Vacationing in the Past with Edward Lear

Sometimes I need a change from the present day with its endless news—endless recycling of stories that make me sad or mad or both. That’s when I lose myself in reading about the past. For the last week or so I’ve been reading a new biography of Edward Lear. Remember him? He was the author of children’s verse such as

The owl and the pussycat went to sea

In a beautiful pea-green boat

They took some honey and plenty of money

Wrapped up in a five-pound note.

Even more famous are his limericks, which have become almost as familiar as Mother Goose rhymes.lear limerick

Like most people I had no idea that Lear was not primarily a poet, but rather a respected painter specializing in birds and landscapes. That was how he made his living and the reason why he traveled ceaselessly around Europe and the Middle East. I learned all this from a sparkling new biography by Jenny Unglow called Mr. Lear; a Life of Art and Nonsense.

 During the past two weeks I’ve spent much of my spare time dipping into Edward Lear’s remarkable life. Unglow makes his life memorable by describing his unusual family life—he was the 13th of 14 (or possibly more) children and was raised primarily by an older sister because his mother couldn’t cope with all the babies.

Born in 1812, Lear was able to take advantage of the speedy travel made possible by the spread of trains across Great Britain and most of Europe and the steamships that took him to Greece, Malta and Sicily. His network of friends gave him companionship when he was in foreign lands. Although not an aristocrat, he found patrons among wealthy families who valued his pictures and enjoyed his cheerful company and his way with children. He was welcomed everywhere he went.Lear_Macaw

Certainly his life wasn’t easy. He suffered from a range of ailments including epileptic attacks as well as episodes of depression. He longed for the stability of marriage and family life, but his emotions centered on men and he never found a way of balancing his desires with the rules of Victorian society. Still, he maintained his friendships and found satisfaction in his work, although like all of us he often complained of overwork.

The past was not a happy place, and I wouldn’t want to live there, but visiting it now and then is refreshing. I urge you to read Jenny Unglow’s book, which is available now in libraries and bookstores as well as on Amazon.com.

People have lived through worse times than those we are going through today. Reading and writing about them today gives me perspective on the life and times of the 21st century. That is why I have set my Charlotte Edgerton mystery stories   in the 1840s, a tumultuous period in both Europe and America. Charlotte Edgerton and her friends lived through many of the same events that Edward Lear did.

Later this month, the fourth Charlotte Edgerton mystery Death Enters the Convent will be published. I’ll write more about that in my next post.

 

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A Gloomy Fourth of July

Those of us who are old enough may remember a little verse by Sarah Cleghorn that we heard in school:immigrant child

The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

 

That verse popped into my mind yesterday as I heard the news about Congressmen (and women) leaving Washington this weekend to go back to their districts for the Fourth of July celebrations. Some of them are no doubt headed for golf courses. And meanwhile we have thousands of immigrant children being held in detention centers, separated from their parents, wondering what will happen to them. While our representatives celebrate the past glories of our country, they have not taken the time or made the effort to fix the immigration system so horrors like this do not occur.

This has been a bad year for America. Congress neglects its duties and focuses instead on satisfying donors and carrying out the demands of an erratic president. This month has shown how far America has wandered from the virtues celebrated in its usual July 4th self-congratulations.

Land of the Free? Well, not entirely. The Supreme Court upheld the right of individuals to use their religious beliefs to deprive some people of their right to buy a cake in a public shop. But now that Justice Kennedy has announced his retirement, Trump and his supporters are determined to appoint a new justice who will take away the right of women to practice their own beliefs in choosing the medical treatment that is right for them and their families. A justice who will support laws imposing the religious beliefs of some Americans about when human life begins to prevent all women from following their own consciences. Depriving other people of their right to privacy and their right to access appropriate treatment is not freedom.

Home of the Brave? It is difficult to see much bravery in Congress these days as they meekly accept the orders of an ignorant and bullying president. Paul Ryan, who spoke out bravely during the 2016 election campaign and refused to support a man whose morals showed him to be blatantly unfit for office, has crumbled along with the rest of the Republican majority. Congress stood by and watched the farce of accepting an order that immigrants from a number of Muslim-majority countries should be barred from the U.S. No one will be more secure because of this limitation, but many families will suffer. They passed a tax bill that reduced taxes for their supporters and probably themselves, but will leave ordinary working people behind. They accepted the imposition of a record-breaking national debt that our children and grandchildren will have to pay. And they failed to ensure that all Americans get a decent level of healthcare

No, this is not a Fourth of July to celebrate. Instead of mouthing worn-out phrases about America’s past glories, this is a year to start reversing, as much as we can, the slide backward into the bad old days we worked so hard to overcome. Instead we can

  • Get in touch with our representatives and urge them to fix our immigration policies and live up to our ideals.
  • Choose candidates in the upcoming midterm election who will battle to ensure that the gains that have been made over the past century in Civil Rights and Women’s Rights are not thrown away.
  • Urge our leaders to work with our allies and democracies around the world to maintain peace and stability in the world. We do not need to cater to autocrats and sully our reputation as an example to the world.
  • And the only way to do all of this is to REGISTER AND VOTE! voting

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Did Elizabeth Bennet Wear Underwear?

