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

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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!

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Thieves, Pickpockets, and Sex: The Dark Side of Circus Life

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While today we think of the circus as something fun, colorful, and family-oriented, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, before the Progressive Era, the circus was considered adult entertainment and not very savory entertainment at that. Even in later years, Hollywood liked to portray the circus as a place filled with vice and crime. For example, the film noir Nightmare Alley (the 1947 version, not the 2021 version) opens with a view of some typical circus side shows with thieves lurking in the crowds and a swindling spiritualist. The police suddenly raid the circus, making accusations of soliciting crime and claiming one of the performers’ costumes is indecent (as defined by the standards of the 1940s). Of course, the circus manager has an explanation for everything, but the police order them to move to another town anyway.

The circus worked hard to clean up its act (no pun intended) in the 20th century. The circus in America really began in the 18th century and for two centuries, was considered the place for crime, vice, and sexual titillation. Circuses were rumored to have made deals with pickpockets who roamed the crowd and then gave the circus manager a cut of whatever they got. Men could come and ogle women in tights and leotards in eras where women kept their entire bodies covered and even a curvacious table leg could be considered risque. There were rumors of prostitution, though there is no evidence that this actually occurred. 

This cartoon is taken from a book called Peck’s Bad Boy at the Circus by George W. (Wilbur). According to the caption, the boy Peck’s father is run out of the circus by the police because he was caught standing behind the lion’s cage creating the animal’s roar when the lion had a sore throat. This is an example of how even in the early 20th century, circuses were still seen as dishonest places that were always trying to swindle the public.

Photo Credit: Image from page 108 of “Peck’s bad boy with the circus [microform]” by George W (Wilbur), 1907, University of California Libraries: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr/ CC0 1.0 Universal

Circuses started to reassess their image in the late 19th century and move toward the more family-oriented entertainment we know today. Circus managers became very strict about things like drinking and men and women socializing together. They included more children-friendly acts such as animals and clowns. The more adult entertainment moved away to the side shows rather than the main circus tent. 

Why did the circuses change their image in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? First, these eras marked a period of change and reform in America. America had prospered in the Gilded Age but with it came the baggage of greed, corruption, and extravagance. These reformers wanted a cleaner, better America and pushed for reform in the entertainment field as well, including burlesque, vaudeville, and circuses. And second, they changed for the same reason Las Vegas changed in the 1990s: money. This era also was the birth of leisure and family fun and circus managers shrewdly realized, just as the Vegas hotel managers did, that children were a lucrative market they were missing by entertaining only adults. 

Book 5 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries, which turns a year old this month, is all about the circus. The conflict between the circus as vice and the circus as decent entertainment unfolds within the mystery of the death of the star performer. If you want to grab your copy, you can do so 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!

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Love Hurts: Vinegar Valentines

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I am a huge Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac fan (what can I tell you? I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s). One of the well-known facts about Fleetwood Mac’s bestselling album Rumours is that many of the songs were written in reaction to the multiple break-ups that were happening with the band members at the time. The most famous was between Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. But the other members were also going through their own heartbreak. Christine and John McVie were getting divorced and drummer Mick Fleetwood was separated from his wife at the time. If you’re super curious, read this article for more about how souring relationships influenced this brilliant album.

But giving someone the brush-off via written verse started way before Fleetwood Mac. It dates back to the 19th century with what we now call “vinegar Valentines.”

Photo Credit: Vinegar Valentine: The Suffragette, 1919, John Hopkins University Women’s Suffrage Collection: Special Collections at John Hopkins/Flickr/CC BY NC ND 2.0 DEED

What are vinegar Valentines? We all know Valentine’s Day cards express love and devotion, right? Vinegar Valentines were completely the opposite. These little bombs either told off a past or present suitor or discouraged a would-be suitor from pursuit.

This form of valentine became very popular in the 19th and early 20th century with the rise of the written form in the United States (which is one reason why the protagonist of my Adele Gossling Mysteries series is a stationery store owner and epistolary expert). Since there was no email or text messaging at the time, people communicated through letters, postcards, and other written forms. So Valentine’s Day cards became another form of communication. 

In general, these valentines were meant to be more comic and sassy. However, their message could range from light comedy to downright aggressive. Not surprisingly, many of these vinegar Valentines were sent anonymously so the sender would never suffer the repercussions of his or her vicious message.

Just how bad were they? You can judge for yourself by checking out the slider (about a third of the way down the page) on this page

One of the main targets of these vinegar Valentines was suffragists. Women who fought for the right to vote were, in the eyes of many Victorian men (and, sadly, some women) “unfeminine” and “unwomanly” so who could be more fitting to receive the vinegar message on the day that represents love and courtship (which puts women firmly in the separate spheres) than women who believed they and other women should transcend the barriers of love and marriage?

Thankfully, vinegar Valentines began to fall out of fashion after World War I, and today we rarely see Valentine’s Day cards that are more than mildly annoying in their sense of humor. 

If you want to read how Adele uses her epistolary expertise to help the police of Arrojo solve crimes, look no further than Book 1, The Carnation Murder. It’s free on all bookstore sites! Check out this page for more about the book and links where you can download it.

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!

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Historical Christmas Traditions

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I recently started teaching English to students from all over the world and one of the things I love to hear from them is about their holiday traditions. I was surprised to hear from a student of mine that she celebrates Christmas in mid-January and her traditions are more focused on the religious aspect of Christmas than gift-giving (although her family exchanges plenty of gifts too!)

In America, Christmas traditions haven’t changed much. Love it or hate it, Christmas in America has been big business since the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were filled with opulence, glamour, and progress. There was nothing that couldn’t be packaged and sold to the American public, and holidays were at the top of the list.

Before the late 19th century, ornaments on the Christmas tree were pretty simple. The tradition of Christmas tree decorations was brought over by German settlers in the 1830s, but Gilded Agers turned it into something much more elaborate. The word “modesty” was not in the vocabulary of the era. Gilded Agers loved sparkle and shine and they weren’t afraid to make a profit from it. They turned the decorations of simple strings of popcorn and beads of past decades into displays of lights, colored glass balls, and wax angels. Christmas tree ornaments became a big commercial enterprise during this time, replacing these homemade ornaments.

Photo Credit: Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing a group of anthropomorphized frogs parading with a banner and band. 19th century (no specific date), American Antiquarian Society. M2545/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100 

The humble Christmas card also acquired a different meaning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Louis Prang, one of the most successful printers of this era, began producing Christmas cards with a dream in mind: to create mini lessons in fine art for people on a budget. He saw his cards as artistic achievements even the working class could afford. But this idea of democratizing fine art was not one Gilded Agers were yet willing to embrace. They were, however, happy to take the idea of the Christmas card and make it more illustrative and attractive to buyers. Prang’s idea of elevating Christmas cards to art fell by the wayside but it started a trend with other illustrators producing cheaper variations. However, as this article shows, they were still quite beautiful.

The gift-giving that now dominates today’s Christmas commercials on TV and online became big business during this time as well. It was an opportunity to show one’s generosity with elaborate and expensive gifts. Wrapping presents was also a Gilded Age invention, as it fits in with the idea of garnish presentation that characterized the age. Plain white wrapping paper said something unpleasant about what the giver could afford, but elaborate wrapping paper told loved ones the gift came from the “right” places.

Photo Credit: Merry Old Santa Claus, Thomas Nast, 1 January 1881, Harper’s Weekly: Soerfm/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100)

We think of Santa as a jovial and white-bearded man bestowing presents to “good” little boys and girls. But in the early 20th century, Santa had political and social implications. Santa was the glorified symbol of Capitalism with a capital “C”, an authoritative and somewhat mystical figure who held gifts aplenty — for those who deserved them, of course. The deserved ones were judged not by their goodness but by their political beliefs or their support of Capitalism.

Why not treat yourself to some fiction from the past that features women who don’t just take the confines of their era lying down? You can start with two free books! The first book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries is free on every online bookstore and so is the first book of my Waxwood Series. You can get  The Carnation Murder here and The Specter 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!

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Trailblazers: Lady Lawyers in the 19th Century

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Book 3 of my historical cozy mystery series the Adele Gossling Mysteries, introduces a new character into the small town of Arrojo. Rebecca Gold is a lawyer who has come to town to open her own practice after having been treated like a clerk rather than a lawyer in the big city law firms where she worked. 

How common were women lawyers in the 19th and early 20th centuries? As you might imagine, not that common. The separate spheres made it difficult for women to venture outside the private sphere of home, family, and church. The law, being one of the most public spheres out there (right alongside politics and business) was, therefore, largely off-limits. 

But there were a few who did brave the social and sometimes legal limits to study law. The first of these was Arabella Mansfield. In 1869, she became the first woman lawyer in America. Although her home state of Iowa forbade women to take the bar exam, Mansfield defied this practice and took it anyway. Her very high marks swayed Iowa legislation to relax these laws and allow women to take the bar exam. Mansfield became an apprentice at her brother’s law firm early on during her studies. However, once she passed the bar exam, she decided to forgo law for activism and education, including suffragism.

Alongside her was Ada Kepley who, in 1870, earned her law degree from Northwestern University. However, her home state of Illinois also didn’t allow women to take the bar exam and, unlike Iowa, Illinois legislation wasn’t budging on this. So Kepley was unable to actually make use of her law degree. Kepley did eventually take the bar exam in 1881 and passed but, like Arabella Mansfield, chose to use her experience and knowledge for activism, particularly temperance and — you guessed it — women’s suffrage.

Photo Credit: Drawing of Charlotte E. Ray, before 1911, unknown author: Gobonobo/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

And let us not forget Charlotte E. Ray who was the first African American woman to practice law. She received her law degree in 1872 and was admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia Supreme Court. Unlike Mansfield and Kepley, however, Ray did eventually open her own office, specializing in corporate law. Sadly, she only kept her doors open for a few years, as racial prejudice made gaining a steady clientele difficult. She took her knowledge and experience and became a teacher, focusing on education and later, women’s suffragism.

You’ll notice a pattern here: these three women either never put their law degree to use or they only practiced for a very short time. Why? I’m sure mistrust of women in so lucrative a field had something to do with it (and we know in Charlotte E. Ray’s case, there was added racial prejudice). Maybe it was also that the time and dedication needed to practice law made it difficult for these women to juggle both the public and the private spheres (since we might assume they also had the duties of the home on their shoulders whereas a male lawyer was largely exempt from that). Or maybe it was just the ideologies of the separate spheres die hard, even for progressive women. 

In my book, however, Rebecca Gold is a practicing lawyer and her first case gets her in plenty of hot water. Find out how in Death At Will, the third book of the Adele Gosslnig Mysteries. And how about Books 1 and 2? Well, you can pick up all three books in a lovely box set at a great price 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!

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