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The Belle of New Hampshire

Last night we attended Sarah Vowell's reading/talk, which was all kinds of cool. Really must read her books. Though I don't think it will be quite as fun as her reading them aloud. :-)

She chose a Lincoln-assassination-related passage for the first reading, prefaced by an entertaining tangent about how dumb it was from a PR standpoint for Booth to pull the trigger on Good Friday. Something to the effect of "thus ensuring that a President half the country hated on Friday would, by Sunday morning, be eulogized in every Easter sermon." Which is a really, really good point, and one I don't remember if I ever thought about before.

If I did, it would have been while I was devouring research getting ready for These Honorable Men, and that was 1995, so it's a little fuzzy. I read about the whole topic, of course, but mostly I was focussing on any mentions I could find of my character, Booth's "secret fiancée," Lucy Hale. (The linked article just happened to be the first Google hit I got this morning, and is really cool, but has the same oddity from my perspective as the one I'm about to explain...)

Those aspects of my research are less fuzzy, despite it being thirteen years later. So the passage Vowell read last night got to the part about how Lucy's father was keen on taking her with him to his new assignment as Ambassador to Spain, thus putting as much distance between "his pretty daughter" and Booth as possible... Well, that's all quite accurate, except for the part where everything I read indicated that she was quite the social belle, and regarded as having an "air" or personal charisma, specifically in spite of not being considered a beauty. Even brainiacfive (who, granted, had to live with me while I was living with Lucy, but still, thirteen years!) chuckled at that. And noted in the car on the way home that her long list of suitors, including Robert Todd Lincoln, could probably be at least partly ascribed to money and connections. Which, yeah, probably true. But since she's one of two historical figures I've played (and it's questionable how much one can count Catherine de Valois as written by Shakespeare in that reckoning), I choose to believe it was charisma. ;-D

IIRC, neither of the good pictures I found of Lucy online this morning is the carte de visite Booth had in his pocket at the time of his death. (The actual one is in the museum in the basement of Ford's.) It might have been this one, but I don't think so. But my favorite -- the one I photocopied and taped to the front of my THM script -- is this one, mostly because it's the one that reminded me so much of my maternal grandmother as a young woman. Grandma Wieging was a lady and a tough broad, with nary a speck of cognitive dissonance between the two, and is without a doubt the root of what my mom raised me to be. There ended up being some of her in my Lucy because of that picture, which worked amazingly with the way Doug wrote her -- young and sheltered and not without vulnerability, to be sure, but no hothouse flower either. Such a gift that she was written for me! That'll always blow my mind.

We actually had some remarkable resemblances in that play, some of them not even discovered until we started doing research after it was cast! The standard comment was "Except for Val, because she's prettier." Which still amuses the heck out of me, as my one experience with the typical "more glamorous version of historical figure" thing. Since I'm not usually more glamorous in, well, general. And of course I was amused by the definitely-more-glamorous Jean Louisa Kelly in the TV-movie The Day Lincoln Was Shot a couple years later. I distinctly remember making note of that. (And also feeling particularly unglamorous myself, as I was watching it with a big knot on my forehead, having whacked myself with a dryer door in the laundry room half an hour before.)

It's a curious thing, that people seem to find it essential to characterize such a person as a beauty, even if she wasn't. Which feeds tangentially into the Lizzie project, as one of the threads I'm playing with is how she started out being perceived as quite plain and/or odd-looking, but became defined as the Pre-Raphaelite stunner. Complete with a certain amount of revisionism going into the story of her "discovery" by Walter Deverell, who was looking for red hair and a girl who could be convincing as a boy (i.e. Viola-as-Cesario). All pretty much because Rossetti said so, and saw her that way, and painted her that way.

Funny all the things popping up lately that resonate with that watershed year. Maybe just me, or maybe the Universe trying to tell me something. :-)

Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
vretallin
Mar. 22nd, 2008 02:02 pm (UTC)
Oh I love to listen to her read her books. We have Assassination Vacation and another one by her, the name I am blanking on, in mp3 for ipod. Is awesome.
wiliqueen
Mar. 22nd, 2008 02:05 pm (UTC)
And as I think about it, that's probably a smarter idea than getting the books from the library. I'll no doubt finish them faster if I can listen to them on my commute, and that's how I'm used to getting her material anyway!
vretallin
Mar. 22nd, 2008 03:22 pm (UTC)
Oh yeah it's awesome to listen to them as you're driving. That is what I did. I doubt I would have 'read' them otherwise.
phawkwood
Mar. 22nd, 2008 03:36 pm (UTC)
"The partly cloudy patriot" is the other one we have.
vretallin
Mar. 22nd, 2008 04:17 pm (UTC)
Ahh yes, ty. That's my favorite one too.
maiac
Mar. 22nd, 2008 03:09 pm (UTC)
Your description of Lucy Hale reminds me that many "fascinating women" were not accounted beauties: Cleopatra (the Liz Taylor movie notwithstanding). Queen Elizabeth I. Madame de Stäel. Sarah Bernhardt. Charisma counts.

Regarding whether Lucy Hale was her father's "pretty daughter", given that her attractions may have been "at least partly ascribed to money and connections", I'm reminded of the scene in Pride and Prejudice in which Mrs. Bennett does an abrupt volte-face (at Lizzie's mischievous instigation) regarding Mr. Darcy's looks when Mr. Darcy, with his 10,000 a year, shows no interest in courting her daughters. Beauty is sometimes not in the eye but in the self-interest of the beholder.
wiliqueen
Mar. 22nd, 2008 04:49 pm (UTC)
Beauty is sometimes not in the eye but in the self-interest of the beholder.

Well said!

And it's worth noting that most if not all of the women you mentioned have been described by someone along the way as beautiful, in that obligatory way that an important woman simply must be. I recall reading some memoir or letter of La Divine Sarah making note of the phenomenon, and being simultaneously bemused by it and proud of her ability to create such an illusion. :-)

If I had my pick of historical characters other than Lizzie, she'd definitely be up there...

Edited at 2008-03-22 07:49 pm (UTC)
quasievil_bunny
Mar. 22nd, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC)
Sarah Vowell certainly has a distinct voice! I've gotten hooked on her writing style. I've read all her books to date, save one.

Edited at 2008-03-22 06:50 pm (UTC)
wiliqueen
Mar. 22nd, 2008 04:52 pm (UTC)
She said the new one is scheduled to be out in the fall. She also said it's due next week and "There's still a lot to do. But I'm hopeful!" :-)

Also some comments about how writing about the Puritans is an interesting challenge, because she can see how they became the Revolution-era folks she loves so much but "They just weren't quite there yet. Like, the whole idea of separation of church and state. Only they were looking at it as 'How do we stop this?'"
studiesinlight
Mar. 22nd, 2008 03:58 pm (UTC)
>"how Lucy's father was keen on taking her with him to his new assignment as Ambassador to Spain, thus putting as much distance between "his pretty daughter" and Booth as possible"

Is that "pretty" characterization the author's, or the historical father's? Because what came to mind for me was that parents can be badly deluded about their children's attractiveness. My father, for example, once said he thought I was pretty when I smiled. There is no circumstance under which I am "pretty." :-)

>"It's a curious thing, that people seem to find it essential to characterize such a person as a beauty, even if she wasn't."

This is probably so obvious it doesn't need saying, but of course beauty is the most valued characteristic a woman can have, so when a woman is valued for any reason, the culture easily confuses the fact of her being valued with an assumption of her being beautiful.
wiliqueen
Mar. 22nd, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
Is that "pretty" characterization the author's, or the historical father's?

I assume it's Sarah Vowell's, from the way the paragraph was constructed. And it immediately sent my mind off on musings about how that assumption gets made, and actually some slight surprise that she would do so.

Of course, it may also simply be her honest opinion, in disagreement with the contemporary sources I read at the time of my research. I know there's a lot more information out there about Lucy now that I wish I'd had during that research blitz. She always seems to figure in anything about Booth now (History Channel documentaries, etc.), whereas only a couple of the dozen or so books I skimmed/read in 1995 mentioned her at all!

when a woman is valued for any reason, the culture easily confuses the fact of her being valued with an assumption of her being beautiful.

Obvious, but still needs saying, IMHO. It remains such a curious thing to confront.

Edited at 2008-03-23 12:42 am (UTC)
butterflykiki
Mar. 23rd, 2008 04:13 pm (UTC)
Just like the princess in the fairy tale is always beautiful. Even if they never describe her.

Of course, too, beauty and personal taste is so elastic, within a broad set of characteristics (young/healthy/not-bizarrely-off-the-norm) that charisma can change the "style" of what is considered beautiful too.

It annoys me that yeah, beauty has to be mentioned in there as a characteristic, but meh. I'm mostly trying to be happy when they do remember that there are other qualities to value in a famous person too.

*uses River icon of crazy-killing, and notes how Summer Glau can change from kind-of-plain to kind-of-beautiful given her expressions, make-up, and costuming*
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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