December 2008


1809caribbean1

I originally needed to research the Caribbean islands as they formed an important background for the hero of my novel, CANE, which centered on slavery in the sugar cane industry of the 19th century.  It was such a fascinating subject that I learned far more than I could ever use in my novel.

Though the slave history of the islands is well known, it transpired the Caribbean had been a hotbed of slavery long before the Europeans arrived; they only found more efficient ways to make it work.

There had been native tribes living on the islands since the dawn of time, the first peoples long ago lost to history. However, the Tainos (more commonly known as the Arawaks) had been living in the Caribbean islands for hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. It was a later arrival, the Caribs, who originally came from Venezuela, who began to pray on the Arawaks, making slaves of them. The Caribs systematically forced the Arawaks from many of the islands, killing many and enslaving the survivors. However, it took the arrival of the Spaniards to finally wipe out the Arawaks in the 16th century. It was then the turn of the Caribs to become slaves to the white man. Today, there are virtually no Caribbean Indians surviving, though certain Arawak features can be found among the indigenous races of South America.

The Spaniards originally needed slaves from the islands in their quest for gold and many were shipped to South America. By the time the value of cane sugar was realised late in the 17th century, the Caribbean Indian to use as slaves were virtually gone, so new sources were needed. It was a friar from Hispaniola named Bartoleme who suggested enslaving Africans. Many of these new slaves came from Africa’s Guinea coast, taken from their homes by slave-raiding parties, which were often endorsed by the local government.

passage-01So began the infamous Triangular Trade: European ships set sail for the Caribbean colonies, via Africa where they bartered arms and liquor with the African slave traders; the captured slaves were shipped to the islands and, in the final step, sugar and rum were sent from the islands back to Europe. The trade may have begun with the Spaniards, but soon other European races were quick to see the advantage and before long the Dutch, French and English were fighting over the rights to the islands – and the slaves. The trade was thought so valuable that England went to war with the Dutch twice over control of the islands – the two countries had originally banded together to oust the Spanish.

The trade was not only ongoing, it was increasing year by year. For those that survived the harrowing sea voyage, the average life expectancy of an imported slave was only seven years, but many never even survived that long, an average of ten percent dying within the first year.

canefield2aOn the plantations, owners demanded slaves sever every tie to their homelands and they kept slaves of the same culture apart. Harsh punishments were exercised for disobedience or acts of will, and it was not illegal to kill an African man in the British Colonies until the beginning of the 19th century. The occasional slave revolts were put down with vicious force; many slaves would rather die than return to their life of servitude.

harvestingsugar

Jamaica in particular saw many slave uprisings, and was home to more slave rebellions slavemaster11than all of the other British islands combined. Tacky’s rebellion in the summer of 1760 was the most significant of these. Tacky, who had been a chief at home in Africa, led a group of supporters and moved inland. They took over plantations and killed the white plantation owners. Their plan was to overthrow British rule and to establish an African kingdom in Jamaica. However, the British authorities sent in the militia and though some of the rebels returned to their plantations many fought on until Tacky himself was killed. The last of the rebels committed suicide rather than return to slavery.

The various islands/island groups were constantly fought over and changed hands, often repeatedly as the European nations strove for dominance of the islands.

It took many years before the disgraceful trade ended, as peoples’ sensibilities changed because of the efforts of anti-slavery movements. It was a slow process – the first country to abolish slavery was Denmark in 1792 and it was not until 1882 that the last slaves in the Caribbean were finally freed.

Monument to the end of Slavery

Monument to the end of Slavery

I had been thinking about doing a historical novel based upon the life of Robert Schumann since 1990, when I discovered a translation of his letters in the public library in Seattle. I wrote several poems based upon what biographical material I could glean in those letters and other general biographies that were at that library, but beyond buying recordings of his piano and symphonic works and becoming a fan of his music, my hope of writing a book about this curious and tragic genius remained remote until I found a job working for the US Army as a contractor in the fall of 2001, became friends with a violinist in an orchestra in Darmstadt, who – like many career musicians, had a library of books about composers. It was here that my research began.

I was lucky, in that I had a day job that supported me more than adequately, allowed me weekends off as well as vacation time, and I was geographically situated near several spots where my research subject had lived – and most importantly, only 300 km from where he spent his final years, a private psychiatric hospital in Bonn which I found out – still stands.

I had already written three historical novels, and in each case, the actual places were too remote for me to venture to in person for a sense of place and for the kind of detail that would allow me to visualize my setting and character. The first book, which was about the Hunnic empire and Attila, took place in Asia Minor and what is now Hungary, and the only available sources I could find were some archeological studies, and the fragmentary work of the Roman senator Priscus, who had visited Attila in the early 5th century.

Due to a lack of research material, my planned trilogy languished, despite a plethora of maps from the time period, and assiduous study of the books I could get. Book study of an era and of a people were not quite enough for me to synthesize into a believable, coherent, and convincing historical novel.

I needed to be there. And in fact, still hanging on to my hope of finishing the Hun book, I set off in the late fall of 2001 thinking I would be able to draw enough from a day trip to Troyes, in eastern France, the site of Attila’s final battle, to renew my interest and give me enough sense of place to breathe life into my project again so I could finish it. I didn’t make it to Troyes – it was 4 hours away by car. But I did go to concerts, and I did go to Johannes Brahms’ house in Baden Baden, and to downtown Heidelberg, and in those historic towns, left intact by the ravages of WWII, I began to absorb the atmosphere and sense of place that would eventually get an historical novel off the ground – the book about Schumann.

 

Robert Schumann, 1839

Robert Schumann, 1839

Although it is not enough to simply go to a place that remains as it was a century before (or largely so), I have found that sense of place – its geography, its character, its smell, for want of a better word – is crucial for visualizing it in historic context, to make the people who lived then, breathe and move about enough for me to capture them. It provides specificity. One can read in a book that the baths of Baden Baden are situated in the woods, but to travel up the twists and turns of what was once a carriage road through the dense pines to a towering stone mansion mostly obscured on a high bluff, is to be able to picture it vividly and accurately. I took photos of the crumbling ruin of forts and castles that had been crumbling and in ruins when my protagonist saw them. Europe – the parts that survived the intense bombings, would be as he had seen them.

 

Heidelberger Schloss

Heidelberger Schloss

 

Heidelberg, where Schumann spent a year of university and first began to compose, was less than 15 miles from where I lived. I loved that city, and took hundreds of photos of the historic downtown, and the enormous ruin that hovered over it, Heidelberger Schloss. The views of the gardens of the Schloss are the most beautiful. One historical footnote is that by a curious coincidence of fate, both Hitler and the Allies had identified Heidelberg as a strategic goal for headquartering troops, so neither side bombed there – as a result, Heidelberg remained untouched by the war, while Mannheim to the northwest, was severely damaged, and is almost entirely rebuilt except for specific neighborhoods.

Gardens at Heidelberger Schloss

Gardens at Heidelberger Schloss

 

Besides touring the places my character lived, studied, and performed, I attended concerts, read books in German and English about the people and their times, got biographies of Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Mendelssohn that were published in the country that I would never have seen in the United States, which included photographs, daguerreotypes, facsimiles of manuscripts… and the motherlode of all primary sources: diaries. Fortunately for me, my subject, while he suffered from the scandal of being a suicide in the 19th century, was largely rehabilitated as a “great German composer” by the time Germany reunited and reconstruction began. The hospital in Bonn where he died, badly damaged during the bombing of Bonn, was reconstructed, as was the cemetery and his memorial, and made into a music library, not only of Schumann’s music and biography, but of all German music. I wasn’t able to take books out, but I was able to read their private collection at the library, and take notes. They also published and sold books that were only available in Germany, and here I found the detail I needed to be able to fashion a story. Despite the destruction of many personal letters between Schumann and his closest friend, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, there was enough remaining in his diaries and letters to reveal, however subtly, the details of a poetic and musical soul who fell in love easily with both men and women. The nearly-inscrutable, elaborate left-hand script. Where he took his walks, and what he thought about. His nightmares. His confinement and the visitors he had there. Perhaps ironically, the Staatsbibliotek holds regular chamber concerts in the library where Schumann spent his last days, wasting away from a depressive illness which had stolen his ability to compose music. Preserved in glass there, the final piece of music, entitled only “Theme”, a mere 9 bars of melody, left unfinished and marred by an inkblot.

 

Staatsbibliotek Bonn, formerly a private psychiatric hospital

Staatsbibliotek Bonn, formerly a private psychiatric hospital

I was about two-thirds of the way through the first draft of my novel when I took a two-week trip to the former East Germany, to see Leipzig and Zwickau, Schumann’s childhood home, now also a museum and concert venue. The entire city has undergone reconstruction, and by the time I got there in June of 2003 for their annual concert festival (in Schumann’s honor), the 7 million euro renovation of his home was complete.

 

Geburtshaus Schumann (birthplace), Zwickau

Geburtshaus Schumann (birthplace), Zwickau

 

There, I found a wealth of new material, including published reviews he had made of other composers such as Chopin (whom he adored from afar), Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who was both an intimate friend and benefactor, the originals of all of his extant portraits, and his own piano. I jotted down quotes, took photos of his visiting card. I listened to lectures by professors whose careers are devoted to discovering how and why the troublesome Third Symphony was edited as it was, whose only concern was what he produced – not what he was. I was looking for the man behind the composer. Seeing what he saw and understanding, with my developing fluency in the language, how he expressed himself. I finally had the level of specificity to write with confidence not only about the person, but about Zwickau, Bonn, and Heidelberg – I knew as much as I could know about what it was to experience life as he did, because the German federal government had pieced it all back together for me, put it in glass cases, published monographs and presented lectures, concerts and put on festivals to celebrate the culture that thrived before the Nazi era.

 

Kornmarkt, Zwickau

Kornmarkt, Zwickau

In fact, all of downtown Zwickau was renovated and refurbished – the entire cobblestoned Kornmarkt, the central mercantile square, had been rehabilitated and restored to as original condition as possible, with the occasional “new” shop or restaurant peeking out of a historic facade. In this picture of the Kornmarkt, which is taken from the point of view of Schumann’s house, you can see a Burger King beside the original facade.

I absorbed all that I could of the places I could reach, I read all the biographical material I could buy or borrow, but by far the best resource for me – and this applies equally to biographical figures as invented ones – is diaries. How long it took to travel by carriage from Zwickau to Heidelberg (2 weeks.) How frequently a devoted son writes his mother (daily.) How much it costs for a private room in a sanitarium (50 thalers a month.) The philosophy I emerged from this research amounts to this: it is not so much that people change throughout history, it is the specifics of how they live that change. The detail of everyday life in that specific time and place, and how that influences their outlooks. And, for those of us who write historical stories of nontraditional sexuality – how they expressed it, how they hid it, their view of themselves in a society that at best, silently ignored what was universally viewed as a disgusting perversion. There were precious few crumbs to sift through. One biographer theorized that whatever evidence of homosexuality was left behind in diary or letters that was not destroyed by Schumann’s wife or Mendelssohn’s executors, was systematically destroyed by Hitler’s government when he was elevated as an official cultural hero of the Third Reich. But they missed enough for me reconstruct (and to fill in where there were no facts to draw upon) a life lived at least half in shadow.

 

Over at The New York Times, there’s an article about an exhibition of 17thC embroidery at the Bard Graduate Center

Pair of Gloves

Pair of Gloves

 From the NYTimes article:

“The exhibition of embroidery at the Bard Graduate Center is both a revelation and great fun. Its subject is one of the most beloved, ancient and widely pursued art forms/crafts/hobbies on earth. Its focus is 17th-century England, the site of one of embroidery’s golden ages, it turns out.

A lot happened during this period, especially after 1642. Two civil wars culminated in the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. Then came 10 years of the Cromwells and all that, followed by the Restoration (1660), the Great Plague of London (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666), which did much to extinguish the Great Plague. Finally a fairly bloodless revolution (1688) was quickly followed by the formation of a constitutional monarchy (1689). Throughout, endless squabbling and plotting and frequent combat transpired between or among monarchs and parliaments; Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans; and Scots, Irish and English. It is a miracle that anybody had time for anything, much less great needlework. “

The Bard Center is in Manhattan so an in person visit isn’t likely for most Macaronis; however, the article is well worth a look, and Bard have a wonderfully distracting set of past exhibition catalogs too, so do beware as they are available via Yale UP.  

The article has a gorgeous slideshow that’s worth ogling. 

Here’s the Bard’s press release:

ENGLISH EMBROIDERY FROM THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, ca. 1580-1700: ’TWIXT ART AND NATURE

December 11, 2008 to April 12, 2009

From December 11, 2008 to April 12, 2009, The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture is presenting English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ca. 1580-1700: ’Twixt Art and Nature. This is the third exhibition resulting from a collaboration between the Bard Graduate Center and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA).*
The exhibition, a key component in the BGC’s History and Theory of Museums concentration, draws from the Metropolitan’s preeminent collection of embroidered objects made for secular use during the late Tudor and Stuart eras. These objects have usually been regarded as a discrete body of work, removed from any sense of their original settings and contexts. However, the embroideries were created and used by the gentry of England for personal adornment and to decorate their homes, and feature designs and patterns that reflect contemporary religious ideals, education concepts, and fashionable motifs. One of the principal goals of this exhibition is to give aesthetic and scholarly credence to these often technically complex, thematically rich, and compelling objects. The significance of the objects within the social and cultural economy of 17th-century domestic life is examined by juxtaposing them with contemporary prints, books, and decorative arts.
The project is co-curated by Melinda Watt, assistant curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum, and Andrew Morrall, professor at the Bard Graduate Center; and is overseen by Deborah L. Krohn, associate professor and coordinator for History and Theory of Museums, and Nina Stritzler-Levine, director of exhibitions, both at the BGC.

The Exhibition
English Embroidery is composed of approximately 80 objects from the MMA’s collection of embroideries and comparative supplemental material from the museum and other institutions and private collectors. The exhibition is presented on three floors of the BGC and is organized in sections that explore thematic and typological characteristics of the embroideries. Original printed images and texts, combined with high-quality photo reproductions, help the viewer contextualize the embroideries in a way that has not been attempted previously. There is also a special animation component, consisting of three digital videos that demonstrate stitch techniques, to enhance visitors’ understanding of this art form.

The exhibition aims, therefore, to further historical understanding of the material by combining historical interpretation with the best in museum practice. The technical sections use macro- and x-ray photography to demonstrate the complexity of embroidery techniques and the variety of constituent materials in a manner never before realized in exhibition form. The adjoining displays of the stages of girlhood education demonstrate concretely the historical process by which these techniques were learned and developed. At the same time, each section illustrates the specific social and cultural meanings of the forms and subject matter, and shows how the themes employed in needlework reflected values of domestic harmony and new ideals of social grace and gentility.
The introductory section on the first floor is centered on the theme of royalty and serves to provide historical background for the visitor. It contains objects of courtly ceremonial and domestic pieces that reinforce the importance of the idea of monarchy to court and country throughout a period in which stable rule under the Tudors was followed by civil war, regicide, and the eventual restoration of monarchy under the Stuarts. Among the ceremonial objects in this section are a spectacular burse (purse) made to hold the Great Seal of England and a lavishly embroidered Bible associated with Archbishop Laud. A number of embroidered portraits are displayed, including a unique Elizabethan portrait of a woman, possibly Queen Elizabeth herself, and a finely worked “portrait miniature” of Charles I, based on engravings by Wenceslas Hollar. This latter work testifies to the deeply intimate nature of the cult of the Martyr King that arose after Charles’s execution. Another featured object is a beaded and embroidered basket with representations of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza, made in celebration of the royal marriage and restored monarchy.
The overarching theme of the second-floor galleries is the use of embroidered objects within the domestic setting. There are three specific themes: the role of embroidery in the education of girls and young women, the survival of rare and precious accessories of dress, and the production and function of domestic furnishings. On display are several samplers representative of the types created in the mid-17th century, including a rare dated workbag created and initialed by a ten-year-old in 1669, as well as exemplary literature advocating needlework skills for the well-bred young woman and pattern books from which designs were taken. A display of techniques and materials complements the presentation of embroidery as an educational tool. Several objects, including a late 16th-century pair of gloves and a highly three-dimensional raised-work panel, have been chosen to illustrate the variety and quality of materials found in 17th-century embroidery.

The display of objects related to education and technique is followed by a display of fashion accessories from the early 17th century. One rare complete garment, an embroidered jacket from about 1616, is highlighted.
Continuing the theme of objects made for domestic use, the second floor concludes with domestic furnishings produced at both the amateur and professional levels. Decorated caskets (small boxes), mirror frames, and cushions all played a role in bringing comfort and color to the home at a time when many furnishings were still transported from one home to another and most upholstery was not fixed. Two of the Met’s most spectacular caskets, as well as two equally elaborate mirrors, are shown here.

The third floor installation explores in detail two of the most popular themes in the pictorial embroidery of the period: stories drawn from the Bible and the depiction of nature. The objects here depict the centrality of the Bible in contemporary domestic life and reflect the use of exemplary biblical heroines as models of virtuous behavior in the upbringing of young women. Finally, a selection of embroideries is used to highlight the importance of the natural world in the decorative conventions of the time.

The Catalogue
The accompanying publication, published and distributed by Yale University Press, has been edited by co-curators Melinda Watt and Andrew Morrall and contains a complete catalogue of the objects in the exhibition as well as six essays. It is the most extensive examination of embroidery from this period ever published in the United States. In addition to the curators, contributors include Kathleen Staples, author of British Embroidery: Curious Works from the Seventeenth Century (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1998), whose essay addresses the production and usage of embroidered furnishings; Susan North, curator of 17th and 18th century dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), who has written an essay on fashion accessories; Ruth Geuter, a leading expert on pictorial embroideries, who offers an essay on the social dimensions of the embroidered biblical narratives; and Cristina Carr, associate conservator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who presents an illustrated technical dictionary of materials unique to these objects .

Related Programs
An array of lectures, panels, and other offerings will be presented in conjunction with English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ca. 1580-1700: ’Twixt Art and Nature . For further information, please call 212-501-3011 or e-mail programs@bgc.bard.edu.

Exhibition Tours
Group tours of English Embroidery are conducted Tuesdays through Fridays between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., and on Thursdays until 7:00 p.m.  Reservations are required for all groups. For further information, please call the Bard Graduate Center Gallery at 212-501-3013 or TTY 212-501-3012, or e-mail gallery@bgc.bard.edu.gallery@bgc.bard.edu.

Location
The Bard Graduate Center is located at 18 West 86th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, in New York City.  Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.  Admission is $3 general, $2 seniors and students (with valid ID), and free on Thursday evenings after 5:00 p.m.  For further information about the Bard Graduate Center and upcoming exhibitions, please visit www.bgc.bard.edu.

Support

‘English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ca. 1580-1700: Twixt Art and Nature is made possible through generous grants from the Coby Foundation, Ltd. and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.

Upcoming Exhibitions
  Fall-Winter 2009-2010 New Amsterdam in the Dutch Atlantic

For further information, please call 212-501-3000 or e-mail generalinfo@bgc.bard.edu.

