Author Jennifer Chiaverini is no stranger to research—she's included historical elements in many of her 23 novels. In her latest, Mrs. Grant and Madam Jule, she goes back to the 19th century to explore the life of First Lady Julia Grant and her slave, Jule. In a guest blog post, Chiaverini shares five of the most memorable tidbits from her extensive research.
guest post by Jennifer Chiaverini
In March 1865, only a few weeks before the end of the Civil War, the tempestuous Mary Lincoln accompanied her husband on a visit to General Ulysses S. Grant’s military headquarters at City Point, Virginia, where she had a very public meltdown. In the thankless role of Mrs. Lincoln’s hostess, Julia Grant tried to calm her, only to bring Mrs. Lincoln’s wrath down upon herself. Mrs. Lincoln angrily accused the general’s wife of coveting her place in the White House, a charge Mrs. Grant calmly denied—little suspecting that four years later, her husband would be sworn in as the 18th president of the United States and she would become First Lady.
This astonishing altercation between Mary Lincoln and Julia Grant has gone down in history thanks to the many eyewitness accounts recorded in letters and memoirs, but most people today don’t know these five other surprising things about the famously friendly and admired First Lady Julia Grant:
1. Julia Grant was afflicted with strabismus, more colloquially known as crossed eyes.
Her vision was so impaired that she could read, write or sew only briefly before the strain exhausted her, so Ulysses often read aloud or wrote letters for her. She was self-conscious of her appearance, and whenever she was photographed, she almost always sat in profile in an attempt to disguise her condition. As Ulysses’ fame grew and Julia became more of a public figure, she inquired about corrective surgery so that she “might not be so very, very plain.” She was disappointed to learn that nothing could be done, for the operation could have succeeded only if it had been performed in childhood.
2. Julia claimed to experience prophetic visions and dreams
She was correct so often that her family learned to trust her intuition. In her memoirs, published 73 years after her death, she describes several unsettling premonitions that she later learned coincided with moments her husband had been in grave danger on the battlefield. In Washington a few days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, she was seized by such intense, overwhelming dread that she begged Ulysses to depart for their home in New Jersey immediately. A few hours after their train left the capital, the actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.
3. Although Julia and Ulysses enjoyed a long and happy marriage, when they first fell in love, their families did not want them to wed.
Although Julia’s mother thought highly of Ulysses and supported the match, her father argued that Julia’s constitution made her poorly suited for the arduous, roving life of a military wife and suggested Ulysses marry her younger sister instead. When Ulysses rejected this proposal, Julia’s father insisted on a long engagement while the enamored lieutenant was off serving in the Mexican War. For their part, Ulysses’ staunchly abolitionist parents were appalled that their son intended to marry the daughter of Missouri slaveowners, and they refused to attend the wedding.
4. Throughout the Civil War, rather than remain safe at home, Julia often lived with her husband at military headquarters.
Ulysses hated to be away from his family, and as the army moved, he would summon Julia to join him as soon as he established a secure location. According to historian Candice Shy Hooper, during the four years of the Civil War Julia traveled more than 10,000 miles to be with her husband, sometimes through enemy territory. In an era when long-distance travel was difficult and exhausting even when the trains ran on time, the weather was fair, and the roads weren’t thick rivers of mud, Julia—and her four young children, who often accompanied her—risked disease, death and capture whenever they journeyed between home and headquarters.
5. Although Julia was married to the commander in chief of the Union armies in the war that would end slavery in the United States forever, she herself kept slaves.
Her favorite maid—a woman also named Julia but usually called Black Julia or Jule—often accompanied her mistress when she joined Ulysses at military headquarters. Both women risked certain danger as they journeyed to and from the field of war, but for Jule, the hazards of travel also brought knowledge and opportunity, and she eventually made a daring bid for freedom. Though historians debate whether Julia or her father was actually Jule’s legal owner, there is no doubt that the future First Lady benefited from the enslavement and exploitation of other human beings for almost 40 years.
author photo by Steven Garfinkel
It's Oscar Season, and if you have Hollywood on the brain, it's the perfect time to dive into Kate Alcott's new novel. In A Touch of Stardust, the author of The Dressmaker turns back the clock to the 1930s and puts readers on the tension-filled set of Gone With the Wind.
