writing · Austen · Becoming Catherine Bennet

On Reviews (I)

Becoming Catherine Bennet was a novel I enjoyed writing. It took a fair amount of work and reviewing Pride and Prejudice itself and watching the BBC and 2005 versions.

As I mentioned yesterday, I had a general idea where the story would go but then decided to go in a completely different direction, though leaving the original idea in since the main plot could be built around it. And that main plot involved Kitty/Catherine–one of the tricks was trying to keep how she was referred by characters straight since several affirmatively decide, at her request, to call her “Catherine,” “Kitty” being, as Anne de Bourgh will say, “such a girl’s name.”

The first two-thirds of the book is told in a third-person narrator’s voice. I don’t know if I’m particularly adept with that, but it allows from moving between characters and providing some insight into their thoughts (without, I hope, the dreaded “head hopping”). As I was going, I knew where it would end.

Or thought I did. There was an Edith Wharton ending. It’s still in the book. But I realized that I couldn’t end it there. So began Part II. Part II is Catherine’s first-person narrative. Indeed, in it she explains how she came to take up writing:

A strange thing about Amazon reviews. If the reviewer is not verified, a review in one region doesn’t show up in the US. So I get a quite good 4-star review on Amazon.uk but not on Amazon.com. I don’t know who this reader is, but I liked the review because it notes that the novel is not your standard Pride and Prejudice fare.

Reviews sometimes point to things that readers might not like. (I’ll get to that in a later post.) Here, the concern seems to be about Jane. Jane Bingley is well down on the list of characters, thought she’s still important, and in the end I wanted her not to be quite the empathetic sister she is in the book. But those are the choices one makes.

I’ll get to some less pleased readers soon. But even there, I like to get responses and feedback. Jane Austen Fan Fiction can be tricky. But fun too.

writing · Austen

Becoming Catherine Bennet

I learned that there is a huge market for Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF). I started writing a book entitled Debt Comes to Pemberley, a play on PD James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, which was made into a BBC thing. The core issue was that Darcy someone went bankrupt. (The cover to the right is for the audio version, which I’ll get to in a later post.)

For whatever reason, as I wrote it, I had Anne de Bourgh come to his rescue. Which got me thinking about Anne de Bourgh as a major character which got me thinking of how could she become other than the sickly creature described in Pride and Prejudice itself. The obvious ploy was to kill off her mother, Lady Catherine. So off she went. This has the additional benefit of freeing Mr. and Mrs. Collins from her shadow.

The plot then morphed into a story built around Kitty or Catherine Bennet.

First about Darcy and going bankrupt. Turns out, as best as I could tell, Pemberley was likely entailed (as was Longbourn which had such an adverse impact on the Bennet daughters and as was not Rosings, which had such a positive effect, in the end, on Anne de Bourgh). So I came up with a way to seriously cut out Darcy’s (and Bingley’s) income, which forced retrenchment of the sort Sir Walter Elliot could not tolerate in Persuasion.

If you read the first chapters–they can be sampled here–you’ll see that I kill off George Wickham too. Now, Kitty did move to be with her sister Lydia–this was the one major change I made from Pride and Prejudice itself–and the two youngest Bennets must come to London, where they’ll live with Jane (as opposed to Lizzy, who lives some blocks away).

And stuff happens. I’m quite pleased with the effort. I learned a good deal by re-reading the novel. And it turns out that I have gotten a very large number of reads. It’s on Kindle Unlimited so I get paid (slightly) for page reads. In about three weeks, I have over 42,000 page views and have sold 18 ebooks. Of course, the proceeds for all that are about $200. So I’m not getting rich on this.


New York, New York

In my life, the longest I’ve spent not sleeping in either New York County–which is essentially Manhattan–or Westchester County–which is the county due north of the Bronx (and the City) and is bordered by the Hudson River and Connecticut–is two weeks. One week in Paris, the second in London. That was forty years ago.

So nearly all of my stories take place in and around New York City, chiefly Manhattan and chiefly the Upper West Side of Manhattan and chiefly the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the east of Broadway and between 72nd and 96th Streets and close to the Park. Where I spent twelve years going to law school and afterwards. Alex Locus lives in my old apartment on West 85th Street. The characters in A Theory About Valentine’s Day are there, as is Suzanne Nelson before she moves to…Tuckahoe in Westchester, where I grew up. Etc., etc., etc.

I say this level of precision in my description because I just saw a well-written snippet about “New York,” meaning (I think) Manhattan. It treats New York as some kind of singular expression. It is how I’d likely treat, say, Los Angeles or Boston.

The thing about New York, and I assume LA and Boston and any other place anywhere (I can say this with more assurance about places I’ve spent (albeit tourist) time such as Paris and London), is that it’s just a bunch of little neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs‘s seminal works about Greenwich Village (with her efforts to prevent Robert Moses from having an interstate cross that fundamental part of Manhattan with an interstate as he did with the Cross-Bronx Expressway) centered on life on a single street, with its comings and its goings.

When I lived on West 85th Street less than 100 yards from the Park looking out over the street (as Alex’s apartment does), that’s what it was. A little street in a neighborhood that simply had no yards and a lot more people and cars passing by than a house I think anywhere else anywhere. Except those Stalinesque, gated communities one finds in certain wealthy parts of Florida and elsewhere.

I can be annoying. If I meet someone who says they “live on the Upper West Side” I’ll follow-up (as lawyers say) with a request for greater precision. “What street?” “East or west of Broadway?” Often, for the UWS, “do you have anything to do with Columbia” since many found themselves there (as I did) when they attended school there.

So as Upper West Siders (of whatever neighborhood) properly believe themselves superior in all regards (excepting perhaps money, which has always been a big thing in New York (as noted in my Gilded Age novels) to those on the Upper East Side, the latter mistakenly (except, as I say, about money) believe the opposite to be true.

All of this helps to explain the precision of my locations. In Coming to Terms, I needed a stoop on West 87th. One main character sits on a stoop in front of the other’s apartment thinking the latter is off doing a summer-associate gig in San Francisco and it changes both of their lives, sitting on that stoop. So I had to find a brownstone that had a stoop. And, voila, there it was on Google Maps Street View. Same with the description of Nancy Penchant’s brownstone on West 94th.

