Monday, November 30, 2009

Fizz and Frippery

Above: The girls on that trip. 1908 era. Well, we know where in the Eastern Townships that they went.

I like that word frippery. I invoked it in my blog about the Eaton's catalogue. In the last blog of the book Flo in the City, based on the letters of Tighsolas posted on my social studies website, , I wrote a scene where Flo and Mae go to Sutherland's drug store, to get some soda.

Sutherland's is important to the story, since that man is soon to be elected Superintendant of Protestant Schools, a very lofty position in education in Quebec. (Shopkeepers had a lot of political clout in 1910, in towns. They could talk up people in the shops, the ones who didn't like reading newspapers.)

I'm glad I thought of this, because this led me to do a little research on soda fountains. My instincts were correct. Soda fountains were big in 1910 and drug stores had them because, well, soda drinks evolved from tonics, the fizz put in them to counter the mediciney taste! That I could guess.

As I wrote the scene in my head, I wondered if soda fountains were considered dangerous, like nickelodeons, in that they gave young folk a place to congregate and get up to mischief. (I had visions of 1950 in my head.) Well, quite the opposite, they were considered very wholesome and healthy, a place to go that wasn't a saloon! How interesting.

In fact, the entire history of pharmacies is very interesting, if you consider what we have today.
That is Big pharma ruling the world and these mega-pharmacies that make most of their money on women's cosmetics and perfumes and 'herbal' medicines that are no more likely to cure what ails us than oil of sarsparilla or tincture of amandine or whatever they had 100 years ago, when medical science was still primitive.

(My sermon for today. Reminds me, I need more SUPER GREENS PLUS -antioxidant, anti-aging detox stuff from the health food store.)

I'm not sure what Sutherland's contained. There is no mention in the letters, but I do know he sold school books and spectacles.

And that fact plays right into my story, the first chapter, where Flo is upset as she is failing at school!

I think I have to put a few French Canadian customers in the store when they go there.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Edith and Flo in a carriage, circa 1908. It's official. These hats the girls are wearing were their hats for the season, as I have another picture of them with other dresses in the same hats. I'll have to look up it that is some kind of Paris Fashion. The men of Richmond strike me as very handsome, but, then again, I married one of their descendants, so they are my type :)

I got fed up with my three computers, none of which worked well, and purchased a new lap top. So Flo in the City, my novel in progress, based on the letters of TIGHSOLAS is going to happen, now that I have no legitimate excuse to delay.

This morning I listened to BBC Radio Four's Book of the Week, FAMILY BRITAIN, about Britain in the 50's, a non-fiction account that uses diaries and other documents. I do love social history.

And, due to this new laptop with it's superior RAM I also downloaded two Eaton's catalogues and pored over the one from 1909 while listening.

My head is spinning and my eyeballs ache.

If life was simpler in the 1910's, women's fashion certainly was not. I knew that in an abstract way, but after scanning all those items of female apparel advertised in the catalogue, I felt I had another 6 years of research to do for this Flo in the City Book!

The terminology for hats alone requires the equivalent of an undergraduate degree. A degree in frippery and fluff.

Fancy Feathers, Wings and Flowers. I do believe that will be the title of my 1909 chapter. That's the year of Margaret's big hat purchase. That's a section of the catalogue containing items for which to trim hats.

I have also decided after looking at the washing machines of the era to include one entire chapter about Flo washing, drying and ironing her white dress. It took her two days to do this.

My mother had an old-fashioned washing machine in the 60's, I don't know what they were called but you filled it with water, it rotated back and forth and then you drained it and wrung out the clothes in the wringer, making sure to keep your hair away or you could suffer traumatic scalping.

The machine was electric. In Flo's days she had to hand churn the washer in the tub, and that's after heating the water on the wood stove.

I'll attempt a few more lines of Flo in the City. Very rough as I cannot write well after noon.
Read the complete ebook at Threshold Girl

Both Flora and Mae walked with Margaret down to catch the 10:20 train to Quebec the next morning. (Her trunk had gone in ahead of her)

In the Richmond station Margaret underlined her instructions to them for the third and final time, handed them a little pocket money, climbed on board the train, and waved goodbye from the window seat, as they ran up alongside the train, just for fun, just like children.

Sister Marion, would only be arriving on the 4 o'clock from Sherbrooke, so they were free until then.

They popped into Sutherland's drug store, and had Barry, Sutherland's boy, pour them a cherry phosphate from the giant barrel at the soda bar.

Every employee in the store wore a clean white coat, including young Barry. They teased him a bit about it as they handed over 4 cents for the drinks.

With a flourish of his right arm on the crank, Barry rang their purchase into the cash register, dropped the coins into the drawer and slammed it shut- like a seasoned pro twice his age. He was showing off.

But there was their pocket money half gone, in an instant.

The girls sat for a few minutes at the soda bar, slurping the fizzy drinks in unlady-like fashion, and then took a stroll around the spacious store with its wrap around glass and maplewood cabinets lined with bottles and books, and its mystifying mix of mediciny aromas, the alcohols, the menthols, the sulphury fruit syrups, all with unpleasant associations.

They examined a display case of family remedies, as if they were looking at curiosities in a museum, Essence of Pepsin for indigestion (father used that one) and Spirits of Turpentine for the kidneys and Castor Oil. Ugh. They all took that in the winter.

There was an entire case of products for fatigue and lack of energy.

Her mother took Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Tonic, Mae remarked, but you can only order that by mail. Here's one for you: Dr. Barker's Malt Extract. Puts Flesh on Thin People.

Well, here's one for you. Dr. Hammond's nerve and brain tablets.

They leaned over the toiletries cabinet: Genuine Rose Water. Witch Hazel. All very unexciting.

In Boston, Mae explained to Flora, the bigger pharmacies even sold cold creams, face powders, and rouge de theatre. She said that last bit in her finest French accent.

Flora couldn't imagine J.C.Sutherland, druggist, and the town's most respected man of letters, allowing such 'scandalous' products like that in his store.

Sister Edith's term and she always smiled a bit when she used it. Grown women had their secrets. Even Edith.
But for women to purchase right out in the open? It was unimaginable.
They were having a giddy old time until they hit on the school book section. Sutherland, secretary of St. Francis College, had the school text book concession in Richmond.

Here were stacked some crisp new copies of of Euclid's Geometry, MacMillan's Latin, and oh, dear, her Elementary English Composition book, Bertrand Sykes PhD, Copp Clarke and Co. Flora's bubbly mood suddenly evaporated.

"Let's go home," she said.

By the time they made it back to Tighsolas, only stopping twice to talk to people they knew, she had recovered somewhat from her setback.

Mae released Floss from her rope. The dog jumped up and then madly pin-wheeled, first to the right, then to the left, in a dizzying blur of black and white canine ecstasy. It's as if they had been gone for days.

Floss liked her freedom. She was known to everyone in the community. But Margaret had been afraid Floss would follow them to the train. And dogs were often killed on the train tracks.

Flora and Mae were on their own, with only Floss to protect them from the tramps, and that, in its way, was thrilling.

What would they do with their time?

Mrs. M had been out hoeing in her garden, when the girls had passed, and she had looked up.

They hoped she would not come over right away.

What a wonderful feeling. Free time to yourself. No grownups about. No work to do. Margaret had left the kitchen spotless, of course,so that it did not look, to any nosy neighbours, that she was in any way abandoning her duties.

Flora glanced at the icebox. The door was closed. There was no leakage on the floor.

Their one responsibility was to make sure that the collector pan didn't overflow, oh, and to feed Floss, and, should Terry McJ. come around to fix that pane in the basement window, to make sure he replaced it with a pane of identical thickness.

Just three things to remember, until Marion arrived.

Wait, there was one more thing,but what was it? The most important thing! To pick up 2 pounds of beef tongue at Pope's Butchers on their way home from the train. To marinate if for Marion. Whoops!

