The honest historical marker:
On this site in 1897, nothing happened. (p. 442).
This is the kind of book that needs rereading and reflection over an extended period of time. There is so much to absorb, so much to analyze, that it can't be digested in one sitting or one review.
As inaccurate as most of the monuments Loewen cites are, he does mention that there are some that get it right. And I wonder, given his particular focus on the sanitizing of Confederate history, how many of the accurate ones are really out there. Has he given historical markers an unfairly bad rap? Hmm, I don't know. But certainly the ones he has cited deserve it!
Highly recommended, especially for its insights into how we got to where we are. I would love to read The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, but my library doesn't have it and I'm just not up to springing for the Kindle edition . . . . yet.
The defeat was hardly novel. From the Civil War to the end of the [nineteenth] century not a single Democrat in Congress, North or South, ever voted for a single piece of civil rights legislation. . . .
Northern and Southern whites now reunited under the banner of white supremacy. In the 1890s, Memorial Day celebrations organized by Union League members no longer stressed the need for vigilance against Southern attempts to overthrow the Union victory. Often they invited Southerners to speak, who admitted they had been wrong to secede but right to oppose "Negro domination." In 1891 [Henry Cabot] Lodge suggested that the U.S. should keep out "Slovacks" from Eastern Europe because they represented "races most alien to the body of the American people," and he did not mean African American people. . . . The Republican Party lost what little authority it still had to improve the lot of minority races.
These were not the Democratic and Republican parties as we know them today; they flipped almost completely in the latter part of the twentieth century. The party of Lincoln is now today as racist and reactionary as were the Democrats of the South, of Reconstruction, and of the era of legal segregation -- roughly 1880-1950.
What's important to note, I think, is that despite the Union victory on the battlefields, there was insufficient backbone to impose the underlying terms of that victory on the defeated Confederacy. When those chickens came home to roost after the second world war and the modern (?) civil rights era was launched, there was still not enough spine to make the laws stick.
In certain aspects, especially in and through popular culture, a more permanent victory was achieved. But we still have a very, very, very long way to go, and the road is not getting any easier.
I wasn't planning a long, interim post on this book, but, well, there you have it.
My maternal grandfather, my uncles, my dad, my husband, my father-in-law, my brother-in-law, all served in the military during wartime. All survived unscathed. There is that to be thankful for.
The Memorial Day holiday as we know it grew from Decoration Day, locally instituted efforts to remember the dead of the Civil War by placing flowers on their graves. Some date back to as early as 1866, barely a year after the cessation of open military hostilities.
As the news media used to remind us that Vietnam was our longest war, now they announce that whatever it is we're doing in Afghanistan is even longer. We seem to be in a perpetual state of war, and somehow I don't think that's anything to be proud of.
Although James W. Loewen points out many different kinds of "lies" told on the historical markers and monuments across the American landscape, he seems to reserve his strongest denunciations for those falsehoods promulgated specifically and intentionally to glorify and sanctify and -- pun intended -- whitewash the Confederate States of America. (Loewen has written/edited another book, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The "Great Truth" about the "Lost Cause" to take this one step further.)
As a result of these monuments, the root cause of the Civil War -- white racial supremacy that justified chattel slavery -- remains an unchallenged issue in much of American society. How far did the nation go, after the end of the war, to avoid the confrontation? So far that the matters of slavery and emancipation were intentionally left off the Lincoln Memorial, which was not built until 1914!
Art critic Royal Cortissoz wrote its inscription, which deliberately omitted slavery: "In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever." Cortissoz explained, "The memorial must make a common ground for the meeting of [white] North and South. By emphasizing his saving the union you appeal to both sections. By saying nothing about slavery you avoid the rubbing of old sores." (p.334)
Loewen adds that the architect of the memorial, Henry Bacon, had the full text of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address carved on the walls, but the inscription behind and above the statue of the seated president is sanitized for a reason: not to offend the defeated Confederates. (And yes, freed African Americans were offended by the omission.)
And so we have done for over 150 years, to the point that there are still significant swaths of the American public who defend not just the Confederate flag, but also the philosophy behind it. One takes one's online life in one's hands to dare point out that the founders of the Confederacy seceded over white supremacy and slavery. "States' rights!" is screamed back at one; it makes no difference to point out that it was the right of the states to protect slavery. Many don't disagree.
The State of Alabama has just passed a law making it illegal to remove Confederate monuments. Many, if not all, of those monuments promote untruths, and they do so in support of that same white supremacy that Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, insisted was the primary reason for secession.
How much better off would we be as a nation and as a citizen of the world if we had confronted that ugly truth head-on all those years ago? Would we be better able to see people who are different from "us" still as people? Would skin color or head dress or language or name be more a mark of the beauty of diversity and less a cause for hate?
It's still so easy to blame the acts of madmen solely on their madness without digging further into the causes of their actions. Perhaps we do not want to dig because we will find that we, too, are culpable.
There is a story going around the internet of the young man who endured poverty and hardship to earn his degree from Harvard. It's an inspirational story, and I am one of the few who hates it. (And yes, I also have to admit I tear up every time I see that damned McDonald's commercial about the kid bringing in his college acceptance letter. I'm not totally heartless.) I hate the stories of these monumental -- pun intended -- struggles that lead to triumph because they let all the rest of "us" off the hook. We don't have to change anything, our government, our tax code, our economy, our anything, so long as there are a few people willing and able to put up with all the shit and come out on top.
