The backdrop of my second novel, From the Charred Remains, begins where The Murder at Rosamund's Gate left off...at one of the most traumatic moments in London's history: The Great Fire of 1666.
Yet as I researched the extent of the devastation, looking at a wide range of sources, I became increasingly perplexed by how few people were alleged to have perished during the conflagration. Over and over, I'd see repeated the same impossibly low numbers--nine, ten, a dozen people.
How could that be?
You see, the Fire--which started in early September 1666 when a baker failed to bank his coals properly--raged out of control for several days before the winds mercifully shifted. In that time, the Fire destroyed thousands and thousands of homes and businesses, and a hundred thousand people were left homeless.
Just imagine--as I've tried to do--the mayhem, the panic, the crush of humanity. Could the elderly, the infirm, the drunk have fled so easily? And what about the inmates of Newgate prison? It's unlikely the wardens of that dreadful place would have thought through a systematic evacuation plan.
And yet, historians have long pointed out (very reasonably, I might add) that the death toll could not have been very high. Someone would have noticed. Surely, someone would have written about death on a massive scale.
But, such written accounts don't exist.
Contemporaries (such as Pepys or other chroniclers from this time period) only noted a handful of deaths. Two elderly women found huddled by St. Paul's. A young serving girl afraid to jump from the third story of a building in flames. Such tales are scattered about, but they are notable in their rarity. More significantly, the Bills of Mortality, which carefully documented all deaths from the plague and other misfortunes in the 1660s, did not describe any great numbers after the Fire.
Cover up? hmmmm....
As it turns out, I'm not the only one who has pondered this very question. Neil Hanson, author of The Dreadful Judgment, has made a compelling argument that thousands may have perished in this blaze--in direct opposition to the commonly accepted view.
Hanson raised two important questions: Why were these deaths not recorded, and what happened to their bodies? (You can read his fascinating address to the Museum of London here).
Sadly, Hanson's conclusion is deeply troubling but may well be accurate--the bodies of the missing had simply disappeared into the flame. Everyone had missing neighbors who never returned....numbering in the thousands.
So, this is one of those odd cases where the silence of evidence could be evidence in itself.
But what do you think?
As I work on From the Charred Remains, the second book in my Lucy Campion series, I keep getting plagued by this question: How long would it take a horse and carriage to travel from London to Oxford in the mid-seventeenth century?
Check out my post at the Bloody Good Read on this topic! Let me know what you think!
Betsy Ross, 1777 (Ferris, ca 1920)
Growing up in Philadelphia, I was both immersed in and oblivious to the colonial history that surrounded me. After school my friends and I often went to the mall by the Liberty Bell or we hung out in beautiful Independence Square, within a few yards of where the Declaration of Independence was signed, rarely heeding the significance of our historic surroundings.
I admit, sometimes we'd laugh at the tourists snapping countless pictures, reading signs, peering at maps, buying outrageously expensive soft pretzels (everyone knew you don't buy them in the tourist areas!), pitching pennies on Ben Franklin's grave (years later, I understood why they did that--they were paying homage to the man who coined the phrase in his Poor Richard's Almanac, "A penny saved is a penny earned"--but at the time we thought it was a pretty silly thing to do.) Hey, we were kids.
But I'm sure if someone had asked, we'd have been able to give a decent enough explanation of the events leading to the break with Great Britain, maybe something about John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson, etc. Heck, I'm sure we could have offered up the great tale of how Betsy Ross was asked by none other than George Washington himself to create the first American flag. And how that flag she sewed, with its unique star pattern, helped inspire a burgeoning nation to independence and unity. Or something along those lines. You don't mess with Betsy Ross.
But as a historian now, I look back and question how history and legend became intertwined with our local popular memory and national identity. Only a little digging reveals that few vexillogists (people who collect and study flags, and also my new favorite word) and historians agree with the popular conviction that Philadelphia seamstress Elisabeth Griscom Ross (a.k.a. Betsy Ross, revered national icon) actually made that first flag (let alone that General Washington commissioned it).
