Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"A Rotten Orange"

It’s sometimes hard, as a twenty-first century reader and writer, to put myself in the heads of early nineteenth century characters. We think quite differently today about matters like duty, social equality, gender roles, and sexual morality. Views on that last issue, especially, have changed dramatically with the emergence of reliable birth control, women’s rights and even DNA testing.

"Past and Present I" by Victorian artist Augustus Leopold Egg illustrates a scene in the life of a fallen woman: a stricken husband discovers his wife’s infidelity through a letter from her lover, and the errant wife throws herself at his feet in unbearable shame and guilt.
At a time when women had little protection against pregnancy and men had no definitive way to prove or disprove the paternity of a child, female chastity was valued and stressed in a way that’s often difficult to understand today.

The prevailing nineteenth-century attitude—and keep in mind that this was a view that women as well as men bought into—was that any woman willing to sleep with a man before marriage was also likely to sleep with pretty much any man after marriage. Here’s how Lord Byron put it in 1820:
Where is honour,
Innate and precept-strengthen'd, 'tis the rock
Of faith connubial: where it is not - where
Light thoughts are lurking, or the vanities
Of worldly pleasure rankle in the heart,
Or sensual throbs convulse it, well I know
'Twere hopeless for humanity to dream
Of honesty in such infected blood,
Although 'twere wed to him it covets most...
In other words, a woman was either “honest” (virginal until marriage and therefore virtuous) or “dishonest” (willing to cast sexual morality to the winds), no matter what the circumstances:
The once fall'n woman must forever fall;
For vice must have variety, while virtue
Stands like the sun and all which rolls around
Drinks life, and light, and glory from her aspect.

Though Victorians were especially fond of this view, it was already old by the time Shakespeare wrote Much Ado About Nothing, in which Claudio refuses his bride-to-be at the altar because he believes she is no

Oh, the horror! Marcus Stone’s "Claudio, Deceived by Don John, Accuses Hero" (1861) shows a pivotal scene from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, in which poor Hero faints dead away at the altar upon being accused of no longer being a virgin.
longer a virgin, calling her a “rotten orange” and vowing “Not to knit my soul to an approved wanton.”

Social inequality and male insecurities about paternity meant the expectation was very much a double standard; though young women were expected to remain virginal until marriage, young men were expected, if not encouraged, to sow their wild oats. In other words, while there was a great deal of judgment aimed at the fallen woman, no one much cared about fallen men.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's debut regency romance, Ruined by Rumor, is currently available from Carina Press.  Her second regency, Lord of Secrets, will be out March 25 and is available now for pre-order, while her third, A Tryst With Trouble, will be released in September. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Seeing History

As an avowed History Geek, I could not pass up the opportunity to visit the Tennessee State Museum last Monday to view the original Emancipation Proclamation.  Free to the public, they encouraged appointments so the line would go faster, as the document can only be viewed for 72 total hours because of the degradation light causes.  The venue is actually always free, and the Proclamation viewing kicked off a new exhibit titled “Discovering the Civil War,” which includes interactive displays, encourages use of social media, and includes the official copy of the 13th Amendment.

I waited in line for about an hour, and I felt much as I always do when I wait in line to vote: that this is important.  That people died for this. That I should appreciate the freedoms and opportunities this affords me today. I dare say that was the general feeling as people waited and then viewed the exhibit.  I was thrilled to see many young children and teens present, as well as many families of all racial groups and economic backgrounds. I was also not the only one flying solo.

The Emancipation Proclamation was, indeed, the original, however facsimiles were used for part of the display since the original is written on both the front and back of the page.  The paper is very thin and the writing faded and difficult—but not impossible—to read.  It was ‘guarded’ by two Civil War re-enactors, who could answer any questions you might have.  They did not allow photographs.  Just beyond this was the display of the 13th Amendment, also signed by Lincoln (see photo).  It’s always been interesting to me, being a Yankee in a Southern state, how the topic of slavery is handled, and I would say that this exhibit pulls no punches, but is brutally honest in its portrayal of slavery and the era in general, addressing the inhumanity of the practice, the legitimate efforts on the part of Abolitionists to end it, and what life was like for the freed population once the war had ended.