A Tale of Two Catalogs -Eaton's 1909, 1913

Country trip 1909 era: Edith, Flo, unknown friend, with consorts. No chaperone in sight. But then the Nicholsons had no money, so they didn't need to be protected. I know from other photos that the other person in the party, likely taking the picture, was a young girl.

I am very pleased today, if my eyeballs are not. I have discovered that three Eaton's catalogs are online, in the public domain, the ones for 1900, 1909, 1913.

Yesterday I decided I needed to see what kinds of 'things' are available in catalogs of this era. I had already purchased a CD of the 1906 Sears catalog.

I downloaded some pages from that CD and printed it out and then made my other happy discovery.

There's no better way to get into the mind-set of people in that era (apart from the letters) than to peruse these catalogs. The best thing, advertising in those days was very explicit. Items are generally described in detail, especially the clothing.

I have already consulted the catalog to adjust some of my story. The part about a ribbon. Well, I assumed a ribbon is just that, something to put around a gift or maybe in the hair. That's all a ribbon is to me, born in 1954. But ribbons were actually accessories for clothing. They came in a wide variety of colours, materials and sizes. Since people made their own clothing, these ribbons made thoughtful gifts in themselves

I will read more and more pages of these catalogs, for inspiration. I will also compare the 1909 and 1913 catalog for evidence that life changed big time during those year. Proof enough: the catalog doubled in size!

My favorite part so far: the medicines and 'tonics.' The more things change the more things stay the same, it seems.

The Nicholsons were always worried about colds and illness, so they likely took a lot of these tonics. Oddly, many tonics contained alcohol, although the ingredient was not listed so as not to discourage those temperance types.

One of the most popular tonics for women, selling millions of bottles over the decades, was Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Tonic. (Gee, I take my Greens Plus concoction and I drink my wine.)

Pinkham's advice to women of the day to stay healthy: Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, eat coarse bread, drink fresh water, get fresh air and exercise, and drink Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable tonic once a day. Hmmm. No wonder she sold so much of her tonic, her marketing people employed state-of -the-art bubble-speak.

Friday, November 27, 2009

WOMAN'S TRUE NATURE 4th installment

Flora and friend, let's say Mae, off to a costume ball. Tighsolas wall is behind them. Norman, Flo's father, built Tighsolas in 1896, the year Sir Wilfrid Laurier came to power. He examined every brick and board and roof tile, apparently, well, he was a building inspector. He also kept a record of costs: total to build Tighsolas, $2,700 dollars, a big sum back then. Tighsolas was a mix of styles, I think. With it's asymmetrical roof in the Queen Anne style - and a bit of Scottish Baronial.

Flora pressed her school books to her chest with her right arm and opened the door to the kitchen with her free hand.

If she worked indoors she could think 'out loud' about "the Canadian character" and Mother Margaret was sure to toss in her two cents. She would not be able to help herself: It was in her nature.

Flora placed her scribbler and pencils down on the maplewood table which had not yet been laid for tea. Fresh graham rolls, on the counter, were perfuming the kitchen with a comforting sense of calm.

She pulled out the stenciled sheet with the examination questions and opened her Composition Textbook to the passage at hand.

Women in the Thirties:

The women of the family found their hands very full. Besides the daily round of housewifely cares, every season brought its special duties. There were wild strawberries and raspberries to be
picked and prepared for daily consumption, or to be preserved for
winter use.

Besides milking, there was the making both of butter and cheese.
There was no nurse to take care of the children, no cook to prepare the

The girls in those days were more at home in a kitchen than a drawing-room. They did better execution at a tub than at a spinet, and
could handle a rolling-pin more satisfactorily than a sketch-book. At a
pinch, they could even use a rake or fork to good purpose in field or
barn. Their finishing education was received at the country school along with their brothers. Of fashion books and milliners, few of them had anyexperiences.

Country life in Canada was plodding in the "Thirties" and there was no varied outlook. The girls' training for future life was mainly at the hands of their mothers. They were content to live as their parents had done. And though we can see that, as compared with later conditions,there may be something wanting in such an existence, this at least we know, that, in such a school and by such masters, the foundations of Canadian
character and prosperity were laid.

Finishing school? Who goes to finishing school? she thought.

Even Eleanor C. expects to attend secretarial school so that she can help out in her father's business. And Flora personally knew of few families who employed full-time maids and housekeepers and cooks.

Well, the Wales. But they were the wealthiest people in town.

And, yes, the H's had a cook and a woman to do the washing once a week. But he was in the business of tombstones and that field never wants for customers.

Question : In your opinion, what is meant by "Canadian character."

Flora sighed. She really could use some help here.

Then Margaret suddenly materialized, holding her corset up to the afternoon light. It was inside out with the slightly rusty side steels and wiring exposed. Like the inside of a fish, Flora thought.

"Well, that's done. I'm off to Mrs. M's
to see if she has a sturdy lock for my trunk. Trains are full of thieves. I'm afraid we are eating left over cottage pie for tea. But if you get hungry have one of the rolls with butter."

Margaret laid the corset on a kitchen chair and untied her apron and slipped it off of her shoulders, and put it with the corset - which signaled to Flora that her visit would be a long one.

"Mrs. M is sure to ask you nosy questions about your trip, " Flora remarked.

"Yes, but I don't have to answer."

"She'll want to know about Edith's flirtation."

"Yes, and I will tell her just enough to repay her for keeping an eye on you girls while I'm away. It's a fair exchange, a little gossip for a little peace of mind. I see you are hard at work, so I won't disturb you any longer. Oh, leave your jumper on the chair tonight. I have time to get to it after all."

"Ah," Flora thought."So, all is right with the world, after all."

Still, no homework help. Canadian character? Funny, how when she thought of those two words she thought of her mother, with all her patriotic clippings, and poems by the likes of Pauline Johnson, an Indian Squaw.

She looked up at Margaret's kitchen note- board for inspiration. A recipe board it may have been at one time, but Margaret had long committed all her favourite recipes to memory. They couldn't be stolen that way. Instead the metal framed piece of cork was covered in slips of paper, news clippings, mostly from the Montreal Witness Newspaper: jokes, poems, and longer items with headlines such as Montreal: Canada's Greatest City. Or Plato was a Feminist. Or Modern Parents. Or Away From Nature which was about factory work and how unhealthy it was especially for girls.

A suffrage pamphlet Marion had brought home from that city on her last visit was prominently pinned over a long grocery invoice from McKae's.

"Women's Vote in Australia" By E H. Macnagten, McGill Professor of Greek.

Margaret had read it out loud to all her daughters, one evening and they had clapped and cheered at all the best passages.

Beside that was pinned another smaller pamphlet: INVEST IN MEN. The California Oil Company. Herb had brought that one home on a different occasion to a very different reception. Indeed, it had precipitated an argument.

Herbert's bizarre money-making schemes usually had that effect on his parents.

Why oil? Margaret had asked.

The automobile! Herb had answered.

And what about the automobile?

Soon everyone will have one. And they run on oil.

Everyone, you say? What nonsense. It's merely a foolish fad. Men and their ideas!

Women like automobiles, too. You've taken tours with Mr. Wales and his chauffeur.

Well, I'd rather have a fine horse any day.

That was Margaret's pride speaking.

The Nicholsons, in the condition they were at present, could never dream of buying an automobile. They had had to give up their pedigreed trotter, Regan, and all that remained to recall the family's former easy lifestyle, was a fine carriage in the back barn, awaiting a purchase offer.

This memory gave Flora an idea, She picked up her pencil and began to write: I am not of the opinion that hard work gives you character, for leisure time gives you the opportunity to read and keep up with world events and if women have more leisure time it can be used to improve the world, to help the less advantaged, especially poor children, as it is well known that men are only concerned with making money.

This was what the women's suffrage people liked to say, but was making money such a bad thing? Flora had to wonder. Was money really the root of all evil?

One thing for sure, having no money, when everyone around you seems to be flush, was no fun at all.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

School Marms and Suffragettes

Left. Edith? and Marion. I wasn't sure as this picture wasn't pasted into the Tighsolas album, just tucked there, but the age of the photograph and the fact that this little girl -indeed- looks like young Marion, (as I have another studio shot) leads me to believe this picture was taken in 1889. Is that possible?

