Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Betsy Boffo in Britain

On May 18, 1805, the ship Erin--with Betsy Bonaparte and the rest of her party aboard--dropped anchor off the coast of Dover and apparently sent someone ashore to procure passports. In a sign of how slowly news traveled in the early 19th century, that same day the London Morning Courier reported--in an item dated "Madrid, April 10"--that Betsy had just embarked from Lisbon on her way to Holland.

Betsy's reception in England was considerably warmer than what she had met with in Amsterdam. Her fame, already widespread in the United States, had preceded her, and her rough treatment at Napoleon's hands apparently trumped her familial connection to the Bonapartes and stirred British sympathies. Not that they would have needed much stirring, given that Britain was at war with France and Napoleon was roundly despised.

On May 20, the Morning Courier--now fully apprised of Betsy's whereabouts--heaped scorn on "the French, who boast so much of their gallantry to females" but had prevented the pregnant Betsy from landing. Here in England, the Courier added, Betsy "knew she would be hospitably entertained." A few days later the paper again took up the theme: "In [her] distress she turned her thoughts towards England, a country where neither enmity, politics, or warfare, ever yet extinguished the feelings of humanity and the spirit of gallantry. In England she found an asylum."

According to newspaper reports, when Betsy landed at Dover, she was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd whose numbers the Courier described as "almost past calculation." Another report said that the man escorting Betsy from the ship was able to get her to her waiting carriage only "with the greatest exertions" because of the pressure of the crowd. The reports noted that Betsy seemed pleased by the attention.

No doubt she was also gratified to read the many encomiums to her beauty. "The personal attraction[s] of Madame Jerome Bonaparte have been reported through every part in Europe," remarked the Courier (which was on this story like a glove). "Nor has her elegance been too much celebrated. Her figure is about the middle size; her countenance sweet and expressive; and her general deportment such as must interest and engage the heart of every beholder."

Poor Eliza. Initial reports described her as simply "a female," although a later one reported her name and called her one of Betsy's "beautiful countrywomen." Still, I can't help wondering if the imbalance in attention might not have caused some friction between the two women--as a comment by Betsy a few months later suggests.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Napoleon Wins Round One

It was now clear to Betsy Bonaparte and her traveling companions--which included her friend Eliza Anderson--that, despite the fact that Betsy was pregnant with his niece or nephew, Napoleon wasn't going to let them land in any port that he controlled. That would include Amsterdam, where they were currently moored, under armed guard. The same day that the ship Erin finally received fresh provisions from the Dutch Admiral, the ship's captain also received a written order to leave the port--as though, after they'd almost come under fire from the Dutch, there could possibly be any doubt about whether they were welcome.

So, where to go next? At this point Napoleon controlled enough European territory that there weren't many options. Of course, one possibility would have been to turn around and sail back to the United States. And Betsy's husband Jerome had been ordered by Napoleon to tell her to do just that (although there's no evidence he had sent her such a message at this point). But--given that Betsy was due in only two months, and sea voyages could easily take six weeks--an Atlantic crossing was risky. Besides, Captain Stephenson apparently had other cargo to deliver to Amsterdam and needed to return, once he had rid himself of his problematic human cargo. Nor was Betsy ready to give up on her hopes that Jerome would convince his brother to recognize the marriage.

Betsy's own brother Robert, who was in Holland on business and had heard of the stand-off in Amsterdam harbor, desperately tried to get a message to her telling her to proceed to Emden, in Germany. But apparently that message never got through.

It's not clear exactly how the discussion unfolded, because Captain Stephenson reports rather laconically that "when the wind came fair we put to sea and after we were outside debated where we should go[.] [W]hen it being determined for England, we made for that country and next afternoon anchored off Dover." (Betsy, alas, was even more laconic, reducing the whole episode to the comment, "not being permitted to land in Holland obliged to go to England." It's really too bad we don't have Eliza's impressions of the Amsterdam adventure. Judging from what I've read of her letters, she would have provided quite a vivid account.)

England was, in some ways, a logical choice: it was close by, and--given that England and France were at war--Napoleon certainly wasn't going to be able to prevent them from landing there. But, if Betsy was still hoping to curry favor with her putative brother-in-law, choosing to have her baby in the land of his sworn enemies, the British, probably wasn't the smartest move.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Betsy and Eliza vs. Napoleon, Part III

So, back to Betsy and Eliza and their party, hovering near the mouth of the Amsterdam harbor in May of 1805...

According to the captain of the ship, Stephenson (whose journal is transcribed in a 1953 article in Maryland Historical Magazine by Dorthy Quynn and Frank White), a few hours after the incident with the confused pilot, the Erin was forcibly put under guard between two armed warships. And, "by way of doubly securing us if it was not already done," two additional boats rowed around the Erin all night.

The next day, buffeted by strong winds, the passengers on the Erin began to feel the want of food: a month had now transpired since their last stop, in Lisbon, and they had expected to land in Amsterdam some days before. "Our fresh provisions were all consumed," Captain Stephenson recorded, "and we found ourselves reduced to salt Beef and Biscuit, fare not very well relished by passengers particularly ladies." And of course, at this point Betsy--seven months pregnant--was eating for two.

The captain tried to communicate the problem to the armed sloop hovering nearby--many times. "To all of which someone on board with true Dutch Sang-froid answered Yaw, Yaw, and paid us no further attention."

Then, for some reason, the Dutch ordered the Erin to unmoor, despite the strong winds--which resulted in the ship being blown too close to the armed sloop. At that point, someone on the sloop "told us that if we came near enough to touch him, they would fire into us, and send us to the Bottom, and that we might fully comprehend the force of his generous offer, he repeated it in very good English."

It's clear from the journal that Stephenson himself had more than a little sang froid, or at least a dry sense of humor. He follows this report with the comment that "we could not reconcile ourselves [to the] thought of drowning, especially in a climate as cold as Holland is, where to drown is a double death, as you are sure of being half frozen before you get comfortably full of Water..."

He goes on to say that no one "but the principal officers" knew why armed force was being used to prevent the Erin from landing. He later found out that various rumors were circulating: the ship was carrying yellow fever, or "combustibles to destroy the Dutch fleet." Some even thought the Erin--an unarmed merchant ship--had "some designs of taking Holland." The captain added, "It never once entered the heads of those poor people that all this stir was only to prevent a man and wife coming together."

Stephenson then came under pressure from the passengers--particularly Betsy's brother William--to send out one of the Erin's lifeboats in an attempt to procure some food. The captain strongly urged against this plan, saying it was too risky, but at length was obliged to give in. William Patterson, accompanied by "the surgeon" (a Dr. Garnier, who presumably was around to attend to the pregnant Betsy), and some seamen set off in the boat, but there was an immediate outcry from the warships. The captain called to "Mr. P.--told him it would be madness to push the business any farther as the guns were pointed and matches holding over them."

The sight of guns pointed at them seemed at last to have a discouraging effect on the boating party, and they turned back. The captain remarked that "the surgeon who was warm for going appeared to be in full as great a hurry to get back, as he did not take time to step into the ship but rolled over the ship's side in on deck."

The whole abortive incident at least caught the attention of the Dutch admiral--who apparently hadn't understood the situation--and the next day "brought a full supply of everything, an assortment of wines and liquors, and a very polite message from the Admiral."

At least Betsy and Eliza and the rest had something decent to eat and drink. Now--since it was pretty clear they weren't going to be landing in Amsterdam--the only question was where to go next.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Betsy and Eliza vs. Napoleon, Part II

After the elderly pilot scampered off into the Amsterdam harbor--fearing for his life because he had almost disobeyed Napoleon's orders to prevent the ship Erin from landing--Betsy Bonaparte and her little traveling party (including her friend Eliza Anderson) were somewhat demoralized, to say the least. When the circumstances were explained to Betsy, the ship's captain said, "they afflicted her very much, as it at once proved to her, she would not be received by the French government."

Here we might pause to consider what had happened to Betsy's errant husband Jerome, who had parted from her in Lisbon with the promise that he would see his brother Napoleon and convince him to recognize the marriage. Jerome has taken something of a beating from historians and commentators in light of what later transpired, but all the evidence from 1805 indicates that, (a) he really did love Betsy, and (b) he did try, sort of, to get Napoleon's approval.

Shortly after they parted in Lisbon, Jerome wrote to Betsy: "Don’t cry because tears do no good and may do you much harm... Take care not to receive visitors or to make visits and to have someone always with you either Mrs. Anderson, the doctor, or William... I embrace you as I love you, and you know that I love you very much..." A few days later, Jerome ran into some old friends on the road--the Duchesse d'Abrantes and her husband, who had just been appointed Napoleon's ambassador to Portugal. Jerome eagerly showed the couple a portrait of Betsy, according to the Duchesse, and then said, "Judge, then, whether I can abandon a being like her; especially when I assure you that to a person so exquisitely beautiful are united every quality that can render a woman amiable." The Duchesse, who had known Jerome in his black sheep youth, "could not help remarking a wonderful alteration in his manners. He was sedate--nay, almost serious."

On May 3--almost a month after he'd left Betsy in Lisbon, and only a few days before Betsy tried unsuccessfully to land in Amsterdam--Jerome wrote to her from Italy, where Napoleon was then ensconced. He was clearly optimistic, telling Betsy that he would be meeting with the Emperor the next day and that he and Betsy would be reunited (he doesn't specify where) during the first half of June. But a few days later Napoleon sent word to Jerome that he would meet with him only if he renounced Betsy and ordered her to go home.

