Archive for March, 2009
I have to thank the wonderful SecretHandshake for this gem – and I just have to share it with you!
THE PLUM CAKE INCIDENT
Most of us were touched by this little anecdote about Collingwood’s first days at sea:
“(…) His first biographer, and son-in-law, G. L. Newnham-Collingwood, told an old family story of Collingwood’s first days after he joined Shannon. One of the lieutenants found him crying from homesickness. Although lieutenants were duty-bound to toughen up their recruits, this man comforted Collingwood, and in return was taken to his sea chest and given a large piece of plum cake. It is possible that this lieutenant was William Smith, who until 1758 had been gunner in the Alcide before being promoted into Shannon. (…)” – Max Adams: Admiral Collingwood, Nelson’s Own Hero
However, in the latest Collingwood-biography, “In the Shadow of Nelson: The Life of Admiral Lord Collingwood” by Denis Orde, the author emphasises that
“(…) Significantly, in Collingwood’s account there is no mention of sobbing for home and family in those first days on board ship or of sharing a plum cake which his mother had packed in his sea chest with a kindly lieutenant who had taken pity on him, as his son-in-law, the barrister Newnham who adopted the name Collingwood, afterwards claimed had been the case. (…)”
This quote and its slightly dismissive tone is significant for that biography. Orde writes for his peers (which is noble, but they have already heard of Collingwood, I suppose), and while there are some interesting bits and pieces, a more appropriately title might have been “People who had something to do with Collingwood”. Adams managed to get people interested in Collingwood, the human being – Orde honours the officer. Adams makes us feel with Collingwood, his style is helpful for those who are new to the subject: educational, yet also entertaining. Orde unfortunately lacks that talent.
Now, before those of my readers who are involved with the navy man the cannons: Denis Orde’s book isn’t bad. If you have spare money, buy it, but the writing is stiff, at times pompous and will very likely not get more people interested in Collingwood’s life, personality and achievements. And I feel it’s more important to carry the memory of Collingwood the man through the next generations than to keep him as some precious artifact within a elitist circle.
Actually, I wish there was a children book about Collingwood, as they come for Cook or Nelson.
Actually, somebody better write it soon, or I’ll do it.
Anyway, SH found an absolutely precious 19th century illustration of the plum cake incident – and here it is!
NOW EVERYBODY PLEASE GO AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW…
The illustration can be found in the book “Footprints of famous men; designed as incitements to intellectual industry (1854)” by John George Edgar, available online here (legal download, it’s out of copyright).
As for my personal opinion, the plum cake incident is historical fact, and even if it isn’t, it still is. I’m stubborn like that.
Let’s imagine for a moment I’d leave captains and lieutenants aside and would write a book about strong seafaring women in the 18th century. Considering my dislike for pirates, I’d probably go for the “woman aboard a ship disguised as a man” option.
A young lady in breeches? Aboard a ship? Drama! Just imagine the fear of being found out! How to hide? Whom to bribe? Would there be romance? Imagine the possibilities!
Hands up: who would immediately think of “self-insert” and “Mary-Sue” upon reading that plot summary? Yes, I thought so. No, I won’t write such a book, but I don’t have to, anyway – it’s already been written.. And you know what the best bit about it is?
That story is actually true!
Mary Lacy, born in 1740, left skirt and bonnet behind and slipped into breeches and waistcoat at the age of 19, called herself “William Chandler” (Chandler being her mother’s maiden name), became apprentice to a shipwright and went to sea aboard the Sandwich.
What a great luck and blessing for us that Mary wrote the remarkable story of her life down and shared her experiences with future generations. Not only give her memoirs, brought to paper when she was 33 years old, a fascinating insight into the daily life aboard a ship, but also into the thinking of a woman in those days, her role in society and, through the eyes of a woman, the expectations and trials a young man would have faced. An excellent character study, challenging and inspiring to me both as a writer and a reader.
From our modern point of view, it seems unbelievable that a young woman could have lived among sailors for such a long time without being found out. But at the end of the day, Mary was a sailor, too. She didn’t pretend. When she was finally found out, it was through betrayal by another woman, a “false friend”, and surprisingly enough, the men who were informed about the “lady in disguise” did – nothing. There were no consequences. It was merely noted, and that was it. And when Mary Lacy retired, she was granted an annual pension for “Superannuated Shipwrights” of £ 20 per year by the Admiralty, despite giving her real name in the papers! There are reports of women disguised as men who were punished and had to face harsh consequences for their actions. The fact that this was not true in Mary Lacy’s case is interesting – maybe because her case wasn’t that unique after all…?