Many movies this summer feature fantasy characters inhabiting a fantastic world created in the filmmaker’s mind. Fantasy fiction is the choice of young adult readers who pore over lengthy descriptions of future life. Oddly enough, many of the fantasy worlds of the future seem to resemble one another. The same electronic doors slide open to admit the threatening villain’s as did a generation ago in Star Trek. Human imagination, after all, has its limits and Utopian futures go through cycles often offering predictable versions of what life will be like.

More surprising than fantastic futures are the forgotten realities of the past.  “The past is Jane Austen fashiona foreign country” as L.P. Hartley wrote, but few people take the time to understand how different it was. We assume that the people who lived years ago and wore funny clothes were in fact thinking and feeling just as we do. But when we read the books and letters they wrote, we are constantly being reminded that the past is far different from what we consider normal today. Even the small things like being able to contact friends and family at a moment’s notice is something that seems natural today. How did people get along without it?

When I was researching background for my first Charlotte Edgerton book, A Death in Utopia, set in the 1840s, I found the forgotten histories of the times an amazing treasure trove of trivia that brought the past alive. It wasn’t the detailed histories of presidents and society women

A Death in Utopia Final (Small)

A Death in Utopia

that gave me a sense of what was going on, but the long-forgotten memoirs and collections of letters from ordinary people that helped. In a book called My Friends at Brook Farm (1912) I learned that the young people who lived in that Utopian community had the same desire to be in contact with their friends as today’s teenagers do. John Van de Zee Sears describes the “peculiar whistle” they used to signal to a friend that they were near, and the answering whistle the friend would use to respond. This detail made the Farm community come alive to me in a way that formal histories never could.

Letters and diaries from the past record the way people felt about other people—sometimes far differently from the way we feel today. Van de Zee Sears tells us that “racial prejudice was cherished as a virtue” so his friends who lived in upstate New York in a Dutch settlement worried when he was sent to school among strangers in Massachusetts. To the New Yorkers with their Dutch roots, the people at Brook Farm were “English, that is to say, foreigners, strangers”. For a Dutch American to live among them was a big step. Knowing that helps us understand how long it took for Americans to embrace the diverse society the country was becoming.

A recent column in the Washington Post is a good reminder that even Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers were far more provincial in their outlook than would be acceptable today. It is good to remember that the men who wrote our constitution were not 21st century men in funny clothes, but people whose lives and ideas were as different from ours as we are from the Martians in science fiction.

There are historians to meet every need. Clothes often lead us into understanding the past and appreciating the way our ancestors lived and felt. One of the most fascinating blogs that I read is written by two women who are the authors of popular regency novels. They call themselves “two nerdy history girls” and their blog posts introduce the fashions, furniture, and habits of the past. Would you like to know what underwear a Jane Austen heroine would have worn? Or how a woman wearing a hoopskirt could manage to sit down on a sofa? The nerdy history girls show us videos of how women dressed, how their clothes were made, and how they were worn. Learning about those clothes and how constricting they were helps us to know the women. After learning about the reality of everyday life, it is easier to understand why many women didn’t have the time or energy to demand rights for women.

Instead of celebrating the creators of fantasy worlds, I like to celebrate the historians who bring to life the world of the past and let us see what it was like to live in years gone by. The more we understand the past, the more we should be able to control our future. As for what Elizabeth Bennet wore—read the historians!

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A city frozen in time or on the move?

If you have ever seen the old (1999) movie Blast from the Past, you probably remember the ingenious premise. A suburban American couple in 1962 decides that an atomic war is about to begin. The husband has prepared a secret bomb shelter underneath the house for just such an occasion and he leads his pregnant wife there. For 35 years the family remains hidden and when their son finally emerges, he discovers the world has completely changed. No atomic war came, but their neighborhood has turned into a slum and the people he meets are unfriendly and greedy. In the movie this encounter leads to romance and comedy, but what would going back to an old neighborhood after 35 years really be like?

Reading David Talbot’s Season of the Witch (2012) has reminded me of how dramatically and quickly American cities can change. Talbot’s book is a well-documented history of frozen_hippie vanSan Francisco from the 1960s until the 1990s. During that time the population of the city did not change much—hovering in the 700,000 range—but the people and the mood of the city altered sharply. New groups arrived in the city and many descendants of earlier residents drifted away.

