Friday, October 30, 2015

The Ghost Ship

It’s the day before Halloween in the States, and things have already been going bump in the night on television and in movie theatres. But one of the spookiest things about the nineteenth century were the legends that sprang up, including one about the Mary Celeste.

The Mary Celeste was a merchant ship from America. She sailed with a crew of ten and the captain’s family from New York City in November 1872 on her way to Genoa, Italy, carrying a cargo of industrial alcohol. But after what appeared to be an uneventful journey based on the ship’s log, the vessel was discovered on December 4, 1872, off the Azores, abandoned. She was sailing along, all by herself, with cargo, supplies, and crew’s belongings largely intact, although the navigational instruments were missing and so was the lifeboat. The last log entry was dated 10 days earlier. No one who had sailed on her was ever seen again.

So what happened?

Over the centuries, theories have abounded. Some of the barrels of alcohol were apparently empty. Had the crew drank the foul stuff and mutinied? (Note to conspiracy theorists—have you ever tried drinking denatured alcohol? It isn’t pleasant, and I would think the crew would be too busy throwing up or running to the head to mutiny.) 

Was it piracy? Unless the pirates decided after slaying all the crew that the aforesaid alcohol wasn’t worth the effort to pilfer, not likely. Besides, there was no sign of a struggle, no damage to the hull from canon fire.

Was it insurance fraud? Not a particularly good one. The salvage award wasn’t particularly lucrative, because both the ship and the cargo were in good shape.

Had they abandoned ship because of a natural phenomenon such as submarine earthquakes, storms, or a water spout? None were recorded in the area, and at the time of the ship’s last log entry, the Mary Celeste wasn’t too far from one of the islands. Surely the life boat could have made it to shore.

Even more far-fetched theories have been suggested. Was it a giant squid? Sorry, he was busy that day. Bermuda Triangle? Nowhere near where the ship was found.

Oblivious to the consternation around her, the Mary Celeste continued her career, passing through several hands before being wrecked off the coast of Haiti in 1885. That captain actually was attempting insurance fraud. But her demise didn’t stop the stories. Newspaper and magazine pieces popped up in England and America from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. In January 1884, a young Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of Sherlock Holmes himself, told the tale in a British literary magazine, from the point of view of a supposed survivor. He blamed the abandonment on the vengeance of a former slave, who rose against the white crew. The Strand published another “survivor story” in 1913, stating that the crew had fallen into the sea from a temporary platform and either drowned or were eaten by sharks. In the 1920s, other stories from so-called survivors claimed that the crew had colluded with that of the ship which found her to win salvage or the crew had found another ship abandoned with a rich cargo and sailed off on it instead. Radio plays, a stage version, and novels have also been written about the mystery. The Smithsonian sponsored a documentary as late as 2007; it disproved many theories but reached no conclusions.

So what really happened to the Mary Celeste?

The Brits have an answer. It seems their venerated hero the Doctor may have been involved, according to the accepted canon for the long-running Dr. Who franchise. I understand the Daleks were involved.

Now, that explains everything.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Fashion Forecast: 1835, Part 1

What was the well-dressed young woman wearing in the first half of 1835?

Perhaps she was seeing in the new year in black and white, as in these Dinner and Evening Dresses. The Dinner Dress is of a silk brocade in an “Egyptian pattern”, whatever that might be, with sleeves of tulle under the wing-y things (called mancherons). The Evening Dress, of white crape over satin, features black ribbon trim and an elaborately constructed headdress, and demure black silk net mitts. (January, Court Magazine):

For daytime wear, we have a Walking Dress and Carriage Dress. The Walking Dress is described as being “a deep citron ground plaided in one of the new Walter Scott patterns”—shades of the growing popularity of all things Scottish that would see its high point under Queen Victoria. I do wish the front view of this dress had been depicted, for its description indicates a pretty elaborate embellishment on the front of the skirt, including tassels! The Carriage Dress includes a velvet mantle which is supposed to be dark brown—I don’t know if the colorist used the wrong tints or if the color has altered in the 180 years since this print was made. It is trimmed with swansdown; the underlying dress is of sprigged green silk. (February, Court Magazine):

Also from February’s Court Magazine is a sweet Ball Dress, of white and gold satin. The dress itself is fairly plain; the part of the skirt and bodice edged with gld ribbon and blond lace is actually a separate tunic. As charming as it is, I can’t help wondering if the sleeves don’t get dreadfully in the way when dancing—don’t you think they might?

Another Evening and Dinner Dress duo from March’s Court Magazine. The white Evening Dress is of satin and crape, decorated with pink “papillon”, or butterfly, bows. The scarf-shawl thingy is also trimmed with swansdown, which seems to be popular this spring. The Dinner Dress is of blue velvet, with those little wing-like mancherons set above sleeves of lace-covered satin. Note the model’s rather alarmingly sloped shoulders, which seems to have been the ideal of feminine beauty—it’s a good thing modern purses hadn’t been invented, or she’d never be able to use one with a shoulder strap:

This Evening Concert Dress is just lovely, don’t you think? With a pelerine and trim at hem and sleeves of blond de Cambray and somewhat less extreme fullness in the sleeves, it’s classically pretty...and, alas, fatally toxic. Vivid green dyes of this type were very popular in the 19th century not only for fabric, but for shoe leather, wallpaper, and other consumer goods...and all these dyes were based on arsenic. (Hmm, I think I feel a future post coming on...) Maybe I’ll take that white Ball Dress from February, instead! (April, Court Magazine):

Here are a pretty green and white Morning Dress (uh-oh, not green again!); more interesting is the Dinner Dress, with its under-dress of gold satin and an open robe of violet silk lined with more satin and trimmed with blond. The Falier sleeves cover the full sleeves of the under-dress, which again must have been bulky in the extreme. Note again the lace mitts, as opposed to full gloves. (April, Court Magazine):

If it’s June, it must be time to make one’s curtsey at Court in a Court Dress of tulle over satin with blond trim, mancherons over the pouffed sleeves, and scatterings of moss roses with greenery for trim. The train of rose-colored gros de Naples brocade sports more clumps of rosebuds toed into the gauze ribbon trim. And oh, the feathers! (Court Magazine):

Finishing up June are a pair of Evening Dresses in white crape, deeply décolleté, with pleated bodices and broadly horizontal sleeves. Again, the ideal of beauty (very small heads and very sloping shoulders) make for some strange anatomy, but the dresses are so dreamily romantic! (Court Magazine):

What do you think of the fashions of the first half of 1835?

Friday, October 23, 2015

Back to the Past

This week marked an interesting anniversary. If you were online, you probably saw a number of videos and memes running about in celebration. October 21, 2015, was the day Marty McFly arrived in the future to stop his son from robbing a bank in the second film in the Back to the Future franchise. I’ve always loved those films. The opening sequence for the first film, in particular, wastes not one second of frame. But remembering those films got me to thinking.

What would a young woman from 1865, say, find amazing in 1895?

This isn’t just an academic question for me. My current series is set in 1866 frontier Seattle, but I’m working on a special project for my editor, set in 1895 Texas. And I’m getting a real kick out of what I can do then that I never could do before.

Different Words. In any year, language changes, new words get added, and former favorites fall out of vogue. For example, hen party (a get together of ladies to chat and gossip, often over tea) was first recorded around 1885, so my heroine Nancy Snowden can attend one in 1895, but Maddie O’Rourke, the heroine in January’s Instant Frontier Family, cannot.

Changes in Fashion. Check out those sleeves! Even frontier ladies, it seems, mimicked the style. Skirts were more a-line as well. So while Maddie might have to squeeze her bell-shaped skirts through the doorway of a frontier cabin, Nancy might have to take care to keep from crumpling her sleeves. Either way, if Marissa's Fashion Forecasts ever reach 1895, I'll know what's coming. :-)

New Capabilities. Living in frontier Seattle, Maddie had to make much of what she needed herself or pay a hefty price and wait months for it to be shipped from San Francisco or parts east. She also walked or took a boat if she wanted to travel anywhere, with so few roads in existence. When Nancy wanted to travel the hundred-some miles to Waco to visit her new husband’s family, she could ride on a train. She could also avail herself of canned foods and factory-made clothing if she hadn’t the time to prepare them herself and had some cash to spare.

Of course, what didn’t change, indeed hasn’t changed in thousands of years, is the process of a man and a woman falling in love with each other. That’s the story that transcends time. “That’s the power of love.”

(Lead picture copyright Universal Pictures)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Green and Pleasant Land, Part 7: Last Stop, Hampton Court—and Where I’m Going Next Time

Our final stop on the Doyle Family Tour of Southern England meant leaving Brighton (sigh!) after breakfast and heading for our last stop: we had plans to spend the day at Hampton Court Palace before heading to Heathrow Airport (a short drive away) and back home to Massachusetts.

I had visited Hampton Court on my last visit to England, but had only had time to see a small portion of it. Today we had a good five hours, and we still didn’t see all of it—much less the gardens, which would take a full day just on their own.

Hampton Court has seen centuries of use, from the early sixteenth century through the present day. It was built as a country retreat by Cardinal Wolsey, advisor to King Henry VIII—to whom he gave the palace as a gift when Henry’s favor had turned to Anne Boleyn and her political faction. Henry expanded the palace and did a lot of redecorating for Anne, including putting their entwined initials everywhere...which he had to hastily redo a few years later on divorcing (and beheading) Anne and marry Jane Seymour instead. The area where Henry’s kitchens were located have been restored to their former culinary use, which was pretty awesome to see.

After viewing all the Tudor areas (including his private Chapel and ) we visited the Jacobean and Hanoverian bits as well, viewing portraits and furniture and generally being staggered at the sheer size of this place. George II was really the last English monarch to used Hampton Court as a royal house; George III disliked it intensely, and instead rebuilt Windsor and Buckingham House for his family, and Hampton languished for a while until someone hit on the bright idea of using it as a sort of retirement village for old royal retainers and others who had done some service to the crown or country. It housed hundreds of people through the nineteenth and all the way up to the late twentieth centuries; though apartments stopped being given out in the late 1980s, a few residents linger on.

We had a delightful tea in one of the courtyards before departing for the airport and home...but I’m already plotting my next trip to England. Where will I go?
  • London, to visit the places I didn’t get to this time: Sir John Soane’s House, the Burlington Arcade, and Kensington Palace.
  • Absolutely back to Dartmoor. This time I might want to stay at Lewtrenchard House, former home of a well-loved clergyman and specialist on Dartmoor history and folklore (and author of the hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers”) Sabine Baring-Gould.
  • Back to the Jurassic Lyme Regis, but also to Sidmouth, which is rife with some awesome Regency architecture.
  • The Isle of Wight (and this time we’ll make ferry reservations!) to see Osborne House as well as the well-preserved Roman ruins there.
  • And then, north! A brief stop in Cambridge, to revisit where I spent one summer at Christ’s College, and York, which is one of the most delightful cities in England, and finally on to the Lake District to stay on Ullswater and do some more tramping about the countryside.
Thank you for following along on my, where in England would you like to go?

Friday, October 16, 2015

A Hepplewhite by Any Other Name

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love research. While attending a conference, I heard something about historical furniture that startled and amazed me. So, of course, I had to poke into it and share it with you!

Three names made furniture from the late 1700s and early 1800s famous: Thomas Sheraton, Thomas Chippendale, and George Hepplewhite. We know where and when Sheraton and Chippendale were born, with whom they apprenticed, and where and when they died. Wonderful pieces from either still exist as cherished heirlooms or museum pieces. But George, well George is something of a mystery.

You see, we don’t know where precisely George was born, or the even the day and year. No master was quick to claim him as apprentice. We have only an approximate year when he died. And not one stick of furniture he designed still exists.

Instead, what we have is a guide of his designs published supposedly posthumously by his grieving widow. Alice Hepplewhite published The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide in 1788, with revisions in 1789 and 1790. The guide contains around 300 drawings, most allegedly by her husband, but as some sources note, George’s name is not included on the title page. Instead, Alice’s name graces over 175 of those drawings. She went on to run the establishment that supposedly had belonged to George. Some sources claim that records show her inheritance; others state the couple had four children. A cursory search failed to verify either claim.

So, was George merely a humble and quiet man who died too young for his genius to be appreciated? Or was Alice, in fact, the designer behind the furniture we still revere? It was a time when women frequently published under pseudonyms or generic titles such as “by a lady.” Could Alice have done the same?

Still, when all is said and done, if she was going to select a nom de plume, she might have chosen something other shorter and easier to spell than Hepplewhite. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Historical Shenanigans

I’ve been lucky to run across some excellent historically interesting and awesome bits and pieces on-line in the past few weeks, and thought you might enjoy them. Are you ready?

