Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Does Love Matter to a Suffragette?

Above: Young Flo and Floss (detail of a small photograph 1905 era)

I got up at a reasonable hour, 6, and bee-lined it for the Internet to read the 1908 Tighsolas letters again, to weave them, somehow, into the first Chapter with the wonderful title (if I say so myself) Just a Change of Colour.

Mr. Darcy, my gallumphing yellow lab/bloodhound mix, usually bounds onto the bed immediately to take my place beside my husband, but this time he followed me out of the bedroom. I let Darcy outside, it was a frosty fall morning, then boiled some water for some tea and grabbed some of my home-made banana bread and set myself down on my oversized armchair in front of the big screen in my living room to work. (Very bad arrangement for my back.)

Boston Backstory

Flora Nicholson, 16, heroine of my novel in progress Flo in the City had a nom de plume (pen name). I know because she used it in two letters to her sisters in 1912. She is at home, they are in Boston, visiting friends and relatives.

Now, there are not many 1908 letters from TIGHSOLAS but what letters there are really set the stage for the Nicholson family saga.

There is only one letter by Flora. It is in August and she is visiting cousin Henry Watters in Newton Centre near Boston. He is a doctor at the hospital there. In her letter Flora mentions in passing visiting a family friend, Mrs. Coy.

This lady, Mrs. Coy then writes a detailed letter back to mother Margaret. She describes how the young people drop in unannounced. "Henry must be doing well as he has Stanley Steamer! " she says. Unfortunately her house is a mess and she can't receive them properly.

You see, Mrs. Coy has no daughters and just one son, Chester, who is, ahem, not inclined to marry. Four years later, in 1912 Marion and Edith visit Henry in Boston and Marion understands that they are trying to set one of them up with Mrs.Coy's son. "Chester is the man these days." (It is at this time that Flora writes her sisters whimsical letters from the porch at Tighsolas in her nom de plume Florrie Anderseed.)

These two American characters are going to play a big part in my story because they provide an interesting contrast. Henry is everything Herb Nicholson is not, a respectable man who is caring of his relations. Mrs. Coy is the opposite or Margaret (or seems to be in her letters). She is miserable because she has no daughters to help her.

But I get ahead of myself: So, in July of 1908 Margaret visits LaTuque where her husband is working on the railway. In her letter home she worries that her daughters Flo and Edith aren't getting enough to eat. "You must eat to be well," she says. Her real worry is that they catch a cold and die. In those days, this kind of thing was not uncommon.

In fact, these Nicholson letters really put the media frenzy over H1N1 or the swine flu into perspective.


Marion is in Montreal teaching, by September. She must write home about going to Dominion Park because Margaret writes back warning her not to see "that awful Pauline". "It should be illegal," she writes. Well, Pauline, I discovered, is a famous hypnotist.

Dominion Park was big thrill park in the East End of Montreal that opened in 1906 and closed,well, before I was born anyway. It is famous for having 'an infant incubator' exhibit, where real live babies (orphans) were on display and being taken care of by nurses for visitors' amusement and education. (Montreal had the highest infant rate mortality in the Western World.) A foreshadowing of the Dionne Quintuplets circus, one could say.

I have posted a 1906 letter on Tighsolas where Herb describes the other more typical attractions, well, the roller coaster (which he doesn't call a roller coaster but 'a train'and fun house.

So back to 1908: Margaret is at home, with only Flora for company, a neighbour's cows get into her garden (a scandal!) and she is being shunned by the Minister and his wife. Church is a big part of the family's life (and a big source of 'entertainment' too) so this must be hard. I assume this is because Margaret is such a vocal suffragist.

Lots to Gossip About!

Norman writes home about some local Richmond gossip. So and So is applying to Parliament for a divorce. In an earlier letter, Margaret gossips that this man is seeing another woman, '"so he might as well throw himself into the Salmon river."

Edith is in a tiny town, Radnor Forges, near Three Rivers teaching in spring, but she quits at end of term. (The next year the rural school closes anyway for lack of pupils). She advises her mother to not mention certain items in letters. "Everything here is spread broadcast in a few hours," she writes. I am intrigued by the word "broadcast". Wireless, as they called radio during the first part of the century, was just being invented by Marconi. So, the figure of speech came before the arrival of the medium of radio.

Edith likes to gossip, a lot. Some girls are incorrigible flirts, she says, some boys big babies. Still she mentions in a letter to sister Marion earlier in April that "It was a bitter blow when the dear boy left." I don't know whether she is being sarcastic or not about a boyfriend. Of course, she loses her great love in a fire two years later. His name is Charlie Gagne and I believe she is talking about him here.

OK. Time to WRITE!

OK. Down to work. I have the opening. Sunny spring afternoon in Richmond, Quebec 1908. 15 year old Flora Nicholson is curled up on a garden chair (wicker, Eaton's catalogue purchase)on the porch, at Tighsolas, pencilling away at a 'composition exercise' about Canadian values. Her mother Margaret is inside in the kitchen preparing to go to La Tuque where her husband Norman works at 'end of steel' on the Transcontinental Railway. Norman has advised Margaret in a letter to tuck her money into her corset as there are pickpockets on the trains. I'll have her sewing in a special pocket as she is a crack seamstress......