Category Archives: 17th C England

Hot Spiced Wine: Reading For the Winter

One of my friends from college days just posted an image on Instagram of what she’s doing now that she’s on semester break (she’s an English/writing professor now). It was a still life of romantic Christmas stories, spiced Glögg, and cute mug in front of a Christmas tree. She’s the type of person who finds joy in simple pleasures, who’s enthusiastic about life and invests herself fully in the projects she takes on — even if that project is just relaxation.

I’m not yet on vacation; as a freelancer, I’m never really on vacation because I’ll take work when I get it. Hence, I spent our summer vacation editing and when we had guests, I found myself formatting. Have computer, will travel. That being said, I’m still on a school schedule due to my after-school tutoring and, of course, my own children. Winter vacation is just around the corner for me, too! I realized I had already started my own version of winter spiced wine by the books I was obsessively downloading on my Kindle. Comfort books. Not necessarily Christmas or winter related, but still my own version of crack: history, biography, and autobiography.

Most history books I pick by subject rather than author, with the exception of Liza Picard’s books. I love her writing. She has four books out that I know of: Restoration London, Dr. Johnson’s London, Elizabeth’s London, and Victorian London. Somehow, I’d skipped Restoration London. This is one of my favorite points of history. The restoration of the British crown. The plague. The Great Fire. The explosion of developments in science and literature. Dr. Johnson’s London is the long tail of this Enlightenment period of British history; I have that book in print and have read it dozens of times. In the interest of interconnectedness, the professor I mentioned above studied the Long British Enlightenment with me in our heady college days. We were hooked by the hundred of years or so that make up this moment in history.

But why are Liza Picard’s books so engaging to me? She says it best in her foreword:

I have a practical mind. I have always been interested in how people lived. The practical details are rarely covered in social history books [she’s right about this, though it’s not 100%]…

I am not a historian. I am a lawyer. I have a liking for primary evidence — not what someone wrote long afterwards, or what someone has concluded from a selection of documents that I have not seen, but what someone said who was there at the time. This has led me down interesting detours, while I reinvented the wheel, and read as many contemporary documents as I could find.

In other words, she’s writing history the way I would if I took up that occupation: as the end result of uncountable hours worth of detours while immersed in primary documents — and all to discover those fine details of how people actually lived. And it’s not just the practical details that you get from primary documents. You get a view into the minds of history’s greatest thinkers, unfiltered by scholars who have to write the edgiest or most unique take on them in journals published by universities. Scholars have an unfortunate need to be yet more subversive than the last one was. This is no doubt the scholarly version of click-bait or sensationalist headlines, but with a lot more polysyllabic words.

Being that I have only so many primary documents at my disposal, Liza Picard is a good second-best. Of course, she’s going to put her own spin on things. As she noted herself: she’s practical. And more than that, she’s a lawyer by trade. Lawyers are trained to couch their language in a particularly convincing fashion, to make their case, in other words. I’m okay with it, despite that reading her books is like crack to me and I have no natural defenses against a divers look at infectious diseases during the last great bout of plague.

All told, she provides a wealth of information and anecdota in her books. This one is heavily filtered through the diaries of Samuel Pepys, which I haven’t read in a long time. I’m already feeling warmer and cozier, despite the freezing fog blanketing the world today, and the lack of any actual hot spiced wine, I’m sorry to say.

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On Melancholia and Media

“I hear news every day, those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions,. . . .and such like, which these tempestuous times afford. . . .New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion &c.”* –Robert Burton on melancholy

In 1621, the Vicar Robert Burton published a gem of a scholarly work titled The Anatomy of Melancholy. Although the book, in a broad sense, is supposed to be a medical text, Burton’s approach was to gather literary quotes and create a philosophical treatise that drew from varied disciplines such as psychology, astronomy, meteorology, theology, astrology, etc. I would conjecture that Burton’s gathering of the pieces became a philosophical journey in and of itself. And, in fact, Burton claimed to have written the book as a way to dispel his own melancholy.

I’m no stranger to melancholy. Angst may be a term overused by lazy poets, but it’s also an indicator of melancholic bile, as well as an apt descriptor of the place where my mind dwells. The words above, inspired by Burton’s philosophical (if not jocular) mindset in the early 17th C, give insight into, not only my small world, but our modern 21st C reality, which throws many of us into the same splenetic fits as men suffered from 400 years ago. Think about this for a moment. You’re no doubt already aware that the character of humans hasn’t changed much over the centuries–not at core–yet we view our modern technological age as vastly different from Burton’s era. Despite that, we have, on record, an early 17th C man claiming that his private life was inundated by media. If you read the entire preface to the work where the quote is culled from, you will find that this section rambles on with the full spectrum of news–wars and rumors thereof, plagues, entertainments and entertainers, etc.

The modern glorification of media, its beauty and deceits, has come to us as a legacy from the days of the Enlightenment. Certainly, journalism and news weren’t new concepts even then; however, the 17th and 18th centuries marked a rise in printing and literacy that has not stopped rising since. Well, perhaps, literacy rates have tapered off over the years, but written words have continued to increase exponentially. Most people would call this progress, and I wouldn’t disagree with them. I love information. I love researching and sifting for ideas in a vast sea of them. Sometimes, though, I wish I could shut it all out and live as a media-less melancholic hermit in my desert home.

Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever have to remind yourself of how literacy and access to published works have enriched your life? I feel it, even if I want to shut out the noise at times. I’m quick to remind myself that the noise, or parts of it, will leave a record for posterity. As a female, I feel a great sense of relief having been born into these modern days, 400 years after Burton. I’m grateful that women are currently leaving their own record for the future.

