Jeanne Mackin’s Historical Research
When I was a kid, I drove my parents crazy. Nothing new there, right? But this was my quirk: I used to rummage through all our household drawers and closets, looking. Over and over again. I still, to this day, don’t know what I was looking for, except that I never found it. Or maybe I did. I think what I was looking for was history. The color of my mother’s discarded lipsticks, the lid-trunk full of gloves she didn’t wear anymore, my father’s secret stash of books (definitely not YA approved, and for this, Dad, I apologize a little belatedly but they sure were educational), the mismatched silverware from different households I had never known because those relatives had died before I was born. Things. Objects my family had acquired and because they were my family’s, they were also part of my family history and I was hungry, absolutely hungry for their stories.
That childhood quirk was the beginning of my passion for historical research. When I’m in a library, standing before a specific shelf of books (eighteenth century court memoirs; nineteenth century gardening books, medieval romances) I feel the same thrill I felt as a child just before I began one of my archeological expeditions to the back of the linen closet. This time my searches are a little more directed: how much did bread cost in New York City in 1918? What glove lengths were appropriate for an 1855 tea party in Boston?
And sometimes the searches are more open ended, less specific. In my newest novel, A Lady of Good Family, Beatrix, the protagonist, is traveling through Europe in 1895, studying garden design. But sometime during that trip she stops keeping her travel journey. The pages go blank. Why would a woman, otherwise so organized, methodical, determined, suddenly stop keeping her journal? Of course, at this point research comes to a dead end and the imagination has to take over.
Researching A Lady of Good Family was some of the more pleasant research I’ve had to do. It involved long days of wandering through gardens, public and private, soaking up their atmosphere, questioning choices the gardener made and wondering, in general, why it is we have gardens at all. I know first hand: they are a lot of work. And yet a home, or a park, doesn’t feel quite complete without those moments of beauty, the sunshiny islands of roses, the formal knot of an herb garden, a woodland path through waving ferns.
Beatrix, a woman of the Gilded Age who could have married great wealth, and perhaps for love as well since she was lovely and talented and lovable herself, chose instead to work as a garden designer. I knew why by the time I came to the end of my research, and the conclusion of my own imagination.
That’s what research really is: a journey of discovery, be it through a closet, a library, or the waking dream of fiction writing.
ABOUT A LADY OF GOOD FAMILY
Raised among wealth and privilege during America’s fabled Gilded Age, a niece of famous novelist Edith Wharton and a friend to literary great Henry James, Beatrix Farrand is expected to marry, and to marry well. But as a young woman traveling through Europe, she already knows that gardens are her true passion. How she becomes a woman for whom work and love, the earthly and the mysterious, are held in delicate balance is the story of her unique determination to create beauty while remaining true to herself.
I will never marry, Beatrix thought. Never
She had passed through the first heady years of womanhood, the first balls, first waltzes, first dancing card and house party invitations, quickly discouraging any serious suitor. “My mother,” she had simply explained when any young man tried to call on her a little too frequently. Now that most of those young men had already wed, she felt she could easily avoid the issue permanently.
She jumped up, eager to be away from the table. “I need to walk,” she said to the others.
Still, they might never have met, the Italian and the American.
Beatrix could have walked in the opposite direction, away from the temple. She could have strolled through the rose garden or gone into the casina. But she chose the temple, that eerie replica of pagan passion.
The gardens were full of Americans; the young man who had just been soundly berated by his family lawyer disliked the sounds of their voices, so full of German consonants, not at all soft like his own Italian. The sounds of conquerors, he thought, laden with wealth and greed and taking much of his homeland back with them when they returned to New York and Boston and Chicago. That’s what the visit to his lawyer had been about: selling artworks.
Empires rise and fall. He lived in a land of fallen empire. Ahead of him, on the path, was an example of the fall of empire, a group of boys, begging, grimy hands snaking into folds and pockets of passing men and women. They had surrounded a young woman and were practicing their street skills on her. He saw her face, the terror behind the forced calmness of a tight smile. He changed direction and headed toward her.
Still, they might never have met. He could have waved from a distance, yelled a threat, driven the boys off with words. But he kept walking toward her.
Jeanne Mackin ‘s latest novel, A Lady of Good Family, explores the secret life of gilded age Beatrix Jones Farrand, niece of Edith Wharton and the first woman professional landscape design in America. Her previous novel, The Beautiful American, based on the life of model turned war correspondent and photographer, Lee Miller won the CNY 2015 prize for fiction. She has published in American Letters and Commentary and SNReview and other publications and is the author of the Cornell Book of Herbs and Edible Flowers. She was the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society and her journalism has won awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. She lives with her husband, Steve Poleskie, in Ithaca.
A Lady of Good Family is available at Barnes and Nobles, Amazon, and other bookstores.
Jeanne will be awarding a $15 Amazon or B/N GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour, and a $15 Amazon or B/N GC to a randomly drawn host. Enter to win a $15 Amazon/BN GC – a Rafflecopter giveaway