Well, only an expert in baby carriages could tell.

When I get around to writing that next bit of Flo and the City (soon, on this blog) I want to introduce the subject of suffrage. Flora is going to say that in five years she will have joined the suffragettes.

I will have Marion return from Montreal, to watch Flo and Mae while Margaret is away. She will have with her a pamphlet on suffrage, 1908, with a lecture by a McGill Professor E H Macnauten. This pamphlet was found amongst the Nicholson material! Marion will have attended a lecture by this man in Montreal. Why not?

Militant suffragism was just getting going in 1908. That's what suffragettes are, militant suffragists. And the Nicholsons were all for the militant suffragists. I know from a certain letter.

The militant suffragists were both mocked and reviled. They were also tortured in jail. In England, when some suffragists went on a hunger strike, they were force fed, through their mouths and through their vaginas. Tortured. Indeed, it is likely the suffagists became militant, because when they used peaceful means of protest they were still thrown into jail like criminals.

Everything is Point of View

Left: Flo on the beach near Boston in 1908.

I posted this picture in an earlier blog, stylized a bit, but now I've re-scanned it and posted a clearer version. This is probably the clearest picture I have in the Tighsolas Photo Album of young Flora Nicholson.

The next clearest photo would be a studio shot for McGill Normal School - and that's three years on in my story of Flo in the City, about a girl coming of age in the pivotal 1908-1913 period in Canada.

As I write the first chapter Just a Change of Colour right here on this blog, and as I work out the fourth installment, I have come to a realization: I have to write this from Flora's Point of View.

I have known this from the beginning of my project, but now I FEEL it. I am starting to put myself plunk in Flora's place to write this. I am starting to inhabit her, which means she will become a bit like me. And that's odd as I am more like her older sister Edith, I think.

This is a bit of a trick, as most of the Tighsolas letters are written by Margaret, Norman and Edith.

In 1908, there exists only one letter by Flora. She doesn't write home, for she is at home. From what her correspondents say, she isn't big on writing letters period, and I will ascribe this to her lack of self esteem.

She is often spoken about in the letters, of course. This was a close family.

Still, it is only when she is at teaching school that she writes home regularly, that would be in 1911. And, to be honest, I have to draw on letters written in 1914 and beyond, to steal some of her figures of speech.

So, in this next scene, I have Margaret going to Three Rivers, but I can't write about that event: I have to write about the girls at home.

I will have Marion coming from Montreal to take care of Flora and cousin Mae Watters. Mae will have 'teaching' on her mind, as this is her last year at school and her sister asked her if she wanted to go into that profession in the letter in the last installment.

So here I can get in some descriptions of McGill Normal School and what it is like to teach in a country and city school. (This was a key issue in the era, the problem of rural schools and of city schools.)

I will use Marion's diary from the previous year to reveal what she does in her spare time in Richmond. I will reveal Marion's formidable take-charge character. (She became a union leader later on.)

All from Flo's Point of View. Flo, who is failing at school. Flo who is the only one at home now, with her mother. Flo who is sheltered from problems, but who knows that the Nicholson's fortunes have fallen dramatically, if not irreversibly, in the past year...and that nothing will be easy for any of the girls from now on. That is unless one of them marries well - and how likely is that?

In the scene where Marion advises Mae about a career in teaching, Mae will innocently turn to Flo and ask: Where do you see yourself five years from now? The question Flo has been avoiding. Flo, frazzled to be met with such a blunt question, will answer, "I will take up public speaking and become a suffragette, a militant brick throwing one, I will live in London."

Marion: Well, Mother will be pleased, that's for certain. But how will you eat?

Flo: Edith will support me, as she will marry that boy, what is his name, that friend of Gordon's, who dropped in at Easter, the one who is studying dentistry at McGill

Marion: And we all know there is money in dentistry.

Flo: And you, well, by that time you will be principal of Royal Arthur. No better, principal of that brand new school in Westmount, Roslyn.

Mae: A much better class of student.

Flo: Yes. And Marion will meet a well-off widower, the father of one of her pupils, and marry him and move into a mansion on the Boulevard.

Marion: This conversation started out sensible enought, but it certainly has taken a turn for the silly. Let's see about tea.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Devil is in the Details

Above: Sailing in 1910 era, likely in Eastern Townships. There's a chance this is in Hudson area, where Marion went visiting and boating in 1911.

Well, since detail is everything, I pulled out this CD of the 1906 Sears catalogue I bought a while back to get a feel for how people lived in those days. Lots of stuff in that catalogue, mostly for middle class consumption. It's slow to download, so I'm actually going to print out the entire thing, all 430 pages, and flip through it.

I have pretty well plotted out my next bit. It'll provide background, or back story. 1908 was a crisis year for the Nicholsons. Well, it all started in 1907, when a rich spinster aunt rewrote her will, in January, disinheriting them.

This woman, Marion McLean, died in March. As Norman took care of her finances, she was illiterate, I know she left a lot of money for those days, $2,500 in cash, stocks and equities and a house. I'm guessing around 6,000 or more.

In two different letters, relatives advise the Nicholsons to sue. (Marion McLean spoke only Gaelic so some suggest she was tricked into changing her will.) Upon hearing this information, son Herb writes, typically, that his hopes and dreams are dashed.

Marion is working at Sherbrooke Academy but will soon take a higher paying job in Montreal and start helping out her family financially. Marion is made of sterner stuff than Herb.

Edith, bites the bullet, for she had hoped to go to Boston, to a Symons Business College to take a secretarial course, for stenographers make a small fortune in salary, and she goes to work in tiny Radnor Falls, near Three Rivers, Quebec as a low-paid country teacher.

Ao Flo, our heroine, is left to flounder a bit. No protective older sisters or father home to guide her through hard times.

In my story, she escapes a bit into fantasy. She dreams she becomes a great public speaker, a suffragette.

So in June of 1907, with 33 dollars in his bank account and a massive mortgage on his only asset, Tighsolas, "house of light" in Gaelic, Norman petitions his friend, M.P. E.W. Tobin for a job on the railroad as a timber inspector.

A letter from that place showed that Tobin made numerous personal calls at the railway office, but there were no jobs open. But in the spring of the next year, after the collapse of the Quebec Bridge, Norman is offered a job as inspector.

As I open the next scene, Margaret is going to see daughter Edith at Radnor Falls. She will meet up with Norman there and will convince Edith to quit her job. (I will find a reason. Maybe they are afraid for her, of a certain persistent suitor who isn't in her league, so to speak.)

Edith will go home to Richmond, only to get offered a job in Montreal for September 1908. So she will join her sister Marion in the big city. They will live and work in the same general area, except Edith will be in a toney four storey greystone on Sherbrooke, right at the crossroads of East and West (French and English) at St. Laurent and Marion in Little Burgundy, a nearby slum.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

JUST A CHANGE OF COLOUR 3rd installment

Flo: At Radnor Forges, perhaps.

Well, I meditated, asking for some overnight inspiration for Flo in the City, my story based on the Tighsolas letters, and went to bed working the the next scene:

The last paragraph I wrote in the blog....was "Then why was that all she could think about, these days."

Just a change of colour.

At surface, a simple little phrase. At once delightful and depressing. Delightful in that it was a bit of nonsense, wordplay. Depressing in that it made you think of things, of the future.

And it had been all Flora could think about for almost 24 hours.

Yesterday, just before supper, Margaret had asked Flora and cousin Mae W. to walk downtown to pick up the evening mail.

Margaret was puzzling over what to pack for her trip in two days. And she was distrcted by some, other, more work-a-day worries.

She was hoping, well praying, for a letter from Herb. Were she to arrive at Three Rivers with no news from her only son, Norman, her husband, would likely spend most of their time together complaining about Herb's lack of responsibility, instead of focusing on the matter at hand, which was daughter Edith wasting her best years teaching in a bleak and lonely backwater.

