1746 about an hour away from where I live now. I’d consider going to see the site, but apparently is was ‘accidentally bulldozed’ in the 1960’s. He studied law at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) and medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland (my home city!) He was active in the American Revolution and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. A friend of Ben Franklin’s, he was an anti-slavery advocate, active in reforming the treatment of the mentally ill, and had a huge impact on the field of medicine in the US as a teacher at the University of Pennsylvania. He was married, had thirteen children, and died of typhus in 1813.
My two favorite things I’ve found to do with Benjamin Rush this morning, though are these:
His medicine bag – photo and contents:
2. The Mutter Museum’s Benjamin Rush Medicinal Plant Garden
This screenshot is just to give you an idea. A pdf leaflet is available here. The herb garden listing is the perfect resource and if that’s not enough, they also are currently asking people to help them name a new ‘corpse flower’ in the garden. Check it out here. Who will you vote for? I chose… well that would be telling now wouldn’t it!!
If you are not familiar with it, do check out the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia online or in person. It’s one of my favourite museums with highlights that include slices of Albert Einstein’s brain (yes really, I’ve seen them) and a cast of the liver of conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, two men I’ve an interest in because of their connection to P.T. Barnum.
I was a big fan of Lisa Wingate’s last book, Before We Were Yours – about the scandalous adoption agency run by Georgia Tann in the 1940s – and jumped at the chance to review her new book for the Historical Novel Society.
So this is not a review – because that’s for the HNS magazine – but instead its a taster of some of the history behind the story in The Book of Lost Friends.
This is a dual timeline novel, set in Augustine, Louisiana in 1875 and 1987. The earlier story concerns a young woman, born into slavery, called Hannie Gossett. Hannie is eighteen in 1875, but when she was six her family were sent to Texas for the duration of the Civil War. Enter a scurrilous nephew of Hannie’s owners who sells off the slaves as they travel, separating Hannie from her eight siblings and mother. Now eighteen, Hannie is free, but still tied to the Gossett family, trying to earn a portion of land. All of her family members are still missing.
Here’s the real-life Lost Friends advertisement, written by a woman called Caroline Flowers, that inspired Wingate’s story about Hannie. It’s chilling to read and think about people being treated like objects in this way, not to mention the longing and uncertainty they endured not knowing what had happened to their relatives.
One way these individuals tried to find answers was by advertising. The Lost Friends database, where Wingate found and was inspired by this and other stories, is a project run by The Historic New Orleans Collection – a website to lose yourself in for a few hours if ever there was one.
Within that, The Lost Friends database is an easily searchable record of nearly 2500 advertisements placed in the Southwestern Christian Advocate (a methodist newspaper published in New Orleans and distributed to preachers, post-offices and thousands of individual subscribers) between 1879 and 1900.
Many advertisements are much shorter than Caroline Flowers’, but all have the same polite and restrained sense of yearning for answers. And of course they are not lost friends being sought here, but real, flesh and blood, lost families. Written by sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles – each one is a real human story of loss and suffering. Here’s just one that caught my eye with the poignant lines, “I left two or three other sisters behind, but I can not think of their names. I was small when I left…”
I’m still reading The Book of Lost Friends so I don’t know how Hannie’s fictional journey to find her lost family will turn out. But I’m now interested in reading this book:
In it, Heather Andrea Williams “follows those who were separated, chronicles their searches, and documents the rare experience of reunion.”
Okay. New week, new plan. Every Monday I’m going to post something about a book I want to read/want to recommend/have on my mind.
And so I’m kicking off with a new piece I have up on the Historical Novel Society website, based on a Q&A I was lucky enough to do with historical novelist Stacey Halls. I’ve read both Hall’s books now and am a definite fan. There are so many great books about these days, but I’d put her very high on my list of go-to authors. The Lost Orphan (The Foundling in the UK) is one of my favourite books so far this year.
Forced to abandon your child into public care with only a token and a number to trace them again by, what token might you choose?