Indeed, the evidence appears to be scant one way or the other, and heavily anecdotal in nature. Much of the sentimental legend appears to have derived from a popular account put forth by Ross's daughter, and related in full by her grandson, in the late nineteenth century. Even then, however, scholars seemed a bit skeptical about the veracity of the legend, but the romantic quality seems to have captured the imagination of Ross's biographers, and the legend somehow became true. (Noted historian Laurel Ulrich offers an excellent discussion of how this transpired, and why Betsy Ross is still an important figure in U.S. history).
Another vexillogy related point (and yes, I am hoping to use that word repeatedly)--is the so-called "Betsy Ross five-pointed star pattern." Again, all kinds of myths abound about the origins of this type of star: some argue that the stars were connected to George Washington's family crest (doubtful, despite the red stars on the crest, given that this was the same man who would not be king); or perhaps to European heraldry (maybe some influences here), or most likely to the early naval signs. Say what you will--my money is on the alleged connection of the early founding fathers to the Masonic order (supposedly stars were one of their symbols, along with pyramids etc. The Da Vinci Code in America, anyone?)
Even though legends about Betsy Ross and the flag are enjoyable, I think it's important to consider their origins. But what do you think?
who are these people anyway
One of my favorite past-times is to imagine back stories for the people I see at coffee shops, parks, airports, you name it. I'm always speculating about their personal lives, the secrets they keep, their ambitions--either thwarted or realized.
I also like to imagine people in completely different historical contexts. I never make them actual known historical figures, but I might connect them with someone famous. For example, I often look at my eighteen-year old students as World War I soldiers, or the people sipping wine as Macedonians, or the woman strolling down the street as a Druid priestess (not really sure what that looks like though) or the person who cut me off a French aristocrat (sorry about your impending beheading...)
One of my friends for sure would be a disguised Han warrior, making tea for her family, then sneaking off to fight the Huns. (Or am I thinking of Mulan?) Another friend would have been an early suffragette, and still another, a village chieftain. A professor I know would have been an Abbott, living a scholarly life in a monastery. And so on. I always imagine my husband as a Viking ship-maker or one of Charlemagne's armor-makers. I wouldn't have met him, unfortunately, as I'd have been a servant in some great English manor or maybe teaching in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie. Or taking bribes as a Chicago gumshoe. Something like that. A girl can dream.
It's fun to speculate what we might have been like 50, 100, 1000, 2000, 10000 years ago! (Cave-man anyone?) Or for that matter, if we lived 5000 years in the future.
What about you? How would you imagine yourself in a different time period?
The other day, I experienced one of my odder moments as a writer. When I came home from work, I found a much anticipated package containing the page proofs for A Murder at Rosamund's Gate (that's not the odd part, that's the extremely thrilling part).
the inside cover page
At this point, I can only make very minor edits. A word here and there, typos, minor grammatical changes--that's about it. The book is nearly ready--all 340 pages of it. A heady and strange mixture of emotions regularly accompany this realization.
But the odd thing? Later that same evening, I happened to be poking through some old files and I came across the very first handwritten draft of this novel, which I began in 2003. All scratched up, full of non sequiturs and dangling thoughts, somehow this mess became an actual novel. Holding that handwritten draft alongside my proofs was definitely a surreal moment, and it was hard not to compare the original version with the final.
To be sure, some things were different. My heroine was originally named Abigail, although somewhere along the way, she became Lucy. Another main character saw his name changed several times too, from Thornton to William to Adam. I also had a prologue then (which I've since eliminated, as I've mentioned before), and even more interestingly--I had an entirely different adversary than the one who crept into the pages later. In fact, the main crime was different, although I had written emphatic notes to myself--'Must take place during seventeenth-century plague and Great Fire of London.' So the setting never changed, nor did my original inspiration.
