Summer Vacation in the 19th Century

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Photo Credit: Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse, Claude Monet, 1866-1867, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY: Crisco 1492/Wikimedia Common/PD old 80

This Sunday is the official start of summer. Much of my historical family saga, the Waxwood Series, takes place during the summer months. For us 21st century people, summer means hot weather, swimming pools, and beaches. It’s about fun, leisure, and rest. 

The Victorians, however, had a different take on summer. In the 19th century, only the privileged (like my Alderdice family) could afford to take a summer vacation. Middle-class and working-class people did not take time off in the summer or go on vacation. Why? 

First, there was a philosophical issue involved. Tension existed between work and play in America at that time. Doctors and ministers and other authorities were suspicious of vacations, believing they led people to vice. There was also a very practical reason: Most people just couldn’t afford to take time off and go somewhere for the summer (no paid time off for vacations in those days).

What changed? Our awareness that being the constant workhorse was more unhealthy than the sort of vices vacation destinations could offer. Also, the rising middle class in the Gilded Age could finally afford to a week or two off from work during the summer for some fun and leisure. And, too, as with much of American life in the Gilded Age, there was the question of commerce. The travel and hospitality industries (like hotels and restaurants) quickly realized they could make a lot of money by encouraging Americans to take time off to enjoy the summer and play.

In my series, when summer comes, the Alderdice family vacation in the resort town called Waxwood. Resort life was growing in the Gilded Age among the wealthy and upper-middle class. These wealthy people took their summer vacations very seriously, spending months lounging in resorts, meeting new people, and participating in all sorts of activities and events. You can find out more about my series on this page

Ready to dive into my Gilded Age family saga? Now is a perfect time! Book 1, The Specter, has been updated and revised and is now at 99¢. You can get it here

And if you really want to know what it was like to spend a summer in a resort with the wealthy, you’ll want to read Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, which has also recently been updated and revised.

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Why I Love (And Write) Women’s Fiction

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***This blog post was written in honor of Women’s Fiction Day, designated as June 8 by the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.***

If you would ask me what is the genre of the Waxwood Series, I would unhesitatingly say “women’s fiction”. This is in spite of the fact that False Fathers, Book 2 of the series, is actually about a young man’s coming-of-age. The series itself focuses on the journey of one young woman to emotional and intellectual maturity in the last decade of the 19th century. Women’s fiction is always about journeys and all of my fiction, regardless of genre, even my upcoming historical cozy mystery series, the Paper Chase Mysteries, is about women’s journeys.

But is women’s fiction only about the gender of the author?

Different authors define women’s fiction (whether they write it or not) differently. My definition of women’s fiction is fiction where a woman goes through some kind of emotional and psychological journey and transformation, usually the main character or one of the main characters. That transformation doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive one, but one in which she learns something about herself and the world around her. And the book doesn’t have to be written by a woman either. I consider books like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary women’s fiction, because the woman protagonist of each book goes through her own journey and transformation (however tragic), and we learn something about human nature and women’s lives in the nineteenth century. 

This last element is really why I love reading women’s fiction. The genre not just about women written for women and only relevant to women. It’s relevant to all our lives, male or female, or however you identify your gender. They also teach us about how women behave and are treated, and this reflects on the way human nature works in our patriarchal society, then and now. I make no secret of the fact that I don’t read many contemporary books but a few months ago, I picked up a book firmly placed in the contemporary women’s fiction category by K. L. Montgomery titled Fat Girl. Montgomery is a body-positive advocate and her protagonist is a plus-size woman whose trials and tribulations with romance, divorce, and raising a teenage boy speaks to our time with the struggles of single parents and body shaming in our weight-conscious society.

In the Waxwood Series, Vivian’s transformation continues throughout the Waxwood Series and will be completed in Book 4. Her revelations about family, women and social expectations will hopefully speak not only of the paradoxes of the Gilded Age but also our time.

In honor of Women’s Fiction Day, I’m giving away an ebook copy of The Specter! To enter the giveaway, please comment on this blog post and tell me why you love women’s fiction (historical or otherwise). The giveaway will end on Sunday, June 13.

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A Boat Looking for a Harbor: Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman

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***This post is part of The 4th Broadway Bound Blogathon: Tony Edition, hosted by the Taking Up Room blog. ***

***Some spoilers***

Most of you who have been reading my blog know that I am both a fan of classic film and I write psychological fiction. When I was in grad school, I found many classic playwrights have an amazing way of dramatizing psychological reality into compelling family stories. Playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neal, and Lillian Hellman were some of my favorite playwrights in grad school and an inspiration to me as a writer. 

Another playwright that was an inspiration to me was Arthur Miller. His post-war play Death of a Salesman (1949) has always been a favorite of mine. I really appreciate Miller’s deceptively simple story of the decline of a typical post-war traveling salesman which slowly unfolds to reveal the complex elements of family life during that era. Miller wrote a lot about male family members, and since my theme this month revolves around fathers, I wanted the opportunity to talk about what I believe is one of the most complex paternal figures in literature.

Willy Loman is, in many ways, a “regular Joe-shmo”, a direct product of the post-World War II era. I’ve talked a lot about women during this time in blog posts like this one, but the expectations put upon men during this time had their own set of problems. America was recovering from the horrors of the war and there was a drive to succeed and to be bigger and better than before the war. For many men, this meant reaching new heights in business and family. There was pressure to succeed and an emphasis on making money (Loman’s best friend points out to him that all people care about is how much a man is worth). In terms of family, the man was the head of the household and expected to make decisions and rule his wife and kids with an iron hand. The attitude was, “whatever I say, goes.”

Photo Credit: Lee J. Cobb (Willy Loman) and Mildred Dunnock (Linda Loman) from the 1966 televised version of Death of a Salesman, retelevised in March 1967, CBS Television: Renamed User 995577823Xyn/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

*This is my favorite version of the play, as there are a lot of versions out there (including a 1985 version with Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman and a very young John Malkovich as Biff). You can find the 1966 version here

Willy Loman is very much this type of man. He’s built his entire thirty-five-year career as a traveling salesman around his expectations that his devotion would yield success. He expects obedience from everyone around him and doesn’t hesitate to raise his voice or his hand to get it. His semi-aggressive manner is, at times, frightening.

But Miller portrays Loman as much deeper than that. Underneath the bullying and arrogance is a man in need of love and respect and belonging (his wife refers to him as “a little boat looking for a harbor”). He tells his young boss Howard Wagner a touching story of how he came to be a salesman. He explains how he witnessed an 82-year-old salesman one night making phone calls to buyers and getting a warm reception. For Willy, this was the epitome of love, making him realize that being a salesman was the most wonderful job in the world. Why? Because a salesman could pick up the phone and be remembered and loved and respected. He goes on to tell Howard how this 82-year-old salesman died “the death of a salesman” with people lining up at his funeral. Willy, then, wants to be loved and remembered and, as many men did in the post-war era, chose his career to do it.

However, Willy is a dreamer to the point of building sandcastles in the air. His ideas of his own grandeur don’t quite gel with reality. The problem is he imposes these dreams on his family, especially his elder son Biff. Willy imposes his dreams of being “big” on his son without giving him a chance to discover who he wants to be on his own. So when Biff fluffs up a football scholarship and turns to a less-than-stellar life, his father accuses him of spitefulness, as if Biff chooses to fail instead of failure is inevitable because he is simply a different kind of man. In Willy’s eyes, his sons don’t love or respect him because they are as average as he is. Only in the end, when Biff makes Willy understand who he really is does Willy realize his son loves him after all. But by then, it’s too late.

My book False Fathers is also about delusions and fathers. Jake is looking for a father figure now that he has come of age and ready to take his place in the world. Interestingly, the expectations for men in the Gilded Age  were similar to those of the post-war era: success in business, earning a high income, and being “big”. Jake knows this and knows he needs a father to guide him. But the road to searching for a father figure isn’t as smooth as he anticipates and, like Biff, he learns a lot about himself and his own expectations in the bargain. 

You can read about False Fathers, which has just been revised and updated, here. And if you’re interested in women of the post-World War II era, you might find my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life to your taste.     

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.

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Larissa Alderdice: The Alderdice Matriarch

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Photo Credit: jspring/Depositphotos.com 

It’s May, which means it’s not only spring but also the month of mothers (Mother’s Day in the United States was May 9). If we’re talking about mothers, I wanted to say a few things about Larissa Alderdice, the matriarch in my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series

I’ve done several blog posts about the Alderdice family already. I did one for Vivian Alderdice, the series protagonist, and for her brother, Jake. I even did one for Penelope Alderdice, the family specter whose hidden past kicks off the whole series. 

Larissa is a fascinating character because she is one of the focal points of the series, and yet, in each book, she remains a minor character. Her influence is not in the number of appearances she makes in each book but the mark she leaves on everyone in the family. I don’t think this is unusual when it comes to mothers. Mothers are a major source of nurture, discipline, and affection in many of our lives (mine sure is) but they often remain in the background, and their influence affects us in ways we don’t always realize until we’re adults and possibly have children of our own.

Larissa had her own beliefs, some of which are quite rigid. Her whole life evolves around society and what the Jones’ are doing. She is very much a product of the Gilded Age in that she is a part of all its opulence and excess. Like the famous Mrs. Astor, there is a “them” and there is an “us” and “we” are more superior to “them”. So, yes, she’s a snob.

Her views are somewhat mid-Victorian. There is a scene in Book 2, False Fathers where she chides her daughter for attending a suffragist meeting:

“You have a mutinous streak, Vivian,” Larissa said gently. “I’m only trying to help you.”

“Don’t worry, Mother. No blue blood woman ever strayed far from conformity.” His sister’s voice was wary. 

“Conventional life has its rewards,” [her] mother reminded her. “Comfort and peace of mind, for one.”

In other words, Larissa finds security in the separate spheres and the chaotic changes that were happening in the last decade of the 19th century and into the 20th were frightening and disturbing to her. 

Where Larissa’s maternal influence is felt most is in the third installment of the series, Pathfinding Women. In that book, the Alderdices aren’t exactly on sure footing with their Nob Hill neighbors, and this is a devastating situation for someone as social-conscious as Larissa. Her solution? Coax her daughter into chasing after a wealthy but somewhat unpolished Canadian buccaneer. Not the most liberating solution in the world, but, given Larissa’s character, predictable. What happens in the book is far from predictable, though.

But Larissa has her good points too. There is no question she is intelligent and brings her views forth in an insightful way. In False Fathers, her daughter remarks, “If social propriety hadn’t distorted your wit and intelligence, you might have achieved something in this world.” Had Larissa been a woman of the 21st century, she would probably have been an entrepreneur or a high-ranking executive of a company because her acumen and social savvy would have been channeled into more useful ways than at high society balls and dinner parties.

But, as it is, her obsession with society and its conventions place her in a position to editorialize about them in ways you would expect from a Mrs. Astor. For example, in a mock interview I wrote as part of the “Meet The Alderdices” packet, Larissa has this to say about Gilded Age debutante:

“For us, when a young lady comes out in society, it is an occasion for celebrating. She is now a woman and must take upon her shoulders the duties and responsibilities of a woman, not only toward her husband and children, but toward society as well.”

Want to read more about Larissa and her role in the Waxwood Series? You can start with Book 1, The Specter, which has now been revised and updated and is at the special price of 99¢. 

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. Oh, and that Meet The Alderdices packet? I occasionally put that out to my newsletter subscribers, along with a few other goodies, but only to subscribers, so if you’re on my list, you’ll get a chance to get that too!

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A History of Mother’s Day in the United States

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Photo Credit: Flowers for Mother, from Pictures and Prattle for the Nursery children’s book by Harrison Weir, published in 1880: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100

Today is Mother’s Day in the United States. Where did this holiday come from? It began in 1908 when Anna Jarvis, editor and Progressive Era activist, decided to pay tribute to her mother in Philadelphia. She also, incidentally, started the tradition of giving flowers on the day by sending five hundred white carnations to the church in her hometown as part of the tribute.

Although Jarvis is credited as the godmother of Mother’s Day in the United States, she was not the first to come up with the idea. That honor goes to Jarvis’ own mother Ann Maria Jarvis. From all accounts, Ann Maria was the prototype Victorian woman, devoted to her children and her church. At the same time, she was also an activist but, unlike the suffragists, she kept to her side of the separate spheres. Her work was confined to areas acceptable for women (church and home). Her activist work was nonetheless important, as she formed Mothers’ Day Club events where the goal was to educate mothers on proper hygiene to prevent the massive infant death rates prevalent in the nineteenth century. 

It’s interesting to note Ann Maria conceived of Mother’s Day quite differently than her daughter. To Ann Maria, maternal responsibility was very much linked to community service, and her idea was to celebrate the role of motherhood in society and family. Her daughter, on the other hand, wanted to make the day a national holiday where both men and women honored their individual mothers — hence, we call it Mother’s Day and not Mothers’ Day. So Jarvis took Mother’s Day to a very personal level.

The fight to get Mother’s Day declared a national holiday came during the first decade of the twentieth century when many women were advocating taking their lives outside the private sphere and fighting in social and political arenas for their rights and identities as individuals. It might seem a little odd that Jarvis would, at this time in history, lead a movement honoring women’s most traditional role inside the home. In addition, Jarvis was one of these New Women who held a career as an advertising editor and earned a college degree. But suffragism was also about making women visible and respected for their own merits and contributions to society. Mothers fit right into this category (since you have to be a woman to be a mother, right?)

Photo Credit: Anna Jarvis, founder of Mother’s Day in America. Probably taken around the turn of the century, judging by the hairstyle and clothes, but no additional information about the image. Uploaded 4 May 2017 by Jonas Duyvejonck: jonasduyvejonck/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In May of 1914 (only a few months before the outbreak of World War I), President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. By the 1920’s, Mother’s Day, like most American holidays, had become a target for consumerism, specifically florists and candy makers. Jarvis was disillusioned by this toward the end of her life and spent much of her later years trying to gain the recognition she deserved. One of the beautiful things about history is that, while innovators may not be appreciated during their own lifetime, we can look back and give them the kudos they deserve decades, even centuries, later. 

Mothers play a huge role in my fiction. Some of them are martyrs (like Mary’s mother in the short story “Mother of Mischief,” which is part of my collection of post-war stories, Lessons From My Mother’s Life), while others are hard-bitten and manipulative (like Joan’s mother in the story “Soul Destinations,” also part of that collection). In my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, Larissa, the Alderdice family matriarch, is a complex mother whose attitude toward life and toward her children changes over time.

You can find out more about Larissa and the rest of the characters of the Waxwood Series on this page. Check out both Larissa and Penelope Alderdice (Larissa’s mother) in Book 1 of the series, The Specter, recently revised and updated and now at 99¢. All my books feature interesting mothers, and you can find out more about them 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.

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