29 December 2009

A Victorian Christmas: An Excerpt from Book II of My Manuscript

1863 December 25, Friday
St. Albans, Vermont

Cutters, black and shinning with fresh wax, and horses leading with the crisp sound of jingle bells coming from their leather harnesses, were parked in masses in front of the large, brick Colonial-style mansion of Governor Smith’s. The airy laughter and sweet voices of eligible girls and the charming, handsome, deep voices of the men followed right beside them. These men who were either not in the service of our country, or home for the holidays on furlough, or because the cause of injury at the front, were respected by even the oldest, sternest of matrons. No man or woman who were not received or respected in all of Franklin County would be caught dead if they were to come to the annual Christmas party Governor Smith put on.

I watched, jealous of these young folks my own age who were still alive. Girls who were plainer than me seemed to be enjoying themselves, flirting with the most available handsome gentleman at their arm. Myself, on the other hand, watched with envy in my mourning state at these bright and happy girls with beaux flocking to them with gleaming smiles and the exchange of warm kisses on their mitten covered hands. At first I was merely thankful that I was able to go out and join my first true social event—a Christmas party. Now as I walked with the Mathis family into the Smith’s mansion, as we greeted those we knew and were familiar with, I couldn’t help but feel depressed.

The warmth of the house was busy with lively chatter. Girls giggled and squealed as they greeted their friends with kisses, and exchanged holiday wishes with their male companions. I was to look somber, in my mourning gown that was buttoned from my waist to my chin, which wasn’t at all hard considering that I felt the least bit gleeful as I watched these young women having fun as I once had. Oh, how I missed those days. And for once, I felt like I needed to put Robert aside, and succumb to my selfish ambitions. Then as quickly as the thought came into my mind, I pushed it away—I should just be glad I was able to come out on Christmas to the party of the season.

We walked through the marble floored halls of the house and up the large stairway. The stairway was a sight to behold. All of crimson and tan colored marble, with an Asian rug draped and nailed right down the middle of the stairs. Young women in their beautiful frothy gowns, their slim shoulders bare, and the ruffles at their chest revealing a slight view of white bosom, lined the banister. Even the plainest of girls made them selves look pretty with the confidence they held in these majestic ballroom gowns that were new just for the occasion. Gentlemen of bachelor state stood at the base of the stairway calling up to the girls and making comical jokes just to make the girls giggle—the men, smiling with pride at the attention the girls paid them.

Up the stairway we went through a throng of people who were gathered in front of large French doors, which were adorned with pine boughs and a large American flag and Vermont flag. We all waited patiently as we slowly migrated toward the ballroom. The French doors entered into the largest ballroom in all of Franklin County—and where the largest party commences. It was a tradition even the relations of those who resided in Franklin County could not pass up. Everyone had to come otherwise the year would not be complete without it.

The ballroom was brightly lit, alive with vibrant colors of garlands and red ribbon hung along the walls, gathered together in the center of the chandelier lit ceiling. Men in their best suits, neatly greased hair, and smelling strongly of cologne, danced around with the lovely women of Franklin County. The women, dressed in silk and velvet gowns from red to the palest blue, smiled happily with rosy cheeks, as their perfectly curled locks bounced at their powdered shoulders. The ten-piece orchestra on their small stage sported a lively waltz that made everyone laugh and smile with happiness as they danced around the marble floor. Everyone was cheery with the festive spirit and one couldn’t help but be caught up in the happiness of the holiday.

From my perch beside Widow Mathis, along with all the older respectable matrons—such as Mrs. Chisholm, Mrs. House, Mrs. Childe, and Mrs. Smith the Governor’s wife herself, and of course Marguerite who “shouldn’t be on her feet too long in her delicate condition”—I enviously watched the dancers. I sat there listening to them gossip about everyone in the room and their relations. At first I was intrigued with their idle gossip, but after a while I became bored hearing about Fanny’s new beau from Maine or what Mr. Custis said to Miss Dutch the other night at the Laurence’s gathering, and could you believe that he would even have the gumption to sign her dance card? Now I found myself slouching in my chair and my toes tapping beneath my black gown where no one could see. It was so necessary for a woman in mourning not to be having a good time, now wasn’t it?

I looked around, at all the young people my age, having a spectacular time, dancing and flirting with one another. I watched Gaby as she danced with Landon and laughed with her friends Christine McGregor and Shay Buckingham. Then there was Seth who was trying very hard to get a young girl to dance with him. She only giggled and blushed, refusing, but obviously enjoying every moment Seth persisted. And of course there was Kara who didn’t feel the least bit of a need to bring down her pride in order to dance with a handsome man—for there were many who tried quite hard to get a hold of her dance card—she was quite content standing beside the punch bowl with a couple of her friends, trying so hard not to think of Bradley at a time like this. Seeing that I found every Mathis enjoying them selves, except for John…where was John?