Jerome had previously assured Betsy that if he failed in his mission he would simply withdraw "with my little family in no matter what corner of the world." But when push came to shove, he gave in to Napoleon's demand--perhaps by a return letter of the very same day. Why? He later told Betsy that his plan was to prove himself valiant in battle and then ask for Betsy as his reward. It's also possible that Napoleon wasn't about to let him leave quietly--he'd already threatened Jerome with arrest if he deviated from the route prescribed for him from Lisbon to Italy. And it's possible that Jerome suspected that his charming but ambitious little wife wouldn't have lived too happily ever after in obscurity in "no matter what corner of the world."

Here's one thing that puzzles me, though: Napoleon apparently sent word to Jerome in Lisbon, before he left, that Betsy would be prevented from landing in Amsterdam. So why didn't Jerome warn her, and tell her to go somewhere else? It's possible that Jerome never got, or didn't understand, that part of Napoleon's orders. When he wrote to Betsy in April, shortly after they parted, he addressed his letter to her in Amsterdam (under the pseudonym they'd adopted in Lisbon, d'Albert). So he must have thought she'd be able to land there.

In any event, Betsy and Eliza and the rest of the party knew nothing of what was transpiring in Italy, and they were clearly unprepared for the hostile reception they had gotten in Holland--which, though technically not part of Napoleon's empire, was ruled by a puppet government. And things were about to get even more hostile...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Betsy and Eliza vs. Napoleon

So: On April 9, 1805, Jerome Bonaparte went off to see his brother Napoleon, who was then in Northern Italy, leaving his wife Betsy and her companion Eliza Anderson behind in Lisbon. "Mon mari est parti," Betsy wrote in her notebook, adopting the language of what she hoped would soon become her adoptive country.

At this point Betsy was 5 or 6 months pregnant. Originally the young couple may have set off for Europe in hopes that their baby would be born on French soil, thus perhaps strengthening the validity of their marriage in Napoleon's eyes. Napoleon himself had no heir yet, and presumably another Bonaparte -- a little boy Bonaparte, that is -- would have been a welcome addition to the family.

But by the time Jerome and Betsy left Baltimore, the plan had apparently been amended: after Jerome was let off the boat in Lisbon, the rest of the party would proceed to Amsterdam, where they assumed Betsy would be allowed to land and have her baby. A letter to Betsy from her father, addressing her as "My Dear Daughter" and dated the day before her departure from Baltimore, instructs her to proceed to Amsterdam and await word from Jerome that he'd arranged for her to be received by the Bonaparte family. Her brother Robert was in Holland attending to business and would be able to provide for her needs until word arrived. If Jerome proved unsuccessful, Betsy was to return home as soon as possible. (A later note written on the document in Betsy's hand -- she apparently loved to annotate her correspondence in her declining years -- says, "He never addressed me as his dear daughter after the day of my destiny was over & the Star of my fate had declined." Indeed, the relationship between father and daughter was soon to deteriorate dramatically.)

And so the ship Erin set off from Lisbon for Amsterdam--its passengers apparently unaware that Napoleon had decreed that Betsy would not be allowed to land there. The journey was much rougher than the trip across the Atlantic had been -- "a very tedious and uncomfortable passage," according to the captain, that took 26 days, longer than the transatlantic voyage.

When they got near the Amsterdam harbor, they waited two or three days for a pilot to guide them in. When none appeared, the captain determined, "with no little Risk and Anxiety," to bring the ship into harbor without one. As they neared the harbor an elderly pilot appeared and began to guide the ship in. But within a few minutes a shot was fired as a signal for them to halt. "I asked the pilot if this was customary," the captain recorded. "He told me it was not. Yet no one suspected anything uncommon from it."

A few minutes later, another pilot boat came along and asked "if we belonged to Baltimore" and if they had come from Lisbon. When the captain answered in the affirmative, this second pilot told them they couldn't land, and left. "Our old pilot," the captain related, "now seemed to awaken as from a dream and was excessively frightened." He had suddenly recalled that pilots had been forbidden from bringing in this very ship, and "concluded by assuring us that if his age did not protect him he would be hung and would no doubt as it was get a severe flogging and imprisonment."

The pilot was in fact imprisoned. But the little party out of Lisbon hadn't yet felt the full strength of Napoleon's wrath.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Eliza and the Bonapartes Land in Lisbon

I was regaling friends at a dinner party last night with tales of Betsy and Eliza -- and it reminded me that I've left my readers (whoever you may be) hanging. So, what kinds of adventures did Eliza encounter when she sailed across the Atlantic with Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte?

They left Baltimore in a merchant ship called the Erin, apparently chartered by Betsy's wealthy father. As I've mentioned, keeping their departure a secret was of the utmost importance, given that the British were at war with France and would have liked nothing better than to capture Napoleon's youngest brother. The captain of the Erin acknowledged in his journal that "The Embarkation of these persons on board the Erin was intended to be kept a secret, yet nothing was less so, each of the ladies protested their Innocence of divulging the Voyage, and one of them it is very possible may not have spoken of it. But certain it is the great secret was known in my family indirectly from the other one."

Despite the lack of discretion, the ship somehow didn't come under fire from the British, and the little party--which consisted of Betsy, Jerome, Eliza, Betsy's brother William, and several other servants and hangers-on--made their way safely across the Atlantic in a mere three weeks. The only difficulty they encountered was seasickness. (Jerome, in his charmingly fractured English, wrote to Betsy's father that Betsy had been "been very sick, but you know as well as anybody that seasick never has killed no body." Jerome may have sounded like the old salt he affected to be, but, according to the captain, Jerome himself had been plenty seasick as well.) The captain reported that the ladies amused themselves by gossiping about people back in Baltimore: "The subjects of it could not had they known all that passed been the least offended, for ... no one was spared."

Their destination was Lisbon, presumably since it was technically not under Napoleon's control. They had every reason to believe that Napoleon wouldn't be exactly welcoming to Betsy, since he'd expressly forbidden Jerome from bringing her back to Europe with him. Still, even at Lisbon the Bonapartes used an assumed name. It apparently fooled no one (aside from the benighted Portuguese, who, according to the ship's captain, were kept in "such a state of Ignorance that Napoleon himself might have been with us, without their knowing or caring about it, providing he had no troops with him"). Various "distinguished personages" came to call on the Bonapartes at their hotel, including the Spanish ambassador and the Papal Nuncio--who was described by the ship's captain, apparently no lover of Catholics, as "a canting, whining priest."

As planned, Jerome bade his wife farewell after a few days and set out overland to find his brother the Emperor and plead with him to recognize the marriage. The ship's captain thought Jerome was headed to Paris, and it's possible Betsy and the others thought so as well. But in fact, Jerome had found orders from Napoleon awaiting him in Lisbon: he was to go meet Napoleon in northern Italy, according to a specified route. If he deviated from it he would be arrested. The orders also said that Betsy would not be allowed to land in France or Holland, and that she should return to America immediately. It's not clear that Jerome passed this information along either -- in fact, given what happened next, it seems that he didn't.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Eliza, Betsy, and Napoleon--Part 2

So, as I was saying, Betsy and her husband Jerome Bonaparte decided to try once more to sail from Baltimore to Europe to try to convince Jerome's brother--the Emperor Napoleon--to recognize the validity of their marriage.

On at least one of the previous abortive attempts at crossing the Atlantic--the one that ended in a shipwreck--Betsy had brought along an unmarried female relative of hers, Nancy Spear, as a companion. There's no explanation of exactly why she brought Miss Spear along, but the couple may have anticipated some difficulty that would require them to be separated.

But when Jerome and Betsy decided, in March 1805, to attempt the voyage yet again, Betsy brought along not Miss Spear (who may have been reluctant to go to sea again after that shipwreck) but her brother William and her friend Eliza Anderson. At this point Betsy was several months pregnant, so a female companion who could hold her hand during a possible delivery may have seemed like a good idea.

The mention of a "Mrs. Anderson" on this voyage has led some of the many historical novelists who have taken a crack at Betsy's story to conclude that she was an older "family friend"--"sour and efficient" as one author characterized her--with experience as a sort of midwife.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Eliza Anderson was 25 at the time, only five years older than Betsy, and the two had been friends from their youth. Although no letters between them survive from this time, later letters suggest that Eliza felt a partly maternal, partly sisterly interest in Betsy--sometimes urging her to read the "metaphysical writers" that Eliza herself found consoling in times of despair (she mentions works such as William Paley's Moral Philosophy and Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments), sometimes chiding her to curb her notoriously acid tongue.

We don't know exactly why Betsy chose Eliza to accompany on her voyage, but at this point both of them held a somewhat marginal position in Baltimore's elite society, which may have strengthened their bond. Betsy was the daughter of one of the state's wealthiest men, William Patterson (second in wealth only to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, according to Thomas Jefferson). But her reputation had suffered as a result of her controversial marriage, her air of superiority, and her scandalous manner of dress (she favored the new French neoclassical style--no corset, thin material--leading Americans to complain that she was appearing in public nearly naked). Basically, a lot of people in Baltimore couldn't stand her--just as she couldn't stand them.

As for Eliza, her father was a respected, but far from wealthy, doctor. Probably as a result of family connections and her father's eminence, Eliza was friendly with the daughters of Baltimore's leading families, including not only Betsy but the three Caton sisters, granddaughters of Charles Carroll. But her position in society was even more precarious than Betsy's. At the age of 19 she had made an ill-advised marriage of her own, to a Henry Anderson. After about a year, during which he fathered a daughter, Henry abandoned his family, apparently after going bankrupt.