It shouldn't be that difficult for anyone!
And we should not be sending the message that hey, if one poor person without resources is willing to sacrifice and struggle like this, then any poor person can and I don't have to give up any of my luxuries!!
But for 150 years, we have sent the collective message, primarily through the efforts of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, that the South was honorable and righteous, that the war wasn't fought over slavery, that the enslaved people were happy and content and well take care of, and a whole bunch of other lies all intended to make sure the South really hadn't lost.
But they did. And we need to remember that.
I'll finish the book this afternoon. Making some notes prior to final review.
CH 60 - "The Last Confederate Offensive of the Civil War" was in 1995.
Ch 63 -- "The Greatest Female Spy of All Time" without the usual sarcasm.
"Men Make History; Women Make Wives."
The six-page chapter on who gets into the "hall of fame" portrait gallery in Little Rock, Arkansas, is worth the whole book.
More and more disturbing, more and more upsetting, which is as it should be.
As distressing as the book is on its own, when coupled with the news that the state of Alabama has made the removal of memorials to the Confederacy illegal, the distress is amplified.
What difference do monuments and markers make? . . . Monuments and markers don't cause history. It's more the other way around: dominant groups use their power to erect historic markers and monuments that present history from their viewpoint. This process typically distorts the past to explain and celebrate their own domination. In turn, controlling what people see and think about the past is an important source of special power. (p. 197)
I'm old enough to remember when there were no women newscasters, no black or Asian newscasters, very few people of color in major roles on television. As a white child in a virtually all-white suburb of Chicago, it never occurred to me to wonder why that was.
Now, I wonder about everything, because there are so many things to wonder about.
A mining museum that never mention the environmental impact of mining or the deaths of miners due to explosions and cave-ins, lung disease, or exposure to carcinogens.
Monuments to racists without ever mentioning that their racism was what brought them fame.
Monuments to buildings that never existed.
Museums of war that cleanse it and sanitize it and glorify it -- so people will be more willing to support and fight in the next one?
In 1914 when Camden's [Arkansas] monument to Confederate women went up, most wives and widows and almost all mothers of Confederate soldiers were no longer alive; clearly the memorial was not intended for them. Instead, like most monuments to the Confederacy, Camden's is future-directed. In its words, whites erected it in hopes that the "patriotism" of these women "will teach their children to emulate the deeds of their sires." In 1914 the "Lost Cause" was no longer lost: regarding race relations, although not secession, Confederate ideology was firmly in the saddle. The monument implies this triumph: "Their inspiration transformed the gloom of defeat into the hope of the future." (p. 198)
Some of the monuments are silly, like the one to a flying machine that supposedly flew a year before the Wright Brothers' experiment at Kitty Hawk or the reconstructed log cabin that was allegedly the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, even though it was built more than three decades after his death. But most are alarming.
This is becoming a more and more disturbing read.
Massacres that never happened. Lynchings that did. Honorable veterans who murdered their neighbors, but who still were honored. Native Americans robbed of their names. (I haven't got to anything yet about how they were robbed of their culture, their language, their children. . . . and I hope there aren't monuments to that but there probably are.)
Loewen makes a comment in the opening material in which he wonders if interstellar aliens, visiting our part of the planet, would conclude on the basis of our monuments that our favorite activity was war. Maybe that's not such a bad concept to contemplate this Memorial Day week-end.
When do we become aware of the untruths around us? How do we react to that revelation? Learning that there's no Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy is one thing. Learning that Superman isn't real is another.
But learning -- and accepting -- that some of our core beliefs are built on lies is a whole other issue, and sadly it's one we're dealing with right now, today, all around us.
Lies Across America opens with five essays that provide an overview and background to the hows and whys we were lied to, and what results we then have to live with. That there are motives beyond mere commemoration behind the monuments and markers to our "public" history. That the deeds and individuals thus commemorated may have a very different "true" history from the "lies" that are made public. That there are different audiences for the monuments who may have very different responses, and that those responses may be maliciously intended.
It's often easy to dismiss the lies as inconsequential, if you're not in the group that's expected to bear the consequences. It's often difficult to accept that someone else has been hurt by what you -- or I -- can so easily dismiss as unimportant, meaningless, trivial, or even amusing.
A book well worth reading, especially in these times.
I'm starting late, I know. There's this thing called "real life". . . .
My first roll of real dice gave me a 2 and a 1, and landed me on Main Street Station.
I had read James Loewen's earlier book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, but never got around to this one. Now is as good a time as any.
As always, be warned that here be spoilers!
Although I started last night's home stretch on page 247, the main issue that this section covers has to reference a quote from page 200 that I intentionally did not mention in part 3.
Lord Johnnie was published in 1949. I read it for the first time in 1961 or 1962. Kathleen E. Woodwiss's The Flame and the Flower that sparked the boom in paperback original historical romances was published in 1972. Janice Radway's study of romance novel readers, Reading the Romance, was published in 1984. The collection of essays by romance novelists titled Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women edited by Jayne Ann Krentz was published in 1992. A Natural History of the Romance Novel by Pamela Regis was published in 2003.
The assumption is taken for granted -- and yes, it is -- that the sexy historical romance novels of the 1970s themselves evolved from a tradition of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice through the domestic novels of the late nineteenth century to the early Mills & Boon/Harlequin romances and the paperback gothic romances of the 1960s.
Because, after all, the books read each other themselves and then went on to write themselves; the women writers -- and the writers of romance novels since 1972 have been predominantly women -- were, like, not really there.
But we were! And we wrote the books, pulled the stories and the characters from our own experiences, including our experiences as readers and watchers of movies.
In her book Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels, Rachel Brownstein acknowledges a truth that too many of the analysts either consciously ignored or never bothered to learn: The Flame and the Flower was less a direct descendant of Pride and Prejudice and Little Women than it was the child of a woman who had probably watched Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and read Samuel Shellabarger's Lord Vanity. Brownstein writes:
My brother is two years younger than I, and at the time I was doing the complete works of Frank Yerby he was reading everything about Napoleon. You can interpret that in one of several ways: (1) he was marching on Moscow while I was being raped; or (2) he was the scruffy little Corsican while I was a half-breed beauty; or (3) he was the emperor while I was victim and vanquisher in succession, or even both at once.
We read, and then we wrote. And it wasn't as if there weren't other women writers between Bronte and Woodiwiss. Why is it that writers like Margaret Mitchell, Kathleen Winsor, Catherine Gaskin, Daphne du Maurier are just kind of ignored as potential influences? Romance, adventure, excitement, action, and even history were all part and parcel of fiction written by women throughout the years preceding those early paperback blockbusters that followed The Flame and the Flower.
But we also read the books written by, for, and about men. Men like Leslie Turner White and Lord Johnnie.
In the early 1990s I belonged to an informal group of romance writers who congregated on America Online via an email group. The members included a few major names and a lot of unknowns (like me). Among others were Brenda Hiatt, Alexis Harrington, Constance Walker, Rebecca Brandewyne, Kasey Michaels. Brandewyne had exchanged letters with Frank Yerby before his death in 1991; Kasey Michaels and I laughed about the book club editions we had read clandestinely as teenagers, books that we remembered and that had shaped our writing style even from that young age.
Could we have been the only ones? I sincerely doubt it.
But here's the thing that seems most important as a take-away from that reading history:
The romance part was as important to the guys as it was to the girls.
Oh, sure, when we got a little older and we started reading the James Bond books -- and we did read them -- there wasn't as much romance. We read Peyton Place, too, and Candy and all the other juicy forbidden books of the 1960s. But the foundational thread that ran through the book club books like Lord Johnnie was that love and romance mattered for everyone, without embarrassment, without shame, without giggles and snickers and blushes. And if it mattered for the fictional characters, could it matter any less for their real-life writers and readers?
Which brings me back to page 200 of Lord Johnnie.
. . . "And heed this -- I'm not going to give you up!"
"But dear God -- why?"
"Because I love you!" The words astonished him quite as much as they did her, for when she looked up in amazement, he grinned ruefully.
"'Pon my honor, that slipped out, my lady!" he confessed. "Though I've never spoken it before, it's true enough."
She wrung her hands. "Love? What does a knave like you know of love?"
"Very little, Leanna. I had always imagined it to be a pleasing headiness, like rare champagne, rather than the gnawing emptiness that has ruined sleep and haunted my waking hours. Yet unlike normal hunger, no substitute seems to appease it. Rather than starve longer, I risked my neck to follow you to New York. I'm not leaving it without you."
Pretty powerful stuff for a young teenager with dreams of being a writer. Pretty powerful stuff coming from the hero rather than the heroine!
And now, back to the action, keeping in mind that Johnnie has made this confession; Leanna has not.
So Johnnie ends up kidnapping Leanna and taking her aboard the Able Lady. Leanna is not happy, and she lets Johnnie know she's not. Therefore, of course, neither is he. But the arc of Johnnie's transformation from independent, reckless, and careless rogue to whatever he turns out to be is showing how his innate decency now has an opportunity -- before, he was merely trying to survive in a shockingly cruel world -- to develop and even flourish. He has confessed his love, and acted shamefully upon it, but by page 251, he has his regrets.
He spread his hands in resignation. "I regret it now," he confessed. "Yet though the act itself was vicious, the impulse was sincere. Aye. Ridiculous as it may sound now -- I had hoped to win you."
"God in Heaven!" she cried. "Your overweening temerity is insufferable! A filthy felon and a pirate --"
Johnnie stiffened in anger. "My crimes were no obstacle to our marriage, I might remind you -- wife!"
"Must you continually bring that up?"
"I must, since they are so closely allied." He chuckled bitterly. "In the romances I have read, the wooing precedes the wedding. I can understand the advantages now. But look -- let us not bicker. 'Tis agreed we both erred sadly. Do you accept my offer?"
His offer is to give her some cash and ship her, one way or another, back to New York, once again rid of him . . . forever. The course of true love being what it is, such a neat resolution proves impossible. The Able Lady encounters a French warship, the Beausejour, and in the ensuing battle, though Johnnie's crew is victorious, his ship is damaged beyond salvage. He takes possession of the enemy vessel, unaware that amongst its passengers is a royal courier with secret dispatches.
Once again, Johnnie is faced with a dilemma. He can save himself and his crew or he can take risks to deliver the dispatches to the authorities back in New York, thus warning the British forces of an impending attack by the French. The risks are great, and without guarantees of success. The authorities in New York are the very officials he scammed and outwitted in his escape when he kidnapped Leanna. Her fiancee has leveled charges of abduction against him. He's sailing under forged letters of marque. He has lost the Able Lady, which belonged to the Duchess of Tallentyre; the only thing he has with which to repay her is the captured French brigantine. And of course there's Leanna, who is more friendly with his crew members than with him.
Remember back on page 60 when Leanna confessed that wealth was her objective, for the security it could give a woman without other resources? Johnnie had made his own confession to her earlier (p. 46-47). He saw wealth as the means, not the end.
His bitterness overflowed. "All right -- I'll be honest. I'll tell you something I never spoke aloud before, because, until you walked into Newgate, it was nothing but a vain, silly, hopeless wish." He talked rapidly, as if trying to keep ahead of the restraint of reason "I have always wanted to be a gentleman! I've hated sordidness and poverty, hated coarseness and vulgarity. Then, miraculously, you came into that hell-hole and married me. In that I saw the hand of Providence. I would have been a fool to have thrown the opportunity away."
He saw her eyes widen, and then to his surprise she laughed.
"Merciful heaven!" she cried. "Did you expect to move in here with me?"
"May I remind you I have moved in!"
She drew a hand across her eyes, as if to wipe away a vision. She had difficulty keeping her voice steady.
"Johnnie, you are a man of some intelligence. You should realize that marrying me does not of itself make you a gentleman. Good Lord, gentlemen are born!"
His features darkened under a flood of color, as he recalled Moll Coppinger's denunciation: Gent'men don't come out o' Whitefriars an' Newgate, as 'e'll soon fin' out!
"You asked me what I wanted," he said, scowling.
Are the French dispatches his last chance perhaps at achieving his goal? Will turning them over to the military in New York, even if he ends up hanging for all his past crimes, grant him some respect at the end, give him the legacy of a gentleman's honor?
He has little choice. His prize vessel is being tailed by two other French ships, their captains unaware that the Beausejour is no longer under the command of its French captain. Johnnie's only hope is to lead them back into British territory and engage the English fleet. If he survives that, and can turn over the dispatches before the English hang him, and convince them that the French directives are legitimate plans to attack New York, he might stand a chance. Not necessarily to save his own neck, but at least to save Leanna, the stalwart Rodney Yew, and his crew.
Once again, he puts into motion a plan, carefully thought out and even more carefully executed. The French are defeated, but a last second complication lands Johnnie and his crew in prison, destined all to hang for his crimes.
He had left England known only as Johnnie the Rogue, outlaw and thief, the nameless bastard who aped his betters and had impossible dreams. As a mutineer, he adopted the name Bloodsmythe to match the commission of the man he had defeated. In New York, he purchased forged documents under the name Captain John Scarlett. Thinking that he has at least partially redeemed himself, he walks into the last noose under his father's honorable name of Ballantyne. A gentleman's name.
Things couldn't look worse, but of course that's not the way the romances end. And remember, Johnnie has read them, too! Did he read Tom Jones, the tale of a bastard with roguish ways but a good and honest heart? Perhaps he did, and like the foundling Tom, Johnnie wins out in the end. His old misdeeds are forgiven, Sir Clarence drops the charges against him for kidnapping Leanna, the governor grants him a captain's commission, and even the highly respected Rodney Yew has agreed to serve under him.
And he has, at long last, won Leanna's heart.
She went down on her knees before him. "You said some wonderful things in your delirium, Johnnie -- about loving me. Can you say them again in your right mind?"
He touched her cheek tenderly. "I'm not in my right mind now, sweetheart, but I'll try."
Somewhere in the distance the noon gun thundered, but John Ballantyne did not hear it.
Johnnie is redeemed through his own actions, is granted his wish, and they all live happily ever after.
Why wouldn't I love a book like that?
But again, looking specifically at the character of Leanna, through a feminist lens and comparing her to the heroines of those post-Flame and Flower historicals, she never gives up her agency. Happy ending and all, she's not the main character but she's much more than a trophy. She takes the initial action to marry a condemned felon to get out of the debts she admits she incurred. She admits to prior sexual experience without shame. She maintains her determination to marry for financial security rather than hold out for unattainable love and romance. She also attempts to guarantee that Johnnie keep his promise to leave her alone forever, but her attempt backfires and nullifies his end of the bargain. She heads off to New York. After the kidnapping, she makes a life for herself on the ship, a life that leaves out any interaction with Johnnie. And in the end she makes up her own mind about her future. She has the choice to stick with her plan to marry Sir Clarence Laughton; she chooses to stay with Johnnie.
I didn't want to be disappointed by this book, and I wasn't. In this reading, I found details I had forgotten or never took note of, and they only served to increase my respect for the construction of an almost perfect romance.
Only "almost"? Well, since I can't make Lord Johnnie come to life. . . .
Yes, I finished last night but household chores call this morning so it will be a few hours before I get a chance to write up the finale. See you in a bit!
Don't forget: spoilers abound!
Lord Johnnie and his crew of would-be pirates are now on their way to New York. I had hoped to finish the book last night, but by midnight had only reached page 246. Realizing I couldn't finish and still get a decent night's sleep, I reached for the bookmark.
But it was a satisfying read, and I knew I'd finish in one more session.
Because I knew the story well enough after all these years, I was looking for the extra, deeper elements, and there were three of them in this section.
The first was the character arc of Johnnie himself.
In striking contrast to the character of Connie Goodwin in Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Johnnie behaves exactly as one would expect him to: sometimes impulsively but always with a clear awareness of what he's doing and why, and always in a way that makes sense to the reader. He knows the risks he takes, knows the potential outcomes. He even knows when he does things that are slightly out of his own character.
He is also very much aware of the changes in his behavior and his attitudes as he takes on new responsibilities. All his life he had only been responsible for himself; he never trusted or relied on anyone else. Even when plotting his escape from hanging and his companions were essential, he knew they could not be completely trusted. After the escape, when he has gone to Leanna's home, he confesses to her that he has never been able to trust anyone.
Nor has he ever let himself become responsible for anyone else, requiring that someone else trust him. That changes when he and Ames are taken by the press gang: It's his fault the old man, who had sailed with his father, has been forced into service. It changes even more then the crew mutinies and Johnnie becomes captain, because now he is responsible for all of them. When faced with opportunities to save himself and let the rest fend for themselves, he consciously chooses not to.
Part of his growth can be understood as his reaction to people around him, people who do things he has never experienced before. In his own dog-eat-dog existence, the idea that others would come to his assistance is totally foreign. When Mrs. Bloodsmythe comes to his rescue in a most amusing way, he's slightly astonished, but certainly grateful.
And that's the second of the three incidents in this part of the book that stand out.
The Eagle is boarded by a Lt. Ayers from another English ship, the Tiger. Ayers is suspicious that a much younger man is claiming to be Capt. Bloodsmythe, because he had met the captain and his wife at a social event in England. When Mrs. Bloodsmythe comes on deck, links her arm through Johnnie's, and claims him as her husband, Ayers is thrown off course (pun intended). The captain's widow explains that the older man she was with in London was in fact her husband's cousin and scolds the lieutenant. (p. 166)
"Why, Lieutenant Ayers -- I'm furious with you! Did you think that fat old walrus was my husband For shame!"
Ayers reacted as if he wished the deck would suddenly give way beneath him. "No, no, my lady! Only --"
"You did! You really did!"
"Forgive me!" pleaded Ayers confusedly. "I really must be getting back." He scribbled furiously across a paper and shoved it toward Johnnie. "There's your clearance, Captain. I acted hastily."
After Ayers leaves the ship and returns to his own, Johnnie confronts the widow over her performance.
"By my troth, madame, you amaze me!"
"I fear you underestimated me, sir."
"Aye, I fear I did. I'm indebted --"
She stiffened her spine. "You're indebted for nothing!" she cut him off. "The debt was mine. If it is paid, then I am relieved. for I don't wish to be obligated to you further!" With that she swept out of the cabin.
She has, in a sense, mirrored much of Johnnie's own experience, in which he thinks he's been independent, but in fact there are always others around who have their parts to play.
What's surprising, however, is that Johnnie doesn't question her sense of indebtedness, nor her ability to have cancelled the debt. She was Bloodsmythe's victim, but he did not strip her of her humanity or her agency. Neither did author White.
Thus saved from discovery, Johnnie captains the crew to New York, where he faces another potential mutiny when they learn they're not going to the tropical islands. In order to dispose of the ship and acquire another better suited to his plans, he soon learns there is only one person in the burgeoning city of some sixteen thousand souls who can help him. One person controls the trade in ships, some directly and some indirectly, but there is no route to buying a vessel but through the hands of Reggie, the Duchess of Tallentyre.
She's a more than a little scandalous businesswoman in her fifties, and as it turns out she has just the ship Johnnie needs, the Able Lady. She also knows everyone who is anyone in the city and has connections to everyone else.
It never occurred to me, back in 1961 or '62, to question that a woman would control the shipping trade in colonial New York. Almost exactly two hundred years after the story's setting, women faced all kinds of obstacles in their everyday lies that I also wasn't aware of. The inability of a married woman to get credit in her own name, for example.
The women in the popular culture of my time weren't like the Duchess of Tallentyre. Laura Petrie, Harriet Nelson, Donna Stone, and Lucy Ricardo were not assertive and strong like Reggie. If they managed their families -- and their men -- it was more through manipulation than partnership or independent agency. In contrast to wife and mother Laura Petrie, Sally Rogers was less the successful working woman and more the frustrated husband-hunter, because wife-and motherhood were the desired ends.
But I had abandoned television for the world of books, so I was much more impressed, even subconsciously, by someone like the Duchess than by Laura Petrie. Women, even imaginary women created in a man's mind in 1949, could do things.
Of course, since Reggie knows everyone, Johnnie can't resist asking her about Leanna, whom he knows left Portsmouth the same time as he, headed also for New York. Well, Reggie doesn't know her, but she knows how to find out.
The reunion of husband and reluctant wife doesn't go well, and it is complicated further by revelations of Johnnie's true identity. Another of his risky plans, made this time with the assistance of the Duchess of Tallentyre and unwitting collusion of Lord Chauncey Eden, the Governor of New York, results in his springing his crew from prison and escaping New York harbor in the Able Lady just a cannonball's breadth ahead of the pursuing English. But the more complex his life becomes, the more easily it's further complicated by the actions of others over whom he has no control -- and that includes himself.