While the Emancipation Proclamation has left thebuilding, the exhibit is open through September 1, 2013, and is free to the public.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

All Reading Leads to Rome

               I am a avid reader of non-fiction history and it is usually while I’m reading that some sentence or fact will make me sit up and say “What a great idea for a story.” The idea for Mask of the Gladiator first came to me while I was reading a book on the lives of the Roman emperors. Something about Caligula’s demise, the real PG version, not the XXX version that has also survived the ages, caught my attention. The story wouldn’t let go until I’d crafted it into a tale in which regular people get caught up in the life and death events of their era with a great romance and sex thrown in because hey, after all, this is Rome.

Having read many books on ancient Rome, I knew a great deal about the era but needed more details on the nitty-gritty of daily life under Caligula. Thankfully, researching ancient Rome was, in many ways, easy. The Romans, thanks to the length of their empire, left a lot of material, both written and physical about their lives, and these artifacts are scattered everywhere from Britain to Germany. I remember during my first trip to England marveling as I stood on a medieval wall looking down on the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre. You don’t find that kind of history where I live in California. Here, most people think Mid-Century Modern is an era of antiquity.

The wealth of information on the ancient Romans made research both interesting and easier. Thanks to surviving statues of Caligula, I was able to base my descriptions of the emperor on his busts instead of having to extract details from ancient sources, most of which were not flattering. For details on Caligula’s assassination, I turned to Justinian and Suetonius. Their accounts, though not exactly first hand, are well fleshed out, if not blatantly exaggerated in a few spots. I incorporated details from their stories into my story while adding a few of my own in order to better weave the main characters, Livia and Titus, into the historical events. In regards to the daily life of the nobility, there were endless resources available from the excavation at Pompeii to modern research books detailing the archeological evidence. 

While this wealth of historical information is great, it can also be overwhelming and at times distracting. Sometimes, especially if you’ve ever read any books in the History of Private Life series, more details exist than you actually want to know about. It is a challenge deciding what to include or leave out and how true to the time period to stay without forcing the readers to keep Googling archaic terms. In the end, I think I struck a good balance between fact and fiction and created a compelling story that is both true to history and romance. I hope readers think so too.  

Saturday, March 09, 2013

10 Classics You Read in High School That You Should Read ~ Again

I was perusing the blogs I read and came across this article in Publisher's Weekly. Kevin Smokler's book, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School, reflects on high school English Lit classes and the books we were forced assigned to read. In the Publisher's Weekly article he lists his top 10 required readings and the things he missed the first time. I've tried to synthesize his comments about these great books and at times resorted to quoting him:
  1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald - A story about acceptance and longing, as well as the pain of forbidden desire and American dreams.
  2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain - A story about blood feuds, human bondage and adventures with best friends.
  3. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton - "A smothering culture is the barrier to love, Wharton says, but circumstances beyond our control. And how, despite that, we can still show initiative in our own lives."
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee Harper -  The story addresses issues of class, courage, compassion, and gender roles in the American deep south. Atticus Finch has become an moral hero and model of legal integrity.
  5. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury - Our hero comes to hate what he does, burning books, and the himself as well.
  6. The Stranger - by Albert Camus - Perhaps the answer to this masterpiece’s chaos and mystery is a kind of level head, a respect for calm and rationality that his narrator couldn't handle.
  7. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka - "Family is the entire area in which Kafka’s great tale happens, asking us “ Isn't it just as weird to wake up a member of a group you didn't sign up for as it is a cockroach?"
  8. The Poems of Emily Dickinson - "Read her poems again (and some pretty good recent biographies) and you’ll witness an artist of great ferocity. Dickinson wrote with fire (a poem a day in her best years), knew the work of her poetic heroes cold, and sought out mentors and constructive criticism."
  9. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon - “Life is loony but it's better to experience it in all its lunacy than get off the road. Wanna ride with me?”
  10. Animal Farm by George Orwell - "Orwell reminds us we are all the same flawed creatures yesterday as today.Animal Farm is a lesson in how we all are tragically human."
What required reading, high school or college, would you want to re-read?

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Of Wimseys and Wellesleys: Knights (and Baronets)

For previous entries in this series, follow the tags at the end of the post.

Say the word "knight," and it conjures an image of a man in plate armor, ready to joust for the honor of his lady fair. But there were still knights in the 18th and 19th century (and to this day). Just minus the armor.

