Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bits and pieces

I've been neglectful in announcing the winners of the two latest contests, so I drew the numbers this evening with the help of

The copy of India Black will go to: Leya of Wandeca Reads
The copy of The Crimson Rooms will go to: Connie Jensen of Get It Written [updated, as the original winner snagged her own copy]

Please email me at sarah(at) with your mailing addresses, and the books will be heading your way.  Congratulations and enjoy!

Back in September I mentioned a survey of historical fiction readers undertaken by Jerome de Groot's third-year English students at the University of Manchester.  I filled out their form, and some of you may have also.  The students' essays are in and have been posted online.  There were 116 responses, which covered demographic data, the reasons why people read historical novels, and whether historical accuracy was necessary.  Some students also interviewed readers and authors to see whether they agreed with the majority opinions.  Check out their reports for insight into historical fiction fans' reading habits.  Most of the respondents were "middle-aged women," that is, women over 40.  I confess I never thought of myself as fitting this label until now, so pardon me while I go crawl under a rock.

This next bit is apropos of nothing, other than I thought it was pretty cool.  I spent the better part of today on reference desk duty at the library, though because I had an enormous headache, few of the projects I'd planned got done.  Having gone through my Google Reader feeds, I started catching up with my genealogy research, combing through relevant documents on Rootsweb and Google to see if anything new came up.

Was I ever surprised to discover that one of my female ancestors, ten generations back, kept a diary.  Her name was Zerviah (Sanger) Chapman, born in Woodstock, Connecticut in 1718.  She gave birth to 21 children, nearly half of whom died young, and lived to be 93.  A random Google search for her name revealed that she wrote short daily entries in a book between 1775 and 1784, when she was in her fifties and sixties.  She recorded household matters (the time she spent weaving, the meals she prepared, whether she attended meeting), the births of grandchildren and neighbors, and news about the Revolutionary War.  One accompanying letter she wrote warns the recipient about one family who was apparently to blame for falsely accusing her husband Stephen of forgery in Newport, Nova Scotia, a planters' colony established by Rhode Islanders after the Acadians were forced to leave.  Stephen died in Nova Scotia, and afterwards, Zerviah moved back to Warwick, RI, to live with her daughter's family.

The diary and letters now belong to the Rhode Island Historical Society in Providence; it's the earliest woman's diary in their manuscript collections.  For me, it's history made personal.  Next time I'm out East I plan to pay them a visit and read a part of my family's own past for myself.


  1. I am going to look at the students' essays because that kind of thing always interests.
    Lucky you to find an ancestor who kept a diary. These are usually so informative for people interested in their family's genealogy. I know all about my Baugh family, but not other lines.
    Can't the historical society send you at least copies of some of the pages digitalized?

  2. Wow! That's wonderful you've discovered one of your ancestor's diary. What a treasure.

    I've been doing some genealogical research recently, and have managed to find old photos of some of my ancestors - it's neat to see a family resemblance even in ancestors who lived well over 100 year ago!

  3. That's genealogical gold!

  4. Alex, good question. I'd looked around at the site for digitization info. I'll write them and see. If it's already been done for preservation purposes, that would be ideal, but if it hasn't, it will be pricey. I'd still like to see it in person. When I lived out East, I drove through Providence all the time... wish I'd known back then!

    My great-grandmother kept a diary in the '40s, and I have some photos from the 1800s, but I never thought there'd be a diary dating back to the Revolutionary era. (None of the photos resemble me. And everyone was stiff and formal in photos back then!) Now I need to go research what happened in Nova Scotia!

  5. What an interesting genealogical find! Who knows how many resource like that are floating around but have been passed down through a family line and therefore inaccessible to others in the family. My great-great-grandmother kept a diary. I have a photocopy and transcribed it on my genealogy website so other family members could see it, too.

    Plus, I think I pretty much fall into the same demographic, and nobody better call me middle-aged again.

  6. Neat blog. I'm glad I ran acrossed it. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres.

  7. Oh, what an exciting discovery!

    Phew, I am not quite in the demographic, but not too far off!

  8. Congrats on your discovery of the diary!
    And thanks for the link to the awesome study about what historical fiction readers want. I'm looking through them now and it's some great information!

  9. That's great you've transcribed your g-g-grandmother's diary, Dana. I'm all for making family history information more accessible. I'd started a similar website a while ago and need to add more. What's interesting is I used to be contacted by fellow searchers all the time, but interest seems to have dimmed, or maybe we've all run up against the same brick walls.

