Wednesday, March 31, 2010

H is for...

Haweswater by Sarah Hall (response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

This fortnight's letter H finds itself in the title and the author's name in this novel of how the progress of man can forever change a landscape. In England in 1936, the installation of a dam means the destruction of a small town. Hall chronicles the last year of the doomed town and the unlikely romance of the tomboyish young advocate for its salvation and the government man whose job is to make its transition into oblivion as easy as possible.

The premise is beautiful. Haunting and yet solidly grounded in historical fact, the story of the town that disappeared beneath the water captured my attention. And Hall's writing is evocative and complex, as well, turning many lovely phrases.

However. I had a very difficult time feeling attached to the characters. While the place is conjured with startling immediacy, I could not say the same for the characters, whose rustic wisdom and strong personalities should have meant quick connection. For my part, I felt a distance that did not diminish over the course of the book.

I also had a problem with the predictability of Hall's story. Now, forshadowing in its place is a wonderful device that hints at something to come and gives the reader a fulfilling satisfaction when that something comes to fruition, but most of the major twists of the plot were laid out with such clarified guessability beforehand that the plot failed to take me along for the ride and left me a mere observer.

In whole, though, the real gem within this story is how Hall weaves real, otherwise obscured, events into a novel, giving us a glimpse of a forgotten place in time. Worth a read to discover this place, forever gone.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Engageantes, Part Deux

Now that I've thrown historical fluff at you (post below), reproduction fluff is in order! I finished and attached the engageantes to my block print caraco this weekend.

First the caraco--it's JP Ryan's pattern, and it went off swimmingly, as I had anticipated. My by now well-worn copy of her pattern seems to only get better with age. Differences from hers: The sleeves, clearly. And I didn't reinforce or use hooks and eyes in the front. I found that simply pinning the front closed over stays did just fine, thank you much, and leaves the garment quite a bit more adjustable.

And a quick note on the fabric--it's a block print cotton procured from Heritage Trading Company on Ebay. It's actually done by hand, which you can tell if you get a close-up look--the borders are imprecise from one layer of printing to another. This family has been printing cottons in the same village in India for over two hundred years, and their stuff is not only beautiful but priced very well, too.

But what you all really came for--the sleeves. They're two layers of linen and one layer of printed cotton. They start out looking like this (general shape nipped from Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold):
Then I hemmed them (by hand, natch, while watching terrible SciFi channel original movies with my husband...did I say terrible? I meant gloriously bad), and pleated them so that they looked like this:
I then set the linen pieces into the sleeves (faked the piece out thinking I was just going to hem the lining and shell together then wham! linen engageant between the layers) and tacked the cotton on the outside of the sleeve. Then the piece de resistance: the border of the cotton was a strip of contrasting print, which I pinked and box pleated, then tacked it on top of the whole business.

I plan to tack the same box-pleated trim to the neckline, as well, which still needs a final tweak on the fit.

Quite a bit of work for a bit of sleeve fluff, but God is in the details (wait, or is it the devil is in the details? Which is it? Anyone?) and I'm pretty pleased with the result.

Now, looking forward to wearing this when the weather turns sweltering this summer--the cotton is wonderfully lightweight, which will be a welcome change from my midweight linen work gown. Fan, hat, and shade, and I shall be quite pleased to be a lady of leisure...until the dishes need to be washed and the stew put on for dinner.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Engageantes... the fancy term for the frothy, poufy, elaborate, and/or ruffle-splosion at the sleeve ends of eighteenth-century gowns. You're probably familiar with them: they're almost as ubiquitous as the wide-hipped paniers and the flowy pleates of the saque-back for indicating eighteenth-century-wear.

I've never been so fond of them. For one, that's a heck of a lot of fluff. I don't really do fluff. For another, I portray a middling sort--my best ballgown might have more frills, but on a daily basis I really don't need that much, well, fluff getting in the way. But I've been making nicer things lately, and nothing ups the ante of a gown quicker than adding a few choice details (and a bum roll). Over-the-top fluff is, of course, optional.

Plus, they're not all lace. I had associated them with flowing lace for so long that I'd overlooked the lovely whitework and plain linen versions. A few examples of variations on a theme:

Not, you understand, that I have a whole lot against lace. But I do have a mindset when it comes to eighteenth century clothing that, if I can't find a reasonable fascimile in reproduction/modern fabrics or notions, I shan't touch it at all. Lace is generally like this. Eighteenth-century lace was handmade with fine silk threads and has lovely drape, nothing like most modern lace, which is not only generally stiffly synthetic but also generally done in patterns not used in the eighteenth century. Like big, fat cabbage roses. But I digress.

I had avoided engageantes to avoid lace, and decided that there was no reason I couldn't spice up my latest caraco with simple pleated linen. Fruits of labor forthcoming--one double-layer linen engageante and the accomapanying printed cotton one that matches the gown is finished.

There's a bit of disparity over whether engeageantes are attached to shift sleeves or gown sleeves. I've decided that it's most likely, as is much else with fashion, a case of any, either, or both, with individuals doing what worked best for them. In my case, I don't want every gown having a cascade of ruffle, so I'll be attaching to this gown only. Making things like this detachable, of course, was a wise eighteenth-century move: you could pull the fancy bits off for laundering and not worry that you'd get your shift back from the laundress with froth detached.

Now to hem and pleat the second engageante, attach both to to the sleeves, and trim! Pictures soon...

Monday, March 22, 2010

Back Home Again

Sorry for the long absence--I took my first spring break trip ever three years after graduating from college and went to visit two of my best friends and my aunt in Seattle. Nope, not from Seattle--there just seems to be some sort of odd draw that calls people I know to truck west to Seattle after graduating from college. Hasn't changed, I guess, in the twenty years my aunt has been there.

I can see the appeal after a week there. It's gorgeous--a fun city to explore, Puget Sound shimmering in the horizon (yes, shimmering--because it was sunny in Seattle), the moutains visible in the distnace, interupting the sky (again, yes, visible--because again, sunny in Seattle).

And just outside the city, the beautiful Cascades. A good friend of mine from college took me out to the Cascades, and we took a sumptuous hours-long hike. He likes to take pictures:

But, really, the scenery made things easy--I took this one with a basic point-n-click:

And this is my favorite one my friend took of me--I found these tiny, translucent bell-shaped flowers hanging like droplets of water from a bush, and stopped to take a closer look. My friend suggested that we taste them. We did. They weren't too exciting.

So, a great, relaxing week with fabulous people. I'll be honest--wish I wasn't back--is moving to the Northwest in my future? OK, probably not--but I will most certainly be back.

Friday, March 12, 2010

G is for...

George Rogers Clark, as featured in Long Knife by James Alexander Thom (Response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

First off, I have to confess--of all the personages in history, Clark is one of my favorites. There are a few factors feeding into this. First, he's one of Indiana's only Revolutionary War heroes--though I'm sure there are other connections between my home state and our nation's founding, Clark fought the only battle to actually take place here. That leads to point two of why I heart GRC--I would be surprised if I didn't get at least one "I didn't know there was a guy named George Rogers Clark who fought a battle in Indiana--there was a Revolutionary War battle in Indiana?" in the comments. I have a soft spot for the unsung hero, and given that Clark is not only largely forgotten today but was also brushed aside by the government of his own time, that soft spot turns to mush. I joke (sort of) that Clark may have the title of First Person to Officially Get Screwed Over by the US Government. Finally, I grew up on Clark, reenacting with the recreated Illinois Regiment of Virginia (IRV). My husband calls us the GRC fan club. We call ourselves IRV and the IRVettes.

Regardless of your opinions on Clark (and they vary--some consider him an Indian-hater, which I think, according to his memoir, is utter nonesense given the respect with which he interacted with tribal leaders; some think he was an alcoholic, which is plausible, given the fact that the end of his life was as an impoverished permanent guest in his sister's home, but it is more likely he suffered strokes), Thom's book does, for the most part, a marvelous job of creating an accurate, yet gripping, fictionalized account of Clark's campaign. The gist:

Prior to the Revolution, the Proclamation of 1763 barred colonists from settling on the west side of the Appalachian mountains. After the Declaration of Independence and commencement of the war, some colonists began to settle in the fertile Ohio River Valley that later became Kentucky. Understandably, the British who still technically controlled that region from their post in Detroit, didn't want the interlopers, and negotiated with their Shawnee allies to conduct raiding parties to "discourage" the settlement. Lt. Governor Henry Hamilton of Detroit earned the nickname "Hairbuyer" for rewarding the war parties who brought him scalps. (For the record, he paid more for prisoners, but who wants to haul whiny settlers to Detroit? I don't.)

This was where Clark came in--he petitioned then-governor of Virgina, the far-more famous Patrick Henry, to be allowed to take a military force into Kentucky to protect the settlements. Implicit in this request was that he would also seize control of the supply posts in now-southern Illinois, and ultimately, hopefully, seize Detroit and gain control of the Northwest Territory from the British. And this is where Thom's book comes in, as well. The novel follows the campaign from recruiting efforts moving west, to the clever initial captures of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes, and the brutal, intrepid march through February floodplains to retake Vincennes from the British and earn the Northwest Territory for the fledgling United States.

Admittedly, Thom has a great story and wonderful sources to work with. I would even go so far as to recommend reading Clark's own account over Thom's fictionalized one. I promise, once you get past the descriptions of surveying, it is every bit as gripping and perhaps more so given Clark's undeniable charisma, which adds humor and personality to the account. You can read Clark's memoir online here. A quick clip--Clark and his men have just marched through frigid water for days, and things are beginning to look bleak:

The loss of so much time to men half starved was a matter of consequence. I would have given now a great deal for a day's provision or for one of our horses. I returned but slowly to the troops, giving myself time to think. On our arrival all ran to hear what was the report. Every eye was fixed on me. I unfortunately spoke in a serious manner to one of the officers. The whole were alarmed without knowing what I said. They ran from one to another, bewailing their situation. I viewed their confusion for about one minute, whispered to those near me to do as I did immediately put some water in my hand, poured on powder, blackened my face, gave the warwhoop and marched into the water, without saying a word. The party gazed and fell in, one after another without saying a word, like a flock of sheep. I ordered those near me to begin a favorite song of theirs. It soon passed through the line and the whole went on cheerfully.