A knighthood is an honor given to untitled men (but in the 18th and 19th centuries generally of at least genteel birth) as a reward for service to the Crown. I haven't done a detailed study, but my impression is that most reasonably successful British generals and admirals of the Napoleonic era were at least made knights. Wellington's first major honor was being knighted in 1804 in recognition of his early successes as a major-general in India. So from that point until he was granted a peerage in 1809, he was addressed as Sir Arthur Wellesley. As with the younger son's courtesy titles we've discussed in the past two posts, the "Sir" goes with the first name. He's Sir Arthur, not Sir Wellesley.

Wives of knights, however, don't follow the same pattern. In 1806, Wellesley married Catherine Pakenham, whom he'd courted as a young man before leaving for India. In the intervening time they'd grown into different people, extremely mismatched different people who had a thoroughly unhappy marriage. But that's neither here nor there. We're just here to learn what to call them. And in this case the right answer is Lady Wellesley. Not Lady Catherine, not Lady Arthur. Lady Wellesley.

Incidentally, at this point there were two Lady Wellesleys. (Ladies Wellesley?) The other, Hyacinthe, was married to the oldest Wellesley brother, Richard, who'd been granted the title of Marquess Wellesley for his service as Governor-General of India, superseding his former title of Earl of Mornington (inherited from his father). This situation wasn't as confusing as you might think, for two reasons. The first is Hyacinthe's background: she was a French actress who was Richard's mistress for years and years before he actually married her. As such, despite her status as marchioness she wasn't accepted in good society or even within the extended family the same way that the well-bred and well-behaved Catherine was. The second is common sense--just like you might have two friends named Bob Smith, and avoid any confusion by talking about Work Bob and Bob from High School, English society of 200 years ago was perfectly capable of saying "Lady Wellesley, the marchioness," or "Lady Wellesley, Kitty Pakenham that was," or whatever to make their meaning clear.

Note that knighthoods are not inherited honors. If Wellesley had been killed while he was still a knight, his firstborn son would NOT have become Sir Arthur in his turn.

A side note about baronets: While I don't have any Wimsey or Wellesley examples of them, you'll see them a good bit in 18th and 19th century fiction. In Jane Austen's work alone, Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park and Sir Walter Elliott in Persuasion are both baronets. Baronets follow the exact same form of address as knights--the key difference between them is that the eldest son of a baronet DOES inherit the honor.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Regency Justice

I’ve just completed the edits for Beguiling the Barrister, the second in my  Forsters series. The hero is a barrister struggling to make a living by defending common people, who often couldn’t pay him, against the draconian laws of the day. I’m learning quite a lot about the British legal system during the Regency period and about that grand old institution, The Old Bailey, in particular.

The Old Bailey, also known as Justice Hall, the sessions House and the Central Criminal Court is located just off Newgate Street and next to Newgate Prison in the City of London. The Bailey was rebuilt several times from 1674 onwards but the basic design of the courtrooms remained the same. They were arranged so as to emphasise the contest between the accused and the rest of the court. The accused stood at the bar, or in the dock, directly facing the witness box, with the judges seated on the other side of the room. Before the introduction of gas lighting a mirrored reflector was placed above the bar, reflecting light from the windows onto the faces of the accused. This allowed the court to examine their facial expressions and assess the validity of their testimony. A sounding board was also placed over their heads to amplify their voices.

The jurors sat on the sides of the courtroom to both left and right of the accused but from 1737 were brought together in stalls on the defendant’s right, close enough to be able to consult each other and arrive at verdicts without leaving the room. Seated at a table below where the judges sat were clerks, lawyers and the writers who took the shorthand notes which formed the basis of the proceedings.

When the courtroom was remodelled and enclosed in 1737, the danger of infection increased and at one session an outbreak of gaol fever (typhus) led to the deaths of sixty people, including the Lord Mayor and two judges. Subsequently the judges spread nosegays and aromatic herbs to keep down the stench and prevent infection.

A further reconstruction of the Bailey in 1774 saw the area surrounded by a semi-circular wall to provide better security for prisoners and prevent communication between them and the public. The passage between Newgate Prison and the Bailey was also enclosed with brick walls.

The new building provided a separate room for witnesses so that they were no longer obliged to wait their turn in a nearby pub. I bet they still did, though!