    Thanks, Troutbirder, mine too (obviously!).

    I found it interesting to read how many of the readers choose HF for educational purposes. I'm in that boat to some degree, though I find I don't retain as much of the history as I'd like. (Maybe a sign of middle age...)

  10. Could most of the readers that were interviewed for this project be readers of what might be categorized as "Historical Romance," a category of Romance fiction, rather than straight ahead historical fiction?

    If they want to escape from a world of violence, class warfare and poverty, how would one then explain the popularity of Cornwell, who is cited in at least one of the papers? His work is anything but sweetness and light and successful romance!

    Now I'm one of those who heartily dislikes historical romance and Romance as genre generaally. I feel increasingly frustrated that historical romance is marketed like historical fiction. Too often now, I'm picking up a title and finding it to be Romance precominately, rather than predominantly Historical.

    For the record, I've enormously enjoyed and admired Cornwell's The Saxon Stories series, for an instance of what I consider historical fiction as opposed to historical romance.

    Love, c.

  11. For what it's worth, I answered it from the viewpoint of a mainstream HF reader.

    Cornwell's very popular, and I've enjoyed his books, but at the same time his work is hardly ever reviewed in the historical fiction blogosphere, and if that's who the survey reached, for the most part, that viewpoint may not have come through strongly in the results (except in a few examples). Just speculating...

    I also think the word "escapism" gets a bad rap sometimes. The connotation doesn't have to be pejorative, as all fiction (the good stuff anyway!) provides a sense of leaving one's own world and escaping into another. The latter isn't necessarily a safer place, just a different one. Unlike one of the papers, I don't see escapism / the feeling of "time travel" as being romantic in itself. I wonder if the gender of most respondents influenced the perception in this respect.

  12. That's interesting that Cornwell's not much reviewed in the historical fiction blogosphere.

    Is he perceived perchance as a 'man's writer?' There is all that warfare and killing and so on, which is much the focus of the Sharpe's series, and which, well I don't care for. However, women I know are made for the Sharpe episodes on public television -- or this about the actor? -- but again, I still don't care for it. And I know why: there's a Sharpe's formula and I get bored very quickly with formula.

    Wilbur Smith tends to get reviews in this area of interest though, doesn't he (his latest works are unreadable, however, from my pov and tastes).

    In any case it's interesting and I thank you for taking the time to respond.

    Love, C

  13. Yes, I think he is perceived as a "man's writer" (though he has many female readers too). That goes double for Wilbur Smith. Cornwell's Saxon novels are great fun, but I agree on Smith, having tried two of his and found them not to my taste. I can't say I've seen his novels reviewed on blogs either, but they're covered in major papers. (I've never read Sharpe!)

  14. Sarah, I love this post about your "new found" family history. 21 children! And she still found time to write.We should never complain about not enough writing time. I think we all want to know more about our past- we should be writing messages to our future descendants.

  15. A fascinating post, and one that has sparked some really interesting debate. I will certainly be looking up this research- when I've finished writing my own small piece of historical fiction, which is a radio play, due for its first public reading on Wednesday. And strangely enough, I hadn't thought of it as HF at all until now- it's a drama, and a love story- but definitely not Romance- which just happens to be set in 17th Century!
    The finding of your ancestor's diary is very exciting Sarah. When you find something like that, it's a heart-catching moment, as if you suddenly hear a voice from across the years! Perhaps that's another reason why we read HF- it helps us to connect with the past in a more personal way than if we read straight history.
    Oh, and thank you for the prize of The Crimson Rooms- I can't wait to read it.

  16. Another thought: does anyone out there still read and enjoy John James? Not for all the Gold in Ireland, Seventeen at Leyden, and best of all, Men Went to Cattraeth. He could be perceived I think, as a "man's writer" but I love his wit and his ability to write about the gritty reality of the past.

  17. What a wonderful discovery! Although reading the diary in copied form would be fascinating, I agree that it can’t compare with seeing the actual book itself. Best of all would be touching the pages touched by your ancestor, but I doubt whether you’d be allowed to do that to a fragile old document. Your ancestor had an unusual name - I wonder where it came from?

