I received this book from Netgalley for an honest review. This is the first time I have read any books by Mercedes Rochelle, but it won’t be the last!! I must say, she has an impeccable talent for providing in-depth research bordering on a non-fiction style, flawlessly with the necessary elements of fiction. The dialogue was natural; she gives you well-rounded characters, fleshing out these historical figures so that you feel as if you are actually standing in the room with them in their time period. One of my favourite Shakespearean plays is Henry V, and I adore the Hollow Crown series, so this book expanded the story of that time period with perfection. I will definitely be adding the rest of this series to my TBR list. I highly recommend this book!!
“Those Not-so-Wicked Sporting Ladies of the Wicked West”
by Mim Eichmann
A hundred years ago they were known as soiled doves, frail sisters, bawds, painted ladies, scarlet women, fille de joie, molls, courtesans, concubines, sporting woman, denizens, strumpets, adventuresses, working girls, tarts, unfortunates, the demimonde, the tenderloin, shady ladies, jezebels, harridans and harlots, among many other names, and more often than not, were residents of a brothel, red light district, parlor house, seraglio, hog ranch, crib, harem, the Line, whorehouse, bordello, or a bawdy house. Many of these ladies of the night had fallen unintentionally – and many intentionally — into the sporting life as it was typically known, wishing to obscure their true names, origins and back stories, making it virtually impossible to ever reliably unravel their individual and occasionally, lurid histories.
In most western frontier towns where men significantly outnumbered women — a ratio of at least 20 to 1 and typically far greater — prostitutes were considered an essential, though certainly not warmly embraced, necessity by their conservative female counterparts. Decent married women were willing to put up with prostitutes to keep those randy single men away from their own otherwise puritanical daughters until those men managed to firmly affix a wedding ring on their daughters’ hand. All a young girl had was her reputation and, as was well known, if that evaporated even by innuendo, she was most likely ruined for the rest of her life as borne out in literature by Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton and countless other authors of the day.
Once a woman had crossed over that line, society tended to lump loose women into a single mold. Certainly all of them had to maintain a shrewd edge, but they were quite diverse in terms of temperament, education, worldliness, scientific and entrepreneurial endeavors.
Of these so-called fallen women, it’s interesting to note that the madams, or owners, of many brothels, were wealthy, powerful and quite influential individuals whose brothels became centers of community, arts and culture in western towns. Some of the most powerful madams were serious patronesses of art, music and education, as well as being philanthropists and major real estate moguls.
Being a madam was one of the few actual “careers” afforded a woman in the 19th Century — the earliest prototype we have of a career woman, in fact! Madams (and other wealthy prostitutes) donated money to charities, hospitals, churches, schools, cared for the impoverished and sick, and housed the homeless when no one else could be bothered. They were involved with helping fund many cities’ initial infrastructures of gas, telephone and electric lines as well as owning mining claims, stocks, investing in municipal bonds, even jumping into the fray to keep banks afloat during challenging financial years. There was a huge demand for their money, but the women themselves, as well as their children, were forever shunned by society.
According to June Willson Read’s biography “Frontier Madam: The Life of Dell Burke, Lady of Lusk”, huge financial contributions by Dell Burke, a madam in Lusk, Wyoming, created infrastructures such as railroads, waterworks and electric lines through that part of the state. Several biographers have mentioned Josephine “Chicago Joe” Hensley (or Airey), a madam in Helena, Montana who had a weekly payroll of $1,000 for numerous businesses she owned outside that of her brothel’s, paid hefty taxes on more than $200,000 in real estate holdings, and also contributed huge sums to many charities and political candidates, although she was never allowed to attend any of their meetings or even be introduced to anyone involved in those important enterprises. According to Anne Seagraves’ book “Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West”, “these enterprising women, who played an important role within their communities, were never invited to join or attend a commercial club. They were not accepted by society, and in most cases, were not even protected by the law due to their profession.”
Mattie Silks, a wealthy Denver brothel owner, claimed that she had become a madam simply as a successful business venture and that she had never worked as a prostitute. This claim was quite interestingly never disputed. And Georgia Lee, a Fairbanks, Alaska prostitute, was quietly involved in funding many civic affairs and co-founded the Fairbanks branch of the Humane Society according to “Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush” by Lael Morgan.
Another well known beautiful face who was a particular enigma was Etta Place, who for those of us enamored many years ago with Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid”, was either a high class parlor attraction at Fanny Porter’s infamous house in Hell’s Half Acre in San Antonio, Texas, or she was a sedate schoolteacher in a one-room rural schoolhouse, helping to mastermind many of the infamous duos’ train robberies, something of a Robin Hood operation, according to Michael Rutter’s “Boudoirs to Brothels – the Intimate World of Wild West Women”. A young lady who led an incredibly complex double life, the beautiful Etta Place quite skillfully disappeared without a trace in the early 1900s.
Many prostitutes had exceptional nursing and mid-wife skills, often obtained by necessity, along with vast knowledge of herbs, medicinal concoctions and other healing remedies. Occasionally they were clandestinely called upon to assist a married woman experiencing a difficult childbirth, but that same woman would turn her head the opposite direction afterwards if she encountered the prostitute on the street, refusing to acknowledge an acquaintance. Additionally, women were not allowed any form of birth control (which was often unreliable anyway) and some prostitutes were quietly skilled abortionists, even aiding “respectable women” who wished to end an ill-timed pregnancy. In the years between 1850 and 1870, one historian estimated that one abortion was performed for every five or six live births in America.
Although she later denied it, Margaret Mitchell originally claimed that her fictional character of Belle Watling in “Gone with the Wind” was based on a madam in Lexington, Kentucky known as Belle Brezing, who died just after the movie’s 1939 release. Ms. Mitchell’s husband was from Lexington and familiar with Belle Brezing’s checkered history, including the fact that the woman was quite well known as an excellent nurse. In both the book and the movie, Belle Watling indeed claims to be a nurse and donates a rich purse filled with gold coins to the rapidly failing Confederate cause through Melanie Wilkes, the only married woman within the group willing to be seen accepting such a windfall from one of Atlanta’s most notorious madams.
Pearl DeVere, who was the madam of the Old Homestead brothel in Cripple Creek, Colorado, like so many others of the demimonde, wove multiple stories about her early life that makes it impossible to verify any of the tales. Not even a verifiable photograph of the young woman exists. Born in Evansville, Indiana in 1859 as Eliza Martin into what certainly appears to have been a well-to-do family, exactly what led her into the world of prostitution is somewhat mysterious, based on the many different tales that Pearl herself fabricated over her short life. She arrived in Cripple Creek possibly via Denver, around the time of the 1893 repeal of the Silver Act and set herself up quickly in the “trade” in the newly booming mining town. Her sophistication, remarkable intelligence, and appreciation of fine arts and culture helped her build one of the most influential brothels in the country.
So who was Pearl DeVere? Unless you’re from Colorado, have studied the Cripple Creek gold rush or have actually visited Cripple Creek and maybe participated in the annual Pearl DeVere bed race or some other quaint festival, you’ve probably never even heard of this woman. And, as we’ve so often heard in recent years, history is really just “his” story and rarely also “her” story, particularly with respect to “career” women and their contributions to our past.
Mabel Barbee Lee’s memoir, “Cripple Creek Days”, published in 1958, was drawn from her recollections as a very young child having grown up in the region. In the acknowledgements Ms. Lee mentions that one of her neighbor’s names, Molly Letts, was a pseudonym in her book because she had been a former prostitute and even after fifty years had ensued, she refused to let the woman’s reputation be sullied.
Without question, however, at age 11, Mabel’s recollections of Pearl DeVere were firmly stamped on her memory, even though Mabel’s timelines appear to be a little fuzzy on occasion. In mining camps very few women had beautiful stylish clothes or jewelry or immodest displays of wealth, certainly very impressionable items for a pre-teen. Pearl was an excellent dress designer and wore her creations perfectly over her marvelously sculpted physique. At age 31 she was a beautiful girl with red hair, bright flashing eyes and a slender build sporting gorgeous tight-fitting clothes and it was said that she never wore the same outfit twice. She was strong-willed, shrewd, very well read, eloquent, and a very smart businesswoman.
According to Janet Lecompte’s introduction in “Emily: The Diary of a Hard-Worked Woman”, a journal by a 42-year-old Denver divorcee: “In 1890 the average working woman in the United States had started to work at age 15 and was now 22, earning less than $6 a week for a 12-hour day. In Denver, 15% of all women worked in 1890, most of them as domestic help, laundresses, or seamstresses, some making as much as $4-$6 per week.” Unlike out East, there were very few factories or mills. A miner’s wages typically brought a working man $3 per day for a nine-hour day. By contrast, a wealthy man booking a stylish young courtesan’s company at the Old Homestead was shelling out $250 for the evening and had to book well in advance! One can easily see the attraction for a young cultured woman such as Pearl to have built such an empire!
