Looking for the right words for the Arthur family…
It took me all day (minus time for a doctor appointment and travel to and from) to rewrite two chapters. These chapters are set in the kitchen (circa 1891) so I am doing round two of research making sure the flavor of the 19th century is evident in each scene. As my kids started coming home from school and I realized the main portion of my writing day was over, I felt as though I didn’t get enough done. But then I considered Hettie Morrison’s lot in life. I don’t know the exact day or days or years that prompted her to say this, but I sure am glad I don’t live in 1878:
“Not of my own free will did I enter upon a career of broiling, roasting, and baking… I wish to say that I think two-thirds of cook book makers should be hanged without benefit of clergy.” –Hetty Morrison–referenced in America’s Kitchens by Nancy Carlisle and Melinda Talbot Nasardinov.
For many people there is an air of romance about old-fashioned kitchens and life in the “good old days.” I see the allure of the “look” of something old, but quotes like Hetty’s and the list of “things to do” associated with making a hot cup of coffee each morning tamp down any notion that it was simpler “back then.” Bring on the Keurig or plop me down at Curbside Coffeehouse to write. Yes, that will do.
As I begin to work on The Garden Promise I put my mind in the mood for the 19th century American West, assisted by this drawing by Henri Boutet. Although the artist and his subjects were French, Boutet’s work helps me envision a time when people struggled to get by, but always found a bit of love and adventure along the way. These French boudoir drawings pull back the portiere on the private lives of women (some scandalous, some not). Some of my characters in The Garden Promise would have been very interested in French fashion. Some would not have the time to consider fashion at all. Boutet’s sketches and etchings were hand-colored and thought to show that he had great tenderness for women and their lives–even the parts that were not typically on public display.
When THE LAST LETTER launched in 2011 I was struck by two types of reactions from readers. One was that many people wanted to know more, they wanted to SEE more about how the Arthurs lived in the seventeen years between the two plotlines. And the second bit of feedback I got from some very angry readers was that they could not believe that Jeanie Arthur had, nor would they, as mothers, EVER board their own children out like the main character did in the novel, like the real Jeanie Arthur (my great-great grandmother) did over one hundred years ago.
At first comments like this panicked me. Had I been sloppy with my research? Had I been too inventive in a genre that requires the author to be simultaneously creative and “stuck” to historical facts? But as I considered the response to this idea of boarding children out I decided, no. I have personal/familial/anecdotal evidence that mothers boarded children out so that they and the larger family would survive. And there are mountains of data that reveal that living at the turn of century required families and mothers to make decisions that we 21st century moms never would, that we would rarely be asked to.
The photo above shows my great-great grandmother and her six living children after her husband and their father left them—after they formally divorced. The man in the photo is Jeanie’s father. That home behind them was the center of their lives and Jeanie did everything she could to be sure that she kept that house in the family, stowing money away in banks where it would be safe from people who wanted to spend it for her. . . But keeping the house in the family meant all the children had to contribute financially. For the younger girls that meant they were often boarded at other homes. For the older children it meant they sent home money for the household. And, it often mean Jeanie took in boarders of all ages—infants to the elderly.
Like Jeanie Arthur the character, the real woman worked a multitude of jobs, scraping and scrapping together enough money to feed her children, pay for their school (yes, high school required payment in those days), and keep that house. Her letters to her son, James, are full of details related to the care and maintenance of this home, the problems with it, the endless race to secure enough in tax money that no one could take the property from her… Likewise, her letters show just one way parents thought of and discussed their offspring that was so very different, starkly so, than today (see above quote with the photo). The “quarreling daughters” stand the test of time, but we’ve certainly changed our perspective on what is required of kids today. Stay tuned for more on how divorce in early 20th century America shaped the way the Arthurs lived their lives.
And if you love fiction woven into your history, take a look at THE ROAD HOME (Book 2 in The Letter Series), a recent gold medal winner in the Readers’ Favorite Book Awards.
It’s been an exciting Tuesday morning! THE ROAD HOME and RETURN TO LOVE
won gold medals in the Readers’ Favorite Contest. TRH won in the Fiction-Historical-Personage category and RTL won in the Romance-General category.
AND… HOME AGAIN won silver in the Short Story category. Thanks to all the readers who are reading and enjoying my work!!