    Interesting results from the HF survey. I’m puzzled by the desire expressed by readers to get away from the wars and grim stories in modern fiction, though. What part of history are they reading about?! One thing a study of history shows us is that the more things change the more they stay the same, especially in regard to warfare and the ability of humankind to do terrible things to each other in the names of religion, ideological belief and nationalism. Arguably the first recorded work of HF, written by Homer, was about the Greek war with Troy, undertaken much more to gain access to the rich trade routes Troy controlled than to retrieve the beautiful Helen!

    Perhaps, as someone else suggested, many of the readers surveyed mostly read historical romance, where the unfortunate realities of any given period never get in the way of a happy ending :)

  18. Connie, I'm tickled to come across someone else who's read John James' books. Jo Walton comments on her Tor post, "John James only ever wrote three books that I'm aware of--and no-one ever bought them." Now I know that's not true because I have all three, but I understand what she's saying. For some reason they just never took off, which is a great shame. I noted last year that Neil Gaiman plans a reissue of "Votan" at some stage- see Anthony Brockway's post on Babylon Wales. He says of "Votan", "James's skill at inhabiting and subverting a mythological framework is what really sets this book apart from other Dark Age fictions."

    James' novels "Votan" and its sequel "Not For all the Gold in Ireland" have a particular appeal for those (like me) who have an anarchic sense of humour. "Men went to Cattreath" is a darker affair- a retelling of the late 5th century battle between British Romano-Celtic tribesmen and Anglo-Saxon warriors, recorded by the Welsh bard, Aneirin in his poem "Y Gododdin". The only other novel I know of about this tragic event is Rosemary Sutcliff's "The Shining Company"

    Poul Anderson also had a play with the possible origins of the Æsir gods in his historical novel "The Golden Slave", which follows the adventures of a Cimbrian chieftain sold into slavery after losing a war with Rome in 100 B.C., who eventually escapes and makes his way north, and Henry Treece, in "The Green Man", plants the remains of Mycenaean Greek culture left by ancient travellers in 6th century Jutland, as a way of emphasizing the universality of heroic mythology.

    I'm intrigued by your mention of another JJ novel, Seventeen at Leyden", which I've never come across. Must hunt it down!

  19. Judith, I agree it's amazing she found time to write anything given her huge family (at this point in her life, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were being born) and that keeping a diary was an important thing to do at all. My aunt's emailed me asking whether we could have a digital copy, so I hope that's available. Even before finding out about the diary, I'd guessed she had an eventful life simply because most didn't live to be 90+ back then.

    Annis, my guess is they'll let me see the original, under supervision of the librarian, though I'll only be able to take notes in pencil. Zerviah is an unusual name, but it's one of those that pops up regularly in records of colonial New England settlers. In keeping with Puritan naming traditions - picking names from the Bible - I wonder if it's a variant of Zeruiah (name of King David's sister). Other creative names on my family tree: Bazaleel, Ephraim, Freelove, Hezediah, Keziah... I love those old names, actually, though am glad I don't have one of them now!

    Connie and Annis, John James was recommended to me a while ago, but it took some time to find anything written by him. I finally found an old, grubby copy of Men Went to Cattraeth and will try to get to it soon. Thanks for mentioning his work, and all the other novels on similar subjects! The beginning of Votan (quoted in Jo Walton's post on the Tor site) really draws you in with its humor.

  20. Yes, having a name like "Freelove" could be a bit dodgy in this day and age :)

  21. Sounds like it'd fit both the 1960s and the 1760s :)

  22. Anonymous4:31 PM

    I wonder if responses were "skewed" by the survey being mentioned on various blogs with crossover readers?

    My mother has found out that she is descended from Bridget Bradstreet, sister of Simon and sister-in-law of Anne, which makes my early reading about Abigal Adams quite apt. I also wanted to make cornmeal mush, but it didn't live up to what I thought would be its reputation.

    Sarah Other Librarian

  23. Anonymous4:34 PM

    Could this also be related to Catherine Sheldrick Ross's work in "Finding Without Seeking" (article) and other research compiled by Jessica Moyer - that people are indirectly or unconsciously escaping in part to immerse themselves and learn about the past? In other words, it's both recreational and informational reading?

    Sarah Other Librarian

  24. I've tried cornmeal mush once. Not impressed - it was salty yet otherwise bland.

    What we're seeing in the results does sound like it's related to past readers' advisory research. To refresh my memory, I found one of Jessica Moyer's articles in RUSQ which spoke about survey respondents' frequent selection of historical fiction when they wanted to be both educated and entertained. (They talked about mystery fiction in the same way.)