My eyes searched my surroundings, seeking for his figure. He was nowhere to be seen. I sat up, trying to receive a better view. I looked through the mass on the dance floor—he was not there. My eyes scanned the room, looking along the many tables where food was piled high, and searched the perimeter of the ballroom where many people lined the walls as they chatted and sipped punch in fine crystal cups. But John was gone. He had disappeared from the lively atmosphere. Maybe he was sitting in one of the many alcoves that were curtained off by red velvet drapes lined with golden tassels. I thought for a moment that I would go search for him, but then thought better of it, and decided I would stay seated, resuming myself beside the renowned ladies of St. Albans, Vermont.


I started and quickly turned to the voice beside me. It was John, the man I had been looking for. Why isn’t it the devil himself? “John,” I responded, nodding slightly as I regained composure.

He stepped closer to me and looked down at my feet that were still tapping and beginning to peak out from under my gown. John smiled and laughed. The first laugh I had heard from him all day. My lips curled slightly as I tried hard not to grin and encourage him.

“May I have this dance?” He asked sincerely, holding out his hand to me, searching deep into my eyes, and looking rigid and yet handsome in his uniform. His hair was greased and he smelled rich of cologne and cigar smoke.

The chatter between the women halted. I could feel them staring at both of us as they held their breath. Widow Mathis was the only brave one to respond to John’s outrageous gesture.

“John Mathis, Ella is in mourning,” she said sharply.

John only smiled and looked at his mother. “And too young and beautiful to be doing so. It is her decision—”

“Yes,” I said, a smile spreading across my lips without much effort as before. I put my mitted hand into his callused one and kept my eyes on his as I stood to my feet.

“I declare! What gumption that son of yours has, Mady! And the fastness…” I heard the gasps of the ladies who sat beside Widow Mathis, and I knew as soon as I was out of hearing distance I would be the topic of discussion—but I did not care. Tonight I would have a good time and I would enjoy my time with John.

I took John’s arm, his hand placed lightly over mine, and his face beamed. I could feel everyone’s eyes on the two of us as we took our place on the dance floor with everyone else. For once I didn’t care what others thought of me or how my reputation would stand after tonight—all I wanted was to dance, feel young again…and to laugh.

John bowed and I curtsied as the music started up. It was a lively dance, a heel-toe polka. John took my hand and put his other hand around my waist. With my free hand I held up my gown as we dashed along the dance floor, my feet following his lead. John grinned at me and I giggled happily. I felt alive again. I felt like myself, the person I really was.

Dance after dance, smiles were plastered on both of our faces, as he held me in his arms. We glided along the marble dance floor, never tiring or stopping to catch our breath. Finally the lively dancing began to slow and we paced ourselves as a plump woman came upon the stage. As the music still played she introduced the song.

“This is a ballad which was suggested by a recent incident. On the battlefield of Gettysburg, among many of our wounded soldiers was a young man, the only son of an aged mother. Hearing the surgeon tell his companions that he could not survive the ensuing night, he placed his hand upon his forehead,” the woman put her black-laced mitt to her forehead dramatically, “talking continually of his mother and sister, and said to his comrades assembled around him, ‘Break it gently to my mother’.”

I stood still, stunned by her address of the song as she began with her soprano, her hand placed somberly to her bosom. John still had a hold of me and he began leading me along the dance floor once again as we waltzed.

See! Ere the sun sinks behind those hills,
Ere darkness the earth doth cover,

You will lay me low, in the cold, damp ground,

Break it gently to my mother!

I see her sweet sad face on me now,

And a smile doth o’er it hover;

Oh God! I would spare the tears that will flow;

Break it gently to my mother.

Good bye, my mother ever dear;

Sister, you lover your brother;

Comrades, I take a last farewell;

Break it gently to my mother.

Oh, say that in battle I’ve nobly died;

For Right and our Country’s honor;

Like the reaper’s grain fell the deaden rain,

Yet God saved our starry banner!

My sister, playmate of boyhood’s years,

Will lament her fallen brother;

She must try to soothe our parent’s woe;

Break it gently to my mother.

As she took on the chorus once again, I stopped my feet, making John halt in our place. I looked away from him, avoiding his concerned face that peered down at me.

“I must return home, it is nearing ten. Katie will be waiting up for me,” I told John, taking my hand from his.

“Surely Kay has put her to bed already,” he said, taking a step toward me.

I looked up at him, “Please, John,” I pleaded. Couples danced around us as we stood there. “This is the first night I have not been there to put her to bed. I am certain she is having a hard time sleeping tonight.” John didn’t say anything. He just stared at me, his eyes looking sad and his lips pursed together. “Please—she needs me.”

John sighed and held out his hand to me, “Come, lets go home.”