Mabel Barbee Lee goes on to say in her memoir: “Pearl DeVere became my secret sorrow, the heroine of my fondest daydreams, mysterious, fascinating and forbidden.” Even some fifty years afterwards, Mabel vividly recalled hearing a gramophone playing from the Old Homestead’s windows, an expensive toy back in those days, and distinctly remembers the many details of Pearl’s unusual New Orleans’ early jazz style funeral cortege. Accounts of the Old Homestead’s opulent parlor with a telephone, expensive Turkish carpets, chandeliers and the unheard of extravagance of two bathtubs also fill Mabel’s remembrances. These finer houses demanded an almost European-like adherence to order, an essential step towards our country’s slowly working its way towards the civil society we’ve attempted to establish since that time.
Along with so many others of the demimonde, Pearl’s contributions to the economic and political movements of the era were obscured as we’ve followed “his” story through our country’s development. However, such acknowledgement is richly deserved and a sad omission. These enterprising women’s contributions are long forgotten – or in many cases, were never even recognized. But silently, all around us, as our first “career” women, their intriguing legacies live on.
Photos courtesy Charlotte Bumgarner, owner of The Old Homestead Museum, Cripple Creek CO
Pearl DeVere’s grave marker – so many admirers originally placed jewelry around the heart-shaped stone that unfortunately the gifts stained the marble and a fence has now been erected around the tombstone to deflect such well-meaning, but destructive additions. Appropriately, however, a pearl necklace remains.
Lil Lovell – a beautiful prostitute in Denver who may have originally worked at the Old Homestead according to “Brothels, Bordellos, and Bad Girls – Prostitution in Colorado, 1860-1930” written by Jan MacKell Collins.
Mim Eichmann’s debut historical fiction novel “A Sparrow Alone” – a provocative coming-of-age saga of female empowerment during the 1890s Cripple Creek, CO gold rush — was published on April 15, 2020 by Living Springs Publishers of Centennial, CO. Ms. Eichmann is a professional musician, singer/songwriter and choreographer living in Wheaton, Il. Her author website is: www.mimeichmann.com.
Today’s guest post is written by Jennifer Anton, the historical fiction author of Under the Light of the Italian Moon. I’d like to welcome Jennifer to the blog today and wish her much success on her blog tour. For additional stops on this tour, please scroll to the bottom and see information.
Jennifer Anton on How Mussolini’s Fascism Impacted Women
Since 2006, when I started researching my grandmother’s life in Italy, I’ve come to learn a lot about life for girls and women under il Duce. Life was not easy living under a dictator, yet we rarely hear about history from a women’s point of view. Instead, we hear about great battles, war hero soldiers, millions dying while men vie for power and other men race with guns and bombs to stop them. While the women suffer, outside of the decision making of heads of state, watching their children starve and attempting to hold families together. Such was the case for the women of Italy and the focus of my debut novel, Under the Light of the Italian Moon.
When I was born, an article in a local paper featured my birth and the advancements in 1977 technology vs. my great-great grandmother’s experience in rural northern Italy. Adelasia Dalla Santa Argenta was a professionally trained midwife, known as La Capitana. She was a bold woman willing to risk a bullet during WWI to aid in the birth of a child. A story lingers in the town of Fonzaso about a doctor coming to get her in the middle of the night. He asked her if she had her gun. She replied, “I don’t need a gun. I have my cross.” She knew she couldn’t trust men, but she could trust her faith.
Poster of il Duce’s local fascists in the town of Fonzaso, Italy
As a practicing midwife in the interwar years, the policies of il Duce would have directly impacted her trade. ONMI (L’Opera nazionale maternità e infanzia) which launched in 1925, would have been seen as a positive government investment in the health of women and children. A midwife would have welcomed it. But she wouldn’t have wanted the control that came along with the benefits. Mussolini was famous for his 1927 Ascension Day speech, where he made it clear that an Italian woman’s job was to provide babies for Italy. Population increases would mean an expansion of his empire and military. A woman’s body became a vessel for the state.
