Category Archives: Research

What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Must for the Fiction-Loving Foodie

What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank

How important is the accurate portrayal of food in historical fiction? Do you ever trip over a detail which takes you out of the enjoyable rhythm of a story—such as knowing there’s no way a potato would find its way into an Irish stew until well after Sir Walter Raleigh’s voyage to the New World? If you are a writer, what steps do you take to avoid anachronisms?

There are a few essential books for every writer’s shelf: for me, it’s been the Chicago Manual of Style, Roget’s Thesaurus (which was recently supplemented with Powerthesaurus.org, my new favorite resource), and a legion of history books. A subset of those history books has expanded greatly over the years, and they all have to do with food. A recent addition was What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A fantasy Lover’s Food Guide, which I learned about through author Krista Ball’s guest post on David Gaughran’s blog. I was hooked.

Krista Ball addresses many important facets of world history and asks writers to consider using them to make their stories more authentic. Food riots stemming from extreme inequality is a main feature of her argument, as is the harsh punishments visited upon hunters who poach or even tread upon royal land (accounting for “common rights,” during which English farmers could let their pigs feed on acorns during autumn). She also called for more variety in the open markets, citing the difference between what would be available in Thailand, North America, and the Middle East.

There’s a wealth of information packed into this 250-page book. Among the most interesting facts:

  • Roman soldiers carried a patera, an all-in-one bronze utensil that was used as a cup, cooking pot, and bowl. About seven inches in diameter, it is an item every traveling hero could have.
  • Imagine this sight: a Tuareg caravan with some 40,000 camels, carrying salt to trade. Ancient techniques included boiling or evaporating seawater. This was also done in eighteenth-century France to avoid paying salt taxes.
  • In the days before baking powder, people made potash, which was a mixture of ashes boiled in water then left to settle overnight. The liquid would then be removed to leave a grey residue to be used in the same way baking powder is today. Think of that the next time you make cookies!
  • In sixth-century China, some rulers decreed that grain surpluses be stored and not sold to foreign lands in order to be able to feed the population during times of famine (a way to prevent food riots, to be sure).
  • As early as 6000 BC, clay jugs were used to store wine, and by 4000 BC, rose wine was being exported from Persia.
  • In ancient Rome, barrels were used to collect rain water. They were set along roads for travelers as well as by homes.
  • Something to consider for sieging well-fortified castles: The attacking army had to protect their supplies from people who slipped out of the castle via tunnels to steal everything they could carry and set fire to the rest of the supplies.

Several excellent resources were suggested for further research: from al-Baghdadi’s Book of Dishes (1225) and The Forme of Cury, compiled by the master-cooks of Richard II in 1390. Krista Ball also goes through the detail process of planning for a massive royal feast, which takes place months in advance. It’s one of the more fascinating sections within the appendix. One of the key take-aways from the book is how much food culture can change through influences of trade and war—showing how a culture’s cuisine can change through outside influences provides a lot of potential for writers. What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is a wonderful guide that offers great details on food in fiction and inspires the reader to search for more. When I first read it, I left a review on Goodreads pining for more—and was surprised to receive a note from the author that a sequel is in the works. I look forward to seeing what comes of it.

Pilgrimage

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In early June I went to Eastport, Maine, to help my mom do some research on our family. My great-grandmother, Amy Frost, grew up in the area with four sisters and two brothers. Her youngest sister, Hilda Mitchell, ran a small variety store with her husband in Eastport through the mid-twentieth century, and after they retired, they still lived above the store that overlooks a former sardine canning plant right by the water. As a young woman, my great-grandmother worked there, waiting for the whistle to blow to call them to work. These days, the sardine industry is closed, but sardines have made a permanent mark on the town’s culture. Each New Year’s Eve, a giant sardine is dropped from the roof of the Tides Institute and Art Museum downtown.

For many years, I’d hoped to see where my great-grandmother’s family had lived. It’s the only side of my family I really know anything about. Eastport’s current population is about 1,322, and the town was known as a significant port in the nineteenth century. A fire wiped out the business district in 1886, and my great-grandmother was born there in 1898 during the rebuilding effort. In 2005, my mom and I compiled what family history we could into a heritage cookbook, including snapshots of my great-grandmother’s handwritten cookbook, what few family photos have been salvaged over the years, with a collection of recipes. I formatted it in QuarkXpress and printed it on lovely handmade paper. A print run of about twenty, it was given to close friends. It was a wonderful project, but we soon realized it was insufficient. Our current goal is to revive the project and publish it under the Her Raven Domain imprint. It’s in the early planning stages, but we’re looking forward to working on the revised edition.