I took his hand and he drew me close as we left the dance floor. We went toward the door and found Gaby sitting with Landon while they chatted and sipped on punch. They both looked up as we approached and their lips closed in mid conversation, silence coming between them.

“Tell Ma I had to escort Miss Coburg home. She has to check on Katie,” John instructed.

Gaby only nodded and the two of them watched us as we headed out of the ballroom and out of site. We passed by people coming and going in the hallway and reached the entryway. A woman with reddish hair fetched our coat and hats, eyeing us suspiciously as we headed out the door. The cold air rushed in our faces, making a shiver run up my spine.

“Good evenin’,” the Smith’s valet-butler greeted us with a smile and a tip of his hat. “Which one is yours?” He asked, gesturing to the many cutters lined in front of the Smith’s mansion.

“Let’s see,” John said, squinting in the dark. “I believe it is that one.” He pointed to a shinny black cutter that happened to look like all the others. A man’s shadow stood against it, his cap covering his face against the chill. “I believe we parked there.”

The butler gestured us to follow him through the maze of cutters in the snow. John’s arm wrapped around my waist and pulled me closer to his side. I felt the warmth of his body as we moved forward, following the tall butler toward the cutter that was supposedly ours. As we approached it, the man leaning against it looked up, and we could see it was Thad. He bore a tired smile and rubbed the stubble on his chin.

“Time to venture home already, sir?” Thad asked, quickly stepping forward and opening the cutter door for us.

“Yes, Thad,” John said, patting him on the shoulder. John helped me into the cutter and then boosted himself in, sitting beside me.

“Merry Christmas!” The Smith’s butler called, as Thad closed the door.

John and I waved farewell, as the cutter pulled away—beginning the journey home. I watched John in silence as he lit the lamp inside, the dark slowly melting away. We sat in silence, both consumed with our own thoughts. The cutter slid gently over the snow and I could hear sleigh bells jingling lightly as we moved through the dark of Christmas night. I smiled to myself and shrugged, warding off the cold that threatened to take over. I felt John move in his seat beside me, getting comfortable. Watching him from the side of my eye he leaned his head back on the cushion of the seat and let out a long sigh. His eyes closed and I turned my head to watch him. He sat there looking so peaceful and so near I wanted to reach out and touch him, to hold him close and tell him that the war would be over soon and there would be no more dying. But I couldn’t bring myself to do so. I held myself back, afraid of too many things.

17 December 2009

Preface to My Manuscript

The sun has nearly bleached out my memory of her just as the wi of the Dakota plains bleached the young woman’s tin type I have carried for many decades. Still there is something intriguing in the Northern girl’s eyes, which causes the blood in my veins to rush through like a rapid river on a journey toward the sea. She was not particularly beautiful, but her quiet inner strength and the simplicity of her movements and her poised nature were like the enchanted beauty and flutter of a butterfly’s wing. Most would not notice her in a big city like New York or Charleston, but as soon as one approached her on the street of York, Pennsylvania or St. Albans, Vermont or even a suburban street of Pittsburg, her subtle prettiness and femininity would captivate any man, young and old. I too, I must confess, was a victim of this captivation. I always thought she was the type to make a good wife and mother, for she was poised and yet full of life and fortitude, not to mention of substantial genes. Her own mother was as beautiful as a belle, strong in character and persevered unto death. She was aristocratic by birth and willingly passed down her genetics and character to her two daughters. Both daughters were petite in stature, but with hourglass frames, topped with the fullest and shiniest golden miens. The eldest, whom this story is about, had hair darker than her younger counterpart’s pale, curly hair (which she was often envious of, for it matched their beloved mother’s). But I thought, as most who encountered her, that hers was lovelier, more warm and golden like the setting sun.

You, my devoted reader must be wondering the title of this fair woman who I met for the first time as yet still a girl fighting against her inevitable womanhood. Her name is still like confectioners sugar on my lips: Ella Mae Coburg. A beautiful, appropriate name for someone who embodied womanhood in her later years, yet was as stubborn and as loving as a woman could be. If any man or woman has changed my life it is she. If it weren’t for her I would have died during the War Between the States (and indeed became very close to it on account of my enemies—and I dare say, on account of her as well), instead I lived through the murder and mayhem, the desolation and dehumanization of the Rebel prisons, my exile as a warrior on the Great Plains, and my incurable illness that will one day be the death of me. But enough about me, this is her story. Through a compilation of letters, journals, first hand accounts, and tales of primary and secondary source, I have come to reconstruct her life as a young woman. This story is about her struggles, her loves and her losses, determination, and growth into a strong and charismatic woman. The very years that changed her life and molded her into the person she became: a loving and devoted mother, a pious Christian woman, and forever the love of my life.