And she was so weary of hearing her husband ask:
"Why does Herb not write? and saying " I hope he hasn't picked up any bad habits." By bad habits he meant drinking and gambling.

Out on the street, the girls spotted next door neighbour Eleanor D.walking ahead and quickly caught her up.

Ethel was off to Eugenie Hudon's millinery shop, with a a picture of a fashionable Merry Widow hat to show her from the Pictorial Review. The headpiece she coveted was a big black felt shape swathed in organdy and festooned with purple feathers.

With her long nose and pinched features, Eleanor wasn't nearly pretty enough to wear such a glamorous hat, Flora thought, as her friend waved the fat magazine across her line of sight. (Flora went over sister Edith's rule: The trimmings on a hat should complement the facial features and complexion, not drown them out, or put them to shame by contrast.)

So Flora remarked: "Oh, you'll be a real trend setter if you wear that hat in Richmond." Which was true enough.

At the tall brick post office, built high up off the road to escape the Main Street floods each spring, Flora and May picked up the Nicholson mail, a letter from Norman at "end of steel" in La Tuque and another from Mae's sister, Annie, in Lynn Massachusetts. c/o of Margaret Nicholson. Tighsolas. No letter from brother Herb. (Well, that was hardly a surprise.)

Mae couldn't wait to open her letter. She plunked her rear end right down on a cold concrete step of the Post Office building, tore the envelope open and started reading:

Dear Mae,

"It must be very lonely for Auntie Margaret now, with all her family, except Flora, away. I was wondering the other day if you gave Flora her ribbon. I have not heard and you never mentioned it, but perhaps she has been very busy."

Mae half-glanced at Flora. The ribbon is question, a cerise flannel dress ribbon with satin face, about 2 inches wide and 10 inches long, had indeed been passed to Flora a month before, but Flora was very bad at letter writing.

Mae continued reading: "How are you getting on in school? What are you thinking of following up, teaching? I think that would be well. Isn't Edith a brick for sticking with her country school so bravely? She must like it. Do you play tennis yet? I am going to Cliftondale tonight for dinner and to spend the evening at a friend's. I knew them before they were married. Her name was Ethel Green, but now is a White. They are very nice and have a lovely home. Write me when you have time. And tell Flora I would like to hear from her. Give my love to Aunt Maggie and Flora,
Your loving sister, Annie."

So, Ethel Green has married a man named White, Mae said to Flora and Eleanor, who had returned in a hurry from Hudon's so her scare crow face was flushed. Just a change of colour, I guess. Mae grinned and she shrugged her small, fine shoulders.

Flora imagined the kind of lovely home a newlywed couple in Lynn Massachusetts might have - and, to her surprise, a fuzzy fireball of fear and anxiety -or was it envy - began to well up inside of her, starting in her stomach then spreading, like the froth of over-boiled milk, to her chest, neck, face and fingers.

Up on College Street, around the corner from home, she hardly noticed her little cousin, Stanley H., brandishing a rake at them from the front lawn of his parent's grand Queen Anne style abode and whooping gleefully: En garde, you frail womenfolk."

That's because Ethel and Mae were spending the entire walk home lamenting the 'lack of local colour' in Richmond. Or pretending to. No Greens or Blacks or Greys or Whites to marry. Just Popes and Ewings, and Lysters.

Just a change of colour!

Easy for those two to joke about it.

Mae, who was tiny like Flora, was also decidedly ornamental, almost doll-like in appearance, with wide open eyes, a sweet, sunny smile and a supple, symmetrical figure. Eleanor, well, she was rich. But she, Flora Sophia Nicholson was neither pretty nor rich - and, to top it off, she was failing at school.

Anyway, as I outline this (for I don't have any 'rhythm' this morning,) I check of something that has been at the back of my mind. In a letter NOT posted on Tighsolas from 1908 from Christie Gymer (Flo's aunt) to Margaret, I recall a line where she asks, "Did you see the Prince? I know how much you admire the Royals."

This is sarcastic, I think. But what about the Prince? Was he at Quebec in 1908? Yes, he was, for Quebec's Tercentenary, in July. And July is when Margaret actually went to Quebec and La Tuque. In my story I have her going in June so that I can start with Flo writing an exam.

Now, I have to change things, I have to have Margaret going to Radnor Forges to see Edith.. and meeting Norman there. And I have to read up on that Tercentary and dig out that letter from Christie. Margaret did not describe the grand event in letters home in July. This man would be King of England in just two years.

A few years ago, when I was tracking down information about Edith's great love who died in a fire in Cornwall in 1910, I visited McGill to read Gazette on microfilm, and that edition had a supplement all about the Coronation.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fashion and Female Freedom

Camping in 1908 era: Some Eastern Townships young people. Probably from Richmond area. Marion at bottom holding fish (?). Her mom, Margaret, likely sewed her dress.

I saw the movie An Education last night, scripted by one of my favorite authors, Nick Hornby, who is famous for being a 'lad lit' writer, but who seems to understand the female experience. How to be Good, his book about a middle-aged married mother of two really hit home with me. (It's as if he had a camera in my bedroom!)

This movie, which is in a very European style, and beautifully-crafted, is about a 16 year old middle class English girl of substance and intellect choosing between being 'glamorous' or 'scholarly'.

This is a key theme of Tighsolas and my book Flo in the City, which I am writing on this blog.

It's central to women's experience, period.

The Nicholson women, born in the 1883, 86 and 1892 respectively, were met with a similar dilemma.

As "new women' in an exciting age of galloping change, they wanted it all. Love, fashion, fun, and intellectual stimulation. Especially Edith Nicholson.

Edith loved to go to 'lectures' - a popular pastime in 1910, as much as she loved going hat-shopping at trendy Ogilvy Department Store. But as a woman she couldn't go to these lectures alone - she had to find a like-minded friend, and this really bothered her. Women out alone in the evening, back then, were seen as floozies.

Single women didn't have much freedom in the 1910 era. Even when in their mid 20's they had to be escorted almost everywhere, except, maybe, to church.

But have things really changed that much in 100 years? Can a single woman go out alone in today's world?

By 1910 definitions, we are all floozies. And we have won equal rights. We can vote, too, if we want to.

But every time a woman (the younger, the whiter the better) goes missing anywhere in North America the news media gives it wall to wall coverage. The message: it's dangerous out there for women, especially middle class women.

And even if most of us don't have to wear a veil over our face in public, we do have to wear something else or face derision: make-up. In the Consumer Age, being frugal and looking frumpy constitutes scandalous behavior.

There's this reality show where two host fashionistas ambush dowdy-looking women on the street to give them a make-over, whether they want one or not.

If the woman resists, all the better, the hosts enlist the woman's friends in some kind of 'intervention' to convince her she needs their help.

Then the hosts give her $5.000 to go shopping.

A friend of mine simply loves this show. I found the episodes I watched rather distressing. One young woman, a teacher, was weeping when forced to give up her comfy clothes.

She didn't want to change her style.

But, like an inductee in a cult (the cult of consumerism?) she eventually came around.

"Now, you can get yourself a better class of man," one of the hosts told her. "She better find a better class of man," I thought. "She can't afford dressing like that on a teacher's salary."


Back in the 1910 era, Marion, Edith (and later Flo) all teachers, loved fashion and clothes. Like most middle-class women, they mostly made their own shirtwaists and princess skirts, or had mother Margaret, a talented seamstress, make them. They had no choice but to be frugal.

The Tighsolas letters are filled of talk of fashion.

Hats were especially big in that era, in both senses of the word.

D.W. Griffith, the pioneering American director, made a famous film about the issue called The New York Hat which starred Canadian Mary Pickford.

In the film, Pickford's character, a small town girl, sees a ten dollar hat in a store, and wants it. The local Minister, who has been left money in trust for her, buys the hat for her. This causes a real scandal! The townsfolk assume she is being 'kept' by the minister.

