Tragedy Encapsulated: Ephemera

Ephemera is generally understood as bits of paper  originally meant to be transitory, but that have nevertheless become collectible.  Collage artists are fond of ephemera. So are historical novelists. Give me a stack of bills, ticket stubs, used envelopes, menus, newspaper advertisements, postcards, labels, instruction pamphlets and birthday cards from the 1880s and I’m busy for days. To get a sense of the kind of material out there, have a look at the eBay category Ephemera 1800-1899.  

Most ephemera is unimportant in the greater scheme of things, but every once in awhile you run across something breathtaking.  I was looking at 19th century prescriptions and pharmacy labels when I found  this handwritten cablegram dated 1873 in the Library of Congress American Memory collection.

It reads:

The Western Union Telegraph Company.
To [Horatio Gates] Spafford
159 LaSalle St.  Chicago [law office of H. G. Spafford].
Received at Chicago, Ill., Dec. 2d, 5:40 AM, 1873.  

“Saved alone what shall I do.  Mrs Goodwin  Children  Willie Culver  lost go with Lorriaux  until answer reply . . . Paris. Spafford.”- 

The Library of Congress provided more detail of the tragedy:

Anna Spafford, 1873

Mrs. Anna Spafford was writing to her husband, a lawyer in Chicago, to notify him that the Ville du Havre had sunk, and she alone of their party had survived.  Lost were her friend Mrs. Daniel Goodwin, the Spafford daughters Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta, and a neighbor boy called Willie Culver. Mrs. Spafford had gone with Reverend Lorriaux (a French minister and a fellow survivor of shipwreck) to  Paris, where she waited for instructions on what to do.  

Wikipedia provides more information about the shipwreck and the Spafford family, which I excerpt and summarize:

On 15 November 1873, the Ville du Havre sailed from New York with 313 passengers and crew on board. A week into the voyage to France she collided with the iron clipper Loch Earn at about 2 am on Saturday, 22 November. At the time of the collision, Ville du Havre was proceeding under both steam and sail at about 12 knots.

The passengers were roused from sleep by the collision. Most went on deck to learn that the ship was sinking rapidly, broken almost in half.  Then, in the panic and chaos, the passengers found that the lifeboats had recently been painted and they were now stuck fast to the deck. Finally a few of them were yanked loose, and passengers fought desperately to be one of the few travelers to board those rescue boats. The main and mizzen masts collapsed, smashing two of the life boats and killing several people. It took 12 minutes for the ship to sink.

61 passengers and 26 of the crew were saved and taken on board the Loch Earn, while 226 passengers and crew perished. The Loch Earn, herself in danger of sinking, was subsequently rescued by the American cargo ship, Tremountain and all Ville du Havre passengers and crew were transferred to that ship. The Loch Earn, with its bow smashed in, commenced to sink as the bulkheads gave way, so she was abandoned at sea by her crew and sank shortly afterwards. 

Although Horatio Spafford was not a passenger on board the Ville du Havre, his wife (Anna) and four daughters were.  At the last moment Horatio was detained by real estate business, so Anna and the girls went on ahead for Paris. Anna was picked up unconscious, floating on a plank of wood, by the crew of the Loch Earn.

Nine days after the shipwreck Anna landed in Wales and cabled Horatio, Saved alone. What shall I do? Horatio immediately left Chicago to bring his wife home. On the Atlantic crossing, the captain of his ship called Horatio to his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where his four daughters had died. He wrote to Rachel, his wife’s half-sister, “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs”. Horatio later wrote the famous hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” commemorating his daughters.

So that short, terse cablegram provides a door to a much larger, heartbreaking story.  It just so happens that there is a shipwreck in the beginning of Where the Light Enters (do not panic, nobody you know was on the ship that sunk). The temptation, when I come across something like this telegram, is to revisit the whole section of the novel to see if I can make it any more factually accurate. What does it means that the Ville du Havre was proceeding under both steam and sail at about 12 knots? 