For further understanding I will start at the very beginning and tell of her family and her childhood before the commencement of the war. As I mentioned, her mother was an aristocrat, a Montgomery. The larger metropolis of Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania knew a Montgomery or knew of them. They were wealthy folks and very sophisticated and respectable. The men were all lawyers, business investors, or factory owners, and the women only married well-bred, successful gentlemen. Ella’s grandfather and grandmother were perfect examples of the Montgomery match making system. Mr. Montgomery had inherited three mills from his father, a gristmill, a flourmill, and a textile mill. Mrs. Montgomery had been raised in Europe, mainly in France where her father was U.S. ambassador. At the time, America was yet a newborn/infant nation and Grandmother Montgomery, as Ella called her, was transported to Philadelphia to meet all the wealthy up and coming sons of America. They married after a lengthy and respectable courtship and eventually had three surviving children: Adellia (Ella’s mother), Agatha; and a son, Philip III. Grandmother Montgomery, along with a half dozen tutors and nannies raised the children, for Mr. Montgomery was always abroad conducting business deals with investors and overseeing the many industrial projects. Months would go by where the children never saw their father and Grandmother Montgomery would pack up the children and their tutors and a dozen maids for Paris or London, depending on the season.

When Adellia was only fifteen, Grandmother Montgomery sent her and her siblings to Pittsburgh to visit their cousin Will, who was attending the university. One evening in mid-January, a ball was held for the grand opening of a new museum and Will asked Adellia to accompany him (he knew many influential bachelors and fellow students of well-to-do families were to attend and he was under strict order from his aunt to introduce his young cousin to all the suitable bachelors). Of course Philip and Agatha were yet too young to go to balls, so Adellia was the only Montgomery lady there—and as told, the prettiest girl in the room. The young Christopher Coburg (a student at the university) was also in attendance at the ball and as soon as he saw the innocently, beautiful young lady in coral chiffon, he had to meet her. A friend of his was an acquaintance of Will Montgomery and they arranged for an introduction. Once met, Adellia became infatuated with Christopher’s Southern accent, charm, and casual attractiveness, and they remained close to each other’s side for the rest of the evening (nearly creating a scandal for the many dances he claimed). For the remainder of her visit, Christopher called on young Adellia, and by the end of her winter visit he had fallen in love with her. The day they were to return home, Christopher proposed to the young girl who, love struck, accepted his proposal and they were married six months later, shortly after her sixteenth birthday. Grandmother Montgomery disapproved of this fleeting courtship and brief engagement (and further disagreed with Christopher’s Southern and German roots), or rather disagreed simply to spite her husband’s approval.

Christopher Coburg came from a large Virginia family, raised on his father’s plantation, and educated on the etiquette of Southern gentlemen: hunting, land management, husbandry, argument and persuasion, the classics, politics, and chivalry. On the surface his childhood on the plantation—surrounded by the comfort of his warm mammy’s embrace and all needs and necessities met by the wealth of his father—was beyond perfection. However, beneath, within the confines of home, the children suffered the neglect of their father, who drank to excess till nightfall, and the exposure of constant yelling and abuse upon their devout Christian mother. A belle from South Carolina, Christopher’s mother was stern in her beliefs and demanded perfect manners of the negroes and her children. And last of all, she did not believe in divorce, so instead, when her eldest, Eugene Augustus, went to the university in Pennsylvania, she shipped the rest of the children to boarding schools and finishing schools in New England, in order to spare them from their father’s drunkenness and negative influence. Christopher was a young child when he first attended boarding school, where he spent the remainder of his youth except for holidays and summers on the Coburg plantation.

In the winter of his twelfth year he received a letter that his father had died of pneumonia. The older children were mostly relieved that themselves and their mother would further be spared from his drunkenness and destructive nature. Little Christopher had few memories of his father, but the few he did have left him sad and bereft. He remembered early mornings, long before his father’s eyes glazed from alcohol, when he would follow his father out to the negro lane where he would sit with the foreman, Big John, on his front stoop and drink coffee and talk quietly about the progress of each crop, disciplinary problems with certain young slaves, and who was having a child and when. Christopher would sit on a patch of grass in front of the cabin and listen to his father’s kind yet business like voice, as if he were speaking to a young man who was just coming into his own, even though Big John was at least twelve years his senior. These were the times he remembered most, not the times he, drunk, would march down to the slave cabins, rope and horsewhip in hand, and tie a disobedient slave to a tree and whip him the necessary lashes according to the accused offense; or the times he slapped or nearly strangled his wife for staying out too late caring for a pregnant negro or a sick child when supper wasn’t even ready at the big house; or the many times he used the switch or a wooden spoon on the children’s rumps or knuckles for lying, disrespect, speaking at the table, or just for being in his way. Christopher, a very disciplined and calm child, rarely was the object of his father’s anger, instead his father liked the little gentleman and if he ever witnessed or was a victim to his father’s drunken rage it was lost from his memory.