In 1909, Edith Nicholson, who is making a paltry $200 dollars a year as a teacher without diploma buys a hat, "a big black shape with velvet ribbon and feathers" at Ogilvy's for $7.50. Life imitating art.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


The gals of Richmond on a country tour, circa 1908. Flora at bottom, Edith above her. The pose seems a tiny tinge 'burlesquey' if you ask me. That tall woman on the right seems to have the body language of a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty. Mack Sennett, the Hollywood Legend, was born Sinnott in Richmond, and was around Edith's age. He was Irish and she was Scottish so their paths likely didn't cross, romance-wise. Norman delivered seed to the Sinnott's in 1890's

Technical point: writing a story online here is a bit dangerous. It appears you can't cut and paste anything into this blog. When I wrote that very first paragraph of the first chapter of Flo in the City on the blog DO I DARE EAT A PEACH? I erased it when I went to put in a picture. So I had to re-write it.

And I've got a bit of a headache (too much wine yesterday?) and I am so fuzzy-brained I can't recall the name of the Flora's school... But I am going to write SOMETHING. Just a few words.

"Come in off the veranda, Flora dear. You'll catch a chill."

Now that wasn't like her mother, refusing to make a quick repair on a frock or stocking. She must be very nervous about her trip, Flora figured.

Just a change of colour. There it was again. And if she didn't do well on this exam, or if she failed, heaven forbid, she'd be in for it.

Lucky for her Norman was away working with the bears and the wolves - and those awful Englishmen - up in the bush.

Because were he at home he'd likely walk right up to Mr. Honeyman, the Principal of St. Francis College, at the next Masonic Meeting and demand that he tell Mr. N., her teacher, to spend more time on the subjects she was failing.

He'd done it before and he'd do it again.

So Flora decided to take her Mother's advice and come in off the porch. The cool breeze wasn't the problem for Flora. She liked to curl up after school in the weatherbeaten reed rocking chair and bath her face in the sun's timid rays. Springtime was her favorite season, well, except for those ghastly exams.

It was the view from the veranda that was so very distracting. So calm, peaceful. All those comfortable, even elegant homes along Dufferin Street, each one containing a family, like her own, with grandparents, mothers, fathers, children whose every action, every word, was spread broadcast across the small town in days, even hours - propelled by gossip exchanged at church, or when the local women gathered for their 'day at home', or met in the shops,at Hudon's General Store or Pope's butchers or Sutherland's the druggist down on Main Street.

So many lives, interesting, dull, happy, sad, intertwined. And then there were some problems only whispered, money problems for instance.

Town life.

Richmond wasn't such a small small town, was it?
It wasn't Montreal, but it wasn't Kingsbury either. It many ways it seemed the perfect town, of perfect size. In a perfect location, between Montreal, Quebec, Boston. Except for the danger of tramps from the trains breaking into your barn, looking for food or shelter, life was safe here.

Flora gathered up her writing pad and her pencils and folded that inky examination paper into her composition book (so as not to lose it) and used her skinny little elbow to push her skinny little body up out of the garden chair.

Just a change of colour. Was marriage something so simple, so easy? So uneventful? Then why was it all she could think about these days.

Love and Marriage Victorian style.

Left. Young Flo, circa 1905, and a friend, with the expansive Eastern Townships landscape behind her. With its rolling hills, the ET is gorgeous. Pretty sure, I have the top she is wearing somewhere. I found it at the bottom of the Nicholson trunk, a coarse wool green yellow tartan. It was so tiny and short, I wondered if it were Regency Period. I took some pictures and sent to an expert. It was 1904 style, she said. (And it was machine sewn, of course.) I put it away, it smelled. Now I have to find it.

I didn't write any Flo in the City yesterday. It was Saturday. Made a beef stew in a slow cooker and vacuumed with my Super Duper Dyson as I have to do - at least every second day - because of all my cats and dogs. I swear, I pick up two handfuls of animal fur each sweep, and that's just from the upstair's carpet.

In the evening, my husband and I and a mutual friend went to see the movie Pirate Radio. The Megaplex was crammed with young people lining up for Twilight. which was playing in four theatres.

No fears of catching H1n1 in suburban Montreal.

Pirate Radio was a good movie, but suffered terribly for not starring any handsome actors. Well, except for a very young kid - and that doesn't count.

Richard Curtis (Love Actually) is famous for putting ordinary-looking people in his films, but this being a story 'about a bunch of ugly men on an ugly boat' (60's disk jockies) he really over did it.

And of course the movie was filled with stunning young actresses, Gemma Arterton, for one, all in peripheral roles. Their revved up sixties dress styles were the only eye-catching element in the film. (Arterton, with that twinkle in her eye, can play Edith in the film version of Flo in the City ;)

So a good - but very sexist film (with the excuse that it was about a sexist time and sexist industry). Curtis films usually have a icky element. Love Actually had a 'fantasy' for every gender, inclination,and age group, but my son tells me that a 'survey' of his dorm at college revealed that the Colin Firth part was the favorite.

Anyway , without a beautiful male actor to hinge my eyes onto during the boring bits my mind wondered a bit. Bill Nighy was wonderful, by the way -he gives a droll subversive performance- and the best looking older guy in the film. See what I mean?

And all these radiant young women sleeping with these homely guys. I worked in radio: This did not happen. (Although it was a terribly sexist place to work: I could tell you stories...) To give Curtis credit, without the gorgeous groupies, the ending falls apart. And his attitude toward sex is refreshingly open and unjudgmental.

O.K. What's this got to do with Flo in the City? Plenty. The story all about the mating game -the REAL mating game, and how it mixes in with the Bigger political Picture.

As I wrote in my last post, the older Nicholson women had lots of beaus. There are many pictures of Edith and Flo 'fooling around' with their boyfriends in the Tighsolas photo album.

But finding someone to marry was an entirely other issue - as you will see as Flo and the City unfolds.

Middle class men, in those days, married fairly old. They had to make something of themselves before they were able to keep a wife, as they say.

Margaret, the mom, born 1854, only married at 29 years of age! She had worked as a telegraph operator in the Eastern Townships.

Her autograph book contains a poem from 1874 that I have posted on Tighsolas:

May your cheeks retain their roses,
May your heart beat just as gay,
Til some manly voice shall whisper,
Maggie, dear, name the day.

But Norman has another poem in his diary which tells the other side of the story:

When the courting at midnight has ended,
And he stands with his hat in his fist,
While she lovingly lingers beside her,
To bid him 'ta ta' and be kissed,
How busy the thoughts of the future
You bet you his thoughts he don't speak
He's wondering how they manage
To live on six dollars a week.

In the 1860s, farms in the Eastern Townships weren't very productive. So only one son could inherit the farm (in this case Norman's brother Gilbert) and other sons had to find other careers. Norman was 'educated' in that he finished high school. (It cost money to go to high school then.)

He wandered the ET doing odd jobs in the 1870's, selling turkeys, collecting debts for doctors, and then got into the hemlock bark industry.

Hemlock bark was used in the tanning business so harvesting that commodity was a major industry of the Eastern Townships. The good railway system allowed the bark to be shipped easily to tanneries in Montreal and New England.

Only then, in 1883, did Norman marry, as he was doing very well. ( I have his account books.) He kept detailed records of his household expenses, too: Upon getting married he spent 83 dollars on furniture, 5 dollars on a ring and 10 cents for a frying pan.

Unfortunately, by 1900, the hemlock bark industry fell through and so began the financial downfall of the Nicholsons.

In 1907, the Nicholsons were disinherited by a rich spinster aunt. And the stock market crashed. These events very seriously diminished the marriage prospects of the Nicholson women.

So, in that year Norman petitioned his friend and MP. E. W. Tobin for a job on the Transcontinental Railway. He was 57.

He got the job, but only after the Quebec Bridge collapsed and the government likely put on more inspectors. As I ended my my First Draft of the First Chapter of Flo in the City (Do I Dare Eat A Peach blog) Margaret is preparing to visit Norman at 'end of steel' in La Tuque.

She is likely very worried and wants to see for herself that Norman is not in any danger. Railway jobs, at the time, were notoriously unsafe. And if 'the world's biggest bridge' could collapse, well, what could you trust?

Margaret was a devoted wife who supported her husband through thick and thin. (Her only lament in hard times, was that she couldn't earn her own living. That's why she wanted her daughters to be educated.)

Yet, one day she let this slip to a grandchild: If she had known how hairy Norman was under his clothes, she would never have married him.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Push-Pull of Biology and Ambition

Left: The young men of Eastern Townships, Quebec, circa 1908.

I am writing a book, Flo in the City, based on the real life letters of Flora Nicholson of Richmond, Quebec, posted at

The novel will cover the years 1908, when Flora was a naive, over-protected schoolgirl of 15, who froze at examination time, living in a posh neighborhood of a quiet town, to 1913, when she was a teacher, with diploma, working in a city slum with some of the most deprived children in the entire Western World - all about to live through a Great War.

These five years were particularly pivotal when put in historical perspective.

Henry Ford perfected the manufacturing of his Model-T between 1908 and 1913 and D. W. Griffith created his many many silent film shorts in those years.

The automobile and the motion picture show, among other era innovations, changed the way people lived, big time.

(Coincidentally, Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, by a Boston Publisher.

The iconic novel has since spawned an entire industry and become a key focus of tourism in Canada.

Last September I took my first trip to PEI, or Prince Edward island. I bought an Anne Shirley doll at the Welcome Centre of that picturesque province, and it now sits on my mantle between the two art nouveau vases I inherited from my mother's family.

These are portrait vases of pretty girls in the Rembrandt style, gold on black with a greenish tinge, so the lovely little souvenir doll, dressed in green with a cap of glistening golden-red hair, fits in quite nicely.)

As it happens, we are experiencing something similar, right now, although, this time, the changes are happening so fast it is quite possible that we are morphing into a completely different animal.

Not that some things about us will stay the same. That's why it is so important to consult history when making assessments of 'the present',

Take dating, or 'courtship' - as scholars might call it. (Not a classic 'history' topic, but why not?) From what I can see, not much has changed about the way young people 'feel' about 'the art of love' since 1910.

Marion sounds like a typical young woman in her 1907 diary as she experiences the perplexing push-pull of biology and ambition.

Flora, too, is similarly ambivalent about her desires for the future. At least, this is what I am trying to convey in my opening chapter Just a Change of Colour, which I started to compose in the previous blog, Do I Dare Eat A Peach?

Flora can't get the phrase "Just a Change of Colour" out of her mind. Why? Because it relates to marriage and love, the biological imperative. And even ambitious 'new women' of the 1910 era like Marion and Flora, have sex on the brain.

Flora has more pressing issues to attend to. Indeed, her future career may be hanging in the balance - for she is failing at school, but, alas, Mother Nature cannot be denied.

Why do novels like Pride and Prejudice and Anne of Green Gables endure in the hearts of women while other once popular works fade to black in the collective unconscious? Because they deal with this very dilemma.

One remark I'd like to make about the Nicholsons and dating. From movies and such we are all aware that young women of that era from good families couldn't consort with men except under the watchful eye of a chaperone.

Well, this doesn't appear to be the rule with the Nicholsons, even though they came from a very respectable middle class family.

From pictures I have in the Tighsolas 1900 photo album, the girls were afforded quite a lot of freedom when dating. Richmond was such a close knit community, it is unlikely young people could get away with much, even if unchaperoned.

Still, it seems to me, if a young man had 'serious' designs on a young woman, he showed it by walking her to church. I guess, in this way, her entire family, the entire community, could see what was happening.

The photo above is one of many 'goofy' ones featuring young men.

Friday, November 20, 2009

DO I DARE EAT A PEACH? 1st installment

Above. Richmond Folk. Circa 1908. That is probably Flora seated at left. Perhaps Edith is the woman standing behind the boy. Interesting picture. The people seem to be waiting for a parade. Maybe it's an Easter Parade. Look at all those funny hats~ Now, Miss Eugenie Hudon, the town milliner, surely had a hand in the two creations at left. They appear to be Paris style fashions, a little out of place on aged Richmond matrons. But what about the other headpieces? Flora. What were you thinking? Edith? Is that a pom pom on top of your head?

OK. Get on task. Do I dare write that first sentence. Do I dare eat a peach? I can hear the mermen singing each to each, but will they sing for me? I dunno why that came into my mind, 'cause I was about to commit-to-digital that first sentence of that first draft of my first novel Flo in the City.

Here goes... (Sx. Drumroll) Just a change of colour. Just a change of colour. ( I know. I know. A bit anticlimactic since I've already chosen that line for the Chapter Title. But I continue...)

Why couldn't she get that silly line out of her head? Flora wondered. She had much more important tasks to attend to. Much much more important. Like the take home exam on her knee. The one fluttering in the spring breeze. That imposing mimeographed foolscap sheet with its list of impossible questions. A composition test of all things. Her worse subject! And questions relating to an essay on Life back in the 30's. History. So it was boring too.

Describing farm women, so it was extra boring.

Flora was tired of hearing how hard women worked in the good old days, compared to today. The first question glared out at her: Read the above essay carefully and 1) compare your life to that of the women mentioned and decide whether you have it easier or harder. Give concrete examples. 2) in your opinion, what is meant by 'the Canadian character' and give examples of people in your life who exemplify it.

What does the teacher mean by asking me to answer such a stupid question! For a moment Flora thought she might write down that cheeky answer. For just a moment. But instead she adjusted the hem on her blue wool jumper, and pulled on a little blue thread until it grew longer and longer.

"Mother," she called in to her mom. "I need you to mend my school uniform. The seam is splitting."

Any other day, she would have had her mother to keep her on task - and to help her with any difficult homework. Margaret had a sharp memory and even sharper opinions on just about every topic imaginable.

She was famous in her birth family for being the one 'who knows things.'

She loved history. Family history especially.

She could remember the exact dates Grandfather Malcolm McLeod and his family left the Isle of Lewis, Hebrides Scotland to come to Quebec. She knew what port they landed in, how they got to Lingwick, and what they did to keep the wolf from the door during that first bone-chilling winter.

Margaret, born in Canada, way back in 1854, before Canada was a country, even, was so very proud to be Canadian. She had cut out this poem My Old Canadian Home and pinned it to the recipe board in the kitchen.

The shades of night are falling
I am sitting all alone
Thinking of my happy childhood
In my old Canadian home

But today no homework help was forthcoming. No sewing help either. "It will have to wait," Margaret shot back from the room off the kitchen, without missing a beat as she tap tap tapped the big bronze pedal on the old Singer. "I hardly have time enough to sew this pocket into my corset, for tomorrow's train trip to Three Rivers. To protect my cash. Father's orders. And come in from the veranda, Flora dear, the wind is picking up and you'll catch a chill."

Summertime 1907- and the living is people-oriented

In Tighsolas Garden. Left, Edith Nicholson.Right: May Watters.

I'm trying to figure out how to promote Furies Cross the Mersey: the story of the failed British Invasion of Militant Suffragettes to Canada in 1911/1912, with characters both real and fictional: Carrie Derick, Octavia Ritchie England of the Montreal Council of Women; Barbary Wylie, Emmeline Pankhurst and Caroline Kenny of the WSPU, Marion and Edith Nicholson, my husband's ancestors from Richmond, Quebec and Penelope Day and Mathilda Jenkins, students at McGill's Royal Victoria College.

Anyway, two days ago I went bananas-berzerk trying to remember where I put Marion Nicholson's 1907 diary,

My husband, Blair, and I turned the garage upside down looking for the little volume. I rummaged (or rampaged) through all of my giant Tupperware bins of Nicholson documents only to find the diary, hours later, in a bin I had brought up months ago and stored behind my big comfy chair in the living room.

In 1906-7, Marion is almost 20 and teaching in Sherbrooke, Quebec and in the summer hanging around Richmond. (She would decide in September to take work with the Montreal Board, a decision likely prompted by the Nicholson's sudden financial woes.)

She writes: "Ed says it is very crazy to keep this diary but maybe someday I will want to remember what I did and how I spent my 19th year." Hmm. I bet she never could have guessed this....

In the winter months, the diary details her dating escapades on the skating rink. The usual stuff of teenage love. Men who are too persistent bug her. Men who aren't persistent enough bug her. There's a certain G. N. E. she really likes. Sometimes she sounds like Scarlett O'Hara: "Went to a card party and dance at Mrs. Griggs'. Had a grand time. Played cards with Mr. Watson, danced with Mr. Avery, had supper with Mr. Davidson and Mr. Sampson came home with me." (Marion was very popular, but I wonder if this is because it was still generally believed the Nicholsons were well off.)

The summer months are mostly spent visiting friends and neighbours in Richmond and playing croquet, tennis and attending ice cream socials. Marion goes to church, sometimes twice a day. She goes for 'drives' in the countryside to neighbouring towns like Melbourne: that would be in a horse drawn carriage. When the Nicholson women go in a car, a few years later, it is a big deal and called 'motoring'. She sometimes plays cards on the veranda with her cousins, the Pepplers,who live across the street.

Strolling 'downtown' to get the mail also breaks up the long summer day. Dufferin Street, in the 'posh' area of town, is but a short distance from downtown Richmond, with its many shops and garrulous, politically savvy, French and English shopkeepers.

 And Marion often walks to the train station to meet friends arriving from the big city or other points in the Eastern Townships. Sometimes she meets her brother Herb, 21, who , it is clear from the diary, gets stir-crazy when back at Tighsolas.

The Town of Richmond exists because it was a key train stop between Montreal, Quebec and Portland, ( think).

Marion sometimes goes 'berrying'.

When it rains she reads, (Shelley is very favourite poet) plays piano, takes 'crazy' pictures, sometimes plays solitaire or mends her stockings or trims a hat.

Marion rarely ever mentions helping her mom cook and clean. (Once or twice all summer.) I think as a 'working woman' contributing to the family finances, she was spared much of this domestic drudgery in the summer. A earlier diary entry in the winter (when she was home on the weekend) says "I worked hard as Mother is sick."

Oh, she did mow the lawn in summer. (Typical of her. She loved to do 'men's work'.) And if a neighbour does call, she must stay at home and help entertain her.

Flora, it is mentioned, has some friends over for tea on an August afternoon, as well - and she visits Sherbrooke, the large town not too far away, where Marion teaches. (Her diary mentions getting a bursary in August. I believe teachers were rewarded for good performance.)

The biggest event of Marion's 1907 summer seems to be when some new born kittens escape a barn and she has to go chase them down. Oh and this: Wednesday, July 3. Lovely day. Lily Lyper nearly murdered. Great excitement.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

From the Woolf's Mouth

Above: left to right. Edith, Margaret (pouring tea) Flora and Mrs.Montgomery

"On or about December 1910, the world changed. Relations between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children shifted. And when human relations change, there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature. "Virginia Woolf

I have this quote up on one of the introductory pages of my od Tighsolas website, that I turned into a series of ebooks, Threshold Girl, Diary of a Confirmed Spinster, and Furies Cross the Mersey, about the militant suffragettes invading Montreal in 1912/13.

If 1922 is considered by some to be the birth of the modern age (with the publication of the Wasteland and Ulysses)1910 certainly was a pivotal time in history, in Canada and in all of the Western World.

The motor car, the motion picture, electricity, among other new gadgets were upsetting the status quo.

For example, Margaret would often go to church twice a day, often for want of something to do. If the Minister gave a boring sermon, she would get upset. Ministers had to be entertaining and edifying. Hence those 'fire and brimstone' sermons, with vivid depictions of Heaven and Hell.

With motion picture shows, people, young people mostly, had another kind of place to go for thrills and diversion.

Actor Colin Firth says he comes from a long line of Ministers (Methodists, not Presbyterians like the Nicholsons) and that acting isn't all that different from sermonizing. He is right, of course.

Virginia Woolf had it almost right, too, I think. Except it's new technologies that change us, and change the way we interact.

The picture above is of the Nicholson women, in about 1908, having an outdoor tea party, with best china and silver, on Mrs. Montgomery's front lawn. You can see Tighsolas in the background.

If Mrs. Montgomery hadn't existed, I would have had to invent her. She's the kind-hearted busy body who lives next door. She's a little tactless, flattery isn't her forte, but she's always there with the chicken soup when a neighbour is ailing.

In 1910 she has a baby daughter and Margaret is often called upon to take care of Baby Montgomery. Well, this baby was still alive in 2005 and my husband and I visited her in the Wales Home in Richmond. She was not in great shape though.

Also in and around that time, Mrs. Montgomery's husband, known only as Mr. Montgomery sold his horse and decided to buy a motorcar! Well, the women of Dufferin Street were not impressed, but Mr. Montgomery was merely 'catching the wave'.

Up until then the motorcar had mainly been the toy of the rich. But it and around 1910 middle class men started wanting them, despite the fact people had to pay for cars outright and cars cost a lot, 1,000 to 3,000 dollars or so. A LOT. That was the price of a fairly nice house in Richmond.
Zoom. Zoom. Zoom.

In those days, however (the Laurier Era in Canada, the Edwardian Era in England) women still had 'their day at home' when they had to entertain callers. This was a very Victorian practice.

Margaret liked to show off her breadmaking skills, so she enjoyed her day, except that she was often alone and it was hard work preparing the tea. So even when living and working in the city, the girls returned home as often as possible.

Anyway, this is my second post today and I'm supposed to be writing my Chapter 1, Just a Change of Colour. But I played around on Photoshop and couldn't wait to post this photo. The colourization is hastily done, as you can see. I notice there are not many 'casuall' family photos of the 1910 era, even online, even on Flickr.

Wanna buy a hat? A BIG one?

Above: Flo in 1908, likely at a Boston Beach.

(I am a bit FRUSTRATED this morning as it took me 30 minutes to scan the above picture from the Tighsolas 1900 photo album. It should have taken me 2 minutes. In the "good old days" it would have. But, have you noticed, the more advanced computers and their operating systems get,the harder it is to do the simplest things? My husband, Blair's answer. "I guess you need to get a new computer." My answer: "Leave well enough alone. If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" Upgrading just screws things up..... (Got THAT out of my system.)

"The girls in those days were more at home in a kitchen than in a drawing room. They did better execution at a tub than at a spinet; could handle a rolling pin better than a sketchbook. At a pinch they could even use a rake or fork to good purpose in a field or barn. Their finishing education was received at the country school along with their brothers. Of fashion books and milliners, few of them had experience." from Country Life in the 30's. Caniff Haight from Elementary English Composition.

I am working on Chapter 1. 1908. Just a Change of Colour for my book Flo in the City adapted from my Tighsolas website. I am focusing on this bit of text because I feel it would be good to start my novel by having Flora contemplate the historical past herself. HUGE changes happened between 1830 and 1910 just as HUGE changes have happened between 1910 and 2010. For one, the home went from being a center of 'production' to a center of 'consumption' - so girls were left without as much to do. (Still running a home in 1910 was a lot more complicated than running a house today.)

Well, what a great paragraph for Flo to ponder. Flo was never intended for finishing school; she was destined to be a teacher, the destiny of many a middle class woman with 'iffy' marriage prospects.

She did work around the house, for the Nicholsons had no maids. But it was her mother, Margaret, who had all the homely skills, baking and sewing and craftswork. Flo stoked the fire (an important thing to do -usually done by men, it seems) and ironed her dresses. That white dress Marion is wearing in the last blog, well, Flora had one as well and it took her two days to wash and iron it. I have one of the Tighsolas flat irons. I use it as a doorstop. I could use it as an exercise weight. It weighs about seven pounds. Think of it. This 'frail' little woman spent a day wielding that cumbersome hot iron over the wood stove!

Millinery? It was the 'glam' job for women in 1910. (The motion picture industry was only getting under way and it wasn't considered a good thing for a woman to work within that industry.) Millinery was the custom design of hats for individual wear. Milliner's working in the city at high end department stores could earn as much as 1000 a year! The starting salary for a female teacher with diploma was $500 in city schools.

But, wait, to be a milliner a girl had to endure a long upaid apprenticeship. So I will have Flo (who is failing school, remember) contemplating going down to Miss Eugenie Hudon's shop on Main Road to ask to work as an apprentice. Just in case she fails at school. Either that or she'll join the suffragettes!!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Does Love Matter to a Suffragette?

Above: Young Flo and Floss (detail of a small photograph 1905 era)

I got up at a reasonable hour, 6, and bee-lined it for the Internet to read the 1908 Tighsolas letters again, to weave them, somehow, into the first Chapter with the wonderful title (if I say so myself) Just a Change of Colour.

Mr. Darcy, my gallumphing yellow lab/bloodhound mix, usually bounds onto the bed immediately to take my place beside my husband, but this time he followed me out of the bedroom. I let Darcy outside, it was a frosty fall morning, then boiled some water for some tea and grabbed some of my home-made banana bread and set myself down on my oversized armchair in front of the big screen in my living room to work. (Very bad arrangement for my back.)

Boston Backstory

Flora Nicholson, 16, heroine of my novel in progress Flo in the City had a nom de plume (pen name). I know because she used it in two letters to her sisters in 1912. She is at home, they are in Boston, visiting friends and relatives.

Now, there are not many 1908 letters from TIGHSOLAS but what letters there are really set the stage for the Nicholson family saga.

There is only one letter by Flora. It is in August and she is visiting cousin Henry Watters in Newton Centre near Boston. He is a doctor at the hospital there. In her letter Flora mentions in passing visiting a family friend, Mrs. Coy.

This lady, Mrs. Coy then writes a detailed letter back to mother Margaret. She describes how the young people drop in unannounced. "Henry must be doing well as he has Stanley Steamer! " she says. Unfortunately her house is a mess and she can't receive them properly.

You see, Mrs. Coy has no daughters and just one son, Chester, who is, ahem, not inclined to marry. Four years later, in 1912 Marion and Edith visit Henry in Boston and Marion understands that they are trying to set one of them up with Mrs.Coy's son. "Chester is the man these days." (It is at this time that Flora writes her sisters whimsical letters from the porch at Tighsolas in her nom de plume Florrie Anderseed.)

These two American characters are going to play a big part in my story because they provide an interesting contrast. Henry is everything Herb Nicholson is not, a respectable man who is caring of his relations. Mrs. Coy is the opposite or Margaret (or seems to be in her letters). She is miserable because she has no daughters to help her.

But I get ahead of myself: So, in July of 1908 Margaret visits LaTuque where her husband is working on the railway. In her letter home she worries that her daughters Flo and Edith aren't getting enough to eat. "You must eat to be well," she says. Her real worry is that they catch a cold and die. In those days, this kind of thing was not uncommon.

In fact, these Nicholson letters really put the media frenzy over H1N1 or the swine flu into perspective.


Marion is in Montreal teaching, by September. She must write home about going to Dominion Park because Margaret writes back warning her not to see "that awful Pauline". "It should be illegal," she writes. Well, Pauline, I discovered, is a famous hypnotist.

Dominion Park was big thrill park in the East End of Montreal that opened in 1906 and closed,well, before I was born anyway. It is famous for having 'an infant incubator' exhibit, where real live babies (orphans) were on display and being taken care of by nurses for visitors' amusement and education. (Montreal had the highest infant rate mortality in the Western World.) A foreshadowing of the Dionne Quintuplets circus, one could say.

I have posted a 1906 letter on Tighsolas where Herb describes the other more typical attractions, well, the roller coaster (which he doesn't call a roller coaster but 'a train'and fun house.

So back to 1908: Margaret is at home, with only Flora for company, a neighbour's cows get into her garden (a scandal!) and she is being shunned by the Minister and his wife. Church is a big part of the family's life (and a big source of 'entertainment' too) so this must be hard. I assume this is because Margaret is such a vocal suffragist.

Lots to Gossip About!

Norman writes home about some local Richmond gossip. So and So is applying to Parliament for a divorce. In an earlier letter, Margaret gossips that this man is seeing another woman, '"so he might as well throw himself into the Salmon river."

Edith is in a tiny town, Radnor Forges, near Three Rivers teaching in spring, but she quits at end of term. (The next year the rural school closes anyway for lack of pupils). She advises her mother to not mention certain items in letters. "Everything here is spread broadcast in a few hours," she writes. I am intrigued by the word "broadcast". Wireless, as they called radio during the first part of the century, was just being invented by Marconi. So, the figure of speech came before the arrival of the medium of radio.

Edith likes to gossip, a lot. Some girls are incorrigible flirts, she says, some boys big babies. Still she mentions in a letter to sister Marion earlier in April that "It was a bitter blow when the dear boy left." I don't know whether she is being sarcastic or not about a boyfriend. Of course, she loses her great love in a fire two years later. His name is Charlie Gagne and I believe she is talking about him here.

OK. Time to WRITE!

OK. Down to work. I have the opening. Sunny spring afternoon in Richmond, Quebec 1908. 15 year old Flora Nicholson is curled up on a garden chair (wicker, Eaton's catalogue purchase)on the porch, at Tighsolas, pencilling away at a 'composition exercise' about Canadian values. Her mother Margaret is inside in the kitchen preparing to go to La Tuque where her husband Norman works at 'end of steel' on the Transcontinental Railway. Norman has advised Margaret in a letter to tuck her money into her corset as there are pickpockets on the trains. I'll have her sewing in a special pocket as she is a crack seamstress......

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I give myself permission to write the worst first draft in history!

Marion, Flo's boffo older sister, circa 1900, taking tea at Tighsolas in her white dress.

Flora in the City: Chapter 1 on pdf.

Where 19 year old Flora Nicholson learns about the Child Labour Problem and the relation it has to her love of clothing.

As the centenary of 1910 approaches I am determined to start on my middle school novel Flo in the City, based on the letters of Tighsolas, my social studies website.

I thought I might do it in a blog. Why not?
It might prove excellent motivation and a platform for thinking things out.

When I first stumbled upon the Nicholson letters, I was overwhelmed. I did not quite know what to do with them.

When I approached a literary agent, he told me letters were boring but he'd like to work with me on something else.

I could see his point. But these letters, written at such a pivotal time in history, were significant, I felt.

They just needed to be worked upon. A formula had to be found.

But instead of writing a book, I transcribed 300 of the letters, from 1908-1913, and posted them on a website. Then I wrote essays around the events of the letters and added a great deal of background from the public domain.

The expert in Canadian Family history said the letters on the website were rare and worthy of being compiled in a scholarly book. The material on my website was all I needed.

I didn't do it. I knew I had to write something more accessible and for young people.

Today, 3000 people a month come to the site. (People, not crawlers)

Many visitors are obviously students.The most popular pages are fashion, transportation, cost of living, suffrage, and entertainment.It is rare that visitors read the letters. But it happens.

The School of Education at McGill has used the story of the Nicholsons as a preparation for when the teachers go on their work stages. They like Flo's story, as she 'is an ordinary student.'

Today, inspired by the book Nella Last's War, created from a diary and the Writing the Century series of BBC Radio Four, a historical program assembled from diaries and letters, I have decided to write this book.

All from the point of view of a young woman coming of age during 6 of the most pivotal years in history.

I am determined to find the perfect setting for these letters that will illuminate their universal themes and showcase interesting facts about life 100 years ago.

A few years ago I contacted one of Canada's foremost writers of historical fiction for young people. She advised me to go for the story and forget about the finer points of the history.

I don't want to do that.

I know my subject, that's for sure. All I need to do is give myself permission to write the worst first draft in history. Playwright Marcy Kahan had one of her characters say that in a BBC Four play.

Just a Change of Colour....that will be the title of my first chapter. That's a start, isn't it?