So the fourth “character” in my books is not some amorphous “New York City.” The place where a too ambitious woman in to-die-for outfits works while not in her loft-in-the-Village and plays too hard (and wins) at everything before some crisis or another forces her to return to the farm to find the three-day-old bearded guy with an F-150 and a manual-labor job who can play Mozart on the tuba and recite Shakespearean sonnets while cooking and who is, as an Upper West Sider is to an Upper East Siders (except, you know, for the money thing, which won’t matter because who needs Louboutins in Iowa?), superior in all respects to the Big Law/Harvard JD/Greenwich accented/clean shaven hunk who’s her fiancé.

Still, as I say, it’s not just New York. Yet I have the advantage that readers think they know about it. They’ve seen the external shots in Friends and Seinfeld (“Tom’s Restaurant”? It’s on Broadway by Columbia) and the externals and internals of You’ve Got Mail, etc. so they think they know the place. My job is to populate that place with human characters. (Never dogs; one always wants to know who’s taking the Lab out for a walk or when did someone feed the KCS.)

It’s a big advantage, of course, this already established character. But, of course, as I say, being a New Yorker and especially one with years on the Upper West Side has its advantages.


On Public Readings

A writer whose work I admire recently said she was doing a public reading from one of her books. Having performed my own songs in public, I thought I could make some useful suggestions.

First, don’t worry about how it’ll sound. I’ve been in lots of guitar rounds in which some people with good voices close up and don’t project. I’ve heard you do a poem and you’re too flat. They are your words.

Let yourself open up to them. Practice reading them with changes in rhythm and tone and volume. Don’t exaggerate it but think of yourself telling and not reading and you’ll fall into the natural rhythm of your words.

Make sure you know how long your sentences are so you don’t start on one and then realize you’ll run out of breath and race through the end. Believe me, it happens. Super important: you’ll be reading from your page but make sure it’s legible to you.

This was always my great fear: forgetting the lines and losing my place. If you go in worry about that you lose the ability to just tell your story. So get comfortable reading. And get comfortable with the mic. I don’t know how big the room is, but you should focus on your mouth being near the mic. (If I sing and have my own mic, I touch that foam thing with my lips. It gives me a physical focus.) You’re not doing that but make sure the mic is positioned at a comfortable lever for you while you hold the book and while you are reading from the book.

This all sounds very complicated in some respects but practice what you’ll read a few times, standing or sitting as you’ll be doing. I think once you start tonight, you’ll fall into your story and the words will flow and the people will fall into it as well. They’re good words.

I Am Alex Locus begins (after brief preliminaries) and ends (with some final activity) at book readings at the Barnes & Nobel on Broadway and 82nd. So this is how the first one reads, in part:

I’d been to these readings before and the usual podium with the Barnes & Noble logo and a microphone was off to one side, and after about half the seats were taken, a little past eight, the staffer welcomed us and introduced Karen Adams. Her book was in her right hand, and she opened it as she got to the podium. After looking out across us and covering her mouth with a fist for a brief cough, she started. She thanked us for coming. She stopped. With a shake of the head, a sip of water, and a deep breath, she tried again.

I’d been to these readings before and the usual podium with the Barnes & Noble logo and a microphone was off to one side, and after about half the seats were taken, a little past eight, the staffer welcomed us and introduced Karen Adams. Her book was in her right hand, and she opened it as she got to the podium. After looking out across us and covering her mouth with a fist for a brief cough, she started. She thanked us for coming. She stopped. With a shake of the head, a sip of water, and a deep breath, she tried again.

“I am going to go with the beginning of a story that is one of my favorites, though I know I’m not supposed to say that.” A few people chuckled. “It came to me when I was thinking back on summer vacations I took in Vermont, and I wrote it when I was in college. It’s about…Well, it’s called Lonesome, and here’s how it begins.”

Her hand shook as she tried to keep the book open but after a sentence or two, her voice and her hand relaxed. The murmur of people passing off to the side vanished as her words began to flow.


Covers: A Studio on Bleecker Street

By all rights, the next post should be about Wuthering Heights. I have done a republication of it and I have done a cover for it. I’ve never read it.

I’m again doing one of my own. A Studio on Bleecker Street tells the story of Clara Bowman and Emily Connors. The latter was a character who befriended Elizabeth Geherty after both their families lost their money in late 1873. That was in Róisín Campbell. When I thought of something of a follow-up to that first novel, I hit upon Emily and a line in the book: “Emily Connor, whose family was in similarly desperate straits, had already decamped to Greenwich Village, moving in with an unmarried friend who had artistic aspirations.”

I built the new book around that friend, Clara Bowman. It begins well before the end of Róisín. Clara is a recently out society girl expecting to marry her best friend’s brother until the friend and the brother are killed in a train crash in Queens in May of 1872. Clara becomes an artist and paints portraits of Mary McNabb (Elizabeth’s sister) and both of Elizabeth Geherty’s parents.

The two plots intersect on the day after the final scene in Róisín, which Emily and Clara read about in the newspaper while finishing breakfast on a sidewalk outside in the Village.

“Do you remember me telling you I met her sister when I was in exile after we lost everything. Her family did, too, but Mary McNabb avoided that fate by marrying well. Or at least rich.”
“The Gehertys spoke of that. Why?” She looked up and put the pencil on the table.
Emily held the newspaper up to Clara, pointing to an article on the front page.
“The sister was Elizabeth. Read this.”

With this, I had my intersection, which provided a way to write follow-ups on some of the characters in Róisín for the balance of A Studio on Bleecker Street. After prior covers, when I was doing my revamp limited to paintings with an Open Access pedigree, there was one that was perhaps my favorite of all. Although it was painted sometime after the period of Studio, its era was vague enough for me to use it. So I did.