But I will not pursue it. That’s my firm intention: to leave the matter of ships that sailed under sail and steam at the same time in the bin of unanswered questions. Because it’s not important. Nope. Makes no difference to me or my story.  

On the other hand, I will tuck this all away for consideration at a later date.

Edited to add this Youtube Video of the hymn written by Horatio Spafford. I am not at all religious, but this piece of music is very moving, given the history.

To say nothing of the dog: on proofreading

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I’m almost finished with the first-pass page proofs for The Endless Forest, and I hope to hand it over to FedEx late today or early tomorrow. As I am at the hair-pulling stage, I’m taking a break to tell you about this process and how I handle it. Or don’t.

I believe I can pinpoint the very moment when my proofreading phobia started.  Writing a dissertation is never easy and everybody who has ever written one will have horror stories to tell.  I think those of us who defended more than twenty years ago, when word processing was in its very quirky infancy, probably have more horror stories than more recent doctoral students. Usually, though, the horror stories don’t happen after the fact.

It was the day after I defended my doctoral dissertation. A beautiful late spring day, and I was free. FREE.  I was so full of energy, I was almost floating. Three years of hard work in which I often doubted that I could ever finish — much less defend  — my dissertation, but I had done both. I can still recall that feeling. It ranks up there with the first sight of the Girlchild’s little new-babies-look-like-monkies face, and seeing the Mathematician down there at the end of the aisle smiling at me, and getting the first copy of the first published novel delivered. It’s that good.

Then the phone rang, and I made a mistake. I answered it.

On the other end was a very earnest librarian from Princeton’s library, who was holding a copy of my newly minted dissertation in his hands.

Librarian: Dr Lippi, I have a number of questions regarding your dissertation.

Me: Huh?

Librarian: Before I can add it to the library’s collection there are number of … infelicities that need to be addressed.

I remember my gut rising into my throat, which explains why my voice came out like Minnie Mouse on steroids.

Me: I defended it yesterday. I’m done.

Librarian: I’m afraid not. Do you have a copy so you can follow along as I ask my questions?

Me:

Librarian: Dr. Lippi?

What I wanted to say: But you don’t understand, I swore last night that I would never, ever, open my dissertation again. In fact, my plans for today include embalming my copy in a barrel of wet concrete. In short: no, I don’t have a copy to follow along, and no force on earth is going to compel me to go get one.

Me: Just go ahead.

Librarian: On page 223, chart 27a is not titled.  And on 275, chart 55 is titled ‘Distribution of Marked Phonemes by Generation’ but in the index, the title is given as ‘Distribution of Marked Phoneme by Generation.’

I think I went into shock at that point. I simply stood there listening as he droned on with his list of missing commas, reversed index numbers, and other details I did not care about. Not one bit. A long time later  I realized he was waiting for some kind of reply.

Me: I’m sorry, I didn’t get that last bit.

Librarian: These problems will have to be corrected before your dissertation can be officially logged.

Me:

Librarian: Dr. Lippi?

Me:

Librarian: If I might make a suggestion, I could make these corrections for you —

Me: You could? Really? Oh, bless you. Bless you. Please go ahead and change things as you see fit. No need to run things past me, no sirree.

And I hung up.

Ever since that day, I cringe when a proofreader makes him or herself heard. Which happens a lot while you’re doing the first-pass reading of a manuscript. Don’t get me wrong, the proofreader is crucial at this point because I don’t see half the small things she catches, and those things do need to be caught. For the most part there will be a couple of marks on a page — a comma added or a semi-colon changed to a period, for example. More serious and important are the small errors in continuity, so the proofreader will write “Do you mean Nathaniel here instead of Daniel?” And 99% of the time she’s right.

But every once in a while I flip over a page and see a long paragraph in the margin in dark blue ink, and my heart leaps into my throat. The proofreader has found a major problem in logic or a large inconsistency in backstory, and attached to those observations is a list of pages on which the fact in question has come up and has to be compared to the current page, so that corrections can be made all around.

Today I’ve run into more than the usual number of those marginal blocks, which explains why my heartbeat is galloping along and my lip is bleeding where I’ve been chewing on it. I think it was especially bad today because of the dog.

