History Research Writing

Girls and fire

A brief break from Alcestis today to talk about novel #2, the one that’s still a twinkle in my eye, as it were. I haven’t said much about it  here because I haven’t begun writing it yet — I’m keeping busy with the dissertation. I’ve researched and outlined it, and much as I wish I could be delving right into it, I’m also enjoying the process of collecting little bits of information related to 1890s America and to specific elements of the book — a sort of mental collage. (I’m also using Scrivener for the first time, since I’ve finally got a Mac laptop again. Not sure how well I’ll like it for actual writing, but it is great fun to make up loads of note cards.)

Yesterday, for example, I read a rather grim but also fascinating article in the Times, complete with not-actually-grisly slideshow, about the Windsor Hotel Fire in 1899. (See also this contemporary letter to the editor about the possible causes of the fire. I love that the Times finally took down the pay wall for old articles.) The bit that stuck with me was the mention of bricks from the collapsed building being reused:

Tens of thousands of those survive anonymously, reused on other building projects for rear or inner walls.

The notion of anonymously surviving bricks is sort of poetic — like buildings in England that still have bits of Tintern Abbey’s roof in them, or like the vanished slabs of marble from the sides of the Pyramids. Or, to use the comparison in the article itself, like the metal recovered from Ground Zero and recently used to build a new Navy ship — though that re-use is martial in a way the others aren’t. The main building at Mt. Holyoke burned down only a year before the events of my novel, but I don’t remember reading about whether or not any materials had been salvaged and used in the new dormitory buildings constructed afterward.

Today, via Holly Tucker on twitter, I found this article about “bachelor girls,” a subset of “New Women” who achieved financial independence but often had trouble finding suitable living situations as young unmarried ladies.

The more domesticated form of New Woman idealized at women’s colleges in the 1890s was the All Around Girl, described in another Times article from 1895, here:

There is no virtue of womanliness or of a strong, healthy nature that this typical American girl does not possess … . She realizes that upon her, individually as well as collectively, rests the duty of upholding all womanhood, and she is true to the trust.

No pressure or anything, ladies.

The all around girl was somewhat like a bachelor girl in her self-sufficiency, but societally safe — she was supposed to be independent, gregarious, charming, and intelligent, but not too serious about her studies, and all her talents were valued because they’d make her an excellent wife and mother.

There’s one all around girl in the novel-I-have-yet-to-write. Those of you who have read Alcestis will perhaps not be surprised to hear that she’s not one of the main characters. One of the main characters is based on a real girl; the other one’s my own, and like Alcestis, she tries to build a new life out of old bricks.

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