So in 1805, when Betsy asked Eliza to accompany her to Europe, Eliza was essentially a single mother, living a life of genteel poverty in the shadow of far wealthier friends and relatives. We can safely assume that her life lacked glamor and adventure. How could she resist Betsy's invitation to sail to Europe and possibly be received at the court of the Emperor Napoleon, even if it meant leaving behind her four-year-old daughter and risking her life on the high seas, where there lurked not only natural disasters but also the British navy, on high alert for Jerome's rumored crossing?

Well, actually, I probably would have said no myself. But Eliza was apparently made of stronger, and more adventurous, stuff.

And as we shall see, she got plenty of adventure.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Eliza, Betsy, and Napoleon

And so, to pick up where I left off -- alas, some weeks ago now -- I decided to try to find out more about this woman Eliza Anderson, the author of these three delightful and intriguing letters to Betsy Bonaparte in 1808. Nothing much had been written about her in recent times, but the magazine of the Maryland Historical Society had published three articles about her: one in 1934, one in 1941, and one in 1957. Of these, only one focused exclusively on Eliza. The others were about her and her second husband, the French architect Maximilian Godefroy.

The more I read about her -- and the more of her letters I came across -- the more intrigued I became. I already knew from the three letters I had read that she was witty, intrepid, defiant of social conventions -- and an excellent writer. Here are some other things I discovered:

In 1805, when she was about 25, Eliza accompanied her friend Betsy Patterson Bonaparte on a risky voyage across the Atlantic. Why so risky? Aside from the fact that all ocean travel was risky in that era, there was a war going on between the British and the French. And if the British figured out exactly who was in THIS ship, they would have found it a most attractive target.

Betsy's last name is a clue to what the problem was: a little over a year before, at the age of 18, Betsy had impulsively married Napoleon Bonaparte's 19-year-old brother. Betsy's wealthy father had given his consent to the marriage with great reluctance -- after doing everything he could to break up the romance -- because he feared that Napoleon would object. And indeed, Napoleon, who became Emperor shortly after the marriage took place, was livid when he found out what Jerome had done. He had other plans for his siblings, namely using them to form alliances with the royal houses of Europe. And Jerome's marriage had occurred during an unauthorized leave from his military duties in the West Indies. Napoleon ordered him back to France at one -- without the "young person" he claimed to have married.

After some dithering, Jerome and Betsy resolved to head back to France together and plead their case before the Emperor. But because the British would have liked nothing better than to capture their enemy Napoleon's brother, the young couple had to guard their plans with as much secrecy as they could. As it turned out, they weren't capable of a whole lot of secrecy, and rumors of their attempted departures (some true, some false) kept showing up in the newspapers. Finally, they managed to embark, only to be shipwrecked rather spectacularly only a few hours later. Everyone was saved, but according to reports, when rescued the passengers were "nearly naked."

This attempt was followed a few weeks later by another one that proved equally abortive: soon after sailing, the ship encountered an armed British frigate and turned back. Then it was winter, when an Atlantic crossing was too perilous to undertake. But finally, in March of 1805, Jerome and Betsy decided to try once more.

And this is where Eliza comes into the story...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Divorce, 19th-Century Style

Okay, I think it's time to say a few more words about Eliza Anderson Godefroy, the woman I mentioned a few blog posts back.

I stumbled across her while researching what I thought was going to be a historical novel about a woman named Betsy Bonaparte, a Baltimore heiress who married Napoleon Bonaparte's youngest brother, Jerome, in 1803 (she was 18, he was 19). Betsy's correspondence and papers are housed in the library of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, and there are a daunting number of them. As I was going through the first of 20 boxes, I came across three letters written to Betsy in 1808 that stopped me in my tracks.

They were far better written and far more interesting than anything Betsy herself had produced (at least, from what I've read of her correspondence -- and I've now read a lot). And they were all written by a woman named Eliza Anderson, who had gone off in pursuit of her ne'er-do-well husband. He had married Eliza some nine years before when she was 19, fathered a child with her, and then quickly abandoned the family.

Why was Eliza pursuing him now? Because she had fallen in love with another man, a French architect named Maximilian Godefroy, and she wanted a divorce. Divorce wasn't easy in those days: you had to petition the legislature for a private law granting you a divorce, and you had to prove adultery. For some reason, Eliza had gone from Baltimore to Trenton, New Jersey, to get her divorce. After some time there, she decided that her lawyers weren't doing enough to track down her errant husband and obtain proof of adultery (not an affair, as she remarked, "to which men usually call witnesses"). So she decided to go to Albany, where she thought he was, and track him down herself.

One of her letters describes the steamship journey up what must have been the Hudson -- the crowd of passengers jammed tightly on board, the relentless sun, the "smoke & glowing delights which Lucifer prepares for his faithful followers." She waxed lyrical about the mountains and the rising sun that shone on the clouds, so that they "looked like other & more distant hills bordered with silver." And, moving on to her arrival in Albany, she expressed her disgust with her cad of a husband, who -- in addition to his other faults -- had now descended to working as a fisherman and "associating cheerfully with servants." But she got what she came for: he not only confessed to adultery, but also ultimately provided the name of a witness of sorts, a Baltimore physician (perhaps the provider of an abortion?).

Who was this spirited woman whose writing was so engaging, I wondered? I had to know. And so I found myself getting sidetracked from my research into Betsy -- who was, in addition to being a mediocre letter-writer, a pretty unpleasant person -- and getting more and more intrigued by Eliza.

I'll share some more of my discoveries about her in my next post.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Well, Hello Fanny!

Sometimes ignorance is, if not bliss, at least a state that makes it more likely you'll engage in that willing suspension of disbelief that is so crucial to immersion in someone else's imagination.

Last night I saw the movie Bright Star, which is set in the 1820s and based on the romance between John Keats and, literally, the girl next door, a young woman named Fanny Brawne. (I realize my previous blog post was also about a movie -- it's actually very unusual for me to see two movies in the space of a few days!) It's an engaging, terrifically romantic movie (fittingly, since it's about a Romantic poet). And what's more, the period details seem spot on and not prettied up. There's laundry hanging out to dry, lots of mud (I kept worrying about the hems of those lovely empire-style dresses), and the actors -- even the female ones -- seem to be wearing little or no make-up, which gives them an authentically scrubbed and slightly raw look. And, according to Caleb Crain in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine, the screenwriter, Jane Campion, incorporated phrases and ideas from Keats's letters into the dialogue.

But right at the beginning, there's a detail that I, for one, found jarring. As Fanny Brawne and her family arrive at the house of some friends, there's a chorus of greetings: Hello, Hello, Hello. Over and over. What's the problem? The word "hello" didn't actually come into common usage as a greeting until much later in the 19th century -- not until Thomas Edison decided that "hello" would make a good word to use when picking up the phone (Alexander Graham Bell favored "ahoy"). Before that, it appears to have been something people said primarily to express surprise or to get someone's attention. If you wanted to greet someone in the early 19th century, you would probably have said "good morning" or some variation appropriate to the time of day.

It's true that Wikipedia suggests that "hullo" may have been used as a greeting in England, as opposed to the U.S., as early as 1803. But the point is that, for me, even thinking about whether these people would actually have said "hello" broke the spell that the movie was trying to cast. For a few moments at least, I was no longer in the front hall of a house in Hampstead in 1828; I was in a movie theater around the corner from my house, in November 2009.

And therein lies one of the dangers of historical movie-making -- or historical fiction. You always have to sweat the details, on the off chance that some viewer or reader will know more than you do. (And it's clear that Caleb Crain was distracted by a slightly different but related question, i.e., whether Keats really would have spoken the way he did in the movie.) That's one reason it was such a relief to work on a contemporary novel over the past few months: I could be quite confident that my period details were indisputably authentic.

But ultimately, last night, I forgot about all those "hellos," forgot the fact that I was in a movie theater, and gave myself over to the movie itself. And, knowing how difficult it is to get every nuance "right," I can't really bring myself to chastise Jane Campion for what appears to be an anachronism.

Actually, I just kind of wish I'd never heard that "hello" was a late 19th-century invention.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Author

Watching the movie The Soloist this weekend put me in mind of an encounter I had recently, one that continues to haunt me.

The Soloist -- which I highly recommend, by the way -- is a true story about the relationship between a journalist, Steve Lopez, and a homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers. When Ayers, who is playing a two-stringed violin on the street and is pretty obviously schizophrenic, mentions something about having gone to Juilliard, Lopez does some research and finds out it's true: the guy was once a promising cellist. Lopez writes about Ayers and helps him get a cello, reunite with his family, and move off the street.

Here's my own experience: a couple of weeks ago I was leaving the Library of Congress after an intense day researching the woman I'm currently writing about, Eliza Anderson Godefroy. Outside on the deserted pedestrian walk, I saw something that turned out to be a couple of crumpled dollar bills. I picked them up but I felt funny about taking them: I didn't need this money. I resolved that I would give them to the first homeless person I saw on my way to the Union Station Metro stop.

There's generally no shortage of homeless people hanging out in front of Union Station. When I got to the first of the pedestrian islands you cross in order to get to the station itself, I found no fewer than four homeless people clustered there, begging cups at the ready. What to do? How could I choose between them? If there had been only two, I could have given them each a dollar bill. But there were four.

I hurried on, intent on making my train. But at the next pedestrian island -- at the side of the ornate fountain depicting Columbus staring forth boldly from the prow of his ship -- there was a lone scruffy-looking middle-aged African-American man seated on the ground, a knit cap pulled low over his brow. Quickly, I stuffed my dollar bills into his cup and began to move on.

But he thanked me and called me back -- and, surprised by his clearly articulated, unaccented English, I turned around.

"I want to tell you something," he said crisply as I drew closer. "I want you to go to the Library of Congress."

"That's where I just came from!" I said.

"Well, I want you to go there and look me up in the card catalogue," he continued. "Rod Amis. A-M-I-S. There are three of us: Kingsley, Martin, and me. They're British -- and I'm half-British myself. Anyway, go to the Library of Congress. You'll see I've written 11 books. You'll find them there."

I was amazed. The specificity of his description (not 10 books, but 11) and his obvious acquaintance with literature (he was familiar with Kingsley and Martin Amis, neither of them shlock writers) were convincing. Eleven books?? I wanted to ask what had happened to him, how he had ended up propped up against a marble fountain, begging for spare change.

But I couldn't quite bring myself to do it. Instead I told him that I too was an author -- that I had a book (only one) in the Library of Congress myself. I told him that I would be sure to look him up and that I had enjoyed meeting him. He gave me a warm, slightly surprised smile and nodded graciously.

I couldn't get Mr. Amis out of my mind during my ride on the Metro. And as soon as I got home I looked him up in the online catalog for the Library of Congress. To my dismay, I was told that my search had found no results. I tried again, then again. I tried a Google search and found a Rod Amis who had self-published a couple of books, but who was clearly not the same Rod Amis I'd met.

Finally I had to face the fact that I'd been duped. And yet, I couldn't feel annoyed at Mr. Amis for taking me in. Maybe he hasn't written 11 books -- maybe he hasn't written any books -- but he's clearly got a story of some sort to tell. I'll probably never know what it is. And I'm certainly not going to get a book out of the encounter, the way Steve Lopez did.

But what I did get out of it was a moment of connection with someone I had dismissed as just another homeless person. Whether or not Mr. Amis is a fellow author, we at least have -- or perhaps in his case, had -- similar aspirations. And my gut feeling is that Mr. Amis actually believed what he was telling me -- it was not so much a matter of lying as of confused realities. What's more, the look on his face when I told him I was glad to have met him -- words he probably doesn't hear too much -- is something I hope I'll never forget.

And those words were true.

ADDENDUM: After I published the foregoing blog post, I heard from an old friend of Rod Amis's. It turns out that the "Rod Amis" I found through Google IS the same Rod Amis I met. I had dismissed the possibility because the Rod Amis I found had written a book about New Orleans, and I just assumed he'd still be in N.O. But apparently Mr. Amis has now migrated to D.C. Lest there be any doubt, there are pictures of him in front of Union Station -- displaying a sign that says "Rod Amis ... Author, Raconteur, Bon Vivant" -- accompanying a posting about him at by Debbie Elliott.

So I stand corrected: Mr. Amis has in fact written at least two books (I could only find mention of two) and was a pioneer in (ironically, since I'm writing a blog post) the blogging world. The comments I came across online about his writing were almost uniformly enthusiastic -- and from what little I read, the enthusiasm is justified.

According to the NPR post, Mr. Amis has "slowly lost the use of his brain because of a vitamin deficiency often brought on by alcoholism" -- possibly an occupational hazard of his former profession as a bartender. I would amend that: he clearly hasn't entirely lost the use of his brain, although it's likely his writing days are over.

I was also wrong about another thing: as Mr. Amis's friend observed in his e-mail, a book could certainly be written about this man. Alas, I don't think I'm the person to write it.

What I'd really like to be able to do is figure out some way to get Mr. Amis off the street and into some kind of safe shelter -- especially on a day like today, so cold and wet that I myself am reluctant to venture outside even for a moment. It pains me to think that Mr. Amis -- or anyone else for that matter -- is spending an entire day unprotected from weather like this, weather that's only going to get worse in the coming weeks and months.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Exciting(?) News From the Past

So, faithful readers ("reader"? anyone?) are dying to know: who IS the historically significant, hitherto unknown woman I mentioned in my last post? Actually, really faithful readers will find the revelation to be old news, since I've mentioned her before in this space.

Her name was Eliza Anderson -- or, to be more complete, Eliza Crawford Anderson Godefroy, and she lived from 1780 to 1839. That she's unknown is probably self-evident, unless you're one of the handful of people who know about her. So, why is she historically significant? I think she may well have been the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States.

Perhaps this fact strikes you as something less than earth-shaking, and it surely won't require the rewriting of high school textbooks. But if you read through secondary source after secondary source, and they all identify someone ELSE as the first female magazine editor -- someone, that is, who came later -- you can find this tidbit of knowledge pretty exciting. At least, I can!

It's not just that Eliza was the first, of course. She edited her magazine in a pretty interesting way, and she had a pretty amazing -- if ultimately sad -- life. I'm currently working on a scholarly article about her, but it's a safe bet that very few people will ever read it. So I thought I might add, marginally, to the number of people who know about Eliza Anderson by occasionally posting some snippets about her here. If you're intrigued, please come back for more!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Uses of Nonfiction

Once again, it's been quite a while since my last post -- and every once in a while I get a reminder that someone is actually reading this blog, or trying to! At which point I feel guilty for not providing them with fresh material. So here goes ... and, as I've been advised by more experienced bloggers, I'll try to keep it light and breezy. And short.

So, what have I been doing since I last posted? Well, for one thing, I've written a 280-page novel, which I now have to figure out if I can possibly get published in the current dismal climate. (I'm hoping that a contemporary comic novel about mother-daughter relationships might be more marketable than a 450-page historical novel about two real women no one has ever heard of. But I might be wrong about that.)

I've also gone back, sort of, to the subject of the historical novel I WAS working on, before I took a break a few months ago to write the contemporary one. The only thing is, I'm not actually working on the novel. Instead, I've decided I need to write a nonfiction, scholarly historical article about one of the real women whose life I was going to fictionalize. Why? Because (1) I've discovered this woman was historically significant, and (2) no one knows about her. Fiction has its uses, but in this case the historical record needs to be corrected. And it seems the best way to do that is to put on my historian's hat.

Stay tuned for more on this remarkable woman and why I think historians need to know about her.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Julie & Julia & Me

Sometimes life throws you better plot twists than fiction.

The other day I saw the new movie "Julie & Julia," which is about (among other things) writing and the satisfaction of having your writing efforts acknowledged. As most people probably know by now, it’s the dual story of Julia Child, the woman who brought French cuisine to a meat-loaf-and-jello-mold America in the early sixties, and Julie Powell, the aspiring writer who recently had the clever idea of blogging about her effort to spend a year making all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s cookbook.

In the course of her exhausting self-imposed mission, Julie comes to idolize Julia – as does any moviegoer who remembers "The French Chef" fondly and who sees her uncannily embodied by the amazing Meryl Streep. Julie conceives of her year of cooking as a kind of homage to Julia, finds inspiration in the older woman’s determination to overcome hurdles, and yearns to meet her. So it comes as something of a shock when Julie learns, through a reporter, that the aging Mrs. Child doesn’t actually think much of her endeavor.

My husband’s comment, after the movie, was that it would have been so much nicer if Julia had actually appreciated Julie’s project. Well, yes, it would have led to a heartwarming moment, perhaps even a teary-eyed meeting between the two women. And it certainly would have been more in line with our expectations as viewers.

But that’s the thing about real life: people don’t always act the way you’d expect them to. Who knows why Julia Child took a dislike to Julie Powell’s blog? Maybe she simply turned into a crotchety old lady – much as we’d like to avoid contemplating that possibility. It’s not clear, from the movie, that she’d actually even read the blog.

But one thing seems clear, at least to me: whatever else may have been fictionalized in the movie, this was one plot twist that wasn’t invented. It’s just too unsatisfying, too bizarre. (And, just having read one of Julie Powell's blog posts -- on this very site, no less --I've discovered I'm right about this.) But it leads to something of an epiphany. Once Julie gets over her disappointment and dismay, she realizes (with the help of her saintly husband) that she doesn’t actually need the real Julia Child, because she’s still got the Julia Child of her imagination in her head.

And that seems to me far more interesting than the tender scene that might have ensued had Julia embraced Julie as her disciple and spiritual heir. When you spend that much time thinking and writing about a real but remote figure, she inevitably becomes – at least to some extent – your own creation. She takes on two lives and two personalities: her own, and the one you’ve invented for her.

Once again, I’m led to contemplate the relative safety of writing about people who are dead and therefore unable to spout their scorn to reporters from the Christian Science Monitor. Although of course, writers do owe more respect and deference to the living, not only because they’re capable of complaining, but because they’re capable of being hurt. (Judging from the movie, though, there didn’t seem to be anything in Julie’s blog that Julia should have found hurtful or disrespectful – far from it.)

When I was in college, something spurred me to try to make Julia Child’s recipe for French bread. I waited 13 hours for the dough to rise. Sadly, it never did. But after we saw the movie, my husband urged me to go out and buy another copy of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and try the recipe for coq au vin (actually, he said HE would try it, but somehow I was the one who ended up doing it). The result was delicious (and why wouldn’t it be, with an entire bottle of red wine, a quarter of a cup of cognac, and a whole stick of butter in a recipe that served 4 or 5?). But I was completely frazzled and exhausted.

Julie and Julia, my hat is off to both of you.

Getting Beyond Chapter One

Anyone who's keeping track may notice a gap of several months between my last blog post and this one. I'd like to say it's only because I've been so busy writing a novel these last few months, but that would only be partly true. Given that this blog is ostensibly devoted to the interchange between history and fiction, and given that the novel I've been working is distinctly non-historical, I haven't really been in the mindset that would lead me into thoughts that fit the blog.