1. So you know we’re sort of historic dress nerds here at NineteenTeen, and have furthermore enjoyed our share of 19th century-set movies. But the blog Frock Flicks takes things to a whole new (and fascinating) level. From their “About Us” page: Ever watch an adaption of Pride and Prejudice and think “Austen totally wouldn’t recognize what Lizzie is wearing”? Have you cringed at zippers in the backs of medieval gowns on film? Do you laugh at the latest costume drama’s idea of hoop skirts being appropriate for the 1880s? Then you’re a Frock Flicker! Tune in to our podcasts where we rip into Hollywood’s attempt at historical costuming and talk about exactly why they’re not accurate to the eras. But we’re not just dissers — we’ll also look at costume movies we love and tell you why they’re fabulous, beautiful, fascinating films.

I adored FF’s erudite, extensive, and all-round excellent examination of the costuming in the 1995 version (really, is there any other?) of Pride and Prejudice, which includes how designer Dinah Collin went about using costume to help establish character. Fascinating reading!

2. Please don’t throw rocks at me, because I’m about to make a dreadful confession: I am not a fan of Downton Abbey. I tried to give it a fair shake, I really did—I watched all of the first two seasons, and while I did adore the costumes and setting and thought the casting and acting were very good, the extreme soap-operatic quality of the writing just left me cold. However, I could totally get into Downton Wars.

Yes, Downton Wars. It seems that the actor who place the handsome antagonist Thomas, Rob-James Collier, agreed to raise £10,000 for the Chilterns MS Centre...and with plenty of time between takes, the help of his fellow actors and actresses, and his trusty i-phone, he created Downton Wars, part one: The Phantom Valet:


If he met his fundraising goal, he would release Downton Wars, part two: The Evil Butler Strikes Back. Needless to say, he more than exceeded his goal...

All I can say is, if Downton Abbey had been this good, I might today be a fan! Incidentally, Mr. Collier is still taking donations for the Chiltern MS Centre at Maybe he’s not so evil after all...


Friday, October 9, 2015

Revising a Favorite Book for a Favorite Person

Good authors are known for polishing and polishing their writing before ushering it into the world. But times change, and careers advance, and sometimes a book gets left behind. Such was the case with Secrets and Sensibilities, the first book in my Regency romance mystery series, the Lady Emily Capers. So I rewrote it. Why?

Well, you see, S&S has a special place in my heart. It is actually the third Regency romance I ever had published. Originally titled A Dangerous Dalliance, it hit the shelves in the spring of 1999 through Kensington’s Regency line. Back then, I had a tendency to write my friends into stories, and my heroine Hannah Alexander was no exception. Hannah is based on one of my dearest friends. Her name was Nancy Robak. We met in high school, both transplants to the Tacoma area, and bonded instantly over a shared infatuation with the actor Roddy McDowall. Like Hannah, Nancy was an artist, only she preferred the expression of anime-style charcoal drawings before anime was truly “cool.” Her creativity inspired me, and she honored me with her friendship.

Unlike Hannah, Nancy didn’t get a happy ending. She never met her David (who was based on Brent Spiner, the talented actor who played Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, another shared infatuation, as was Hugh Jackman). She saw only minimal return on her talent. She contracted lung cancer, though she had never smoked, and passed away many years ago now. But a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of her. 

I originally wrote S&S with sections from the point of view of the villain. I thought that upped the stakes by making the reader aware of things the hero and heroine didn’t know.  But that pattern doesn’t match what I did with the other Lady Emily stories, and I felt as if the villain was actually upstaging Hannah and David’s story. So I cut out those pieces, found other ways to incorporate the necessary information, and added depth here and there. The result is a tighter love story, and a slightly more entertaining mystery.

I think Nancy would be pleased. She loved happy endings.

To celebrate the rebirth of Secrets and Sensibilities, I’ve dropped the price to 99 cents through October 24. Enjoy!


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

All for Research Purposes, Of Course!

Ah, the glam life of a writer. (I do hope you realize I’m writing with tongue firmly in cheek.) Why lurk at home writing in your jammies when you can go to an awesome retreat for historical fiction writers, try on gorgeous (and authentically made) 19th and 20th century gowns, eat amazing food made from period recipes, and generally have a wonderful time?

Yep, I was back at the Historical Writers Retreat at Senexet House in Woodstock, Connecticut this past weekend, doing all of the above. It might say something that almost all of this year's attendees had come last year, and it was lovely to see old friends again, including the adorable Bear.

Friday night opened with a tour of the house's lower floor, where the servants' quarters and kitchens had originally been located...and then we had a "downstairs" dinner in the original kitchen, eating hearty "servants'" food (the bacon and leek pie was to die for) before returning upstairs to chat about writing (and eat decidedly non-19th century red velvet cupcakes!)

