Dangerous Lengths: A 19th Century Review of Henry James’ The Bostonians

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

June kicks off LGBTQ+ pride month. The LGBT community has made great strides in the 20th and 21st centuries and faced so many battles to have the LGBT identity recognized and respected. I remember as a teenager watching MTV Europe in 1984 and seeing the powerful music video depicting the stark reality of being gay in the 1980s in Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”. Thankfully, the gay community has come a long way in these last 40 years.

LGBT identities existed in the 19th century, though of course, they were much more covert. I mentioned in my blog post about Boston Marriages and the New Woman “marriages” between women who chose to remain independent and live with other women in a shared household, whether this included intimate relationships or not. One such relationship was depicted in Henry James’ 1886 novel, The Bostonians. The novel was made into a film in 1984 and does not shy away from the lesbian subcontext and won several awards and nominations, especially for Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Olive in the film.

Photo Credit: photo of Henry James, before 1904, H. Walter Barnett, The English illustrated magazine: JB Hoang Tam/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 70 Expired

However, when James’ novel came out, it did not receive a warm reception. Its contemporary themes of the New Woman in the Gilded Age and her fight for women’s suffrage were on the minds of many people and James’ novel gets right into the thick of it. The novel depicts the lives of three characters: Olive, an upper-middle class Bostonian suffragist whose shyness keeps her from being a spokeswoman for the movement; Verina, a young and vibrant spiritualist of a lower class whom Olives gets involved in the movement; and Basil, Olive’s cousin, a conservative Southerner who develops a romantic interest in Verina and becomes hell-bent on “saving” her. The novel is a triangle love story of sorts but in the shadow of the fight for women’s rights at that time.

One contemporary review from The Atlantic in 1886 is interesting in how it shows the attitude of many people toward the suffragist movement and Boston Marriages. The reviewer, Horace Elisha Scudder (a Victorian name if I ever saw one!) isn’t exactly kind toward James or his characters. He seems to take the biggest issue with Olive, describing her in very “masculine” (for the time, based on the separate spheres) terms. He sees her as arrogant and aggressive in the way that would have been expected and welcomed of the Gilded Age man. Verina is equally stereotyped as the “feminine” in their Boston Marriage, a young, twittery sort of person whose spiritualism Scudder considers to be on par with the fake mesmerizers of the time.

Scudder isn’t shy about depicting his disdain for the relationship between Olive and Verina, which makes up the main storyline. He never uses the word “lesbian” but his description of their romantic partnership shows he was well aware of what is going on between them and he doesn’t approve. He uses words like “vulgar” and “repellent” to describe their relationship. He also expresses his distaste for the way that Olive, who offers Verina shelter in her house to develop her skills as a suffragist spokeswoman, is part of the “dangerous lengths” she will go to for the sake of the movement. In his eyes, their relationship can’t be “natural” or “reasonable”. 

What is telling is that Scudder is interpreting the plot of the novel as a love triangle, the fight between Olive and Basil for Verina’s heart. However, he fails to see the real intent of James’ novel. It was not so much the battle of the sexes with Verina as the prize, but the experience of love in Olive’s lonely and isolated life which leads her to at last come forward as a spokeswoman for the suffragist movement. It’s no surprise that a critic with his eye on the separate spheres would fail to see the relationship between Olive and Verina as helping to bring out Olive’s identity. 

The suffragist movement is very much a part of my Waxwood Series as are friendships between women fighting for women’s rights. The box set of this 4-book series is now on preorder here. If you want to get a taste of the series first, you can download Book 1, The Specter, for free at any online bookstore. The links and information are here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

instagram
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Historical Cozy Mysteries: Getting Cozy with the Past

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Years ago, I belonged to an amazing group of creative businesswomen. When I shared with them in 2022 that I was shifting gears in my author career to focus on historical cozy mysteries, I got a deer-in-the-headlights look. One of them ventured to ask, “What’s a historical cozy mystery?”

It was my bad because I had forgotten not everyone is familiar with the word “cozy” nor are they aware historical cozy mysteries exist. 

Historical cozy mystery is really a subgenre of a subgenre. In writer-speak, genre is a book’s category, usually with specific reader expectations. For example, romance is a genre (expectations: a love relationship as the main storyline and usually, though not always, a happily-ever-after ending). So is horror (expectation: You’re going to be scared out of your wits). Historical cozy mystery marries two subgenres: historical mysteries (subgenre of historical fiction) and cozies (subgenre of mystery fiction).

On the face of it, a historical cozy mystery is sort of a modern version of the traditional mystery (sometimes called the “whodunit”). Think Agatha Christie. One of my favorite things to do at the end of a particularly stressful and annoying day is to relax on my recliner with a cup of peppermint tea and open the Kindle reader on my iPad to a Poirot mystery (yes, he’s a pompous little man, but I like him). I immediately get into the story, following the clues and suspects, feeling the carefree times of 1920s England. I know I’m in for an hour of puzzle-solving and I know Poirot is going to get the criminal in the end one way or another. Nowhere else in the 21st century can you find that kind of justice. It makes me feel soothed and, well, cozy, like all the bad things that happened during the day don’t matter.

Ah, the epitome of cozy: A pipe and an Agatha Christie book!

Photo Credit: DietmarRauscher/Depositphotos.com 

The cross between mystery and history gets interesting when we consider the main purpose of historical fiction is to submerge readers in the past, and the purpose of mystery fiction is to present a human puzzle for the amateur sleuth or detective (and the reader) to solve. Writers of historical cozy mysteries aren’t only building a story around a crime that has to be solved. They’re also giving readers insights into another era. 

And not just the daily lives of people living in that era, but criminals and crime detection. We have to remember these things have changed dramatically over the centuries. There were no cyber crimes in the 19th century. There was no DNA testing to help solve crimes until the late 20th century. Taking photographs of a crime scene appeared on the scene in the mid-19th century but wasn’t common practice until the 1920s. So crime detection was relatively primitive and pretty crude in most cases. That makes it more of a challenge for the historical sleuth or detective, but funner for readers because detectives must make do with their wits and skills rather than rely on forensic scientific evidence.

In Book 1 of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, Adele’s brother, a former big-city detective, is amazed that the small-town sheriff of Arrojo knows enough to block off the crime scene so no one will tamper with it. Even fifty years before the book takes place (1902), this wouldn’t have been the case and it’s well-documented crime scenes were trampled over by police, reporters, and sightseers. Not a great start to solving a murder.

Another thing about how cozy mysteries differ from crime fiction, in general, is they introduce you to a host of quirky characters. That’s one reason I was drawn to writing cozies as opposed to other types of historical mysteries. In a cozy series, the characters become as familiar to readers as their own family and friends because flawed as they are, they’re also likable. I’ve had several readers tell me how much they love Adele and Nin and how they’re anxious to read more about them in each book of the series. 

The sleuths in cozies are always approachable, often funny, and very human. Who doesn’t love Jessica Fletcher in the 1980s hit TV series, Murder, She Wrote? She’s grandmotherly while at the same time sharp-witted and shrewd. Holmes is a cocaine addict and an egotist (at least, in my opinion) but he also cares deeply about solving crimes, more than he’s willing to admit. Fletcher and Holmes couldn’t be more different, but they share one quality, as all cozy mystery sleuths do: They’re on the side of justice. It’s hard to dislike a character who’s on the right side of the law.

Writers don’t always strive for character likability because many feel an amiable character is unrealistic and too Pollyannaish. But cozies aren’t about realism. They’re about escaping into another world where justice is served and criminals are always punished. And with historical cozies, you get the double-whammy: Not only do you get to escape into a “crime doesn’t pay” world but you get to do it in another era.

So if you’re ready to give historical cozy mysteries a shot, I invite you to check out my Adele Gossling Mystery series. I published the first book exactly two years ago and it has not failed to delight readers. The Carnation Murder is forever free on all the bookstore sites. You can get more information about it plus links to download the book here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

instagram
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Rerelease Day: Lessons 4-Year Publiversary!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Today marks the 4-year anniversary of the publication of my historical women’s fiction short story collection Lessons From My Mother’s Life (hence the “publiversary”).

This book was a huge departure for me when I first published it in 2020. I was writing my Waxwood Series at the time, which was set in the 1890s, and I was also working on my Adele Gossling Mysteries, which is set at the turn of the 20th century. So to write stories set in the post-World War II era was a big change. It was also a book that was more personal to me than anything I had written up until that time. 

