I am pleased to introduce Juliet Waldron, a world traveler, fellow cat lover and historical novelist. Her fiction explores the variations on pre-assigned gender roles in marriage. Two exceptional men that she has written about are Mozart and Alexander Hamilton.
MJN: I see a thematic pattern in your work. You seem to be fascinated by "odd couples" consisting of a misunderstood idealist husband and a more grounded, loving but nagging wife. You've written about Mozart and his wife Konstanze, who was depicted by her contemporaries as a soul-stifling philistine. Then you have Alexander Hamilton and his all too often resentful wife Betsy who thinks that he loves America more than he loves his family. I keep scratching my head, wondering why do people pick each other. My cynical theory is that people are self-serving. They like the prestige and the mystique of being married to an extraordinary person, but they don't want to deal with all the side effects. Everyone likes chocolate but not the weight gain. What are your thoughts?
JW: I see my books as more about the institution of marriage and about power relations between the sexes, both in historical times, and, by extension, today. Personally, I'm a veteran of 50 years of marriage, much of it un-sunny. I don't see Stanzi as a philistine, for the prime qualification for that designation would be ignorance. She was born into a family whose stock in trade was music: "Wir sind Musiker;" one of her nephews was Carl Maria von Weber, so the genes for talent were present. Stanzi performed Mozart's music, too, so her voice, like her two prima donna sisters, must have been exceptional. I read the family letters in depth, and I see over and over again her husband's cavalier attitude toward his earnings. Warped by his unusual upbringing, full of adulation and easy money, he never quite made the transition to adulthood. As charming and gifted as he was, I thought I detected a definite Peter Pan element to his character. And, of course, in this current resurgence of fundamentalism all over the globe, the harsh reality of his wife's experience--six children born in nine years--brought home to me how any expectation of women as intellectually contributing members of society must be founded upon equality under the law with men + a right to birth control.
The Hamiltons are similar, but not the same. Hamilton too was damaged by his childhood, but in another way. He grew up in genteel poverty with the label "bastard" pinned like a target on his back. He spent his life vindicating the image his feckless father had had of himself--that of "gentleman"--with all the ferocious 18th Century loading inherent in the term. He literally killed himself in his quest for fame and honor; even his nearest and dearest saw him as quixotic. His work during America's founding, especially in the Federal period, can only be described as "heroic," and he deserves to be remembered that way. His wife--another "ordinary woman married to an extraordinary man," loved him deeply, but he hurt her in a thousand ways with infidelity and professionally unavoidable absences. I think, rather like Stanzi and Wolfgang--and many couples who marry young--neither party had a clue about the person they were marrying. As far as Eliza Hamilton goes, she loved her man and stood by him. She spent the 50 years after her husband's demise working to preserve his papers and to refute those long-lived political rivals who never ceased to belittle and slander him. Posterity owes these two women a considerable debt of gratitude, for they both--although for different reasons--preserved the written legacies of their matchless husbands.
MJN: One of my favorite Scottish folk songs is "If I was a Blackbird", in which the gender roles are actually reversed. You have an adventurous female who sails the stormy seas and a more hearth-oriented suitor frustrated by the fact that he is not the center of her universe. Can you think of a similar love story in history that you could cultivate into a novel?
JW: Another provocative question. I’ve never really considered this aspect, although I don’t believe that men have a corner either on genius or adventurousness. Hamilton’s mother Rachel might fill the bill, although, of course, not much is known about her. She not only taught him what it takes to run a business and how to balance the books, but, after casting off two bad husbands, she apparently lived a free woman’s life in the rough, tough 18th Century West Indies. She was making money in a small way and taking care of business, but her personal life was her own. Yellow fever, not the usual childbirth—like the brave Mary Wollenstonecroft and so many other early feminists-- cut her life short and left her sensitive, brilliant son an orphan.
MJN: I am moved to tears by your statement that you'd "owed King Richard a novel for fifty years". I'm referring to your novel Roan Rose. Given how prolific you've been with historical fiction, it's hard to imagine that you had carried the story inside you for half a century. If I understood correctly, your Mozart novels also took about 20 years of research to cultivate.
JW: The back story here is that I was an only lonely child living in the country with two rather self-involved, alcoholic parents. Being “good” meant not bothering anyone, sitting behind the couch with a book or listening to classical music. Very early on I developed an emotional reliance on music, reading, and upon imaginary companions, a chronicle of obsessions. The first two were Alexander Hamilton—I’d read a colorful Edwardian fiction about him—and Richard III, via The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. I began writing Ricardian and Hamiltonian fiction in my ‘tweens, but “real” life intervened, with an early marriage, two children, the Sixties, trying to pick up the pieces that were left after the Sixties, etc. Richard seriously “came back on me” around 1991, when I joined an inspirational and dauntingly well-informed online group of arm-chair historians: “Later Medieval Britain.” That was when Rose appeared, first as a device for telling a familiar story from a new angle, one which dealt with class as well as gender. As characters do, the fictional Rose became as important to me as my beloved Richard and Anne. As for Alexander and his Eliza, their book was already lying “in the drawer,” by the end of the 80’s. They’d too had taken the opportunity to reappear soon after Mozart and his music finally released me.
By that time, I was just as interested in the woman's experience in that colonial/federal world, so realizing Eliza became just as important as realizing Alexander. In fact, Elizabeth Schuyler had a great deal to talk about and her POV took over the greater part of A Master Passion. Once again, I'd found a strong woman standing behind a famous man.
MJN: Not all misunderstood geniuses and lonely dreamers come across as openly self-destructive. Some of them come across as fairly well-adjusted. They are very charming in social settings ... and then you find out one morning that they blew their brains out or overdosed on prescription drugs. Do you think that people are good at wearing masks and concealing chronic melancholy, or their moods truly do swing from one extreme to another?
JW: Absolutely! The late Robin Williams comes to mind. There’s an isolation that goes with genius. First off, more often than not people don't know what the hell you're on about, and they are too busy with the Kardashians or whatever to care.
MJN: One of your earlier gigs was posing as an artist's model. It sounds very glamorous when you first hear about it. People don't realize the hard work that goes into it. Try holding a pose or a facial expression for several hours?
JW: It's physically VERY difficult. At first, too, it's taxing to be the only naked person in a room of people who are dressed and scrutinizing you. I was not, truth to tell, very good at it, especially not at the long stillness it required. I was also pregnant, which posed other difficulties relating to endurance. When I wrote that bio many years back, I thought, well, I've done something unusual. Why not put that in? ;) But mostly I've been someone's wife and someone's mother, the cook and the cleaner, first and foremost, with secretarial jobs, customer service jobs and temp jobs wrapped around and sandwiched in between. That's probably why I write the kind of stories I do, because I can't help but believe there's a genuine valor in having spent your life in doing what women have done--without much comment--for thousands of years.
Thanks so much for your interest and the opportunity to appear on your blog. It was, I have to say, a uniquely clarifying exercise.