But that doesn't mean I HAVEN'T been busy writing a novel. In fact, after starting one at the beginning of May, I've just finished a second draft of 275 pages. I didn't quite make the "write a novel in a month" deadline, but I finished the first draft in about six weeks -- which, if I say so myself, is pretty amazing. Not that it was a polished piece of work, but I suppose that wasn't the point. What WAS the point, you may ask? Just to get words on paper, to get the creative juices flowing, I suppose. And to get to the end.

Like some other writers I know, I have a tendency to start every day's writing session by going back over what I've written before, revising it, moving a comma here or there, second-guessing all my previous choices. Taken to an extreme, this can lead to writing the first chapter over and over and over again. So after a few months you might end up with a really good first chapter, but no second, third, fourth, etc. So I'd have to say that forcing myself to write a draft this quickly was a good discipline.

And did it lead to a good result? At this point it's too early for me to tell. I did quite a bit of revising in the second draft, but I'm still at the stage where I'm not sure I have enough distance from what I've written to tell whether it's working or not. For that I'll be looking forward to the reactions of a few others, including the members of my invaluable writing group -- which I've roused from its semi-dormancy for the occasion.

But even if I end up deciding that this novel is one for the recycling pile, at least I won't have wasted years of my life on it -- months, perhaps, but not years. And time spent writing may never be truly wasted. If I've made mistakes in writing this partiular manuscript, I hope I'll be able to learn from them and not make the same mistakes next time around. In any event, I certainly enjoyed the experience of writing it (or most of it, anyway), and -- as almost always happens when you really put your mind to writing something -- I feel I gained a few new insights and made a few new connections between things along the way.

And now it's time to try to get back to the early 19th century.... I'm afraid the next first draft may take me a little longer than six weeks, but let's hope that after six weeks I'll at least have moved beyond the first chapter.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Back to the Present

Some time ago a friend told me about something called National Novel Writing Month. The idea is that participants set aside one month–the month of November–and try to crank out a 175-page novel.

My reaction was: you’ve got to be kidding. It took me eight years to write my first novel, a historical one. I’ve been researching and writing my second for at least a year and a half, and I’ve only got about 80 pages to show for it. How could anyone possibly write a novel in a month?

But about three weeks ago, I was feeling kind of bogged down in my novel-in-progress. It was becoming more of a chore than an artistic calling. Then I had a flash of inspiration for a completely different kind of novel: light, comic, and contemporary. Indeed, based on my own experience. I wouldn’t need to do any research, I was living it. But how could I abandon my work-in-progress after sinking all that work into it?

Then I remembered NaNoWriMo, as fans of National Novel Writing Month like to abbreviate it. What if I just took a month off and banged something out?

So it’s been about three weeks now and I’m on page 130. And I’m having a blast. For me, it’s been liberating not to have to constantly consult history books and documents to make sure I’m not making mistakes. And the luxury of being able to come up with cultural references without doing extensive background research! Plus there’s the satisfaction of turning one’s own sometimes painful experience into something that (I hope) will make others laugh. Regardless of what others think, though, it’s definitely helped me maintain a certain ironic distance from the real experience that is grist for my novelistic mill.

But, as I’ve always known, there are pitfalls involved in writing about things drawn from your own life–not least of which is the danger that other people will recognize themselves in your writing, or think they do. It is, of course, fiction. None of the characters in this novel is true to the real-life models I’ve based them on. I’ve exaggerated and invented freely. But I’ve also used some dialogue taken directly from conversations I’ve had or overheard, and there are certainly some details the real-life models would recognize. I can say it’s fiction until I’m blue in the face, and inevitably there will be some people whose feelings might well be hurt if they read it.

I don’t like hurting people’s feelings. That’s why I write about people who have been dead for a good long time–they’re not about to rise up and complain. But in this case I just couldn’t help myself. And I can always console myself with the thought that, given the state of the publishing industry, chances are this novel will never see the light of day.

And if it doesn’t, all I’ve lost is a month (or perhaps a bit more–I may allow myself to cheat). On the upside, I’ll have gained a certain amount of enjoyment–not to mention the retention of my sanity in the face of events that are enough to drive just about anyone off the deep end!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ahead of Her Time

There are some lives that don’t need to be turned into historical fiction because they already read like a novel, if not a movie. And there are some historical figures that are alluring to us because they seem ... well, so modern.

Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), is a case in point. She was well ahead of her time, advocating things that don’t seem so radical to us now but which were practically unheard of in the 18th century: education for women that extended beyond drawing and music and the like; physical exercise for females; marriage based on mutual respect and companionship.

But Wollstonecraft didn’t just write about her principles, she lived them: she bore a child out of wedlock to a man she had fallen madly in love with–in the midst of the French Revolution, no less (she had traveled from her native England to Paris in order to write about the events transpiring there). True, when the object of her affection (an American cad named Gilbert Imlay) turned out to be a philanderer, she did what many women in similar circumstances have done, before and since: she tried to commit suicide. Twice.

But then she picked herself back up, wrote another book, and found herself another man–the philosopher William Godwin, who fell in love with her through reading that very book. They didn’t plan on getting married either, because they objected to the institution on principle. But when Wollstonecraft found herself pregnant again (thanks to their birth control method, which consisted of having sex as frequently as possible), they sacrificed their principles for the sake of their child: being born illegitimate was a substantial handicap.

Theirs was a very modern marriage: Godwin, needing his space, maintained separate quarters near Wollstonecraft’s home. In some ways they led independent lives. At the same time, though, they read each other’s work and encouraged each other’s literary endeavors and were generally pretty happy, despite their lack of funds. But it was not to last: Wollstonecraft (now Mrs. Godwin) died as a result of giving birth to their daughter, also named Mary. (She grew up to be Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.)

It’s hard for us, in the 21st century, to imagine how much courage it took to say the things that Mary Wollstonecraft said–and how much more courage it took to live her life the way she did. In an age when celebrities routinely have children out of wedlock (I remember seeing one headline in a celebrity magazine that said something like, “I want to get married BEFORE I have the baby," says Jamie Lynn Spears”), it takes a leap of imagination to understand what it meant for an educated, upper middle class woman to choose to become what used to be called an unwed mother.

Actually, Wollstonecraft didn’t trumpet the details of her unconventional life when she was alive; she even called herself “Mrs. Imlay” before she married Godwin, to conceal the fact that she had had her first child out of wedlock. That cover was, of course, blown to some extent when she turned around and became Mrs. Godwin. But most of the details came out only after her death, when Godwin–in a supremely misguided attempt to pay tribute to his deceased wife–spilled all the beans in a memoir.

For the next hundred years or so, the name “Wollstonecraft” became synonymous with “immoral crackpot.” Even 19th-century feminists, building on her legacy, did their best to disassociate themselves from her.

And of course, in some ways she was a crackpot–or at least a weirdo. She was someone who simply didn’t care what people thought, or didn’t care that much. I sometimes wonder what I would have thought of Wollstonecraft had I been one of her contemporaries. I hope I would have admired and appreciated her, but I doubt I would have had the courage to be her.

And I wonder, sometimes, who today’s “Wollstonecrafts” are. Do I dismiss them as crackpots, or am I able to recognize that they’re the voice of the future?

I don't know. But I do know who should play Mary Wollstonecraft in the movie: Claire Danes. Trust me on this!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Keeping It Real

I’m a big fan of Jill Lepore’s articles for The New Yorker, and I was particularly intrigued by one she wrote back in March 2008, called "Just the Facts, Ma’am." Lepore, who is a professor of history at Harvard, made a number of points that echoed my own thoughts, but what really struck me was her observation that fiction "can do what history doesn’t but should: it can tell the story of ordinary people ... the history of obscure men. Who are these obscure men? Well, a lot of them are women."

Right on, I thought (or would have thought, if I still thought in the idiom of the sixties). That’s what I was trying to do with my novel A More Obedient Wife, and what I’m currently trying to do with the novel I’m working on: taking obscure historical figures–and my main characters all happen to be women–and supplementing the fragmentary evidence with my imagination in order to bring them to some kind of life.

So when I heard that Lepore had collaborated with another historian of 18th-century America, Jane Kamensky–who teaches at Brandeis–on a historical novel set in the 1760's called Blindspot, I was eager to read it. I’ll admit I was a little skeptical when I heard it was a collaboration–I can’t imagine writing a novel with another person (even another person who looks almost like my twin, as Lepore and Kamensky do, judging from the book jacket photo). And I became even more skeptical when a friend told me the book had been panned in Publisher’s Weekly. But other reviews have been pretty favorable, and I tried to approach it with an open mind.

There’s certainly much in the book to admire. The authors know their 18th-century stuff (they’re the kind of readers I dreaded for my own book–the kind who’d be likely to pick up immediately on any embarrassing errors), and the style is fairly authentic to the period, but not so authentic a modern reader will find it tough going.

Still, my basic reaction was disappointment. I found it hard to care about the characters as much as I wanted to–they didn’t seem quite real to me. Part of the problem may be that the authors are at great pains (perhaps too great pains) to create a bawdy romp in the earlier part of the book, and then, when things take a more serious turn, it’s hard for the reader to switch gears. Or it was for this reader, anyway.

But another problem may be that these characters just aren’t real, in the sense that they don’t seem to think and feel like the vast majority of people of their class and their era. Not only are they sexually uninhibited–a characteristic I imagine has existed among humans in all times and places, at least in private–but they write about their sexual adventures in graphic detail.

I was readier to believe this of the main male character, Stewart Jameson, a portrait painter who is something of a rake, apparently based loosely on the artist Gilbert Stuart. But I had a harder time with the female character, Fanny Easton, a well bred Boston damsel who has fallen into distress. Okay, so she’s been seduced and had a child out of wedlock; but still–given the strict standards of modesty with which she would have been inculcated–I find it hard to believe she’d enthusiastically record an episode of extramarital oral sex in her journal.

Not surprisingly, Jameson and Easton also hold rather modern views on the role of women and equality of the sexes (although, in the authors’ defense, this is partly explained by the fact that for most of the novel, Fanny is disguised as a boy–so by the time Jameson discovers her true identity, he’s already formed certain opinions about her).

And not only are they opposed to slavery, they both have strong relationships to black characters: Fanny considers a slave child fathered by her own father to be her sister, to whom she feels deep familial ties–an attitude I suspect even the most ardent abolitionists of the time would have shied away from. And Jameson’s best friend is an African who has been highly educated by scholars as an experiment on the capacities of the African race, then sold into slavery–an experience that has left him irritatingly, if understandably, embittered. (This is the second novel I’ve come across lately featuring a character in the Boston of the 1760's who has been educated this way–the first being the title character in the intriguing young adult novel, The Astonishing Adventures of Octavian Nothing. How many of these Africans could there have been?)

I can’t say with authority that people who held these attitudes didn’t exist in the 1760's, but having read pretty extensively in the correspondence of Americans who lived some 30 years later, I will say that I’m highly skeptical. I suspect that Lepore and Kamensky just endowed their fictional creations with 21st-century systems of ethics because–well, it’s a whole lot easier to write in the voices of people you basically identify with, And it’s a whole lot easier for readers to get behind them–at least, for those readers who haven’t spent years perusing correspondence between actual 18th-century people. And hey, perhaps you’ll say, what’s the big deal? After all, it’s fiction!

Yes, but. If, as Lepore said in her New Yorker piece, what fiction can do is tell the story of ordinary people, shouldn’t she make sure that her fictional 18th-century characters aren’t just 21st-century wolves in 18th-century sheep’s clothing? Otherwise, whose story is she telling?

In retrospect, I see that this was the advantage of my decision to incorporate into my novels letters to and from the historical figures my characters are based on. At times it's something of a pain: there, in black and white, are these inconvenient statements I would prefer to ignore. I'm forced to deal with attitudes that are alien to me, and are most likely going to be alien to my readers. As reflected in the title–A More Obedient Wife–these people didn’t exactly see marriage the way we do. And some of my characters owned slaves. While it's clear from the letters that some of them cared about the slaves’ welfare, and viewed them as something more than just a piece of property, the fact remains that they owned other human beings.

When I had one of my characters in A More Obedient Wife, Hannah Iredell, muse that it was easy to forget that her slaves had feelings just as she did, one of the members of my writing group objected: how could Hannah say such a thing, she demanded indignantly? But to my way of thinking, how could she not? How could Hannah own slaves unless she was able to convince herself that they were in some fundamental way different from herself?

In the book I’m working on now, set in the early 19th century, I have other problems: both of my upper-crust main characters, to different degrees, express opinions about "merchants" and their vulgarity that are archaic if not downright repugnant. One of them is starry-eyed about titled Europeans–any titled Europeans. The other holds fairly advanced opinions about the role of women, but even she buys into commonly held female stereotypes of the time–and also expresses horror when she finds that her estranged husband has been socializing with servants!

My objective, and my challenge, is to find common ground with my characters despite the radical difference in our views of the world, a kind of "nothing human is alien to me" approach. I feel it keeps my characters real, in the sense that they’re rooted in authentic voices of their period.

But beyond that, it forces me–and, I hope, my readers–to stretch a bit, to empathize with people who were in many ways quite different from ourselves. And that, it seems to me, is one thing fiction can do that–with any luck–will carry over into our daily lives. We all need to figure out how to put ourselves into the shoes, and inside the heads, of people who are definitely not "us."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Fame and Obscurity

When I stumbled across one of the two main characters in the novel I’m currently working on–Betsy Patterson Bonaparte–at an exhibit of Gilbert Stuart portraits some years back, I was intrigued. Here was a clearly fascinating historical character languishing in obscurity.

Yes, her beauty and her marriage to Napoleon’s youngest brother in 1803 had catapulted her to celebrity status in the 19th century–a collection of her letters published shortly after her death in 1879 referred to her as "one of the most famous women in America," a statement that was to me a sadly ironic comment on the fleeting nature of fame. Sure, she was the subject of numerous biographies and historical novels into the early 20th century, and during the same era there were two silent films and a Broadway play based on her life. But who really remembered her now?

Well, apparently, a lot of people–at least in the environs of her native Baltimore. The other day I was at the Maryland Historical Society’s library in that city, putting in a request for a box of her correspondence. A man standing next to me, who turned out to be a Historical Society staff member, asked me what I was researching. When I told him, he informed me that he himself had done a lot of research on Betsy, and that if there was anything I needed to know I should just ask him.

Okay, maybe that’s not so surprising–after all, the MdHS is where Betsy’s papers are housed, along with various personal items. They’re even having something of a Betsy Bonaparte festival in the fall of 2010. But a little later, I was giving a luncheon talk at a club in Baltimore called the Hamilton Club (among those present were several people from my Baltimore childhood and adolescence, including my high school English teacher, who must now be approaching 90). The talk was primarily about my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, but when I mentioned my work-in-progress, I was surprised to find that virtually everyone in the room seemed to know all about Betsy.

"I must be the only person who grew up in Baltimore who’d never heard of Betsy Patterson," I remarked. (Baltimoreans, true to their conservative nature, seem to prefer to call her by her maiden name). I’ve even discovered that a bakery in downtown Baltimore I liked to frequent when I was a child was called "Betsy Patterson’s." Somehow, I’d never noticed the name.

Well, all right–maybe everyone in Baltimore has heard of her. But what about the rest of the country? I now live in Washington, D.C., a city that has a lot of its own history to deal with; Betsy made a number of appearances here in the early 19th century (including a very high-profile one when she appeared at a party wearing an apparently see-through dress), but in relative terms she must still be pretty obscure. Or so I thought.

Yesterday I toured an old plantation house called Riversdale located in what is now a Washington suburb. It belonged to a remarkable woman named Rosalie Stier Calvert, who left behind a lot of letters (published in a book called Mistress of Riversdale). In several of these letters she mentions Betsy, and I’m about to write a scene that places Betsy on a visit there. So I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the place.

It’s a beautiful house, lovingly restored, and I had an extremely knowledgeable and personable gentleman as my docent for what turned out to be a private tour (at only $3 per adult admission, this place is a bargain – I urge those living in or visiting the DC area to check it out). I kept hinting that I was primarily interested in what the house would have looked like in 1803 or 1804, without mentioning exactly why. But then I started to explain that I was working on a historical novel.

"Betsy!" muttered my docent, somewhat wearily.

How did he know? Does he routinely get visitors working on historical novels about Betsy Bonaparte? How many of us are out there? I was too taken aback to ask.

Of course, it’s possible that writing about someone who’s reasonably well known could actually be an advantage; maybe more people will be willing to buy and read a book about someone who’s not that obscure. But for me, part of the appeal of writing historical novels is precisely to rescue my (real) characters from obscurity, to make a "discovery." Clearly, Betsy has already been discovered.

But I can console myself with the thought that I have another character up my sleeve, one that only a very few people know about–even in Baltimore, which was also her hometown. Her name was Eliza Anderson Godefroy. And if you’re interested in knowing more about her (as well as in finding out some things about Betsy that may not be so well known), you’ll need to read my next book. Of course, first I’ll need to write it!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Dinner With Woody

The novel I’m currently working on has led me to contemplate the phenomenon of celebrity: one of my characters, Betsy Bonaparte, was catapulted into the public eye after her marriage to Napoleon’s youngest brother in 1803. In a way, she was the Paris Hilton of the early 19th century: young, beautiful, fabulously wealthy, and famous for being famous. (She also had a formidable intellect, but that’s not what she was famous for.) Complete strangers felt free to speculate about her private life, and even to write raunchy poetry about her when she appeared in public in a scandalously flimsy dress–sort of a 19th-century version of the Paris Hilton pornographic video episode, if anyone remembers that at this point.

The other evening I had a brush with celebrity myself. Not with Paris Hilton, but with someone who’s figured far larger in my own psyche. On the way to a benefit performance and dinner at the Metropolitan Opera, my hostess–a relative of mine–casually mentioned that I would be seated next to Woody Allen at dinner. My husband would be next to his wife Soon Yi.

WHAT?? For the next five and a half hours–through the cocktail reception and the four and a half hour performance–I suffered low-level panic. What could I possibly say to him? How could I keep him entertained? I knew he was famously reclusive, and I had the feeling he wasn’t the type to suffer fools gladly.

What is it about the prospect of encountering a celebrity that frazzles us so (or me, at least)? Part of it, I think, is the disconcerting feeling of seeing someone who looks so familiar but whom you’ve never actually met in the flesh before. During the performance, seated right behind Woody and Soon Yi, I kept thinking that they looked exactly like themselves (although Woody’s hair is grayer than I remembered). It was eerie, like seeing a painting come to life.

