Monday, April 18, 2011

Curiosity & Remarkable Creatures

Both books - resting on my pool table.

A little over a year ago, Joan Thomas & Tracy Chevalier each had a novel published within months of each other. Each novel focussed on the life and times of Mary Anning, an impoverished fossil finder, born at Lyme Regis in 1799, who in time became increasingly respected as a significant early palaeontologist. If I had written and published such a novel, only to discover that mine was only one of two such novels, I would have bayed so loudly and plaintively at the moon that people in the northern hemisphere would have had to run for cover. It would not have been pretty. Seriously though, for the reader, there is a real dilemma: Which of the two books should I read? Or - if I read both, which one should I read first?

By sheer fluke, I ended up reading Thomas’ novel first , and then Chevalier’s. As I traveled around England and Ireland last fall on a research trip of my own, it was usually the last prose of the day before I keeled over onto my pillow. Not that my reading of the novel suffered from that. In fact, I had to be quite strict with myself. Only two more pages, Sharon, and then lights out.  I realized that I was starting to sound like my mother.

It is impossible for me to say how much the first read influenced the second. Since both were based on the historical record, there were considerable overlaps, but they turned out to be decidedly different books. Reading them reminded me of jazz riffs, and how two musicians can improvise, and each end up in quite different places. For this reason, I can recommend reading both novels. That being said, Curiosity remains my favourite.

I had to sit down with myself for a bit to figure out why this was so. Mostly it was because Curiosity took me more deeply into the feelings, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds of the various homes and places at Lyme Regis, whereas Remarkable Creatures was a bit more like an entertaining history lesson. Not that a history lesson is not a bad thing in itself. Reading it reminded me about some of the particulars of the impediments that 19th Century women faced when it came to academic recognition. Also, Chevalier delved into the story in a way that stayed with me.

When I reread the start of Curiosity, I realized how much of my delight for that novel came from the cadence of speech. Speech patterns can be devilishly hard to get right, but when an author totally nails it, the physical delight ripples out to encompass more than just the language. I think of what Hilary Mantel pulled off when she wrote Wolf Hall, or Charles Foran when he wrote Carolan’s Farwell. As a reader in the hands of such novelists, I always appreciate how cadence increases how deeply I am plunged into each scene. In the hands of these three novelists, I was fully immersed.

In life as well as in literature, I am a sucker for humour. Give me loud and crazy, and about to come off the rails, or give me subtle and devilishly dead on, it is all no matter. Just make me laugh, or even just smile, and I am putty in your hands. The following passage is one of many in Curiosity that had me smiling before I even knew it:

Mary’s mother had worked the curiosity table until lately, and if a customer had trouble parting with his coin, she would fix a soft look on him and offer a charm against wizening. She was not bold in her manner and the gentleman would startle and wonder at her meaning. But usually he bought, after that.  

It is a tricky business when writing a novel based on real people. As my husband would say, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Fair enough. It does seem that Chevalier took a few more liberties with known historical facts, which need not be a problem – but for me, it was sometimes. In her version, Birch was portrayed as an utter cad who hadn’t paid Annie for her work and her fossils, when he definitely should have. A recent biography of Mary Anning, The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World, doesn’t support this version of events. This wouldn’t be a problem except that in Chevalier’s version, there is a scene where Birch auctions off the fossils that he had got from Mary, and uses the proceeds to belatedly help out the Annings, who were in financial distress at the time. This action didn’t fit with how Birch had been portrayed earlier on, nor was there any evidence of any moral and emotional shift that could explain this change of heart. It was not a big thing, but I was left feeling a little jarred as a reader.

I am getting too old to finish books that are really not worth the candle. I mention this only because in spite of my various quibbles with Remarkable Creatures, if Chevalier’s novel had failed utterly, I would never have finished it. It didn’t fail, and I am glad that I read it to the end. Even so, it is the novel Curiosity which is the one that has stayed with me, continues to resonate, and will be the one that I will be recommending to my book club.

One addendum – my ongoing curiosity about all things Jackson. There are a few scenes in both of these novels that I continue to be curious about. They involve finding the drowned remains of a Lady Jackson, washed up on the beach at Lyme Regis. In Chevalier’s novel, Lady Jackson is given a first name: Mary. Who was this Lady “Mary” Jackson? Apparently, she was on her way home from India, expecting to dock at Southampton. Perhaps someone reading this blog post will know the answer. If you do – please let me know.

Another  interesting link for more about Mary Anning: Fossils and OtherLiving Things.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sometimes a Picture

Mrs G.M. Dare and George Mildmay Dare in car.
Photo no longer under copyright: One Hundred years of Singapore.

Years ago, when I was on a holiday in Ashland, Oregon and enjoying a couple of weeks of amazing theatre, I picked up a copy of Singapore Days of Old. It is a commemorative history published by the Singapore Tattler. As you might guess, it is a chatty romp through aspects of the history of Singapore, with lots of photos. The one above stayed with me, and I was curious to learn more. I already knew that the driver of the car would likely be the sister-in-law of Sir Thomas Jackson, but I knew nothing more about her.

After a bit of digging, I found out that she was born Annie Dorothea Caroline EARNSHAW of Knaresborough, Yorkshire, England. The story of her life sheds light on several aspects of the lives of the both the Dare and Jackson families, whose members rose to such prominence in the Far East in the 1800s. Her first husband was George Mildmay Dare, brother to Amelia Lydia Dare, the wife of Sir Thomas Jackson. Not surprisingly, it was the women who actively created the social connections which started the friendships, which in turn lead to ongoing business connections. More of these kinds of stories will be told in my upcoming book.

In the meantime, the car in the photo above was Annie’s first car, a 12hp, two cylinder Star. The man seated beside her is George Mildmay Dare. Although the photograph is undated, it would be between 1902 when the 10hp twin cylinder model of the Star was first produced, and December 1907, when George succumbed to heart disease. Already by 1902, he was limited from undertaking anything very strenuous. This is worth keeping in mind when considering what this meant for Annie’s life as a female driver in the early 1900s.

Bear in mind that there were no motor garages or other such infrastructure at this time. Drivers had to be something of a dab hand at roadside repairs, and also be able to undertake oiling, adjustments and possibly even a change of tire. You would think -  given that Annie had a semi-invalid husband - that she would have driven conservatively, and have been the owner of a car described as: Car for sale by old lady, used only to go to church.  In fact, she drove this car more than 69,400 miles all over Singapore, the Malay Peninsula, Java, England, and Scotland. She called it Ichiban, a Japanese word for Number One, echoing the licence plate number S.1.,  visible in the photo. Singaporean natives, when they saw her tearing past, had another name for it: The Devil Wind Carriage.

Eventually, she took this car back to England in 1908, to have it kitted out with a detachable back so it could be used as either a two or four-seater. Before she did this, she taught Hassan bin Mohamed how to drive. As a result, he earned the distinction of being the first Malay chauffeur to obtain his driving licence. I do not know if he is the man standing beside the car. It is the kind of thing that I wish I did know. It is also the kind of instance where cultural biases often lead to names that are not us getting left out of the picture.

Annie was also well known not only as a driver of the Devil Wind Carriage, but also for her musical and theatrical talents. In the late 1880s, she sang and acted in both the musical Iolanthe, as well as the comic opera Crimson Scarf with Sir Thomas de Multon Lee Braddell. He just happened to be the Attorney-General of the Straits Settlements and Chief Judicial Commissioner of the Federated Malay States, as stage manager.  This is how the social circles worked. In amateur productions then as now, the enthusiasts wore many hats. Annie was also singled out for her taste and skill in designing dresses, and her unflagging enthusiasm, much of the success was due, added to which her charming appearance and voice helped greatly in the work on the stage.

In 1893, she performed in The Mikado, by Gilbert and Sullivan. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it seems strange to be performing that particular play in Singapore, but I suspect that was the least of many incongruities of the time. Three years later in 1896, she performed in The Grand Duke in the role of Princess of Monte Carlo, while her future second husband, G.P. Owen performed the role of the Prince of Monte Carlo. I have no idea if Owen was also married at the time.

Three Little Maids in School. From Gilbert & Sullivan's Mikado.

 Annie’s first husband, George Mildmay Dare, was also an amateur actor, known often under his stage name of Miss Julia BraniBrani  being Malay for Dare, the name that he used when he took on female roles. He had joined the Corps Dramatique, just after he returned to Singapore at age seventeen. It was a troop of actors made up of young men in business, and his role was that of Lucy in the farce John Dobbs:  

It was a difficult part, but they say I performed it to everyone’s satisfaction, and made what they called “a stunning girl”! I went in a crinoline made out of rattan, and even after the theatre was not known till I commenced kicking the syce’s back on account of his not opening the door wide enough, which elicited a roar of laughter from the men in the portico of the theatre, who were all seeing four young ladies into their carriage. We all had a capital dance after the performance on the stage, in our theatrical costumes, and a good champagne supper afterwards, from which we got home at two in the morning.