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Our research efforts were hampered by bad weather, but fortunately, online resources will help us find out more about our family. I assumed I’d take a few pictures, find a few family records, maybe find homes where family lived (we did find one home, that of Hilda, but without more resources available at the time, that was it). I never considered myself the type to draw inspiration from family history. No plans for memoirs lie in my future. However, inspiration came when I learned Eastport was a hotbed of smuggling and espionage during the War of 1812. If I can only find out how far back my great-grandmother’s family goes in the region, I suspect there may be some colorful characters in the family’s past. Unfortunately, the Fort Sullivan Barracks Museum was closed while we were in Eastport, but perhaps someday, I’ll have an opportunity to visit, or at least do research remotely.

As I strolled the streets of town, I was struck by its rustic beauty. I could still see what my great-grandmother must have seen decades ago. Yet, Eastport strives to foster an artistic community, and I was surprised by how many galleries and artsy locales lined the streets (and I was also surprised to find Eastport was home to an art school back in the 1920s—a tradition I didn’t expect to find!). We stayed in an apartment above an artists’ coop, The Commons, run by a group of innovative women doing their best to help the town grow. In addition to the building we stayed in, they recently bought a nearby warehouse to be converted into businesses and residences. We ate at a Greek restaurant called The Liberty—seriously—some of the best Greek fare I’ve ever had. May it live long and prosper.

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Eastport is known as the easternmost point in the continental US, and it is the first to see the sun rise each day (though some contest that the nearby town of Lubec is). It was well worth my while to get up shortly after 4:00 am to see the sun come up over the horizon. A fierce rain storm impeded the view for two days, but even the rainy weather created a moody atmosphere that seemed essential for me to understand how to write about the town.

Over a meal, mom told me a family story that stuck in my mind and haunted my nights. An idea grew—and I spent hours thinking about how this story could be placed against the backdrop of the War of 1812. And who knows how this will evolve as I do my research…another historical novel has been added to the works in progress list (making the grand total 18, with two published: guess I ought to get to it!).

I know for my mom, this trip was an important pilgrimage. It was for me too, I just didn’t realize how powerful it would be. I do hope to maintain that connection with the past and see what comes of it.

(Originally published June 2013) 

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Archiving Literary History, Then and Now

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The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study has become an amazing place. It serves as a hub for collaborative projects that span Harvard University, and all disciplines, from humanities to the sciences, are explored in a variety of symposia and events. I seem to be going there a lot lately. I missed the Julia Child celebration, but fortunately, all of the panel discussions are available online.

This week, I attended an event hosted by Radcliffe and Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center, entitled From Author’s Hand to Printer’s Mind: When and Why Do Literary Manuscripts Survive?—A Lecture and 20 Questions with Roger Chartier. I really didn’t know what to expect, except that it has to do with books, and of course I’ll attend any event about literature and publishing. The topic dovetailed nicely with the stellar Why Books? conference from two years ago and the Take Note conference.

Roger Chartier spoke about archiving literary manuscripts, generally focusing on 1750 onward. Much has been lost before 1750, but he did discuss the Shakespeare folios and how literary historians try to piece together a biography of not only the author, but the works themselves, by collecting drafts, revisions, notes, letters, anecdotes, and anything that will help piece together the history of a play or novel. Much ado was given to the “genetic perspective” of a text—and the importance of being able to study the creative process. The various challenges of literature throughout history were also presented: the restrictive effects of the Licensing Act of 1737, which sought to control the content of plays. After a manuscript was approved, the printer had to send a copy back to the licensing office to ensure no offensive or seditious material made its way in. A major theme was authenticity. Interesting questions arose: in the nineteenth century, when serialized fiction was popular, there was a distinction between the individual chapters printed in the magazines and the final, collected novel. Charles Dickens had to be concerned about deadlines and space constraints for the serialized works—so when the entire story was compiled and he had the opportunity to revise, which is more “authentic,” the original pieces from the magazine, or the entire novel as he intended it to be in one piece?

Out of the many topics that went deep into the realm of literary research, a common theme kept coming up: How does it relate to today’s method of archiving literature? Consider the popular writing software Scrivener. In it, I can make countless annotations, compile my research, keep a history of my revisions, all in one place. One need only archive my hard drive to compile a biography of my writing history.

