Please welcome author Jess McConkey to the Book Club Girl Blog! Jess's newest novel, Widows of Braxton County, a haunting story about family secrets and how well we really know the people we love, is on sale today! You can read an excerpt of the book here, or check out the reading group guide here.
I’ve always loved trivia! It seems my brain just happens to be wired for it. Tell me some obscure fact that will never come up in a conversation, for example the gestation period for a dolphin, and I’ll remember it forever. Ask me what I did yesterday, and I’d be hard pressed to tell you.
As a result of this little quirk of mine, one of things that I enjoy the most about writing is doing research. I can chalk up the hours spent trolling the web for information as a useful pursuit, instead of being accused of diddling away my time! (Okay, so maybe I don’t need to check out every single link dealing with a particular topic, but hey, I learn a lot of interesting “stuff” that way!) In writing THE WIDOWS OF BRAXTON COUNTY, I had a great opportunity to feed this obsession of mine.
The story deals with the liVes two women, both farm wives. But Kate, the first character, lives in the present, and Hannah, the second character, lived in the 1890’s. Life was different back then, and in order to give an accurate portrayal of Hannah, I had a lot to learn about women in the nineteenth century. Learn I did and it gave me a sense of what kind of a life Hannah might have had. Hopefully, her character will ring truer because of it.
But, as is often the case, many of the facts I discovered didn’t wind up as part of the story. Here are some of the interesting things that I learned about life in the 1890’s and how they related to women:
- Because of the mortality rate in that era, mourning customs were rigidly followed. A widow was in full mourning…dressed in black from the skin out…for at least a year and one day (some websites stated two years). This ensemble included a weeping veil of crepe which had to be worn over the face for the first three months whenever the widow left her home. (Church only…a widow was expected to remain in seclusion for the first year.) Unfortunately, crepe had toxic glue in it and, due to breathing in and out through this treated fabric, many women developed respiratory problems.
- “The Cult of Domesticity” set the standard by which women were to live. It promoted piety, purity, submission, and domesticity. (I wrote more about this ideal in the “P.S. Section” featured at the end of the book.)
- One of the first women’s shelters opened in Maine…in 1967!
- Women’s suffrage was beginning to be achieved in the late nineteenth century on a state and local level and finally achieved on a national level in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the leaders of the suffrage movement on the national level, was from Iowa. (My home state.) Prior to 1918, President Wilson had paid lip service to the idea of granting women the right to vote, but did nothing to support it. His stance changed after several suffragists were arrested for picketing outside of the White House. Their subsequent treatment (beatings, being fed worm-infested food, and forced feedings in an effort to end their hunger strikes) while imprisoned caused Wilson to fear a negative impact on his presidency. He agreed to support a suffrage amendment in January of 1918.
- In 1869, Iowa became the first state in the Union to allow women to practice law when it admitted Arabella Mansfield to the bar.
- In 1887, famed female journalist, Nellie Bly, faked insanity in order to write an exposé concerning the conditions in Bellevue Hospital’s insane pavilion in New York City. She was released after ten days, and her subsequent report launched a grand jury investigation, which in turn led to some reform in the treatment of the mentally ill.
- Probable causes for a woman to be admitted to an insane asylum in the nineteenth century included domestic troubles, over-taxed brain, over study, worry, fright…to name a few. Her husband or family could use one of those reasons to have her admitted at any time.
- The United States suffered a severe economic depression caused by what’s referred to as “The Panic of 1893.” Railroads were being over-built; discovery of new mines flooded the market with silver causing its value to fall; the price of agricultural commodities also fell; and banks failed. Up to that point it was the worst economic crisis the US had faced. It lasted for three years.
- The average speed of a horse and rider at a walk is 3 to 4 miles an hour. A horse and buggy is 5 to 10 miles an hour. The average speed of a steam locomotive was 25 miles an hour, but could drop to 15 miles an hour if it made frequent stops. It would’ve potentially taken a day to travel across the state of Iowa by railway car…a trip I could make in 5 hours by automobile.
- The average size of a family in the 1890’s was five—father, mother, and three children.
Personally, after discovering all these facts about life in the 1890’s, the “good ol’ days” don’t sound so good. For all its hustle and bustle, I’ll still take the twenty-first century over the nineteenth century any day! I can vote, own property, drive a car in order to reach my destination fairly quickly, and best of all, my family can’t have me locked up just because they think I act a little weird at times!
I hope you enjoy reading THE WIDOWS OF BRAXTON COUNTY as much as I did writing it!