Cleolinda Jones (cleolinda) wrote,
Cleolinda Jones

Book discussion: Black Ribbon research

Last weekend, I went and got a couple of Mead composition books--you know, the kind with the black marbled covers. I haven't used them in a while, but I like them because they're sturdy, and yet just cheap enough that I don't feel bad about writing in them and messing them up. So, properly armed with these, I have been going back through my stacks of research books and taking notes on the specific elements that jump out at me as being relevant to what I'm writing. My problem is that I've spent all these years being terrified that I haven't researched enough--never mind that tons of writers barely hit Google, if anything, judging by some of the stuff I've read. I think it's a way of giving myself an excuse not to finish the novel, but at the same time, I think back on all I've read and I just get a panicky clouded feeling. Namely, because I do not remember half as much of what I read as I think I will. Oh, I mean, I can pull it back up in conversation, but when I sit down to write about a particular location or situation I read up on, I get a bad case of the herp-derps and feel like I didn't learn anything at all. Obviously: we need notes. This way, when I get all "Durrrrr...?" again, I can just flip back to my notebook(s) and go, "Okay, Gilded Youth, reread page 67. POW."

The other great thing about this is that I just could not get European history circa 1890ish into my head. And I love history. But I just could not get the overall political situation down. I could not figure out when or how the German empire came together, and I could not figure out what the hell kind of government France had going on at any particular time--Second Empire, Third Republic, Fourth WTF, IDK. Like, I would keep reading about it, and I just could not grok it, like I had some weird arbitrary blind spot I could not get around. And if you want a touch of espionage in your novel... you're going to need to know how various nations related to each other. So I started looking for (more) historical figures to read biographies of. For some reason, that is how I best grasp history--through the lives of the people who experienced it. It's also a great way to get the texture of a society or a culture at the time--basically, if you want to write a novel about a period, read about the people who lived in it. So I would start looking for key figures, particularly women and/or royals, because women are really who I write about, and and royals because they tend to be involved in both politics and society, and have a wide acquaintance--which can then help you figure out who else to read about. (Also, royals are the most likely to have decent biographies.) I am also very fond of actresses and courtesans, who generally hit all of those criteria. And also, they are super, super fun.

So I'm rereading a lot of these books--even the ones I just got for Christmas and read, I'm skimming through a second time for notes, and these are the ones I ended up hitting first, if you are interested in picking any of them up:

Edward VII: The Last Victorian King, Christopher Hibbert

I have a slight quibble with this title: can you really say there was a "Victorian king"? I mean... there was no "Victorian" ruler until, you know, Victoria, who I believe had the longest reign of any queen regnant, and was queen for the entire Victorian period because it was named after her. In fact, I would argue there was neither a first Victorian king, a last Victorian king, or even a Victorian king. There was a Victorian queen, and she was... VICTORIA. Sometimes people use "Victorian" to mean "nineteenth century, regardless of location," in which case... Edward VII was the last king of that era (says the book), so... I guess this makes sense? Maybe? Sort of? Are we counting emperors as kings? I don't know. I could see saying that Elizabeth I was "the last Tudor monarch," but I wouldn't say she was "the last Elizabethan queen," you know? Look, I am just saying: this seems a bit nonsensical to me.

ANYWAY. I was interested in Edward VII back when he was the Prince of Wales, specifically in the 1880s-90s (this is my target period) and details on society at that level in general, which in this case was chapters 7-12. But it's also a good biography on its own--well-written and engaging. You've heard of "the Edwardian era"; well, this is the king it was named for. And if you liked The King's Speech (which I have plans to go see tomorrow), you may be interested in this. If I am recapping this correctly, Queen Victoria's eldest son, Albert Edward ("Bertie") became Edward VII after her death; his eldest son Albert Victor ("Eddy." I know, it's confusing) died young, and so Prince George stepped in, married Prince Eddy's fiancée, May of Teck, and became George V after Edward VII's death. George V's eldest son, Edward VIII, then abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson; his younger brother George VI then ascended in his place. This is who Colin Firth is playing in the movie; Queen Elizabeth, the Helena Bonham Carter character, is probably best known as the (late) Queen Mother--Elizabeth II's mother. So this is how we get from "the last Victorian king" to the British monarchy of today (you can now throw The Queen in the DVD player if you want. "But--that's my funeral!"). I personally find this kind of thing fascinating, but that's me.