The book took me ten years to write. Honestly, I never thought when I began this story that I would even finish it, let alone that it would be out in the world. But the proof, I guess, is in the proofs.
I can't tell you how excited I am to see the cover of my first novel!!!
A Murder at Rosamund's Gate.
I think the artists at Minotaur captured the essence of my story beautifully.
The opening (and closing) images of my novel are of Lucy standing at a door.
There are some other clues about the story tucked away here, but you'll have to read the book to discover them for yourselves!!!
Esther Biddle, Quaker, 1660
This weekend I had the fun of seeing my first guest blog "Prophecy and Polemic— The Earliest Quaker Women" posted on the English Historical Fiction Authors website.
There, I discuss why Quaker women were so political and how they differed in one particular way from most other women at the time--even members of other non-conformist sects (such as the Diggers, the Ranters, the Levelers etc).
And oh! how they expressed themselves...
Dressing in sack-cloth
"Running naked as a sign"
Refusing to bow to authority
But that wasn't all...
Quaker women were different because they wrote. And they wrote. And they wrote. And they wrote.
In fact, as a group, Quaker women wrote 220 tracts before 1700, more than any other women. Petitions, broad-sides, chapbooks--all carrying admonitions to King, Parliament and clergy to recognize sinful acts, accounts of injustices and cruelties to their members, and pleas to release their religious brethren from prisons and authorize non-conformist worship in England, and the American colonies.
I've always respected the bravery and creativity shown by the earliest Quakers, in their attempt to get their message heard. I've often thought how hard that must have been for them to write these open pieces. They were not just challenging Parliament, Magistrates, Churchmen and the King: they were challenging convention and the very heart of patriarchy, often risking public ridicule, shaming, abuses and imprisonment.
Taking the mantles of Old Testament prophets, mid-seventeenth century Quaker women wrote openly about the social wrongs they perceived around them, especially those caused by the (imagined and real) abuses of men in power. In the soul-examining spirit of the time, Quaker women--like their male counterparts--also wrote publicly about their own struggles to find the "Inner Light" and to give up earthly fripperies. (Poor Susannah Whitrowe--she really wanted to cling to her ribbons, but knew she wasn't supposed to) They wrote about death and heartbreak, joy and promise. (This is not too suggest that they did not use their expressions of suffering to advance their cause--both politically and religiously--but there is an honesty to their expression that is admirable).
At a time when women who wrote were disparaged as "petticoat authors," early Quaker women persevered to make their voices known. Just as they "ran naked as a sign" to convey their discontent to religious and secular authorities, they wrote nakedly too. They laid their emotions and concerns bare, for public consumption, expressing themselves in ways that were both daunting and inspiring.
As I writer, I certainly struggle to lay my words bare on the page. Those little editorial voices are hard to muffle! I'm hoping, with time, to find my most authentic voice. How about you?
17th c. detective of poisons
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the first female literary sleuths, and since then I've since been wondering about the real first "detectives." I don't mean just any investigators of criminal activity, for surely, those have existed since time immemorial.
But I was curious about when the term "detective" emerged as a recognizable title and/or occupation. The word does appear in the Early English Books Online as early as 1634. However, the word detective was not used as a noun, but rather as a verb, referring to the process of detecting.
Specifically, the "famous chirugion [surgeon] Ambrose Parey" detective the effects of deadly poisons on the human body.
Turning to my trusty Oxford Etymological Dictionary, I found that as a noun, "detective" was not used before before 1843. According to the Chambers Edinburgh Journal, "Intelligent men have been recently selected to form a body called the ‘detective police’‥at times the detective policeman attires himself in the dress of ordinary individuals." (12: 54).
The word was later referenced in Willis' discussion of modern thief-taking in 1850: "To each division of the Force is attached two officers, who are denominated ‘detectives’" (C. Dickens, Househ. Words 13 July 368/1).
