Again in response to a very helpful suggestion from a “dear reader” of MPM’s, we are venturing into an exploration of the clues she left about her writing process. Over the years, she kept various notebooks and loose notes tracking her projects, all of which we’re just beginning to unpack (literally and figuratively). Eventually, this will all be archived (about which, more as we have information).
So we can start here with just a modest set of handwritten notes from a small three-ring notebook Barbara was carrying with her between 1962 and 1964 (with a few random notes from later years). In this notebook she documented aspects of her family’s move to live in Rome for 2 years, as well as a trip she took to Egypt. The loose-leaf pages contain her observations on many topics pertinent to her writings — intermingled with to-do lists, etc., and occasional brilliant artwork by her young kids. (We are completely objective on this last point.)
Within this funny mix of mundane and writerly notes, it’s apparent that Barbara was always busy scouting various terrains for possible book topics and ideas. As devoted readers of Peters and Michaels know, settings for the books ranged across time as well as all over the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. It probably would not surprise those readers that we found notes on English history peppered throughout a notebook where she tracked the costs of an outing to Pompeii and kept shopping lists. Some of the notes detailed her ongoing and systematic search through a journal (Archaeologia– and remember, this was long before one could search online…). For example, there’s a series of notes on heraldry:
“Archaeologia 1949: The Ghost or Shadow as a Charge in Heraldry. Charge is blazoned “ombre” or “umbra” in Fr. + Latin. Tr. “ghost or phantom;” but by Engl. armorists it was misread shadow”…. (& these MPM notes go on for several pages-the underlining in these excerpts is hers)
More notes from the same journal track articles on “King John’s Baggage Train,” the “Body of Henry IV at Canterbury, lead perfectly preserved,” and one from 1883 on “Decorations of H. VII’s chapel” that clearly delighted her imagination:
“St. Wilgeforte (sic), In H. VII’s chapel, a young woman with long hair + turban and beard. … Was a famous image of her at St. Paul’s, + she was once a favorite. A saint who had obtained a beard to escape matrimony, thus should have some sympathy for ladies who wished to escape from it. Ladies who had husbands they wished to get rid of used to ask for her help, hence her popular name of St. Uncumber.
(Ladies who wanted husbands paid their devotions to Rood of Northdoor at St. Paul’s — Paston Letters, 11, 23.)
Uncumber is mentioned by T. More. She is offered oats — possibly because she provides a horse for an evil “housebonde” to ryde to the Devyll upon. In Ger. she was called Kummerniss, St. Liberata in Portugal + France.”
A small triumphant notation states: “Checked Archaeologia 1890 – 1909“. This was years before her book on The Murders of Richard III, but it seems as if Barbara was busily soaking up ideas from all over the historical sources she could access, as they engaged her interest and imagination. She would later explain that: “The research skills I learned can be applied to any field; I have used them to collect background material for novels that deal with the Peasants’ Revolt, Etruscan archaeology, vintage clothing, the Risorgimento, the chartist movement, and innumerable other subjects. Accuracy is very important to me as a novelist; not only does my own professional pride demand it, but I have many readers whose expertise in various fields is at least as great as my own. They can and do chastise me when I make mistakes.” (Yikes! Daunting!)
Whether to avoid mistakes or just to pick up ideas, she was clearly scouting many possible terrains for her novels from very early on. Canadian comics artist Kate Beaton seems to engage in a very similar process, investigating all sorts of historical sources to come up with ideas for her hilarious send-offs of people and events from long ago. For Barbara, going to original sources and places as much as she could, steeping herself in the little details of different lives: all this became a rich and fertile background from which more full-blown characters and plot lines would eventually emerge — sometimes surfacing as a (seemingly) throw-away line that made dialogue feel richer, other times forming a major backbone for particular plot arcs. In the meantime, it’s apparent she was also having a lot of fun!
