One of the things I love about writing historical fiction based on the lives of real (albeit obscure) people is the weird interplay that sometimes occurs between what I imagine and what really happened.
The novel I’m currently working on is based on a year in the life of a woman named Eliza Anderson, who edited a magazine in Baltimore in 1807. Anderson got into a lot of journalistic vendettas that year, some of them stemming from the fact that she was a woman engaging in activities that women at the time weren’t supposed to engage in, and some of them stemming from the fact that she was vehement in voicing opinions that proved controversial.
One of the things that outraged her fellow Baltimoreans was Anderson’s denunciation of her hometown as a cultural wasteland. It’s hard to assess how accurate this claim was, but Baltimore was a town that had grown rapidly—it was the third largest city in the country, and it basically hadn’t even existed thirty years before. There was a lot of new money around, possibly unallied to a great deal of sophistication. Unlike New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, Baltimore hadn’t had time to develop many cultural institutions. And unlike Europe, the United States as a whole lacked an aristocracy that saw the support of the arts as one of its civic duties.
In an essay that ran in May 1807 in her magazine, The Observer, Anderson delivered an impassioned lament on the state of the fine arts in Baltimore, and the lack of support that condemned a Mr. Nenninger—a German violinist residing in town—and other European musicians to make a living by “teaching brats without ear or attention” and “playing cotillions to dancers who have no idea of measure.” She declared that Baltimoreans’ “insensibility on this point is Vandalism indeed—yes, Vandalism, we cannot refrain from giving its true and merited epithet.”
This “Vandalism” comment—along with another line in which she labeled Baltimore “the very Siberia of the arts”—caused a sensation. Challenged to retract both expressions, Anderson instead repeated them, and apparently took great pleasure in doing so.
I’m in the process of writing a second draft of the novel, and I decided to add a new scene: an evening party hosted by Anderson, shortly before she made her “Vandalism” comment, which would give some idea of her social circle. She and her doctor father were friendly with some of Baltimore’s wealthiest families, but they also socialized with a number of struggling European artists who had fetched up in Baltimore due to the conflicts then roiling the Continent.
Who to have on the guest list, I pondered? Well, the German violinist Nenninger, of course. And Maximilan Godefroy, the French architect who Anderson would marry the following year (causing something of a scandal, since she was technically already married and had to secure a divorce from her first husband). Who else? I decided to throw in a real person who was a friend of Godefroy’s, and something of a celebrity: Benjamin Latrobe, the pre-eminent American architect during this period, who was supervising the construction of a cathedral in Baltimore that he had designed (and which still stands). Latrobe didn’t actually live in Baltimore, but he had many ties to the place, and it’s not unreasonable to place him at a party there (one of his sons settled in Baltimore, and there are still Latrobes in the area to this day).
Searching through biographies of Latrobe and Godefroy in search of factoids I could insert as conversational tidbits, I came across an intriguing footnote in the Godefroy biography (The Architecture of Maximilian Godefroy, by Robert Alexander). It appears that Latrobe and Godefroy both held a low opinion of the level of culture in Baltimore, and the author even attributed Anderson’s characterization of the city as “a Siberia of the arts” to Godefroy’s influence—albeit with no direct evidence.
Towards the end of the footnote, I was startled to see a quotation from a letter Latrobe wrote to Godefroy in January 1807—just a few months before Anderson’s first “Vandalism” statement, and my fictional dinner party: “I believe anything that can be said of the Vandalism of the Baltimoreans in the arts,” Latrobe opined, “provided it is exceedingly absurd & ridiculous.”
Wow. Not only did I discover that Godefroy—and Latrobe—probably fueled Anderson’s scorn for her compatriots’ artistic sensibilities, I accidentally stumbled across words that I could put in Latrobe’s mouth at the dinner party, and which would then find their way into print in the essay Anderson was shortly to write. In my scene, I can have Anderson think, after hearing Latrobe speak of the “Vandalism” of the Baltimoreans, that he has hit upon le mot juste to describe her fellow citizens. And, since I’m including excerpts from The Observer as part of the narrative of the novel, a few pages later readers will see that she steals the phrase to use in her next issue. Not only that, but the scene will give some context to Anderson’s views on culture, which can strike the modern ear as pretty elitist: she was far from the only one who felt this way at the time.
What really thrills me is the fact that I decided to put Latrobe at this party without even knowing he’d said anything about “Vandalism.” I could easily have missed the footnote about Latrobe’s letter and never discovered he’d used the word. But thanks to whatever gods help historical novelists out with these things, I’ve come up with a nice little sequence of events—and one that I’ll know (even if my readers don’t) has some basis in truth. Maybe not everyone would get such a kick out of that, but it made my week.