Saturday, April 12, 2014

Meet My Main Character by Diana Birchall


For the fun and honor of the thing, I'm taking part in a game started by author Debbie Brown of the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog.  (I'm sorry I can't link to the site; any kind reader want to teach me how to link, I'd be grateful!)

The game is called "Meet My Main Character," and writers around the world are answering a series of questions about the main character of their work in progress. They then post these to their blogs, and tag others to follow. So, now here's me answering the questions. 


1) What is the name of your character? Is she fictional or a historic person?

Well, yes and no!  For she is Jo March, of Little Women fame, who was her real life originator Louisa May Alcott's alter ego.  If not precisely an historical figure, Jo Marsh is a fictional character who has taken on a unique and timeless reality.

2) When and where is the story set?

Ah, there's the rub.  The story takes place around 1907.  Jo March, who was 15 years old at the start of Little Women, during the Civil War, will, I hypothesize, be about sixty years old at the time of my novel.  For many years, of course, she  has been "Mrs. Jo" Bhaer.

3) What should we know about her?

I am assuming that my readers know pretty much everything about Jo.  I could have done it two ways:  write a novel about a sixtysomething Jo for people who don't necessarily have any clear memory of Little Women (or may never have even read it), or a literal imagining, for those who not only know and love the world of Little Women but are probably also acquainted with its sequels, Little Men and Jo's Boys. 

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up her life?

What messes up Jo's life is, in truth, a very sad event. Being in her sixties, and married to a much older man, it is natural that in the course of time she would become a widow.  And so, yes readers, I had to kill off dear old Professor Bhaer.  The book opens with Fritz's death, and with Jo facing a new life alone. 

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

Always active, eager, imaginative, original, on fire to help others and to throw herself into causes, it is inevitable that "Mrs. Jo" would take a great interest in women's suffrage, as Louisa May Alcott herself did.  And 1907/8 was the height of the dramatic suffragist movement in England.  So Jo, soon after being widowed, travels to England with her two nieces, and joins the movement - as a suffragette, marching, organizing, writing, and speaking alongside the likes of the Pankhursts. Jo's goal is to help women: and in doing so, she also helps herself.

As an older heroine may not be exciting to many readers, we also have the adventures of Jo's two nieces.  Josie, whom Alcott aficionados will remember as the theatre-mad teenager from Jo's Boys, is now a famous and dedicated stage actress in her 30s, who travels to England on a theatrical tour, at the same time as her aunt's suffragette mission.  Will she find the kind of success, and love, she hopes for?  The third heroine (for my "Meet My Main Character" is a triumverate!), is young Lulu, based on the real-life daughter of Louisa May Alcott's sister May ("Amy" in Little Women), whom Alcott adopted after May's death.  Lulu and her father Laurie are also in the traveling party, and Lulu embarks on some bluestocking adventures at Cambridge.  As for Laurie - well, you'll have to read it and see.  But I can tell you he's pretty worried about his older daughter, beautiful Bess, who is part of a very louche, bohemian, artistic Paris set, that includes Colette and Proust...

 Young actress Josie in an illustration from Jo's Boys

Lulu Niericker, Louisa May Alcott's real-life niece

6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

It is called Jo on the March.  A short excerpt is at the bottom of this post.

7) When can we expect the book to be published?

As soon as I can find a publisher!  Suggestions are very welcome.  I'm not sure if it should have a Young Adult publisher, for not many modern young readers are likely to have the requisite knowledge of Alcott's background and characters. A literary publisher who thinks a Little Women sequel might find some interested readers and fans, is what I seek.

The 1908 Suffragette march that Jo goes on

Thank you for reading!  The author I've tagged who will publish her answers to "The Questions" on (or soon after) 15th April is:  Lyndsy Spence, author of The Mitford Girls Guide to Life.  Damn, sorry I can't link to her either.  Will somebody PLEASE come and help technically challenged author already?!

I can't even make a link to an excerpt, but must copy it entire.  Here it is:

At Sea 
Aboard the Mauretania.

