Have a drink with: Fanny Fern
Reform yourselves, gentlemen!
Ask her about: Menswear styles for fall
“Fanny Fern” was the pen name of Sarah Willis Parton, a popular 19th century writer who advocated for women’s independence, kept her pencil sharp and her wit sharper, and insisted on being paid handsomely for her output: she got $100 a column, making her the highest-paid newspaper writer in the nation at the time, and was therefore criticized for “certain bold, masculine expressions that we should like to see chastened.”
Like fellow 1800s firebrand Delia Bacon, she was educated by Catherine Beecher and came into her adult fame and abilities after exercising considerable survival skills (her second husband was an abusive turd, and she overcame initial rejection and the opposition of her own family to get herself published).
Clear-eyed and honed sharp by the time she began publishing in her forties, Sarah was a dynamo, and did not shy from conspicuously poking at any hypocrisy or injustice that reared its head within her view.
Have a drink with: Jenny Lind
The one and only Swedish Nightingale
Ask her about: The hot concert tour of 1850
The Greatest Showman, a movie musical about the life and legend of P.T. Barnum, is a colorful, kinetic romp through the most recognizable part of Barnum’s entertainment oeuvre, with Hugh Jackman at the fore in ringmaster’s tails and gold-capped boots. And while the musical admirably captures Barnum’s unparalleled capacity for expansive joy and puckish innovation, it does so by taking some Jumbo-sized liberties with the real version of events (though, frankly, what’s more Barnum than taking a good story and embellishing the hell out of it?)
Insofar as the movie pivots on the suggestion that Barnum and his star, the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, had the hots for each other, that one is right out: I’m over at Vanity Fair explaining why.
Have a drink with: Marie Tussaud
Utility, amusement, severed heads.
Ask her about: working motherhood
Looking forward to Halloween, I’m at Atlas Obscura today writing about Madame Marie Tussaud, the 19th century entertainer and artist who got her start making death masks of decapitated French revolutionaries. Marie left France at forty years old, with her toddler and a bag of wax heads in tow, ready to bet on a new life (one that did not include her husband, who she’d as soon have smacked with a two-by-four). She knew that the public loved two things – royal tabloid news and bloody Victorian crime – and she gladly obliged with newer and better attractions every year, parading a collection of wax notables around England and Scotland for twenty years before settling in a sprawling London gallery. She died in 1850 with credit for Britain’s most popular tourist attraction, an institution that in intervening years has given rise to a collection of two dozen global wax museums.
Click over to Atlas Obscura to read the whole story. Meanwhile…
Have a drink with: Bathing Suit Lizards
Ask them about: Beachy fun, pig roasts, union cosplay.
If you’re thinking about ways to enjoy your summer, rest assured: the past can help. As it turns out, just like you, people in the early 20th century spent plenty of time thinking about things like bathing suit fashions, picnic etiquette, kid-friendly outings and water safety.
Bring the Kids!
At the annual Asbury Park Baby Parade in 1919, 75,000 people attended the annual pageant, complete with carriages, floats, pony carts, a Tom Thumb wedding and, for the first time in the history of the parade, an official contribution by New Jersey itself: the state being officially represented by two floats courtesy of the Bureau of Child Hygiene, “one a symbolization of the mother State protecting the children, the other a humorous float depicting ‘A Strike in Babyland.”
Paternalism! Tiny Teamsters! Ponies!
So. On to barbecue?
Have a drink with: Thomas Nashe
It was the merry month of February…
Ask him about: Valentine’s Day plans
Though he lived in Elizabethan England, Thomas Nashe was not an unfamiliar figure to modern thinking: in his twenties, Nashe was out of college, short on funds and trying to make it as a writer in London. It was a tough time for a writer without independent wealth or consistent patronage – plague outbreaks made life dangerous and, as a practical matter, often closed the theaters that called on writers for material. And while young Thomas was very talented, let’s face it: when you’re a freelance writer, no matter how good you are sometimes you’ve just gotta pay the bills. Sometimes having to “prostitute my pen in hope of gain” means writing corporate sales copy, sometimes it means ghostwriting, and yes, sometimes it means reluctantly writing raunchy poems about sex toys. Welcome to the Elizabethan Cialis ad.
Have a drink with: La Befana
Auguri. Va bene.
Ask her about: Getting stuff done.
In Catholicism, January 6 is the feast of the Epiphany: the last of the twelve days of Christmas and the day on which the three visiting kings are said to arrive to meet the baby Jesus.
And in Italian legend, it’s when La Befana comes to visit. And trust me, your holiday life needs La Befana. Because say what you will about Christmas, but it’s a predictable holiday. Man in red suit; bizarre Bing-Bowie version of Little Drummer Boy; cookies for the man, carrots for the reindeer; cars winning the Giant Bow Invitational; gifts for everyone whether you’ve been naughty or nice.
La Befana to the rescue: because if the Christmas season needs anything, it’s a cranky, elderly Italian lady with a heart of gold, a sack full of cheese, and an advance wine order for a nice red.
Have a drink with: Queen Isabella of Spain
Queen, ass-kicker, Rules girl, working mom
Ask her about: kicking everyone out of Spain
A few year-end lists recommended Kristin Downey’s biography of Queen Isabella, so lately I’ve been knee-deep in early modern Spain and a lot of questions about the famous lady.
What is image-making and what is truth? Was Isabella the complete idealized ruler? Was she calculating, maniacal? Was she or Ferdinand more responsible for ills like the Inquisition or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain? What aspects did her piety carry?
All of this brings me back to one of history’s most prevalent and maddening problems: unless you were there (and in most cases you weren’t), you can’t know exactly how things went. And even if you were, your reaction is yours alone – and trying to get into the head of any person other than yourself is foggy work. It’s the police lineup problem, or like being in a family where everyone has a slightly different story of how that fight at Christmas dinner went down, and everyone except that one cousin thinks Uncle Steve’s a jerk.
Said more nobly by John Gaddis: “but the past, in another sense, is something we can never have. For by the time we’ve become aware of what had happened it’s already inaccessible to us: we cannot relive, retrieve, or rerun it as we might some laboratory experiment or computer simulation. We can only represent it…We can perceive shapes through the fog and mist, we can speculate as to their significance, and sometimes we can even agree among ourselves as to what these are.”
Put another way, how do we solve a problem like Isabella?
Have a drink with: St. Teresa of Avila
Reformer, mystic, dreamer, smart lady.
Ask her about: that time she told the devil to piss off.
I grew up thinking saints were terribly stodgy, righteous people who had somehow gotten themselves onto life’s “Do Not Call” list for doubt and temptation. It wasn’t until later in life, when I learned that hagiography is basically a template for fictionalizing the lives of remarkable yet messy people, that I realized many of them would probably have made excellent drinking buddies.
My personal favorite is Saint Teresa of Avila, the first woman doctor of the Catholic Church and a stone-cold sixteenth-century bad-ass. I own a St. Teresa coloring book. You can’t but be awesome if someone made a coloring book about you.
Teresa grew up in sixteenth-century Spain, smack in the middle of what we’d now call the early modern period in Europe and the Spanish (Counter-) Reformation. This is to say: Lots Going On. Europe had suddenly gone pro in hair-splitting points of church doctrine; academic humanism was on the way up; there was explosive growth in art, writing and theater; hybridization and tension thanks to Jewish and north African cultural influences in Spain; and also there’s the disturbing effect of inbreeding on the Hapsburg family jaw. Plus, iconoclasm and poop jokes.