You Can’t Do That!

On 31 March 2023, I gave an “Author’s End Notes” speech for a conference by post-graduates of the literature department at Teesside University in Middlebrough, UK. Eight students gave overviews of their thesis papers on subjects all under the thematic umbrellas of “Ethics, Literature, Culture”, and I was delighted to have been asked to address the group on this theme. Because of the 8-hour time difference, I hadn’t been able to listen to all the presentations, although I read summaries of them, but the ones I heard were very interesting and well-researched. Topics included such areas as sexuality in contemporary gothic fiction; racial ethics of “Passing” in early U.S. African-American fiction; unethical representation of race in the Twilight Saga books and films; the ethics of representing the Second Gulf War in novels and short stories; the mysogynistic treatment of female musical genius as “madness”; women’s facial hair in 19th century literature; and the ideology of cross-dressing in Victorian England.

My talk is titled: “You Can’t Do That! Our Fascination with Breaking the Rules”

Click here to see/print a copy of the text of my presentation, (or click on the box at bottom left) and once you have that, you can read along as you watch the video of my powerpoint — click here for video. Where it says CLICK in the text is where the next slide, or more often, the next picture on an individual slide, will show up. The powerpoint is timed to keep changing and keep moving on to the next slide, but all you have to do is hit the Pause button (two vertical bars) at the bottom of the film, in order to keep an image stable while you’re reading the text.

Text of “You Can’t Do That!”

Mary F. Burns
Author’s End Notes

Teesside University Post-Graduate Conference

31 March 2023

“Ethics, Literature, Culture”

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening to you all. I am honored to be here to provide some End Notes for this brilliant conference. I am especially grateful to Suzy Corrigan for extending the invitation to speak to you, and to the other Committee members, Rebecca, Edris, Danai, and Annie, for a well-organized conference.

TITLE SLIDE 1:  “You Can’t Do That! Our Fascination with Breaking the Rules”.

The papers we’ve heard and discussed today present us with OUTSIDERS, with people who have been cast as THE OTHER, whether they’re gender fluid, mixed race, anarchists, feminists, soldier-rebels, non-conformists of all kinds. These are people who THREATEN the given order, who REJECT and ARE REJECTED by a given culture. People who make their own culture. People who break the rules.

We break rules because we see a pinprick of light where we thought there was only sameness and darkness, because we see that something new and different and more colorful, more meaningful, more true, could be experienced, and we want that. I’m not talking about breaking rules like murdering people or stealing money or breaking into a jewelry store, I’m talking about rules that bind your imagination, that curtail your heart’s desires, that keep you from reaching out and saying yes to new things, new experiences, rules that make you fearful and cautious and paralyzed. 

With these thoughts as a guideline, let’s take a look at some ideas and some approaches to understanding Ethics, Literature and Culture in the light of how and why we human beings break the rules.

SLIDE 2:  Here are some examples of what people through the ages say about rules: The most common and often heard:

  • Rules are made to be broken.
  • CLICK Unheard-of combinations of circumstances demand unheard-of rules.
  • CLICK Learn the rules like a professional so you can break them like an artist.
  • CLICK Move fast and break things. [not necessarily endorsing that one!]

SLIDE 3:  For every rule, there is a rule-breaker. Let’s look at some famous rule breakers:

  • CLICK Prometheus – With a name that may mean “Forethought” (or possibly, fire-thief), Prometheus saw into a future where humankind would be much better off if they had some tools – primarily fire, which he stole from the gods, and which eventually came to signify all of technology and scientific knowledge.
  • CLICK Pandora — The gods were so angry with Prometheus, that they swore they’d get even and punish mankind by giving them the gift of Pandora–the first woman, created by Hephaestus and endowed with all sorts of charms, deceptions, wiles and even speech. Along with Pandora came that damn box, which she opened even though she wasn’t supposed to.

These two mythological people broke rules. Let’s consider their motives. Prometheus thought Zeus was unfair in not allowing humans to have fire—he knew it was a beneficial tool, and would help them do many things, like staying warm or cooking a hot meal. He was motivated by wanting to help others. 

Pandora, on the other hand, was rather mischievous—she really just wanted to know what was inside the box, and you get the sense that she was annoyed that she was told not to look, and did it from pique and not caring very much what the consequences were, like a bratty teenager. Her motivation was self-gratification, wanting to have her own way, not wanting to be told what to do.

And of course, there were consequences of breaking the rules: CLICK

  • CLICK Prometheus was chained to a rock, and an eagle (emblem of Zeus) devoured his liver every day, and it grew back every night; he endured this punishment until Herakles came and freed him.
  • CLICK Pandora couldn’t resist opening the box, thereby letting loose all the evils that humankind suffer from: illness, poverty, guilt, violence, war—leaving only a little glow of “HOPE” at the bottom of the box.

It’s interesting to note the difference between the motivation and the punishment in these Greek myths. Prometheus broke the rule in order to provide a benefit for humankind, and he alone was punished, and was ultimately rescued. Pandora, on the other hand, broke the rule out of selfish wilfulness, and the entire world suffered because of it. These are two eternally present motivating human feelings: altruism and selfishness.

SLIDE 4:  CLICK Let’s look at another story to explore another instance of rule-breaking—one of the most famous couples ever, Adam & Eve. Their notorious rule-breaking has been the subject of hundreds of books, poems, essays and religious texts for several thousand years—which is pretty amazing for an event that never actually happened. So what was the point of this story? And where did it come from?

SLIDE 5:  The Garden of Eden is literally the CULTURE in which Eve and Adam live. A CULTURE, at its most basic, or even shall we say, biological, is a medium in which things GROW—it provides the sustenance, the nourishment, the material which brings things to life.

The ETHICS, or Rules, of Eden are simple—‘be fruitful and multiply’, ‘take care of the animals’, ‘cultivate the garden’ and ‘don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”

SLIDE 6:  That’s the rule that Eve chose to break. Here’s my rendition of how the whole snake incident went down, with only minor deviations from the text:

  • CLICK The Rule: “Thou shalt not eat of the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden. If you do, surely you will die.” –Almighty God
  • CLICK Snake: “Did God say you can’t eat ANY fruit from ANY of the trees?”
  • CLICK Eve: “No, just the one, but we’re not supposed to even touch it, or we will die.”
  • CLICK Snake: “God only said that because if you eat that fruit, you will be as gods yourselves, having knowledge of good and evil.”
  • CLICK Eve: “Cool.”

SLIDE 7:  CLICK Eve knows the Ethics, she has heard the Rule, and she has heard the consequences (although one wonders if she really knows what that means) and she chooses not only to not follow the Rule, but she adds to it, in a way makes it more restrictive—and then still CLICK chooses to transgress—cross the line. Why does she do this? And then she offers it to Adam, and he breaks the rule too. Why does he do it?

  • Eve – the feminine counterpart of Adam – desires knowledge –in the text, she sees that the Tree is “beautiful to look upon” and the taste is “sweet” – here, specifically, the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which is (apparently) a key element of being ‘like gods’. She is not, as religious teachings have always told us, weak, sinful, or gullible. She knows what she’s doing.
  • Adam – the masculine counterpart of Eve – listens and chooses to agree and accept as well. He is exercising his free will, and chooses to break the rule too.  He too, desires knowledge. He is not, as Milton would have it in Paradise Lost, uxorious—too blindly in love with the woman to deny or reject her; he chooses to know, along with her.

CLICK CLICK  The consequences, of course, are that they have to leave the Garden Culture behind, as well as the Ethos of the Garden, and start their own sets of rules that guide their behavior, and start a new Culture, one separate from the Garden.

SLIDE 8:  The Book of Genesis – a work of literature – is metaphorical speech about what it means to become a human being: awareness, self-consciousness, choice, change, adaptation, creativity, responsibility.  Even in the very act of creating the human being, God is described as creating “them male and female” in a single body—and later bringing Eve forth as a separate being from that first body, but both beings share the same origin. Perhaps there is a necessity, or at least a great benefit, in being two different consciousnesses in the same being – self and other – that leads to the all-important steps of questioning one’s existence, questioning the rules, defying the culture that surrounds you.

