Saturday, March 23, 2019

Bringing Down the Colonel, by Patricia Miller

When I saw this on the new book shelves at the library, I assumed from "A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age" in the subtitle that it was about the Woodhull sisters, whom I do find fascinating. I had never heard of Madeline Pollard, the "powerless" woman on the cover, but I found her story equally fascinating. It is one that played out in the newspapers across the country in 1893 and 1894, but has since been forgotten. Patricia Miller, a journalist, spent more than a decade researching and writing it. It has a particular resonance in 2019, particularly with the "MeToo" movement.

In June of 1893, Madeline Pollard took the unusual step of announcing her engagement to Col. Willie Breckinridge, a Confederate veteran and member of Congress whose wife had died the previous year. A month later Breckinridge, part of a powerful Kentucky political dynasty, married another woman in Louisville. In August, he was served with papers for a breach of promise suit that Pollard had filed. It wasn't just the suit, though, it was the explosive details that made the story front-page news. Pollard claimed that Breckinridge seduced her when she was a seventeen-year-old school girl, that she had been his mistress for more than ten years, that she had borne him two children, and that he had frequently promised to marry her when his wife died. He had even introduced her to a prominent Washington hostess, asking her to chaperone Pollard as his fiancée. Her suit demanded $50,000 in damages (well over a million dollars in today's rates - a fabulous amount in 1893).

Pollard was far from the first to make such claims. But she was the first to publish the details, and to appear publicly as a "Fallen Woman" who had broken the strict code of purity that late 19th century women were held to (white women at least, as Miller acknowledges). "I'll take my share of the blame. I only ask that he take his," Pollard said. That was a revolutionary statement: as Miller explains, the prevailing double-standard meant that women in cases like this bore all the blame, and they never prevailed in legal cases. In fact, women weren't allowed to even attend the trials, nor were the cases discussed in detail in news reports, to protect their delicacy and their purity. I had no idea that the future president Grover Cleveland was accused of sexually assaulting a woman, Maria Halpin, who then became pregnant. He was also accused to taking the child from her and having her committed to an asylum, while refusing her any other support or assistance. His supporters painted her as a wanton woman, blaming her pregnancy on other men. Miller also instances the senator and former member of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, Simon Cameron, who was sued for breach of promise by Mary Oliver. Because Oliver had had other lovers, and was therefore a "bad woman," Cameron was under no obligation to marry her and her suit was dismissed.

Breckinridge and his supporters expected that Pollard's suit would be dealt with as easily. However, as Miller writes,
the emergence of Madeline Pollard "startled the whole country." This seemingly powerless woman from a backwater in Kentucky took on one of the nation's most powerful men - and by extension much of Washington - and won. By having the nerve to tell her story in public, she broke the conspiracy of silence that allowed powerful men like Breckinridge to prey on younger and less powerful women. She led Victorian America on a front-row tour of the various subterfuges - the lying-in homes, the orphan asylums, the homes for fallen women - that men used to maintain an underclass of "ruined" women. She showed how men like Breckinridge manipulated their power and social conventions to ensure that it was women, and their unwanted children, who took the fall for men's behavior. In doing so, Madeline inspired a generation of women to demand change and presaged conversations about powerful men and sexual privilege that resonate into the twenty-first century.
According to Miller, Pollard's case had a major impact on women in the South, where white men had been exploiting black women for centuries. White women had chosen to ignore it in their own families, as the diarist Mary Chestnut and others pointed out. This case broke that silence. It also started a conversation about women's rights that finally moved southern women to the suffragist cause.

Miller's account is filled with fascinating women: journalists, activists, society leaders, doctors, servants, nuns, and women running "assignation houses." The testimony of Sarah Guess, a former slave who kept one in Lexington that Breckinridge and Pollard used, was particularly damaging to his case. I was especially interested in Breckinridge's daughter Nisba, who managed a college degree but couldn't study law as she wanted. For white women of her class, who didn't marry, the only acceptable jobs were teaching and working in the new department stores. She wanted more, and it took her years to break free from family obligations. Towards the end of her long life, she began making notes for an autobiography that she never completed. That's too bad, I'd be interested to read more about her.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

One less book

I threw a book away today. A new hardcover. Normally, I would donate a book I didn't want to keep to the library sales, but this book had some pages where the print was faded and there were odd splotches of color obscuring what little text could be read. If I had wanted to keep the book, I might have tried to return it for a clean copy. I didn't feel I could donate it in the shape it was.

On some level it feels wrong to throw a book away, particularly a new one in such outwardly good shape. But I didn't want this book in my house. I was enjoying it until it turned very violent at the end, in a way that I found deeply disturbing. The backstory of one of the main women characters was gradually revealed over the course of the story, with an episode of psychological abuse that involved a severed body part (someone else's). A minor female character was tortured and sexually assaulted for hours, and then left to die alone. This is presented from her point of view, though at least not in extreme detail. Forty people, whom we are told are bad though we never see them in action, are burned alive.

The book is Wild Country by Anne Bishop. It is the latest in her series of books about the Others, powerful predators who in an alternate reality control the world and allow humans only so much space in it. I really liked the previous books in the series, though I don't seem to have written about them before. If there are any further books in the series, I won't rush to read them.

Now I feel like something soothing and comforting, where absolutely no one dies, not even a mouse.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Old Gentleman (The Masqueraders, by Georgette Heyer)

   When the black page announced my Lord Barham next morning, both Mr and Miss Merriot were with my lady in the morning room. My lord was ushered in, very point-de-vice, with laced gloves, and a muff of miniver, and a long beribboned cane. The muff and the cane were given into the page's charge; the door closed behind this diminutive person, and my lord spread wide his arms. 'My children!' he exclaimed. 'Behold me returned to you.'
    His children maintained an admirable composure. 'Like Jonah cast up out of the whale's belly,' said Robin.
    My lord was not in the least put out of countenance by this coolness. 'My son!' He swooped upon Robin. 'Perfect! To the last detail! My Prudence!'
    Prudence submitted to a fervent embrace. 'Well, sir, how do you do?' she said, smiling. 'We perceive you are returned to us, but we do not understand the manner of it.'
    He struck an attitude. 'But do you not know? I am Tremaine. Tremaine of Barham!'
    'Lud!' said Robin. 'You don't say so, sir!'
    He was hurt. 'Ah, you do not believe in me! You doubt me, in effect!'
    'Well, sir' - Prudence sat on the arm of Robin's chair, and gently swung one booted leg to and fro - 'We've seen you as Mr Colney; we've seen you as Mr Daughtry; we've even seen you as the Prince Vanilov. You cannot altogether blame us.'
    My lord abandoned his attitude and took snuff. 'I shall show you," he promised. 'Do not doubt that this time I shall surpass myself.'
    'We don't doubt that, sir.'
    My lady said on a gurgling laugh, 'But what will you be at, mon cher? What madness?'
    'I am Tremaine of Barham,' reiterated his lordship with dignity. 'Almost I had forgot it, but I come now into my own. You must have known' - he addressed the room at large - 'you who have watched me, that there was more to me than a mere wandering gamester!'
    'Faith, we thought it was just deviltry, sir,' Prudence chuckled.
    'You do not appreciate me,' said my lord sadly, and sat him down by the table. 'You lack soul, my children. Yes, you lack soul.'
The children who lack soul are, like himself, fugitives from the losing side of the Jacobite rebellion. They are in disguise, Prudence as "Peter Merriot" and Robin as his sister Kate, staying with Lady Lowestoft, who knows the whole story and their many years ranging across Europe in their tempestuous father's wake. Now he has appeared in London, claiming to be the lost Viscount Barham.

I know this isn't a favorite with some Heyer readers, who find the Old Gentleman as irritating as his children sometimes do. I think he is one of her most entertaining characters, and I love watching him stir up trouble. The reactions of his more conventional children - even in their cross-dressing disguises - always make me laugh. Prudence is also a favorite character, one of Heyer's calm, sensible women, with the saving grace of humor. She actually deals better with their wayward father than her brother does, as she navigates through male society. At least growing up with a "wandering gamester" has taught her to play cards, and to best cardsharps out to fleece the young man she appears to be. And she gains the support and friendship of another lovely character, "the mountain" Sir Anthony Fanshawe, whose keen grey eyes watch not just the outrageous Lord Barham, but also the Merriots, Peter in particular.

Published in 1928, this is one of Heyer's earlier books. The language is ornate, rather self-consciously "period," but it still fizzes with humor. And it's quite an exciting story, between the disguises and the lost heir - not to mention a runaway bride, and a compromising document that may undo them all.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Sir Roderick Glossop

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, and I've been looking forward to this second. It starts off in the wake of the Abdication, with a high-profile wedding in Singapore between an American widow and her upper-class English fiancé. Chief Inspector Le Froy, Su Lin's boss at the new Detective and Intelligence Unit, has been asked to provide security for the Glossop-Covington wedding. That's in part because he is an old friend of the groom's father, Sir Roderick Glossop. I almost dropped the book when I read that.

Sir Roderick Glossop is of course a recurring character - and frequent antagonist - in some of my favorite P.G. Wodehouse novels, including Uncle Fred in the Springtime. He has two children in those books, neither of whom apparently went out to Singapore.

Now in addition to watching the mystery play out, I'll be on the loookout for more PGW connections. And I see there is a third book coming out in June, at least in the UK, The Paper Bark Tree Mystery.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Ashes of Honor, by Seanan McGuire

This is the sixth book in Seanan McGuire's "October Daye" urban fantasy series, set in and around San Francisco, and the series just keeps getting better with each book. The main character, October (or Toby), was introduced in the first book (Rosemary and Rue) as a changeling, born to a fae mother from whom she inherited certain abilities that help her work as a private detective in the fae communities. In this book, she is hired by a fae father, who has just learned about his own changeling child, Chelsea, a daughter who inherited his powers of teleportation. Her human mother thinks the fae have kidnapped her child, and she is threatening to reveal their existence to the human world, which will threaten the survival of all the fae. Chelsea doesn't know how to control her powers, and she is breaking through barriers between fae worlds, opening doors that must be closed. Toby has to track her down before she weakens those barriers to the point that worlds begin to collapse. She must also offer Chelsea what all changelings face as children or adolescents: the Choice between the human world and the fae. If she chooses the fae world, she will be separated forever from her human parent. This was the Choice that Toby made, and her fae mother has never forgiven the loss of her husband, Toby's father.

As a changeling herself, Toby understands Chelsea in a way that the pureblood fae never can. Not only did she face the Choice, but so did her own daughter Gillian, who chose the human world of her father. Toby's experiences with lost children and changelings often draw her to these kinds of cases.

This is a series that really needs to be read in order. There is a deep backstory to Toby, one that she is still figuring out. Ms. McGuire is good however at brief reminders of things that happened in previous books, without letting them distract from the current action. The stories are interesting in and of themselves, as Toby works out the different cases. Beyond that, there are three things that captivate me in the stories. The first is Toby herself. She is smart and snarky, but also scarred by her past, by the loss of her child and partner, and by the very complicated relationship with her mother Amadine, one of the most powerful of the fae but one of the least stable. We have gradually learned more about Amadine, but I get the feeling there are more secrets to be revealed.

The second is the family that Toby has built, starting with her liege lord and father figure Sylvester, Duke of Shadowed Hills. (The first book opens with Toby trying to find his wife and daughter, who have been kidnapped.) Then there is May, once the Fetch sent to foretell her upcoming death, now her sister and roommate. They share a house with Quentin, a fosterling at Sylvester's court who is Toby's squire. Toby doesn't know who his parents are, but they don't seem to mind that working with her has already gotten Quentin shot, or that he has had to break her out of (fae) prison. Sylvester assures her that they think her training will best prepare him for the modern worlds. Quentin's best friend Raj hangs around with them a lot. He is a Cait Sidhe, heir to the throne of the local Court of Cats. The king, his uncle Tybalt, has rescued Toby more than once, for reasons that she can't quite understand. (Ms. McGuire is also good at explaining the different races of fae, and keeping them clear in my mind at least, again without overwhelming). One of my favorite characters is The Luidaeg, an immensely powerful fae known and feared as "the sea witch." She and Toby have become friends over the course of the stories, as she has helped with Toby's cases, though her assistance comes at a high price - and not in money.

The third is the politics of a fae world where the Elders - Oberon, Titiania, and Maeve - have withdrawn, leaving their children vulnerable among the humans, but sometimes unable to live in peace among themselves. Fae society is organized along feudal lines. Duke Sylvester is Toby's liege, but they are both subjects of the Queen of Mists, who dislikes them both. At one point Toby herself inherited a territory and became a Countess in her own right, which infuriated the Queen. She later gave up the title (with relief) in part to prevent a war. There are alliances between different groups of the fae, and conflicts of course as well, which Toby must deal with as she works through the different cases she takes on.

I find these books so rich and satisfying that I have been taking a break between them, rather than rushing through the series as I often do. However, Ashes of Honor brought some very interesting developments, and left a couple of questions open, so I have moved straight on to the next, Chimes at Midnight.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

A new series from Ovidia Yu, finally available in the U.S.

I was thinking the other day that I haven't seen a new book from Ovidia Yu in a while. When I checked her website, I found a new "Aunty Lee" story, Meddling and Murder. But I also learned that she has a new series, the first two books of which are finally available in the U.S. The summary of the first, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, sent me immediately in search of a copy:
    1936 in the Crown Colony of Singapore, and the British abdication crisis and rising Japanese threat seem very far away. When the Irish nanny looking after Acting Governor Palin's daughter dies suddenly and mysteriously, mission school-educated local girl Su Lin - an aspiring journalist trying to escape an arranged marriage - is invited to take her place.
    But then another murder occurs at the residence and it seems very likely that a killer is stalking the corridors of Government House. It now takes all Su Lin's skills and intelligence to help British-born Chief Inspector Thomas Le Froy solve the murders - and escape with her own life.
Su Lin narrates most of the story, with occasional comments that show she is looking back at the events. "I was to come to know the bungalow on Frangipani Hill very well, but on that long-ago first day I was young and awestruck..." Brief sections also follow Chief Inspector Le Froy, told in the third person, presenting events and conversations that Su Lin learns about later.

I found Su Lin an interesting and sympathetic character straight from the first page, where she is caught between her formidable English mentor (who wants her to take a job with Le Froy) and her very traditional uncle (who has arranged three possible marriages for her).
Knowing Miss Nessa had a soft spot for me, I had asked her to help me find a job. I could not tell her that I longed to be independent like her, and see the world beyond Singapore, so I might have exaggerated my fear of being married off now my schooldays were over. In truth, [my grandmother] Ah Ma might have kept me at home with her to recoup the investment she had made in sending me to learn English reading and writing at the Mission School. I had been considered 'bad luck' since my parents had died from typhoid, and childhood polio had left me with a limp. It had seemed unlikely my family would ever be able to marry me off, but since I was the only child of Ah Ma's favourite son, she had decided to educate rather than sell me. My grandmother's moneylending and black-market businesses had made her rich in the continuing Depression, and she could afford to keep me at home to translate for her, run errands and monitor the household accounts. But grateful though I was to her, the school run by the Mission Centre had opened my eyes to a whole world of possibilities. I wanted more than a lifetime of toil under my grandmother or a mother-in-law. If I was to escape domestic captivity, I would need my own money, which was why I had to find a paying job. (It would have been easier if I had been an English woman rather than a Chinese girl, but I didn't worry about what I couldn't change.)
Su Lin's goal is a career in journalism, inspired by the character Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, "whom I had found far more interesting than the book's heroine." She takes the position with the Palins in part out of compassion for their daughter Deborah, at seventeen only a year older than Su Lin, but due to brain damage from an illness mentally a child of seven or so. But Su Lin is also motivated by curiosity, to know what happened to the dead woman, Charity Byrne, an orphan like Su Lin but with no other family. Inspector Le Froy, "known for his willingness to work with - and against - men of any race, language or religion," does discriminate against women. "In the newspapers he had been quoted as saying that the police force would never employ female officers because it was impossible to work with irrational persons." It's lovely to see his prejudices breaking down in the face of Su Lin's intelligence, competence, and compassion. "It was his first inkling of how tough a practical female can be."

There is so much to enjoy in this story, both the setting and the fascinating mix of peoples. Su Lin's best friend from school is Parshanti, whose British mother and Indian father put the family in a complicated, uneasy place in the community. Like Su Lin, Parshanti's options are limited now that her schooling is ended. Her father, a doctor, has trouble finding patients so he works with the police on forensics. Perhaps she will end up helping Su Lin in the cases to come!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Black God's Drums, by P. Djèjí Clark

This novella, the story of a 13-year-old orphan named Creeper living on the streets of New Orleans, just blew me away. To start with, it's 1884, and the American Civil War has paused (after eight years) with an armistice that divided the country and left slavery in the South. I do love alternate-world history, though I prefer ones where the Confederacy died the death it deserved. However New Orleans, as Creeper tells us,
"been free now going on more than two decades - ever since the slave uprising in that first year of the war. Caught the Confederates by surprise. They got so scared, they let the Free Coloured militias join up to help put it down. Only the militias switched over to the slaves and both of them took the city."
And in this world, airships have been developed, for which New Orleans has become a major port, a neutral and open one. When we first meet Creeper, she is settled in the hideaway she has established at the airship docks, where she can scout out "folks too careless with their purses, luggage, and anything else for the taking. Because in New Orleans, you can't survive on just dreams."

Creeper also prefers to be high up over the city. Her mother, who died from yellow fever, told her that she "was Oya's child - the goddess of storms, life, death and rebirth, who came over with her great-grandmaman from Lafrik..." Creeper, named Jacqueline at birth, can feel Oya in her mind, hear her voice, sometimes warning of dangers or calling her to some action.

When Creeper overhears a group of men plotting to kidnap a Haitian scientist due to arrive on an airship, who will be bringing "the Black God's Drums," she knows she has found something "Bigger than any marks I was going to pinch tonight . . .that's gonna be valuable to somebody. I just need to figure out who'll pay the highest price." What Creeper wants, more than money, is a place on an airship, to join a crew - and she has her heart set on a particular ship, the successful smuggler Captain Ann-Marie St. Augustine's Midnight Robber. What she doesn't know until she meets the Captain is that the woman also carries a goddess's touch, Oshun, "The Bright Lady! Mistress of Rivers! Oya's sister-wife!" Creeper tells us "The magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it, making the ground and air and waterways sacred land."

P. Djèjí Clark packs so much action and excitement into his story, which takes place in the days before Mardi Gras (called "Maddi grà" here). I was particularly tickled by Creeper and Captain's visit to the convent of the Sacred Family, a gloss on the Sisters of the Holy Family, founded by Henriette de Lille in New Orleans as the first congregation for African American women in the United States (barred by racism from entering white orders). Sisters Eunice and Agnès who agree to help them are hilarious, but they are much more than comic relief, with more than one trick up the sleeves of their habits. As Creeper says, "Everyone knows the sisters help smuggle in runaways from the Confederacy." Those still enslaved are kept docile and helpless with chemical warfare, a gas called drapeto - a particularly chilling touch in the story.

I enjoyed this story so much. I loved the magic, and the technology, and the triumph of freedom in New Orleans (and Haiti). I hope there will be more of Creeper's adventures to come, especially if she talks her way on to that airship.