Mary mentions many “romances” in her memoirs. From the distance of over 250 years, it’s difficult to tell how much of her flirting was to add credibility to her portrayal as a young man, and how much was romantic interest in her own gender. Margarette Lincoln, Deputy Director of the National Maritime Museum who wrote the introduction to the small book, doesn’t rule out that possibility. Judging by the facts at hand, it seem perfectly plausible to me that Mary Lacy was interested in both genders; after all she claimed an unhappy love affair with a young man as one of the reasons why she ran away from home (beside being a real wild child). Later in her life, she called herself “Mary Slade”, claiming that she had married some Mr. Slade – however, no proof of marriage can be found, but she did live for with one Elizabeth Slade until that woman’s death.
Mary Lacy lived a hard life, had to do heaviest manual work, was beaten by her master, went without food at times and without shoes in winter, survived the harshest conditions both ashore and at sea, and all this under the constant pressure and fear that she might be found out.
Maybe we should consider this the next time we feel life’s too harsh with us because Windows doesn’t boot…
Writing female characters in historical fiction is tricky business: the temptation to apply our modern standards and values to them is almost irresistible, and more often than not, they end up being unbelievable, out of tune with their times and ultimately not very likable. There’s also the risk of simply writing them as men with boobs; the same way slash fiction often ends up with a male couple in which one character is just a chick with a dick. Not easy thinking outside of our box, is it! I’m currently struggling with two female characters, and so I went on a historical “kick-ass woman hunt” – and look at this, they existed!
Today, I’ll introduce some of those ladies to you. What they achieved in their lives, especially considering the times they lived in, deserves our greatest respect, and who knows – maybe there’s a story or two in there… feel free to feel inspired!
I. LAURA BASSI (1711 – 1778)
Born in Bologna into a wealthy family with a lawyer as a father, she was privately educated and tutored for seven years in her teens by Gaetano Tacconi. She came to the attention of Cardinal Prospero Lambertini who encouraged her in her scientific work.
She was appointed professor of anatomy in 1731 at the University of Bologna at the age of 21, was elected to the Academy of the Institute for Sciences in 1732 and the next year, in 1733, was given the chair of philosophy. Her teaching opportunities were restricted in her early years, giving only occasional lectures. In 1738 she married Giuseppe Veratti, a fellow academic with whom she had eight children (some sources say more). After this, she was able to lecture from home on a regular basis and successfully petitioned the University for more responsibility and a higher salary to allow her to purchase her own equipment.
She was mainly interested in Newtonian physics and taught courses on the subject for 28 years. She was one of the key figures in introducing Newton’s ideas of physics and natural philosophy to Italy. She also carried out experiments of her own in all aspects of physics. In her lifetime she published 28 papers, the vast majority of these on physics and hydraulics, though she did not write any books.
In 1745 Lambertini (now Pope Benedict XIV) established an elite group of 25 scholars known as the Benedettini (‘Benedictines’, named after himself.) Bassi pressed hard to be appointed to this group, but there was a mixed reaction from the other academics with strong support from some but others taking a negative point of view. Ultimately Benedict did appoint her to the final position, the only woman in the group.
In 1776, at the age of 65, she was appointed to the chair in experimental physics by the Institute of Sciences, with her husband as a teaching assistant. Two years later she died having made physics into a lifelong career and broken a huge amount of ground for women in academic circles.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Laura Bassi’s career is that she has, all through her life, been supported and encouraged by the church. What we see here is an 18th century female protégé of A POPE, who obviously saw the potential and the ability of a woman in the field of science. Well, at least in that aspect, Benedict XIV was centuries ahead of Benedict XVI. Not that it takes much to achieve that, but still…
For further information: Tribute to Laura Bassi – a Physicist supported by the Church
has been updated! Many new links for you, on all aspects of life in the 18th century, with focus on life at sea and British history and daily life.
As usual, the list is neither complete (will never be), nor can I guarantee you that all information on those websites is 100% correct. New links are marked with a bright red "new" sign.
If you should have a link you’d like to share or feel there’s one filed in the wrong category, please let me know. Thanks!
MEDICAL SERVICES / HYGIENE
LIFE AT SEA
18TH CENTURY GENERAL (MOSTLY) BRITISH HISTORY
SOCIETY, DAILY LIFE
BLACK HISTORY / PEOPLE OF COLOUR / SLAVERY IN THE 18th CENTURY
LAW AND PUNISHMENT
RANKS AND UNIFORMS
AUTHORS (Age Of Sail)
Enjoy your research!