Historical Fiction: Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, by Jennifer Chiaverini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1868, seamstress and former slave Elizabeth Keckley (she, herself, spelled it Keckly) did the unthinkable, when she had the audacity to write a memoir of her life in general and her years in the White House in particular. She would soon regret it, or at least regret her honesty and her misplaced trust her publisher. Drawing primarily from that memoir, author Jennifer Chiaverini has written a fictional account of her life from 1860 to her death in 1907, and although the perspective is primarily Elizabeth’s, appears to have provided a fair picture of the tumultuous life of Mary Lincoln as First Lady.

Her engagement to serve as Mary’s “modiste” was quite a feather in Elizabeth’s   cap, contributing greatly to the success of her dressmaking business. Mary quickly came to rely upon her for much more than her sewing skills. Mary was never well accepted into the society of the capitol, and Elizabeth became her truest friend and confidante. She also gained great insight into the character of Abraham Lincoln. Each woman was remarkable in her own right, for very different reasons, and each suffered substantially in the years following the President’s assassination.

Ms. Chiaverini writes a series of historical novels involving quilting during the Civil War, and Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is produced in the same simple, cozy style. Apparently, she couldn’t resist including a few slow chapters on the making of a quilt said to have been designed especially for Mary by Elizabeth, although she never managed to give it to her. What this book does well is paint a picture of race relations during the Civil War era; particularly evocative are the passages on the derogatory and overtly racist public reaction to the memoir, and on the difficulties Mary and Elizabeth encountered when traveling together. Mary is sympathetically portrayed as a well-meaning woman who did many fine things, but who undermined her popularity through her own behavior, likely due to bipolar disorder. Less uniformly successful is the portrayal of the personality of Elizabeth. Her extraordinary accomplishments are justly explicated, but the character herself comes across as a candidate for sainthood.

No book, of course, is perfect, and this is a story well worth reading. Elizabeth Keckley deserves a prominent place in the history of her era, and Mary Lincoln a more compassionate image, as Jennifer Chiaverini has demonstrated.


Bad Girls: Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Sayre was born in Alabama in 1900, 6th child of a prominent Southern family. She was an active child who studied ballet, was a bright but indifferent student, and in high school developed a reputation as a “speed”, the antithesis of the demure belle she was expected to be.

In 1918, Zelda performed “Dance of the Hours” for the crowd at her country club, among whom was a 21-year-old first lieutenant, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was stationed nearby. Fitzgerald asked her to dance, and they were immediately entranced with one another. He began to call her daily, visiting on his days off. Lt. Fitzgerald talked of his plans to be famous, and sent her a chapter of a book he was working on, telling her “the heroine does resemble you in more ways than four.” He was not the only man courting Zelda, and the competition only drove him to want her more. The following year, Fitzgerald was discharged from the service and moved to New York City to establish himself as a writer.Zelda and Scott corresponded by mail, and in March, they became engaged, against the wishes of her family. Among their objections to Scott was his religion (Catholic) and his excessive drinking. Zelda continued to flirt with other men, and, accidentally, she was to claim, she mailed to Scott a gift she meant to return to one of her other suitors. The engagement was broken, but only for a time. The couple married in April, 1920.

Zelda was now expected to be the witty and charming wife of an up-and-coming writer. After the publication of This Side of Paradise, the media focused attention upon the couple’s flamboyant life style. Zelda became jealous of her husband’s success, and Scott of the male attention directed toward his wife. Their drinking often caused their arguments to get out of hand. Their partying affected their health as well as their relationship, and they spent as much money as Scott could earn.

The birth of their only child, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald in 1921 did little to change their lives, and although Zelda was fond of her daughter and wrote to her frequently, Scottie was cared for by nannies. The following year, The Beautiful and the Damned was published, and Zelda accused Scott in print of plagiarizing material that she herself had written. Zelda had a strong desire to develop her own talents. She wrote a number of short stories, several of which were published in Scott’s name. As Zelda’s discontent grew, she encouraged the attentions of other men. She also became obsessed with ballet, practicing 8 hours a day, which Scott considered a waste of time.

As Fitzgerald’s literary fame increased to international proportions, they moved to Paris, where they socialized with such celebrities as Ernest Hemingway and Isadora Duncan. The attention Scott devoted to his friends increased Zelda’s sense of isolation and envy. Her dancing fixation contributed to her exhaustion, and she began to exhibit signs of obsessive-compulsive and bipolar disorders. She was admitted to a hospital in France, where she was ultimately diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Returning to America, Zelda continued to receive psychiatric treatment. While in the hospital, she wrote a novel of her own, submitting it to Scott’s publisher. The book was a semiautobiographical account of their marriage, and Scott was incensed, as he planned to use the same material in his upcoming Tender is the Night. He forced Zelda to revise her text, which was published in 1932 to little notice. Scott deeply wounded her by calling her work third rate.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was mentally ill for the rest of her life, although she did outlive her husband. Scott did not remarry, although he had a love affair with columnist Sheila Graham while working on a screenplay in Hollywood. Zelda died in North Carolina in a hospital fire in 1948.

The Fitzgeralds are buried together in his family plot in Rockville, MD. The closing line from The Great Gatsby is carved on their stone: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Great Nonfiction: The Creation of Anne Boleyn, by Susan Bordo

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who was Anne Boleyn? I can never think of her without thinking of Scarlet O’Hara as well, because that’s how I picture Anne, as strong willed, determined, feisty, and unafraid. Anne was real though, not fictional, and she’s come through history as a scarlet woman, an unscrupulous home wrecker who probably deserved to be executed. Susan Bordo has tackled the question of who/what this woman truly was and why Henry VIII, once so besotted with her, came to feel compelled to wipe her off the face of the earth.

The first half of The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a historical study of contemporary documents, most of which, alas, were written by the queen’s detractors (especially Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador.) But Anne had her admirers as well, and Ms. Bordo does an admirable job teasing out and presenting their opinions as well. Of particular merit is the space the author devotes to chronicling Anne’s valuable religious work and her genuine social concerns; there is some evidence, for example, that Thomas Cromwell, who played a major role in her downfall, agreed with Anne’s religious tenets but differed with her about what should be done when the religious houses were “reformed”.

The second part of the book examines Anne’s role in popular culture over the centuries. Ms. Bordo provides brief reviews of her treatment in literature, up to the present day. Surprisingly, she devotes even more time to Anne’s portrayal in the movies and television, with entire chapters describing the production of the recent Showtime series, “The Tudors”. Not being much interested in pop culture and celebrity, reading this section seemed to me like perusing an issue of People magazine at the hairdresser. Hence the four star rating. But hey, that’s just me.

Overall, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is strong enough to counter the image of Anne Boleyn as a thoroughly immoral concubine or witch. Perhaps she is not England’s greatest queen, but she made an important contribution to the country’s religious development, and was, after all, the mother of England’s greatest queen. Talk about important contributions!

Historical Fiction: Bone River, by Megan Chance

Bone River

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bone River is a mystery, but it’s less a “who-dunnit” than a “what was done.” Leonie Russell was raised in the Pacific northwest by her ethnologist father, who trained her to take up his own line of work and study. She always tried to be a good daughter and a good scientist, and when her father died, she trustingly married the man he chose for her, his associate Junius Russell. Together they made a life collecting Native American artifacts and selling oysters, and Lea’s only regret is that she never had children. But a pair of surprising events occur that shake her to her core, her discovery of a mummy buried along the riverbank, and the arrival several weeks later of Junius’ twenty-six year old son, Daniel, about whose existence Lea had been ignorant.

Megan Chance is a writer who is adept at creating genuine, compelling characters and intriguing plot lines that involve, but are not superseded by, spiritual, often mystical elements. In Bone River, she captures that arrogant racism that characterized the nineteenth century, the Victorian belief in the inferiority of women, and the struggles of eking out a living in an area that was then untamed wilderness. Leonie’s deeply existential crisis is often heartbreaking, and the reader is never certain how she will resolve it until the final pages. Finding the courage to be who you are is a daunting task for all of us.