We see through the eyes of Julie Crawford, a would-be screenwriter who's still somewhat starstruck by the personalities she encouters during her work at the studio's publicity offices. But when Carole Lombard—who is currently involved with Clark Gable—hires Julie as her PA, the Midwestern girl starts seeing celebrities in a whole new light. But the magic of the movies persists.
Each morning, she pulled herself from bed and joined the cleaning ladies and the plumbers and other sleepy travelers on the 5:00 a.m. bus to get to the studio early. That way, she could step onto the back lot alone and be in the old South and feel the magical world of Gone with the Wind come to life. In front of Tara, the trees that had been fashioned over telephone poles looked real, and if she hadn't known the dogwood blossoms were made of white paper, the illusion would have been complete. It just took believing. She loved watching it grow—over fifty building façades now, and two miles of streets. It didn't matter that she walked in a landscape of glued plasterboard, a place of fake structures held together by little more than Selznick's frenzied dreams. It was vividly real.
What are you reading this week?
Kate Atkinson's stellar Life After Life was one of the best books of 2013. So the news that the Scottish author is returning with a companion story is most welcome to this fan. In A God in Ruins, which Little, Brown will publish on May 26, Atkinson tells the story of Ursula's brother, Teddy, the RAF pilot who played a key role in Life After Life.
From the catalog:
"For all Teddy endures in battle, his greatest challenge is facing the difficulties of living in a future he never expected to have. A God in Ruins explores the loss of innocence, the fraught transition from the war to peace time, and the pain of being misunderstood, especially as we age."
Author Sarah Kennedy set her thrilling new series during one of the most intriguing eras of British history—the Tudor era. It stars an "everywoman," Catherine, a former nun who has lost her vocation due to Henry's shift from Catholicsm to Anglicism. More than 400 years after this dynasty died out, why do they continue to fascinate? In a guest blog post, Kennedy—who holds a PhD in Renaissance poetry—explores this idea.
Guest post by Sarah Kennedy
Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn. “Bloody Mary” Tudor. Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare. Who doesn’t love the Tudors? Or love to hate the Tudors? Lust, power, betrayal, the church, the state—they embody it all. The Tudor era still looms large in our imaginations, from The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall to Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous. We love to follow the intrigues, romances and betrayals of these glamorous historical figures. But why?
Henry VIII’s six wives have always intrigued us, partly because there were so many of them and partly because each woman was different and had her own impact on the politics and religion of the time. How many times have we watched Anne Boleyn win the king then lose her head? We know what has to happen, but those of us who admire her pluck and daring are usually hoping, somewhere deep inside, that she’ll make it this time, that she’ll have that son or that she’ll somehow escape to the countryside with her daughter. Those who favor Katherine of Aragon see her as the tragic heroine who led her people into battle and tried valiantly to be a successful queen over a foreign country—and with a husband who grew to despise her. Jane Seymour, of course, died providing the desired heir, who didn’t live to be an adult, and she was followed by poor Anne of Cleves, destined to be known as the “mare of Flanders” because the king found her unattractive. Catherine Howard, the girl-queen who clearly didn’t know what she was getting herself into, was summarily executed for misbehavior that the court seemed to wink at, and Catherine Parr, that strong-minded widow, managed to survive by playing to the aging king’s ego.
It’s the very stuff of drama—human personalities clashing and contending while the country reels from one religion to another. The royal characters of the Tudor era are both larger than life and real. They fight and they kill and they lie . . . and they love and dedicate themselves fiercely to their beliefs and their families.
And then there is the second generation: Edward the son, who suddenly falls ill in his teens and tries to “give” the crown to the tragic Jane Grey. The outcast older daughter, Mary Tudor, or “Bloody Mary,” was the first real queen regnant in England, and her half-sister Elizabeth ruled over the island’s “golden age”—but refused ever to marry.
The Tudor era was a time of massive change in Europe, but the family didn’t last long, which is another reason we go back to them. The 16th century in England is dominated by Tudors, but after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, they’re gone. In a hundred years, everything has changed, and the Tudors almost immediately become the family of legend. Henry’s break from Rome caused an upheaval in his country that rocked the very foundations of everyday life: the Church. Like us, people in Tudor England struggled with fundamental questions of belief and authority. What is the right relationship between religion and politics? What moral authority does the king have? What moral responsibility do people have to follow a leader they see as ungodly?
My first novel, The Altarpiece, tried to provide some possible answers, and the Cross and the Crown series follows a young woman who tries to make sense of her world and her God as she navigates the tricky waters of the Tudor court. Catherine Havens is a kind of everywoman. Like us, she wants to follow her conscience . . . and she wants to live a “good” life. And like us, she is trying to figure out what that life might . . . or must . . . or can be. Will her own intelligence be her guide? Or will she follow the dictates of her king?
It’s a question we all still ask ourselves, and the Tudor era continues to offer a dramatic stage on which writers, filmmakers, and playwrights can play out these human spectacles. I also wanted to consider the particular problems for women, who were seen as inferior to men—but who governed and taught and led both king and country. My Catherine is strong-willed and educated: a true Renaissance woman. But she is still a woman, who must take care not to seem smarter than the men close to the king—or than the king himself.
Why the Tudors? They are close enough to us to show us versions of ourselves, but also far enough away in time that the picture comes more sharply into focus. We know what they should do, but we also know what they will do, and our pleasure come both from hoping that things will go better this time around and watching the tragedies and triumphs play out as we know they must. And when we close the book or turn off the film, we’ve learned more about our past—and more about ourselves here in the present day.
Thanks, Sarah! The second book in the Cross and the Crown series, City of Ladies, goes on sale today (BAM | B & N | Indiebound | Amazon) and the third book will be published in 2015. Find out more on her website.
I've seen a LOT of mash-up book descriptions in my time at BookPage. "Eat, Pray, Love meets A Year in Provence!" "The Da Vinci Code meets Gone Girl!" Etc.
And just when I thought I was far too jaded to be sucked in by one, along comes a debut novel whose "meet" comparison is truly something I've never seen (and would be extremely curious to read). Are you ready?
"The Crimson Petal and the White meets Fight Club: A page-turning novel set in the world of female pugilists and their patrons in late eighteenth-century England."
Say what? Yes, that's right, Faber + Palaniuk = Anna Freeman's debut, The Fair Fight (Riverhead, April 2015). When a lifelong female street fighter born in a brothel meets a manor-born lady eager to escape the confines of her sheltered life, both women might have a chance to fight their way to the top. Best of all, this is based on a true story: The author has worked as a bartender at the Hatchet Inn in Bristol, England, the city's oldest pub—a hotspot for pugilism in the 18th century.
I've put a BOLO on the galley for this one! Will you read it?
Anita Diamant is known for her thought-provoking novels about women's lives, from Biblical times (as in her 1997 bestseller The Red Tent) to the present day (2005's The Last Days of Dogtown). She's returning this December with her first novel in five years, The Boston Girl (Scribner).
The novel tells the story of Addie Baum, born in 1900 to Jewish parents who have recently arrived in Boston. Though the Baums came to America to get a better life for their three daughters, the precocious Addie's world is almost unrecognizable to them. Told in the voice of the 85-year-old Addie, who is looking back on her life, The Boston Girl becomes the story of the 20th century and the ever-changing roles of women within it.
Will you read it?
RELATED CONTENT: Don't miss our previous coverage of Anita Diamant.
Pablo Picasso is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant artists of the 20th century. He is also remembered as a notorious, and often cruel, lover of women. Anne Girard's Madame Picasso explores the relationship between Picasso and his beloved muse, Eva Gouel (also known as Marcelle Humbert, a name she adopted in an attempt to sound more Parisian).
After defying her provincial parents' wishes and moving to Paris, Eva Gouel is delighted when she lands a job as a seamstress at the Moulin Rouge. A naive but genuine lover of art, she is also thrilled—and baffled—when the controversial and alluring artist Pablo Picasso takes an interest in her. As her affair with Picasso evolves and she is ushered into the decadent world of elite Belle Époque Paris, Eva struggles with insecurities and self-doubt. Little is known of Gouel, the women many consider to be Picasso's truest love, but Girard revives their tumultuous relationship, as well as its tragic demise, with skill.
Eva had fallen asleep on the windowsill, but the giggles and whispers out in the corridor woke her suddenly. When she opened her eyes, she could see that the sky had cleared. It was such a lovely cerulean blue day.
"It's him, I tell you! I've seen him before! Look down below there, in the lane!"
"He's so handsome, and famous! What the devil would he want with Marcelle?"
The voices carried through the paper-thin walls between the small rooms. Eva glanced down then and saw Picasso standing outside the door of the dormitory, wearing a proper dark suit, hat and read silk necktie. He was holding a bouquet of flowers: daises, daffodils, lilies of the valley and white roses, tied with a bright yellow ribbon. The ribbon was the color of her mother's silk kimono. She was too stunned, at first, to think. Even after everything, it seemed slightly unbelievable that he might be here for her.
Eva skittered onto her feet and glanced at the mirror on the wall beside her bed. She pinched both cheeks, which were already flushed from the sudden shock of seeing him. Then she slipped on her shoes, and pulled open the door with such force that it sprang back and crashed against the wall. The giggles and whispers stopped as Eva tumbled out into the hall and past the catty girls gathered there.
What are you reading?
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in another era? Scientists have yet to create a time machine, but until then, we've got the next best thing: books! From medieval mysteries to WWII dramas, we've put together a list of books published this year that will let you escape to another time.
The life of Laura Bridgman, the first person to communicate using finger spelling, is explored in this compelling novel set in the mid-1800s. Without the ability to hear, see or taste, Bridgman was confined solely to the sense of touch, and both her inner life and her relationships were intensely complex. But despite being a celebrity during her lifetime, Bridgman has largely been forgotten by history. Thankfully, Elkins skillfully revives the memory of this pioneering woman and her singularly fascinating world.
The mind of Tom Robbins is a world in and of itself, and we're invited to journey through it in his memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie. Detailing his childhood during the Great Depression, his time as a soldier in Korea and his experiences during the LSD-fueled counterculture movement, the author of the classic Even Cowgirls Get the Blues guides the reader through his life with a sly, playful voice. You can't help but be taken along for the ride.
In 1527, 600 men set sail from Spain to explore the New World. By the end of the year, only four men remained alive. Among the survivors was a Moroccan slave named Mustafa, renamed Estebanico by his Spanish captors. The four men wandered the wilderness for eight years before finally reaching a Spanish settlement, yet Estebanico's account of their journey was never written down. In Lalami's meticulously researched novel, she imagines what the first black explorer of the New World might have to say about the years spent searching for civilization—and what he found when he finally reached it.
If you're looking for a fat, juicy tome to get lost in, this novel, set in 1794 England, might be it. Bent on marrying off their daughters to wealthy suitors, four oblivious high-society men hire a pianoforte instructor to teach the girls the art of the newest musical craze. Little do they know, the musician has an agenda of his own and is instructing their daughters in quite a bit more than pianoforte . . .
Take a relaxing trip to Walden Pond, literary oasis of Henry Thoreau. In his biography of the famous poet, Sims paints a lovely portrait of the delightfully zany father of nature writing. You might be inspired to leave the cumbersome modern world behind and retreat to your own Walden Pond . . . or at least go for a hike.
Furst's masterfully executed spy novel unfolds as the world is on the cusp of WWII, capturing the tumultuous, dangerous moment before all-out war enveloped Europe. Recruited to secretly fight the agents of fascism, a truly diverse crew carries out clandestine deeds across Nazi-infested Europe in this fast-paced, thrilling novel.
The 17th-century Medici court of Florence is the scene for this tale of a talented wax sculptor, Zummo, attempting to outrun his past. While completing a bizarre commission from the Grand Duke, Zummo finds love with a mysterious young woman. But of course, scandal is not far behind, and dangerous secrets lurk in the shadows of the beautiful city.
Reeling in the aftermath of WWI, Frances Wray and her mother decide to take on a young married couple, Leonard and Lillian Barber, as tenants in their South London apartment. The lonely Frances is delighted when she becomes fast friends with the affable Lillian, and Frances' confession that she is attracted to women feeds the flames of their relationship. But as their infatuation grows, things take a dark and deadly turn.
She's got (arguably) the most famous face on the planet. But who is the woman in da Vinci's Mona Lisa? Experts disagree, but many believe the painting depicts Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the Florentine wife of a wealthy merchant. Through public records and informed guesses, Hales is able to reconstruct a probable portrait of her life—a life perhaps just as fascinating as her portrait.
Inspired by a real unsolved murder, Frog Music is set in San Francisco during the muggy, disease-ridden summer of 1876. When her cross-dressing friend is murdered, Blanche delves into the shady underbelly of the city, determined to find the killer.
Fast-forward 60 years, and San Francisco is on the upswing. In the talented Lisa See's latest novel, three women of Asian descent with very different backgrounds form a seemingly unbreakable bond working as dancers at the Forbidden City nightclub. But as their fame grows and the world around them begins to change, their friendship is tested.
