If you’re a member of my reader’s group, or you’ve been tuning into my live Facebook posts every week in both that group and on my author page, you know I’ve been promising for weeks to post a readers group exclusive excerpt from my upcoming book, Tales of Actaeon, which is the second book of the Waxwood Series. After much contemplation and rewriting and revising, I’ve chosen the excerpt and wanted to talk a little bit about it.
Last week, I wrote about secret societies in the 19th century. I mentioned how they played a big role in the Gilded Age and into the turn of the 20th century, giving men in particular a psychological space to practice the sort of masculine virtues that many felt were becoming skewed in the rapid progress and commercialized era of the late 19th century.
Tales of Actaeon is about a member of the Alderdice family that doesn’t get much attention in Book 1 of the series, The Specter. He is Jake Alderdice, the new patriarch and heir to the Alderdice Shipping empire. In the book, he turns twenty-one, and the story follows his trials and revelations as he comes of age in the last few years of the 19th century, a time of chaos and massive shifts in morals and standards in American life.
The excerpt I’ve chosen to give my readers group is about Jake’s introduction to a secret society by an older man and father figure named Stevens. The Order of Actaeon is a fictional fraternity that emphasizes the need for instructing young men who are maturing into the new century by their elders and is built upon many of the virtues Theodore Roosevelt, a dominant public figure at the time, emphasized and modeled, including aggression, honor, and success.
I’ve written here in detail about the evolution of the Waxwood Series from a novel in three different voices that I wrote in 2004 to the series as it stands today. As I mention in that blog post, the story of Jake was the only one of the three separate stories in the novel that I transferred to the series. The Order of Actaeon members or, as they refer to themselves, the Actaeons, existed in quite a different form in that novel, which was set in contemporary times. In that novel, the scene where Stevens introduces Jake to the Order is very brief and somewhat cryptic. They have made permanent residence in the woods and live the sort of life we would consider primitive, complete with grubby clothes and long beards. Their virtual silence in the midst of a stranger (Jake) reveals their misanthropic ideals and their contempt for modern society and its shallowness and corruptibility. Their aim is to live a pure life isolated from modern society, to subsist like primitive men on what they can hunt, gather, and make.
As the novel evolved into the series, I realized that, in the context of Gilded Age masculinity, one of the themes of the book, the Actaeons needed to be recontexutalized, fleshed out, and less ambiguous. The excerpt I posted in my readers group is, then, a revised version of that meeting.
As you will read, the Actaeons are much more amiable, though still cautious, as any such society would be. They lead separate, successful lives outside their activities with the Order. The oaths they lay out to Jake present a less misanthropic vision but still adhere to their belief that the modern age is moving into a chaotic state and that a firm establishing of manly values is necessary for the younger generation to adjust and flourish in the new era.
You can read the excerpt if you join my readers group, Tam’s Dreamers, here. To read more about Tales of Actaeon, you can check out this page. And if you’d like to learn more about the series, here’s a page that will tell you all about it.
As mentioned below, the Freemasons boasted of some pretty important people among its members. In the photo above, Prince Albert and King George VI are among the Grand Masters of this Freemason lodge in Scotland.
Photo Credit: Photo with, among others, Prince Albert and Duke of York, who later was to become King George VI from Lodge Glamis No. 99 in Forfarshire, Scotland. Photo taken by Peter Ellis on 2nd June 1936. Masonic Centre, Queanbeyan, New South Wales: Scribedia/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 4.0
Sometimes things come up in novels that you never thought you’d find yourself dealing with. The entire writing and rewriting process of Tales of Actaeon has been like that for me. As I mention here, much of my fiction is about women. My historical fiction is loaded with ideas about women’s place in the 19th and early 20th centuries, their isolation and limitations within the separate spheres. Most of my protagonists are women.
But for Tales, I chose to write the story of Jake Alderdice. Jake is the younger brother of Vivian Alderdice the unofficial protagonist of the series. As a young man coming of age in the last years of the 19th century, I was interested in definitions of masculinity in the Gilded Age, this transitional time between Victorian and modern (ergo, 20th century) values. In his story, then, the idea of secret societies and fraternities came up.
Although such societies were nothing new in the 19th century (the Freemasons established a foothold in America as the granddaddy of all secret societies in the 18th century and boasted of such members as George Washington, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin), their heyday occurred in the late 19th century. In fact, editor Alfred C. Stevens wrote a book in 1899 called The Cyclopaedia of Fraternities that claims to document more than 600 of these societies active in America at the time.
Why did secret societies and, I should add, specifically male fraternities, flourish in the Gilded Age? There were practical reasons, of course (such as secret societies based on business interests where members could make valuable connections) but I’m talking here of the more psychological reasons. I didn’t find much in my research about this, but I have a few ideas of my own. As I mention in my blog post, this was a time in America for great change and innovation. The nation was shifting from Victorian to modern very fast, and, in the eyes of many, not necessarily for the better. Excess, commercialism, and corruption abound. The life many people once knew was rapidly being hurled toward the new century. In this chaotic atmosphere, secret societies offered a sanctuary. Many based their ideals on “old-fashioned” values and established rules, rites, and rituals that remained static amidst the armageddon of the changing world. They also offered a stable identity for many of their members (for example, the Knights of Pythias was organized in the mid-19th century based on the ethic of brotherly love). They gave Gilded Age men a sense of identity, belonging and protection, the feeling that someone “had their backs”. They also gave men (predominantly white, Protestant, and middle class) the feeling of superiority. The assurance of these men of their domination had been theirs for much of the 19th century but was starting to crumble with the advert of labor unions, immigration, and women’s rights. Even the sometimes bizarre and frightening initiation for new members was a sort of badge of courage for members to wear after they became members.
Unfortunately, many of these secret societies have a bad reputation. Popular media has portrayed many of them either as silly and junior-highish or dangerous. One great example is in a film I talked about on my old blog called Smile. Make in 1975 at the height of the women’s movement, the film is a social satire of the worship of beauty in America in the form of beauty pageants. One of the film’s subplots involves a male fraternity with a rather disgusting and humiliating initiation that involves kissing a rather unsavory part of a raw chicken. The enthusiasm and excitement that “Big” Bob (Bruce Dern), already a member, shows toward this ritual as he explains it to his friend, Andy (Nicholas Pryor), who is about to be initiated, makes a mockery of the more serious initiation rights of many secret societies and, in the context of the film, serves to show male ideas of fun and fulfillment (like the beauty pageant itself) as absurd and immature.
In Tales, Jake is introduced to a secret society of men called The Order of Actaeon. Their philosophies are based on Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas of combining manly virtue and honor with masculine aggression and cunning. However, many of these philosophies become twisted into a definition of modern masculinity that lead to tragedy at the end of the novel.
To learn more about Tales of Actaeon, due to come out in December, please see this page. To find out more about the Waxwood Series, please go here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from Tales that involves the secret society in the book, you can do so if you join my readers group in Facebook, Tam’s Dreamers.
The drawing above is the prototypical Gibson Girl — young, wearing a shirtwaist (button-down white shirt), sensible and athletic skirt and jacket and hat. Interestingly, her features are very delicate and feminine and her expression is flirtatious so as to emphasize the idea that she was there to serve men, not threaten them.
Photo Credit: Gibson Girl, Charles Dana Gibson, 1901, pen and ink drawing, published in The Social Ladder (1902) by Charles Dana Gibson: MCAD Library/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Last week, I wrote about American women’s suffragism in the 19th century, in honor of the 99th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment in America which allowed women in all states to vote. This week is Women’s Equality Day, the day that celebrates when the amendment actually went into effect. So, continuing the discussion of women’s rights, which is so prevalent in my fiction, I’m talking this week about the sort of women who epitomized the new type of woman that was emerging in the 20th century.
Suffragism, the right to vote, might seem to be just about politics, but it really isn’t. It’s almost as much about the psychological realities of the group which it affects as it is about their political and social rights. In the case of women, the past offered them many years locked in the cage of the separate sphere ideology. The separate spheres placed boundaries on women that permeated not only their physical lives but their emotional and spiritual lives as well. When women’s suffragism came to the forefront and, with it, awareness that women needed to break free of the limitations put upon their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, it was only natural that a new kind of woman should emerge at the turn of the century.
The New Woman was the name given to young women who came of age in the latter part of the Gilded Age and in the Progressive Era. In the wake of so many changes happening during these times — the shift from rural to urban living for many Americans, the rise of big business, the awareness of the need for political reforms — women wanted and needed to be more active in public life. This made it impossible for the “angel in the house” ideal so prevalent in Victorian women to survive. In fact, the New Woman pitted herself against this ideal hanging over the head of her female ancestors, rejecting the ideals of complacency, docility, and submissiveness that characterized Victorian true womanhood for much of the 19th century.
The New Woman was anything but these things. Illustrator Charles Dana Gibson first created her in the 1890’s in women’s magazines such as Ladies Home Journal as young and single, pursuing fun and leisure with as much right and vigor as her male companions. The physical image of the Gibson Girl (pictured above) was also a psychological one. Gone were the layers of petticoats, the bustles, the tight bone corsets of the Victorian woman that made her look demure but limited her mobility considerably (a physical constraints that mirrored the psychological one). In her place was a woman whose skirt was narrower and freer, who wore less layers, dressed in a button-down shirt rather than a tight bodice blouse, and wore a much lighter corset that didn’t limit her mobility as much as the corsets worn by her mother and grandmother.
Her freedom extended well beyond her dress. She used her liberty to establish her own identity separate of any man’s, and prove her strength not only emotionally but physically as well. It’s no surprise that, although the bicycle was invented in the early 19th century, bicycling was not an acceptable activity for women until the 1890’s, because the fussy dress in which they were expected to present themselves as True Women didn’t allow for a comfortable ride. That changed with the Gibson Girl, who was often depicted as a bicycle enthusiast. In addition, the New Woman was not only willing to take on sports but male-dominated careers as well. For example, in Gertrude Atherton’s novel Mrs. Belfame (1916), the New Woman appears in the form of women reporters who cheer Mrs. Balfame on when she is on trial for the murder of her husband. They are willing to stoop to the type of “yellow journalism” popular among their male contemporaries at the time.
However, while the New Woman represented a fresh, contemporary approach to womanhood, she wasn’t necessarily a rebel. That is, she gave women a new image to look up to but not one that would threaten the male order. In fact, she offered an alternative femininity to their mothers and grandmothers that would benefit their male counterparts, not take away from them. Gibson, for example, frequently pictured his ladies engaged in the art of flirtation and romance, establishing that despite her “masculinized” appearance and manners (for that time, that is), she was still “just a woman,” out for love and marriage.
As I’ve mentioned before, women’s suffragism and women’s rights play only a small role in my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series. One of my characters, Marvina Moore, is a suffragist and helps Vivian discover her own dedication to women’s rights in the series. But neither women are New Women, though one could predict that Vivian won’t be far off at the end of the series when the Progressive Era comes around.
However, in my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, the series protagonist, Adele Gossling, is this type of New Woman. She is the Gibson Girl image in her manner and dress and also in her life. The opening of the first book has Adele arriving to the small town of Arrojo, California, a town still caught inside the net of Victorian ideals as many small towns were at the turn of the 20th century, in a Model A Ford. A woman owning an automobile in 1903 would have been a rare thing! She soon establishes herself in town as an independent woman who owns her own home and runs her own stationary shop and prefers to help her deputy brother and the town sheriff solve crimes than participate in the type of social events of women of her class that were meant for one purpose and one purpose only — to allow young women to meet young men and eventually marry.
To find out more about my upcoming historical mystery series, you can check out this page. If you’d like to know more about Vivian and Marvina, you can read The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series. You’ll find information and buy links here.
This is the original immigration station on Ellis Island that was built in 1892. It was destroyed by fire in 1897 so a new one was built in its place.
Photo Credit: First Ellis Island immigration station, 1896, personal image of old stereo photograph, author unknown: Charvex/Wikimedia Commons/PD Mark 1.0
The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series, takes place in the year of 1892. I’ve already discussed my fascination for the last quarter of the 19th century in two blog posts about the Gilded Age, which you can read here and here. But I thought it would be fun to look at some of what was going on in the year 1892 from a social, political, and psychological standpoint. In The Specter, much of this is not touched upon because I chose to focus on a more generalized sense of what it was like to live in 1892 in relation to how it affected the Alderdice family. But there was also a lot going on externally in the United States at this time.
America went through some milestones in 1892 as a nation. For example, the now infamous immigration station, Ellis Island, first opened its doors in January of that year. While there were other immigration stations in the United States (not the least of which was Angel Island in San Francisco), Ellis Island was the first and largest and the most significant. Many of us will probably remember the scene in The Godfather II that recreates the Ellis Island experience, showing us the crowds and the mustiness of the building in which immigrants were received right off the boat, the indifference of the officials receiving them, and the fear, apprehension, humiliation, and anger it invoked for those arriving in the United States during this time. You can read more about Ellis Island and its history here.
But just as American was welcoming some immigrants in 1892, it was also taking pains to shut out others. In this year, the Geary Act was proposed and passed as legislation, preventing new Chinese immigrants from entering the country and requiring those already in the country to carry identification papers to be produced at any time upon request. The act was an extension of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and did not go without protest from the Chinese communities in the United States (and rightly so) for causing strife and humiliation to Chinese citizens of the United States. You can read a little about that and see images of these certificates of residency here.
I talk in my blog post on the Progressive Era about reforms that were to fall into place in the first few decades of the 20th century. But much of the groundwork was already laid out in the last few decades of the 19th century, at least as far as labor relations were concerned. Nothing epitomizes this more than The Homestead Massacre in 1892. A bloody battle broke out between skilled labor union workers and security guards in the Homestead Steel Works. When the union could not reach an agreement with management regarding contract terms, management locked these workers out of the mill and a strike ensued that was followed by a violent outbreak between the workers and the Pinkerton Detective agents who had been sent to protect non-union workers who were coming in to replace them. Although the strikers lost in the end and the union disbanded, the mill management (especially financial giant Andrew Carnegie) were not shown in a very good light, and this kind of criticism of business management would have effects in the turn of the century with more awareness of worker’s rights and the easing of some of the rigid rules of big business, such as long work hours and inhuman conditions. If you’d like to find out more about the Homestead Strike, you can do so here.
One of my future projects is a historical mystery series called The Paper Chase Mysteries. I love classic mystery stories and I also love classic true crimes, especially those involving women. Probably one of the most famous happened in 1892 with the discovery of the dead bodies of Lizzie Borden’s parents in their home in Massachusetts and their daughter, Lizzie becoming the prime (and only) suspect. I deal a lot with family dynamics and dysfunction in my fiction, so a murder case from the past that involves family always catches my attention. Lots of information on the Borden case focuses on the trial and the fact that Borden was acquitted, but I’m more interested in the “why” of the murders and the family dynamics that might have driven Borden to commit this heinous crime. Money has been suggested as the motivator (Borden’s father was well off but a cheapskate) and also the fact that Borden was controlled by him and wanted autonomy. You can read about that here.
And speaking of crime, here’s an interesting tidbit. Also in 1892, one of the most infamous world’s fairs was supposed to take place, the Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair). I say infamous because America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, emerged as the first serial killer in the American during the fair. But the exhibition date got delayed because of a battle between Thomas Edison and Nicholas Tesla over electricity (which was to be one of the main displays of innovation and technology at the fair). Thus, the exhibition was moved to 1893.
To find out more about how the Alderdice family lived and their world in 1892, you can go here. To find out about the series itself, I have a page for that here.
Although this cartoon refers specifically to only one of the reforms during the Progressive Era (women’s suffragism), it is visually a great example of what was going on with all reforms during this time.
Photo Credit: Political cartoon about suffrage in the United States. Four women supporting suffrage on a steamroller crushing rocks “opposition”. Illustration in Judge, v. 72, 1917 March 17, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: Unsubtlety/ Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923
I’ve talked a lot about The Gilded Age here and here because much of the Waxwood Series takes place during this time but also because the excess, glitz, and innovation of that age fascinates me. The Gilded Age led into the turn of the 20th century which proved to be as significant, if not more so, for American society, politics, and culture, than the era before it. If, according to humorists Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, the last quarter of the nineteenth century in America were gilded, the start of the new century tarnished that image somewhat. We might even venture to say that the progressive reforms of the turn of the 20th century came as a sort of backlash to the decades preceding it.
Life was good in America after the financial shock wore off from Panic of 1873. America was making a name for itself on the world stage, and there was promise and hope for a better life for most people with new inventions and attitudes. But the era also had a dark side. Excess was the name of the game, especially for those who became millionaires for the first time in their lives and had no qualms about flaunting their new wealth and social standing. Social and economic divides were becoming more prevalent and consumerism and commercialism more important to American life. Wheeling and dealing in politics and business ran rampant, and things were out of control.
Enter the Progressive Era. There had always been civic-minded reformers, largely white and middle-class, who vocalized their concern as to the consequences of Gilded Age extravagance but at the turn of the 20th century, there began more aggressive push for the government to pass laws and make reforms. While much of this was positive, these reform had hidden agendas, kinks in the road, and unanticipated consequences.
Political reforms spring to mind when we talk about the Progressive Era, of course, like government clean-ups and the fight for the vote for women. But, as my fiction involves more social and psychological history, I prefer to focus on these issues in light of turn-of-the-century reforms.
The settlement house movement was one of the best known reforms of the era. Settlement houses conjure visions of white, middle-class women whose privileged lives and separate sphere ideals left them with little space in which to exercise their energies. One of the few outlets for nineteenth century women to show their creativity, learning, and efficiency was in aiding those in need. But settlement houses were about more than this. They set out to educate the working-class with the goal of giving them skills they needed to get better jobs and build better lives for themselves. This included not only practical subjects such as reading and writing but also more culture-oriented topics like art appreciation and music. These well-meaning women, though, were not without their hidden agenda, which was to “Americanize” the largely immigrant population which they served. Many of their teachings was firmly grounded in white middle-class values and beliefs that these women held to be true and right. There was not the awareness of or respect for other cultures that we have today. In other words, the settlement houses offered help and education in exchange for acceptance of a narrow view of American life and values that was based on a privileged population.
One of these white, middle-class beliefs was that a pretty environment bred pretty thoughts and manners. Since urbanization grew rapidly in the second half of the 19th century, these reformers abhorred the filth and neglect of city streets and slums, and lobbied for better sanitation and housing conditions. They also started the City Beautiful movement. It’s no coincidence many city parks we have today were established in the late-19th century. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for example, was conceived in the 1860’s, but construction began to fall into place from the 1880’s when this movement was in its infancy. Of course, there were detractors of the movement who argued that these reforms were meant more for the eyes of the middle-class and did nothing to address some of the real issues many Americans living in the cities were facing, like shameful house conditions and lack of sanitation.
Photo Credit: Photo of Modernist author Djuna Barnes (working as a reporter) being force fed, like so many of the suffragists of the Progressive Era with the headline for her article, “How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed”. World Magazine, 6 September 1914: Celithemis~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD US
Many of my protagonists are women, so it’s no surprise women’s suffragism plays a big role in my fiction just as it did in the Progressive Era. Suffragism started to gain ground in the late 19th century after a hiatus of sorts from mid-century reformers and, indeed, this movement plays a role in several books of the Waxwood Series. At the turn of the twentieth century, women across the country were protesting the social and psychological limitations placed on them. Many of their guerrilla tactics are now more familiar to us since the film Suffragette was released in 2015. One of the most revealed articles that gave people a glimpse of what the suffragists went through was written in 1914 by Djuna Barnes who later became an icon of Modernist literature. The article describes in detail what it was like for these women reformers, who often went on hunger strikes to protest their treatment by government authorities and police, to be force-fed, one of the hallmarks of the more radical tenants of suffragism.
While the Waxwood Series is set somewhat earlier than the height of the Progressive Era, my upcoming historical mystery series puts Adele Gossling, its main protagonist, right in the center of these reforms. As a young, outspoken woman of this era, she embraces suffragism and other reforms and, in fact, earns the stigma of being a “radical” from some of the more Victorian-minded people living in Arrojo, a small town where she resides after her father’s death. She helps the police solve crimes, many of which are form fitted to the era and expose some of its rising tensions.
To find out more about this upcoming series, you can check out this page.
To find out more about the Waxwood Series, go here. The first book of the series can be found here.
I’ve been working on Book 2 of the Waxwood Series this entire month very intensively with the help of Camp NaNoWriMo. This book goes into some unfamiliar territory for me in many ways. The story takes Jake (the Alderdice family son and new patriarch) through his coming-of-age and, in the process, he has to come to terms with who he will become in the shadow of family lies and half truths, as a person and as a man. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of reading and research on women in the 19th century because of my interest in women’s fiction and women’s history. Gender roles and gender politics in the past (and present) have always interested me. But until I began writing this book, I hadn’t really delved into the psychological realities of men or masculinity in the Gilded Age.
Many writers do some kind of research for their books. Even contemporary authors often need to research experiences in life of which they have no first-hand knowledge. This could be anything from what a five-year-old will and will not eat (if you’re like me, with no kids and not much exposure to young kids) to the ins and outs of a career as a registered nurse. Historical authors have the added burden of researching the past, and this isn’t always in the form of its main events (like the Civil War or the signing of the Declaration of Independence). Historical research could be as minor as how people stored meat in the 17th century (if they did at all) or as obscure as whether French women were involved in the suffragist movement in France in the 1890’s (yes, I had to research this). And research isn’t needed for just a major plot twist or main character, either. My search for women’s suffragism in France was for a comment made by a minor character about a French opera singer she had just met.
There is no hard-and-fast rule about researching for authors, and every author finds his or her own comfort zone. Some authors prefer researching everything down to the last detail before they begin that first draft. Others prefer to get the story down without worrying about historically accurate details until they finish the book, and then they go back and “fill in the blanks”. And many others do a combination of both.
I research certain aspects of a book before I begin the first draft, usually once I have my outline down, and I know where the story and characters are going. Some details I already know from previous books I’ve written. For example, death and mourning play a small role in Tales of Actaeon (Waxwood Series, Book 2). I researched rather extensively these very specific and elaborate practices in the 19th century when I wrote Book 1, The Specter. So there was much I knew already before I started Tales. Other details I know little or nothing about but make a great impact on the book, so I prefer to research them before I start. A group of college-aged young men appear in Tales, and I knew very little about college life in the Gilded Age, so I did some research before I started the first draft.
But even with an outline, my first drafts often take on a life of their own. It’s not uncommon for me to be working on the draft and then realize the direction in which I’ve been going isn’t giving me what I want for the book. I’ll mull over this and at some point, a better vision of where the book needs to go will appear to me (usually at about 3 o’clock in the morning…), and I’ll find myself making new chapter notes and sometimes rewriting previous key chapters or scenes I need in order to continue with the story.
In this way, research will take an unpredictable path. There are many small details I find myself needing to know as I write the story because they come up unexpectedly in the creative process. The French suffragist was one of these in Tales. Another one was burlesque houses. As I was writing, an idea for a scene with the college-aged boys I mention above taking Jake to a burlesque house in another town. I had no idea what sort of atmosphere there would be there, what the shows would be like, what the performance schedule would be like, and what sort of costumes or dress the performers would have. I found myself taking all day to research these things for the chapter I had to write so I could feel confident in writing with the emotions of the scene and relate it to Jake’s overall quest, the main focus of the book.
So doing research can be like the old paradox of the chicken and the egg — do you research first and then write or can you only research once you start writing because you don’t know what you’ll be researching until you write? For me, it’s a combination of both.
To read more about Tales of Actaeon, check out this page.
If you’d like to purchase a copy of Book 1 of the Waxwood Series, The Specter, you can do that here.
And for more about the Waxwood series, I have a page on my website here.
The idea behind the cartoon is that big business controlled government during the Gilded Age. In this cartoon, big business is represented by “the robber barons”, the name given to railroad company tycoons (and the businesses that made them possible, such as steel), pictured as bloated bags of money lording over the tiny mice of the senate.
“‘I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.’” (Twain and Dudley Warner, location 2837)
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post taking a personal look at the era which I chose to place my Waxwood Series. This post is a sort of prequel to that.
I love this opening quote from Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, published in 1873, as it personifies one of the main philosophies of that era – it was all about faking it until you made it. Indeed, the Gilded Age wasn’t so much about how much success or wealth you had as how well you made everyone think you had.
There is some dispute as to what timeframe constitutes the Gilded Age. Many historians and scholars agree the era began in the 1870’s (with the publication of Twain and Dudley Warner’s book). But as to its end, that’s up for debate. Some consider the mid-1890’s the end of the era while others push its end all the way to 1900. Bcause the new century brought about the Progressive Era and its backlash ideals of the Gilded Age, I prefer to consider the era as ending at the turn of the century.
Ironically, the title of Twain and Dudley Warner’s book wasn’t intended as a label (just as no one intended to put labels on our more modern eras, such as the Lost Generation, the Baby Boomers, and the Millennials). Since both writers were well-known humorists, the title their book is a tongue-in-cheek dig against the social and political events of the second half of the 19th century. But, like many humorists, their dig turned out to be wildly accurate. Twain and Dudley Warner observed what was going on around them and used it as fodder for their fiction, as many writers do. They had a keen eye toward not only toward the staggering opulence and excess of this period but also its more parasitic cousins, greed, graft, and corruption.
When Twain and Dudley Warner published their book in 1873, America had just gone through a rather heavy recession that ended in the Panic of 1873. Americans intended to bounce back, financially and politically, with full force, showing that the United States could compete with any other global power. The problem was that, in politics and finance, many used ingenious but dirty methods to do it. Well known was the political corruption of the Grant administration and the graft and crime prevalent in “Boss” Tweed’s administration in New York City, for example. If you’ve been reading my books, you know I am largely a San Francisco/Bay Area writer and San Francisco didn’t exactly escape these more devious characteristics in the Gilded Age. Many of the well-known San Francisco millionaires were made in the city during this time, such as “the Big Four” railroad barons Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. In addition there flourished of one of the most infamously sin-laden spots in America at that time, the Barbary Coast.
This painting represents the kind of gaudy glitter and extravagance common among the very rich during the Gilded Age, especially when they entertained.
All this wheeling and dealing created a new class of wealth. Novelists such as Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about “old money” families who were forced to make way for the nouveau riche. Interestingly, San Francisco was both similar and different in this respect. Gertrude Atherton’s book The Sisters-in-Law https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Law-Gertrude-Franklin-Atherton-ebook/dp/B0082SWSW0/, which I’ve mentioned on my blog before, gives an interesting snapshot of Bay Area aristocrats during this time and at the turn of the century who held on to strict codes of society (such as snubbing any woman who wanted to build her own business) but accepted more readily the nouveau riche because the youth of the west made old money families more scarce than they were in the east.
The rich in America considered it their privilege to flaunt their wealth with lavish homes and summer homes, balls and social events, and an outrageously expensive lifestyle that most could only gape at. The very rich became very extravagant, sometimes ridiculously so, displaying their money and social power even in the face of the growing poverty and working class resentments that would explode into violence and social change herding America in the Progressive Era.
The Gilded Age, then, became notorious for gaudy, show-offish displays of the socially privileged. Shady dealings made millionaires out of people of humble origins who were eager to get into society and, in fact, one might argue the opulence of the age prompted this widespread corruption as making money became “the thing”. A notorious example of this sort of personage is Simon Rosedale in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Rosedale is rather aggressive, seedy character whose rags-to-riches rise to fame made him an unavoidable parasite in the New York social circle in which the protagonist Lily Bart moves.
The more I write of the Waxwood Series, the more the realities of the Gilded Age come into conflict with who the characters are. This happens with Vivian, the unofficial protagonist of the series. She begins as a Gilded Age debutante of a wealthy San Francisco family (whose wealth was actually made well before the age) and gradually realizes the expectations put on her by her social status and the separate spheres conflict with her psychological reality and her journey through the last years of the century bring her to a different place in the world. Similarly, in my work-in-progress, Tales of Actaeon, Jake, Vivian’s younger brother, comes of age in a skewed and chaotic era when the meaning of masculinity was transitioning from the Victorian gentleman of honor, responsibility, and hard work to a more Teddy Roosevelt ideal of aggression, sportsmanship, and ambition.
To read more about The Specter and order your copy, check out this link.
To learn more about the Waxwood Series, click here.
And if you’d like to get your hands on a short story that is all about Vivian’s revelations as a debutante during her coming out ball, sign up for my newsletter here.
Twain, Mark and Warner, Charles Dudley. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Project Gutenberg, 2006 (original publication date: 1873). Kindle digital file.
I’m not ashamed to say I’m a feminist. I became a feminist in college when I began studying literature and women’s fiction. I came from a very patriarchal house where my parents supported the idea that men ruled, and women’s purpose in life was to serve everyone around them — parents, husband, children, community. I don’t blame them, as they grew up in an age that still believed in these antiquated ideas about gender roles. Thankfully, much has changed.
In my guest blog post for Lisa Lickel’s Living Our Faith Out Loud, I talked about Vivian and her destiny as a Gilded Age debutante and the expectations put upon her. But where did these expectations come from? Partly, from the upper class society in which she lives but also from an idea that emerged in the 18th century and carried through well in the 19th — the separate spheres.
I first learned about the separate spheres when I was in graduate school. One of the signature academic texts on the subject is Barbara Welter’s “The Cult Of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860” written in 1966 (not coincidentally, not long before the second wave feminist movement began making its appearance on the political stage). The article made a huge impression on me, especially the discussion of the separate spheres and its sister ideology, the cult of true womanhood . In the late 1960’s, writers, theorists, and scholars were beginning to take a more critical look at gender roles, stereotypes, and gender ideologies from the past, and they were exploring their relevance and repercussions on the present and future.
To put it as simply as I can, the term “separate spheres” embraces the idea that men and women each have a very specific “place” in the world. I use the word “place” here a bit ironically, because confinement in the physical, emotional, and spiritual sense has been one of the greatest battles women have had to fight against socially, politically and psychologically. In the 19th century, philosophers, religious leaders, and intellectuals believed men were born for the public sphere (which included politics, business, and law) and women for the private sphere (home, family, and community). In other words, men’s purpose in life was to go out and make money, make laws, and run the country, and women’s purpose was to take care of the home, have and raise the children, and participate in community events. This is a very simplified vision, of course, but it gives you an idea of how the spaces which men and women could occupy according to this ideology were limited.
What’s interesting when we look at the separate spheres more closely is not only do they define what women (and men) could do but what they couldn’t. Women were expected to stay out of medicine, for example, because they “did not belong there”. Similarly, the idea of a stay-at-home dad was inconceivable in this ideology since the home was the domain of women. Of course, each was allowed to reap the rewards of the other sphere. For women, this meant financial support, for men, it meant a comfortable home and loving family.
What is most relevant about the separate spheres when it comes to my fiction is not so much the physical spaces it represents but the psychological ones. In the mid-19th century, the world of business, politics, and industry were developing at a rapid pace. Because of this, jobs were opening up in the cities and people flocked to them, leaving behind the slower, simpler life they had had in the country. At the same time, in the minds of many people, industry was a big bad monster (hence Frank Norris’ allegory of the octopus to illustrate the brutality of the railroad industry in his book The Octopus) capable of luring people, especially the young, into greed and sin, soiling their minds, souls, and bodies.
In this atmosphere of dirty business and dirty politics, the home became an idealized symbol of purity, comfort and refuge (which is one reason why Victorian homes were so ornate and overstuffed). And who better to take care of it than pure, unsoiled women? They were the “angels in the house”, the eyelash-fluttering sweethearts who spent their days cleaning, cooking, shopping, attending children, and, for some, engaging in religious and charitable work. This ideal of the angel in the house had always existed, but it took on a more important role in the minds and hearts of people living in the nineteenth century. Many saw the divide of the spheres so distinctly they couldn’t fathom allowing women into the arena of politics, business, and law, all notoriously corrupt and dirty at that time. Women had to be protected and, even more, they were the protectors of the morals and values of men. Is it any wonder that author Virginia Woolf once wrote that for a woman to get any significant work done, she had to kill the angel in the house?
The ideal of the angel in the house actually derived from a poem written in 1854 by poet Coventry Patmore and the model for this ideal was Patmore’s wife, pictured above.
The description above might sound like a gross stereotype, but it illustrates the whole idea behind the separate spheres. It was, after all an ideology – the way people wished things would be or believed they were supposed to be. In Book 1 of my Waxwood Series, The Specter, the image Patmore’s angel in the house becomes the defining characteristic of the public persona of Penelope Alderdice, Vivian’s grandmother. It is, in fact, such a domineering archetype that her gravestone is carved with a verse from Patmore’s poem. In the book, part of Vivian’s journey leads her to pick apart this persona to reach a deeper understanding of who her grandmother really was and, in doing so, understand her own future.
The problem with the angel in the house and the separate spheres was that they created a model of womanhood most women found impossible to live up to, not to mention greatly unsatisfying (think: 19th century version of Betty Friedan’s “The Problem With No Name”). A great example of this comes from Natalie Dykstra’s book Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Dykstra describes historian Henry Adams’ mother in typical “angel in the house” terms:
“Mrs. Adams, lively but pampered, had been a social ornament when young. What had charmed her wealthy father… had also captivated her husband — her buoyancy, her love of conversation, her open affection.” (location 949).
However, as with many women, Mrs. Adams’ role as the angel in the house proved anything but satisfying:
“[F]ollowing marriage and the birth of seven children within fifteen years… Mrs. Adams found little to engage her beyond her family. Simmering unhappiness had become tightly braided with chronic physical debility — crushing headaches, sleeplessness, and constant noises in her ears.” (Dykstra, location 949).
It was not uncommon for women to become ill because their temperaments did not fit into the sphere to which they were confined. A famous example of this is Charlotte Perkins Gilman story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which I discuss here. Welter refers to the cult of true womanhood, but it should really be called the myth of true womanhood. Ideologies take on the proportions of myths because these narratives cannot be realized as anything but legends.
Thankfully, the idea of the separate spheres was beginning to crumble by the end of the nineteenth century when women began to enter the public sphere through politically progressive movements like suffragism and worker’s rights (which is a topic for another blog post). The images of the New Woman and the Gibson Girl (also topics for future blog posts) emerged during this time. Both overshadowed the image of the Angel in the House that had kept so many women chained in previous decades.
One of my passions is to give a picture of characters who were both products of their time and rebels of it. So it’s not surprising that many of my characters (the women especially, but also some of the men) refuse to stay in their sphere and venture outside of it. In my Waxwood series. I talked earlier about Vivian Alderdice, whose journey takes her away from the confined space of the separate spheres. Similarly, In Book 3, goes through her own journey when the darker consequences of this ideology present themselves in her mentally unstable Aunt Helen. In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, Adele Gossling rubs the people of the small town of Arrojo the wrong way precisely because she is a one of these New Women mentioned above and not ashamed to proclaim it.
Both the separate spheres and the cult of true womanhood weren’t just about where a woman should be, but what she should do while she was there. It overlooked more salient questions such as whether she wanted to be there at all, and what the consequences of her being there if she didn’t could be.
To find out more about my book, The Specter, and purchase a copy, go here.
Photo Credit: Painting of a pink rose with purple background, uploaded 8 August 2017: G4889166/Pixabay/Pixabay license
A few months ago, I announced to my readers group and author page that I would be updating the free gift I was offering for my newsletter subscribers (present and future). I would be giving a short story related to my Waxwood Series. The story gives some insights into the Alderdice family and, in particular, the character of Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series.
I call the story a prequel, which it is on one level. Dictionary.com defines the word prequel as “a literary, dramatic, or filmic work that prefigures a later work, as by portraying the same characters at a younger age” (“Prequel”, 2010). I’m not entirely satisfied with this definition, as it leaves out what I think is one of the most important elements of prequels — story (or series) importance. Authors and filmmakers create prequels for a reason. A prequel usually contains some keys to a richer understanding of the story or the characters, a sort of “this is how they got here” element in a separate work. This, then, gives readers a reason to read the story outside of the fact that they (hopefully) loved the characters enough to want to know about their lives before the story/series began.
This is why I wrote the short story “The Rose Debutante”. As I was writing The Specter, Book 1 of my Waxwood Series, I realized one of the keys to understanding both Vivian and her grandmother Penelope Alderdice (whose role in the story and series I wrote about here) was to understand their position as 19th century debutantes. I could have chosen to discuss the debutante in a factual blog post (and probably will do so sometime in the future), but I started getting more intrigued by the psychological aspects of this role thrust upon Vivian a little before the start of Book 1. I wanted specifically to explore what that role meant for her in light of Gilded Age thinking about women, money, and marriage.
In Book 1, there is reference to one of the most salient events in a 19th century wealthy young woman’s life — her debutante “coming out” ball. Researching this, I was fascinated by the undercurrents of this seemingly gay event, when a girl stopped being a girl in the eyes of society and became a woman. I wanted to explore the question, “What did that really mean for her, beyond the obvious (putting a young woman into the marriage market?)” I wanted to examine Vivian’s psychological reality as it related to this one very important event in her life that becomes the pinnacle of her thoughts and actions in the evolution of the Waxwood Series.
So it was natural for me to write a story about Vivian’s coming out ball. The story isn’t only a glimpse inside the excitement and lavishness of this event in wealthy Gilded Age society, but it’s also about the apprehensions, the expectations, and the fears encountered by a young woman who, with her hair up and in her first pair of high heels, is no longer seen as a girl but as a young woman with a role to play in her very structured and class-conscious society. For Vivian, perhaps, more than for many young women who took their coming out ball as a matter of course, the event brings the epiphany that her days of psychological liberty are over and now begins the straight and narrow path of womanhood as experienced by so many 19th century women of all classes. The story also gives readers a foundation on which Vivian’s later epiphanies, explorations of the past, and discoveries of the future are based in the series.
This is the first time I’ve written any kind of prequel to any of my stories, and I discovered in the process not only a way to let readers know about Vivian with more psychological depth but the beauty of making connections. In this story there appears several characters who later make a more standing appearance in Book 2 of my series, Tales of Actaeon.
To receive a copy of the short story The Rose Debutante, you must either already be signed up for my newsletter or you can sign up for it here.
To find out more about The Specter, the first book in the series, and get your copy, check out the links on this page.
And you can find out more about the Waxwood Series here.
The Specter Front Cover Photo Credit: Portrait of Sonya Knips, Gustav Klimt, 1898, oil on canvas, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria: Aavindraa/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100
Title: The Specter
Series: Waxwood Series, Book 1
Author: Tam May
Genre: Historical Fiction/Women’s Fiction
Release Date: June 28, 2019
To what lengths will one go to exorcise a specter?
One rainy morning in 1892, people gather to mourn the death of San Francisco socialite Penelope Alderdice. Among them is a strange little woman named Bertha Ross, who claims to have known “Grace” in the 1850’s in the small town of Waxwood. But Penelope’s granddaughter, Vivian, has never heard of Grace or Waxwood.
Bertha reveals surprising details about Grace’s life in Waxwood, including a love affair with Evan, an artist and member of Brandywine, Waxwood’s art colony.Vivian’s mother, Larissa, insists Bertha is an imposter who has come not to mourn a woman she knew in her youth but to stir up trouble.
Vivian, however, suspects the key to her grandmother’s life and her own lies in Waxwood. She journeys to Brandywine where she meets Verina Jones, Evan’s niece, and discovers a packet of letters her grandmother wrote forty years ago about her time in Waxwood.
As Vivian confronts the specter that holds the truth to secrets buried in the family consciousness, she examines her grandmother’s life as a mid-19th century debutante and her own as a Gilded Age belle. Will she find her way out into the world as an autonomous being, or will she be haunted by the specter of her grandmother’s unhappiness all her life?
You can pick up your copy of the book at a special promotional price at the following online retailers:
“Could not put this down, read from cover to cover in one sitting.” — Melanie, Goodreads Reviewer
“May’s historical fiction picks apart the delicate façade of American gentility in upper class, well-heeled families on the wild West Coast at the end of the nineteenth century.” — Lisa Lickel, author and blogger, Living Our Faith Out Loud blog.
About the Author
Tam May grew up in the United States and earned
her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and
EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time
writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She
writes fiction about characters who must find their future by exploring their
personal past and the collective past (the time in which they live).
Her first book, a collection of contemporary
short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for
a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family
saga, of which the first book, The Specter,
is now available. She is also working on a historical mystery featuring a
turn-of-the-century New Woman female sleuth. Both series take place in Northern
She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and
the Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and
watching classic films.
Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes historical and contemporary fiction about characters who must examine their past and the time in which they live to move on to the future.
Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga, of which the first book, The Specter, is now available for preorder. She is also working on a historical mystery featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman female sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California.
She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films.