*The BGC/MMA collaboration was inaugurated in 2001.  Prior to mounting each exhibition, the BGC, in conjunction with the MMA, holds a series of courses in which a small group of graduate students learn all aspects of researching, planning, designing, and installing exhibitions of decorative objects. Class sessions are held in the storerooms of the MMA, where curators lead scholarly discussions and students work intimately with the objects considered for display. Research in this course is ultimately utilized in the exhibition catalogue, exhibition labels, and/or gallery guides. Other classes are held at the BGC and examine topics related to general museum practice, including developing and proposing the exhibition concept; identifying and arranging for the borrowing of objects; writing a script, captions, text panels, and other interpretive materials; and accommodating transport, installation, and conservation requirements. This current academic initiative offers a unique opportunity to heighten awareness of and develop a critical understanding of textiles.

 

When I was researching H H Munro, he began to appear rather like a character from one of his own, gloriously eccentric stories, which he wrote under the pen-name Saki. His mother died following a miscarriage after she’d been attacked by a runaway cow; he was killed during a rest-break in a shell crater in November 1916. His last words were said to be ‘Put that bloody cigarette out’, before he was shot through the head. I guess the sniper was aiming for ‘that bloody cigarette’.

hh-munro-2-sized 

Saki’s marvellously un-PC short story ‘The Unrest Cure’, is, as far as I’m concerned, a brilliant example of the genre. Indeed, it’s Munro’s short stories which are his masterpieces. The characters he created – a cornucopia of beautiful, well bred boys and snooty, spirited women – are exceedingly well drawn. I’ve loved Clovis Sangrail, with his fondness for the good things in life, for years and have always had my suspicions about his sexuality. When I came across the theory that Saki himself (who never married) was actually gay, I felt I had to re-read the stories to see if, like E M Forster, he was leaving us any little clues.

saki-002

I have to say that’s there’s even less evidence of ‘hidden desires’ than there was with Forster. There are, however, two striking young men who I’d put money on their being  gay – the aforementioned Clovis and Reginald. 

Reginald is obsessed with clothes, being extremely vain (he sends a pair of gloves he’s received from an Aunt to a ‘boy whom I hated intimately’ because they are size nines. He is anarchic, arranging a treat for the church choir which involves letting the boys bathe in the river, sitting on their clothes so they can’t get dressed, then leading them on a Bacchanalian procession through the village, the boys wearing no more than spotted handkerchiefs should they possess them. 

Clovis is equally obsessed with clothes and food. “Clovis relapsed for a few golden moments into tender intimacies with a succession of rapidly disappearing oysters’. He’s the one to bring chaos with his ‘unrest cure’, and when a child goes missing he’s more concerned with ensuring the cook produces the correct sauce – hollandaise – with the asparagus.

hh-munro

Why should I have assumed, right from the start, that both of these chaps are gay? I’m not sure whether I’m falling into the ‘stereotype’ trap, but they do both remind me of the sort of effete characters who inhabit the works of Oscar Wilde. Or the Guy Bennetts, Sebastian Flytes of flim and book

And what else could I find, apart from this charming pair? Two little stories which rang bells in my slashy mind. ‘Wratislaw’ concludes with the eponymous hero running away to Mexico in disgrace for misdemeanours unknown – ‘It’s other people’s consciences that send one abroad in a hurry’. All we know is that Wratislaw is a black sheep – ‘If half the things they say about him are true…’ I bet I know what some of those things are.

thumbnail

Most intriguing is a tale called ‘Adrian, a chapter in acclimatization’. Adrian (born with the duller name John Henry) is a draper’s assistant from Bethnal Green who acquires (it’s never specified how) a roomlet in a posh area and is taken out, immaculately dressed, to dine at The Ritz or some such place by Lucas Croyden, another of Saki’s food obsessed young men. Adrian gets ‘acquired’ afresh  by a wealthy lady who takes him off round Europe where he causes chaos. Again, I can guess exactly what services he’s performing to get himself out of Bethnal Green, where his mother works in a laundry. 

Am I reading too much into the text? Or am I too used to ‘looking for the signs’ in novels of an era which was strictly in the closet? See what you think – if you haven’t yet read Saki, please do take the plunge. His works are witty, anarchic and a textbook in the art of the short story.

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