Here we are, my dear Meg, writing Ship’s Letters. We will do a good old-fashioned Round Robin, so be sure to circulate to all at home.
I confess to having a little weep when we left; and another when your Demi bid us farewell at the dock in New York and we saw the last of the dear family faces. It is so hard to part, when who knows what dangers may come between us; but we are off to the Old World, which will be new in Lulu’s eyes, at least. Josie and I, old hands, have no romance about the discomforts and inconveniences of life aboard ship, and we are thankful to have such a gallant gentleman as Teddy to play escort. 
We are snugly set up in our stateroom. Snug as in small, for we women unanimously insisted that Teddy must not be allowed to pay for us to have a first class cabin; he did try, but we were too many for him, and he was properly foiled. So here we are installed, all ship-shape, in our neat little second class cabin, with four rather cramped bunk beds bolted to the floor. Lulu takes the upper, I the lower, and Josie has the other lower one, while the upper is taken by a little governess, Miss Marks, who is going out with an American family, the Parchers. We don’t know them, the father is a New York merchant, rather vulgar I fancy, judging by the demands they make upon our cabin mate; and they are all installed in first class, even the children. Miss Marks is a shy, quiet little person, and will be on the upper deck with her charges much of the time, so she is no encumbrance, poor thing, and we are quite by ourselves most of the time.
Not that we can expect to see Lulu in our stateroom very often; that child is all over the ship, poking her nose into everything, and I have had to remonstrate with her more than once. It is tiresome to have to play governess myself, at my age, but Teddy assures me that it will do her no harm to explore the ship to her heart’s content, and Josie looks out for her too, so with three pairs of eagle eyes upon her, our little eaglet can’t get into much mischief. Propriety is not what it used to be, in the year of our Lord 1908, not at all the same system that we knew under our dear Marmee. Lulu is an advanced young woman of the twentieth century and is quite as capable of climbing the riggings as of buttonholing the captain with questions. I hope we have not undertaken too much in bringing the child to England. I do know the gracious chaperonage Amy would have wished for her is alas beyond our united power to provide, and I only hope we can keep her from getting into outright scrapes from one moment to the next!
It is our third day out; I was a trifle unwell yesterday, but have my sea legs now, and am sitting in my own deck chair, books around me, sipping broth and nibbling biscuits like a squirrel. The food aboard ship is as usual far too abundant: dinners with endless courses, squab and forced meats and creations of angelica and fallals all set out in the most ostentatiously grand wood-panelled dining room. There is no end of dressing up for dinner, and that I find more trying than the motion of the ship, so for the most part I am contenting myself with apples and bread and milk. That is the diet for shipboard, and I have advised Lulu not to stuff, though it is like talking to the wind, and she is too old for me to forbid her sweeties. At any rate, being at sea seems to suit her as well as Josie and they are both in fine fettle. None of us are the worse for some slight pitching during the night, and Teddy is in capital form: he is in the saloon now, smoking a cigar, I am sorry to say, but I do believe the sea breezes are breathing new life into him, and he is quite brisk. We are to have a regular old-folks promenade on deck shortly. So do not worry about us, dear Meg. I hope all is well back at home, that Nat is doing better, and that Daisy is not too much distressed about him. 

Your loving old salt of a sister,


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Pictures from New York

Washington Irving's house Sunnyside in Tarrytown, NY

I flew to New York with friend Jane all unaware that I was seated next to a man with the dreaded New York Lurgy which dropped its bomb on me a week later, thus accounting for the flaccidity of my present prose.  So there will be little writing and much lethargic uploading of pictures.

Jane and me at Tarrytown House

First event was a very nice weekend Austen conference put on by JASNA-NY in Tarrytown. We stayed at attractive Tarrytown House, listened to some pleasant speakers and had a side trip to Washington Irving's historic house at nearby Sunnyside.

Winter aconites at Tarrytown

A solemn procession of costumes at Tarrytown
The Regency Doctor
Marsha Huff, Susan Allen Ford, and me
In Central Park (the pretty coat is an $8 Salvation Army find!) 
My view from the Larchmont on 11th Street, between Fifth and Sixth
Next event, a lovely Turkish dinner on the Upper West Side with some of my Hunter friends, always a warm and welcoming and intensely New Yorkish delight.