The other thing is what I might call the knowledge imbalance: when you meet a celebrity like Woody Allen, he knows nothing about you, but you already know a lot about him. Or I did, anyway. I asked my 18-year-old daughter if she knew anything about Woody and Soon Yi, and she had no idea. But I remember vividly the shock of finding out about their relationship, back in 1992: how Woody’s companion of 12 years, Mia Farrow, had discovered nude pictures of her 22-year-old adopted daughter, Soon Yi, in Woody’s apartment; how he subsequently admitted to an affair; how, during the bitter custody battle that followed, Mia accused Woody of molesting their 7-year-old adopted daughter. The week the Soon Yi story broke was the one and only time I’ve actually purchased a copy of People magazine.

So I don’t usually follow these sorts of celebrity scandals–not closely, anyway (I’ll admit that I do on occasion leaf through People magazine in the supermarket checkout line). But this was personal. I grew up on Woody Allen. I felt like I knew him, maybe because he bears a resemblance to my Uncle Morris–and because his New York Jewish sensibility struck a chord. I haven’t loved all of his movies–some I’ve downright disliked–but there are concepts in life that I find I can only express through the prism of a Woody Allen movie ("Zelig-like," is one adjective that comes to mind, along with the joke from Annie Hall about the guy whose brother thought he was a chicken–"We’d turn him in," says the guy, "but we need the eggs"). I had a certain image of him, and it didn’t correspond with the reality of a 56-year-old man having an affair with a girl who was in effect, if not in the eyes of the law, his own stepdaughter.

This was obviously one topic I wasn’t going to bring up at dinner (when my husband asked what he should talk to Soon Yi about, I told him, "Just don’t ask her how they met"). But what made the knowledge imbalance even worse was that whether I brought it up or not, Woody would know that I knew. That awkwardness would hang in the air, as it always must when Woody Allen meets someone new (unless that someone was, like my daughter, still a baby when the scandal broke). It was implicit in the moment of introduction, when I said my name, and Woody said, unnecessarily, "Woody."

After we were installed at our table, I was relieved when the woman sitting on the other side of Woody proceeded to engage him in a lengthy conversation. But eventually it was my turn. Actually, finding something to talk about was somewhat easier than I’d imagined. I asked him a few questions about his work, but he also talked about how much he’d liked Washington (where I live) when he came here to do standup in the sixties, and how he can’t go to the opera because he can’t stay up that late.

He was pleasant enough, but I had the distinct impression that he would have preferred to be elsewhere–probably in bed, asleep. Unlike some of the other celebrities in attendance, who had posed on the red carpet in their Yves St. Laurent outfits (the company was a sponsor of the event), Woody was there to see the opera–he’s a genuine fan. The other stuff–the paparazzi, the dinner conversation–was just something he had to put up with. He didn’t ask me anything about myself, but then, I didn’t expect him to. That’s part of the celebrity imbalance: I knew all about him (or thought I did), but he didn’t know anything about me, and didn’t particularly want to. My role, as I saw it, was to make his experience as painless as possible.

That weird false familiarity that surrounds a celebrity–the feeling that you already know this person even though you’ve never met–is heightened in Woody’s case because his off-screen persona is so similar to his on-screen one. At times I had the surreal feeling that Woody had either just stepped out of one of his movies, or I had just stepped into one (kind of like Mia Farrow’s character in The Purple Rose of Cairo, to use another Woody Allen metaphor). When our main course arrived–retro-comfort-food meat loaf with a hard-boiled egg in the middle–Woody stared at it glumly and then never touched it. A bit later the chair of the event took the podium and mentioned that she had chosen the menu to cut costs, in recognition of the economic crisis (never mind that it was described in the program as "Kobe Beef Meat Loaf"). Woody murmured, "So she’s the one I should complain to." He could have been Alvy Singer, or Virgil Starkwell, or any of his other on-screen alter egos.

Throughout the conversation, I had a sort of double vision of him: he was–perhaps surprisingly–just an ordinary human being, doing ordinary things; but he was also a celebrity, someone whose life I knew way more about than I should have. When he mentioned that one reason he needed to get to bed early was that he took his daughters to school in the morning, I thought: how sweet, how normal. But at the same time I couldn’t help wondering if he’d ever done that for the three kids he’d had with Mia–one biological, two adopted. I doubted it. Hadn’t he refused to marry Mia, hadn’t he even maintained a separate apartment throughout their relationship? How did those three kids feel now about his apparently idyllic relationship with their sister, and the two little girls who were at the same time their half-sisters and their nieces?

But if you just looked at the two of them, Woody and Soon Yi, the way you’d look at any couple you’d just met, there seemed to be nothing odd about their relationship, apart from the 35-year age difference. When Woody decided it was time to go, I saw him give Soon Yi the same gesture–raised eyebrows, lowered chin–that my own husband has given me, for the same reason, on countless occasions. They seemed affectionate, companionable, happy. Who am I to judge them? Who am I to think I know all about them?

Some would say that celebrities have no right to complain about intrusions into their privacy. They’ve invited attention, the argument goes, and they have to take the bitter with the sweet. Certainly that’s true in some cases. Betsy Bonaparte, for example, could easily have worn more clothing and attracted less attention, and she chose not to. But in other situations it’s not so clear. Don’t celebrities have the right to fall in love–and act upon that feeling–without undergoing intense scrutiny, even when they violate society’s conventions? When Betsy’s marriage fell apart very publicly, did she deserve the scorn that some heaped upon her? Did Woody and Soon Yi?

But I guess it’s naive to expect that the public will ignore such goings on. After all, I didn’t exactly ignore the Soon Yi episode myself, and I’m writing a whole book about Betsy (although in my opinion the fact that she’s been dead for over 100 years absolves me of any responsibility to respect her privacy or refrain from judging her). Not to mention the fact that I’m writing this blog post now.

I guess the bottom line is that, while I continue to see Woody and Soon Yi as celebrities–and while I’m not about to forgot everything I’ve read about them–having had an actual brief encounter with them, I also can’t help but see them as human beings. Maybe it’s the fact that Soon Yi laughed at one of my jokes, or that Woody seemed genuinely interested in some of what I had to say; maybe I’m just flattered that they deigned to pay any attention to me at all. And maybe I’m impressed that, after enduring abuse that would send most people permanently underground, they’ve simply gotten on with their lives. I may never understand what happened between them, but I’m no longer feeling equipped to condemn it. Really, it’s none of my business.

[N.B. -- Woody mentioned during dinner that the producers of the movie My Dinner With Andre originally wanted him to play the role ultimately played by Wallace Shawn--but he declined because he didn't think he could memorize all those lines. Hence the title of this post.]

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Plus Ca Change...

"People don't write letters any more!" When I go around speaking about my novel, A More Obedient Wife -- which is based on letters written in the 18th century -- I almost inevitably hear this comment. E-mail, cell phones, Facebook: they've all replaced good old-fashioned letter-writing, goes the lament.

I'm not saying people are wrong about this (although there's something to be said for email, which theoretically can be printed out and preserved for posterity -- and which, also theoretically, can actually be as finely crafted as a good old-fashioned letter). But what they may be wrong about is the assumption that there's something modern about this complaint.

Proof (if any be necessary) that there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun came today as I was perusing a volume published in 1887. Entitled A Girl's Life Eighty Years Ago, the book is a collection of letters by Eliza Southgate Bowne, a remarkable young woman and an apparently prolific correspondent. (In distinctly 21st-century fashion, I was perusing this volume online -- Google Books is amazing!)

In any event, I began by reading the introduction, written by someone named Clarence Cook. Mr. Cook, after praising the quality of Eliza's letters, embarks on a lament about modern life (again, this is 1887): "No doubt we have gained much," Mr. Cook says, from modern inventions that have "reduced time and space to comparative insignificance." But, of course, we've also lost some things -- and "among these losses, that of letter-writing is perhaps the most serious. A whole world of innocent enjoyment for contemporaries and for posterity has been blotted out, and, so far as appears, nothing is taking its place."

And Mr. Cook goes on, in words that sound strangely familiar: "Nowadays no one writes letters, and no one would have time to read them if they were written. Little notes fly back and forth, like swallows, between friend and friend, between parent and child, carrying the news of the day in small morsels easily digested; it is not worth while to tell the whole story with the pen, when it can be told in a few weeks, at the farthest, with the voice. For nobody now is more than a few weeks from anywhere."

We can only speculate what paroxysms of despair Mr. Cook would suffer if he could be revived and plunked down in our midst, where "small morsels" of news do almost literally fly back and forth, and the few weeks of separation he marveled at has become no more than a few hours. He compares letters to the newly invented "toy, the phonograph," which "will repeat what has been confided to it in the very voice of the speaker, with every tone and every inflection as clear as when first it spoke." What, I wonder, would he make of Skype?

And yet, despite the decline of letter-writing bemoaned by Mr. Cook, historians have managed to find a fair amount of correspondence written after 1887. Perhaps letters got shorter (some of those early 19th-century letters were almost novella-length, having been composed over a period of days), but people continued to write them.

And no doubt one or two hundred years from now, historians of the future will find a way to unearth our own version of correspondence, even if it means digging up hard drives from landfills in order to retrieve our e-mails.

Monday, March 2, 2009

What's in a name?

I've noticed that bloggers--and others who have a presence on the Internet--often go by pseudonyms. Sometimes they're clever (a friend of mine who started a blog on English usage chose the moniker "Kitty Literate"). Sometimes they're just puzzling to the uninitiated (several people have asked me why my son blogs as "Vicente" -- it's a long story). And, as with so many things, this phenomenon puts me in mind of the 18th and early 19th century, when it was virtually de rigueur to write under an assumed name.