A word about the title of this collection: I had some arguments with my mentor about changing it. Why? Because she felt the title was misleading. The implication of Lessons From My Mother’s Life is that the book is non-fiction stories about my mother’s life. Or that the book is true stories of other women’s mother’s lives. From a marketing perspective, she thought this would create some problems with the book reaching the right audience.

And truthfully, I did consider changing the title for this rerelease (which I had planned on doing since last year). But I decided to keep the title as it was for several reasons. First, it felt right (and authors can be very stubborn about their titles!) But second, the title originally came from the idea that the lessons the stories convey are lessons that come from my mother’s generation, though they are not lessons she overtly taught me. They are more lessons inferred from her own life, that is, her regrets and what she did that I don’t want to do. These are universal lessons mid-20th century women have to teach us, whether they are our mothers or grandmothers, or even great-grandmothers. In the stories, an older woman teaches a younger one something about life not overtly but covertly, by encouraging her to do what she couldn’t or sending the message “Don’t do what I did.” 

Why am I calling this a “rerelease”? Because a few things have changed. The biggest change is the cover. When I first published the book, I created the cover because I was a struggling author whose finances were extremely limited. But over the years, thanks to all my amazing readers (those existing and those to come), I’ve been able to afford to have a professional designer do my covers. So I knew it was time for Lessons to get a makeover. 

I also took the opportunity to give the book a new cover to give the stories another proofread. I’ve done this multiple times (don’t ask how many) as a way to refresh the stories and make sure they still read well. So there are some minor tweaks to most of the stories. Even if you’ve already read the book, I encourage you to pick it up again because the stories will read a bit differently than they did in the original version.

I hope you enjoy the book and have a discussion with your mother or grandmother about what her life was like so you can learn the valuable lessons her life has to teach you.

Title: Lessons From My Mother’s Life

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Women’s Fiction/Short Fiction

Original release date: March 29, 2020

Rerelease Date: March 29, 2024

How happy was the 1950s happy housewife?

Women in post-war America were supposed to have it all: generous husbands with great jobs, comfortable suburban homes with nice yards and two-car garages, and all the latest gadgets to make their housework easier.

The pain and horror of World War II were over. The economy was booming and America was becoming a world leader. American women were to play a role in America’s prosperity, the role they were always meant to play: supporting mothers, wives, and daughters. Theirs was a life of ease. They were the fairytale princesses with the happy ending.

The women’s magazines told them so. The advertisements for laundry detergent and TV dinners told them so. The doctors who treated their children’s colds told them so.

Women in 1950s America were sold a bill of goods about their purpose in life and their futures. Some bought it and some didn’t.

This book is about the women who didn’t.

These are not nostalgic stories about my mother’s life or your mother’s life. They dig deep into the lives of five fictional characters who knew in the back of their minds that their lives weren’t happy and they wanted something more.

Five stories. Five women. Five roads that will lead to self-identity and fulfillment.

About the Author

Writing has been Tam May’s voice since the age of fourteen. She writes stories set in the past that feature sassy and sensitive women characters. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which takes place in the early 20th century and features suffragist and epistolary expert Adele Gossling whose talent for solving crimes doesn’t sit well with her town’s conventional ideas about women’s place. Tam is also working on a new series, the Grave Sisters Mysteries about three sisters who own a funeral home and help the county D.A. solve crimes in a 1920s small California town, set to release in 2025. She has also written historical fiction about women breaking loose from the social and psychological expectations of their era. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in the Midwest because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music), concocting yummy plant-based dishes, and exploring her new riverside town.

Social Media Links

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammayauthor/

Instragram: https://www.instagram.com/tammayauthor/

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/tammayauthor/ 

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tam-May/e/B01N7BQZ9Y/ 

BookBub Author Page: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tam-may

Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16111197.Tam_May

Are you into fun and engaging mysteries set in the past? Love sassy but sensitive women characters defying the social conventions of their time? Then you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, enlightening anecdotes about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

instagram
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

The Feminine Mystique: Our Mothers’ and Our Grandmothers’ Lessons

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

In 2020, I released what is probably to date the most personal book I’ve ever written. It’s not an autobiographical novel or even a partially autobiographical novel. It’s a collection of short stories set in the post-WWII era of America. The book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life became much more of a personal project than I anticipated (or even intended) it to be for several reasons.

First, it was intended to be a historical rewrite of the first book I ever published back in 2017. Those stories were set in contemporary times and were quite literary in tone and style. Reviewers liked the book overall but many complained the stories were too short and the endings seemed chopped off. I agreed with this (and did a lot of journaling as to why that was because I knew there were deeper reasons than the fact that it was my first book and I was still learning the writing craft). I firmly believe in giving readers the best I have as a writer and revising books when I know my writing has become stronger and my writing purpose clearer (I’ve done this with several books). So I had no qualms about releasing a second edition of that first book.

Except it didn’t turn out to be a second edition. It turned out to be an entirely new book. I set the stories in a historical timeframe rather than a contemporary timeframe. Most of the stories in Lessons differ from those in the original first book (which is still available in online bookstores). I took some stories out that didn’t fit with the historical background and themes I was aiming for and replaced them with other stories. 

Second, the historical era I chose turned out to be a big surprise even to me. As many of my readers know, I am a huge fan of the 19th and early 20th centuries. My preferred timeframe for my books is the Gilded Age (roughly, the last quarter of the 19th century) and the Progressive Era (roughly, the first few decades of the 20th century, up until the end of WWI), though I’m experimenting now with a new upcoming series that is set in the 1920s.

Photo Credit: Betty Friedan as photographed in her home, 1978, photo taken  by Lynn Gilbert and uploaded 6 August 2009: LynnGilbert5/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

So why did I choose to set the stories in Lessons in the 1950s and early 1960s? Because, at the time, I had rediscovered a book I read in grad school: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Friedan’s book introduced the paradox of women’s lives during the post-WWII era to the American public. The book came out of Friedan’s experiences talking with women in the 1950s, especially housewives, while working as a journalist for women’s magazines. She takes a very comprehensive look at what she calls “the feminine mystique” and the institutions that allowed this image to emerge.

The “feminine mystique” has been defined in many ways over the years, but for me, it’s the idea that a woman’s biological, psychological, social, and spiritual destiny boils down to one thing: her identity in relation to others. In post-WWII America, this was pretty much all that was expected of women. As Friedan puts it, “[For] the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife” (p. 59).In other words, her identity and her role in life are defined as wife, mother, daughter, granddaughter, caretaker, lover, etc.

For Friedan, the problem wasn’t with these roles but with the isolation and restriction the outside world forced upon them. It wasn’t that it was bad to be a mother or a daughter or a wife or that women who wanted these things were wrong. It was that the expectation that this is all a woman was capable of being and should want to be was limiting and unfulfilling to many women. 

Now, this idea of restricted identities for women is not new. It’s an inherent part of the separate spheres, which began in the 18th century but really saw its heyday in the 19th century. But what was different about the post-WWII era was that women were starting to feel the damaging effects of it on their psyches. They were getting subtle messages from their mothers and grandmothers who had grown up with the separate spheres that this was not enough and shouldn’t be enough for many women. The epigraph for Lessons states:

“A mother might tell her daughter, spell it out, “Don’t be just a housewife like me.” But that daughter, sensing that her mother was too frustrated to savor the love of her husband and children, might feel: ‘I will succeed where my mother failed, I will fulfill myself as a woman,’ and never read the lesson of her mother’s life.” (p. 71)

Lessons From My Mother’s Life is exactly about the lessons mothers and grandmothers have to teach the younger generation. The stories are set in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the second-wave feminist movement. In each story, the main character sees the writing on the wall in terms of where her life has been or where it’s going and someone outside of her is trying to teach her the lessons of the feminine mystique. For example, in my story “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan is a nineteen-year-old college student about to marry an upright young man still in medical school. When she attends an exhibition of Circe sculptures by an older woman artist, the artist’s work demonstrates the consequences of letting a marital relationship define who a woman is. The story ends with Susan taking a step back to examine what it is she really wants in life.

Is Friedan’s book and the idea of the feminine mystique still relevant to the younger “I don’t need feminism” generation today? I explore that in this blog post.

Lessons is getting a makeover with a new cover and a few revisions and will be out in its new form on March 29th.

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

instagram
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Generation Bonding: “Two Sides of Life”

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

 

I’m a Generation Xer. I say it loud and I say it proud. Yep, I’m from the generation that started the technology revolution and brought you big hair, hip hop, and MTV. We’re known to be independent, educated (sometimes too much), and family-oriented. 