There is a dog in this story, as you probably would have guessed if you’ve read any of my stuff.

Here’s the problem: the dog is mentioned and described as a puppy, belonging to a young couple. From its first appearance, the proofreader is obsessed — obsesssed, I tell you — with this dog. Wherever the couple shows up, there must the dog be also or the proofreader is unhappy. I stopped counting the ‘where’s the dog?’ queries after ten or so. By that time I was ready to slash right to the heart of the problem and instruct her to take out every reference to a dog, anywhere. Everywhere. In everything I’ve ever written. Please, just don’t ask me about the dog anymore. And you know how much I love dogs, so things have to be pretty dire around here just now.

So now I  have to go back to proofreading. Light a candle, would you? I need all the help I can get.

——

Creative Commons License photo credit: Valentin.Ottone

Diana Norman* talks about her work

*edited to add: Diana may well stop by here at some point, so if you have questions for her, please include them in the comments and you just might get an answer.

Serious readers of fiction — and I count myself as one of this group — often form strong attachments to their favorite authors. A reader comes across a new novel and falls in love with the story, the characters, and the voice of the storyteller. Soon that reader is compelled to go out to find anything and everything the author has written, without delay. If the fascination lasts, the reader will start wondering about this author who has so captured the imagination.

These days, readers have access to more information than ever before. Curiosity about the author’s background, how he or she started writing and dozens of other questions can often be addressed by an internet search. But sometimes there is nothing to be found. We are spoiled by technology, and disappointed when the internet fails us.

“Resplendent with historical details, filled with beautifully crafted characters, and kissed with a subtle touch of romance, Norman’s [A Catch of Consequence] is historical fiction at its best.” (Booklist)

Diana Norman’s first novel, Fitzempress’ Law (St. Martin’s Press; Hodder & Stoughton) appeared in 1980 with twelve more novels to follow, but until recently she has been better known in her native Great Britain than here in North America. Then, in 2003 a trade paperback edition of Catch of Consequence (see my notes here) was widely distributed and seriously marketed, which brought Norman a new and enthusiastic North American readership.

This trilogy (set during the American and French Revolutions) sent many readers out in search of the rest of Norman’s work, but most were disappointed. A great deal of her blacklist is out of print and very difficult to find. For example, Fitzempress’ Law shows up on abebooks.com for anywhere from $100 to $900. The good news: many libraries seem to carry some or all of Norman’s novels, which is where I found most of them. I must confess, however, to spending quite a lot of money to invest in a copy of The Morning Gift.

In all the years I have been reading Diana’s work, my questions have been piling up. Occasionally I would do a search, hoping to find information on how she chose a setting, where she found some particularly wonderful historical detail (see her comment about Oliver Cromwell, below), or why she used a particular approach. My curiosity was never satisfied until just recently, when I had the opportunity to ask Diana some questions. The interview presented here is the product of our very lively email conversation.

As is the case with many of the very best historical novelists, Norman’s background is not academic and so to start, I asked her for some of her own history. Most specifically, how she came to write historical novels with such insight and obvious love of the subject matter.

My mother was a single parent and I went out to work at the age of sixteen to help support her and my two young brothers. I worked on a local paper in my home town of Torquay in Devonshire, graduated to a bigger one in London’s East End and finally made it to a national newspaper in Fleet Street where you don’t learn anything much except how and where to find things out. Oh, and a lot about human nature.

Male history wrote women out, unless it could blame them for something.

History always fascinated me. One must know the causes of things or one is walking blind. If ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair had been aware of history, he wouldn’t have taken the U.K. into war with Iraq. My husband, daughters and I marched against that appalling decision (a) because it was wrong and (b) because history told us it would be disastrous. Sorry about that – I get carried away on the subject.Male history wrote women out, unless it could blame them for something. To answer your question, I started studying history after I was married and found myself living in a Hertfordshire village having babies. Life in Fleet Street had been turbulent but exciting and, turbulent and exciting as looking after children is, it wasn’t enough.

