The Melodrama of History (or Yes, They Really Said That)

quoteWhen question of history or research arises that I am aware of I will break my rule of not responding to criticism because I want to present the facts. A few people have been mentioned that some of the dialogue in Madame Presidentess is melodramatic or over the top. While I don’t know for certain which parts they are talking about, I can think of three areas that may be the culprit and the reason is the same for all: they are actual historical quotes. There certainly could be places where I, as the author, am guilty of being too dramatic, but I have a feeling these are the areas in question. The links in the story below will take you to documents that show the conversations in question.

1) Rev. Henry Ward Beecher/Steinway Hall Meltdown
Drama must run in the Beecher blood because not only was Harriet Beecher Stowe (Henry and Catharine’s sister) a famous novelist, but Henry was very much an over-the-top performer. As a preacher, that makes sense because it would help him get his message across. But his flair for the dramatic also appears to have carried over into his every day conversations. “He was unabashedly theatrical, using his whole body to communicate the full range of human emotion, with dramatic gestures and subtle facial expressions (Applegate 211).” He was also known for his “blunt, colorful language” (Applegate 194) and had a propensity to cry and be overly emotional (Macpherson 121).

In a documented interview with a reporter in the November 2, 1872 issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly and later reproduced in several biographies of Victoria, she recalled one of their most dramatic conversations, one which took place when she asked him to introduce her before her speech at Steinway Hall and which I have reproduced with only minor alterations in my novel. The context is that Victoria and  Theodore told Rev. Beecher that it would be best if he publicly espoused the Free Love he practiced in his private life by endorsing Victoria; otherwise it would come to light in some other way.  The historical conversation is as follows:

Theodore Tilton: “Someday you have got to fall; go and introduce this woman and win the radicals of this country and it will break your fall.”

Henry Ward Beecher: “Do you think that this thing will come out to the world?”

Theodore Tilton: “Nothing is more in earth or heaven, Mr. Beecher, and this may be your last chance to save yourself from complete ruin.”

Henry Ward Beecher: “I can never endure such a terror. Oh! If it must come, let me know of it twenty-four hours in advance, that I may take my own life. I cannot, cannot face this thing!’

I couldn’t make this stuff up, folks.

2) Catharine Beecher/The Carriage Ride

Whereas Henry was dramatic, his sister Catharine had a mean streak. Victoria and Catharine Beecher fought often through letters and articles. But there is one particularly dramatic event that is documented by Victoria herself. Isabella Beecher, Catharine’s sister and Victoria’s dear friend, thought the two might be able to get along if they just met in person. (A noble, but misguided notion.) Catharine and Victoria ended up taking a carriage ride through Central Park, in which they discussed several of their philosophical differences in thinking about the proper role of women. Toward the end of the conversation, Catharine freaked out and Victoria told her where to shove it. As recounted by Victoria in the May 17, 1873, issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly and reproduced in Marion Meade’s biography of Victoria, as well as those written by Barbara Goldsmith, Mary Gabriel and many other biographers, here is the actual conversation:

Catharine Beecher: “Evil! I know my brother is unhappy, but he is a true husband. I will vouch for my brother’s faithfulness to his marriage vows as though he were myself.”

Victoria: “But you have no positive knowledge that would justify your doing so.”

Catherine: “No…No positive… I know he is unhappy. Mrs. Beecher is a virago, a constitutional liar, and a terrible woman altogether, so terrible my brother’s friends and family seldom visit. But unfaithful—no. I will hear no more of it.”

Victoria: “You will hear. In concubinage with his parishioner’s wife—it is common knowledge. And if you were a proper person to judge, which I grant you are not, you should see that the facts are fatal to your theories.”

Catharine: “Victoria Woodhull, I will strike you for this. I will strike you dead.”

Victoria: “Strike as much and as hard as you please. Only don’t do it in the dark so I cannot know who is my enemy.”

This is when Catharine yelled for the driver to stop and let her out. Myra MacPherson continues the conversation with Catharine adding, “I will strike at you in every way; I can and will kill you, if possible” (117).

The rest of their conversation in my novel is pulled from letters between the two. A historical cat fight is better than a fictional one any day!

3) Tennie’s Courtroom Testimony

When Anne Claflin (Victoria’s mother) sued Col. Blood (Victoria’s second husband) for alienation of her daughters’ affection, all of Victoria’s dirty laundry came out in open court, a misfortune that dogged her all the way through the end of her candidacy. Despite her mother’s overwrought testimony, the oddest testimony comes from Victoria’s sister, Tennie. She was supposed to be supporting Col. Blood’s side of the case, and she did at first, but through a series of bizarre ramblings, ended up defending her mother.

The following comes from actual court testimony, originally reported in the New York Herald and reproduced in The Woman who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull by Lois Beachy Underhill p. 140 and Mary Gabriel’s Notorious Victoria: The Uncensored Life of Victoria Woodhull p. 104:

“I have humbugged people, I know. But if I did, it was to make money to keep these deadheads. I believe in Spiritualism myself. It has set my mother crazy because she commenced to believe when she was too old.” She turned to the judge. “But, Judge, I want my mother. I am willing to take my mother home with me now or pay two hundred a month for her in any safe place. I am afraid she will die under this excitement. I am single myself, and I don’t want anybody with me but my mother.”

Tennie then collasped in sobs and made such a scene that the judge called both lawyers to the bench.

There is no reason given in any of my sources Tennie’s odd behavior, so as a novelist, I chalked it up to her using some of the drugs her sister was addicted to (her sister was an addict, that part is true) to calm her nerves before testifying.

Applegate, Debby. The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
Doyle, John E. P. “Plymouth church and its pastor,: or, Henry Ward Beecher and his accusers” 
Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria: The Uncensored Life of Victoria Woodhull
Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull
MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age
Meade, Marion Free Woman: The Life and Times of Victoria Woodhull
Underhill, Lois Beachy The Woman who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull

Historical Sources of Arthurian Legend

Ven. Bede

Have you ever wondered where Arthurian legend comes from? No? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. I didn’t either I until I started working on this series. There are actually both historical and literary sources for the legends we know today. We’ll explore them both over the next few weeks. Since this subject can get dry really quickly if you take it too seriously, forgive me if I get a little irreverent at times.

First up: the historical sources, in chronological order. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, just to cover the highlights. Keep in mind that history to these guys didn’t mean the fact-based linear events we think of today. For them, historical fact was equally valid whether it came from true events, myths, tradition, or out of their own imaginations.

St. Gildas – Born around the year 500, this monk was a possible contemporary to Arthur, depending on when exactly you think Arthur lived. His famous work “On the Destruction of Britain” (or “On the Fall and Conquest of Britain,” depending on who translates the title), was written around the year 540. It’s mostly a diatribe against the tyrannical rulers of the time. Arthur isn’t mentioned by name, but Gildas does mention Vortigern and the Battle of Mount Badon, a victory which was the turning point in the British battles against the Saxons. Gildas’ omission of Arthur is used by some to show he never actually existed, while others say it just means he wasn’t a tyrant (and therefore not on Gildas’ evildoer list.)

Nennius – A Welsh monk, (are you seeing a pattern here?) Nennius lived around the end of the seventh century and is credited with writing the “Historia Brittonum,” (History of the Britons) which covers time from the legendary founding of Britain after the Trojan War through the seventh century. Nennius is known to have liberally mixed together oral history, legends and traditions, and his dates frequently contradict each other, so I like to call him “the dude who made stuff up.” But he is the first to chronicle Arthur’s military career, going so far as to list out Arthur’s 12 famous battles, including Badon (a list which has been hotly debated ever since.) He calls Arthur by the title, “dux bellorum,” which can be translated something like “Duke or Lord of Battles.”

Ven. Bede – Some people call him a saint (even a Doctor of the Church), others just note he was a monk. However you see him, Bede was one important dude. Bede is best known for his work “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” (written around the year 731) in which he traces the spread of Christianity through the kingdoms of the Angles and Saxons. He’s known as Britain’s first historian, but he focuses more on miraculous things that supposedly happened than on pure history – yet he’s considered by many as the most reliable source for his time period. It’s from him we get the story that Vortigern invited the Saxons as allies. We can’t know for sure what his sources were, but it’s likely he had Nennius’, and maybe even Gildas’, works to reference. Fun trivia: Bede is credited with introducing the AD dating system to England.

Annales Cambriae – (or in English, Annals of Wales) These stories were translated around 977. They give us the image of Arthur bearing the cross of Christ at Badon, which ensures his victory. This is also the source of the story of Arthur and Mordred falling together at Camlann, although it doesn’t state if they were on the same or opposing sides.

Many authors note that these sources were written to serve a particular interest – especially that of the Catholic Church and the powerful rulers of Wessex and Gwynedd (modern day northern Wales), so they likely were biased.

What are we to make of all of this “history”? It tells us that there may have been a king or military leader named Arthur who fought battles against the Saxons – who likely were at one time allies of the Britons, thanks to a ruler named Vortigern –  and turned them back after a battle that took place at Mount Badon (wherever that was – that’s a completely separate debate). This Arthur also likely died in battle at a place called Camlann.

Where did the “good stuff,” the rest of the legends come in? For that we have to switch gears and look at the literary sources, which we’ll do over the next two weeks. Stick with me. This stuff actually is interesting if you give it a chance.