This too comes from the Met. Study in Black and Green by the American John White Alexander. It was painted in 1906. The Met:

The idealized, impassive woman, shown as if she were a precious object, was a favorite turn-of-the-century subject and one particularly suited to Alexander’s temperament. Here, a young beauty is absorbed in nothing more consequential than pinning a bauble or blossom to the low neckline of her elegant evening gown. The skirt’s sinuous striped pattern, the curves at the knees and shoulders, and the contour of the upswept hair justify the description of Alexander as “the painter of the flowing line.” His dazzling brushwork is especially notable in the rendering of the rich fabrics and in the otherwise plain background.

Classics · Covers

Covers: Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre. I believe I have a contrarian’s view of the book, which I’ve read several times–I believe it to be wonderfully written–and several versions of which I’ve watched.

Yet this is from my I Am Alex Locus:

We’d raided the kitchen, and everything was set up on the coffee table in front of the couch opposite the huge TV in the furnished basement with sliding doors out to the dark patio. Kate hit play and Jane Eyre—the BBC one with Ruth Wilson and wasn’t she so great in The Affair?—began. The desert as Jane imagined traveling as she paged through the large book. Discovered by the horrible cousin John and being struck in the head by the book and knocking the brat down and being carried by two housemaids to the red room, begging and begging not to be taken to the red room and abandoned to the ghosts she knew haunted it and seeing the ghost…and my stomach churned and my head grew light and I rushed up the stairs into the kitchen, nearly running into Kate’s mother.

Kate was on my heels as I fought for breath with my hands spread on the kitchen counter and my head rocking back and forth. Her mother got me water, most of which I downed with barely a break.

“What is it, Alex?” Mrs. Winslow asked as her daughter stood beside me panicking. Kate pulled out a chair, and I collapsed into it as her mother refilled the glass and grabbed her phone, but I told her I was okay.

“I have to go,” I said again and again. “I have to go.”

Kate’s hands were tight at my shoulders, preventing me from getting up.

“Alex. Talk to me.”

It is a pivotal moment, triggering a visceral reaction in Alex. And that reaction flows from something her late mother wrote about the novel and how it was not as much a romance as most appear to think it is.

For the cover, I tried several variants of a largely abandoned, unloved woman finding some sort of a place as a governess for a girl of a questionable relationship with Mr. Rochester. I again went to the Met and found an 1847 portrait of a woman who, in the context of Eyre, might be her after all the dust–and the ashes–had settled, not the woman we see along the way.

The portrait is of Anne Charlotte Lynch (later Mrs. Vincenzo Botta) and was painted by the Frenchman Savinien Edme Dubourjal. Again I can find little beyond what the Met offers:

Lynch, an important figure in the social and literary life of New York City in the mid-nineteenth century, was an author and poet as well as an amateur painter and sculptor. Her New York City home became a lively gathering place for artists and literati, one of the earliest salons in America. Among the artists who visited Lynch’s salon was George Peter Alexander Healy (1813–94), who may have introduced her to the French portraitist Dubourjal. The fine cross-hatching in the face and background reflects his experience as a painter of miniatures. The sitter’s delicate features are carefully described and enlivened with small touches of color. The rest of the drawing is rendered in subtle tones of white, gray, and black.

Classics · Covers

Covers: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I mentioned Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey and Jessica DeMarco-Jacobson, who put me onto that, suggested I check out Anne Brontë’s other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. And I am quite glad I did.

It’s a story in three parts. The first and last are told by Gilbert Markham and the middle by the woman who becomes the tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham, who recites her own history in great detail and how she came to the Hall.

In the beginning, Helen comes to the Hall, near where Gilbert lives, she in mourning for her late husband. So she is in black.

I searched for a suitable image in black–the story expands well beyond that. In the end, the Metropolitan came to my rescue, albeit not of a woman in mourning. Instead she is in a riding habit. It is Woman in a Riding Habit (L’Amazone), painted between 1855 and 1859 by the Frenchman Gustave Courbet.

Per the Met:

This painting of a horsewoman (in French, amazone) was first observed in Courbet’s studio in the late 1850s by the artist and critic Zacharie Astruc (1833–1907). He did not provide the sitter’s name, and her identity has never been confirmed. The artist Mary Cassatt admired this picture as “the finest woman’s portrait Courbet ever did.” What very likely began as a portrait has become emblematic of the independent modern woman. Women riding horseback were still a rare sight, and for a woman to ride unaccompanied by a man was considered scandalous.

Classics · Covers

Covers: Agnes Grey

Anne Brontë’s authobiographical novel Agnes Grey makes an appearance in several of my novels. It is the story of the miserable life of a governess in 1840s Britain. Although Anne’s sister Charlotte wrote about a more famous governess of the time–Jane Eyre (about whom I’ll have plenty to say when it’s her turn)–and was also a governess, my understanding is that Agnes Grey is far closer to the reality. (I learned this from my friend Jessica DeMarco-Jacobson.) It was, as I say, largely autobiographical and its horrible characters are drawn from horrible characters in real life.

When Elizabeth Geherty makes her desperate visit to Róisín when she walks away from everything, Miss Campbell is reading–one of her few friends was Deidre O’Sullivan, a governess originally from Dublin, who was met on the fateful day of the first gig accident that brought our heroine to the attention of Dr. Doyle and who explained, as was explained in Agnes Grey, “that her position was lonely and awkward, being neither staff nor family”–when Elizabeth makes her desperate visit. In A Maid’s Life, it is what Margaret is discussing while a teacher when she is interrupted with her own life-altering news (David Schmidt being the Columbia grad who taught her to become a teacher):

I was tired after a day of discussing Agnes Grey in my class at Miss Fenton’s. It was a popular choice among the middle-class students in its portrayal of wealthy English families and how they treated (or mistreated) the governess and how the spoiled, selfish children were described. David Schmidt suggested I use it.

Getting the cover for this 1847 underrated novel was important and again I elected to go outside the proper time. The portrait is from the Art Institute of Chicago and is by a 22 year-old young Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It is a portrait of Jeanne Wenz and was painted in 1886.

There was something about the subject, with her steely look at cowlicks sticking out on a plain wooden chair that struck me as having the seething intelligence of Miss Grey. )I’ll note the disproportionate number subjects with red or auburn hair in paintings from this and other periods.) From the Art Institute:

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted this portrait when he was only 22 years old and still an art student. He used subtle coloring with accents of pink and green and showed his subject, Jeanne Wenz, in full profile, a compositional device often found in Renaissance portraiture. Wenz was the mistress of Frederic Wenz, Toulouse-Lautrec’s fellow student at the painter Fernand Cormon’s studio. She was also the friend of Suzanne Valadon, an artist in her own right and a frequent sitter for Toulouse-Lautrec.

Classics · Covers · Woolf

Covers: To The Lighthouse

This second Woolf, which entered the public demand on the first of the year, is another I completed via Juliet Stevenson.

To the Lighthouse. I found some fine paintings of–lighthouses. The story’s about people though. Could I find a Mrs. Ramsey? Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t.

This is Mrs. Charles S. Carstairs as painted by Sir William Orpen in 1914. It is at the National Gallery.

Although the National Gallery has no details about the painting, I found this interesting tidbit on Wikipedia. Charles S. Carstairs was a New York art dealer and:

In 1903 Carstairs met the American actress, Elizabeth Stebbins (19 October 1875 – 7 May 1949), while crossing the Atlantic, he on a buying trip for Knoedler Gallery, and she to perform on the London stage. A romance ensued, and Carstairs divorced his wife, Esther, later that year. He married Elizabeth Stebbins in 1905 and settled in the fashionable Mayfair district of London.

In 1928, shortly after being announced chairman of the board for Knoedler & Co., Charles Carstairs died of a heart attack.[

Classics · Covers · Woolf

Covers: Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

So, famously, does Mrs. Dalloway begin.

Although I’ve tried without success to read the physical version of Virginia Woolf’s story, I have listened to it, through the voice of the English actress Juliet Stevenson. (She’s done numerous classics and each one is a joy to listen to on a series of long walks; I download them to my phone from my local library.)

So this cover needed flowers and a dignified woman. The Cleveland Museum of Art came through. This painting is from 1882 and thus well precedes the 1925 novel and the subject is 26, well younger than Mrs. Dalloway. It is Madame Lerolle by the French artist Henri Fantin-Latour.

From the museum:

Fantin-Latour exhibited this portrait of Madeleine Lerolle, wife of fellow artist Henry Lerolle, at the Paris Salon of 1882. The Salon was the official, annual exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the national art academy of the French government. At the time of this portrait, Madeleine Lerolle was 26 years old. Albert Besnard portrayed her more formally in his painting Madeleine Lerolle and Her Daughter Yvonne, currently on display in the other Romanticism to Realism gallery.

Classics · Covers · Wharton

Covers: More Wharton

Three of the books by Edith Wharton that I’ve included I’ve not finished so I had to cheat a bit with a Wikipedia reference to get a sense for the covers. I was determined to have at least of her books in the package, so I added:

The Reef. This begins with an American taking the train to France and I couldn’t get past the early stages. As I understand it, it’s another story chiefly of Americans on the continent.

For the cover, I used the first of two from the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. It is The Brunette painted about 1913 by William James Glackens. I don’t know how well paintings of this style quite fit for book covers, but it gives a sense of the pre-WWI period. But I don’t know who the subject is.

This is the second Barnes cover. I picked up The Custom of the Country after the Times Magazine gave it a write-up. But I found the obsession with the main characters concerning upward mobility–something I touch on in my Gilded Age novels with some characters who I try to have reject the “expectations” of their families and their society–to discouraging to merit the book’s completion.

But the cover. It is also by Glackens, this time done in around 1916. Seated Woman with Fur Neckpiece and Red Background is its name and the subject, about whom I know nothing, seems ready to work her way through whatever fashionable society she finds herself.

The final of the current crop of Wharton’s I have not started. It is Summer, and according to Wikipedia:

Summer is a novel by Edith Wharton, which was published in 1917 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. While most novels by Edith Wharton dealt with New York’s upper-class society, this is one of two novels by Wharton that were set in New England. Its themes include social class, the role of women in society, destructive relationships, sexual awakening and the desire of its protagonist, named Charity Royall. The novel was rather controversial for its time and is one of the less famous among her novels because of its subject matter.

The cover is entitled The House Maid by William McGregor Paxton, from 1910. It comes from the National Gallery. The main character, Charity Royall, is not a maid, of course. But she is not from society so I thought a young woman in a New England house was an appropriate image for her.

So there we have it, the final three Wharton covers.

Covers · writing

Covers: Róisín Campbell

For a change, I’m writing on one of my covers today.

Róisín Campbell is about an Irishwoman who is forced to leave Ireland because of economic realty after she turns eighteen. She grew up in Hospital, a town in the eastern part of County Limerick that was not devastated as were Irish Counties in the west and northwest in the Hunger/Famine. (It’s whence my MIL comes.)

In 1870 she leaves home forever and takes the train to Queenstown (now Cobh), the port of Cork, and embarks on her trip to America aboard the City of Paris steamship. Once in New York, she trains to become a maid and then…well, I won’t give away what becomes of her.

My original cover was a John Singer Sargent portrait of his younger sister Violet but when I became aware of concerns that there were rights issues with that portrait, I set about switching them (for rights reasons I’m not putting it up here).

At first I used a portrait that was rather severe. It was Study of Lilia, an 1887 painting by the Frenchman Carolus-Duran, from the National Gallery. Some thought it didn’t work and I agreed.

So I shifted gears and found The Blue Feather by William J. Edmondson at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I fell for the simple beauty of the subject with her reddish hair performing a simple household task.

The Cleveland describes it thusly:

Throughout his long career, Edmondson stubbornly resisted modernist styles and proudly proclaimed himself a traditionalist. He felt that artists should paint what they see, and once declared, “When painting a portrait, I do not indulge in this ‘painting of the soul’ stuff. When some artists fail to get a likeness of a person they say they have not tried to paint him, but have painted his soul.” The sitter in The Blue Feather was Edmondson’s student, Caroline Mytinger, who often modeled for him. Later a portraitist in her own right, she traveled to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to record its indigenous people.

Mytinger’s journey to the Pacific is described in The Seattle Globalist in a piece about a photographer who retraced her steps a few years ago.

