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.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Dipping My Toe Into the Blogosphere

I spend a good deal of my time these days in the early 19th century (at the moment I'm immersed in the spring of 1804), so it feels a little weird to be dipping my toe into the very 21st century arena of the blogosphere. Let's just say it's a bit of a stretch.

But I've been posting what I've called a "blog" on my website for the last year or so, and I've found that I've enjoyed it. And others have told me they've enjoyed reading it. But a while ago my son (who blogs as "Vicente," and whose very interesting and eclectic blog you can read here) informed me that what I've got there isn't really a blog: people can't leave comments, I haven't been including links to other websites and blogs, etc., etc.. So, partly to prove to my kids that I really do live in the 21st century (something they seem to doubt from time to time), I've decided to start a real blog. (Hey, Vicente, did you notice that link I just inserted?)

As I've been doing on my old blog (or rather, "blog"), I plan to write about things that relate to my novel, A More Obedient Wife, such as:

  • parallels or contrasts between life in the 1790s and today,

  • how the Supreme Court has changed in the last 200 years, and

  • how women's lives have changed.

I'm sure I'll also be blogging about things that relate to the novel I'm currently working on as well, which is set a few years later (hence my immersion at the moment in the spring of 1804). And I'll probably also write about more general topics, such as the challenges and rewards of using the lives of real, and relatively obscure, historical figures as fodder for fiction.

I'm hoping to post a couple of times a month, and I'm very much hoping to hear from readers--that's one of the main reasons I'm switching to this format. As for the "blog" posts on my website, they're all still available there, at least at the moment: just click here. You'll also find a lot more information there about myself and my book, A More Obedient Wife.

As I do so often, I wonder what the characters in my novels--almost all of them based on real people who left behind letters recording their thoughts and feelings--would have made of all this. They lived in an era when communication was painfully slow, when it might take three weeks to get a letter from Boston to, say, Charleston, S.C., and two months to get a letter from Europe to the United States. Letters often never made it to their destination at all, for one reason or another, so if you were writing anything important you sent several copies of it. Newspapers were dense and, at least to the modern eye, difficult to read--the first couple of pages were basically a bunch of classified ads--and full of dubious information and rumor.

Aside from that last point (which some might say also characterizes the internet), things have changed beyond recognition. We've come to expect instantaneous communication; if my internet access goes down, or my cell phone goes missing, I start to panic.

But in at least one sense, it occurs to me that this blog is a return to the past. One of the two women I'm now writing about started a magazine in Baltimore in 1807, when she was 27 years old. She was certainly one of the first female magazine editors in the United States, if not the first, and she faced some obstacles that women writers no longer have to worry about: when she threw in the towel after a year, she blamed the demise of the magazine largely on people who didn't believe a woman was capable of being at the helm of such a publication.

But she also heard back from her readers--big-time. Some of them sent her articles, which she published. But many of them sent her comments, which, for the most part, she also published and responded to, to such an extent that at times the magazine feels like a spirited conversation. That element has been missing from publications until recently. Sure, newspapers and magazines publish letters to the editor, but usually they choose to print only a small fraction of the mail they receive. But now, thanks to 21st-century technology, that spirited conversation has become possible again. And now that I've dipped my toe in the blogosphere, I'm getting eager to jump in.