You can read my write up by clicking here:But here is the full set of my questions and Stacy’s answers:
What was the original spark for the novel?
I get my story ideas from places, and this one came to me when I visited the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, London. I wasn’t looking for a story idea – in fact I’d just finished the first draft of The Familiars the week before – but I was so moved by the museum and the concept of the Foundling Hospital, which was established in the 1730s for babies at risk of abandonment. I was particularly moved by the tokens left by mothers who hoped one day to claim their children – they were like secret deposits that only the mothers knew about, and would describe to prove their identity if they ever found themselves in a position to claim their son or daughter however many months or years down the line. They are all worthless objects like scraps of fabric, coins, playing cards, made priceless because of their significance; they were the only things connecting the mothers with their children. The idea came to me to write about a woman who has saved enough to buy her baby back, as a fee was payable for the care the child had received at the hospital – only to be told her daughter has already been claimed.
You have two very different narrators, both flawed in some ways. How did they come to be and how do they help you explore themes of motherhood, nature v nurture etc?
I’m not a writer who dreams up a character and feels compelled to write a story about him or her – all my characters develop from my story idea, or rather I create them to fit into the story. The problem is then they do take on a life of their own – I feel as though all my characters, particularly my main ones, have their own souls, and don’t always do what I want them to, and they often surprise me. I knew that the two narrators in The Foundling – Bess and Alexandra – had to be very different, each providing different things for their daughters. Bess is straightforward and Alexandra complicated, exhibiting characteristics we would now associate with mental health disorders including OCD, PTSD and agoraphobia. Saying that, she was the easier one for me to write; I felt as though she was channeling me and I was just a medium for her voice. I’ve never written anyone quite like her before.
Historical fiction is sometimes criticized for a lack of diversity in its characters but you have people of colour and immigrants feature in this story. Was that a conscious decision, a natural result of your research, or a bit of both?
A bit of both. I wanted the London in the book to reflect the London I live in now, and the city in the Georgian period was just as diverse as it is now. It was a few decades before mass immigration, but I think there’s a preconception that London was white until 1945, and that’s just not the case.
This is such a vivid picture of mid 18th century London. Did you have any research highlights?
Loads! London has taken on many personalities in its lifetime but the Georgian city was particularly rich, with new wealth from the empire and overseas trading. The book might have been set 250 years ago but there’s so much that we would recognise: the theatre, gin, magazines, hot chocolate, shopping. But as well as that, it was also a place of crushing poverty that led directly to high mortality – in London, 75% of children died before their fifth birthday. It was also much smaller then, with a population of about 750,000 at the turn of the 18th century – it’s ten times that size now – and its boundary was much smaller. Where the Foundling Hospital was located in Bloomsbury was the very edge of the city, with countryside beyond, and Lambeth (where I live) was completely rural.
The book is called The Lost Orphan in the US and The Foundling in the UK. Do you have a view on that, or a preference of one over the other?
The Foundling was the working title of the novel while I was writing it, and was changed for the American market because I think the word foundling is less known there.
You have jumped period from The Familiars – early 17th century – to mid 18th. What’s next?
My third novel is set at the turn of the 20th century, which feels like a huge leap forwards in terms of modernity – they had cars and phones then, so it feels almost contemporary to me!
Reading this book and chatting with Stacey made me really want to visit the Foundling Museum in London. I love these tokens and the part they play in the novel.
Thanks for joining me for my first Monday Bookishness post! Have you read The Lost Orphan/The Foundling? What did you think? Any views on the different titles and cover styles? I’m leaning toward the American version on this one…
Please introduce the character in terms of job, relationships, family etc. …
Beatrice Alexander is a character in my latest novel, a fictional biography of journalist Nellie Bly. For those who don’t know Nellie, the short version of her story is that she took New York’s male-dominated newspaper industry by storm in 1887. Aged twenty-three, she feigned madness to report from inside an insane asylum, and two years later she travelled solo around the world to beat Phineas Fogg, Jules Verne’s fictional hero’s, record of circumnavigating the globe in eighty days. Nellie changed the face of journalism for women, ran her own manufacturing business, promoted equal rights and pay for women, and supported many causes throughout her busy working and writing life.