Already a noted portrait painter of high society subjects, Caroline Mytinger was fascinated by writing from European explorers and Western anthropologists about the native cultures of Melanesia, and she set out from Cleveland in 1926 to document the faces and clothing of the region through her art.

Only 29 years old, and with very few funds, she found a ship out of San Francisco and boarded with another adventurous woman friend, Margaret Warner. At the time, it was unusual for women to travel abroad without husbands. And though Mytinger was a successful portraitist, her lack of funds speaks to women artists’ lack of status.

Classics · Covers · Wharton

Covers: The Glimpses of the Moon

I discovered this Wharton novella as part of a reading group sponsored by The Mount. The Mount is Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts (though she spend most of her later years in France). I know Lenox quite well; it’s long been an area to which my wife and I travel. It is in western Berkshire County, just across the border from New York and is best known, perhaps, for Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I’ve set many stories there and in nearby Stockbridge; many of the wealthy New York City families in my Gilded Age books have houses in these communities. (I set an erotic novella, An International Exchange, there and in neighboring Pittsfield.)

The book itself is about a pair of Americans who are accustomed to living large, on the charity of rich friends, and embark on a plan to be sponges off them in various places in Europe. Things get complicated and connections are missed and you’ll either like these two or you will hate these two. That was the consensus of the folks on the Mount’s group. (I liked them.)

Set in the 1920s, for this cover I found something from the Petit Palais: Musée des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Paris. (Paintings in public museums in Paris are generally in the public domain. The Louvre is not.)

This image is from 1932 to 1935 so it’s a bit more recent than the story and is one of the few with more than one person I’ve used for my covers. The story is essentially that of this couple, which is why I used it. I know little of the artist–Henri Martin–or about the painting other than it being described as “a couple walking along the Luxembourg basin,” which is in the Luxembourg Gardens, a wonderful oasis in Paris.

Classics · Covers · Wharton · writing

Covers: The House of Mirth

This is a tough book. It begins in 1905 New York, in the fashionable world, and as with Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon–which follows Americans in Europe–it is a story of the gap between wanting to live a particular style of life and having the financial wherewithal to do it.

The novel has a great description of how society looked at men and women different, a notion that I try to address in some of my own books. What freedom does Elizabeth Geherty get when she turns her back on being in society, a role that would require her to surrender the one thing–the one person–about whom she is passionate?

Wharton (with the observation that she was part of that world and that there are those who say that the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” derives from her family, she being born Edith Jones):

“Don’t you ever mind,” she asked suddenly, “not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?”

He followed her glance about the room, with its worn furniture and shabby walls.

“Don’t I just? Do you take me for a saint on a pillar?”

“And having to work—do you mind that?”

“Oh, the work itself is not so bad—I’m rather fond of the law.”

“No; but the being tied down: the routine—don’t you ever want to get away, to see new places and people?”

“Horribly—especially when I see all my friends rushing to the steamer.”

She drew a sympathetic breath. “But do you mind enough—to marry to get out of it?”

Selden broke into a laugh. “God forbid!” he declared.

She rose with a sigh, tossing her cigarette into the grate.

“Ah, there’s the difference—a girl must, a man may if he chooses.” She surveyed him critically. “Your coat’s a little shabby—but who cares? It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don’t make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop—and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.”

Selden glanced at her with amusement: it was impossible, even with her lovely eyes imploring him, to take a sentimental view of her case.

“Ah, well, there must be plenty of capital on the look-out for such an investment. Perhaps you’ll meet your fate tonight at the Trenors’.”

The cover. This is another one from the Met. Simply entitled A Rose, it is from 1907, by Thomas Anshutz. The museum gives it the following description (there’s an audio description there too):

One of the most gifted American art teachers, Anshutz links the realism of his mentor Thomas Eakins with that of the Ashcan School, some of whom were his students. Perhaps because Anshutz spent so much time teaching, he painted only about 130 oils. Some of the most impressive belong to a series of images of Rebecca H. Whelen, daughter of a trustee of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Anshutz taught. The woman at leisure and the likening of a beautiful woman to a flower are common themes in late-nineteenth-century American painting. They reflect the contemporary definition of a woman’s proper sphere: the realm of leisure, beauty, and the aesthetic, harmonious domestic environment. “A Rose” reflects Anshutz’s simultaneous appreciation of Eakins’s academic rigor and psychological probing and John Singer Sargent’s painterly freedom. “A Rose” also suggests the influence of Diego Velázquez and James McNeill Whistler on late-nineteenth-century painters, including Eakins and Sargent as well as Anshutz. In portraying the young woman as contemplative and yet intellectually and emotionally alert, Anshutz also anticipates the earthier women painted by members of the Ashcan School and other twentieth-century realists.

Could this be Lily Bart? I think it can.

Classics · Covers · Wharton · writing

Covers: The Age of Innocence

I read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence years ago and listened to an audio version of it after I completed my A Studio on Bleecker Street. I mention this because in my recent revisit to the novel set in 1870s Gilded Age New York, I realized how many elements of Studio related to elements in Age. Indeed, my characters occupy space that Wharton’s characters occupy at just about the same time.

My Bowman family lives not far from the Archers and Wellands but in one way–and I say this pretentiously–my heroine Clara Bowman does what Wharton’s hero Newland Archer does not do. This makes my story…different and [spoiler alert] not as sad.

That said, The Age of Innocence begins at the New York Academy of Music. Within not many years–and the novel was published in 1920 but set in the 1870s (except for the final scenes)–the Academy would be eclipsed as the venue-of-the-upper-class by the Metropolitan Opera. The opening scene at the Academy is quite alive, combining the novel’s three main characters, most ominously Countess Ellen Olenska.

The cover for this was clear. The American Mary Cassatt did a number of Impressionist paintings at the Paris Opera. So to the Paris Opera it was, and the cover is from 1878-1880, only a year or two after the events of Age of Innocence. A side note: my heroine, Clara, spent time in Paris studying the artists there; turning to art was her means of overcoming the tragic loss of her best friend and of that friend’s brother, who all knew Clara would marry. (Excerpt.)

The painting is one of several set there, but this one, at the National Gallery, is published free of all rights, i.e., a CC0 designation. The National Gallery describes it:

Shown from the knees up, two young women with pale, peachy skin wearing white gowns sit close together and almost fill this vertical painting. The women are angled to our left and look in that direction. The young woman on our right has a heart-shaped face, dark blond hair gathered at the back of her head, and light blue eyes. Her full, coral-pink lips are closed, the corners in greenish shadows. Her dress is off the shoulders, has a tightly fitted bodice, and the skirt pools around her lap. The fabric is painted in strokes of pale shell pink, faint blue, and light mint green but our eye reads it as a white dress. She wears a navy-blue ribbon as a choker and long, frosty-green gloves come nearly to her elbows. She holds a bouquet in her lap, made up of cream-white, butter-yellow, and pale pink flowers with grass-green leaves and one blood-red rose. Her companion sits just beyond her on our left and covers the lower part of her face with an open fan. The fan is painted in silvery white decorated with swipes of daffodil yellow, teal green, and coral red. She has violet-colored eyes, a short nose, and her dark blond hair is smoothed over the top of her head and pulled back. She also wears long gloves with her arms crossed on the lap of her ice-blue gown. Along the right edge of the painting, a sliver of a form mirroring the torso, shoulder, and back of the head of the young woman to our right appears just beyond her shoulder, painted in tones of cool blues. Two curving bands in golden yellow and spring green swiped with darker shades of green and gold arc behind the girls and fill the background. The space between the curves is filled with strokes of plum purple, dark red, and pink. The artist signed the lower right, “Mary Cassatt.”

Classics · Covers · writing

Covers: North and South

As Róisín Campbell is onboard the City of Paris, the steamship that is taking her to America, she is trepidatious about what her fate will be. She can read, and has read romances:

Róisín was not so foolish as to believe a well-bred and handsome gentleman would carry her away, notwithstanding how often it happened in the romances she read and re-read. She knew they were fantasies, and that no man of a good family would marry a farmgirl, no matter how handsome he might think her. To such a family, she would be little better than the poor from the west of Ireland who could barely speak let alone read English. She knew there would be many a man in a good family who would seek to take advantage of her, promising her all manner of things to seduce her and that such a man would be her ruination. There were many such rakes in her books too.

But, really, what was awaiting this woman raised on a farm in County Limerick who’d never seen the sea till she was in Queenstown, ready to board the City of Paris? What she “knew” was what she read in the more serious books:

Still, she feared she would end up in the squalor she read about in other, more serious books set in London and Manchester and prayed that that would not be her fate.

The London reference is to Dickens. And “Manchester” is “Milton,” the northern city, and completely different world, to which Margaret Hale is forced to move after her father loses his position in a calm vicarage in the English south. So the cover for Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South required some thought.

This is the only cover I’ve gotten from the Yale Art Gallery. It is Yes or No by the British artist Sir John Everett Millais. It was painted in 1871, so it is not too out of date for the novel, which was published in 1854. Yes or No? North or South?

I could find nothing about the painting from Yale, but the Met has a description of a drawing made of it:

A contemplative woman stands near an open letter, holding a small picture behind her back. The print reproduces a painting that Millais exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London in 1871 (no. 1055) (Yale University Art Gallery), where the subject’s black gown indicates that she is in mourning. It was first published in London by Thomas Agnew & Sons in 1873, and this later variation issued a few years later in New York by the Kendall Bank Note Company.

Yes or No indeed.

Classics · writing

Covers: Persuasion

And so we reach Austen’s last, and my favorite, novel. Persuasion.

Anne Elliot is older than the other heroines. She, or at least Miss Austen suggests, has lost some of such beauty as she had in her early twenties, in contrast to her older sister Elizabeth.
She is, of course, a far more attractive woman than her sisters in almost all other respects. Here, I found an 1810 portrait of Mary Fairlie Cooper, from the Cleveland Museum of Art. Again, I know nothing about her and was unable to find anything. As particularly with the portrait that could be Lizzy Bennet, this could be Anne Elliot.

And with this, I conclude with my Austen covers.

Classics · writing

Covers: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is likely Austen’s least known novel. Since the heroine Catherine Morland is a dedicated reader, I was looking for a reader.

I came up An Interesting Story (Miss Ray) from the Met. It is actually a miniature, measuring 4 3/4 x 3 7/8 in. It was done in 1806 on Ivory.

The artist is the Brit William Wood. I’ve been unable to find any information about the subject. Nor have I found anything but the dates for Wood, which are 1769-1810.

Classics · writing

Covers: Emma

I have far an away the most information about the two Gilbert Stuart portraits from the National Gallery for Pride and Mansfield than I do for any others. This next one, Emma, happens to also be from the National Gallery but I can find nothing about the sitter beyond her name (and that her daughter may have been the de facto first lady as John Tyler’s sister-in-law after Tyler became a widower).

Emma is not a favorite of mine. For this cover, though, I wanted a mischief maker. I found Julianna Hazlehurst, painted around 1820 by Jacob Eichholtz. I particularly like the slight bit of her teeth showing.

This painting has hung in the chambers of Chief Justice Rehnquist and in the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic in Prague.

Classics · writing

Covers: Mansfield Park

It turns out that the portrait on my Mansfield Park cover is the half-sister of the one who adorns Pride and Prejudice.

I wanted something not too fancy for Fanny Price. I found the simplicity of Gilbert Stuart’s 1804 portrait of Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (Mrs. Lawrence Lewis). Known as Nelly, she, too, is written of in the National Gallery’s American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century, at pages 237-40.

When she was two and after her father died, she became a ward of George and Martha Washington. She was Martha Washington’s granddaughter and George Washington’s step-granddaughter and adopted daughter. In 1799, she married the Washingtons’ nephew Lawrence Lewis.

The painting shows her to be in the second year of mourning, based on the color of her day dress. In addition to suffering mightily from the death of Martha Washington in 1802, she’d also lost two children. In December of 1804, the year in which the portrait was done, she wrote a friend:

We have both experienced the most severe distress in being deprived of affectionate parents, whose loss can never be repaired. In addition to this, I have lost two children, one of them the most lovely & engaging little Girl I ever saw. I have had very bad health since my marriage until the two last years, I have now recover’d my health, and have two charming children.