And I won’t lie. Sometimes, I have a hard time bonding with Generation Z or, as I like to call their kids, Generation Z Squared. Each generation has its own set of values and behaviors and even trying to explain one to the other can be a challenge. A fellow Generation Xer posted on Facebook recently that she tried to explain the stick shift car to her children and they didn’t get it.

But different generations can teach each other new things. One of my ESL students told me recently her company always puts older and younger employees on teams so the older ones teach the younger ones the value of their expertise and experience and the younger ones teach the older ones a new perspective and new technology. 

Several of the stories in my post-World War II short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, are about the lessons the older generation has to teach the younger. The 1950s and early 1960s were vital for women’s place in America because the dissatisfaction and inertia many women felt at that time led to the second-wave feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. I talk more about how women felt in these post-war years in my blog post about the “Occupation: Housewife” Era

But there are stories in the collection that work the other way around too. It’s the younger generation that teaches the older one something new. One of these is the last story in the collection titled “Two Sides of Life”.

It was one of those writerly moments where an interesting anecdote my mother related to me became the germ of the story. When she was in her 50s (the age range I am now), my father took her to a nice restaurant for her birthday, as usual. They had a great time and when the check arrived, the server informed them the bill had already been paid. It turned out my father, who was working as a quality control consultant at the time, befriended one of his younger assistants who recommended the restaurant. The young man surprised my parents by paying the restaurant bill in advance.

I wrote the story as a contemporary work of fiction and posted it for a while as a freebie on my website. When I made the shift from contemporary to historical fiction, I took the story down, meaning to revise it. Toward the end of 2019, when I rewrote my first book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, to what became Lessons, I removed the title story (as it didn’t fit with the themes I had planned for Lessons) and went searching for another story to take its place. I realized the story I had written about my mother’s birthday dinner (then titled “A Birthday Gift”) would fit nicely with the new collection.

I retitled the story “Two Sides of Life” and kept the incident of the birthday dinner but moved it (reworked in mood, theme, and emotion to fit the collection) to the background. “Two Sides” became more about the dysfunctional relationship between the protagonist Leanne and her husband of twenty years, Calvin, and the lessons the young wife of Calvin’s assistant, Arlene has to teach her about life and women’s place in society. 

Leanne, like many suburban housewives of the mid-20th century, had been indoctrinated into the feminine mystique and, like many of these women, had become frustrated by what Friedan called “The Problem That Has No Name”. The story opens on the day of her forty-second birthday. Her husband Calvin (an intelligent but emotionally distant professor) “suggests” she head over to one of their neighbors (Paul, Calvin’s lab assistant) and offer to help with his six-year-old son’s birthday party. Leanne agrees, though reluctantly. The party proves to be a turning point in her life, as she bonds unexpectedly with Paul’s wife, Arlene. Arlene represents the familiar sort of young woman we imagine started the second-wave feminist movement: The “do it all” woman juggling a career and family, determined to make use of her full potential in the home and out of it. Leanne, like many older women of her generation, judges Arlene pretty harshly at first but comes to realize her judgment is misplaced:

“Arlene says women today can have a career and a family too, if they just make sacrifices and balance everything correctly,” he said. “It’s what she’s trying to do, and so are most of the girls who graduated with her at Mills College.” He looked at her again. “Do you think a woman who has a job can’t be a good wife and mother too?”

She felt the breeze around her turn into waves, returning the strange chill she had felt that morning. The noise of happy children dimmed, replaced by the loud caw of birds. She realized they were standing under a nest where baby birds chirped out their starvation. She saw the head of the mother, its grim beak set and its gorging eyes searching the ground. She recognized the basic instinct of a mother on her children.

“I think any woman could do anything, if she sets her mind to it,” she said softly. “And I can see Arlene has her mind set on it. I’ve no right to judge her, and I’m sorry I did.”

Later, Leanne sees how she and Arlene are trapped in the same cage of feminine expectations, though their lives are very different. Their unexpected bond leads to some unexpected twists to the original story my mother told me. 

You can read “Two Sides of Life” as well as the other four stories in the collection which speak to the idea of bonding generations of women when Lessons From My Mother’s Life is re-released on March 29 with a completely new cover!

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

instagram
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail