Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Nineteenteen: Why this series? What was the moment when you knew you had to write about Mary Quinn and The Agency?
Y.S. Lee: The character of Mary Quinn came first. I wanted to write about a Victorian girl from a marginal background, but the ordinary trajectory of such a life would be short and dreary: hunger, drudgery, probably an early death. Creating the Agency, a top-secret women’s detective bureau, made it possible to write about Mary’s life in a hopeful way that played with historical realism, while also respecting it.
Nineteenteen: Your background is a scholarly one...what made you decide to write YA books?
Y.S. Lee: I turned to fiction because I wanted a chance to write about things I couldn’t, as a literary critic. I was curious about real life: what people ate, how they bathed, how they travelled about. Writing novels was a delicious way to incorporate all my frivolous research. And the YA part is entirely my agent, Rowan Lawton’s, inspiration: the first version of A Spy in the House was for adults, but Rowan pointed out to me that it was really a coming-of-age story and suggested that I rewrite it for young adults.
Nineteenteen: Being that we're history geeks here at Nineteenteen, we have to talk about research. What was your best research moment--the one that made you smile and rub your hands together (metaphorically, of course), or the one that sent shivers up your spine? What is the most interesting thing you learned as you wrote The Agency books?
Y.S. Lee: Oh, no - I have to pick just one? Really, the thing I adore about writing historical fiction is that I’m learning all the time. I research as I go, and new discoveries often send me back to re-work the manuscript. One of the most fascinating things I learned about, which became a strong element in the series, was the presence of Asian sailors (called Lascars) in port cities in England – Liverpool, Bristol, and London. People often think of historical England as lily-white, but this was absolutely not the case.
Nineteenteen: In addition to being YA historical fiction, the Agency stories are also mysteries. Are you a mystery reader? Which did you enjoy more, the mystery crafting or the historical aspects when writing these books?
Y.S. Lee: I love old-school mysteries: Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh. Having said that, while mystery is fun, a great way of shaping an adventure, and extremely satisfying to work out, my heart is with the historical details. I will sometimes write an entire scene around a particular historical tidbit, just so I get to include it.
Nineteenteen: Mary Quinn is one intrepid young woman...do you think you could embark on a career as a spy, as she does?
Y.S. Lee: Absolutely not! I’ve never been in a fistfight in my life, and I’m strictly an armchair spy. It’s a joy to write a character who’s so very unlike me, though.
Nineteenteen: Racism is an important theme in Mary Quinn's story. How did you approach writing about it from a nineteenth century perspective while making it accessible to today's readers?
Y.S. Lee: You know, I didn’t set out to write about racism as a theme. It grew, organically and logically, from what I knew about the lives of people of colour in Victorian England. If you read Victorian literature and documents carefully, there’s lots of evidence of the challenges they faced, the way they were treated, the assumptions made about them. I found one missionary society’s report about mixed-race families in Liverpool, in which the missionaries were surprised to find that black and Asian men often made good and affectionate fathers! Imagine!
Nineteenteen: What were your favorite books as a teen reader? Are there any more recent YA books that you wish you could have read then?
Y.S. Lee: Oh dear – I read so much dreck in my early years. I wish, most of all, that I could have a do-over for my childhood and teenaged reading, and it would definitely include more recent YA titles. I’m a huge fan of Kelley Armstrong, Erin Bow, Stephanie Burgis, and Zoë Marriott, among others.
Nineteenteen: What's next for you? Are there more Mary Quinn books in your (and our) future, or are you moving on to other writing pastures?
Y.S. Lee: I’m writing the 4th and last Mary Quinn novel right now. My next project will be completely different – it’s set in Southeast Asia during the Second World War – but I’m not ruling out more Agency novels with a different sleuth.
Nineteenteen: Where can our readers learn more about you and your books?
Y.S. Lee: I blog every Wednesday at http://www.yslee.com/, and you’ll find excerpts and extras from the three published Agency novels there, too. Please stop by and say hello!
Nineteenteen: We're sure readers will! Come back on Friday for the second part of our week with Y.S. Lee!
Friday, May 25, 2012
A Pedestrian was a professional walker. He either competed against other pedestrians for a prize or worked for the winnings from wagers on his/her ability to walk a certain distance in a certain amount of time. A popular feat was to walk 100 miles in less than 24 hours; those who succeeded were called Centurions. Crowds of up to 10,000 people lined the roads to watch, and cheer.
One of the most famous Pedestrians of nineteenth century England was Captain Barclay (Robert Barclay Allardice). In 1809, he set a record that became the one to beat for nearly a century: He walked for 1 mile an hour for 1,000 hours without stopping, starting on June 1 and ending on July 12. And all this dressed like a gentleman in top hat, cravat, and wool suit!
But it wasn’t just the men who got into the act. As a young girl, Mary Wilkinson of Yorkshire walked 250 miles to London in less than four days. She repeated the feat at age 90 with a keg of gin and provisions strapped on her back, but in five days and three hours. (Must have been the gin.) In 1823, at only 8 years of age, Emma Matilda Freeman walked 30 miles in 7 hours and 57 minutes through pouring rain. Her feat was reported as far away as America. Now there’s a determined young lady!
And speaking of determined young ladies, many of you will remember Mary Quinn, the intrepid heroine of Y.S. Lee’s historical mystery series, The Agency. The Young Bluestockings read the first book, A Spy in the House, in January. Well, make sure to come back next week when none other than Y.S. Lee herself will be guest blogging with us!
I’d walk 30 miles in the rain for that!
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
And now, for this week's post--a Fashion Forecast! The prints in my collection for the next few years are so yummy, I’m doing them by the half-year so as to show you more of them.
So…what was the well-dressed young lady wearing in the first half of 1826?
How about an Evening Dress in...yes, polka-dots! This delightful pink dress features rows of lappets around the hem and across the bodice and around the shoulders; note the nearly transparent gauze sleeves as well. And is it my imagination, or is that bird looking at her be-plumed head very suspiciously (or perhaps nervously?) From January's La Belle Assemblee:Primrose yellow is the perfect color for a February Dinner Dress from Ackermann's Repository, elegantly adorned with appliqued trim and ruffles around the hem and small puff sleeves. This year you'll begin to notice the widening of the shoulders and sleeves, which will grow to enormous (and amusing) proportions over the next ten years): Another confection of an Evening Dress in white and pink, again with gauze oversleeves (a popular style over the next few years, as we'll see) and pink ribbon trim. Note her very elaborate hairstyle, with braided hair wrapped and entwined with a pink scarf. And I wonder if she brought her dog out to parties with her? (Ackermann's Repository, February): The perfect Carriage Dress for a turn around Hyde Park in April! Bands of white fur and fabric self-applique decorate the skirt, and a large lace collar finishes it off. Note her quizzing glass hanging from a chain around her neck and tucked into her belt, the better to see who else is out riding during the fashionable hour (Ackermann's):I seem to have a lot of Evening Dress prints for this year...here's another delightful one in yellow with concave tiers of lace and a deep ruffle around the neck and trimming the sleeves. Note again the elaborate hairstyle, with locks of hair interwoven with a scarf, as well as a light scarf of a shawl dyed in graduated colors that wouldn't look out of place today! (Ackermann's, April):Here's an unusual one--a mother and daughter print, from May's Ackermann's! Mama is in a Ball Dress with a scalloped hem trimmed in burgundy to match the ribbon sash and red rose clusters decorating her skirt and wreathing her head. Her daughter's dress echoes it in style, with a blue-trimmed white overdress over a blue petticoat and blue-trimmed pantalets...and don't you love her little elbow-length kid gloves? I hope Mama lets her peek through the bannister to watch the guests arrive:I love this dramatic Dinner Dress, from the June edition of Ackermann's. The green dress is trimmed with contrasting gathered rouleaus of peach and fuchsia, and touches of the pink and peach are repeated in the ribbon trim on the bodice and belt (see the cameo at her breast?) and the large, pouffy, turban like headdress finished with feathers. Gauze oversleeves are back as well. What a fashion statement!Let's finish with a knockout of a Ball Dress, consisting of a white gauze overdress over what looks like (I'm guessing here) blue satin. The overdress's skirt has what looks like cornucopias made of broad ribbon overflowing with flowers and a fat rouleau at the hem, and a twisted band of ribbon across the front. Another ombre-dyed scarf is draped across her shoulders, and her hair is braided and curled and woven with blue to match the underdress. A definite Cinderella dress! (Ackermann's, June):What do you think of the first half of 1826's fashions?
Friday, May 18, 2012
We shiver through the Glacier Grotto, with snow piled up as high as the carriage on one side. We gasp at the Cascade of Frissione, so high that the water is merely mist by the time it reaches the foaming pool at the base.
Finally, we tumble down into a sweep of cultivated plain, dotted with acacia and tulip trees and mulberries, as we approach Milan. And there is the Triumphal Arch, designed by Napoleon, with four huge columns each cut from a single block of marble.
Milan has more than 130,000 people in it, so it feels very crowded and not a little dirty after the pristine snows of the mountains. But some of us are absolutely parched for new company after being huddled in our carriages for over a week. Then too, we know that even more wondrous sights lay ahead. We stay in Milan long enough to see some amazing paintings and some of the finest ancient statues in Italy in the Palace of Arts and Sciences. And we must stop at the Ambrosian Library (photo courtesy of Elekhh on Wikimedia Commons), which contains original manuscripts by Leonardo da Vinci and a copy of his Last Supper.
Phew! I don’t know about you, but I could use a good night sleep before we head deeper into Italy.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Today’s mystery object is made of metal. It measures five and a half inches long and two and three-quarters inches at its widest. It is marked Sheffield (silver plate) on its underside, and has the manufacturer’s mark P&B on the underside of the handle.
So…what is it?
If you think you know, post your guess in the comments section. If you know you know, post your answer also…but please, don’t post links to pictures to prove that you know. That tends to bring the guessing to a screeching halt, which isn’t much fun for anyone. All correct guesses will be entered in a drawing to receive (ta da!) an autographed review copy of my upcoming YA historical (and prequel to Bewitching Season and Betraying Season) , Courtship and Curses, due out from Henry Holt Books for Young Readers in August!
I’ll accept guesses through next Monday evening and post the answer—and the name of the winner—on Tuesday. If no one guesses correctly, I’ll draw a winner from among all the commenters, so go for it!*
*Alas, due to prohibitive postage costs, I will ship only to US and Canadian addresses. I'm sorry!
Friday, May 11, 2012
It is coming down the to the time of year when young ladies and gentlemen will be graduating and moving on to the next stages of their lives, be it more schooling or an apprenticeship or the military. A young gentleman I know has aspirations of being a chef; another wishes to be an architect. Nineteenth century lads could have aspired to those positions as well, but they had a few others we might be hard pressed to find today.
For example, he could long to be a button-maker. Buttons in the early nineteenth century were more often decoration than fasteners, but they grew in popularity and usefulness as the century wore on. Of particular interest were the stamped metal buttons, made primarily in Birmingham, according to one career guide for young gentlemen. Metal was cut to size in a foundry and then sent to the button-maker, who used a special machine to stamp a pattern into the button. He then soldered on the shank. And then women had the glorious task of polishing them. Regina Scott, button polisher. Hm, I think I’ll pass on that profession.
A young gentleman might also decide to be a glass blower, creating bottles or vases. A glass blower heated the right materials in a special furnace until they melted. Then he used a long thin hollow rod to draw out some of the material and blow into it. Blowing created an opening in the glass material; turning the material on a wooden stool shaped it to the correct size. A nineteenth-century career guide cautions that this profession can only be practiced in the cooler months because of the excessive heat. As I prefer to have enough income to eat all months of the year, this one probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea either.
But there was always the turner. A turner used a spinning lathe like the one here to create a variety of tools, decorations, and toys. Small lathes were spun by pumping a treadle. Larger lathes required two men to keep the wheel spinning while the turner worked. A journeyman in the profession could take home as much as a guinea and a half a week (around $125 today). If you had the dexterity to work on smaller projects, like toys, you could made a great deal more.
Regina Scott, toy turner to the king. I like the sound of that.
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Charles Elmé Francatelli was born in London in 1805, presumably of Italian extraction—we know nothing of his family history. According to his own account, he trained in France and indeed was a pupil of Antonin Carême, whom we have already met—although when and where the two worked together is not clear. But by his twenties, Francatelli was already working for some fairly important people: his first post was as chef to the Earl of Chesterfield, for whom he worked for several years, and he went on to become head chef at Crockford’s, a notable men’s club in St James’s Street famous for its excellent food, luxurious appointments, and outrageous gambling. It was probably while he worked at Crockford’s that he made the acquaintance of the Earl of Errol, who was the new Queen Victoria’s Household Steward. When Victoria needed a new chef, Lord Errol pinched Crockford’s chef…and Francatelli came to be the Queen’s Chief Cook and Maître d’Hôtel, either in late 1840 or early 1841; alas, many of the Queen’s household records were destroyed at the end of her reign, and we simply don’t know his exact dates of employment.
Francatelli brought his French training to the Queen’s table (by the way, the print at left is of the kitchen at Windsor Castle), walking a fine balance between the new haute cuisine and traditional English tastes: though his menus for the Queen introduced the lighter, more delicate cooking he learned in France, there was always a roast beef or a roast saddle of mutton or haunch of venison prepared and waiting on the sideboard for any who wanted it. Unfortunately, his employment with the Queen only lasted two years; some have speculated that the young Queen’s new husband, Prince Albert, did not care for his wife’s chef (pointing out that in Francatelli’s books there are numerous recipes called after the Queen, but only one after Prince Albert—for a highly pungent sauce containing a great deal of horseradish!)
Francatelli’s career, however, flourished after his time with the Queen: he worked for more notable noble employers, was the head chef at the Coventry House Club and then at the Reform Club, the bastion of Liberal politicians for much of the middle and later 19th century (that's their kitchen at right). He also wrote several books. One of the most interesting was his 1846 The Modern Cook, which includes several full menus for dinners served to the Queen and which is available in a modern reprint edition—very interesting for those interested in the history of cookery. Later, he changed his focus somewhat and produced a book aimed at England’s growing middle classes, A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852). The Cook's Guide and Housekeeper's & Butler's Assistant and The Royal English and Foreign Confectionery Book followed in 1861 and 1862 respectively. He went on to manage the St. James Hotel in Berkeley Street and the Free Mason’s Tavern in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but again, there are few records of his life at this time. He died in 1876.
Friday, May 4, 2012
Ah, May! The time when a young gentleman’s fancy was said to turn toward his lady love. May Day was once a major holiday in Britain, although by the nineteenth century it had generally fallen out of favor in the sophisticated metropolis of London. The one exception was the annual chimney sweeps parade. Gentlemen who were acknowledged as scruffier than most for much of the year donned their finery (and apparently it was pretty good finery by all accounts of those who remember it fondly) and invited their lady friends to do the same, then paraded throughout the streets of the city (and other locations as well).
Among them was Jack-in-the-Green, termed “half animal, half vegetable.” This fanciful creature was covered in a cage of greenery that towered over his head and fell as low as his ankles. Sometimes he had a small hole that showed his face. Other times he was a giant walking bush with flowers sprouting from his head. Jack danced to the music of accompanying pipers and drummers. He was said to delight children and scare horses. I think you can see why.
Those members of the capital of a more staid persuasion looked forward to May 3 instead, for that was the traditional day that the Royal Academy began its Annual Summer Exhibition. Around 1,000 works of art, from promising amateurs to famous artists, were displayed at the Academy building. Everyone who could afford the 1-shilling entry fee strolled through the galleries to view paintings and sculpture. And it was a bet who was more crowded—the artwork or the people viewing it.