In its description, the National Gallery concludes as to Gilbert Stuart:

Stuart’s particular sensitivity may reflect his own ties to Nelly and her family. When he painted President and Mrs. Washington in Philadelphia in the 1790s, Nelly accompanied her grandparents to his Germantown studio for their sittings. The contrast between the vibrant girl whom Stuart had known in Philadelphia and the melancholy young woman he saw in Washington seems to have made an impact on the observant artist.

Nelly Custis Lewis died in 1852.

writing · Classics · Covers · Austen

Covers: Pride and Prejudice

For my conversion of covers to avoid any rights issues, I did searches of those institutions that have Open Access policies, i.e., they allow the use of their images of works in the public domain for any purposes. I searched for portraits in various periods and from various places. This brought up a large number of images, from which I selected a bunch for possible cover use.

Ann Calvert Stuart Robinson (Mrs. William Robinson), c. 1804, by Gilbert Stuart

Elizabeth Bennet is one of literature’s iconic figures. As I went through my little collection, I wanted someone who could be Elizabeth Bennet. Though for some covers I’ve gone outside the time period, for P&P and my other Austens I needed to keep to it.

The painting I use is of a 19 or 20 year-old and it was done in 1804. So, she is Elizabeth’s age and the date is only a few years before the book’s story. The portrait is from The National Gallery in Washington.

We happen to know quite a lot about the woman in the painting. The National Gallery of Art has several pages about her in its American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century (246-249).

She is Ann Stuart, who was born in Fairfax County, Virginia in 1784. Her aunt described her mother about Ann Stuart and her sister in a manner that will sound familiar to P&P readers: “their mother paid scant heed to their education and brought them up as if they were to marry English lords, and I don’t believe they accept the offers made to them.”

That aunt would later write of her:

The eldest of the Stuart girls is a very nice girl, but she now lives quite far away in Virginia. Her father, whom I am sure you remember as an extremely austere and tedious man — completely respectable, but more knowledgeable about the customs of the Greeks and Romans than of today — forced her against her will to marry a man who does not have enough intelligence to make a woman such as she happy. Although she writes me that she is perfectly [content], I do not believe it.

Ann Stuart wrote to a friend in 1807:

You would be surprised to see what a change has taken place in my taste, instead of reading or writing all day and being out of humor when interrupted I am quite active about the Farm and garden and very solicitous to do something in that way to entitle me to become a member of the agricultural society.

She had two children, boys, and is thought to have died in 1823. She was thirty-nine.

Classics · writing

Covers: Sense and Sensibility

I’ll start with Miss Austen today and her first novel, Sense and Sensibility. It’s the only one of her novels in which I think that there are more than one lead, in this case Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. (I named an MC “Elinor” after the former, who is I think the only Austen MC who doesn’t end up marrying money.)

So this is a rare two-person portrait.

The Cleveland Museum tells us–and one wonders whether their personalities are as varied as are Elinor’s and Marianne’s; “Charlotte (left) and Sarah were 19 and 21, respectively, when this portrait was painted [in 1801] on the occasion of Sarah’s marriage to the topographer Daniel Lysons. The sisters wear fashionable gowns and jewelry, but their affectionate posture conveys a sisterly tenderness that transcends glamour.”


Lights and Shadows of New York City

In writing Róisín Campbell, I came upon—I don’t know how—a PDF version of the book The Lights and Shadows in New York City by James D. McCabe, Jr. It was published in 1872. I have taken a copy from Project Gutenberg and converted it into both paperback and hardcover versions on Amazon.

It proved invaluable in providing details of life in the City at the time. In particular, there is a chapter on women’s clothing that was the basis for a major theme of my novel. In the book, McCabe quotes an unidentified person: “It is almost impossible to estimate the number of dresses a very fashionable woman will have. Most women in society can afford to dress as it pleases them, since they have unlimited amounts of money at their disposal. Among females dress is the principal part of society. What would Madam Mountain be without her laces and diamonds, or Madam Blanche without her silks and satins? Simply commonplace old women, past their prime, destined to be wall-flowers. A fashionable woman has just as many new dresses as the different times she goes into society. The élite do not wear the same dresses twice. If you can tell us how many receptions she has in a year, how many weddings she attends, how many balls she participates in, how many dinners she gives, how many parties she goes to, how many operas and theatres she patronizes, we can approximate somewhat to the size and cost of her wardrobe.”

He proceeds to list over six pages the inventory of one woman’s wardrobe that was filed in court when an insurance company balked at paying a claim that that wardrobe was worth $21,000. He notes, further, that the needs of fashion often outran the family’s resources, resulting in “ruin”:

If they have not wealth they will affect to have it. They could not counterfeit good birth, or high breeding, but they can assume the appearance of being wealthy. They can conduct themselves, for a while at least, in a manner utterly disproportioned to their means, and so they go on, until their funds and credit being exhausted, they are forced to drop out of the circles in which they have moved, and the so-called friends who valued them only for their supposed wealth, instantly forget that they ever knew them. No more invitations are left for them, they are not even tolerated in “good society,” and are “cut” on the street as a matter of course.

Not a year passes but records the failure of some prominent business man in New York. His friends are sorry for him, and admit that he was prudent and industrious in his business. “His family did it,” they tell you, shaking their heads. “They lived too fast. Took too much money to run the house, to dress, and to keep up in society.” Only the All Seeing Eye can tell how many men who stand well in the mercantile community are tortured continually by the thought that their extravagance or that of their families is bringing them to sure and certain ruin; for not even in New York can a man live beyond his actual means. They have not the moral courage to live within their legitimate incomes. To do so would be to lose their positions in society, and they go on straining every nerve to meet the demands upon them, and then the crash comes, and they are ruined.

This was the Genesis of that portion of the novel that dealt with the financial reversals for one of the families:

“I was such a fool,” he said to his youngest daughter. “Thank God McNabb took Mary on. By then, it was too late. I couldn’t afford how we were living. Mary’s clothing alone began to eat into my capital. You were the sensible one.”

“But what of my year abroad?”

“That was costly, true. But I did not have to pay for all the gowns even you would need in New York. No. You were the sensible one. Mary was not. And I wasn’t. Or the boys. Only your mother. Bless her. I would not have gotten as far as I have, pitiful as that may be, without her support. I do not deserve her.”

He took another gulp. “She is ‘magnificent,’ as someone once called the house. I do not tell her often enough.”


Speaking of Covers

Thanks to Vania Margene Rheault, a prolific poster on Twitter, who offers a steady diet of useful advice for writers, I bought a cheap package of photos on DepositPhotos.com. There’s a cottage industry on creating book covers. More than anything, I think the cover is designed to signal a book’s genre.

My audience—my potential audience I should say—is unlikely to discover, pick up, and sample one of my books based on the cover. Perhaps they would if I wrote in a particular genre.

As with the Classics I posted about, my books fall into three categories. There are those set in Gilded Age New York. For these, I use portraits that I try to mimic something about the story. I had to redo a bunch after I learned about rights issues—I’d been using Singer Sargent portraits at first—and the world of Open Access created a plethora of possibilities. A Studio on Bleecker Street is about a woman who becomes an artist. For the new cover I went with an image a bit out of sync for the story—the image is from 1906 and the story is set in the 1870s—but the way the subject’s face is done and that her clothes are not entirely out-of-date led me to use it. The painting is entitled Study in Black and Green and is by the American John White Alexander. It’s at the Met.

With a new batch of photo options on DepositPhotos, I set out to find a potential new one for I Am Alex Locus. I considered four three possibilities, these three and the one I picked:

The story is about a 23 year-old woman whose mother died suddenly nine years earlier. She grew up in an affluent suburb just north of New York City and lives on the City’s upper west side. After stumbling on a secret/mystery about her mother’s death, she undertakes a quest to learn the truth.

I ran the covers by someone whose opinion I trust. While I liked the first one, with its very high-resolution image, I had to agree that it was too intense. So I went with the second.

One of the things about publishing on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) as well as on other sites is the ease of correcting and changing things. I now do non-Amazon ebooks chiefly on Draft2Digital, and its pretty easy with it too. For wider circulation, I use IngramSpark for paperbacks and hardcovers. Because I’m a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors, I get to post five books a month for free–otherwise it’s $50 for each revision–so I go there after doing KDP.

One of the things about publishing on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) as well as on other sites is the ease of correcting and changing things. I now do non-Amazon ebooks chiefly on Draft2Digital, and its pretty easy with it too. For wider circulation, I use IngramSpark for paperbacks and hardcovers. Because I’m a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors, I get to post five books a month for free–otherwise it’s $50 for each revision–so I go there after doing KDP.

So I changed the text of the novel to reflect the new source of the photo and, voilà, I have my new cover and it’s already up on KDP in all three formats and as an ebook on Draft2Dgital. (I also took advantage of making a change to make some slight but significant changes to the text itself.)

I have done some videos on making covers. Hit the Video Link above. Or here.


My Cover Story

Since I started writing historical fiction, I used contemporaneous paintings for my covers of those books. Initially, I found one by American artist John Singer Sargent. They were on the original covers for Roisin Campbell and A Studio on Bleecker Street.

When I began my Classics series, it made sense to search out paintings for the periods of the books, especially the Regency period for the batch of Austen’s. After they were up for a bit, I was warned that they might run afoul of the rights of some people, although they were in the public domain. I pulled the books until I could sort it out.A bit of research led me to a couple of things. This concerns the use of images made of artwork, generally by the institution that owns them.

First, although I’m not an intellectual property lawyer, my legal research makes it likely that if a museum takes a photo of a painting that is itself in the public domain and the photo is a “slavish copy,” i.e., it is an accurate image of the painting with nothing added (or subtracted), it lacks the originality required for a copyright in the U.S. I won’t get into my analysis but suffice it to say that while there’s only a single district court opinion on the subject–as it happens, in the Southern District of New York, which covers Manhattan, home of the Met–it wasn’t appealed and museums don’t seem to bringing claims, I think that they don’t sue about it because they’re afraid they’ll lose and then the lucrative business of getting people to pay fees for a license to use the image would die.

Second, it turns out that even if I am confident I can use images of paintings that are in the public domain, certain museums don’t force me to make that option. Under Open Access policies, a number of museums allow complete use, including for commercial purposes, of large parts of their collections. Generally they use the Creative Commons 0 license or, in the case of the Met, have an Open Access/Public Domain icon which leads to: “As part of the Met’s Open Access policy, you can freely copy, modify and distribute this image, even for commercial purposes.”

I thus spent time searching through collections of museums with Open Access policies for my covers. The institutions I use are the Met, the National Gallery, the Chicago Institute of Art, the Yale Museum, the Cleveland Museum, and the Smithsonian. (I’ve also redone the covers of my Gilded Age books.) (Though the Louvre is not a participant, Paris’s public museums are.)

I was clued into this by a blog post by Kathryn Goldman entitled Museums that Give Away Open Access Images of Public Domain Work.

An addition: On Facebook, Maria Yrsa Rönneus sent me a link to a 2014 article entitled The Public Domain vs. the Museum: The Limits of Copyright and Reproductions of Two-dimensional Works of Art, which provides a bit of an update with an emphasis on UK law. It notes that UK museums don’t seem to be in a rush to have the courts there decide the issue.


December 16, 2022

This will be a place where I’ll be writing now and then about, well, writing. As an introduction, I am a lifelong New Yorker and have been practicing law for over 40 years. In recent years, I’ve also been doing some writings, with books and stories set in the contemporary world and in the Gilded Age of New York, beginning in 1870 or so. I’ve also dabble in some erotica.
I write under the aegis of “Dermody House.” “Dermody” is my father’s mother’s maiden name, although it was changed to Campbell after her widowed mother remarried when my grandmother was two. It was my father’s middle name. (I wrote about that grandmother in Bridget & Joseph in 1918.)
I recently set about publishing on Amazon classic novels that are in the public domain and that will be a likely subject of my next entry.
I’m also enabling comments so feel free to say what you wish about what I write.