Perhaps the most famous example is the Federalist Papers--written in defense of the proposed U.S. Constitution--which were first published under the name "Publius," but were in fact the combined effort of John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. The Federalist Papers were themselves a response to two pseudonymous anti-Federalist writers, "Cato" and "Brutus." Who these guys were may still be a mystery.

As you can see, Roman names were big -- this was in keeping with the general feeling that the infant American republic harked back to the Roman one. But there were also lots of whimsical names, more on the order of "Kitty Literate." In 1797, a Richmond newspaper printed an open letter to a Virginia congressman that was signed "Timothy Tickle." And "Mr. Tickle" appended to his own letter another (fictitious) letter, signed "Simon Simple."

Lately I've been reading two magazines published in Baltimore in 1806 and 1807 that abound with these sorts of pen names: Edward Easy, Nathan Scruple, Biddy Fidget, Benjamin Bickerstaff (apparently an allusion to a now forgotten writer named Isaac Bickerstaff).

Why do people, then and now, feel the need to hide behind these inventions? I suppose the obvious answer is that anonymity is liberating -- for better or for worse. But the fact is that many of these names haven't actually guaranteed anonymity. Most of the people who read my son's blog, or my friend's, are friends or acquaintances and aware of the blogger's true identity. And it seems the same was true, in many cases, for the pseudonymous writers of the past. We may not have figured out who Cato and Brutus were, but it's possible many of their contemporaries were able to. The world was smaller then, and the world of people who mattered even smaller.

But for the historian, these playful subterfuges can be a real pain--for example, the authorship of 12 of the 85 different Federalist essays is still uncertain (were they written by Jay, Hamilton, or Madison?) And I've encountered this problem myself: one of the women I'm currently writing about edited a magazine in Baltimore in 1807 under the name of "Beatrice Ironside." (Her explanation for the name was that criticism wouldn't bother her, because she had "iron sides;" as it turned out, she was plenty bothered -- a more appropriate name would have been something like "Beatrice Marshmallow.") But it's clear that her contemporaries soon figured out who she really was (her name was Eliza Anderson). What's not so clear is what else she wrote, and when she started writing.

The magazine that "Beatrice Ironside" edited was called the "Observer," and it was a successor to the "Companion," whose ostensible editor was Edward Easy. The prospectus for the "Observer" says that a new editor is now taking over -- but the prospectus is unsigned, and there's no indication of the editor's gender. Was this "Beatrice," whose name doesn't actually begin appearing until some weeks later? Or did she take over from someone else?

To make things murkier, just before the "Companion" ceased publication in 1806, the editor suddenly starts referring to herself as "she." (In the ancient bound volume I was perusing, some earlier reader had underlined this pronoun and put an exclamation point in the margin -- it was highly unusual, of course, for a woman to be editing anything during this period.) So was this Beatrice/Eliza? There were pieces in the "Companion" published under female names -- even one published under "Eliza" -- but given the predilection for pseudonyms, sometimes of the opposite gender, this doesn't really tell us anything. In fact, it seems unlikely that anything signed "Eliza" would actually have been written by someone named Eliza.

Virtually unsolvable mysteries like this make me glad I'm writing fiction rather than history; I can just decide whether or not I want Beatrice/Eliza to edit the "Companion" and then go on to found the "Observer" -- I don't have to decide whether that really happened. But, in an effort to make the jobs of future historians somewhat easier, I've resolved to continue blogging under my own name -- boring as that may be.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When Americans Die, They Go to Paris

A couple of nights ago I went to see the movie Revolutionary Road, which was both excellent and thought-provoking. And one of the thoughts it provoked was how amazingly persistent the allure of Paris has been for Americans through the years.

The movie (and the book by Richard Yates on which it's based) centers on Frank and April Wheeler, a couple in 1950s suburbia who recall their youthful yearning to be "different" and "special," and think a move to Paris will solve all their problems ("People are alive there," marvels Frank, who visited the city while in the Army). Ernest Hemingway and "the lost generation" made it their mecca in the twenties. The comment that serves as the title for this post is attributed to Oscar Wilde and presumably was uttered sometime in the late 19th century. And as I'm discovering as I research my second novel, even back in the early 19th century some Americans scorned their own country and revered Paris (as well as other parts of Europe) as the source of all things good, beautiful, and sophisticated.

The two 19th-century women whose lives I'm researching lived in Baltimore, then a relatively new city that some of its inhabitants considered a cultural wasteland. As the acid-tongued Baltimore belle Betsy Bonaparte put it, “The men are all merchants ... Beyond their counting-houses they possess not a single idea... The women are all occupied in les details de menage and nursing children; these are useful occupations, but do not render people agreeable to their neighbors.” Like the Wheelers, Betsy was convinced she was special and different; she once said she was never destined to spend her life in Baltimore, and at another time remarked that she preferred death to a life spent there. As a result, she fled to Europe as often as she could, and Paris was one of her favorite haunts. (Not surprisingly, she wasn't too popular with her fellow Baltimoreans!)

The other woman I'm writing about, Eliza Godefroy--a bluestocking who devoured the works of Madame de Stael and other French philosophes--yearned to go to Paris as well, complaining in a letter to a friend that her French husband refused to return there (presumably because he had painful memories of his imprisonment during the Revolution). Ultimately she did end up in France, but not Paris--her husband managed to get an ill-paying job in the provincial town of Laval, which wasn't quite the same. (It's an industrial town, the French equivalent of, say, Akron -- but unlike Akron, it has a beautifully preserved medieval center with an 11th-century castle.)

I can certainly understand the attraction. Every time I go to Paris I fall in love all over again with its beauty. Perhaps it's not the mecca for young Americans who feel special that it was in the past (where do they go now -- Beijing?), but plenty of them still go there -- my son is there right now for example (and he really is special, if I say so myself).

But of course, moving to Paris -- or anywhere else -- isn't necessarily going to solve anyone's problems. Betsy Bonaparte discovered that even in Paris she suffered from ennui (after all, the French invented it!). And it's clear that a move to Paris wouldn't have made Frank and April Wheeler's lives any easier -- they probably would only have realized how truly American they were.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Let It Snow

After a recent light snowfall here in Washington–light, at least, by Chicago standards–our new President was heard to marvel that his daughters’ school (which is also my daughter’s school) was closed. "For what?" he asked. "Some ice?" Welcome to Washington, Mr. President. But would you believe there was a time when snow actually improved the quality of the roads around here?

That would have been in the winter of 1804, a time when the roads leading to and from Washington were in fairly execrable shape (and the roads in Washington, then called Washington City, were practically nonexistent). And why would snow have had a beneficial effect? No, it wasn’t because people had four-wheel drive on their carriages; it was because they used sleighs. Instead of bouncing sharply over ruts and rocks, travelers were able to glide smoothly over a pristine expanse of white stuff.

According to Rosalie Calvert, the mistress of a plantation near Bladensburg, MD–now a suburb of DC–"The snow was deep and stayed on the ground a long time, and we had the pleasure of going to Washington by sleigh several times." (She also mentions that it was so cold they were able to cross the Potomac River on horseback; whoever was the first to test that ice must have had more than the ordinary human share of courage.)

Accidents apparently only added to the fun. One night, coming home from Washington, Mrs. Calvert’s sleigh met up with another one: "the road was narrow, our horses very lively, and in passing the other too fast, we overturned in several feet of snow." Not to worry, though: "Before the gentlemen in the other sleigh could come to our aid, we were already on foot and ready to go on our way. This makes for a diversion of sorts and is pleasant." (These quotations are taken from a remarkable collection of Mrs. Calvert’s letters: Mistress of Riversdale, edited by Margaret Law Callcott.)

In February 1804, Betsy Bonaparte of Baltimore–newly married to Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome–also had a mishap in the snow, which turned out to be equally pleasant. On the way to Washington one night, the couple’s coachman was thrown from his seat. "Mr. Bonaparte jumped out," the bride’s uncle reported, "but could not stop the horses ... Finding her danger increased, [Betsy] opened the door, and jumped out into the snow, without receiving any injury."

And far from bringing things to a halt, the snow brought the crowds out in droves. "Our city, especially Market street, exhibited a lively scene yesterday and today," reported a Baltimore newspaper in January 1804, "from the incessant passing and repassing of sleighs and four!!! sleighs and two!! And sleighs and one!" More dangerous than the traffic were the snowball-throwing boys. After Madame Bonaparte was struck by a snowball, her husband reportedly offered a reward of $500 for the perpetrator, and the paper remarked that "several lads ... have been taken up by the constables."

By March, alas, the snows had melted and the roads were back to their usual condition. "I arrived here this morning," Jerome Bonaparte reported from Washington to his wife back in Baltimore. "The road was terrible, the carriage very sturdy, and Mlle. Spear [a relative] always very brave."

Is there a lesson here for our time–other than that snow is a lot less fun than it used to be? Five inches of snow in London recently brought things there to a screeching halt, making even us Washingtonians look pretty macho by comparison. Should city authorities perhaps try spreading the snow around instead of attempting to clear it? Should we all keep a sleigh in the garage, just in case? And a horse or two to pull it, of course.

Obviously not. The only lesson I can draw from all this is that we’re luckier than we think. We take it for granted that we’ll have roads that are decent except for the few days a year when it snows–instead of the other way around. We complain about potholes, or the traffic on I-95, but can we imagine what life was like when the only road between Baltimore and Washington was made of dirt?

One thing about studying the past: it makes you realize that sometimes we’re fortunate to have even the things we complain about.