Talbot begins his book with 1967, the Summer of Love, when San Francisco attracted crowds of young people demanding peace, love and an end to war in Vietnam. The staid citizens of the city, many of whom looked back on World War II as the proudest moment in American history could not understand why young men were unwilling to become warriors. Conflict was inevitable, but the hippies learned to provide their own services to take care of the young people flooding into the city. Eventually the war ended, the runaways went back home or settled down in the city, but San Francisco was never the same. Many memories of the city of love are still alive in the minds of city residents.

No city can remain a city of love forever and the days of love and trust faded away as drugs came into the city and with them some brutal crime sprees that shocked residents and titillated the rest of the country. The zodiac murders were especially brutal. And later came the trauma of Jonestown when hundreds of people—men, women, and children—died under the guidance of a charismatic but deluded minister. Drugs, death and destruction all became part of the indelible history of the city.

Reading Season of the Witch makes you aware of how swiftly and irrevocably a city changed over a short period of time. The gay community gradually overcame the fearfrozen_parade and resistance of many of the city’s more traditional residents. Today the city is a center of LGBTQ life. The Gay Pride parade became an emblem of the city and the movement it started spread across the country and around the world. The tragic crisis of the AIDS epidemic might have torn the city apart, but instead it seemed to bring the city together in working to heal the sick and find a cure.

All of this happened within the lifespan of one generation. Each decade brought the city another influx of people with new ideas and ambitions. And now a new wave of people have come, bringing another source of tension.  Well after the period covered by Talbot’s book, came the invasion of the “techies”, welcomed by some and hated by others, but undoubtedly a group that must be reckoned with.

The prices of houses, condos and rentals have soared, streets have become crowded with cars, bicycles, and scooters and giant buses have appeared to carry the newcomers back and forth to their jobs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. And now developers are hoping to push height limitations on new buildings to accommodate the newcomers. Will San Francisco eventually become a city of high rises like so many other cities around the world? That remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain—it will not remain the same.

Centuries ago Heraclitus told us “There is nothing permanent but change” and it is still true.

freeze_tower

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The Royal Melting Pot

With all the bad news in world this week, there was one major event that made almost everyone happy—the royal wedding in England. Prince Harry married Megan Markle, an royal wedding photoAmerican actress. Even though Harry is 6th in line for the throne and very unlikely ever to become king, the wedding was treated as a major milestone in British history. The fact that Ms. Markle is a divorced biracial woman and an American makes her different from most people who have married royals, but the habit of marrying foreigners has a long history.

European royals have married across borders for centuries. Cultures have mingled, religions have been changed to suit the new country, and new customs spread across the continent. Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, is even credited with introducing the Christmas tree to England–an important innovation if there ever was one–although  some historians dispute his role in that.

The Georgian kings, who reigned during the 18th century, all married German princesses and brought many European ideas and customs to England. They also seem to have brought a lot of good sense too. Queen Caroline of Ansbach has been called the most intelligent consort in British history and was known in her own time as a strong political force. In fact a ballad written at the time warns her husband, George II, that she outshone him.Caroline_of_Ansbach_-_Highmore_c._1735

You may strut, dapper George, but ’twill all be in vain,

We all know ’tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign –

You govern no more than Don Philip of Spain.

Then if you would have us fall down and adore you,

Lock up your fat spouse, as your dad did before you.

Despite this kind of satire, Caroline was a good influence on the king and on the country. When she died, she was widely mourned by citizens who admired her strength and intelligence. At a time when monarchs had far more political influence than they do now, she was able to help shape modern England.

The importance of the royal family has dwindled since the days of the Georges, of course. The brides of all members of the royal family now seem to function mostly as fashion plates and supporters of good causes. But they still have an important role in bringing some new ideas and backgrounds to the royal household.

Megan Markle’s mixed heritage echoes much of what is going on in Britain today. The recent scandal over people from the Caribbean who were invited to move to Britain after World War II to relieve the labor shortage shows that race is still an issue. Ms. Markle’s heritage and the attention that was paid during the wedding ceremony to the African culture that is a part of the United Kingdom may help to move the country toward a greater acceptance of its broadly based cultural heritage.

Moving the country into a greater acceptance of its diversity may be the most important result of this highly-publicized wedding. That would demonstrate that even after all these years the monarchy can still be an important uniting force for the British people. It would be nice, of course, if the wedding also leads to a long and happy marriage for Harry and his bride.London crowd

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Happy Active Mother’s Day

A few days ago one of my nieces told me that she was going to spend Mother’s Day with her adult son. They would celebrate by having lunch and going for a run together. I smiled thinking how impossible it would have seemed, when I was growing up, to have considered a mother as someone who would go out for a run on Mother’s Day.

Mothers back then had white hair, sat in rocking chairs, or perhaps in the passenger seat of cars, and were taken on decorous trips for any celebration. Even their clothes were expected to be subdued. I can remember my puzzlement as a small child when I heard my grandmother mutter “mutton dressed as lamb” about some actress who was considered to dress in inappropriately youthful style.

Ideas about what is appropriate for women, and especially mature women, have certainly changed. One of the icons of our times is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the Supreme RBG workoutCourt Justice who popularized the idea of fitness for all ages. It has been a long, slow journey to the acceptance of the idea that women should keep themselves strong and able to meet the challenges of their lives. And many of the ideas that brought this change were introduced by those rigid Victorians, both men and women, who had seen the indignities of living with corsets, tight shoes, and bodies smothered by long, heavy skirts. But it was not an easy fight.

Perhaps we should make a national hero of Amelia Bloomer, the 19th century feminist who tried valiantly to make clothes serve women instead of making women slaves to clothes. Although clothing reform was not her major interest—she also campaigned for women’s right to vote and to petition the government, as well as for temperance—she recognized that the heavy, uncomfortable dresses women wore restricted their activities and the work they could do. When she saw a costume made up of loose trousers covered be a knee-length skirt, she adopted the idea and advocated it in her newspaper The Lily. It soon became known as the Bloomer costume. Women discovered that it freed thembloomer-costume from the necessity of restricting their activities. With their new freedom they could walk along the filthy streets of big cities or the mud and dust of country roads without carrying along bugs and trash clinging to their skirts. They could even ride the new-fangled bicycles and move faster and more easily than they ever had before.

It took more than a century to banish the long skirts and restricting underwear that had hampered women for centuries, but at last it has happened. The freedom to wear practical clothes started with young women who rode bicycles and went to work and eventually were allowed to participate in public life. Young mothers joined their husbands and children in active life and as they grew older, they continued to be active.

This year let’s honor all the women who keep up with their children and grandchildren as they celebrate an active life.

women exercising

 

 

 

 

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Tough Women Write Poetry–Aphra Behn

When literary people talk about women poets they often mention famous figures from the past. Emily Dickinson is the American poet who almost defined poetry for generations of schoolchildren as well as adults. Her name is familiar

emily_dickinson01

                      Emily Dickinson

to most readers, and a movie about her life, A Quiet Passion, impressed critics and moviegoers as recently as last year. The pale, reclusive Emily in her white dresses, scribbling her poems on little pieces of paper in her room seems the ideal poet.

Other women poets of the past are also well known. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, confined to her sickbed for years until rescued by Robert Browning, who took her to Italy and helped her become famous. Female poets are often associated with illness, delicacy and fragility. They are viewed as weak creatures, prone to suicide and early deaths. But not all women poets fit this pattern. Today I want to look back and honor the tough woman who proved that a woman could be both a writer and an active participant in worldly life—Aphra Behn.

One of the reasons Aphra Behn is not remembered, perhaps, is that we know little about her life. She was born, probably in 1640, almost two hundred years before Emily Dickinson in England. Her parents might have been a barber and a wet nurse, or perhaps not. One indisputable fact is that she learned to read and write, a rare privilege among working class women of her time. The gift of literacy made it possible for her to meet and mingle with people of all classes. Her introduction to aristocrats may have come through one of the families her mother met while acting as a wet nurse.

Coming of age during the restoration, when Charles II returned to the throne, gave Aphra an opportunity to become active in the world of theater and publishing. As Oliver

Aphra_Behn

Aphra Behn–sketch

Cromwell’s puritan restrictions were removed, there was an outpouring of publishing and theater. Starting out as a poet, Aphra turned to writing fiction and produced the story Oroonoko, set in Surinam, which became a long-lasting best seller. Later she turned to writing plays. She also, apparently, served as a spy for Charles II. Because she seldom discussed her background, very few facts are well established. One thing that we know for sure is that she was finally buried in Westminster Abbey—although not in the poets corner where many of her male friends and colleagues lie.

For those who would like more information about her life, I recommend a biography by Janet Todd, Aphra Behn: A Secret Life. It is long, but gives a continuously fascinating picture of a life shaped by history and secrets.

Perhaps the most important statement about Aphra Behn was made by Virginia Woolf in her essay “A Room of Her Own”.  All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds… Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.

So as we read the poetry of the delicate women poets of the 19th century during this Poetry Month, we also ought to pay tribute to a woman who came before them. She struggled with poverty and class prejudices to make her way in a man’s world and in doing so she ensured that women’s voices would eventually be heard.

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