Photo of Fonzaso (rights given by Giovanni Battista)
Nina Argenta and Adelasia Dalla Santa Argenta
Women were discouraged from working outside their homes and families. Abortion was banned. Contraceptive education was made illegal; even explaining natural birth control methods was against the law. But il Duce’sBattle for Births never saw its intended outcome. Mussolini couldn’t control everything inside the homes, in the bedrooms of the women he called on to provide the babies. Midwives had a level of control and influence even he could not penetrate.
Mussolini convinced the masses with a crowd-drawing bravado. He used violence via his black shirts, who visited naysayers with forced castor oil cocktails until they cramped into submission. He discredited the press in order to rise to control. “Il Duce ha sempre ragione.”Il Duce is always right. Women watched husbands leave for war, held the home front as towns were bombed and Nazi’s occupied with violent atrocities.
All of my female ancestors dealt first hand with Mussolini’s masochistic reign. They survived two World Wars and with a strength not of guns or brute force, but of resilience and a fierce will to survive with their families. These women are unsung heroes, and they should not be forgotten.
Book Title:Under the Light of the Italian Moon
Author: Jennifer Anton
Publication Date: 8th March 2021
Publisher: Amsterdam Publishers
Page Length: 394 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction/Biographical Fiction
A promise keeps them apart until WW2 threatens to destroy their love forever Fonzaso Italy, between two wars Nina Argenta doesn’t want the traditional life of a rural Italian woman. The daughter of a strong-willed midwife, she is determined to define her own destiny. But when her brother emigrates to America, she promises her mother to never leave.
When childhood friend Pietro Pante briefly returns to their mountain town, passion between them ignites while Mussolini forces political tensions to rise. Just as their romance deepens, Pietro must leave again for work in the coal mines of America. Nina is torn between joining him and her commitment to Italy and her mother.
As Mussolini’s fascists throw the country into chaos and Hitler’s Nazis terrorise their town, each day becomes a struggle to survive greater atrocities. A future with Pietro seems impossible when they lose contact and Nina’s dreams of a life together are threatened by Nazi occupation and an enemy she must face alone… A gripping historical fiction novel, based on a true story and heartbreaking real events. Spanning over two decades, Under the Light of the Italian Moon is an epic, emotional and triumphant tale of one woman’s incredible resilience during the rise of fascism and Italy’s collapse into WWII.
Jennifer Anton is an American/Italian dual citizen born in Joliet, Illinois and now lives between London and Lake Como, Italy. A proud advocate for women’s rights and equality, she hopes to rescue women’s stories from history, starting with her Italian family.
In conjunction with the Author Takeover at The Historical Fiction Club, I’d like to welcome to the blog today, Elizabeth St. John, the author of the fabulous Lydiard Chronicles.
If you would like to join the author takeover on May 10th, please visit The Historical Fiction Club, join the group and the discussion!! Also, you might get the chance to win some prizes!!
Elizabeth St. John spends her time between California, England, and the past. An acclaimed author, historian, and genealogist, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Lydiard Park and Nottingham Castle to Richmond Palace and the Tower of London to inspire her novels. Although the family sold a few country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them– in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their legacy. And the occasional ghost. But that’s a different story.
Having spent a significant part of her life with her seventeenth-century family while writing The Lydiard Chronicles trilogy and Counterpoint series, Elizabeth St. John is now discovering new family stories with her fifteenth-century namesake Elysabeth St.John Scrope, and her half-sister, Margaret Beaufort.
I am privileged to host today’s guest, Antoine Vanner, the historical fiction author of nine books in the “Dawlish Chronicles” – Antoine Vanner found himself flattered when nautical novelist Joan Druett described him as the “The Tom Clancy of historic naval fiction”, and I must say, I was quite humbled with this interview.
A repost from a while back, since this discussion keeps popping back up!!
I recently got entrenched in a discussion about the true nature of historical fiction, i.e. what is it? what is the true definition? how does an author keep the integrity of history while maintaining a creative license? and so forth….
So, here are my thoughts, as well as some of the comments from the discussion. In definition, the Google definition of historical fiction, it reads: is defined as movies and novels in which a story is made up but is set in the past and sometimes borrows true characteristics of the time period in which it is set. A novel that makes up a story about a Civil War battle that really happened is an example of historical fiction.
Sometimes, I feel, it is hard to define the difference between being a FICTION author and holding true to history. We are, after all, not historians, but we want to represent history as true, or at least to the extent that is commonly accepted as truth in our society. But, to be fair, even some historians who research and research history often have conflicting accounts about what is true and what is not true. How should this affect the historical fiction author? ‘Tis a quandary….
Here is where I will share some of the comments in the discussion. Please read and share your thoughts in the comment section below:
Paula Lofting, moderator of the Historical Writer’s Forum, opened the discussion with this:
“What is the best definition of historical fiction and does it mean that it should be as accurate an depiction of a time and its events, or should there be a free for all with the facts, after all its fiction isn’t it type attitude?
Personally this is my view – I like my historical fiction to be as true to the time, events, and environmental settings as possible. I am more bothered about the atmosphere, costumery, architecture, and landscape than I am by the language and events, however I prefer to write these as accurately as possible when I am writing myself. If I am reading historical fiction then the story must come first because there is no point in having an accurate read if the plot or story line is boring and dull. and story is dull. Secondly I want the characters to ‘look’ like someone of that time, what they wear etc, daily life, what buildings they lived in etc, creating an atmosphere that makes me feel i’m in the for example 15thc, Lastly, if it is about fictional characters then of course the story is a made up one and this goes without saying, but where the facts are changed to suit the story, I would prefer they weren’t but I don’t mind if they are as long as the author leaves a historical note explaining where they have used their author’s licence. Where the facts are missing, I’m happy to allow the author to fill in the facts with plausible explanations.”
To which, led to some of these comments:
Rachel McDonough: Try to be as accurate as you can, otherwise what is the point of it being historical fiction. Inaccuracies can take the reader out of the story. The history is part of the experience, so get it right!
Julie Newman: Historical fiction is a story within a story, but you have to do your research and make sure you know as many of the historical facts as possible. The reader will discard your work if there are any discrepancies. Given that history is always changing the more we unearth but we need to be true to the facts of the time.
Rachel V Knox: It depends a little bit on what you’re writing. If it’s fiction set in a time there’s more freedom so maybe the story comes first. I’ve just written one based on real people, so the story was restricted to facts, making researching facts foremost to the story which developed based on that.
Kate Jewell: I like to be as accurate as I can be with the historic events, politics etc. And the social history side especially travelling times. (Fun to research that stuff!)
Language is a bit more of a problem. I want the reader to get a flavour of the period through the language used by my characters but not being so pedantic that I loose them. I’ve been surprised several times when looking up an alternative word or phrase that would fit the 15th C better to find that what I thought of first was actually in use during my period. Something to do with being immersed in the period maybe!
Of course, the writer of Historical Fiction lays him/herself open to all sorts of dangers, not least the discovery of facts unknown at the time of writing that could make a nonsense of their original plot. The archeology that has been done to determine the exact site of the Bosworth battle field for example. And the dIscovery of Richard III and the analysis of his dna. How many books describe him as having dark eyes and black hair?
Kerry Lynne Smith: How do we (both reader and writer) know what the “facts” really are? Anyone who has studied history for long comes to realize that it’s an ever-evolving, constantly changing. What was thought of as “fact” forty or even twenty years ago is now laughed at as folly. The more adamant one insists that they know what “really happened” the more they show their ignorance. All the HF writer can do is use what “facts” are satisfying to them and their purpose. It’s then up to the reader to decide if it is or isn’t pleasing, satisfactory to whatever their perceptions and expectations are.
What a way to retell a story about King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn!! If you’ve ever wanted to know about the inner workings of the household, told from a servant’s POV, one who was closely linked to the infamous King and his wives, well, this is the book to get. This is the story of Bess Davydd, a young girl bought by Henry VIII to become a minstrel for his court, a songstress whose voice is as a nightingales. During the storyline, you are offered brief glimpses and encounters with the royals (i.e. Henry and Anne) but the story is much more about Bess and her love interests – Tom, another bought minstrel, and Nick, a nobleman. The story is compact, well-developed, and stretches into the depths of emotions separating commoners from the high-born, as well as showing the commonality, the human element. If I have one negative, and perhaps it is only from my POV, I struggled with wrapping my head around her age, of how young she is when she starts to experience “love” and with her sounding like a woman at the age of ten to fourteen. I mean, I get it, I know from my own research into history that girls at that age and in that time period were wives and mothers by the time they were fourteen, even younger, but I did struggle a bit with it. However, my own feelings did not overwhelm the overall story, to which I enjoyed thoroughly. I give this book five stars and will highly recommend to anyone who loves books about the Tudor era.