Regrettably, I have no photos of his performances. As well as his activities as Miss Julia Brani, he was also renowned for his prowess with hunting, sailing, cricket, horse-racing and polo, an all round kind of guy. He was also a successful broker in Yokohama with considerable business interests in the exporting of silk. He started business there about the time that the port of Yokohama was just opening up, and rode the uptick in sales when the French silkworms at Lyons succumbed to a virus, and the French had to import 85% of their silk from China.

NOTE: The main source for much of the material in this blog comes from One Hundred Years of Singapore Vol II 1921. Also, I have transcribed and annotated published obits for George Mildmay Dare, and Annie Owen on my web site. They are quite lengthy descriptions, not the usual kind of obit that simply states who died and when.

In an odd bit of serendipity, I also have a photo of my father when he was in his mid-forties in the role of Poo-Bah in a production of  The Mikado  staged in 1962 on the 1st Air Division Canadian Air Force Base at Metz France. Flight Lt. David Hugh Plunkett Brown is on the extreme right in the picture beneath. I suspect the other two men are Thomas Large in the role of Ko-Ko and Lauchlan MacQuarrie in the role of Pish-Tush.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Singapore Sling

My own connection to the drink is somewhat tenuous. In 1886: The Armenian Sarkies brothers bought the mansion of Captain George Julius Dare in Singapore’s prestigious "Twenty - House Street" (Beach Road). This Capt. Dare, a multifaceted businessman of his day, was the father-in-law of Sir Thomas Jackson. His extended family did pretty much every kind of business imaginable, including hotels, and the present day Raffles was built where he once lived. Dare died before the drink was invented, hence my tenuous link. Not that this stops me.

Photo at Wiki - licenced by Creative Commons

We afterwards strolled into the jungle in the hopes of getting some pigeon, but were rather aghast at coming across the fresh tracks of a tiger, and, having no kind friends to write our obituary notice and no gun with us for big game, returned in double quick time to the bungalow. None of the others would move out of the house, being too lazy, and their chief enjoyment consisted in making and drinking cocktails and sleeping !
George Mildmay Dare (1840-1907) – brother-in-law of Sir Thomas Jackson.

History of the drink: The Singapore Sling was invented by Ngiam Tong Boon (嚴崇文) for the Raffles Hotel in Singapore sometime between1910-1915. The version that he served was quite different from most of the recipes that are in vogue today, but was apparently also an innovation at the time, albeit based on other recipes that were popular back then. Apparently, there were many different Singapore Slings. While the recipes around the city could vary significantly from place to place, the cocktail served at Raffles remained pretty much the same. 

The original recipe: The original recipe incorporated gin, cherry brandy, and Benedictine (most often in equal parts). The drink was then shaken over ice, strained into a glass, and then topped up with club soda. The recipe used more recently by the hotel was based on the original recipe as recalled by former bartenders, as well as the information gleaned from written notes that the hotel staff were able to discover. The current Raffles Hotel recipe is a much modified version of the original, most likely changed sometime in the 1970s by the Ngiam Tong Boon's nephew.

My version: My own version comes from Adeline Tan, a long time staff member (retired) of Raffles. Her version of the recipe made no reference to club soda, thank goodness. Since I can’t buy cherry brandy on the Sunshine Coast – not a great loss in my opinion - I use Pomegranate Liquor in its place. According to all reports, this is a great and good thing.
You can tell by the quantities beneath, that this drink is a fave rave at some of our parties. The juices can be premixed ahead of time, but since I use fresh lime, it doesn’t keep for too long. Once I even juiced up a half dozen fresh pineapples for making drinks -  they were on sale at the time. They did it justice..

30 ml
1 oz
4 oz
8 oz
Cherry Brandy
15 ml
½ oz
2 oz
4 oz
Pineapple Juice
120 ml
4 oz
16 oz
32 oz
Lime Juice
15 ml
½ oz
2 oz
4 oz
7.5 ml
1 ½ tsp
1 oz
2 oz
Dom Benedictine
7.5 ml
1 ½ tsp
1 oz
2 oz
10 ml
2 tsp
1 ¼ oz
2 ½ oz
Angostura bitters
4 dashes
8 dashes
Garnish – Pineapple & cherry
A fresh fruit garnish is what I prefer to use, although my husband prefers maraschino cherries. More red dye #10 for my Mennonite lad!

Tip of the Iceberg

In a book such as the one I am writing, the tip of the iceberg is all that usually is usually revealed in the final draft. Not that I am quite at the place of that final draft, but I am getting there. Because I have made lots of my research public on The Silver Bowl, there is a greater amount of visible material than with most research projects, but there is still much more that remains hidden.

For starters, there are all the red herrings. Just because Great grandmother Eliza said something about her husband`s father, this doesn't mean that it always turns out to be true. I talked about this aspect of research in the two pieces that I recently posted here on memory: both personal memory and community memory. Added to these common conundrums are the distinct possibilities of clerical error, as well as the cultural tilt of the observer. But there is even more than this that can also run us off course.

I learned several important lessons when I served as an alderman a few decades ago. Firstly, the names you see on plaques on public buildings often have no correlation with who deserves credit. For example, the head name at the top of a plaque at the entrance of a library, that dozens of our town’s citizens worked to have built, is the name of a man who did everything he could do to try and block its construction. His name is there because he became mayor when all that remained was the ribbon-cutting and the glory. At first this galled me, as one of those not included in the recognition, but more recently I appreciate what it taught me. Every time I look at a plaque on a public building, I wonder about the real story. I have learned that seeing should not always lead to believing.

Then here was the earnest young man who I met at a music festival. He was doing his masters degree with a thesis in environmental planning, and didn`t know that I had been involved in the commissioning a study of a tree farm that was owned by the District. All they wanted to do was to sell it, he told me. I was taken aback, but I could sure see why it looked like that. We had indeed conducted a study on the marketability of the tree farm, not because we wanted to sell it, but because there were a couple of aldermen who did, and the only way to shut them down was to commission a study that would get the facts out to the public. It worked. Of course, the true reason for the study could never have been revealed in the minutes. That would have defeated its purpose. Still and all, it changed how I view all such written records.

Recently, I have been working with documents left by Amy Oliver Lloyd (1874-1962), one of the children of Sir Thomas Jackson. They are rich and multilayered. She kept notebooks of all her family research, and as a result I have been able to add dozens of names to our family tree that otherwise would have continued to be total blanks. Not only that, but just as importantly, it has shed light on the ways that successful intermarriages supported the business successes of the Irish and English men in the late 1800s who lived and worked in what they called The Far East

A page from Amy Oliver Lloyd's notebook

At the same time, many of the records left by dear old Amy are also deeply frustrating, as one might expect with all such piles of notes. I dread to think what would happen should any innocent researcher happen to stumble into my stash of stuff once I am dead and gone. Like her, I have version one, version two and sometimes version four or five. Heck, half the time I don’t even know which version is the best one to lay money on.

Amy did some amazing work, considering that it was all done more than sixty years ago, before we had the help of computers to help us organize our data. Even so, there is at least one spot where I figure that either she or I have bungled it. There is one link where a father dies in 1690 and a son is born in 1726. Oops. This was, after all, well before the techniques of artificial insemination were perfected.

Not that I am letting such glitches stop me. I figure that out there – somewhere – is someone who can set me straight. So, I have forged on ahead and published a great swat of the relationships between dozens of family members who found themselves in Hong Kong, South Africa, Ceylon, India and what have you in the 19th century. Most of them came from England, some from Ireland and Scotland, and some managed to boggle me by arranging their lives such that they came from all three (ARBUTHNOT would be a good example).

The MURRAY-TOLLEMAGHE-PARKE-DARE family tree, which I have been able to build using Amy’s material as well as hundreds of other sources, is complex and fascinating. There are ancestral links in this tree that reach all the way back to Gregory CROMWELL - husband of Elizabeth SEYMOUR, whose sister Jane was wife to Henry VIII. The tree starts with the father of William MURRAY, whose son was the whipping boy of King Charles I, and the footnotes do explain the concept of whipping boy.  In fact, the footnotes are where all the best stuff is.

In the generations that came after our whipping boy, who became the Earl of Dysart which wasn't too shabby, there are stories of fortunes made and lost, of pirates, bigamous marriages, and much more. In short, there are stories of practically everything that could have happened to a family such as this over the span of several centuries, a family which included members from the nobility, the merchant class and the seafaring classes, as well as a few who slid a little further down in the food chain of luck.

As always, let me know if you find this useful, let me know if you have something to add, or let me know if you have caught me with a red herring between my teeth. If you catch me with the latter, I’ll do my best to smile.

Two other pieces recently posted on my web site include the obituary of  William Ramsay Scott, as well as the history of the Dare family as written by George Mildmay Dare before he died in 1907.

Profound thanks to both Pat Roberts and Jack Stooks, who made these records available to me.