When someone posed the question about self-publishing, and how literature was “written for the general public, but is now written by the general public,” and is this democratization of publishing a good thing, I waited, poised to jump in to defend indie publishing. Not a single person spoke out against it. Roger Chartier even compared today’s indie publishing movement to the age before literary agents and big corporate interests. Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard Library, champions the Digital Public Library of America, spoke about copyright and how the laws are being used a foils by lobbying groups and has a negative impact on the digitalization of works. That could have been a symposia topic of its own. But it isn’t new. Authors such as Diderot and Milton railed against monopolies and what is truly in the best interest of the artist.

All in all, it was a fascinating discussion. I was amazed at how much information was packed into two hours. My favorite bit was summing up an author’s creative work as a “unity of hand, heart, and mind.” And I’m glad to see the abundance of interest in preserving it as best as our society can.

(Originally published October 2012) 

Confessions of a Compulsive Note-Taker

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The prospect of summarizing the Radcliffe Institute’s Take Note conference is daunting. The conference began Thursday, November 1 with an invitation to attend site visits across the Harvard University campus. Ever the medievalist, I selected the site visits with a strong historical connection. I first visited the Weissman Preservation Center in the center of Harvard Square. The center works on Harvard Library’s special collections—we saw conservators working on medieval manuscripts, documents printed on vellum, musical scores, photographs, and various artistic works. It was breathtaking to see the detailed work that went into preserving these precious items. My next visit took me to Houghton Library, where I stood in the room lined with books handcrafted before the era of Gutenberg’s press. Visitors toured each of the various rooms the library, viewing the collections of Samuel Johnson, Emily Dickinson, and other luminaries of the literary world.

One may wonder what goes into a conference about annotations and note-taking. A full slate of panel discussions was scheduled for Friday, November 2. Throughout the course of the day, I took more than 14 pages of notes about taking notes. During the various question and answer periods between panel discussions, questions and comments from the audience produced lively conversations on Twitter. The hashtag (#radtakenote) was one of the most active I’ve ever seen at such an event. Someone questioned whether happy note-takers were in fact compulsive in nature, thereby not completely engaged with the content that they were writing about. A common reaction both in the room and on Twitter was that for some people, writing served as a method for processing information. Moleskine journals were mentioned so frequently I had to wonder if they were soon to see an uptick in sales.

Every form of note-taking was considered: from marginalia in books, notes in captain’s logs, field notes used by anthropologists, case studies, and the old “why you were out” pads used by secretaries. Even leaflets stapled to telephone poles and other public places were discussed. There was a clear distinction between casual and formal note-taking. For example, Thomas Edison used notes taken by his workers as a means to work on his patents. In the casual realm, much fondness was exhibited for doodles and sketches that enhanced everyday journals and notebooks. The question was raised whether note-taking is actually a discipline. The consensus seems to be that it is.

There was an interesting corollary between ancient tools in modern devices. Tablets and styluses from ancient times are not so completely unlike the tablets we use today when one considers the purpose. The development of shorthand long ago served to make note-taking easier. One of the most interesting things I learned was about object called a table book (also called a writing table). A portable journal, people used a metal stylus to carve their notes about plays or sermons they were attending. Once the notes were no longer useful or copied elsewhere, and wet piece of bread or sponge was used to soak up heavy parchment so that the carvings made by the metal stylus were erased. Shakespeare made numerous references to the table book in the play Hamlet. With the description of the table book came many questions and thoughts about ownership and copyright. These were the days before copyright law. However, artists and preachers were often concerned with the copying and publishing of their work without their consent. Inaccurately produced texts often drove the eventual official publication of the work that has been copied.

Polymath Gilberto Freyre, relaxed in his chair, presides over the panel discussion, larger-than-life. The notes he left in margins of books often showed a wide-range of ideas that while not directly part of the book, were leaps of thought and inspiration taken from the text.

Polymath Gilberto Freyre, relaxed in his chair, presides over the panel discussion, larger-than-life. The notes he left in margins of books often showed a wide-range of ideas that while not directly part of the book, were leaps of thought and inspiration taken from the text.

One of the most fascinating sessions was about digital annotation tools. David Karger from MIT did a demonstration of an annotation tool developed there to place a text used in class side-by-side with the discussion taking place online. Known as NB, it has become a popular tool for many schools. Bob Stein, founder and codirector of the Institute for the Future of the Book, talked about Social Book, a site where people can share the reading experience socially online. As an author, I wondered how Social Book may be used to engage with readers about my own books. Is this a way to facilitate a new kind of reading that formerly had taken place in brick and mortar bookstores? With a global audience, this may be a way to establish a broader reach.

Making notes and annotations is obviously a key aspect of engaging in dialogue with books and research as a process of contemplation and immersive attention. From childhood, I have been what some would call obsessed with taking notes. This experience was paralleled by one of the speakers who described practically copying entire texts in his youth to help him understand the material. As one matures, the note-taking becomes more selective. I still take many notes. As an author of historical fiction, I read dozens of history books. My process is long and involved. I take notes by hand on the back of edited manuscripts before keying them neatly into the computer. I prefer to write by fountain pen. However, years of writing and carpal tunnel pain have forced me to utilize new tools such as the Dragon Naturally Speaking software. This is the first blog post I am writing using the dictation software.

I keep notes everywhere. I regularly annotate my life using the SpringPad app, Workflowy (my new favorite!), and the extensive annotation capabilities of Scrivener software. My life would feel incomplete without my notes.

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There is much more I have to say about this amazing and informative conference, but I’ll have to save that for another time. As some may know, it is NaNoWriMo season, and I have yet to meet my minimum quota of words for the day. Until next time!

(Originally published November 2012; NB–I planned a second half to this post, but alas, there was a perfect storm of work-life issues at the time, and I never got around to writing about it. My only hope is that someday, the Radcliffe Institute may revisit this fascinating topic with more wonderful site visits around the university’s campus!)  

Bounty vs. Overload, and the Eye of the Beholder

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A medieval print shop

As someone who loves to study history, I can easily lose myself in research. Books, searches on the internet, it doesn’t matter. But I often find those moments where I can say: Nothing has changed. It doesn’t matter what people have invented, how the structure of society has changed. People’s fears, their beliefs, the dreams do not change. Last year, I saw Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson speak about his career, and one statement he made resonated with me ever since. “We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. This is a dangerous combination. We will be facing a point of crisis in the coming decades.”

Somehow, we get into the habit of thinking it’s all new to us. It isn’t. As the cylons say in the brilliant SyFy remake of Battlestar Galactica, “It’s all happened before, and will all happen again.” While reading the Boston Globe last week, I found an article that I knew would lead to my next posting. In “Information overload, the early years,” Harvard professor of history Ann Blair explores the history of how humans process information, and what is perceived as a tipping point: when is the collected knowledge of humanity too much information? A curmudgeonly Erasmus fumes in the sixteenth century, “Printers fill the world with pamphlets and books that are foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious, and subversive; and such is the flood that even things that might have done some good lose all their goodness.” He could have just as easily been referring to our own age, Professor Blair shows, if he had the opportunity to read the endless offerings online. One glance at the plethora of blogs, endless hateful postings by trolls on the average news site, and online manifestos, and he’d be just as right today as he was back then.

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Gutenberg’s printing press, much like the world wide web, opened the floodgates and gave everyone the ability to make their voice heard. As outlined in Blair’s article, the Gutenberg press, developed in 1453, the year of the fall of Constantinople, quickly spread across Europe. By the late fifteenth century, the price of books dropped 80 percent, and the first bestsellers were launched. One could argue that without the printing press making this possible, we may never have heard of Vlad the Impaler, the subject of my first novel. Prince Vlad Dracula (1430–1476) ruled the Romanian territory of Wallachia three times. It was a turbulent time for princes of that region. Endless infighting led to assassinations and coups, and the Ottoman Empire demanded annual tribute and pressed hundreds of young men into its janissary corps. Skirmishes and major battles were constant. Prince Vlad Dracula was one of the few who was able to retain independence for his territory, but he ruled it with an iron fist, and the terrible punishment he inflicted on Turks and his own countrymen alike became legend. But was that kind of rampant brutality all that unusual, considering the time and place? How was it he became particularly infamous? Saxon settlers from German territories in Brasov reported back about his invasions, the mass executions, and they were published with woodcut images. His story was a best-seller in his own time. If Vlad ruled Wallachia today, videos would go viral, and Twitter uses would create a hashtag (#vladtepes?!).

