The cover reveal for Pathfinding Women, Book 3 of the Waxwood Series, is here!
This is a very special cover reveal for several reasons. First, I’ve been told Pathfinding Women is the best book of the series (so far — don’t forget, there’s one last book coming out in December!) It is, I think, also the most powerful book of the series (so far…)
But more than that. It’s a book that, more than the first two of the series, highlights the struggles women were going through at the very end of the 19th century. It’s not a political book by any means, but women’s rights and suffragism and the New Woman, which are some of the historical social and psychological events I’m most passionate about, play more of a role here than in the first two books (and it will play an even bigger role in Book 4).
This cover reveal is also coming at you with a sense of timing. Today, August 26, marks the anniversary of two major events related to women’s rights. First, it’s Women’s Equality Day, a day where we celebrate the history of women’s struggle to be recognized as equals. And second, today also marks the 100th anniversary of the adaptation of the 19th Amendment in the United States constitution. This is the amendment that gave women the right to vote, so it’s a very big deal for women in America.
You can pick up your copy of Pathfinding Women, which is now on a special preorder sale, here. You can also find out more about the first book in the series, The Specter, which is also at a special price, here. And don’t forget to check out the second book of the series, False Fathers, here. If you want to know more about the series itself, this link will help you.
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Photo Credit: Book cover for the Dover Thrift Edition of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, 2002, uploaded 6 July 2008 by Wolf Gang: Wolf Gang/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0
~~~Classic Corner is a new blog post series where I talk about classic literature that I’ve read.~~~
I’m happy to announce I have a new blog series. Every now and then, I’ll be posting about a classic book I’ve read. I read a lot of classic fiction and, unlike contemporary fiction, it takes a different mindset to enjoy classic books (which will be the subject of a future blog post). I try to bring out a little of why I enjoy classic literature so much in these blog posts, and I hope readers who might be a little wary of those “old books” will see we can enjoy these books as much as readers did at the time they were published.
When I thought about how I wanted to start this series, there was no question in my mind — I had to begin with Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Wharton is one of my favorite authors, both because I love Gilded Age and Progressive Era literature, and because she is one of the godmothers of psychological fiction. Not only that, Wharton had a reputation for having been sympathetic to women’s plight and the limitations women endured in these eras, making her an early feminist writer.
The first time I read the book, I adored it. I loved the protagonist Lily Bart and saw her as a feminist character in the way she wouldn’t settle for any man, defying the Victorian ideal of the separate spheres. I also loved the descriptions of the elegant world Wharton knew, the New York elite at the turn of the century. Wharton’s novel was one of the first classic stories I read after I rejected potboiler romances in my teen years. I credit the book for beginning my love affair with classic literature.
The second time I read this book was years later while in graduate school. While my passion for the book hadn’t cooled (I still find it a page-turner), my affection for Lily Bart was a different story. By that time, I had studied quite a lot of women’s fiction and women’s history. I recognized Lily Bart as not the feminist heroine I had envisioned her the first time. I saw her as rather vain and selfish, the Victorian version of the entitlement generation. I had little patience for the ease with which she criticizes others and the snobbish airs she takes of the well-to-do New York society in which she circulates but, in terms of money and position, doesn’t really belong (the old saying, “beggars can’t be choosers” comes to mind). I was especially affected by the way she constantly puts down the one real friend she has, a working class reformer named Gerty Farish. In Lily’s eyes, Gerty is shabby, poor, and sanctimonious because she doesn’t live on Fifth Avenue, doesn’t attend afternoon teas, and works hard to help young women worse off than herself.
Photo Credit: Illustration from The House of Mirth, 1905 by A. B. Wenzell. From a scene where Lily Bart is leaving Lawrence Selden’s apartment house and passes by a woman cleaning the stairs. Note Bart’s haughty pose, as if to say “How dare this lowlife get in my way of passing on the stairs?”: Sherurcij/Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923
My third reading of the book happened a few years ago. By then, I was a published author and working on my own Gilded Age novels depicting the upper class (though mine takes place in the West Coast rather than the East Coast). I can’t say I’ve changed my views much about what kind of character Lily Bart is. I still see her, for the most part, as self-centered and shallow, though not without other redeeming qualities (like her feminine charm and self-awareness). However, since experiencing my own characters caught up in the power of wealth and social status that identified the Gilded Age in America, I realized I had been making what is probably the biggest mistake readers make when approaching classic literature: I was reading the book from the point of view of my own time and not from the perspective of the time in which it was written. Armed with some background on the era, I now understand why she behaves the way she does, what motivates her socially and psychologically.