Prior to 1850, those conducting investigations might have been called a searcher (1382), intracer (?a1475), inquisitor (?1504), inseer (1532), theif taker (1535) (my favorite, and the one I use!), peruser (1549) investigator (1552), tracer (1552), scrutineer (1557), examiner (1561), revisitor (1594), researcher (1615), examinant (1620), indagator (1620) (that's a great one!), ferret (1629), (another great one!), pryer (1674A), probator (1691), disquisitor (1766), grubber (1776), prober (1777), plant (1812), grubbler (1813), and plain clothes (1822).
After 1850, additional colorful slang variants were used: Plainsclothesman (1856), mouser (1863), sleuth (1872), tec (1879), dee (1882) (shortened version of detective), sleuth-hound (1890), split (1891) (evolution of informer, turning against another person), hawkshaw (1903) (a character in a play), busy (1904), gumshoe (1906), (from the quiet stealthy shoes detectives began to adopt), dick (1908) (comes from a colloquial collapsing of 'detective'), and Richard (1914) (the common surname for nickname Dick). (Most of these expressions, it should be noted, came from criminal slang)
And the first real person to be called detective?
Well, it's hard to say...
In literature, the first detective is usually considered to be August Dupine in Edgar Allen Poe's Murder in the Rue Morgue (1841) (although I don't think he's referred to in the original version as a detective).
Paul Collins, an associate professor at Portland State, a.k.a. the literary detective, has made the case for Charles Felix's detective in Velvet Lawn (1862) as the first of the genre. (On my list to read!).
Others have argued for Inspector Buckett from Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1853), who may well have been based on a real private investigator that Dickens knew.
"We never sleep?!" Hey, that's my motto
These works, demonstrating the emerging professionalism of detectives (or inspectors), clearly were influenced by larger nineteenth-century trends--most notably the ongoing reform efforts (which called for systematic, often covert, investigations into the corrupted and abusive practices found in factories, prisons, schools, hospitals, etc).
Something else accompanied that change.
As an investigator, the nineteenth-century detective was trying to systematically solve problems, using science to find solutions to the puzzles that plagued society. The "new" detectives were adopting a scientific, logical quality to the process of capturing criminals.
The first known (and organized) private detective agency emerged in France in 1833. This occurred under the auspices of Eugène François Vidocq, a soldier turned privateer, who lived much of his early life on the run from from the law.
(Apparently, Victor Hugo was so impressed with Vidocq that he based not one, but two, of his most important characters in Les Miserables--both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert--on the man).
Officially, however, at least in the U.S., Allen Pinkerton, a transplant from Glasgow, Scotland became Chicago's first detective in 1849. Soon after, he set up his famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency in the 1850s.
Ultimately, this professionalization of the detective--with its' new emphasis on applying science, logic and technology to catching criminals--gradually reshaped the image of the investigator from "thief taker" to puzzle solver. These trends seem to have substantially influenced at least the first few generations of literary detectives, maybe more.
Enter Sherlock, Poirot and all those who rely on "their little grey cells" to solve mysteries...
(I do think the recent trend of paranormal crime solvers indicates the inevitable backlash, however, but that's another story). What do you think?
original 1930 UK edition
Recently I've been thinking about the history of female sleuths--at least of the literary variety. I'd assumed that the first had emerged in the "Golden Age of Detective Fiction" (the period between World War I and World War II, when many great fictional detectives emerged).
Certainly, two early female sleuths were gentle Miss Marple and the intrepid girl detective Nancy Drew, although neither was the first female detective.
Miss Marple first emerged in one of Agatha Christie's short stories ("The Tuesday Club Murders") in 1925, although she was not featured in a full-length novel until The Murder at the Vicarage was published in 1930 (Check out the original cover above. Anyone missing? Hmm...).
the chic 1930s detective
Interestingly, the first Nancy Drew mystery (The Secret of the Old Clock) was also published in 1930. (The authorship has been much contested, and the stories have been much revised, but the pseudonym "Carolyn Keene" is understood now to be the creation of Edward Stratemeyer and a series of ghostwriters, including Mildred Wirt).