Retreat organizer Nicole Carlson, in addition to being a writer, has an extensive background in costuming and brought dozens of garments from her amazing collection, from corsets to bustles and gowns to evening cloaks...and hats...and...well, it was pretty amazing. I wish I'd been better about taking pictures, because I learned a lot that would have been fun to show you, such as the 18th century panniers (which give that extra-wide hip effect in gowns of the period--and which also served as quite enormous pockets (who knew?) And the early twentieth century corsets which actually fit below the breasts (yes, there were early twentieth century brassieres to wear with them!). And the gowns...! Nicole generously laced us into corsets in order to try on dresses from her collection, and we got to play dress-up got an in-depth view of period clothing to enrich our writing.

Saturday afternoon brought another sumptuous tea, followed by the ever-patient Katy Bishop coaching us through a Lancers quadrille, and then an elegant candle-lit dinner followed by a gathering to talk about the popularity of spiritualism in the Victorian and Edwardian eras (and share a few spooky experiences of our own.)

But most of all, sharing a weekend with other writers who are as obsessed by the fascinating details of history and eager to enhance their stories with them--well, that's just priceless. It was a wonderful weekend, and I hope to be there again in 2016.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Pioneer Legends: Doc Maynard

Those of you who have read Would-Be Wilderness Wife may remember that the heroine, Catherine Stanway, initially worked as a nurse for Doctor David Maynard. I didn’t make him up. Doc Maynard was one of Seattle’s founding fathers, and, in my opinion, one of the most colorful. I wish I had a picture to use, but all were copyrighted. You can find one here at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. 

David Swinson Maynard came to Seattle in 1852, before it was even a town, but his story starts on the other side of the country. After earning his medical degree and marrying a pretty lass named Lydia, he moved his young family to Cleveland, where he dabbled in business while running a medical school. Misfortunes in both made him decide to strike it rich in California, but he met two things along the way that would change his life.

The first was cholera. Everyone had it, and anyone who survived after his treatment was more than happy to pay him in food, animals, and money. He’d never made so much money being a doctor before. The second was a widow of one of the men he unsuccessfully treated. Catherine Broshears was beautiful and sweet, and he decided to accompany her to Olympia in what was then Oregon Territory instead of the Gold Fields. Along the way the pair fell in love, but her brother refused them permission to marry. It may have been the fact that Maynard was so quick to fall into and out of fortunes. But it may have had more to do with the fact that her brother suspected that the divorce Maynard convinced the territorial legislature to grant him wasn’t strictly legal.

Either way, Doc relocated to the Seattle area. He started out paying the natives to package up wood and salmon to sell to folks in San Francisco, then used that money to open a store. From there, he claimed a tract of land for himself and his wife before convincing Catherine’s brother to let him marry her. But that was just the beginning of Maynard’s influence on Seattle:

  • He convinced the settlers to name the new town after his friend, Chief Sealth.
  • He was the first Justice of the Peace in King County, and even studied law, being admitted to the bar in 1856.
  • He is responsible for the odd angle of downtown Seattle streets, because he plotted the streets on his claim according to the compass points, while his neighbors insisted on following the line of the shore.
  • He was one of Seattle’s first post masters, hosting the post office at his store (and guaranteeing he’d have regular shoppers).
  • He sold his lots cheaply or gave them away to people he thought would be good for the city, such as Henry Yesler, who built the first sawmill on Puget Sound, and Lewis Wyckoff, a blacksmith and later one of Seattle’s first lawmen.
  • He opened the first hospital in Seattle, an enterprise that failed because he insisted in treating whites and Native Americans alike, and he never demanded payment.
Perhaps one of the most famous stories about Maynard has to do with his wives. It seems that Lydia was never told of the divorce and wrote to him about her share of his acreage. Legalities being what they were, she had to come to Seattle to be part of any settlement. According to historian Murray Morgan, Doc went down to the shore to meet her when she came in on the ship. He told a friend, “You’re about to see something you’ve never seen before: a man out walking with a wife on each arm.” Seattle gawked as Maynard did just that. Lydia stayed with him and Catherine for a while until the legal matters were settled. Sadly, because Maynard had not been married to Catherine at the time of filing, and Lydia had never lived on the claim as is required of a wife, he had to give up half his acreage.

Doc still went out in style. When he died in 1873, Seattle held the largest funeral for that time. And the stories of his exploits are still told with fondness around the shores of Puget Sound.