I decided to use my spare time to write a novel about Henry II – the 12th century king who has always fascinated me, flawed perhaps but the instigator of one of those enormous leaps forward that have brought us out of the Dark Ages, a man who gave us the jury system, Common Law and who restored England after an annihilating civil war. (All right, the murder of Thomas à Becket on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral was attributed to him, although the king was in France at the time, but St Thomas was a very, very trying man.) So, three novels about Henry and then I was off cantering through the succeeding ages, mainly trying to chart the course of women by means of novels. Male history wrote them out, unless it could blame them for something, but if you peer deeply enough into the archives you find amazing women, not necessarily the famous ones, but ordinary widows pursuing trades from which, officially, they were banned, women who kicked against the pricks (I use the term in more ways than one.)

Your interest in the untold story of women in history comes through in all your work. You create strong women characters who are put into the situations which test them and their beliefs to the extreme.

I come of a long line of strong women. At the age of fourteen, my Welsh grandmother was sent to England to work as a laundry maid in what was then known as a lunatic asylum without being able to understand a word of English. At first she didn’t know who were the staff and who the inmates, but she lived to old age to terrorise and fascinate us, her descendants. Women through the ages have had it so tough that I flounder in admiration at their struggle against prejudice and adversity, especially those who made the path smoother for those of us who came after. So, yes, I suppose all my heroines are bound to reflect that.

[asa book]0399154140[/asa] Most recently your work has taken a turn toward historical mystery with the publication of two very different, but equally compelling novels under the pen name Ariana Franklin. The Mistress of the Art of Death is set in Henry II’s England, but with City of Shadows you jumped to post World War I Germany. How did the change in focus and geography come about?

The answer is that I was running out of steam. Suddenly I was approached by a literary agent called Helen Heller – and if ever there was a forceful woman, she’s it. “What about an historical thriller? Change your name and format.”

Well, I’ve always adored thrillers and Helen’s suggestion that I should write one based on the story of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the sole survivor of the massacre of the Russian Tsar and his family in 1918, Grand Duchess Anastasia, was intriguing. Researching it, I found that it was impossible to make Anna the heroine – too flaky, too pro-fascist and bad-tempered by half, nor was she Anastasia, as was proved by DNA later; though it looks as though she convinced herself that she was. But there was fascinating stuff there; she met and approved of Hitler, for one thing. All grist to a writer’s mill.

The twenties and thirties were such turbulent times in Europe — especially in Germany. Did you struggle with your own feelings about the events of the time, or did your Fleet Street experience provide a way to stay objective and avoid author intrusion?

My family, like most British families, suffered during the war – but it was probably the one war the UK was involved in that had to be fought. Nevertheless, if the Allies hadn’t been so vindictive towards Germany after the first World War, Hitler wouldn’t have had the material to work on that he did – and I hope City of Shadows shows the disintegration and hideous inflation that brought him to power. It’s a murder story, of course, but I tried to set it against that real and depressing background.

Just one more question about City of Shadows, for fear of letting plot twists slip: Quite a few of the major characters would have to be called off-putting (for example, Prince Nick and Anna both) but you still manage to make the reader feel real empathy and in some cases, sympathy for them. Is the construction of these characters something you have to consciously work at, or do they simply evolve? And how do you feel about them?

It’s nice of you to say that. Thank you. But don’t you feel there always has to be an explanation for wickedness? And unless you try to show that, you’re creating characters that don’t throw a shadow.

I certainly do agree with you, and I think you’ve just coined an excellent phrase: characters who don’t throw a shadow.

Mistress of the Art of Death is the first novel in a trilogy about Dr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar of Salerno, a trained physician and pathologist. The second novel in the series (The Serpent’s Tale) is to be released in late January 2008. Like City of Shadows, Mistress of the Art of Death is called historical mystery, though both novels — as is the case with all of your novels — hardly fit into one genre. Beyond murders that need to be solved, how does your most recent work differ from the earlier efforts? Or does it?