Having found Leanna again he's determined not to lose her again, so he kidnaps her on the justification that she is, after all, his lawful wife. But once aboard the Able Lady, he also discovers he is once more saddled with the competent but just a little to righteous Lt. Rodney Yew. Though his scheme to release the crew included freedom for Yew, the lieutenant himself didn't trust Johnnie. (p. 245)
"Be good enough to explain why you did not go ashore when I so ordered?"
"I considered it an ill-timed jest," Yew snapped.
Johnnie's smile was cold. "Jest, eh?" Then he detailed exactly what had happened between the Governor and himself relative to Yew. "Does that still strike you as a jest, Mr. Yew?" he concluded.
Yew stared at him incredulously. "By the powers, sir, I owe you an apology!"
"That doesn't better your plight," Johnnie said dryly.
To his amazement, Rodney Yew laughed, albeit a trifle bitterly.
"Aye, true enough. 'Twould seem the jest was one of Fate's. Yet, I think you'll grant I cannot be censured for not anticipating such magnanimity from a man of your reputation, sir!"
Johnnie had to grin. "In a word -- you didn't expect fairness from the Devil?"
Yew shrugged. "I repeat what I said once before, sir. You pass all understanding."
With a loyal crew, a sleek ship, and a fair wind, Johnnie should have it made. Leanna is in her cabin, probably not too happy, but he's confident she'll come 'round.
He just doesn't know there are 62 more pages. . .
This is an analysis, not an advertisement, so some of the spoilers might not be hidden. Be warned, therefore, if you haven't read the book!
I reached page 157 last night at midnight, so both the time and the 100 pages read seemed an appropriate stopping point.
To pick up where we left off, Johnnie's "other plans" included escape from Tyburn and his own hanging. After an exciting chase through the filthy streets of 1760 London, he is once again safe and sound in the depths of the Whitefriars slum, surrounded by his outlaw friends. He resolves, however, to quit England altogether. He has the substantial spoils of a stagecoach robbery as his seed money to begin a new life.
He bids farewell to the grasping Moll Coppinger, but can't resist following up on the information he snagged from the pocket of his highborn "wife," Leanna Somerset. Needless to say, she is more than a bit surprised to see him alive; his failure to die on the gallows has left her with all her debts and with a husband she doesn't want!
Nonetheless she agrees to spend a single night with Johnnie, on his promise to depart and never trouble her again.
During the course of their romantic evening and the following morning, both Leanna and Johnnie divulge some of their personal history to each other. Johnnie claims to be the bastard son of a Scottish sea captain who died at sea and an English lady-in-waiting to the French court who died in childbirth. Orphaned and illegitimate, he was raised by apparently unforgiving relatives who at least gave him an education. The bastard son of nobility is a common theme in popular literature, so this was no great surprise. (See The Bastard Hero in the Novel, by Margaret B. Goscilo.)
I clearly remembered Johnnie's background from all my previous readings, but I had forgotten Leanna's. Given my interest in how the female characters were portrayed, I was actually a bit surprised by the history, though it wasn't much, L. T. White had provided.
She's also pragmatic and determined not to be a victim of circumstances.
"Love does not enter into the question of marriage for a woman of my position," she said recklessly. "Once upon a time, I had ideals and romantic dreams, but that's over. I've got to have security, and that means wealth. Love has nothing to do with it. My parents died leaving me nothing but a good name -- not much of a dowry in these competitive times. I'm twenty-three now, and Sir Clarence is my last chance. I'm going to get him regardless of obstacles."
But in this discussion of backgrounds, Leanna asks Johnnie if he ever tried to find out any more about his parents, especially about his father who was reportedly lost at sea. He admits he never did.
And so they part after their wedding night, vowing never to see each other again. Well, you can imagine how well that works out.
After another brief but disastrous encounter with Moll Coppinger, Johnnie sets out for Portsmouth, where he books passage on a ship bound for Spain. He uses the time before his ship sails to ask around the bustling seaport city for anyone who might remember the man he believed was his father. He meets an old seaman who in fact served under the captain and learns much about his own heritage.
Unfortunately, the now scorned and jealous Moll is still on the scene, and this time she exacts a terrible revenge: Johnnie and the old sailor Ames fall into the hands of a press gang. They're delivered to The Eagle, where another seaman, Irishman Ben Bottle, joins them on the "wallowin' ol' sea bitch." Her captain is a Charles Laughton-esque tyrant named Bloodsmythe. Several chapters of the hellish life at sea follow.
Again, however, there's a surprising element: Captain Bloodsmythe's wife. She's obviously a victim of the same kind of horrible abuse the captain doles out to the crew. Old Bloody, as he's referred to, forces her to watch as a crew member is flogged, and Johnnie can tell the situation is not at all normal. But of course there's nothing he can do, at least at the moment.
At the age of 13 or 14, I knew very little about what we'd call domestic violence. I certainly recognized the wrongness of the abuse Bloodsmythe inflicted upon his wife. But at the time I read this book the first time, I had no context for her response, which is another reason Lord Johnnie goes into My Personal Canon.
In the fine tradition of ships with savage captains, The Eagle's crew mutinies, led by none other than Lord Johnnie. After a brief duel, Johnnie defeats the odious Bloodsmythe and literally throws him overboard. The wife runs to the rail and, thinking she is going to follow her husband, Johnnie goes after her. But she doesn't jump; she just watches until her husband's body disappears in the ship's wake.
Later, when Johnnie goes to her cabin to apologize, she expresses in no uncertain terms her loathing for the man she was married to and is finally freed from. Her detailed description of his sexual abuse -- written by a man in the late 1940s -- brought to mind the lack of such detail in Barbara Michaels's Ammie, Come Home -- written by a woman in the 1960s.
On this current re-read of Lord Johnnie I didn't remember the brief mention of Leanna Somerset's sexual history from my first reading or even from any subsequent one, but Mrs. Bloodsmythe's was always clear in my mind. It had made that much of an impression with me way more than 50 years ago.
So Johnnie is settling into his new role as captain, well aware of the risks he has taken and is taking. He is a mutineer, though not yet a pirate. Though most of the crew is with him, there are a few who are not. He's not entirely comfortable with the burden of responsibility that comes with his captaincy, but Old Ames, who served under his father, reminds him often enough that the mantle comes naturally.
Two conundrums faced him as I glanced at the clock and saw it was nearing midnight. He needs to keep the crew's only skilled navigator on board, but Lt. Rodney Yew is a loyal Englishman who wants no part of mutiny and has requested to be put ashore at the first possible opportunity. On the other hand, Mrs. Bloodsmythe has refused to leave the ship; she has neither family nor friends in England and has no desire to return there.
Though many of the mutineers want to head for the Indies, where they hope to trade the ungainly Eagle and her cargo of military supplies for a more pirate-y vessel, Johnnie strikes a deal with the stubborn but honorable Rodney Yew: He'll take the ship and her cargo to New York to the benefit of the English troops stationed there, in exchange for Yew's navigational services. It's not what Johnnie wants to do, and it's not what his crew wants, but it's a necessity.
I reached for a bookmark and closed the book. In the few minutes of wakefulness after turning out the light, I thought about the three women thus far introduced and how their sexuality was handled (bad pun) in the context of male authorship and expected male readership. This is Johnnie's story, not Leanna's, not Mrs. Bloodsmythe's, yet there is a distinctly non-salacious acceptance of the women's sexuality that doesn't diminish Johnnie's underlying respect for them as human beings with agency.
In the early 1990s, when the whole internet thing and chat groups and email discussions were a pretty new phenomenon, I learned that I wasn't the only writer of historical romances who had grown up with these Dollar Book Club swashbucklers. We women who had read Yerby and Schoonover and Westcott absorbed the stories and the characters that our fathers had read -- and perhaps our mothers, too! -- but they seemed to have been left out of the equation. Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers and Rebecca Brandewyne were supposedly the inheritors of the feminine tradition of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth and Marie Corelli and Ann Radcliffe.
We weren't. Most of us had never read the Victorian and early 20th century writers of women's fiction. But we had read Sabatini and Shellabarger. We had seen the movies. We knew what we were doing.
So did Lord Johnnie. And Leanna. And Mrs. Bloodsmythe.
Sometimes you have to prepare yourself to be disappointed. That book you loved, loved, loved years ago just doesn't hold up when you read it again. You're older and probably a little wiser, and the things that made you love the story and the characters aren't there any more. Or they're embarrassingly corny, and you wish you had never told anyone how much you loved it.
The first adult historical romance novel I ever read was The Highland Hawk by Leslie Turner White. My dad had belonged to one of those subscription book clubs in the 1950s, and this was one of many similar titles he acquired. It's also one of the very, very few that I haven't found a copy of to replace that original. Over the years I've found almost all the others, either as paperback reprints or at garage and yard and library book sales. The Highland Hawk isn't among them.
Old movies on television -- Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Prince of Foxes, The Flame and the Arrow -- had turned me on to historical adventure sagas, but they lacked something.
First of all, they couldn't be enjoyed in private. We only had one television in those days (early 1960s) and it was in the living room. I didn't feel comfortable sharing my enjoyment with family members who would disparage it.
(I still don't. When I bought a DVD collection of Burt Lancaster movies a year or so ago, I did not want to watch The Flame and the Arrow with anyone. Eventually I did, but I still felt uncomfortable.)
Second, television wasn't dependable. Weeks or months could go by without an exciting film scheduled during my available viewing hours, which were limited to after school and week-ends. And we only had four channels!
Third, television wasn't portable. So once I found the books, I was hooked. For life.
I'm not sure how soon after reading The Highland Hawk I found Lord Johnnie, but find it I did. By my best guess I read both of them the summer before my freshman year in high school. (Gone with the Wind had to wait until the following summer.) I was not quite fourteen years old.
What followed can only be described as a feeding/reading frenzy.
I went through everything on my dad's shelves. When my mother expressly said I couldn't read anything by Frank Yerby, I went immediately to his books. More about those books in the future, because this post is about Lord Johnnie. Others would become favorites and have enormous impact, but Lord Johnnie was a book apart.