Medieval images of carding, spinning, and weaving

This miniature or painting comes from a French translation of a text written by the fourteenth century Italian author, Boccaccio. The text is entitled Concerning Famous Women, and this specific copy of the text was made for Philip the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy. The manuscript now in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris (Fr. 12420) was given to Philip on New Year’s Day of 1403 by an Italian merchant by the name of Jacques Rapondi. The specific miniature opens the text devoted to the Roman queen Gaia, the wife of King Tarquinius. While illustrating Gaia’s attention to domestic occupations, the miniature can be used to give us insights to the workings of medieval industries. Here the miniaturist has represented the different stages in the production of cloth with the combing and carding of wool at the bottom right and the spinning of the wool above. Gaia is at the loom weaving the wool. The production and marketing of cloth played a central role in the economic resurgence in the later Middle Ages. Italian merchants like Jacques Rapondi gained great prosperity through the selling of cloth produced in Italian towns like

Florence and his native Lucca to aristocrats of northern Europe. Study of the cloth industry reveals the clear subdivision of production into separate specializations. The industry depended on the coordinated efforts of these independent specialists. To work collaboratively was clearly essential.

Remarkable American Women: Sarah Josepha Hale, Founder of Our National Thanksgiving

This week I posted an article about the authorship of Mary Had a Little Lamb, (link) attributed to of Sarah Josepha Hale. Today I read another article about her crusade to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday, to be celebrated annually on the same day by all the states. In a campaign that lasted  two decades, Hale wrote countless letters and editorials to congressmen, governors, and five sitting Presidents. At last, in October, 1863, Abraham Lincoln became convinced by her argument that a new national holiday would help to unify the country in the aftermath of the Civil War. Until then, the only other holidays celebrated across America were Independence Day and Washington’s birthday. Lincoln set the new Thanksgiving event on the last Thursday of every November. This date held until 1939, when President Roosevelt, in order to extend the Christmas shopping season, changed it to the second to last Thursday in November. Ultimately, in 1941, Congress made the change official.

by James Reid Lambdin, 1831

Mrs Hale also wrote editorials proposing a menu containing foods available at the original Plymouth Thanksgiving dinner. But her exceptional career was influential in many other realms. Born in 1788, she rose to become one of America’s first woman writers of note.  Northwood: Life North and South, one of the first successful books to deal with slavery as an integral part of its plot, was published in 1852. She produced numerous recipe books and poetry compilations, and served as editor of the widely popular magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, for forty years. Hale advocated for education, physical fitness, women’s rights,  the preservation of Mt. Vernon, and the building of the Bunker Hill Monument, for which she raised $30,000.

The remarkable Sarah Josepha Hale, a woman far ahead of her time,  died at the age of 91, in 1879.

Historical Fiction: The Burning Time by Robin Morgan

The Burning Time

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Author Robin Morgan is a well known international feminist. In The Burning Time, her first work of fiction, she draws upon medieval court records to relate the life of Lady Alyce Kyteler, the unconventional mistress of Kyteler Manor near Kilkenny, Ireland. During the 14th century, Christianity was accepted by the Irish, but many of them blended their new religion with aspects of the old “pagan” earth religious traditions. The pope sent an emissary, Bishop Richard Ledrede, to Ireland with the mission of rooting out and punishing heretics.

Lady Alyce was a woman ahead of her time, one who flouted the pretensions of nobility. Alyce treated her serfs with dignity, developed her skills as a healer, followed the ancient calendar, and led celebrations of holidays such as Lammas and Samhain. When Ledrede visited her offering to restore her to the church and save her soul, she strongly rebuffed him. Although Alyce marshalled assistance from her influential relatives, Ledrede was able to bring charges of witchcraft against her.

This plot should/could have been a compelling one, but Morgan spoils things by turning her novel into a polemic with dialogue. Alyce is portrayed as a sort of Joan of Arc, and her serfs, who play a relatively large role here, are worshipfully enthralled with her. As for Ledrede, he comes across as the ultimate misogynist bigot who takes out his resentment over being sent to this backwater upon his victims.

What I found most annoying was the frequent use of the term Wiccan, the use of which has not been documented to before the early 20th century. I did finish this book because I wanted to know the outcome, but in places, I had to roll my eyes….