In many ways, Nancy Drew and Miss Marple could not be more different. Miss Marple elicited friendships over tea, making sense of gossip, while Nancy listened at keyholes, regularly finding herself captured or bopped over the head. Miss Marple was a lively middle-aged "spinster" who demonstrated wit and wisdom, while Nancy was a titian-haired teenager, later college student, who was highly skilled at everything.
Yet, arguably, both sleuths were products of the Great War. Miss Marple had lost her fiance and chose to make her own way in the world. Nancy had benefited from the nascent women's rights movement in the U.S, believing without reservation that she could do anything that men could do, including catch criminals.
Loveday Brooke at work
With a little more digging, however, I found that the Victorians had actually produced the first female detectives. In 1864, Andrew J. Forrester Jr. introduced Mrs. G. in the Female Detective, and other female sleuths followed soon after. These women seem to have represented a different type of reformer--rather than those who sought to reform prisons, factories and mills, and schools, these female detectives seemed to be suggesting a reform of the police force.
The first female sleuth I could find that had been created by a female author was Loveday Brooke, in Catherine Louisa Perkis' The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (1893). Loveday Brooke, destitute at 30 years old, had defied patriarchal convention to join a detective agency. Much like her better known contemporary, Sherlock Holmes, Loveday relied on her intellect and logical thinking to suss out her criminal adversaries. She offered a counterpoint to the widespread belief in the late nineteenth-century that women were emotional, hysterical, and incapable of logical reasoning.
In many ways, these sleuths seem to reflect something of their times. It makes me wonder, first, how my own amateur sleuth, Lucy Campion, might be a product of my experience? It also makes me wonder generally about more recent trends of female sleuths who have (more-or-less successful) crafts, businesses, and hobbies on the side, which inform their crime-solving capabilities.
Just curious: Do you think characters (sleuths or not) are still products of an author's time? And if you don't like that question: What sleuths or detectives (female or male!) do you enjoy? Why?
Quick! What do these celebrities--Will Smith, Elizabeth Taylor, Tina Turner, Monica Potter, and Bradley Cooper--all have in common? Hint: It's something medieval....
Each bears the last name of a medieval/early modern occupation. (Smith and taylor/tailor are self-explanatory, but a turner operated a lathe, a cooper made barrels, and a potter, well, potted).
I was thinking about this--how many early modern guilds are still represented in surnames today--as I was doing research for my second novel, From the Charred Remains (2013).
I had come across the occupation of “cordwainer.” Cordwainer? I knew this was an occupation, like a tinker, or a wainwright (wheelmaker) or a hooper (another name for barrel-maker), but I have to admit, I never thought to look this one up.
The cordwainer crest
Any guesses?..... No?
Well, it turns out a “cordwainer” is a shoemaker.
The term originated in medieval Cordoba in Spain, a region controlled by Muslims who excelled, among other things, in the production of high-quality specially-tanned leather. (See the goats in the guild crest?)
cordwainers at work
The French referred to those who made shoes from this leather as cordonnier, which became “cordwainer” in England (you know, after that little Norman invasion of England in 1066).
According to the website for the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers--yes, the medieval guild still exists today as a charitable group!—the cordwainer must be distinguished from the cobbler. The cordwainer only worked with new leather, while the cobbler could only work with old. (Indeed, cobblers could get in a lot of trouble if they were found with new leather).
mmm...leatherless cobbler pie
And the more important question of all?
What does any of this have to do with blueberry cobbler?
(Only that early American settlers used to make pie from any foodstuffs on hand-- cobbling it together as a cobbler would piece together shoes...Maybe Will Smith likes blueberry cobbler too, I don't know.)
What do you think? Do you know of any surnames--celebrity or otherwise--that have an interesting history?
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.
Blogs I enjoy
Cozy Mystery List Blog (great conversations about mysteries!)
Jungle Red Writers (Eight crime fiction writers)