It doesn’t much. I like the corseting framework of thrillers. As the great Raymond Chandler once said: “When in doubt have a man come in with a gun.” In my case, if I’m writing about the 12th century when guns hadn’t been invented, it has to be a man with a dagger or a bow and arrow. But the principle is the same – it moves the story along. And there’s plenty of space to expand on historical background or make a political point about the time.

A bit of an odd question, but I hope you’ll find it interesting. If you were offered a chance to go back in time to spend a few days in one of your settings, which time and place would you choose? Assume that your safety (and your return trip home) are guaranteed.

Well. I’d hate to be seven hundred years away from the nearest aspirin, but I would risk it to spend some days in England in the latter half of the 12th century. People who don’t study them think of the Middle Ages as all the same, but the worst came after the Black Death in the 14th century, when a third of Europe’s population died so horribly.

It had a lot to do with the weather; there was a mini ice age in the thirteen hundreds which destroyed crops and encouraged the plague-bearing rats. Before that, in the age of Henry II, there were good summers and crisp winters that killed off a lot of disease. It was, for its time, in England at least, an enlightened and humanistic age – no witch-burning on a grand scale like there was later, no heretics going up in flames. The beginning of the Renaissance, really. Yes, I’d like to go back there – for a bit.

–Barry, Barry, did you know that Oliver Cromwell died of malaria?

Your husband is the well known and respected film critic Barry Norman. Is there a place where his interests in modern film and yours in historical storytelling intersect? Does he provide feedback on your work in progress?

–Well, good for him.

Oddly enough, no. We’ve been married a long, long time, Barry and I, and it’s been a success because we give each other space. He’s a fine writer in his own field as well as being a great film critic, and, of course, we discuss the mechanics of writing a lot, but we don’t let our work impinge on the other. I don’t think he’s ever read a book of mine until the first proof copy comes in, and vice versa – we work in such different fields that we don’t feel qualified to criticise the other’s work. Besides, we get thrilled by different things – him by films, when I prefer the theatre; me by gobbets of history that leave him cold.

This has been a really wonderful opportunity for me and for all your North American readers. I appreciate very much all your time and effort. To close, Is there anything you’d like to say us?

Just that I’m thrilled to bits to be suddenly getting such a lot of attention and finding a readership that is very intelligent. I mean that; the come-back I get is so interesting and so well-informed that I shake in my shoes in case I get something wrong.

I think every historical novelist has that fear. I know I wake up at three in the morning in a sweat because I realized (in a dream) that I was using the wrong kind of lantern in a scene. Your ability to make a time and place come alive is evident on every page, and yet you make it look effortless. When The Serpent’s Tale comes out in January, I hope you’ll come back again.

As I wrote yesterday, a pile o’ books could be coming your way Anybody who comments on the interview posts (yesterday’s, and today’s) will automatically be entered. That lucky person will get a pile o’ my favorite Diana/Ariana novels. I’ll draw a name at random sometime later next week. Everybody is eligible to enter this drawing.

——–

*If you google Diana Norman, you are likely to find many references to an English art historian by that name. The art historian is someone else entirely; this interview is with the Diana Norman who is a former Fleet Street journalist and novelist

Links:

Diana Norman and Ariane Franklin at Fantastic Fiction (from whence the cover of Fitzempress’ Law)

Diana’s page at Literature Map

A full list of Diana’s novels, with library and bookstore links (where available)


I would like to acknowledge Lynn (Paperback Writer) who contributed to this interview by brainstorming questions with me.

Rouen, 1806: something in the water?

Reading old medical journals for information, I ran across a summary of an article on historical suicide statistics by Dr. Allan McLane Hamilton, of New York. There is a surprising amount of data, broken down by gender, location, marital status, work — but only for some cities.

In 1793, [there were] 1300 [suicides] in Versailles.
In the year 1806, 60 suicides were reported in Rouen, an extremely small city [in France].
Paris, from 1827 to 1830, furnished 6900 suicides,

Continue reading “Rouen, 1806: something in the water?”