One of the things I like about writing historical fiction is dealing with issues that we wrestle with today that also were wrestled with in the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps it is a case of humans always being human. Who knows? But the diverse friendships and fictive kinships that exist within the Saint Maggie universe give me a platform to explore matters like race, gender, family, ethnicity, immigration, religion, and – since the story thus far covers 1860-1864 – war.
Many scenes in my books take place around the family dining table. Yes, people actually did sit down together to eat and converse in those days. They had breakfast, dinner (the large noon meal) and supper (a lighter evening meal). There were no cell phones, no tablets, no television, no radio. All they had was one another. So they had to communicate verbally – unless silence was the rule at table. So, what did they talk about?
The example I am using, which is attached as a PDF to this blog, comes from Seeing the Elephant. It takes place during the noon dinner.
I’m sure Maggie’s family is much more open with one another than some families living in the mid-1860s; but it is fun to explore their conversations. In them, we see Frankie pushing toward adulthood and Maggie worrying that she is not yet capable of making competent decisions. Thank goodness Emily, who is loaded with common sense, is also at that end of the table! There also is a short conversation instigated by maids-in-training Moira and Birgit Brennan reflecting on economic and ethnic differences.
You may notice that the men sit at one end of the table and the women at the other. It would not have been unusual for men and women to self-segregate in that time period. This may in part have been due to the notion of “separate spheres” for men and women, something that came into vogue in the nineteenth century. Some of that idea carries over into Maggie’s family – the women care for the house, the children, meals, and laundry; the men generally are employed outside the home. That said, Maggie has run a boarding house and edited and written for Eli’s newspaper, Emily has taken up baking for Miss Amelia’s Tea Shop, Eli likes caring for his baby daughter, and so on. A society may promote certain values, such as segregation of the sexes and separate spheres of employment, but these values are not universally adhered to at all times. This is true in real life and true in my fiction as well.
At the other end of the table, the conversation among the men – Eli, Nate, Grandpa O’Reilly, and Chester Carson – is different. It ranges from discussion of a potential story, to Grandpa seeking worthwhile employment, to Carson feeling put upon, and to Nate telling his truth to the white men sitting around him.
Enjoy your dinner with Maggie and her family!
CLICK BELOW TO READ THE EXCERPT