By the time Adellia Montgomery came into his life he had been a Pennsylvania resident for nearly four years and had left the plantation to the care of his eldest brother and his family, along with his aging mother, who would die within a year of the war (which caused the Coburg family to be torn in two—the eldest had returned and married in Virginia after school, and the youngest had remained in the North after graduation; those who remained were unable to be at their mother’s death bed). Christopher married Adellia when she was just turning sixteen. Mr. Montgomery immediately set up his new son-in-law with managing the factory of cook ware and home utilities, which was owned by Mr. Thomas Washington Harris (who in which Mr. Montgomery invested) in the small town of York, Pennsylvania, which consisted of some market houses, blacksmith, saddlery, wheelwright, and other shops of trade, orchards and farms, a make-shift platform for the York-Wrightsville railroad, post office, bank, an old hotel which was also a restaurant, a gristmill owned by the Wallace sisters (which was unheard of at the time and would have been a great scandal any where else for women to be in business), a general store, a one room school house/church, and some scattered clapboard houses and a single mansion in the Gothic style (which was the Harris home). As soon as the newlyweds arrived they were welcomed into the Harris home to stay until their own home was built. Mr. Harris, a widower, had two sons: an eighteen-year-old son named Jeffrey and a fifteen-year-old son named Ethan. The house was full of pretty Irish maids, which the Harris men admired more than was appropriate. Mr. Harris was a generous man, but he also suffered from rheumatism, which allowed for Christopher to assume all control of the factory.

The income the Coburg’s received allowed Christopher to buy a plot of fifty acres and build a home for his wife and their hopeful future family. The house was in the model of the Virginia plantation, with a flat front with pillars and a verandah to wrap around the whole house. The property was full of oak trees and wild grasses, manicured to make a large lawn shaded by trees. A barn was built for horses, cows, and a few chickens, as well as the storage of a buggy and a carriage; a paddock was situated beside the barn for the riding and grazing of horses; and a vegetable garden for the cook and a flower garden for Adellia beside the house. Once everything was complete they hired Harold O’Connor as liveryman, coachman, and butler, his wife Fanny as cook, and Anna McQuaid as maidservant. All three were fresh from the emerald hills of Ireland and their labor was as cheap as immigrant servants came in those days. With the household in order, Christopher felt it was finally time to name the small estate. The very day Adellia found out from the doctor she was expecting, they decided to name the new home Woodhue. And Woodhue became Ella Mae Coburg’s home. Anna McQuaid then became the nanny to the Coburg children and another servant, Macy Rogers, a young British woman, became the maid of Woodhue. Anna, however, still saw herself as an authority in the house, and reminded Macy and Fanny constantly. Even though Macy was given the title of head maid, Anna continued to take control, and Macy seemed to result to a more subservient role: Adellia’s handmaid and Woodhue’s cleaning lady.

Ella was two when Adellia had a son, whom was named Christopher Jr., but always a sickly child he would die three years later. Shortly there after Adellia herself dealt with continuous poor health, causing her to suffer from chronic headaches. As a result of her poor health she had many miscarriages, giving birth to globs of flesh and blood, or stillborns. It wouldn’t be until ten years later when Adellia carried her next child to term and named her Mary Elizabeth Coburg. Ella remembers her childhood marred with doctors coming and going from her mother’s room, but she never once remembers seeing her mother sickly and fragile. In her memory, her mother was always strong, giving her father a shoulder to lean on, instead of vice versa.

As a child growing up in York, Pennsylvania, life was carefree and eventful. School was always enjoyable for Ella and she made many friends. She was excellent in all she did and was the spelling bee champion two years in a row. She was not the most popular in school, that title went to Annabelle LeDoux, a fashionable and pretty brunette haired girl. Ella was always jealous of Belle’s attire and good looks, but in their teens they would eventually become great friends, nearly inseparable. There was a certain boy named Robert Moore who lived with his lame father and young mother in a run down cabin, on the opposite side of town, near the river bottom. For some reason this boy was always shy of Ella Coburg and nearly avoided her at all costs. When Ella was five years old there was a big blizzard that caused many families to be unable to travel to town for food. Ella knew the Moore family was poor since Mr. Moore was a cripple and unable to work. So she made Fanny prepare two baskets of food and she and Anna carried the baskets to the Moore cabin, leaving the food on the porch for them to find. I don’t know if Robert or his family ever learned that Ella was the one who brought their unexpected baskets of food that winter, but eventually Robert warmed to the bubbly little girl and grew out of his shell, allowing the two to become friends.