Wharton was anxious to show the waste “old moneyed” New York put upon young women like Bart in order to be accepted into that society. Bart is a product not just of her time but of her social and psychological circumstances. She does what young women who wanted to belong to the exclusive circle of New York high society had to do. Beautiful, young women in Gilded Age New York were taught that their only asset was their looks and their willingness to comply and they had better make the most of these qualities while they could by snagging a rich husband. So Bart’s obsession with finding a rich husband may seem artificial by contemporary standards, but she was taught nothing else by her mother and the society in which she aspired to belong.
My interest in The House of Mirth isn’t just as a reader but also as a writer. In my upcoming book, Pathfinding Women, which is Book 3 of my Waxwood Series, the subject of marriage is very much on the minds of both Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series, and her mother, Larissa. Vivian doesn’t have the problem that Lily Bart has (no money). Her problem is more one of age. In this book, Vivian is twenty-six, and in Gilded Age high society, any young woman who wasn’t married by the age of twenty had a problem. There are also other, more personal reasons why both Vivian and Larissa are anxious to see her married.
Want to know more about this upcoming book? You can read about Pathfinding Women, which will be out in August 2020, here. If you’d like more information about the series, take a look at this page.
Photo Credit: Children gathered in Hull House for kindergarten, 1902, Allen B. Pond, James Addams Hull House Museum: JethroBT/Wikimedia Commons/PD US
Last year, I wrote this blog post about the Progressive Era. But progressive reforms didn’t just begin the 20th century. The Gilded Age laid the groundwork in the last quarter of the 19th century, and especially its last decade when its dazzle of its excessiveness, idleness, and glitter were beginning to wear off, and Americans were becoming more aware of the political wrongs in the country that needed to be made right.
Women, mainly from the upper class social stratum (that is, wealthy and middle-class women) put themselves front and center as reformers during this time for several reasons. They took up issues they felt were of particular concern to, and in the domain of, women, such as sanitation, health and safety, and child labor. They saw reform as more about social problems than political problems (so they were not necessary suffragists, though the suffragists were certainly concerned about these issues as well). These women were social reformers who preferred to work within the woman’s sphere — that is, unlike the suffragists, who could rub the public the wrong way with their demand for a voice in public arenas such as politics, business, and law, women progressives preferred to work in areas that were more private.
A myriad of social changes were happening in America during the last decade of the 19th century. One of them was the economic criss brought on by the Panic of 1893. In the wake of this panic, slums in big cities like New York and Chicago grew, as well as the population of the poor elsewhere in America. Added to this, immigration increased during this time (with the opening of Ellis Island), and conflicts between laborers and employers signaled a growing concern for the rights and conditions of working women and children.
Much of this social reform took place in the settlement houses largely run by middle-class women that offered a host of services for poor and working class people in urban communities. Probably the most famous of these was Hull House in Chicago, run by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. But there were others all over the country.
Photo Credit: Telegraph Hill from Sacramento and Powell Streets, 1858-1900, Thomas Houseworth & Co., Publishers: New York Public Library/Public Domain
Since I deal with San Francisco and the Bay Area in my books, I went seeking information about settlement houses in the city in the late 19th century and found that the first one that operated was very similar to Hull House. Located on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill (one of the most picturesque areas of the city), the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center opened its doors in 1890 in response to the area’s growing immigrant population and its neighborhood children being pulled out of school and play for work, Elizabeth Ashe and Alice Griffith, like Addams and Gates, were educated New Women who responded to the growing needs of the neighborhood after they got to know some of its children through their teaching of Sunday school. Like Hull House, their objective was to offer residents a myriad of social improvements, from education to physical activity. The center offered classes for children and adults and also a library, as well as a playground and gymnasium, encouraging nurture of the mind and body, as well as the soul.
In Book 3 of the Waxwood Series, women progressives make an appearance in two ways. First, there is a group called the Bay Area Women’s Social and Political Rights League made up primarily of wealthy women to which Vivian Alderdice, the main character of the series, was introduced in Book 2 by one of the Washington Street blue bloods, Marvina Moore. Vivian also meets some New Women in the book through Annette Grace, a Waxwood native who owns a pharmacy/drug store in town. Though from different classes, both these groups are concerned with women laborers and their situation in the late 19th century, and both are looking to implement social changes as the nation moves into a new century.
Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women, will be out this summer, and you can find out more about it here. And to find out more about the series, go here.
May 2 is National Brothers and Sisters Day. Since I’ve been working on Book 3 of the Waxwood Series, I thought this would be a perfect time to revisit the characters of Vivian and Jake Alderedice, the sister and brother of the Alderdice family. I say “revisit” because I’ve written about both characters in the past (about Vivian here and about Jake here). But Book 3 finds them both older, wiser, and, in some ways, very changed.
