Emma Dean Powell: The Explorer’s Wife

2019 is a big year for Utah sesquicentennial celebrations (isn’t that a great word?). May 10, 2019, was the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad linking the East Coast and West Coast at Promontory Point, Utah.  This enormous accomplishment, achieved mainly by such downtrodden groups as the Chinese, Irish, former slaves, former Civil War soldiers, Native Americans, and Latter-day Saints (Mormons), is rightly regarded as a major technological and social achievement in Utah and US history.

On May 24, 1869, another scientific wonder began: an exploratory trip down the wild Colorado River by one-armed geologist and former Civil War soldier, Major John Wesley Powell. With a ten-man crew–none of whom had white-water rafting experience–he set out to map the unexplored regions of the Colorado River through Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. And I don’t just mean unexplored by white men–Native Americans familiar with the area told him his goal was impossible, deadly. Yet he took his scientific equipment in four boats and set off. The fourth boat–his own–was named the Emma Dean after his wife. On August 30, 1869, Major Powell arrived in St. Thomas, Nevada, having lost one boat, a great deal of the scientific information he gathered, and four of his men (all four deserted the expedition, and three of those were lost in the desert, never heard from again). Undeterred by the hardships, he would make the trip again in 1871-1872 to improve his scientific data.

Powell is justly famous for his daring and for his contributions to the understanding of the geology and ethnology of the West, but Emma Dean Powell rarely gets any mention. True, she did not raft down the Colorado (during one of her husband’s Colorado expeditions, she was busy giving birth to their daughter Mary Dean Powell), but the petite Emma had been her husband’s nurse, champion, and scientific partner starting in the Civil War and through his many previous expeditions. She became an ornithology expert in her own right, as well as one of the first women to climb Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Along with her sister-in-law, Nellie Thompson, Emma made important contributions to the work that her husband and the other men of his expedition became famous for, at a time when female scientists were rarely recognized for their work. You can read more about Emma Dean Powell’s quiet but remarkable career in Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians.

Photo of Emma Dean Powell courtesy of the USGS.

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The Bone Map

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the meeting of the Transcontinental Railroad lines from east and west at Promontory Point, Utah. The Bone Map has been in the works a long time, but this felt like the right time to release it. Pioneers and polygamy are interesting parts of Utah history, but there’s much more to the state than that!

If Huang-Fu doesn’t find gold, he won’t make it out of the Utah desert alive.

Huang-Fu just wants to survive his job digging for gold with Eugene Hansen so he can go home to California or maybe even China. But when outlaws shoot Eugene, the old prospector sends Huang-Fu running with a map carved in bone. The map may lead Huang-Fu to an incredible treasure, but everyone else who carried the map has died. The outlaws are on his trail, and his only allies also want the treasure. Will Huang-Fu survive the curse of the bone map?

Fans of Treasure Island will enjoy this treasure hunt set among the gold miners, gunslingers, and Pony Express riders of the Old West.

BoneMap_frontcover copy

Contractions are historical, y’all

One of my pet peeves in historical novels is when authors try to make dialogue sound authentic by removing all the contractions. A natural-sounding phrase like, “I’m sure you’ll do well,” becomes the awkward and kind of comical, “I am sure you will do well.”

Please don’t do this to your readers or your manuscript. Some characters will speak more formally than others, but here’s the thing: English is a lazy language full of contractions and short cuts, and that hasn’t changed over the years. On the other hand, using contractions that are too modern in historical pieces ruins the flavor, like putting mint in your orange juice, so you have to pick the right historical contractions.

The types of contractions people use have evolved, but there are plenty of authentic historical contractions writers can use to make their dialogue sounds more natural and still understandable to the modern reader. Look at Shakespeare. His works mark the beginning of modern English, and he uses tons of contractions – and not just when he’s trying to make words fit the rhythm.

So, here’s a brief look at the history of modern English contractions.

First, the “it” contractions: ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, ‘twould. These are pretty common in Elizabethan (1500s) writings, and don’t sound incomprehensible to modern readers. ‘Tis replaces “it’s,” and ‘twould would replace “it’d” if anyone is inclined to use that modern contraction. Google n-gram viewer, which measures how often words appear in print, shows “’tis” peaking around 1700 then falling off sharply, so that by 1800 it’s not very common, and probably old-fashioned.

Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writings provide ample evidence for contractions with “is” and “will,” like: she’ll, we’ll, there’s, and he’s. Shakespeare also uses “I’m,” so all of those are perfectly historical.

“Have” and “had” are apparently more controversial. The OED says the contractions -‘ve and -‘d are post-Elizabethan, but other scholars, like E.A.J. Honigmann in The Texts of Othello and Shakespearean Revision, disagree. They find evidence of contractions like “they’ve” and “she’d” in period texts and suggest these contractions might be just coming into use in writing during this time (they could have been used orally for some time before). So, you’re probably safe with those too in most English historical fiction.

I’ve been reading letters written right around 1650 (and anyone writing in this time period is going to be middle or upper class and well-educated), and they use plenty of contractions: I’m, I’ll, we’ll, you’ll, ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, on’t (of it), t’other (the other), in’t (in it), and with’t (with it). Don’t also makes an appearance.

Most of the “not” contractions come into English a bit late. My old friend the Online Etymology Dictionary gives these dates for when some of them came into use (this would be when they’re found in print – they may have been used verbally for a few years before):

  • don’t – 1630
  • won’t – 1660
  • couldn’t – 1670
  • hadn’t – 1705
  • can’t – 1706
  • ain’t – 1706 (considered correct English until the early Victorian period [1800s] when it came to be seen as lower class – this was when contractions in general got a bad rap in formal writing)
  • aren’t – 1709 (sometimes spelled are’n’t)
  • didn’t – 1775

And then there’s y’all. It’s an early-1800s Americanism from the South and later the West. It was probably adopted into white speech from African-American speech. As a contraction for “you all,” “y’all” is generally meant to be plural. If you’re saying it to one person, it implies they’re part of a group. So, “Y’all stay off our property,” means “you and all your folks.” You-uns or yins was also used in the early 1800s in the American Old Northwest (i.e. Ohio and Pennsylvania).

Jane Austen gives us an idea of which contractions are in use in England in the early 1800s. She’s much more sparing with them than my earlier samples, but in Pride and Prejudice, we find: I’m, don’t, can’t, shan’t, won’t, you’ll, and ’tis. Lydia and Mrs Bennet use the most contractions, but the less silly characters use them occasionally too.

In 1837, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist gives us: don’t, you’ll, he’s, who’s, I’ll, warn’t (were not), can’t, hasn’t, it’s, wouldn’t, mustn’t, haven’t, shouldn’t, didn’t, mightn’t, needn’t, ain’t, mayn’t, it’ll, there’s, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, that’s, where’s, there’ll, you’d, he’d, shan’t, daren’t (dare not), and a variety of other slang-y historical contractions, used liberally throughout the dialogue.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, published in 1855 and incorporating a wider variety of social classes, uses: don’t, shan’t, can’t, won’t, an’t (and it), mayn’t, didn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, doesn’t, it’s, I’ll, that’s, we’ve, they’d, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, they’ve, they’re, you’re, they’ll, she’d, she’s, aren’t, I’d, and some others – a pretty full complement. The laborers use many more contractions than the upper class characters, but even well-bred Margaret uses don’t, you’ll, I’ll, you’ve, I’m, and others fairly often. At this point, as in Dickens, “’tis” is gone, even from old fashioned or upper class language.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, uses most of the contractions that Gaskell used (though not “shan’t” or “an’t”), plus ain’t.

So, it from the Victorian period onward, in England and America, writers have a pretty complete palette of contractions to choose from, and in any historical time period, people of all social classes used contractions.

And there it is: a quick look at historical contractions for fun and profit (but mostly for fun 😉 ).

Suffering from “the spleen”

My blogosphere silence lately has been due to the extreme busy-ness of conferences, Pitch Wars, and my own editing, but I found this interesting tidbit while researching Renaissance life and health, and I had to post about it. I’m reading the letters of a seventeenth century woman who complains of suffering from “the spleen.” Her symptoms sound like depression and/or general anxiety disorder, so I did a bit of research and, sure enough, “the spleen” was the sixteenth century catch-all term for those and related mental health problems.

This was interesting to me because of the similarities and differences between mental health then and now. The symptoms were recognizable: moodiness, withdrawal, long-lasting “blue” feelings, irritability, trouble sleeping and/or oversleeping, and general nervousness or worry. Mental illness is not a phenomenon belonging only to the modern world.

One thing that was refreshing was the general Renaissance medical consensus that mental illness had a physical component: it was called “the spleen” because Renaissance doctors believed the symptoms were caused by an imbalance of the “four humors” that made up the body (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) caused, in this instance, by trouble in the spleen. With some modern folks claiming that mental illness and other hard-to-quantify health problems are just in the sufferers’ imaginations, it’s good to remember that it was recognized centuries ago as a real, physical health issue resulting from chemical imbalances in the body (even if early physicians weren’t clear on what those chemicals were).

On the disappointing side, there was a stigma even then against “the spleen” as being a woman’s illness. Though my seventeenth-century letter writer recognized some of the symptoms in the man she was writing to, she hesitated to “accuse” him of suffering from a “feminine” disease. This attitude persists today, making men less likely to seek help for their mental health issues. I also suspect it’s why mental illness came to be taken less seriously as a medical issue–as later generations focused on women’s perceived weaknesses, they began more and more to see mental illness as just a sign that women can’t handle much of anything (studying serious topics, thinking about politics, eating meat…), leaving countless men and women to suffer in silence (or in horrendous institutions for hiding away the mentally ill) until the recent push for reconsidering our understanding of mental illness.

I think mental illness is a topic we should shed more light on and continue to de-stigmatize, and I’m looking forward to exploring it in my upcoming NaNoWriMo writing project.

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A Victorian woman institutionalized for mental illness. A better understanding of mental health might have freed her from her prison-like existence. From the UK National Media Museum.

 

My new can’t-write-without-it writing tool

Historical fiction writers and word geeks, may I introduce you to your new best friend: the Online Etymology Dictionary. Etymology is the study of the history of words, or, as the Online Etymology Dictionary defines it, the “facts of the origin and development of a word.” This is not to be confused with entomology, the study of insects. 😉

Few things ruin historical fiction faster than words or phrases that don’t fit the time period (imagine a dashing Regency hero with an immaculately tied cravat telling someone to “chill out”–and the spell is broken), and that’s where this dictionary comes in handy. It draws on the immense and expensive Oxford English Dictionary but is much more accessible (and free!). For instance, it tells me that my characters could go on a picnic anytime after the year 1748 (the first time the word was used in English), but are not likely to do so until 1800 or after (when the word became common). They can collect knick-knacks starting in the 1570s, hobnob after 1763, and while they can “make over” an old dress starting in the 1590s, they cannot get a “makeover” until 1981.

Google Ngram Viewer also helps writers pinpoint historical word usage by telling us when and how frequently a word was used in historical books. The great thing about the Online Etymology Dictionary, though, is that it explains how a word evolved over time. For instance, take the word mess. We use it often in modern English. Its original meaning was “a portion of food” (i.e., the Biblical/proverbial “a mess of pottage”). It came to mean a group of people eating together, so that by the 1530s it was used in the sense of “mess hall” for a place to dine. By 1738, it could mean food mixed all together. Then by 1828, it evolved to mean any kind of a jumble, and by 1834 it also meant “a state of confusion.” Now it’s the word we recognize, but you still have to be careful about idioms. “Make a mess” was first used in 1853, “mess with” is from 1903, “make a mess of [something]” 1909, and “mess up” 1933. Also, several of these started as Americanisms, so they may not have caught on quickly across the pond.

This means my Elizabethan characters will probably not use the word “mess” (because the only way they would understand it is a meaning that would confuse my modern readers). My Victorian characters can say, “What a mess” or “messy,” and they can “make a mess,” but they won’t “mess up.”

I admit this can get nitpicky (c.1962), and even the really sharp, “voice-y” historical fiction writers like Georgette Heyer occasionally let a modernism slip into their books without crumbling the facade of the world they’ve created, but I work on the theory that the fewer modern allusions in a book to pull readers out of the story, the better. On the other hand, if we use too much archaic language, all but the most stalwart (late 14th century) or hardcore (1951) readers will probably have trouble getting immersed in the story and drift away, so it’s a tightrope walk and depends on our intended audience. Still, if nothing else, the Online Etymology Dictionary will satisfy word lovers’ urges to geek out for a while.

Christmas is cancelled; the Yanks captured Santa: Christmas in the Antebellum and Civil War-era South

When we think of traditional Christmases, we often picture the Victorian era, with its mistletoe, decorated Christmas trees, and carolers. Not all Victorian-era people were gung-ho about Christmas, though, as evidenced by The Journals of David Golightly Harris, 1855-1870 (edited by Philip N. Racine, University of Tennessee Press, 1997). These journals are a great resource about the life of a middling, slave-holding Southerner before, during, and after the Civil War, even including his wife’s voice as she keeps records for him while he’s fighting. It also gives some glimpses into the brutal lives of slaves. Amidst all this, we learn about Christmas traditions south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Some of the traditions are familiar to us. Santa Claus brings presents to the children, and friends and families gather for large Christmas dinners. It’s also a time of reflection on the past. Harris mentions grog and whiskey as part of the festivities, which may or may not resonate with modern Christmas celebrants. There’s no mention of Christmas trees or caroling.

More unusual Christmas traditions mentioned by Harris include fox hunting, firecrackers, and shooting off guns. They also held “egg-nogs,” which seem to have involved making and consuming the drink with groups of friends. The festivities lasted for several days, usually until the 28th, and Harris repeats a folk belief that the weather in the twelve days between Christmas and “old Christmas” (Twelfth Night) portends the weather in the years to come. The slaves got time off as well (unfortunately, we don’t hear much about how they celebrated), leading to Harris to grumble about having to wait on himself. In fact, Harris thinks the Christmas holiday is dying out—perhaps not as vibrant as he remembers it as a child—and since he finds it dull and tiresome, he doesn’t seem to regret its demise in the Antebellum years.

His attitude toward Christmas changes during and after the war. He still believes it’s a fading holiday, but he is sorry to think it will soon be gone. Santa brings no presents to the children in the deepest part of the war (perhaps none were to be had), and Harris hints that they told the children that the Yankees captured Santa and his presents. Fewer people came to visit and there was less to eat. The older people turned reflective in the face of death and deprivation, but the children still played and found ways to enjoy themselves, showing that some things about human nature change very little over time.

A Victorian evening at home

Leisure time wasn’t much of a problem for a lot of Regency and Victorian working class families, but the more well-to-do found themselves with evenings that had to be filled with something. All those accomplishments ladies sought after, which might seem frivolous to us today, came in handy. They could read, play cards, write letters, do needlework, draw, sing, play instruments, write stories, perform plays, etc. Jane Austen started her writing career to amuse her family members, and the March sisters in Little Women performed Jo’s melodramas.

They had some entertainments that seem odd to us today, like putting on a tableau. This was a bit like charades, except they would put together an elaborate scene with props and costumes and silently hold the pose as their audience admired it and perhaps tried to guess what they were re-enacting.

Other of their activities would be very familiar to us. Board games have an ancient history and were played in the 1700s and 1800s, and jigsaw puzzles had their advent around this time. Jigsaw puzzles were called dissected maps or dissections until the late 1800s, as the originals were cut up maps or other educational pictures. (I tried using the term “dissected picture” in context in one of my Victorian novels, but my beta readers were so confused I relented and called it a puzzle.)

My husband collects old board games, and he found this replica dissection for me. It’s a picture showing all the rulers of England from William I to George II. My kids like puzzles, and they loved this one. So, we spent a nice Victorian-style evening putting it together several times. At this rate, the kids will have all the British monarchs memorized soon. The tiles even have little facts about each ruler. Those Georgians and Victorians were tricky–always making sure there was a lesson behind the fun (In fact, I’ve heard “fun” was considered a vulgar word–don’t get caught having too much of it!).

A replica "dissection" from 1788
A replica “dissection” from 1788
Details of Queen Anne and King George
Details of Queen Anne and King George