Have you ever noticed that the early feminist movement seemed to mysteriously blossom at the same moment in history that literacy rates soared alongside of increased access to presses and printed works? I often hear the claim, usually from naysayers, that feminism is a destructive modern movement whose ideals are unknown to history. That’s a peculiar claim, really, because the core of femininity hasn’t changed over the years any more than the core of masculinity has changed (which I didn’t exactly prove without a shadow of a doubt earlier, but still, who is naive enough to believe otherwise?). With access to media, women have simply been given the voice to express who they are, and they’ve been doing so for the last few centuries. Sadly, their expressions of self aren’t always pretty or nice. But neither are the expressions of men.

My rambling thoughts at four a.m. have come full circle, it seems, with the acknowledgement that people aren’t always nice. Hence, media outlets aren’t always nice. Accordingly, it throws many of us into splenetic fits, if not irrational knee-jerk reactions to the way the world is going to hell all around us. Wars and rumors of wars. Religious controversies. Political intrigues. Paradoxes. Women. Feminism.

*Although the quote comes from the preface to The Anatomy of Melancholy, which you can find free all over the internet, I copied this tidy version of it from James Gleick’s Isaac Newton. I preferred his focus to my own. I was tempted to copy Burton’s entire paragraph because I like the whole rambling mess of it. Apparently, Gleick wasn’t tempted that way. Well, maybe he was, but, alas, he had an editor (a person I need).

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Romancing Cromwell and Reading The Preacher’s Bride

I have very little time for blogging these days, but because I’m both ahead of and behind my schedule, I thought I’d spend a few moments writing a post about our Portland trip. My girls and I arrived back at Albuquerque Sunport late Tuesday night, woke to a brilliant New Mexico day on Wednesday, and have since attempted to ease into our normal schedule. We unpacked. We stowed the suitcases and started the laundry. I finished filling in my eldest daughter’s grade sheets and sent them off to her high school academy. We–or at least–I feel like a victor, even though my house is filthy, and I missed my chiropractor appointment this morning. I should be at that appointment right now, so why not blog instead? It takes a lot less effort than cleaning.

I have much to say about the trip to Portland, but I won’t attempt to cram it all in one post. I will reserve this post for the best part, 17th C England. What, you ask, does 17th C England have to do with Portland in the 21st C? Nothing, except that I discovered Jody Hedlund’s debut novel, The Preacher’s Bride, facing out and on prominent display in Barnes and Nobles while visiting. And the setting of the her book is 17th C England. I couldn’t help myself. I had to buy it.

I will not lie to you. I don’t particularly care for romance books. I like romance in a book, but not a book that is labeled as such. And if I were to create a gradient scale, books written by English people in the 17th C would be at the top of the scale, with historical fiction below it and historical romance even further down on the decline. Other genres would fill in the gaps: I love travel memoir, for example. Travel memoir is somewhere at the top of the scale.

The Preacher’s Bride, however, is the type of book that ensnares the reader, regardless of its genre. Once I’d begun, I couldn’t easily put it down. The heroine lures the reader into her story with her enticing character. She’s strong-willed, intelligent, and speaks her mind without being flighty or spunky. I hate spunky heroines. Spunky heroines are stereotypical females with a lot of pluck combined with much silliness (think Shopaholic). They make me want to retch. Hedlund’s heroine, Elizabeth Whitbread, is far too hardworking and honest to be spunky.

Elizabeth Whitbread is a Puritan maiden who knows no other kind of life but that of the plain and hardworking variety. She enters the world of her love interest, John Costin, as his housekeeper, to care for the man’s children after the death of their mother. She faces many battles as his housekeeper–with him, with some of the local Puritans, and with the Royalists who desire to restore the crown of England. She’s caught in the middle of these forces around her and, to complicate matters, falls in love with John Costin, who, as an arrogant but likable preacher, is the greatest force she must reckon with.

If you like historical novels, you will enjoy this book. If you like romantic novels, you will enjoy this book. I personally don’t go in for people “probing the depths” of each others’ eyes (which sounds very painful, in my opinion), but that is my prejudice. I would still rate this book as a 4 out of 5 stars due to the quality of the writing, the story, and the characters. I would not give it a 5 out of 5 because, for me, the book lacked setting and background. I came away not knowing enough about the town where they lived and the way of life of the Puritans who lived there. And if I didn’t already know much of the historical background, I would have come away with a deficit of understanding. I’m the type of reader who wants details, and a lot of them. This is not to say that the author didn’t give any details, but not enough of them, or not enough of the right kind. I’d trade the romantic bits for historical/setting details any day.***I’m editing in to add that the problem here is not with the author, but the reader.  I hope I’ve made that clear.  It’s a matter of my preferences.  

And that brings me to my ultimate prejudice. I’m not altogether sympathetic with Cromwell’s regime. Religious persecution did exist in England under Charles I. But when Cromwell established the Commonwealth of England, he replaced one tyrannical government with another. That almost never works. People who work very hard day after day don’t like it. And, for all the supposed religious freedom under Cromwell, Catholics were still oppressed. Charles II, who was restored to the throne in 1660, was an amoral man in many ways, but he brought back the art of theater and was a great patron of the arts and sciences.

I have to admit, though, that Elizabeth and John are more than simply Puritans characters. They are complex characters whose lives are affected by the changing of the guard–when all they really want is to have an intact and healthy family (Elizabeth’s desire) and preach the gospel of Christ (John’s desire). Why any government should oppose such peaceable desires is beyond me.

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