I talked here about how a novel I wrote in 2004 evolved into this series and some of the changes from novel to series. One thing that didn’t change was the relationship between this sister and brother. I envisioned Vivian and Jake as rather isolated as children which, in that contemporary version, was due to the dysfunctional family dynamics of the Alderdices. That disfunction became more complex when I decided to put the series in a historical context because so much in the Victorian era was hidden and “not talked about”. Often times, my fiction works off of metaphors, images, and symbols and the playroom became the metaphor for Vivian and Jake’s isolated world. On the top floor of the massive Alderdice Hall, Vivian and Jake spent many hours there, left to themselves because of the Victorian era idea that “children should be seen and not heard.” In The Specter, the first book of the series, Vivian describes the playroom in this way:
The playroom looked just as she and Jake had left it the last time they had played there as children. Maids still kept the dust out, and the sailboat window was locked so as to keep out intruding creatures. She turned on the gaslight, and the yellow glare immediately illuminated the small cabinet with the transparent door where the glass circus still stood in mid-action, ready for its audience of delighted children. She approached the cabinet and feeling for the panel at the bottom of it, pressed the flap back.
There were images that stuck in my mind when I was writing about the playroom in earlier versions of the story: The round windows, like you see in a ship’s cabin, toy soldiers Jake’s grandfather had bought him as a child as a sort of token of the manliness he expected from him in the future, and the display of glass circus animals in the cupboard (which, I frankly admit, was inspired by Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie). As children, virtually ignored by their elders, Vivian and Jake created a make-believe world together, though one that was less defined than, say, the worlds of Gondol and Angria created by the Bronte sisters, but in Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, Jake asks his sister to pose for a painting in the wax woods, and the picture he creates is a sort of mythical child-like Diana in an enchanted forest.
When I started to rethink the series in the Gilded Age era, I also realized that, while family secrets and lies play a role with this family, there was another element that contributed to the close-knit relationship of these two siblings: time. The Gilded Age saw a lot of families rise to the top and legacies form and along with that, generations of young men and women who were burdened with rigid social and conventional expectations. Vivian and Jake, I knew, were not ones to bend to social conventions and therein lay their psychological reality. Conflicts of family expectations and obligations on the one hand, and the quest for their own identity on the other, are what drive both Vivian and Jake in the series.
You can read more about Vivian and Jake in The Specter and False Fathers, the first two books of the Waxwood Series. And to find out more about the series itself, you can go to this page.
My historical family saga, the Waxwood Series is about more than just an affluent Nob Hill family coming to grips with the startling changes happening in the last decade of the 19th century. It’s also a story about a Gilded Age family whose lies, half-truths, and myths force every one of its members into change. It’s about the psychological ramifications that go with the personal and social baggage of history.
The series changed greatly from the novel in three voices I started out with in 2014 (something I talk more about here). Similarly, many of the characters, including all the members of the Alderdice family, went through their own evolution. This is especially true because expanding the original novel into a four-book series gave me space to really explore the psychological reality of each character and tell his or her story.
Penelope Alderdice, the Alderdice family matriarch of the older generation, is one of the most evolutionary characters in the series. When I wrote the novel, she wasn’t even a character. That book was about the current generation only (and a few other stragglers who will be appearing in a novella I have in mind as a series off-shoot one of these days). To turn the novel into a family saga, I had to add characters from the older generation because, by definition, family sagas go back for several generations. Also, I knew older generations leave their wounds upon the younger, whether they want to or not. At that point, Penelope was still a shadowy character, someone in the background who was, predictably, a product of the separate spheres. I had, to put it bluntly, no interest in exploring her life further, since my series was about the more revolutionary journey of her granddaughter, Vivian.
In 2017, I started my newsletter and wanted to give subscribers a free gift that would give them a little extra about the Alderdice family. So I took a scene from the old novel and expanded it into a short story called “After the Funeral”. The plot took place at Penelope Alderdice’s funeral where an uninvited guest claims to have known “Grace” in her youth, revealing things about the Alderdice matriarch Vivian and her brother Jake never knew. I realized the story could and should be expanded into a book that kicks off Vivian’s journey to self-discovery. That book became The Specter, the first book of the Waxwood Series.
I realized my earlier mistake in dismissing Penelope as just another Angel in the House. She was, in fact, a much more complex character, emotionally and socially. She was also the engine that begins Vivian’s journey to maturity and her ghost and its secrets bring the entire family to self-awareness. Penelope’s story, which begins about halfway through The Specter, tells of the sort of woman you would expect to see in Gertrude Atherton’s The Californians, a book about San Francisco’s high society in its infancy in the 1850s and 1860s. Penelope’s angelic demeanor prepares her for the role of the wife of a successful San Francisco businessman, but there is more to her than that. Her one moment of rebellion has ramifications for the entire family for generations to come.
To find out more about The Specter, which will be revised and updated later this year, go here.
Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.