Hunter friends in fine form 

Spent much time with my father-in-law, but also ventured out for my cousin Anne's art exhibit, and a lovely time spent with her and another cousin, Alice.  Also saw Anne's daughter Joanna, soon to turn 17, and their Comical Kitties.
Anne's exhibit at St. Peter's Church

Three cousins. Alice, Anne and me.
Cat by Joanna

Joanna's Cat
The young artist
Girl with Cat, Jan Cornelisz Vermeyer, 1545 (at the Met)

Then a visit with my old friend Laurie, who once was a movie studio story analyst like me but now is the Cardinal Lady of the Central Park Ramble.  When you walk through the Ramble alone, you'll see nary a red bird, but when Laurie appears, there are suddenly 15 of them. 


Snowdrops in the Ramble

Finish off with some nice New York food...and then home again to work and lurgy.

Matzoh Ball Soup, Katz's
 Cafe Sabartzky, Neue Gallery

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Cats Go to the Vet (Alert the Media!)

Pindy being examined - a study in beautiful resignation
It was high time. It was past time. It was two and a half years since we took the three cats to the vet. We kept putting it off and off and off, because they were quite well, and because wrangling the three of them into their three cat carriers is a chore beyond the three of us humans - we are no match for them. Peter recuses himself, because he is so tender-hearted where the cats are concerned, he can't bear hearing even an unhappy squeaklet. And it had to be done, because Paul starts a new librarian job tomorrow and won't be available to help me wrestle moggies for months.
Help me? He did the whole thing. I tried a feeble method, putting treats in the carriers, and when Marshy stuck her head in to get one, I tried shoving her in, but that ended in the cat being twenty feet away and on full alert. We turned a carrier on end, Paul picked up Pindar in his arms, dropped her in and slammed down the door. One down. Somehow he swooped Marshy up in his arms too, and once he had her firmly, he gave her the same treatment. Two down.
Paul and cats in waiting room
That left Catullus. After being chased all around the house, she cagily took refuge behind the couch. I moved the couch, she ran out onto the terrace, and Paul trapped her there. Already exhausted, we carried the cats down to the car, and drove to the vet's, less than a mile, with Pindy crying hard all the way. It's a cute little cabin-like office, a sort of Venice hippie place, that's been in business forty years, and is full of souvenirs of the vet's travels. They're very nice people and charge very little. They also don't take appointments; you bring in the animals and wait. We've always been lucky going in late afternoon; no one was ahead of us, and we brought the three catties into the examining room right away.

They never scratch anybody, but just assume poses of pained but passive resignation. Limply, they were weighed, and to our surprise, the short haired but firmly muscled Alpha, Pindy, out-weighed fat furball Marshy, at 14.9 pounds to Marshy's 13.10. Tully looks nearly as big, but it's all fur - she only weighed 11.12. Their nails were cut, and then one of the vets, a pleasant woman, came in to examine them one at a time. She pronounced them all very healthy, and only carrying a little too much weight! We were pleased that she was so impressed with Pindar, whom she called a very unusual cat, a perfect Torbie, and gorgeous. That's a tortoiseshell tabby, but she has swirls rather than the usual tabby pattern, and lovely streaks of red, as well as that exquisite face. The other two are standard Tortoiseshells, and she complimented them on their gentle good nature, since there's not much that's polite to say for their clownish faces!
A bohemian vet's office with lots of personality!
The trouble came when the assistants realized they hadn't taken Marshy's temperature. She had to be pulled out of her box again, but when they tried to use the thermometer she let out a scream. Afraid there might be something wrong with her bottom, they called back the vet. Three people had to hold her down, and there emerged from that cat a noise I never heard from her or any other cat before. Not the high yowling scream you hear when they mate in the street at night; no, more like the foghorn of the Queen Mary right in the room with you. The doctor quickly noted there was nothing wrong with her bottom, it was just that Marshy had reached that moment when it was All Too Much. Back she was allowed to scuttle into her box.

 The drive home was serene, compared; Pindy sat on Paul's lap in her box and enjoyed looking out the window. They couldn't get out of their boxes fast enough, and spent the rest of the day lying around the house in poses of limp, subdued exhaustion. So did we. 

Pindy cowering in her box, with that "Et tu, Brute?" look


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Cat Post: A Paean to Pindar

Our cat Pindar has written a letter to our neighbor's cat, Pepper, in answer to a friendly note.  The two never meet or consort in the fur, except for an occasional distant wary glance down the long hall, which usually results in Pepper turning tail and fleeing in a blind panic.  She, like Pindar, is a supersmart diva Alpha cat, and she has her Cat-mother, Pam, wrapped around her paw.  I'm afraid she is a contender for the title of Most Spoiled Cat, for she only consents to drink out of crystal, and when Pam accidentally steps on her tail (as one does), Pam is obliged to BOW DOWN in apology! (True fact.)  See Pepper, below,  in her humble (ahem) bed.  Her crystal accouterments are by her side, on her night table:
Pepper - "Who, me, entitled?"

And now for the Correspondence.  First, the initial Facebook post that initiated the communications, written by Pindar Herself:

"Very hard work, helping fix the computer. Resting now. Best moment was when I inserted myself inside a huge Cat's Cradle like a mummy in a fly sac, finished it off with a tangle of bows and knots, and then listened to my mom try to explain it to the patiently waiting computer man in India. Learned some new human curse words. Great fun!"

Pindar, all tangled up in Computer Repair - a Hard Day's Night indeed!
This was followed by a note from Pepper to Pindar:
"Deer Pindee,
Gud u help you mom but betr 2 sleep on computr. Must teech mi neu curse words but I problee no them. Hear lots when my mom lose ebay aukshun."

It was accompanied by a picture helpfully illustrating Pepper on the computer.

Whereupon Pindar graciously composed this reply:
Greetings to Her Royal Catness, Princess Pepper, from Her Royal Catness, Princess Pindar Cat-Birchall
I salute you, cousin and equal, with a narrowing of the eyes, a flick of the tail, and a subterranean growl in my throat. Peace.
Your gracious letter of advice was received, and promptly destroyed, lest our humans suspect the communication between us. I made it disappear by pressing certain buttons on my Mother's computer, and as there is no need for me to instruct you in the technique, I merely adjure you to do the same. Very amusing that both our Mothers were in India simultaneously! Good work, cousin.
I must confess that I was surprised, Princess, to see you writing in Cheezburger, the peasant vernacular. I am perfectly aware that one of your Alpha status has full command of the finest English, as I do.  This may no doubt be attributed to your wish to conceal the extent of your intelligence and knowledge from your poor deluded human. In this, you have not entirely succeeded.  I have often heard your Mother Pam boasting to my humans that you understand English commands!   Is this wise, Princess?   As you will have observed, none of my humans has the slightest inkling of my true gifts.   When they address me by name, I make a point of looking particularly obtuse.  They have no conception that I am as fine an author, in both Feline and High English, as my own Mother.   Of course, I learned at her knee, and refined my language through my Jane Austen studies.  I have admittedly had special privileges.  My Father has taught me Shakespeare, and we recite it together by the hour (though he does not realize this, as I do it silently).   "The cat will mew, the dog will have its day," as Hamlet said.
My sisters and subjects, alas, remain truly dumb, subhuman animals; even Cheezburger is an intellectual stretch for them.  Sometimes I feel all the burden of authoritative rule.   As Potentate of the Birchall household, I am in a high and lonely place, in many ways lonelier than you, who have your entire domain to yourself.  I am continually wearied with having to reassert my Authority.   It is a tiresome and difficult position, but I was formed for it, and must not descend to the level of lower animals.
I send you this diplomatic dispatch, therefore, with some pleasure in reaching out to an equal intelligence.  However, if you choose to reply, I must beg you to drop the Cheezburger talk.  It is unworthy of an Alpha, but I do comprehend that you are rather handicapped by your lack of social opportunities and may not realize the proper behavioral and diplomatic codes.   Visits from Dogs can do little to instruct you in the subtleties.
Again, Peace and Power over our separate but equal kingdoms.
H.R.H. Princess Pindar Cat-Birchall, High Chief of the Birchallian Cats


Here is a gallery of pictures illustrating the Lives of the Cats (our three girls are now five years old, and Pepper is ten).

 Pindar as a young cat
 "Pretty - and she knows it."  Pindy shows her youthful colors at the age of one.

 Pindar's Subjects, her sisters Martial (Marshy) and Catullus (Tully)
Tully and Pindy are Great Enemies.  Can you tell?

 Pepper looking disdainfully at an example of Royal Cat Art
Now, a story:

How The Cats Came to Live With Us

We never had cats because Paul and I had allergies and asthma, but when Peter got depressed from a chronic illness, and improved while staying at a summer cottage with a cat, Paul and I resolved to get a cat, even if we had to resort to medication. Two cats, to keep each other company.  I went to half a dozen shelters, but kept coming back to a trio of four-month-old kittens in the local shelter here in Santa Monica, tumbling all over each other playing leapfrog.  They were so funny and happy, I fell in love.  "They're good natured and outgoing," the shelter man said.  I could see that.   The three were littermates, and one was particularly pretty, a tortie tabby with a Bengal strain.  She had beautiful chocolate and red striped coloring, a sweet face and large pale green eyes.  Her two sisters, classic longhaired torties, were darker butterballs with funny marked faces.  But we couldn't go from zero to three cats, that was crazy!  I bought two, asking the man to throw in "one of the torties - you choose."  When I got home, what came out of the box but the two torties!  I called the shelter and was told I could come back and exchange.  I thought about it for a moment.  "No," I said, "some things are Meant."  I went back and instead of "returning a cat" (how horrible - like Sophie's Choice!) I got the pretty little tabby, my original first choice.  When I took out my wallet to pay, the man stopped me.  "No," he said, "if you buy two, you get the third one free."  

And the rest is history...

Three little kittens, when they first came to us
The Birchalls and the Cat-Birchalls

 January 17, 2014.  A Janeite friend has written a poem in Pindaric style, which attention has so pleased both Birchalls and Cat-Birchalls, that I append it at the end of this post.  Thank you, Victoria!

Said Pindar to Pepper

Said Pindar to Pepper, Oh please,
Don't use that deplorable "Cheez."
This vulgate, I fear,
Does scrape on the ear,
On a par with th'yowls of the Siamese.

To me, you should e'er be inclined
To speak with an accent refined.
And of course, Mademoiselle,
You must properly spell
And use grammar the way it's designed.

Our humans, as you and I know,
Think us enchanting, but slow.
We must stick to this goal,
To keep food in the bowl,
But 'tween US, let us please drop this show!
- Victoria Lansburgh

Monday, August 19, 2013

Sunny Seattle Sojourn

Indian paintbrush, Mt. Rainier

Even though I saw English garden flowers at their best in Cambridge, Oxford and Bath in July, I hate to see a summer pass without hiking among American mountain wildflowers.  So, planning a trip that packed a number of highlights into a week, I flew to Seattle.  First stop:  Woodston Cottage (named after Henry Tilney's home in Northanger Abbey), in Snohomish.

Woodston Cottage

Me at Woodston

Woodston Cottage is the home of Laurel Ann Nattress of the Austenprose blog, but her justly renowned blog is not the only work of her heart:  Woodston is also her beloved creation, labor of love, and, it is not too much to say, a work of art, of English style and gracious living, albeit on a small scale.  But I, who have adored Little Houses since Laura Ingalls Wilder days, find in Woodston Cottage no less than an enchanted dream. 

Dinner table at Woodston
 Dinner at Woodston:  fresh picked local corn, salmon, salad, sourdough bread...Yum!

 Chandelier and sunflowers

The fortunate guest at Woodston Cottage is pampered like a queen, or at least as Jane Austen herself would be, could she come back to life.  Laurel Ann has the gift of knowing exactly what people like to eat, and of making her fresh and exquisitely prepared food look as beautiful as it is good.  Her breakfast table, out in the garden, is delectable to contemplate:

English breakfast in an English garden
Her home-made scones are the best I've ever eaten, and I speak as someone who has eaten a Bath cobblestone mile paved with them in England.  As for the garden:  Laurel Ann was a horticulturist in another life, and it shows!  The hollyhocks, the foxgloves, the roses...Agnes de Mille wrote of her mother's famous garden in 1910 California, "Many a homesick Englishman has stood silent before those beds until Mother led him in to tea."  They would feel that way at Woodston, too.
Evening at Woodston
Companion at Woodston - the beautiful, shy Herman
 Essence of Woodston:  flowers and cat
Snohomish is a famous antiques town, and we spent a day doing the rounds almost to my heart's content!  Here's just the yellow glass section at the Star, the biggest and most overwhelming shop:
What did I buy?  Why, Sadler teapots for my copper luster porcelain teapots collection, of course.  Here they are at home:

 On Sunday, Laurel Ann drove me to a meeting of the Jane Austen Society of Puget Sound, at the lovely home of Kimberley Brangwin, overlooking the Sound.  I gave a short talk, and then enjoyed reuniting with friends in the chapter.  Lovely glimpse of Seattle social life by the sea!
Laurel Ann and I with author Katherine Reay.
Me and Laurel Ann
Kimberly, our lovely hostess
After the meeting Laurel Ann (who had been madly driving me around all weekend) kindly took me to the airport where I picked up my rental car, and then I took off for the second half of my trip:  Mt. Rainier!

 I was to meet my longtime hiking friends Mike and Leelee, with their daughter Karen, son-in-law Matt, and granddaughter Bridget, at Alta Crystal Resort near the Sunrise entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park.  It was a lovely drive as the roads became more rural and after passing through the town of Enumclaw, I started driving up the mountain.
The inn's pussycat welcomed me, sitting on top of Mike's car.
A much wilder feline than Herman of Woodston.
Our first full hiking day, we hiked the Tipsoo Lakes-Naches Peak Loop, a relatively short and easy trail, very beautiful with everything I was hoping for:  wildflowers, lakes, views of Mt. Rainier, and none of it too hard on my bad knee.  Here are pictures from that hike:



Me with Leelee and Mike
The next day's hike was not as good for me; it was to Summerland, and was about 8 miles with switchbacks, so I bailed out halfway through and walked back by myself (having a narrow encounter with a bear).  After making myself eggs for lunch at the condo, I sallied out again and went up the gondola at Alta Crystal, for some nice views of Rainier and Mt. St. Helens. 

Afterwards I rejoined my friends for a very good hamburger dinner at a pub down the road. 

Me with Leelee, Mike, Bridget and Matt
Leelee, Mike, Karen, Matt and Bridget
And we finished off the day with a campfire and S'mores back at the Gateway.

The last day's hike was the best.  We drove around the mountain to the Paradise entrance, and the hike on the Skyline Trail was like Paradise indeed.  It was a loop of about five miles, with an altitude gain of 1,700 feet, up to an elevation of 7,100, so even though my knee kept me hiking very slowly, particularly on the downhill, I was no end chuffed to see that I could do it - anybody who could complete this hike, is still a hiker, no question!
The wildflowers were sublime as heart could desire, as witness this field of lupines.  More pictures from the hike: 
Matt and Bridget slid down the snowfields

At the top!  The Upper Skyline, above Panorama Point

Me and Mike, old hiking friend and fellow wildflower enthusiast

Flowers and snow - typical on Mt. Rainier

Alpine phlox

Peevish looking Western Marmot

Paradise Inn
Owing to my slowness, it was late when we got back to Paradise Inn, but we had a wonderful dinner in the elegant old dining room there - I had wild mushroom soup, salmon with wild rice, and blackberry pie with ice cream.  We hadn't been able to get rooms there, so we drove out the park entrance to the Gateway, comfy kitchy old cabins, spent the night there and had a good breakfast. After that we parted and I had a very fraught drive to the airport - got lost in a heavy rainstorm (good thing it didn't rain earlier and spoil our hiking!), was stuck in massive traffic in Tacoma, occasioned by the start of some outlandish Hemp Festival.  Made it to the airport with only half an hour to spare, but had a swift smooth flight back to my own dear home, boys, and cats.