When Ella was seven years old in 1854, the year of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, politics were rarely spoken of in the Coburg household. Her mother had a rule that politics should never be a subject of table talk. However, she did hear some talk when her mother and father put on socials and parties. She was never allowed in the parlor then, but she would sneak away from Anna when she was supposed to be in bed, and peak in through the door at the fancy dresses and handsome bearded men, especially the young Ethan Harris (who always brought Ella a peppermint stick or silk ribbons when he came to call). And while she sat in the shadows of the hallway, she would lean against the closed double doors and listen to their languid voices and laughter, her ears becoming alive with their grown-up talk.

Some of the men predicted a war was quickly approaching. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a foolish solution in soothing the conflict between free and slave states. Prejudice between Southerners and Northerners increased by the month. It was bound to get ugly—any fool should have seen that. It didn’t take a fortuneteller to predict what would ensue within a few years.

Days later, Ella remembered, her father said the word “war” and her mother nearly had a fit. She overheard a conversation between her mother and father, and her mother kept saying, “This country is bound to have a reckoning.” Whether she was referring to slavery or the bloodshed between Americans that was already being shed in the West, it’s hard to say. Possibly both. At that point war had broken out when “Reverend” Brown stepped into the Kansas territory. Mr. Coburg said John Brown was a hero and Mrs. Coburg had moaned in irritation.

“If you think Brown is a hero, I must be the Queen of England married to an idiot!” she had told him.

Five years later John Brown became a martyr to some and a fool to others. Adellia never did take back what she said to her husband. “See for yourself,” she said, pointing to the front page of the Pennsylvania Gazette. John Brown had attacked Harpers Ferry, Virginia with twenty-one men in attempt to free the slaves. Every man in town along with the Charleston militia fought against him and his men, killing the majority of them. Brown had been caught and was later hung. Adellia had Ella leave the room with little Mary Elizabeth, but she didn’t know that the curious Ella continued to stand in hearing distance.

“It says, On Brown’s way to the gallows, he handed his jailer a note that predicted more bloodshed. It said: ‘I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I know think, vainly flattered myself that without that without very much bloodshed it might be done.’” Ella once told me that she believed Reverend Brown to be a contemporary prophet. However, I fear, many of us could sense what was quickly approaching in America, and it would take a war to reunite the nation.

Soon many would forget Brown’s execution and prediction. Then Abraham Lincoln became President of the United States of America, Southern states began to secede from the Union, and a conflict broke out at Fort Sumter. A war was on.

—John A. Mathis, Jr.

01 November 2009

Samhain: The Tale of Stingy Jack

Last evening I was asked about the origin of pumpkin carving, or the jack-o-lantern. The tradition originally is traced to the Irish harvest celebration of Samhain. A celebration of summer's end and the approach of winter, as well as the remembrance of ancestors lost. Vegetable lanterns were lit along roads and in front of homes in order to guide the spirits home again.

The Irish folktale of Stingy Jack originates the name jack-o-lantern of Jack of the Lantern. The story goes that Jack, a thief, stole from the village people and was chased out of town by the citizens who wished to regain their stolen goods. On his way out of town, Jack encounters the Devil who is there to take his soul. In order to stall the Devil, cunning Jack proposes the Devil trick the townspeople. As the Devil is known as a great trickster and deceiver, the Devil, who can shift into any figure, changes into a silver coin that Jack can give the townspeople for retribution of the stolen goods. Jack puts the silver coin in his pocket, not telling the Devil that he has a crucifix in his pocket. The crucifix then strips the power of the Devil. The Devil then makes a deal with Jack, that if he releases him than he promises that he will never take his soul to Hell.

Of course, as Jack is mortal, he dies eventually, but as a sinful thief he cannot enter Heaven, nor as the Devil promised not enter Hell. The Devil amused by the trick he played on Jack, throws him an ember from Hell to light his way through the dark world, which he must wander for eternity. Jack carves out a vegetable, placing the light within to guide his way through the earth. He is eternally known as Jack of the Lantern. Another rendition of the tale describes the Devil taking Jack's head and in return gives him a carved pumpkin as a head. This ending either comes from the tale of the Headless Horseman, or an inspiration for the tale of the said horseman (which version/story came first is hard to say).

Although pumpkin carving has been practiced for centuries, it hasn't become part of the Halloween traditions until the 19th century in North America. There is no primary documents saying as much, but there is evidence that the jack-o-lantern began showing up in Halloween festivities in 1866. In an Ontario newspaper on this day in 1866, the reporter mentions pumpkin faces: "The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe'en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city. They had their maskings and their merry-makings, and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle." Historian David Skal in Death Makes a Holiday, writes,
Although every modern chronicle of the holiday repeats the claim that vegetable lanterns were a time-honored component of Halloween celebrations in the British Isles, none gives any primary documentation. In fact, none of the major nineteenth-century chronicles of British holidays and folk customs make any mention whatsoever of carved lanterns in connection with Halloween. Neither do any of the standard works of the early twentieth century.
Of course, the Catholics, in order for conversion sake, molded many traditional pagan holidays into religious holidays, there for All Hallows Eve and All Hallows, became All Saints Eve and All Saints Day. This is one reason why you can easily find the dressing up of Devils, Angels, Ghosts, and traditional Saints at your door trick or treating.

