I am grateful to have the very talented Jeanne Mackin here today to share her impressive research.
I hope you enjoy her post as much as I did.
When I was researching my first historical novel I found a volume of memoirs written by Marie Antoinette’s seamstress…and it had never been translated into English! I read French well enough to be able to read these memoirs, but it was so exciting to me, to hold a book published more than a hundred and fifty years before and realize I was one of the very Americans who may have read it.
That’s what historical research means to me: exploration and discovery. I don’t think of it as a dry and dusty duty but almost as a form of vacation, a way to travel to different times and places, and sometimes those places I travel to are well-off the beaten path. When I began researching my most recent novel, A Lady of Good Family, I began by reading more memoirs and biographies of my characters – Edith Wharton, her sister-in-law Mary Cadwalader Jones, and Edith’s niece, Beatrix. Thankfully, all three women were writers of various types and there is plenty of material. But once that reading was finished, I began to explore garden history, since Beatrix Farrand became of the most famous professional gardeners of our country.
Gardens fascinate me, as they fascinated Beatrix, and historically they offer much to the investigator willing to explore those library shelves: colonial gardens, English country house gardens, public gardens, secret gardens…they all have their own purpose, they own style and methods. In a way, gardens maintained over several generations, as some are, become their own type of library, full of experiences, discoveries, history. Who planted that tree, and why? How did those daffodils end up planted so far from the main garden? I turn over some earth and find a child’s marble buried there from decades before I wonder if that child, now grown old, ever wonders where that marble disappeared to!
Gardening and historical research, you see, have much in common. They both raise questions and ask us to look for answers, or even just more questions.
Raised among wealth and privilege during America's fabled Gilded Age, a niece of famous novelist Edith Wharton and a friend to literary great Henry James, Beatrix Farrand is expected to marry, and to marry well. But as a young woman traveling through Europe, she already knows that gardens are her true passion. How she becomes a woman for whom work and love, the earthly and the mysterious, are held in delicate balance is the story of her unique determination to create beauty while remaining true to herself.
My grandparents had a farm outside of Schenectady, and every Sunday my father, who worked in town, would hitch the swayback mare to the buggy and take us out there. I would be left in play in the field as my father and grandfather sat on the porch and drank tea and Grandma cooked. My mother, always dressed a little too extravagantly, shelled the peas.
A yellow barn stood tall and broad against a cornflower blue sky. A row of red hollyhocks in front of the barn stretched to the sky, each flower on the stem as silky and round as the skirt on Thumbelina’s ball gown. In the field next to the barn, daisies danced in the breeze. My namesake flower.
I saw it still, the yellows and red and blues glowing against my closed eyelids. The field was my first garden and I was absolutely happy in it. We usually are, in the gardens of our childhood.
When I opened my eyes I was on a porch in Lenox, a little tired from weeks of travel, a little restless. My companions were restless, too, weary of trying to make polite conversation as strangers do.
It was a late-summer evening, too warm, with a disquieting breeze stirring the treetops as if a giant ghostly hand ruffled them. Through the open window a piano player was tinkling his way through Irving Berlin as young people danced and flirted. In the road that silvered past the inn, young men, those who had made it home from the war, drove up and down in their shiny black Model T’s.
It was a night for thinking of love and loss, first gardens, first kisses.
Mrs. Avery suggested we try the Ouija board. Since the war it had become a national obsession.
“Let’s,” I agreed eagerly.
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Jeanne Mackin ‘s latest novel, A Lady of Good Family, explores the secret life of gilded age Beatrix Jones Farrand, niece of Edith Wharton and the first woman professional landscape design in America. Her previous novel, The Beautiful American, based on the life of model turned war correspondent and photographer, Lee Miller won the CNY 2015 prize for fiction. She has published in American Letters and Commentary and SNReview and other publications and is the author of the Cornell Book of Herbs and Edible Flowers. She was the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society and her journalism has won awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. She lives with her husband, Steve Poleskie, in Ithaca.
A Lady of Good Family is available at Barnes and Nobles, Amazon, and other bookstores.
Jeanne will be awarding a $15 Amazon or B/N GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.
Follow the tour and comment; the more you comment, the better your chances of winning. The tour dates can be found here: