While my novel, The Last Letter, is fiction, it was my family’s real-life letters that inspired it. The real Jeanie Arthur—my great-great grandmother—was a fascinating woman I never got to know. Obviously, I didn’t know her. But reading her letters now, I feel as though I not only understand her, but see me in her. Actually I see almost every woman I know in her.
Yes, I know many strong, intelligent, savvy women. But it seems as though each of us has that little chink in the armor. Different for everyone, but still there. For the real Jeanie, hers seemed to be her need to mold herself into Frank’s image of who she should be. Or, who she thought she should be as a wife.
Still, Jeanie is careful to remind Frank, she is a very desirable woman. For instance, in the short excerpt below, Jeanie is responding to Frank’s request that she write shorter letters to him. What, he was so busy he couldn’t stop to read her carefully chosen words, crafted just for him? Clearly she’s irritated.
August 27, 1882
The neighbors tell me he [Palmer Hoy] is very much in love with me for which I am sorry but cannot help him. He is at our house every day. Last night he stayed until eleven o’clock.
Jeanie responds in a way that is old as the Dakota plains but still employed by young women even today. Her response above is what I think of as the 1882 version of facebooking a photo of yourself and the cutest boy in the room—just to be sure your boyfriend doesn’t forget. He’s not the ONLY one who’s interested…
Things are not really that different today. We like to think the past is better, purer, sweeter, that the present is a sucking, swirling trip down the toilet bowl. But really, looking back and honestly at the present—can we say things are different at all?