In my part-time job, I am a teaching assistant for a course taught at Harvard Extension School, The Vampire in Literature and Film, taught by Associate Dean Sue Weaver Schopf. It’s my first time serving as a teaching assistant, and I’ve loved the role. We recently read Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, where we discover that the vampire Prince Vlad Dracula endures, and all he wants is a brilliant scholar to serve as his librarian, and catalog his vast collection. The irony was delightful. That Dracula treasured history and had the rarest of books in his collection, and he sought a companion who shared his passion, was a great twist.

So how much is too much? I admit to a serious book and information addiction myself. I’ve bought more than I can read, and my own collection continues to grow as I research ideas for novels I plan on writing and buy novels I hope to find time to read one day. My electronic collection takes up who-knows-how-many gigabytes, and I just bought a new computer with a terabyte of space to store even more. It may be overload, but I don’t consider it to be. I may need that information someday, I say as I right-click on a PDF to save it to my hard drive. I love knowing that across campus, Harvard’s library system offers millions of volumes in any topic imaginable. From the daunting stacks at Widener to the rare manuscripts at Houghton Library, it’s all there, cataloged and accessible.

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The front steps of Widener Library

It’s a democracy of information, the more the better. As much as I fret about the tide of ignorance and lies that has come into social discourse and so-called news, there is an equal tide to counter it. The tides have ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries. The Dark Ages and the Enlightenment do signify fixed points in history, but not in concept. There have been plenty of each all throughout history. We can’t even begin to imagine what knowledge has been lost, what stories are gone forever, as Mongol hordes destroyed ancient Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, as the Conquistadors destroyed countless Mayan and Aztec codices in Central America , and the Romans burned the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Ancient manuscripts have been used to wrap fish in the Middle Ages, and territorial battles in Europe resulted in monasteries being burned, their scrolls lost forever. We may never have seen Beowulf if it hadn’t been salvaged from a fire.

Of course, now, there are new issues, as had been voiced in the Radcliffe conference I attended this fall. Electronic archives need to be maintained in formats that can be read in the future. Much of my own writing has been rendered useless by floppy disks and a now-defunct ZIP drive. But I treasure my collection, and those I have access to, and those I may never see in my lifetime. Just as long as I don’t wind up like Henry Bemis in the classic episode “Time Enough at Last”of the Twilight Zone, where all his beloved books are before him after a nuclear holocaust, and he breaks his glasses, never to read another word again. (Full episode available on tv.com.) Maybe I should have a duplicate set of glasses made, just in case.

(Originally published December 2010) 

 

 

The Hidden Magic: Research

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“In endeavoring to estimate a remarkable writer who aimed at more than temporary influence, we have to first consider what his individual contribution to the spiritual wealth of mankind. Had he a new conception? Did he animate long-known but neglected truths with new vigor, and cast fresh light on their relation to other admitted truths?” —George Eliot

The last thing I ever expected to write about was Middlemarch. I’ve long had a difficult relationship with this book, but round three with it taught me new appreciation for it, particularly when I got to the end. And I don’t mean because I think I’ve read it for the final time, but because I finally read the back matter of the Norton Critical Edition, where the notes and essays on literary criticism are. It was there I discovered something rarely seen: an author’s own notes on a novel. The thought process, the crafting behind the magic, was revealed.

Titled “Quarry for Middlemarch,” these intricate notes offer a behind-the-scenes view into how George Eliot researched the novel. Eliot details political decisions that influenced nineteenth-century English society; the university exam periods at Oxford and Cambridge; and a tremendous amount of scientific research about cholera, the history and treatment of delirium tremens, and numerous excerpts from The Lancet, which was a relatively new publication in Eliot’s time.

I was riveted. Reading “Quarry for Middlemarch,” I felt like I was viewing a magician’s secrets. How often does one get to see this kind of thing? Which other expanded and annotated versions of other novels reveal the research behind the novel? I have an annotated Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and I actually took courses on Tolkien’s medieval resources and the languages he developed, but I want more. Something about having access to the research informs me as a writer. What stays in the notebook and what takes off in the story and gives it life—the magical essence that makes readers hold onto it? Medieval alchemists rarely, if ever, shared their secrets. One theory of the history behind the word “gibberish” makes the claim it was based on eighth-century alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, whose name in Latin became “Geber.” He was so paranoid about others stealing his secrets he created his own writing system and Geber eventually transformed into gibberish. As I read “Quarry,” I felt like I could finally dissect Middlemarch, and my appreciation for it was far higher than ever before. George Eliot wanted to examine marriage, science, and massive change, primarily in the form of the burgeoning Industrial Age, new scientific research, and politics impacting the very structure of society.