SLIDE 9:  Literature is Metaphor. All writing is, in fact, metaphor, even non-fiction. Our writings are the mirrors of what the Greeks called The Real Things. Socrates talked about it this way:  There is Mythos and there is Logos. They are, in essence, two ways of being in the world, and they are worlds in themselves. The Mythos is the world of people who live inside a common consciousness, who follow a set of rules that are based on a common understanding of how the world works—in ancient times, explanations came in the form of gods, demons, magic. These folks generally do not question the given order, or if they do, it’s just youthful folly and they quickly settle down. But this is where the Human Story comes from: the myths, the legends, heroes and gods, magic and sorcery.

The Logos, on the other hand, is a world of people who, for various reasons, do not feel comfortable in the world of the Mythos—they always seem to be observing it from the outside, as if they are not really part of it; they can’t immerse themselves in the Mythos and feel like they belong. This lack of belonging makes them different, makes them see things differently, makes them act differently. They are not in touch (literally) with the primary things, like the people in the mythos are. So that makes them strive always to re-create a world of Primary Things through secondary means: words, paint, sculpture, dance, music, inventions—in order to explore and explain the world differently. Neither one is necessarily better than the other, they just ARE. They complement each other, they need each other. Both of them separately, and together, are ways to being human.

SLIDE 10:  Literature is the language of the Logos—literally the Word. Words are the pieces of what makes a metaphor. The Logos describes us human beings and our worlds to ourselves, using these sounds or written symbols we call words. It is not the thing itself—it is a metaphor—a carrying-over, a transferring, of a real thing into another thing. And sometimes, the only way to show what a real thing is, is to break a rule about that thing and bring attention to a new or different real thing.

Literature presents our own story to us—the story of being human. The best stories are those which show what happens when you break the rules – it’s not always pretty, but it is always human. Literature is the continual attempt to describe HOW we become human, WHAT that means, WHY we do what we do – no matter what culture we come from or to what ethics we subscribe.

SLIDE 11:  There are many ways to break the rules in real life – but when you’re writing fiction or even non-fiction, there are mainly two ways to break the rules:  Structure and Content.

Here are Ssme famous examples of breaking rules in structure James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T.S.Eliot e e cummings; Italo Calvino, V.M. Straka. These authors, among others, dropped or ignored the rules of grammar, of how to form a sentence, of what a ‘chapter’ means.

SLIDE 12:  Structure – Joyce (and many other Irish authors) remade English, molding the language of the ruling elite into something charmingly subversive, an unstable compound of familiar and foreign. Joyce writes pages of words without any punctuation or breaks, trying to depict the stream of conscious, and unconscious, thinking as people walk through a city or their house, playing with forbidden thoughts about sex and murder, barely articulated, a word here, a broken phrase there.  Virginia Wollf, in particular, tried to imitate in writing the thoughts of a person going mad, as she felt herself doing at different times in her life, in addition to depicting the way one’s mind moves along seamlessly from one thought to the next, distracted, focused, drifting.  

SLIDE 13:   Italo Calvino, in his “If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler” stops writing a story in the middle of it, then starts the next chapter with a different story, then another one with the same characters but in a different time period. He sets up expectations and then deliberately crashes them, does not satisfy your curiosity, does not give you what you wanted—but you get something else from that disruption—a way to see connection in disconnection.

CLICK Straka’s Ship of Theseus included actual post cards, letters, newspaper clippings, greeting cards in the novel, inserted into the pages at strategic points for the reader to consider, along with the rest of the story, and the printed pages are filled with what look like hand-written notes, from the two main characters of the story, who are sharing the book and write to each other. Their notes form an entirely different story from the one that is presented in the actual printed words on the page. CLICK It is an ingenious blending of formats and ways of communicating; he attempts to bring a real life story, in present time, to the suspended, historical time of the printed story, and connect them.

These authors knew they were breaking rules and creating new structures—and of course, they had to know what those rules were to begin with—but more importantly, is WHY would they want to do it differently? I leave it to you to work on the answers.

SLIDE 14:  Content – After STRUCTURE, you can break rules with CONTENT.

CLICK From the earliest times, certain activities have been taboo, forbidden in “most” societies, and certainly in modern civilizations of the last two millenia or so: incest, cannabilism, human sacrifice are three examples. CLICK We are all familiar with the phrases “we don’t do that in civilized society” or “we don’t say such things at the dinner table”, or “in mixed company”, or “in front of the children.” CLICK And we all pretty much grow up knowing what those forbidden things are.  If you want to break taboos, and talk about ‘hidden things’, the important question to ask, just like breaking a rule of Structure, is WHY.  “Shock Value” can be important, but it can also just be a shallow trick, with no meaning.

SLIDE 15:  From the presentations of the post-grad students we have heard today, there are many examples of the content-related rule-breaking that I’m alluding to: 

Rebecca showing how suburban houses, haunted or otherwise, are metaphors for oppression and modern-day witchhunts.

Danai’s taking on the taboo-topic of “The Mulatto” in reference to black and African American identity;

Annie’s and Sibohan’s examples of cross-dressing and non-conformity to feminine ideals, what is ugly and what is beautiful and how it relates to Culture and Power;

Suzy’s tackling of the notion of The Genius, and how society has widely differing values regarding Men and Women who might be called ‘genius’ or ‘mad’, respectively, for the same brilliance.

Edris’s discussion of the challenges to the American myth of the Glory of War and the Soldier-Hero, revealing the true cost of war and sacrifice.

Henry’s novel approach to women’s identities based on regional or geographical setting and cultures;

And Catherine’s exploration of the racial stereotyping in Twilight, which is a very challenge to the TV-entertainment industry itself about this very popular program.

These are stories about people breaking the rules; and authors exploring why that happens, what it means, how we can understand it.

Human beings dare to step over the line, because of something within them that yearns to be more, or to be something else, or to belong where they have been rejected or cast out. Many things motivate us as human beings to break the rules, and the same goes for when you’re writing literature. The motivation is very important, both for plausability and for responsibility. But you should be clear about your motivation—it will help clarify your objective in writing your book, your essay, your poetry.

SLIDE 16:  In ending, I invite you to consider these quotes about METAPHOR for a few moments—one is a challenge, one is a warning.

And I’ll leave you with this thought: Understanding the metaphorical nature of LITERATURE is essential for understanding CULTURE and ETHICS—and why rules are made to be broken.

END SLIDE 17:  Thank you so very much. I’m happy to take questions or hear comments, now or by email at any time.

The Character-Driven Mystery

About twenty years ago, I wrote a couple of “cozy village” mysteries, literally set in my own “village” of West Portal in San Francisco, with the emphasis on the intricacies of untraceable poisons and evanescent nanotechnology that required significant outlining, planning ahead and scrupulous, detailed planting of clues as well as red herrings—absolutely a requirement if you’re writing a mystery that is plot-driven and complicated. But then I fell in love—with John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and his friend Violet Paget (1856-1935, aka the writer Vernon Lee). I wrote an historical novel about him and his magnificent and at the time, maligned, portrait of “Madame X”, and Violet was a significant character in the story (Portraits of an Artist, 2010).

Their individual, quirky, wonderful, interesting personalities, combined with their life-long friendship, made such an impression on me that after the novel was finished, their voices and charming ways would not leave my mind. I had read so many letters of theirs, and biographies, and spent hours gazing at Sargent’s paintings and reading Violet’s essays, that these two fascinating people had a hold on me that compelled me to continue writing about them—I wanted everyone to know them as I had come to know them.

So naturally, I turned them into amateur sleuths and started writing a mystery series! Unlike my West Portal cozies, I wanted these new mysteries to primarily portray the characters of these two real-life people whom I loved so much, in addition to being a good mystery, of course.

Having decided this was going to be a series (and in six years I have now written three), I decided to start when John and Violet were both twenty-one. That way, each book would advance a certain amount of time and I would be able to present the changes and development of the young artist and the young writer as they made their way into the upper echelons of their artistic and literary worlds. Thus, the mysteries that came their way to solve—typically a murder—would serve as the catalyst to delve into and reveal their true characters: how they would react and respond to murder and danger, why they would feel compelled to investigate it, and how their friendship and their unconventional upbringings and education would help or hinder their investigations.

Violet Paget was by far the more pronounced, outgoing, feisty personality of the two, and I chose her voice to tell the stories, in First Person POV. While this has its drawbacks, it makes for a significantly “present” character, as the reader is addressed directly, drawn into her thoughts and fears and doubts, and her sarcastic and irreverent approach to a woman’s life, career and chances of literary success in the late Victorian Age.

Here is how I introduced the series, in the Prologue in the first book, The Spoils of Avalon: Violet is writing in 1926, the year after her friend John died, an event which she feels gives her permission to now finally relate the interesting tales of murder and mayhem in which they were involved:

“Sherlock Holmes isn’t the only one who solves mysteries, you know. In our youth, I and my friend Scamps—more formally known as John Singer Sargent—engaged in a fair amount of sleuthing ourselves.”

She goes on to mention that most of the people involved have also passed on, and then continues:

“Modesty restrains me from naming the one who wields the Sherlockian mind, but let me just say, Scamps made an excellent Watson.”

I wanted to place Violet, with her keen, curious mind and waspish, often self-deprecatory and humorous commentary, at the center of the reader’s journey in this time and space, and as a foil and contrast to Sargent, whose personality was much more reserved, congenial and mellow. As Violet goes on to explain, “Nonetheless, as a detecting duo, we were extremely well-suited—he was observant with an artist’s eye for detail as well as the nuances of mood and tone, whereas I noticed things out of restless curiosity and, I must say, a suspicious nature attuned to finding fault.”

In the first mystery, it becomes rather obvious after a short time who the murderer is, but events occur so quickly, with rising urgency and threat, that the emphasis on Violet’s and John’s rapid detecting is much more interesting and important (if I do say so myself) than that the killer remain unknown until the very end. (The second and third mysteries are rather more complex, partly I think because I’m just getting better at writing mysteries!)

As I mentioned, I read so much of these two persons’ actual correspondence that I have been able to get a true sense of how they spoke, not only to each other, but about events of the day, their opinions, their friendships, successes and failures. John often refers to Vi as “old man”, a common jocularity of the youth of the era, both men and women. Nicknames like “Scamps” were also common among familiars. Sargent was known for his awkwardness in speaking, almost stammering at times, especially in more public situations, whereas Violet was voluble and incessantly talkative, as well as clever and opinionated. Henry James referred to her as a “formidable conversationalist.”

Violet Paget, c. 1930

An important element of the lives and personalities of John and Violet was that they were both same-sex oriented; in writing about them I knew that this was a subject that had to be treated with subtlety, for a couple of reasons. First, the self-knowledge of their sexuality would have taken some time, both because of their unusual family lives, insular and peripatetic; and second, because of the mores, strictures and laws of the Victorian Age. Both of them, in later years, were well-acquainted with Oscar Wilde and other notorious gay men of the age—and they saw what happened to him because of his indiscreet behavior. Sargent’s career would have been in ruins if his same-sex inclinations were made public, although as long as men were discreet, nobody cared. Violet, given the separate lives that men and women lived in the Victorian Age, would have had more ‘cover’ for an intimate relationship with a woman friend. The “Boston Marriage”, so-called in the United States, and the necessity of “spinsters” having to live together to make a viable economic household, were too common for anyone to draw anything sexual (or “Sapphic”) from the occurrence. Neither Violet nor John were in any way religious, but social mores would have inhibited behavior that flaunted such activity.

John Sargent, 1924

Nonetheless, it has become clear in the scholarship of the last four decades that Sargent was definitely gay and engaged in physical intimacy with other men, from his own letters (not many of which are extant, as he destroyed much of his correspondence, like Henry James) as well as others’ letters and notes about him. The recent exhibition of drawings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum of Sargent’s African-American model Thomas McKellar are revelatory of Sargent’s sexual identity. It is less clear whether Violet engaged physically with any of the women with whom she formed relationships in later life, but she certainly preferred the company of women to that of men as intimate companions.

This sense of developing self-awareness is built into my characterizations of John and Violet in the mystery series, and I find it is important to interweave their growing consciousnesses into the stories themselves, which becomes more significant in the latest of the mysteries, The Unicorn in the Mirror, when they are both around twenty-six years of age.