I’m thrilled to be featured at Woman’s World Magazine along with fellow authors, Brigitte Quinn, author of Anchored, Lene Fogelberg, author of Beautiful Affliction, and Leanna Lehman, author of Vote for Remi! Click over and share 4 Funny, Touching and Totally Honest First-Day-of-School Stories from Mom Authors!
I’m going to take a look over my shoulder, back into 1890 when The Compendium of Cookery and Reliable Recipes was written. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am sharing some of the research I’ve done in order to shape the character and plot of The Road Home and The Garden Promise.
While this cookbook covers every imaginable type of food preparation known at the time it was written, it includes other topics for homemakers as they cobble their lives into pleasant existences, encouraging women to make the most of their circumstances no matter what they are.
There’s a section on “How to be Handsome.” And as you can imagine, the authors, Mrs. E. C. Blakeslee of Chicago, Miss Emma Leslie of Philadelphia, and Dr. S.H. Hughes of Boston, weren’t referring to how a man might keep himself attractive. It was the housewives they were speaking to.
“… the power of beauty has controlled the fate of dynasties and the lives of men. How to be beautiful, and consequently powerful, is a question of far greater importance to the feminine mind than predestination or any other abstract subject.” (Page 299)
I suppose this perspective explains the need to actually address a woman’s appearance in a book mostly devoted to caring for one’s home. As I first read this section I was surprised to find that the authors suggest “The first step to good looks is good health, and the first clement of health is cleanliness.” (Page 299)
Cleanliness! As germ theory was further developing, the idea that bodies needed to be fresh became more and more important. “Keep clean—wash freely, bathe regularly.” (Page 299)
I know that women have always taken care with their appearance, but I knew that “life circumstances,” like no running water, spare wardrobes, lack of money, no feminine products might have kept women from keeping “clean” as we think of it today. I had also been under the assumption that people bathed less—years less over a lifetime less—than we do. This then had me primed for surprise to see that this cookbook included instructions on how to bathe and its importance. “It is well to use a flesh-brush, and afterwards rinse off the soap-suds by briskly rubbing the body with a pair of coarse toilet gloves. The most important part of a bath is the drying. Every part of the body should be rubbed to a glowing redness, using a coarse crash towel at the finish. If sufficient friction can not be given, a small amount of bay rum applied with the palm of the hand will be found efficacious.” (Page 299)
I thought this was all very interesting (especially the use of Bay Rum which is a type of cologne/deodorant/astringent/ made originally in St. Thomas from bay leaves and rum.) even if it seemed a bit aggressive for self-care. I assume the scrubbing to redness perhaps had to do with the relative filthiness that 19th century women contended with on a daily basis (coal heat, industrialization without any pollution controls, making every blessed thing from scratch). But then I read this sweet little, gentle bit of information and it did indeed floor me, then inspired me to include elements of this in my work… hold onto your hats, dear readers…
“Ladies who have ample leisure and who lead methodical lives take a plunge or sponge bath three times a week, and a vapor or a sun bath every day.” (Page 300) Sunbath? Vapor bath? A little time in the fresh air sounds nice, doesn’t it? A little tea on the veranda or coffee on the back porch while the servants toil in the kitchen garden… sounds reasonable, sounds like something that fits the 19th century, American way of life… but then there was this:
“To facilitate this very beneficial practice, a south or east apartment is desirable. The lady denudes herself, takes a seat near the window and takes in the warm rays of the sun. The effect is both beneficial and delightful. If, however, she be of a restless disposition, she may dance, instead of basking in the sunlight. Or if she is not fond of dancing she may improve the shining hours by taking down her hair and brushing it, suing sulphur water, pulverized borax dissolved in alcohol or some similar dressing…” (Page 300)
Naked dancing at noon, brushing hair while clothed in nothing but the midday sunrays! Prudish Victorians? My naked, sunbathing ass, they were! I love, love, love that this is in a source that I can use without worry that I’m being anachronistic. There is nothing I love more than stumbling across research that flies in the face of what we believe about a certain era or class of people.
This is what makes the work so much fun for me. So… what kind of vapor bath girl (or guy) are you? Dancing, lounging, brushing your hair, something else? I think if I’m vapor bathing I’m going all out dancing. Perhaps that’s where that quote “Dance like no one’s watching,” originated? Oh, how I love this cookbook.