The strength in Thom's story is how closely he sticks to the original. In fact, the areas in which he embellishes (most notably, the unnecessary and in my opinion intrusive romance created between Clark and a Spanish woman) serve as the only weaknesses to the plot. Thom's writing is fluid and doesn't interupt the story. He bookends the piece with scenes from the end of Clark's life, which serve to capture the tragedy of his life's less than illustrious closing quite beautifully. (So does the portrait at left--I don't know about you, but I can see the sadness in his eyes.)

Apologies for the extreme length of this post--once I get going on old George, it's hard to rein in. His is a story of triumph and tragedy that could not have been plotted any better than it was by his own life.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Man Trap

Ah, spring! And thoughts turn lightly toward...
...well, yes, that, too.

A print from 1788 (found at the Lewis Walpole library) depicting a delightful marqee tent with lovely furnishings. And a sofa, too.

I won't get too annoying, but had to point out one telling detail--the sword and gorget hanging behind the woman's hat are the trappings of an officer, indicating just what sort of man has been ensnared. The lady in question is wearing what would be a conservative riding habit (she even has her crop in hand...wonder whyever she would still be carrying that, hmmm) but has it unbuttoned and without shift or shirt covering decolletage in the most provocative fashion.

And another phrase I had not realized dated from the eighteenth century--Man Trap!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Love Stories

A couple weeks ago, the lovely Biljana posted about love over at Let the Words Flow (a fab stopping point for any writer, by the way--it's a blog that feels like a cozy coffee shop full of fellow writers. Grab a latte, sit down, start talking words) . Not just romance, mind you, but the love that's threaded through any good story, underlying the motivations and driving the action. She challenged readers to find a work of fiction that was devoid of love. I couldn't do it--from the other comments, it looks like no one else could, either.

One of my favorite works by C.S. Lewis is The Four Loves, which of course, being by C.S. Lewis, explores the concept of love from a Christian perspective. But it also makes the point that love is not an emotion defined by romance--love can also be familial, camaraderie, and the elusive God-like charity of giving without bounds. And of course, our own lives inform us of this, too--we know by experience that love is not merely romance and lust. Our first loves, after all, were our parents, our siblings, even our pets.

So I approached Biljana's post and tried to think of a book that didn't have love in it, love driving the characters to act and pursuing their thoughts. I mentioned All Quiet on the Western Front, one of my favorite books, and the fact that, though there really isn't any romance in it, it's a story of brotherly love and camaraderie. The Picture of Dorian Gray--narcisistic self-love gone horribly awry. And others--The Life of Pi--that beautiful illusion is created out of love, isn't it? The Little House books--even before Almanzo, Laura's life is driven by the love she has for her family. And so it could go on and on.

And I think I know the reason why. This is where I know I go a bit off the grid, but here it is: Every life is a love story. I decided this, strangely enough, at my grandfather's funeral. Before the mass, there was a family-only visitation, to give us a reprieve from the hundreds of people at the open visitation the night before. And there had been hundreds. My grandfather was a professor and author, very active in his political and religious communities, and I suppose I had always defined his life that way. He wrote thirteen books, hundreds of articles, founded a university newspaper. There are Wikipedia entries that mention his work. He was successful.

But during that family-only visitation, I watched while my grandmother knelt by his casket in well-rehearsed Catholic posture, as she had in church every week beside him, and said her farewells. It struck me--my grandparents' life was a love story. People who I never would have thought of as the hero and heroine of their own love story were, in fact, the central characters in a romance. And so it is for everyone. Some peoples' love stories might veer toward the parental or to friendships or even to a life's work focused on helping others or academic progress. (Though I do maintain that wedged in everyone's life is a seed of romance that sprouted at some point. It may have grown slowly and beautifully over time as my grandparents' did, it may have bloomed brilliantly and flourished briefly, it may have been only a tiny seedling that never grew beyond a few leaves and that no one ever saw, but it was there.)

So, believeable fiction must imitate life and be motivated by the same things. So, if every life is a love story--not necessarily a romance, but a love story--so then, fiction follows.

What do you think--is every life a love story, or am I off my nut? Can you think of works of fiction that aren't threaded through with love of one kind or another?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Who Wears the Pants?

Sometimes we think we've been using an expression of rather modern origin, only to discover:

This farcical cartoon, entitled "The Battle Royale, or Who Wears the Breeches," published 1774. From the Lewis Walpole Library.