I’m addicted to research. Notes from dozens of history books are compiled into binders, one for each novel I plan to write. For stories where worldbuilding is necessary, I’ve created my own languages, maps, and world histories. The good news is that most of my research is done for the next few novels. The bad(?) news is that I always find more excellent history books to read and add to my notes. But after having spied into the creative mind of George Eliot, it made me wonder: who, if anyone, is going to go through my research after I’m long gone? If my stories make an impact and last, will “Quarry for Dark Lady of Doona” appear in the back matter of some annotated version of the book? Will some grad student, teacher, or writer find something of value there? Well, here’s a note to future researchers, if they care to know: seek out the original opening to Dark Lady of Doona. It had a certain rhythm to it that set the narrative tone, even though it “told” more than it “showed.”

(Originally published in  Feburary 2013)

Jane Franklin’s Spectacles

How does one reconstruct a biography of a person mostly lost to history?

Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard and a staff writer for The New Yorker, addressed this question last week at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Titled “Jane Franklin’s Spectacles, or, the Education of Benjamin Franklin’s Sister,” the lecture provided a fascinating portrait of the founding father’s little known sister, with whom he was very close.

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The lore of Ben Franklin is well-known. An innovator and self-made man, he wrote the prototype for what would become the format for the autobiography. Too poor to go to Harvard, he was an avid reader who passed along the love of reading to his sister. Few books were in their home, but both Ben and Jane read Plutarch’s Lives and were also influenced by Daniel Defoe, who was an advocate for the education of women at a time when many women were illiterate. In 1731, Ben Franklin founded the first lending library in the US. He also invented biofocals, and helped his sister with selecting her own spectacles by sending her a set of lenses with instructions on how to test her sight.

Spectacles were at the heart of the lecture. An emblem of intellect, they were used as a prop in many portraits painted at the time. He preferred to wear them during the painting (rather than simply hold them in his hand, like many other subjects of contemporaneous paintings), showing his love of reading and learning. In sad contrast, Professor Lepore said she found only two eighteenth-century portraits of women with spectacles. The quest to learn as much as she could about Jane Franklin led Lepore to find a pair of her own replica spectacles, which she hoped, in a magical-thinking worldview, would lend insight into Jane’s life. Jane’s writing is in the form of a sixteen-page pamphlet she called “The Book of Ages,” in which she chronicles the births and deaths of family members. Most of the pages are blank. One cannot help but wonder what she may have said to lend more details about her life.

Jane’s writing did exist. She wrote many letters to her brother. Yet, as old patriarchal society would have it, they were not deemed relevant by Harvard history professor (and later president of the College), Jared Sparks, so he destroyed them while reading Ben’s letters in preparation for writing his biography. As whispered epithets flew about me, I cringed at this notion, hoping I had misheard the remark. I didn’t.

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As someone who primarily writes historical fiction, I attended this lecture because I too delve into writing projects where there is a dearth of information as I gather research. I’m accustomed to scouring online journals, libraries, and querying professors around the world about obscure women in history. I wasn’t surprised to learn that few details are known about the only queen on the Sumerian king list—but I was shocked, shocked, to hear that in a well-documented era such as the eighteenth-century, a recording of a life could be cast away so dismissively. To me, all knowledge is sacred and worth having. As I imagined Jared Sparks tossing letters so precious to Benjamin Franklin into the fireplace, I wondered what else has been lost over time. Maybe there was indeed a cuneiform tablet explaining the life of Queen Kubau, but some archaeologist chucked it back into a pit, now paved over as a parking lot in Baghdad, because the contents weren’t deemed worthy of archiving—simply because she was a woman.

Professor Lepore made an interesting parallel between the Franklins and author Virginia Woolf. Lepore speculated that Virginia Woolf saw the listing for Jane’s letters in a 1928 auction catalog from Sotheby’s. Woolf then imagined a story about a fictitious character, Judith Shakespeare, sister to her famous brother William. Was she inspired by Jane Franklin? Could be so, and the way Professor Lepore described it made it all that more intriguing.

The biography, The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, was an engrossing read. I tried to savor each chapter at a leisurely pace, wanting to highlight and take notes for my own purposes, though I have no plans on writing a novel about this topic—yet—I devoured the book all too fast in my enthusiasm. Definitely one to return to at a later date. Highly recommended!

(originally posted Sept. 2013)