Over the years, I read it many times. When I moved out of my parents' house, I somehow managed to grab my dad's copy of Lord Johnnie and a couple other of those book club editions; I have them to this day. For the most part, they've held up in terms of the writing, the storytelling, the characterization. In many cases, in fact, the writing is far superior to just about anything being published today.
So when Moonlight Reader came up with this "personal canon" idea, the first book on my list had to be the book that truly launched me into writing historical romance. I can't even give The Highland Hawk credit for that; it never stirred my imagination, my passion, the way the adventures of Johnnie the Rogue did. But it's been years and years since I've read the whole thing first page to last, and I knew I had to do that before I could honestly put it on the list. Given the world's situation last night, I decided to grab one of my three copies (don't ask) and curl up in bed with this old, old favorite.
I was prepared to be disappointed. I knew there were aspects of the story that I vaguely remembered as problematic. How would I react to them now, older and wiser and more radical than ever?
The book club edition, its cheap high-acid paper a little brittle after 67 years, is 308 pages. I reached page 57 before I forced myself to quit, turn out the lights, and get some sleep.
I wasn't disappointed.
The writing is splendid, the characters all fully-fleshed and more than a little Dickensian. The opening set in Newgate prison the day before the notorious outlaw known as Johnnie the Rogue is to be hanged brings the London lowlife of 1760 into clear focus. (For perspective, Henry Fielding's novel Tom Jones was published in 1749.) The raucous, bawdy "going away" party is interrupted by the arrival of a young woman dressed all in black, who begs the gaoler to let her wed a condemned felon; as her legal -- though barely -- husband, he will assume her debts and his death will free her of them. The handsome young highwayman, sometimes called Lord Johnnie for his ability to mimic the nobility, is the only one available, and so the marriage is performed. And though the young woman does not give her full name, Johnnie picks her pocket and identifies her as Leanna Somerset.
She departs Newgate believing he'll be dead by the next night and she'll be free of both him and her debts.
Johnnie has other plans.
What struck me as one of the most significant aspects of the story, and especially about Johnnie himself, was the awareness of class distinctions. The London poor are little better than animals, barely surviving while the rich live in splendor. And while Johnnie has aspirations to the gentry, he also recognizes that there is an innate honesty and humanity about those condemned to wretched poverty through no fault of their own.
I wondered, after I had closed the book for the night, if I might have had a different attitude toward my own writing career if I had read Georgette Heyer Regencies before I read the swashbuckling adventures of Leslie Turner White, Samuel Shellabarger, and (of course!) Frank Yerby. I read David Copperfield and The Return of the Native before I read Pride and Prejudice. Glitz and glamour never appealed to me as much as the struggle for justice and fairness. To this day, I rarely enjoy novels that focus on the wealthy and powerful.
And having no personal experience of being wealthy or powerful, I don't know enough about them to write about them!
The other issue that interested me as I began re-reading was the way Leanna Somerset was portrayed. These books were written primarily for a male audience, and most of the writers were male. The emphasis was on male adventure, not romance and not on female characters.
But within this first 57 pages, there are already two female characters, very different from each other and yet with certain common characteristics. First there's Leanna, the desperate upper-class lady who has gotten herself into debt and needs a way out. Pretty, delicate, emblem of all Johnnie aspires to and cannot have.
Then there's Moll Coppinger, with her broken nose and straw hat, who carries her own romantic torch for the dashing outlaw. She is his for the taking, but she's not what he wants.
Unlike the fragile, helpless heroines of silent films perhaps, both Leanna and Moll are quite capable of self-preservation. Were they products of the era in which they were written? Lord Johnnie was published in 1949, so written in the immediate aftermath of World War II when women proved themselves capable of just about everything.
But, I'm only 57 pages in. I remember how the story develops, and of course how it ends, and I know there are some twists and surprises in store for the characters. Maybe there will be some surprises for my memories, too.
Moonlight Reader's post prompted me to start to think about my own personal collection of influential books.
The first question that came to mind was, Should I set a numerical limit? Top 20? Top 100? The answer came just as quickly: No. My physical library contains something over 5,000 volumes. I certainly haven't read all of them, and some I'm quite sure I will never read. My Kindle collection is another 5,000 titles. Before there was Kindle, there was Project Gutenberg, and I downloaded an enormous amount of Victorian fiction. How could I then limit my "canon" of the essential influences? So, my canon is open-ended.
The second question was almost as easily answered. Would I limit the canon to a specific category? As a romance novelist, as a feminist, as political thinker, I draw inspiration and information from a variety of sources. I would not be the person or the writer that I am without all of those influences.
The third question was, How do I want to chronicle this? I haven't answered that one yet.
But I did determine what would be the first book on the list.
I couldn't go to sleep last night, and The Sugar Queen was within reach. Even though I had signed off on it, I needed something to settle my brain for a few minutes.
I opened to a random page, read a few lines, and nearly heaved this library book against the wall.
Josey went to her purse on the chaise lounge and took out her checkbook.
I dislike books that contribute to the dumbing down of our language.
Of course, by then I was angry and even more awake, so I skimmed through some more of the book until I finally discovered the big secret. Oh, give me a fucking break! The main character, Josey, couldn't figure out that(show spoiler)
I guess maybe this sort of nonsense appeals to readers, since the author is very popular. It doesn't appeal to me. I'm glad I only wasted a half hour on the rest of this book.