The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914, Barbara W. Tuchman

I specifically read this in hopes of nailing down international politics, but... it's a bit strange. It's good, and I would recommend it, but it's neither linear nor chronological. Each chapter, rather, takes on a particular topic of the era. I got a  very good feeling for British parliamentary politics and the career of Strauss, but it really is like a line of portraits on a wall, rather than a cohesive, encompassing narrative of how World War I came about. 

The first section, "The Patricians," was great for my purposes; there are a number of fairly in-depth character studies of various British lords and MPs, and I took exhaustive notes in hopes of fictionalizing some characters. And I got extremely clappy-squee over "The Idea and the Deed," an examination of the anarchist movement in the 1890s, because I had decided to use some aspects of that, and I feel pretty confident now that this is the only research I'm going to need on it. It's that good.

"The End of a Dream" had some good character studies, but was mostly about American politics and growing imperialism, which I personally found a little tedious because I didn't need it. I mean, I'm going to be honest here and say "I didn't like it because I didn't need it," not "This chapter was bad and it should feel bad." Although, in comparison, I didn't really need "Give Me Combat!," about the Dreyfus affair in France, because it was after "my" time, but that chapter was really engrossing anyway. It's another one of those historical events that I knew about from AP European history without really grasping what it was like to be in the middle of it, with a pro-Army, anti-Semitic frenzy splitting society down the middle, people turning on their friends and never speaking to them again, mobs and duels and assassination attempts. There are some really fascinating people involved (it occurs to me that character profiles must just be a strength of Tuchman's historical writing in general), but mostly I took notes on newspapers, streets, restaurants, and other Paris locations or institutions for background texture.

"The Steady Drummer," about The Hague conferences of 1899 and 1907, is intrinsically funny (well, maybe not "funny") to me for two reasons. First off, the 1899 conference came about because Russia was like, "HAY GUYS, we should totally disarm for world peace and all that," and the other nations were like, Bzuh? "Russia, WTF." "Hey, Britain, are you gonna disarm?" "Well... no, but... " "Yeah, I really don't want to be the first one to be like, 'This is dumb, I'm not doing it.' " "I KNOW, RIGHT?" "Hey, we can let Willy be the first one to say no! And he's a total brat, he'll do it, too." "AWESOME." So basically they have this big conference where no one wants to give in at all, but no one wants to be the guy who doesn't want world peace, so they let Prussia go in there and play the heavy, because no way is the Kaiser going to put down his toys. And meanwhile, Russia's sole motivation here was pretty much that they just couldn't afford to keep up with everyone else in the arms race, so they resorted to a sentimental appeal. THE ONLY WAY TO WIN THE GAME IS NOT TO PLAY. Or something. Second, once people start compromising the "world peace" idea into oblivion, there's a long list of weapons the diplomats are trying to decide whether they should agree not to use or not. And there's something like "the launching of projectiles or explosives from balloons" on there. And they're like, "Wait, who even DOES that?" And Russia's like, "I don't know, but someone, somewhere might think of it, so LET'S NOT." And Captain Mahan (the American who basically pioneered the "power of the seas" theory of imperialism, which even Tuchman is like, "Everyone had been doing that for hundreds of years, but somehow no one actually put it into words until this guy") is like, "Wait, you want to ban something we haven't even invented yet? It might be awesome for defeating people!" And the Russians are like, "WELL YES, EXACTLY." Or rather, "the various means of injuring the enemy now in use are sufficient. And we can't afford them." Basically, Russia foresaw aerial bombardment before anyone even knew what to call it, and from a speculative fiction point of view, I love that.

"Neroism Is in the Air," on the other hand, is about Prussia, which I was interested in as well--it's one of the historical elements I felt really weak on, and Tuchman gives you a pretty vivid picture of the intensely militaristic mood at the time. Hope you like Strauss, though, because the chapter is mostly about his most productive composing period, contrasting him to Wagner and, later, the Kaiser himself. (This was also where I finally figured out the German empire business.) I did come out of it interested in Don Juan and Death and Transformation, since they are within my period and thematically relevant. There's also an interjection on Nietzsche which got a big star in my notes. And the section at the end of the chapter on Russian ballet was really interesting, but after 1900, and thus way out of my wheelhouse.

I did read the next two chapters, "The Transfer of Power" (Britain) and "The Death of Jaurès" (France), but didn't take any notes because they were a good twenty years past my target.

Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France's Belle Époque, Kate Cambor

I really should have put this off until I start doing research for the second book, but what the hell. This is my idea of recreational reading. The three lives in question are Léon Daudet, the right-wing, monarchist, anti-Semitic son of the gentler author Alphonse Daudet (he really came off to me like a duel-fighting Glenn Beck in terms of his journalistic style, I am sorry to say); Jean-Baptiste Charcot, the polar explorer whose father was a famous doctor/professor (the kind of person I am: "Hey, I think Van Helsing name-drops Charcot in Dracula!"); and Jeanne Hugo, the spoiled granddaughter of Victor Hugo, who was a child celebrity in her own right as the subject of his later writings. Jeanne Hugo, by the way, married Léon Daudet, divorced him, married Jean-Baptiste Charcot, left him while he was exploring the Antarctic, and finally married a third time. Cambor, I think, tries not to write Jeanne Hugo off as a bratty celebutante, but you can feel her straining to keep her in the narrative. Jeanne Hugo falls victim to a problem a lot of historians run into vis-à-vis pre-twentieth century women: many of them don't write about themselves. I love Alison Weir, but she runs into the same pitfall in her Eleanor of Aquitaine bio, which devolves into the story of Eleanor's children as Eleanor herself recedes into captivity. There's just not enough documentation on a lot of women, and at times the only glimpses we get of them are through the eyes of men--or, even less helpfully, bare-bones official records. Once Victor Hugo is dead and Jeanne is no longer married to either of the other two subjects--that is, no one is writing much about her anymore--she fades. Thus, we don't get to see any justifications of her actions from Jeanne herself, how she felt, what she was doing and why. I mean, I would love to know how Jeanne would have justified separating from the absent Charcot, because he was gone for something like two years at a time, and I can understand, while it's not the most admirable thing on paper, why someone might do that. But I'd need to hear why she did it to know what spirit she did it in, and we don't have that. So while some of the Amazon reviews complain about Jeanne being left out, I can honestly say that this is a problem in a lot of biographies where the subject's own writings are not available: sometimes gaps are unavoidable, and the historian does the best she can, and I'd rather she try to include Jeanne than have this just be about the two men alone.

Grandes Horizontales: The Lives and Legends of Four Nineteenth-Century Courtesans, Virginia Rounding

This is actually a book I've read for fun more than once. There's some overlap with Katie Hickman's Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century, but she covers more women in less depth (which is not a bad thing per se), and Rounding strikes me as a stronger historian. The four women in this case are Marie Duplessis (who was immortalized as La dame aux camélias, which you may be more familiar with in its most modern incarnation, Garbo's Camille, although the story was also the basis of La Traviata and, following that logic, Moulin Rouge), the epitome of the doomed, delicate courtesan; La Païva, a strange, long-lived character who was compared to "a fairytale witch" and a vampire; Apollonie Sabatier, a kept woman/free spirit rather than a courtesan with multiple clients, who inspired Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Gautier; and Cora Pearl, who is one of my favorites because she was just so damn fun. The book is basically four biographies in one, with context on mid-century Paris, French prostitution in general, and the opulent Second Empire era. And, ironically, this was the book where I finally grasped the Second Empire-Paris Commune-Third Republic business--which, in turns, means that the Dreyfus affair chapter in the Tuchman book makes more sense now. The Siege of Paris is really interesting to me--has been since a visiting poet (I wish I could remember her name) read a long free verse poem of hers about it at my college. (They were so hungry they ate the zoo elephants, y'all.) It's before my period, but it explains a lot about French-Prussian politics later on. I was also thrilled to get descriptions of the two mid-century Paris Expositions--the World's Fairs--although the one I'm interested in is the 1889 fair. But still! (Which reminds me, I have World's Fairs and haven't read it yet. The Devil and the White City, another favorite, is about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, so it's generally useful as well.)

The Lives and Legends, as it were, mostly end in the early 1880s, and Second Empire society is vastly different from the Republican (as in anti-monarchy, pro-Republic, not conservative) atmosphere afterwards, but you understand what led up to that reaction. (Actually, the excesses of the Second Empire seem to have drifted over to fin-de-siècle Britain afterwards.) And another re-read was pretty much worth it just to finally grasp the France-Prussia business. (Three readings of this book and it took me this long to get it, y'all. Maybe it was the cumulative context of the other two books. Hand to God, I am not usually this dense.)

I want to reread the Hickman book and take notes, but I may focus on the Catherine Walters chapter and anything else pertaining to Britain for the moment, and save anything else relevant for later. Walters--"Skittles"--is another interesting society figure, but I probably shouldn't have drifted so far from Britain with the courtesan topic right now.

So... let's read another book about famous mistresses.

I am now on to my long-awaited Lillie Langtry book, Laura Beatty's Manners, Masks and Morals, which I tore up the house looking for, only to have it arrive in the mail a week later. Apparently we all hallucinated the book arriving, getting wrapped, and being opened on Christmas. What I really wanted it for--having ascertained from the Edward VII bio that Langtry would be a good figure to home in on--was a certain level of detail on that level of fin-de-siècle society. I kept having problems with writing some of the early chapters of my thing because it just seemed too general in my head. You don't have to go on and on about something if you have just the right details to drop, and I just didn't feel like I had them. And I kept getting confused about what time of day you did which delightfully frivolous society thing (this and French government, apparently). I wanted to be able to mention real people at a distance, and have fictionalized versions of others actually show up in the story, and you can't change things if you don't know those things in the first place. 

Y'all, this book is everything I had hoped and SO MUCH MORE. The font is oddly uncomfortable to read, and the introduction is a bit too breathless with all the talk of Langtry being ~*A GODDESS*~ and how she was first deemed a goddess and how hard it was to be a goddess and then how she decided to embrace being a goddess and how people loved her for being a goddess and how goddess goddessed the goddess. Goddess! Then the book settles down, moves through Langtry's unexpectedly tomboyish childhood, and quickly gets her to London, where she is literally an overnight success. Literally, in the literal sense of literally. She wanders around London bored stupid for about a year, looking for a way to break into society and not finding one, finally runs into someone fashionable who she knew from her youth, gets invited to dinner, and BAM. That's where I am now, and it's So Relevant to My Interests that I can't even take notes, it would just be "All of this, verbatim, memorize it." The best I can hope for is a brief outline I can use as a quick index. Or maybe, again, it's that cumulative context thing, where the details from the Prince of Wales and "The Patricians" and Catherine Walters chapters from the other books just come together and that mental cloud evaporates and suddenly I can see everything. Good times, is what I'm saying.

I'm stopping now and then to write up bits of scenes or note which research bits go with which novel chapters, but I'm going to forge on with the research for now. I feel like I'm mapping it out and pinning it down with the outlining in a way I didn't really manage before, no matter how much I read. I finally feel oriented, like I know what I don't know, and it's okay to not know those parts--now I know what I don't need to know, or what I can set aside for later, as opposed to a vague panic that I haven't done enough, that I'll never be able to do enough. As much as I'd like to go back to the Katie Hickman book and another one about French actresses that I really like, I need to drag myself back to London, so I'm jumping from high society to the underworld next. If all this is helpful to anyone, I can write the next batch up as well.

Site Meter
Tags: black ribbon, book discussion, books, history, research, victoriana
  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →
← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →