Monday, August 18, 2014

The inspiration behind the women of The Vintner's Daughter, an essay by Kristen Harnisch

In today's guest essay, Kristen Harnisch tells us more about the real-life women who inspired the female characters in her debut novel, The Vintner's Daughter, which I reviewed earlier this month.

The Inspiration behind the Women of The Vintner’s Daughter
Kristen Harnisch

The mother, daughters, midwife, wine maven, and the harlot of The Vintner’s Daughter were inspired by the real women of the time, and in some cases, shaped by the constraints of the late-nineteenth century societies in which they lived.

Sara Thibault, the book’s heroine, struggles to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard and the life that was stolen from her. Her tenacity and grit were inspired by three women wine-making pioneers of the late 1800s: the Duchesse de Fitz-James, a Frenchwoman who touted the benefits of using American rootstock to replant French vines decimated by the phylloxera louse; Josephine Tyschon, a widowed mother who built and ran the 55-acre Tyschon Winery in St. Helena (now Freemark Abbey); and J.C. Weinberger, the only California woman to win a silver medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for her wine. Sara is passionate and daring, and when author Roberta Rich praised the novel by predicting it would “invoke inevitable comparisons to Gone with the Wind,” I recognized that Sara does indeed share these traits with Miss Scarlett O’Hara. Why are these women so connected to their land and willing to risk everything to salvage it? Because it’s fruitful, predictable, and, as Sara hastens to point out, “It does not disappoint.”

Marguerite Thibault (Sara’s “Maman”), and Sara’s sister Lydia, serve as able foils to Sara. Maman lived through the German occupation of nearby Tours in 1870, and waited anxiously for her new husband to return from fighting the Prussians in 1871—she has endured her share of uncertainty. Her failure to protect her daughters after their father’s death is rooted in fear: her fear of being alone, and her fear of having to start over with nothing.

Although Lydia is the eldest of the two sisters, she is vain and flirtatious, and more concerned about her marriage to the village rogue than the preservation of her father’s beloved vineyard. Despite their differences, Sara and Lydia have shared their childhood and care for each other deeply—they are “two sides of the same coin, one minted for practicality, the other for pageantry.” Maman and Lydia are essential to moving the plot forward. If Lydia had not blindly given herself to Bastien Lemieux, or Maman had ensured her daughters’ safety early on, Sara’s life would not have taken such drastic turns.

Marie Chevreau, the Manhattan midwife and single mother—cast aside by the same man who married and mistreated Sara’s sister—is a go-getter. Her character, in this novel and in its sequel—The California Wife—was inspired by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American school (in 1849), and who later founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the school Marie attends. For Marie, a life free of romantic entanglement is the key to her success as a midwife, until the sequel, when her involvement with one of her medical college professors threatens to derail her ambitions.

author Kristen Harnisch
(credit: Alix Martinez Photography)
What can I say about Linnette Cross, the novel’s harlot? She’s a working woman, just like Sara, Marie and Aurora, yet she’s not entirely jaded. She harbors a passion not only for a particular man, but for the plight of the disenfranchised, and the Chinese immigrants, who were frequent victims of bigotry. She started at the infamous Clinton Street House, a real and flourishing brothel in Napa’s history, and she possesses a keen knowledge of her place in the world. However, Linnette has a soulful side, and in the novel’s sequel, we will see it blossom.

Aurora Thierry, I have to admit, is my favorite secondary character. When I was researching the story of Josephine Tyschon, I learned that she enjoyed driving her carriage at top speed, just for the thrill of it (and perhaps to irritate her many critics). Aurora Thierry would absolutely do the same. Aurora is a widow, and a self-made expert in winegrowing, herbal remedies, and husbandry, and she quickly becomes Sara’s surrogate mother when our heroine arrives in Napa. Everyone needs a friend when they come to a new town and who better than a Winchester rifle-toting, straight-talking, fiery, redheaded suffragette?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the women in my own life—my mother, sister, aunts, cousins and friends—who also inspire my characters’ personalities and the way they handle the obstacles they face. The most joyful part of being a writer, for me, is breathing life into my creations, dwelling in their company, learning their idiosyncrasies, and testing their mettle in new and exciting ways.


The Vintner's Daughter is published this month in the US in trade pb by She Writes Press ($16.95) and in Canada by HarperCollins Canada ($22.95).  Visit her website at

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