The Pillars of the Earth Comes to Life

For those of you who read Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth and wished to see it on the big screen, you'll be in for a little treat! In 2010 (no official date set yet) this mini-series will be created in the style of Showtime's The Tudors, so I assume the show will be premiered on the said network.

The cast includes star performers: Ian McShane as Waleran Bigod, Donald Sutherland as Bartholomew, Mathew MacFadyen as Prior Philip, Hayley Atwell as Aliena, Sarah Perish as Regan Hamleigh, Robert Bathurst as Percy Hamleigh, and David Oakes as William Hamleigh.

The official site is: http://www.the-pillars-of-the-earth.tv/
Click on it for updates and more information to the mini-series.

I started reading the book this time last year and was not so sure about continuing it, because Oprah made a big deal about it and I was starting to find it somewhat overrated. But I have heard other people's opinion of the book and I would prefer to read the book before I see the movie, or in this case the mini-series, so I best pick it up again. Hopefully the series will prove justice to the novel, as I am so often disappointed by "movies based on books."

I am adding the links to the Ken Follet's official site and the Pillars of the Earth site under "Popular Links."

30 October 2009

Outlander: The Movie III

Casting the Rest of the Characters

On Wednesday I picked up Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon, eager to hear the rest. I am currently studying the Revolutionary War and I am enthralled to read Outlander in America. With this in mind, I have decided to cast the remainder of the important characters. I am mainly focusing on the characters portrayed in the first novel of the series, except for Brianna Fraser, who is crucial in the story of Jamie and Claire—and simply because I think I know an actress who would play her well!

Liam Neeson (as seen in Rob Roy) would make an exceptional Dougal MacKenzie.

Tommy Flanagan (as seen in Braveheart) is currently in the A&E hit show Sons of Anarchy. His authentic Scottish accent and portrayal of a brooding and "hard-core" Scot would be ideal for the character of Murtagh.

Bernard Hill (as seen in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), known for his roles of leadership in film, would make an exceptional leader in the role of Colum MacKenzie.

Sarah Bolger played a young Mary Tudor in the Showtime drama The Tudors. She knows how to play an naive, yet somewhat conniving character full of untoward conviction. Her look and her portrayal reminds me of the young Loughaire MacKenzie who tried desperately to get rid of Claire, just as Mary Tudor tried (and succeeded inadvertently) to get rid of Anne Boleyn.

Natalie Dormer, Sarah Bolger's co-star, played Anne Boleyn in The Tudors. She also played the innocent virgin, Victoria, in Casanova. She is good at getting her way and being conniving, deceitful, and witchy all at once. In my opinion she would play an excellent Geillis Duncan. She can be a little scary, just like Geillis.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers, also on The Tudors as the infamous Henry VIII, can easily play the "bad boy", with his smoldering good looks and his command of the screen. He can easily play nice Frank Randall and evil Black Jack Randall.

Oliver Platt (as seen in Casanova) would make an excellent annoying Duke of Sandringham, with a high-pitched voice and a weasel-like attitude that is difficult to trust.

And lastly, I would cast Lily Cole as the 20-year-old Brianna Fraser. I have not seen her acting, but she looks the part with her long legs and tall-tale red hair, and will probably be more well-known after the premier of Dr. Parnassus in December of this year.

Outlander: The Movie II

Australian actress, Abbie Cornish, as seen in 2009 UK film Bright Star.

Casting Claire Randall Fraser

Now, Claire Randall is a more tricky character to cast, as I have found many actresses that look the part. So it will come down to this: can they play the part?

Claire Randall is one of those heroines that recall me back to my beloved Scarlett O’Hara. She is strong-willed, opinionated, forthright, stubborn, witty, and when it comes down to it, would kill or sacrifice herself for those she loves (although she isn’t nearly as selfish as Scarlett). She is a person whom one could only hope to emulate.

Abbie Cornish has played many roles, none of which completely emphasis her acting ability—in my opinion. She played Candy in Candy, which co-starred Heath Ledger in 2006. Unfortunately, I have yet to seen this movie—even though Heath is in it—but will probably see it at some point because Heath is in it! She also played a small role as Bess Throckmorton in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which I have seen, but cannot recall Cornish’s acting. Although, she looks the part in the new film, Bright Star, I cannot suggest her due to my lack of knowledge in her acting ability.

