Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Biography, and being a detective/historian

One of my summer projects has been to begin working on writing a biography of Eliza Lucas Pinckney for middle grade readers. I wrote a little about it here, explaining why I decided to do this. I'm excited about this - I'm learning so much,not only about Eliza Pinckney and her time (1722-1793) but also about the process of biography writing.

I've read some great essays by biographers about writing biographies. I recommend the book Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography, which is transcripts of a series of talks by American biographers about the process of researching and creating a biography. It's fascinating.

I'm now reading the first adult book I have about Eliza Pinckney. It's a biography written by a descendent of hers, Harriott Horry Rabenel, in 1898. Rabenel used lots of Eliza's letters for this biography, interspersed with other information and her own opinions. Reading it in 2017 is like trying to see the 18th century through a 19th century lens. Both Eliza and Rabenel include information that is difficult or incomprehensible without some further context. Sometimes Rabenel will explain things that Eliza writes about, but sometimes she doesn't and also adds 19th century information that needs explanation in the 21st century. Maybe I'll find that context in another source later on. I have a greater appreciation for historians now.

Eliza Pinckney is mostly known for her successful efforts to bring indigo planting to South Carolina. She was left in charge of her family's three plantations when she was 16 or 17 years old. Her father, an officer in the British military, had been called to the West Indies during one of the wars with Spain. She was passionate about botany and after trying for several years, she figured out how to grow indigo successfully, creating a hugely profitable crop for the colony.

Her life was much more than just indigo, however. She was an extremely busy young lady. She read, studied, taught her younger siblings, visited extensively with friends, and wrote many, many letters. She also married, had three children, and was widowed at a fairly young age, at which time she took over managing her husband's property.

I have been reading the letters that are included in the biography and I am struck by her lovely writing style. We have many of the letters because she copied nearly all of the letters she sent into a "letterbook." (Again, when did she have time for this?) Her writing style reminds me of Jane Austen, which makes sense as they are about the same time period. Here's an excerpt  from a letter written when the family spent several years in England:

"Poor dear Miss Carew! I am so very sorry her journey to Bath has been of so little effect, we have had such dreadful weather for her complaints. I long much to see her, and we shall certainly wait on yr. Ladyship and Sir Nicolas before we leave England..."

What a lively voice! After her beloved husband died unexpectedly, she wrote from South Carolina to her sons, who were in England at school. This time I was reminded of Charles Dickens (the spelling and punctuation is the original):

"How shall I write to you, what shall I say to you my dear, my ever dear children? but if possible more so now than ever, for I have a tale to tell you that will pierce your tender infant hearts; you have mett my children with the greatest loss you could meet with upon earth your Dear father the best and most valuable of Parents is no more."

We are so lucky to have these letters. They bring Eliza to life again in a way. I'm only surprised that no one else has written a modern biography of this interesting woman.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Opportunistic Garden

This morning I spent 45 minutes weeding our garden in an attempt to prepare to plant something. I know, it's July 4th! Most people's gardens are planted and flourishing by now. However, I'm a teacher and the spring planting time is also end-of-school time, with the rush to finish everything, write report cards... It's a runaway train. So gardening falls to the wayside. On top of that, Chicago has had a lot of bad weather -- torrential rains especially.

I am also not a good gardener. I love plants. I can do pots quite well and we have a lovely array of flowers and herbs in pots on our patio. It's low stakes gardening.

The garden that challenges me is the plot in our back yard that used to be our vegetable garden. We planted tomatoes, zucchini, asparagus, and so on, until our trees grew so large and shady that the garden no longer got enough sun to grow vegetables. It sat rather neglected, gathering weeds and fallen branches, with a lone rhubarb plant in one corner.

However, it does include a few accidental "crops." About ten years ago I made the mistake of putting a mint plant at one end of the garden. If you've ever planted mint you know that once in the ground you will never get rid of it! So at one end of the garden we have a mint crop. I pull plants regularly to keep it from taking over everything and they smell nice. Mint tea, anyone?

About 15 or so years ago, our then next door neighbor decided to plant tiger lilies on his side of the fence. We have had a couple new families in that house since then and the tiger lilies have disappeared from that side of the fence but have taken up residence in our garden. I have dug them out in the past only to have them return, so this year I decided to let them have a little space in the plot. They are pretty.

Our last unexpected squatter is strawberries. I think they probably migrated from the composter into the garden and are now established in one corner of the garden. They are pretty with tiny red berries, and the squirrels and birds enjoy eating them.

What about the rest of the garden? Some more work and then hopefully some new, shade-loving plants will join the opportunistic residents.

Our potted patio garden

Our shady garden with the opportunistic residents