But supposedly one of “the most pleasing affairs in London” (which is saying a lot!) was held the last Tuesday of May. The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce awarded its medals and awards from its grand room at the Adelphi Hotel. The Society of the Arts, as it was called (bit of a mouthful otherwise), had been established to promote the arts, manufacturers, and businesses of England and celebrated all useful inventions, discoveries, and improvements not protected by patents. The Society was frequently headed by a member of the royal household over the years, and the 1,800 members were chosen by ballot and paid two guineas annually for the privilege. Charles Dickens and William Hogarth the artist have had the honor of belonging to the Society. By the middle of the century, the Society was said to have awarded more than 100,000 pounds (millions of dollars by our standards.
Think they’d have any use for a writer of romances and teen novels set in the nineteenth century?
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
In January I told you about a lady named Mrs. Fish who, along with two friends, was one of the premier leaders of fashionable New York society in the early 20th century. Today we will meet the second member of that triumvirate.
Alva Smith was not a native New Yorker but a southern girl, born in Alabama in 1853. Her family summered in Newport, RI while it was still a bastion of the old New England aristocracy, and spent the Civil War years in France, where little Alva attended school and acquired a fondness for all things French. However, the war was not kind to her father’s business prospects, and when the family returned to the United States and settled in New York City, it was in such reduced circumstances that the family nearly had to take in boarders to make ends meet. The death of her mother in 1869, when Alva was sixteen, turned her into “mother” to her two younger sisters, and she decided that it would be up to her to restore the family fortunes and take care of her sisters by marrying well. And what Alva decided upon usually took place: she was an extraordinarily tenacious person, as well as being both intelligent and spirited.
Alva accordingly restored the family fortunes by marrying the extremely wealthy William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of “Commodore” Vanderbilt, in 1875. She and “Willy K” had three children—Consuelo, William junior, and Harold. But her husband had his own interests, and Alva eventually turned to two things: social climbing, and building.
The Vanderbilts were “new money”, and as such not in the inner circle of society reigned over by Mrs. Caroline Astor (a.k.a. “the” Mrs. Astor). Alva changed this by building an enormous family home on 5th Avenue and then holding what promised to be the most glittering ball of the season…and not inviting Mrs. Astor or her daughter, who was pining to attend. Wanting to please her daughter, Mrs. Astor consented to call on Mrs. Vanderbilt…and after that, Alva’s place in society was guaranteed.
In 1895, after building several enormous houses with her husband’s money, including the astonishing Marble House in Newport (pictured above) and multiple mansions on Long Island, Alva sued him for divorce and promptly married one of her ex-husband’s best friends, Oliver Belmont. That same year she maneuvered and browbeat her daughter Consuelo into marrying the Duke of Marlborough (they too would have an unhappy marriage ending in divorce), and embarked happily on renovating and rebuilding her new husband’s homes and building them a new New York mansion. With the retirement of her former nemesis, Mrs. Astor, from the social scene, she moved into place with Mamie Fish and Tess Oelrichs as the leaders of New York society.
But the loss of her second husband in 1909 left Alva at somewhat loose ends…until she decided to pursue her growing interest in women’s suffrage. With her usual energy Alva embraced the suffrage movement and poured money and effort into working to secure the vote for women. She helped found several suffrage groups as well as what would today be called political action groups, and was co-founder of the National Women’s Party, of which she remained president for her lifetime. She even held a suffrage conference at Marble House, much to the bemusement of her society friends, and had a special set of china imprinted with the slogan "Votes for Women" made for the occasion.
After the First World War Alva spent an increasing amount of time in her beloved France, especially after Consuelo received her divorce and remarried a French war hero and aviation expert. She continued to build, remodeling a 15th century chateau, right until her death in 1933.
What do you think of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont? I don’t get the impression that she was probably the easiest person to live with (as her daughter and first husband might attest), but she was certainly a pioneer and a powerful woman ahead of her time.