In response to a great suggestion from one of Barbara’s “dear readers,” we’ve been inspired to post a little something about the room where she did her writing, in her beloved “MPM Manor” out in the Maryland countryside. She bought the old farmhouse from an interior designer, so it had already been decked out and updated in style. The study area already had a beautifully draped fabric hung from the ceiling; when it came time to replace that, MPM decided to have fun and “go golden.” Her house contained large collections of all kinds of books — mysteries, science fiction, historical novels, children’s books, classic literature (Jane Austen!), melodramatic old accounts of desert romances, you name it. In the study she kept a collection of her own books — one copy of each edition, including those in many different languages and the audio book versions. She also surrounded herself with books and journals pertaining to her central interests — Ancient Egypt, and the histories surrounding the exploration and development of archaeology there ….
Also bedecking her walls and shelves were many humorous notes and pictures from her writer friends, many of whom shared her often quirky sense of humor. Take, for example, the “Literary Cupcake” prize that she received from a mysterious group — for some serious accomplishments (tooth-chipping, anyone?):
It was less than a month before she died when Barbara put down her pen, announcing that she would not be writing any more. This caught many of us by surprise, much as we’d known the day would have to come. But despite many attempts to “retire” in previous years, she’d always found herself bored, restless, at sea when she stopped writing – and eventually relented to write (usually) “one more” Amelia. As it had been since she was a very young woman, writing remained her solace, the goal toward which so many of her days were bent. Through even the worst of days, it was the imaginative lens through which she loved to think about the world — and the magic that she sought to share with her readers. What a gift.
We’ve been hinting that there might be a surprise or two from MPM Manor. In this post, we reveal a long-held secret, known only to writers and friends who were close to her:
It was Barbara who finished — indeed, wrote much of — her friend Charlotte MacLeod’s last book The Balloon Man.
As Charlotte planned and started to write The Balloon Man, she became increasingly ill and ultimately could not do much more than write an initial section with some sketches of where she wanted the book to go. This was the final book in Charlotte’s beloved Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn series. As a final gift to her dear friend and fellow writer, Barbara sat down with what Charlotte had written, and finished the book. She insisted on doing this anonymously, leaving the profits to go to help Charlotte during her final illness.
In preparation for this painful task, Barbara re-read the Kelling/Bittersohn series, and then attempted to write the book in a voice that was as faithful to Charlotte’s as possible. (It’s possible, now that readers know, that they may detect some Barbara’isms peeking through here and there.) Charlotte wrote in a humorous, erudite, “cozy” style that had always been very appealing to Barbara, and that exemplified the kind of writing in which her “Malice Domestic” crew specialized.
Here’s to writers, and to women, who support each other in meaningful ways — and here’s to paying it forward through many generations to come.
Today would have been Barbara’s 88th birthday …. not quite the triple-digit 111th birthday that Bilbo reached, but a double-digit worth commemorating nonetheless. In honor of the occasion, we’re posting some pictures from Barbara’s 80th birthday, which she celebrated at her beloved Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. As you can see, she was enjoying herself immensely!
Her friends brought out copies of her MA and PhD theses …. and no one will be surprised to learn that her dissertation dealt with some of the notable women in ancient Egypt. AND there was chocolate cake. (We won’t apologize for repeating the picture of the cake, as we share Barbara’s philosophy that one can never have too much of a good thing like chocolate….)
Happy birthday to someone we’re missing — but who would tell us to keep going in style!
In response to our post about bookshelves — and the challenge issued by Bookshelf Battles — we are getting some interesting messages from fans of MPM (aka Barbara). From two faithful fans and readers comes this interesting entry: a picture of Amelia B. Edwards (an early explorer in Egypt) resting on a bookshelf that has some of her books and letters. Like Barbara, and her heroine Amelia Peabody, Amelia B. Edwards fell in love with the art and history of ancient Egypt, and became very involved in preservation efforts. Less known about Edwards was her mystery-writer career, for as William Joy explains, in addition to her travel writings and Egyptological works, she was also a musician, artist, newspaper journalist, poet, short story writer (ghost stories and mysteries!), a novelist, and also a contributor to a children’s book recently discovered, which had been absent from her bibliographies.
