My partner Jeff and I have been redecorating my office in anticipation of the arrival of new furniture which I purchased recently (See “Creating Space to Write”.). On Saturday, we ripped up old wall-to-wall carpeting that had been installed over 10 years ago by the previous owners of the townhouse. As we pulled the carpet pad back, we noticed a loose board in the pine flooring. Curious, we lifted it up. Inside we found a treasure trove.
The townhouse was constructed in 1901, and for quite a few years, it served as a boarding house. It still feels compartmentalized, each room its own little bubble of life, like a dormitory. So, it’s not surprising that one of the boarders who lived here would leave behind traces of his or her existence. Under the floorboard and coated with fine dust, we found a letter penned by a woman named Catherine; a hand-drawing of Harold Lloyd, a famous silent film comedian; three empty Chesterfield cigarette packets; two Hershey bar wrappers; and an ad for women’s cosmetics, all dating back to the 1920’s or early 1930’s.
This is the sort of thing I live for. The past has always held a fascination for me, particularly the first part of the 20th century, when life was rapidly, breathlessly becoming modern, the American infatuation with progress crashing into older, more conservative sensibilities. I even set my first novel during the 1920s, and my second during the 1940s. Finding fragments from a life lived during the 1920’s and 30’s—especially fragments which seem so unconscious (not orchestrated for posterity)—is food for my imagination. So, I took the time to transcribe Catherine’s letter. Here’s what I could piece together:
Please don’t think I have forgotten you I only wish you thought of me as much as I do of you. But you know everything is with … it is quite unfors … me … to see you … then I do … wish you could … how badly I want … you I have a lot … you. If you can a … to come to see me real soon let me know and I will be at home any day you say. The weather
have has been very hot and sulky here we haven’t … any rain for nearly three … so you know how hot … I went to the movies and saw dancing sweeties. I mean it was a really hot picture. I just wish you could see me now. It is 3:00 AM and I still have my night gown … I haven’t even combed my hair … writing this letter with … me and I got ink all … night gown and leg. Some … [a]sk?) We were Chapel … s Sunday. W… the water … stagesant [stagnant?] do to hot weather … [wou]ldn’t allow you to take any showers on account of the shortage of water For there hadn’t been any rain for a long while. Gee it surly is lonesome here all day with nothing to do … time I realy hate my self … answer soon as I want … from you— Catherine
So, who is Catherine? Did she live for a time in my office? Did she smoke Chesterfields and blow smoke out the window, hiding them when the landlord came around? She must have loved Hershey’s bars, but why hang on to the wrappers? Why did she keep a doodle of Harold Lloyd? Who is the “Pal” she addresses in the letter? Or maybe it was “Pal” who lived in my office. After all, the letter is folded as if it had been mailed. But what would he be doing with a cosmetics ad? Of course, there’s no reason why Pal couldn’t have been a woman, right? One thing is certain, though, Catherine missed Pal and felt insecure about their relationship: “I only wish you thought of me as much as I do you.” There is irrefutable residue of her emotion.
Like the letter, the lives of these people are so full of ellipses—ellipses that no amount of research can fill. I believe it’s the job of the writer of serious historical fiction to use his or her imagination to fill in the ellipses left by time. History is recorded almost always by those in power and most certainly with posterity in mind. It’s up to the writer of historical fiction to see beyond the facade of history and imagine how life was lived by those not in power—women, blacks, gays, etc.
This reminds me of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:
“For fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science my be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners … But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”
Shortly after this passage, Woolf imagines the life of Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, who she invents to demonstrate how it’s only through imagination that we can begin to understand the truth of the past.
Catherine and her lover have already begun to stir in the corners of my mind. I’m sure that I’ll write about them, and it will be 99% invention, but no less true, no less significant. I must recreate them to say something about the past, to give a legacy for what has been forgotten or edited out of the history books.