King Richard II is nervous—and with good reason. Whisperings of a dangerous book are floating around 14th-century London. Within this book are the accurately predicted deaths of every king of England—including him. Rulers, deceit, prophecies and every English major's best friend, Chaucer, all make an appearance in this satisfying medieval mystery. Holsinger, a renowned medieval scholar, lends his formidable knowledge to the novel, giving it a well-deserved air of authenticity.
Perhaps you would like to revel in these last sweltering days before fall. If that's the case, this evocative memoir will take you back to midcentury Georgia as travel writer Mayes unspools memories of her early life, filled with the chaos and love of a dysfunctional family. Highlighting the beauty and pain of her Southern childhood—not to mention the steamy afternoons—Mayes has written the perfect companion book to a tall glass of iced tea.
Spanning decades, this novel inspects the evolution of love and evil within a group of friends. Paris in the 1920s was about as fabulously decadent as you can get, and within the city's glittering night life, a group of misfits and strange geniuses finds acceptance and encouragement. But as the world takes a truly horrific turn, the stunning characters within this novel must turn with it, leading them to unexpected and devastating choices.
The Golden Age of Amsterdam comes to life in this wonderfully imaginative debut. When country girl Nella marries a much-older merchant and moves to Amsterdam, she's disappointed to find that life in her new household is incredibly dull and austere. Her husband seems to take no interest in her, and his severe sister runs the household with an iron fist. So Nella is surprised when her husband orders an expensive cabinet-sized replica of their home as a gift. She commissions a miniaturist to furnish her little home, but soon the miniaturist's work reveals dark secrets about the odd family she has married into.
If you think it's hard to get a book published these days, try publishing in Cold War Russia. The Zhivago Affair details the travails author Boris Pasternak, had to endure in order to get his now-classic novel, Dr. Zhivago, published. It's a fascinating tale of intrigue, the CIA (yes, really) and how one phenomenal book helped sow seeds of dissension in Soviet Russia.
Set in a North Carolina coastal town as the Revolutionary War draws to a close, Smith's debut follows three generations of a troubled family as they struggle to cope with loss. The memory of the well-loved, deceased Helen haunts the family she left behind, affecting each family member in complex ways. This novel eloquently conveys how intrinsically connected love and grief truly are.
If you like your historical novels with a bit of a biting edge, this novel drips with dark Gothic mystery. When Charlotte's brother goes missing within the elite world of Victorian society, she is determined to find him. But she soon discovers that there is something supernaturally sinister afoot, and that high society might be more than a little connected to the underground.
Need an escape from the late-summer heat? Picking up a book with "Ice" in the title might be a good route. In his gripping nonfiction account of the ill-advised 1879 expedition to the North Pole, Sides follows the shipwrecked crew of the USS Jeannette as they struggle to survive the Arctic tundra. This vivid nonfiction thriller is guaranteed to leave you chilled—in more ways than one.
Do you see any books that make you want to hop in a time machine? Let us know in the comments!
Exhilarated by her newfound passion for archeology, Catherine Lemay is left feeling deflated when she's assigned to a dig in the sprawling sagebrush of 1950s Montana. Here, she must ascertain if there is anything significant worth saving in the deep pit of a canyon before plans for a major dam can progress. If she finds nothing of importance, the canyon, considered sacred to the local Crow Native Americans, will be drowned. Accustomed to thrilling, richly rewarding digs in England, Catherine is less than enthused by the endless, seemingly empty landscape before her.
A sliver of gray stone pierced the rubber tread like a spike. She stood there and watched the tire empty and for the first time since the day she watched the English coast recede behind her, felt as though she might break down and cry. She fought the tears until the wave passed.
Jessie Burton pairs lavish descriptions of life in 17th-century Amsterdam with a clever touch of intrigue in her debut historical novel, The Miniaturist.
Eighteen-year-old Petronella "Nella" Oortman is the shy new bride of an enigmatic and wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt, but too often she finds herself alone in her new, unfriendly household.
Johannes tries to comfort Nella with the gift of a tiny cabinet house, which is an exact replica of their own. But when Nella employs a miniaturist to furnish it, his cryptic clues lead her to uncover long-hidden secrets about the Brandt family.
Get the in-depth scoop from Burton herself in the video below:
The Miniaturist is out today! Will you be picking up a copy?