The Edwards items on this shelf come from the Egyptology Library of Peggy Joy, a Michigan native and ardent amateur Egyptologist. According to her son William who has been assembling the library: “It’s a continual work in progress, but Amelia B. Edwards has always been a subject of very special interest, and is well represented.” Amelia’s first important travel book (and which served as a model for her later work on Egypt) was: Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys: A Midsummer Ramble in the Dolomites, first issued in 1873; it can be seen on the far right in the bookshelf picture, with a green binding. To its left are a pair of second editions with variant color bindings (typical for Amelia’s books in 1890, when these were issued). Amelia’s magnum opus: A Thousand Miles Up The Nile, which recounted her time in Egypt in 1873–74, was first issued in 1877 (a copy can be seen on the far left). When the second edition appeared (at the same time as the second issue of Untrodden Peaks…), the bindings for both titles were elaborately decorated using the author’s own illustrations; one such copy of A Thousand Miles… can be seen second from left in the picture. To the right of this is a slender volume entitled: The Queen of Egyptology, an early biography of Amelia by the American William Winslow, from 1892. In the foreground, an 1880 letter (hand-written by Amelia) describes her enthusiasm and happiness over the success of what would prove to be her final, but most successful novel: Lord Brackenbury . By the beginning of the next year (and for the remainder of her life), Amelia’s entire attention focused on nothing but ancient Egypt, thus ending her career as a fiction writer. In the winter of 1889–90, Amelia made a tour of American cities, where she lectured on ancient Egyptian subjects. These were subsequently reproduced in print form in Pharaohs, Fellahs and Explorers, a first edition of which can be seen in the middle of the picture.
The portrait of Amelia on the shelf also comes from the time of her American tour. It was taken as soon as she arrived in the United States, at the beginning of November, 1889 (– and notice that she’s wearing her fur-lined coat to ward off New York’s cold winter air!) This portrait was made by the photographer Napoleon Sarony, one of New York City’s more notable eccentrics, and a great friend of the American author Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”), who subsequently became something of a “groupie” for Amelia, following her from town to town, and treating her to dinners. Clemens had a great interest in Egypt, and published his own travel book recounting his time in the Near East: Innocents Abroad, which proved to be the best selling of all his books, during his lifetime. (Barbara was a huge fan of Twain, and was known to cite Innocents Abroad especially when in the company of those of us she suspected had not read it despite her many hints that we should…..)
Below are pics of: (1) Barbara’s own Amelia B. Edwards display with photo and letter; (2) An Edwards “signatures photo” from the Joy collection; and (3) Peggy Joy enjoying her Egyptology library:
The Egyptology Library for his mother is the second William Joy has assembled — here’s an interview with him about the first (a library of general history, literature and art). In this photo Mrs. Joy is examining one of the enormous pages from the famed French publication Description de l’Égypte (1809–29). Her copy once belonged to Egypt’s King Farouk; a circular purple ink stamp in the middle of the right margin reads (translated from Arabic): “From the library of the office of His Excellency the King.” Books on the shelves behind her include Gaston Maspero’s voluminous History of Egypt, atop which rests a first edition of Dr. Thomas Young’s An Account of Some Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphical Literature (1823). Also visible are the first two volumes of a vellum-bound set of Herodotus, as translated by George Rawlinson (with assistance from the Egyptologist Sir John Gardner Wilkinson). Other sets in the picture include Rollin’s The Ancient History of the Egyptians… and the first complete English translation of Bourrienne’s important, if controversial: The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The signatures photo shows examples of the characteristically flamboyant flourish Amelia enjoyed placing below her name. The earliest above (1855) is from a presentation copy of her very first novel My Brother’s Wife, inscribed: “To my dear Aunts Maria & Bessie, from their affectionate niece, Amelia B. Edwards.” The closing of a letter to the English theatrical impresario John Hollingshead, manager of the enormously popular “Gaiety Theatre,” in London’s West End (where Charles Dickens would watch plays; he was also an early and eager supporter of Amelia B. Edwards, and published many of her stories) is from 1877. (Mr. Hollingshead was actually the person who introduced Gilbert and Sullivan to each other…!) The latest of the signatures appears on the back of one of Amelia’s photographs, signed for a fan in Boston, at the end of her American tour, in 1890.