In contrast to my earliest murder mysteries, which were carefully outlined and plotted in advance, my approach to writing about Violet and John’s exploits is more fully organic—once I’ve done the necessary research, I just start writing—their personalities take over pretty quickly, and before I know it, they’re telling me what to write and leading me into all sorts of interesting adventures. I start thinking and feeling like them, especially Violet, and as I work through the investigation along with them, I find out almost at the same time they do, who-done-it and why! Their particular ways of thinking and acting, in their own historical contexts—in short, who they are as persons of their era—have become critical and instrumental elements to solving the murders and crimes they investigate—truly character-driven historical fiction.

The Power of Time & Luck

There are at least two things that I experience when I write, especially when I write historical fiction: Serendipity and Synchronicity.

The Three Princes of Serendip

Serendipity does not come from Latin or Greek, but rather was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of an Indian fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not seeking.” It has come to mean “good luck in finding valuable things unintentionally” but I want to emphasize the word “sagacity” in addition to just accident. We’ll get back to this word in a few moments.  

Synchronicity is the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. This term was created by Carl Jung in the 1950s to describe the occurrence and connection between two or more events that cannot be explained as a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity, connected by meaning. A very simple example would be thinking of an old friend one morning, and then later coming across a photograph of that friend stuck in a book you take down at random from the bookshelf, and then getting a phone call from the friend that same day. No one of these events is either a cause or an effect, but they are connected by meaning, Jung would say.

Historical fiction, in its very essence, is a way of falling together in time—a story is set in the past, but it is being written from the present, so, for me, the process of writing such a story is in itself a synchronizing of different times. In the mystery series I am writing that feature John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget, I have structured the stories so that there are two distinct time periods in each book. In the first book, The Spoils of Avalon, the reader can time travel between 1877 London and 1539 Glastonbury, every other chapter, and there’s even a third time reference, in the quotations at the beginning of each chapter from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which is the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, long held to be medieval, but historically, if Arthur lived at all, it was around the year 300 of the Common Era.

In Jung’s terminology, the “meaning” or the synchronicity, that connects these three eras, in my story, concerns the testing of human loyalty, of faith or the lack of it, the mystery of the sacred as it interacts with the secular, and the effects that has on human character and fate. On the one hand, it’s just a story about a murder and who committed it and why, and how the past is connected to the present through this event—but on the other hand, if you let all the character’s experiences and thoughts and actions roll in and wash over you, I believe you can get a real sense of what it was like to live in both those times, and how understanding the one can help you understand the other, as well as your own present time.

In this second book, The Love for Three Oranges, John and Violet find themselves summoned to Venice in the winter of 1879 to help an artist friend of Singer Sargent’s, whose palazzo is beset with death and ghosts and all sorts of troubling events. The second time period harks back some 140 years to 1739, where we are introduced to a famous Venetian playwright of that time, Carlo Gozzi.

And this is where my other special word—serendipity—played a huge part in the writing of this second mystery. Here’s the definition again: Serendipity is “Making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things one is not seeking.”

Before I even started writing these mystery stories, but after my first book about John Singer Sargent, in which Violet Paget has a very significant presence, Stu and I stayed in Venice for three days or so about seven years ago, with a small group of folks on a tour. We were lodged at a small, former palazzo on the western arm of the Grand Canal, just past the Rialto Bridge, called the Hotel San Cassiano, but also Ca’ Favretto. It had been the home of an Italian artist, Giacomo Favretto, from 1870 to 1887. He was of the Impressionist school, and several of his paintings were hung about the hotel. It was a charming place, and I took a lot of pictures of it.

Ca’ Favretto in Venice — Hotel San Cassiano

When I got around to starting The Love for Three Oranges, I knew I was going to set the story in Venice, and I thought of that hotel, and Giacomo Favretto. So, I looked him up and lo and behold, it turns out he and John Sargent were good friends, and that Sargent stayed at the palazzo in Venice occasionally. What a happy discovery! I decided—with great sagacity—that it would be perfect to set the story in that location. Sagacity, for me, is the wisdom that comes from experience combined with the happy faculty of knowing a good thing when you see it.

So then I turned to the issue of the previous time period which would constitute the other half of the story—and you can imagine how hard it was to fasten on one particular century or era in the long, long history of Venice, with all her prominent artists, musicians, and writers! However, upon re-reading a biography of Violet Paget – aka Vernon Lee – I was reminded that in the year 1879 she was finishing up the manuscript for a book that would be published the next year—it was called “Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy”—and a significant amount of the book was concerned with one Carlo Gozzi, a playwright in the mid to late 1700’s in Venice. One thing led to another, and I found a complete copy online of Gozzi’s Memoirs. I read about his youthful days in Venice, living in one of the palazzos his family owned in Venice, his descriptions of its size and structure, its location on the Grand Canal, and its proximity to the Church of San Cassiano, which was his family’s parish, where many of his ancestors were buried. I looked at maps, I studied the streets and sotoportegos and campos of Venice, and I came to the conclusion that Gozzi’s former family home was none other than the Hotel San Cassiano—Giacomo Favretto’s home as well!

Count Carlo Gozzi

So there we had been, on the very spot where Carlo Gozzi had walked and slept and ate and dreamed—and where Sargent had visited his friend Giacomo as he lived and prospered and enjoyed life. And Gozzi the very person that Violet Paget was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about, all right there. Three, or four, or five events in three time periods—all tied together by meaning, by the significance of their existence in relation to each other.   Serendipity and Synchronicity indeed!

Writing Historical Mysteries

I joined my love for writing historical fiction with my love for mystery stories when I wrote the first book in the John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Mysteries: The Spoils of Avalon. It came about because of two things: First, I missed my characters of Sargent and Paget from my novel Portraits of an Artist so much that I kept hearing their voices talking to me and insisting I write them back onto the page! Second, as I had already written about these two people “seriously” in the novel, I wanted to set them up in a more amusing and entertaining way, to bring out their playful and witty natures — so I brought them to life again as amateur sleuths. This is a growing genre that has many celebrities on offer: Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, Sigmund Freud, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, and the team of Henry, William and Alice James, to name but a few.

Mysteries as a genre tend to be plot-driven — i.e., the actual murder and the solving of it are the primary concern. Because I have real, historical people as the main characters, my focus is more character-driven – -i.e., the story tends to reveal how the characters react and respond to events and other people, to show their feelings, thoughts, personal dilemmas and idiosyncrasies, all while they are involved in solving a mystery. Still, I try to concoct a plausible and interesting mystery that readers will find intriguing and fun.

Which brings me to my particular historical genre: my Sargent/Paget mysteries are definitely in the “cozy village” camp — as opposed to “noir”, “police procedural”, and “thriller/suspense” mysteries. The main components of Cozy Village Mysteries (think Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple as the sterling example) include: the murders are not gruesome or graphic; very little to no mention of sex (though a lot of hints!!); amateur sleuths who often get in the way of the police, or have a skeptical ally on the force; and humourous and witty dialogue and situations.

In short, lots of fun and light-hearted reading, but in my mysteries, I also try to reflect on larger issues, both historical and contemporary (as in, “there is nothing new under the sun”). In the Spoils of Avalon, I was fascinated by the difference between two time periods: the late 19th century Victorian culture, which had been shocked and derailed by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the immense changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and the changing nature of colonialism that would ultimately bring down the empire; and the mid-16th century, still medieval world of monasteries and small English villages, steeped in religion and ritual, about to be destroyed forever by the apostate machinations of Henry VIII and his henchman, Thomas Cromwell. (Guess I’m kind of showing my Catholic side there, lol.)

Enough for now! Keep on reading!

Two paintings defined his life–one, a private grief; the other, a public scandal.

When I first started thinking about this novel, in 1999, I focused on Sargent’s enigmatic “Portraits d’Enfants”, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1883. The four daughters of Edward and Isa Boit are presented, for a portrait, in a most unusual way:  the eldest daughter (Florence, 14) has barely a profile of her face to show us who she is. She and her sister Jane (age 12) almost sink into the dark brown shadows of the room beyond the hall where they are posed in the family’s Paris residence on Rue Hauptmann. It’s possible the two older girls are holding hands, but not clear. What is clear is that they are all separated in space, and maybe affection, as the two younger girls (Mary-Louisa, 8 and Julia, 4) stand or sit far from each other and their two older sisters. Their pinafores are almost uniforms, stiff and virtually undifferentiated. There are no smiles, just blank or thoughtful stares into the middle distance. An art critic at the time dubbed it “four corners and a void” after a well-known children’s game (sort of a tag-you’re-it within four “corners”), which seemed to me to express the psychological darkness that looms in the atmosphere.

The painting intrigued me, and I “knew” there was a story there, so in 2008 I began writing what I thought was going to be a novel telling this story. But when I was about half way into it, things changed, as they so often do in writing. After reading three biographies and numerous letters of the artist, I have found that my novel has come to be a searching portrait of the artist himself, John Sargent, much in the same way (I say this with all humility) as is Colm Toibin’s haunting novel of Henry James (“The Master”). My novel covers the years 1882-1884, extraordinarily creative years for Sargent, during which he painted perhaps his two most significant paintings, one of them being the “Daughters.”
The other portrait is the famous “Madame X”, which I recently viewed at the New York Met. A magnificent painting, it looms large in the legend of Sargent’s career, and was the flashpoint of a heady scandal that rocked the world of art and high society in Paris in 1884. “Madame X” was an American woman, Amelie Gautreau, born in New Orleans and transplanted to Paris at an early age by her ambitious mother. At the time of the portrait, she was about 24 years old, just two years younger than Sargent, married to a ‘dwarfish’ wealthy Frenchman, and had a little girl. There was evidently a frisson of sorts between Amelie and Sargent—she was notoriously “sexual” in her presentation of herself in society. But Sargent was also drawn to emotional entanglements with young men—it was an interesting time—and it makes for some very intriguing story-telling.

After reading three biographies of Sargent, poring through numerous art books and critical essays, as well as letters and notes, this novel has turned into a very exciting journey of emotional, artistic and psychological exploration into a man’s life, work and soul. After writing the whole novel with a third-person omnisicient narrator, I decided to revise it and make it a multiple-first-person format, with several of Sargent’s closest friends and most famous sitters be the “Portraits” who tell their own stories about their connection with him–and through their voices we gain multiple and often intimate understandings of the artist himself.

N.B. “Madame X” is on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art; the “Portraits d’Enfants” is at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Two very fine books about these paintings are “Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X” by Deborah Davis, and “Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting” by Erica Hirshler. 

Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent
Madame X, by John Singer Sargent 

Why I wrote “J”

Over the winter of 2006-2007, I read Harold Bloom’s “The Book of J” – an enthralling literary critique of Genesis and Exodus, accompanied by a stunning, elemental new translation from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg. The translated passages were the only ones that scholars contend can be attributed to the “J” author of the Old Testament, hence, The Book of J.  In Bloom’s critique, he surmises that “J” may very well have been a woman, a member of the royal court of David, and one whose irreverant and humorous attitude toward Yahweh, the patriarchs and religion itself would have naturally led to subsequent priestly censorship.

Scholars agree that the Hebrew Bible (the Christian “Old Testament”) was written and composed over many hundreds of years by different people.  The oldest or earliest sections of the text were probably composed at Jerusalem in the tenth century B.C.E. (“before the common era”) during the reigns of David and Solomon.  Later versions often completely suppressed earlier stories for political, social or religious reasons; sometimes duplicate versions were just tagged on, and of course, many new stories, histories, poetry and polemics were added as time went on.

“J” stands for the original author, the “Yahwist” named for Yahweh – or Jahweh, in the German spelling, as it was German theological scholars who started this author naming process in the 19th century. They named this first author after the name of God most frequently used in those texts. The later strands of Bible stories in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers are all revisions or censorings of J, and their authors are known as “E” (Elohist for “Elohim,” the plural name of God used for Yahweh in that version); “P” for the Priestly Author or School that wrote Leviticus; “D” for the author(s) of Deuteronomy; and “R” for the Redactor (or revisionist/editor) who performed the  “final” revision after the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian Exile.

After reading Professor Bloom’s book, I was compelled to write my own story of J, and how she came to be The Woman Who Wrote the Bible.  Here’s a taste of the novel.