BBC actress, Ruth Wilson, on the other hand,

stands out vividly in my mind with her role as
Jane Eyre, in the 2006 PBS production of Jane

Eyre. With a striking face that can be
considered either severe or beautiful, I believe
this English rose will easily be able to pull off
the huge role of Claire Randall Fraser. In my
opinion, and in the opinion of a devout Jane
Austen and Charlotte Bronte reader and film
fan, Ruth Wilson played the best Jane Eyre
out of the several other film adaptations (even
compared to the Timothy Dalton version).
She is well known in the BBC world and has
been quite successful in her acting career.

I suppose, talent does pay off!

Whomever takes on the role of Claire Randall Fraser has big shoes to fill. Most likely the role will be given to some little known actress or well-known stage actress, just as Vivien Leigh was casted as Scarlett O’Hara. Vivien Leigh will be forever known as Scarlett O’Hara, so too will be the actress casted as Claire Fraser.

Outlander: The Movie I

Casting James Alexander Malcolm Fraser

There have been many blogs and YouTube videos concerning the casting of the potential Outlander movie in 2011. When it comes to casting the main characters, which have been written with such unique detail—its hard to compare them to some known/unknown actor.

The young, over six foot, blazing red hair, wide-mouthed, deep blue eyed Jamie Fraser, seems to be the most difficult one to cast, and therefore, the one I’ll attempt to cast first. Who knows of a towering, red-haired Scot? Though, I’m sure there are many red headed Scots, the height criteria seems somewhat more difficult to cast. Luckily, the movie screen can easily make someone bigger than life and with some professional hair product, so can someone become red-headed.

So far, it seems that Gerard Butler overwhelmingly takes the casting choice; however, as many fans have pointed out, Butler is getting up there in years and by the time it is 2011, he may no longer look the part of the young, 23 year-old Fraser. There have also been suggestions of David Wenham (seen in Lord of the Rings), but he too isn’t as young as he once was and doesn’t quite fit the bill.

There is one dashing figure, I would consider and have rather become quite attached to as a Jamie Fraser, and that is UK actor, Jamie Thomas King. In the hit Showtime drama, The Tudors, King played the poet and accused lover of Anne Boleyn, Thomas Wyatt. A devastatingly dramatic, and genuinely handsome character, King’s acting ability was showcased exceptionally well. Although there have been few other TV shows or films to display his range of acting, Jamie Thomas King—in my mind’s eye—would make an exceptional Jamie Fraser.

The casting of Jamie Fraser is a tough one to pin down, and there are many opinions on who would be the best choice; yet there are still even more opinions on who should be cast as Claire Randall (Fraser), which I will explore in a later entry.

The Bookstore Fate

About a month ago, I was searching for a new historical fiction novel to dig my nose in during a less than eventful trip with my family to Bend. Innocently, I went to one of the online bookstore wedsites (as I often do before purchasing literature) to see if there were any new novels on my favorite eras—such as the Civil War, the American Revolution, and the Tudor reign. It was almost like destiny as I briefly read a synopsis on a series called Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I had never heard of the series and was slightly intrigued.

So after a long evening at work, I ventured to the nearest bookstore. It is quiet and pleasantly peaceful in a bookstore thirty minutes before closing, surrounded by paper and hardback books filled with adventures and stories of people who have lived and died, while random stragglers pass between the aisles. The comfort of bookstores and the books themselves always bring me back to my childhood days, when I would sneak out of bed after the lights had extinguished and crouch before my nightlight with a creased old book in hand, or a notebook and pencil for the imagination of my own tales. It’s a comforting thing, when your favorite childhood memories—memories that shape you into who you are today—can envelope you in the most ordinary places, like a bookstore.

It was in this very bookstore, when I put down the Philippa Gregory novel I was debating on purchasing and picked up the book Outlander. I don’t know what compelled me—fate, or an inherent need to consume the words inside a book as though it were nourishment—but, as I headed out of the aisle to the cash register, I retraced my steps and picked up Dragonfly in Amber as well.

Since that fateful day at the bookstore, I have given into temptation to return for the next volume in the series. Now, I have realized many others have also fallen in love with Gabaldon’s tale of Jamie and Claire. So enthralled, I have even found myself buying gaelic song after gaelic song on iTunes.

I must admit that this new interest is nearly becoming one of obsession, as I find myself awake into the early morning hours still consumed in the story, spending rare moments online to view fan made videos and blog commentary on the series and the possible future film; so much so, that I have been keeping my own list of actors and actresses I could imagine playing the epic roles of Jamie, Claire, Murtagh, Dougal, and Jack Randall—even the Duke of Sandringham! Mildly pathetic, and in need to expel my literary ranting to anyone who’d listen, I result in the creation of this blog. So there you have it...a blog of an obsessive, fateful young woman whom relents into the temptation of novels.
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