In The Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly, Beatrice is Nellie’s secretary. At this point, Nellie is in her fifties, and Beatrice, thirty…
If you know about Nellie Bly at all, you most likely know that she went round the world by herself in 72 days in 1889/90, or that she got her first break into New York newspapers by feigning madness and getting herself committed to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum in 1887.
But there was a lot more to Nellie Bly than that. Here’s a perfect example: Nellie reporting for the New York Evening Journal on the March 3rd Suffrage March in Washington D.C. in 1913. There are some great little videos about it on YouTube. Here’s an example:
And here’s Nellie’s thoughts on the event, taken from Brooke Kroeger’s biography, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist.
“Can you imagine it? Ten thousand women in line? They say that was the number by actual count… Picture if you can an endless chain of butterflies, divided into sections according to color fluttering along and it will give a little impression of the parade which made history… I was never so proud of women; I never was so impressed by their ability; I never so realized their determination and sincerity. I am glad I am one.”
The suffrage march was led by this woman, Inez Milholland, a lawyer, feminist and pacifist who probably deserves a novel of her own. She’s definitely someone worth celebrating.
“The Monopolists reveals the unknown story of how Monopoly came into existence, the reinvention of its history by Parker Brothers and multiple media outlets, the lost female originator of the game, and one man’s lifelong obsession to tell the true story about the game’s questionable origins.
Most think it was invented by an unemployed Pennsylvanian who sold his game to Parker Brothers during the Great Depression in 1935 and lived happily–and richly–ever after. That story, however, is not exactly true. Ralph Anspach, a professor fighting to sell his Anti-Monopoly board game decades later, unearthed the real story, which traces back to Abraham Lincoln, the Quakers, and a forgotten feminist named Lizzie Magie who invented her nearly identical Landlord’s Game more than thirty years before Parker Brothers sold their version of Monopoly. Her game–underpinned by morals that were the exact opposite of what Monopoly represents today–was embraced by a constellation of left-wingers from the Progressive Era through the Great Depression, including members of Franklin Roosevelt’s famed Brain Trust.
A gripping social history of corporate greed that illuminates the cutthroat nature of American business over the last century, The Monopolists reads like the best detective fiction, told through Monopoly’s real-life winners and losers.” (Amazon blurb)
Why read The Monopolists?
I stumbled across the book quite by chance today. It just sounds fascinating! Who doesn’t have childhood memories of cheating at Monopoly…
“The phenomenon of false allegations of mental illness is as old as our first interactions as human beings. Every one of us has described some other person as crazy or insane, and most all of us have had periods, moments at least, of madness. But it took the confluence of the law and medical science, mad-doctors, alienists, priests and barristers, to raise the matter to a level of “science,” capable of being used by conniving relatives, “designing families” and scheming neighbors to destroy people who found themselves in the way, people whose removal could provide their survivors with money or property or other less frivolous benefits. Girl Interrupted in only a recent example. And reversing this sort of diagnosis and incarceration became increasingly more difficult, as even the most temperate attempt to leave these “homes” or “hospitals” was deemed “crazy.” Kept in a madhouse, one became a little mad, as Jack Nicholson and Ken Kesey explain in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.
In this sadly terrifying, emotionally moving, and occasionally hilarious book, twelve cases of contested lunacy are offered as examples of the shifting arguments regarding what constituted sanity and insanity. They offer unique insight into the fears of sexuality, inherited madness, greed and fraud, until public feeling shifted and turned against the rising alienists who would challenge liberty and freedom of people who were perhaps simply “difficult,” but were turned into victims of this unscrupulous trade.
This fascinating book is filled with stories almost impossible to believe but wildly engaging, a book one will not soon forget.” (amazon blurb)
Why read Inconvenient People?
If I add the sub-title of this book, it should be instantly clear why I want to read this book: “Lunacy, liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in England. See. Obvious really.
I first came across this book while researching for The Girl Puzzle (new novel due out this Spring!). A large part of The Girl Puzzle takes place in Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum in 1887 and so this book is of great interest to me. Add to that, the two paintings below. I have prints of both of these hanging in my house.
They are both by Richard Dadd, a nineteenth century painter who suffered from mental health difficulties and was possibly schizophrenic. In 1843 he murdered his father and then spent the rest of his life in Bedlam and Broadmoor. Both of these paintings were completed while he was in Bedlam.
The whole field of mental illness and criminality intrigues me, particularly, but not exclusively, as it relates to women’s history – from witches, to hysteria and so on.
“The story of how and why a group of prominent and influential men in New York City and beyond came together to help women gain the right to vote.
The Suffragents is the untold story of how some of New York’s most powerful men formed the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, which grew between 1909 and 1917 from 150 founding members into a force of thousands across thirty-five states. Brooke Kroeger explores the formation of the League and the men who instigated it to involve themselves with the suffrage campaign, what they did at the behest of the movement’s female leadership, and why. She details the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s strategic decision to accept their organized help and then to deploy these influential new allies as suffrage foot soldiers, a role they accepted with uncommon grace. Led by such luminaries as Oswald Garrison Villard, John Dewey, Max Eastman, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and George Foster Peabody, members of the League worked the streets, the stage, the press, and the legislative and executive branches of government. In the process, they helped convince waffling politicians, a dismissive public, and a largely hostile press to support the women’s demand. Together, they swayed the course of history.” (Amazon blurb)
Why read The Suffragents?
Lots of reasons. For one, this book is by Brooke Kroeger. I’ve just used her biography of Nellie Bly extensively in writing my new novel, The Girl Puzzle. Her research is thorough (the index and references/sources are amazing) and her writing style is a pleasure to read. Then there’s the subject matter. I definitely feel that suffragette stories have great novel potential. I’m not sure I’m the woman to do one, but what some of these women went through should be celebrated and remembered. When the 2016 US election was going on my tween/teen kids were SHOCKED to find out that women only got the vote in the US in 1920 and 1918 in the UK (although only for women over 30). I’d love to see some new suffragette movies or books to keep us all aware of how short a time its been since women had equality at the ballot box.
“At the end of the Tudor era, two queens ruled one island. But
sixteenth-century Europe was a man’s world and powerful voices believed
that no woman could govern. All around Mary and Elizabeth were
sycophants, spies and detractors who wanted their dominion, their favour
and their bodies.
Elizabeth and Mary shared the struggle to be
both woman and queen. But the forces rising against the two regnants,
and the conflicts of love and dynasty, drove them apart. For Mary,
Elizabeth was a fellow queen with whom she dreamed of a lasting
friendship. For Elizabeth, Mary was a threat. It was a schism that would
end in secret assassination plots, devastating betrayal and,
eventually, a terrible final act.
Mary is often seen as a defeated or tragic sovereign, but Rival Queens reveals instead how she attempted to reinvent queenship and the monarchy – in one of the hardest fights in royal history.” (Amazon blurb)
Why read Rival Queens?
I can’t think of a single reason why I wouldn’t want to read this book! First, I am Scottish. Until I was six I lived in a council house directly opposite Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. Every day we walked past the gates of Holyrood, a palace where Mary lived and where her favourite musician, David Rizzio, was murdered. I’m not sure how old I was the first time we visited the palace but the plaque where Rizzio was murdered made a big impression on me.
Mary’s story is full of drama: from the murder of Darnley to her relationship with Bothwell, from her imprisonment in Fotheringay, to the plots and then her death on the command of her cousin Queen Elizabeth. Anyone interested in royal history should want to know more about these two Queens.
If the blurb is to believed, Kate Williams’ book is not to be missed. I love this publicity banner too, which I’ve just lifted from Amazon because it says it all: