Tag: Hannah Maynard

5 Pitfalls in Research

As a writer of historical fiction I am beset with questions of historical accuracy and attitudes of the times vs the ultra-sensitive world of today. As I child, I read “The Plains of Abraham” and “The Loon Feather” with an open heart and an uncritical eye. Even though the books were fiction it never occurred to me that they were not “true.” But in the 21st century, history is fraught with cultural traps. Can we use the word “Indian?” That’s how Indigenous people were referenced in the nineteenth century. If my story is set in 1890 and I use the term First Nation, it is anachronistic. I think I need to be true to the facts of history, but it is difficult to discern what is fact and what is opinion.

Here are a few warnings I’ve picked up along the way. 

  1. Don’t trust Hollywood. I watched a classic movie the other day and, even without being a scholar of Indigenous culture, I could tell that the movie-makers had picked bits and pieces from various First Nations and thrown them all together into a pastiche of what would seem authentic to their audience. I’m not slamming the movies. They were producing a visual extravaganza to be projected on big screens in cinema-scope and Technicolor. Mountains and totem poles and natives in war paint served that purpose well. But, if we want historical accuracy, we need to look further.
  2. Eye witnesses are unreliable. That is a fact every police officer and every courtroom lawyer can verify. Ask five people to describe a car crash and you’ll get five very different versions, some even contradictory. Not the fault of the witnesses. They are describing what they saw, but they saw the event only from one physical perspective and through the lens of their own belief system. I’m reading a book about brothels on the Canadian prairies in the first third of the 20th century. It is well researched and written by a respected historian. He relies heavily on newspaper accounts of the day. Yet, in those newspaper accounts the prevailing attitude of the times –live and let live–colours even the simplest facts, like the number of houses of ill repute on a given street.
  3. Fine Arts of the day are more likely to depict the artist’s impressions and the saleability of a piece than actual fact. Galleries throughout North America are hung with paintings depicting Indigenous peoples capering naked through the snow. There is no historical evidence of this style of “undress” in the Indigenous peoples of this land. Apparently artists and their customers couldn’t differentiate between native populations of warm south seas islands and those of snow covered northern climes.
  4. Photographs likely are more accurate than art works, although, Hannah Maynard (1834-1918) was able to create all kinds of effects in her pictures, like the one showing her at a tea party, pouring tea over her own head! She had no need of Photoshop. 
  5. Original Sources, the gold standard for historical research, still need to be tested. Francis Dickens of the North-West Mounted Police is an example. By his own account he was an heroic stalwart of a storied police force. His father, the author Charles Dickens, considered him bumbling and incompetent. In histories of the Mounted Police, charges against Officer Dickens include drunkenness, laziness and recklessness. Later histories conclude he was just an ordinary man, no better and no worse than his contemporaries.

So, where do we look for truth? I think historical research requires the same kind of diligence we use in analysing the news of today. What’s the source? Is it reliable? Do various reports reinforce the facts? Are we reading in our own echo chamber or are we truly exploring other points of view. 

Finally, remember that historical “fiction” is not a scholarly treatise. Tell a good story and use the time and setting to add colour and authenticity. Be true to indisputable facts, like dates and laws of the land. Visit museums and troll the archives to support your understanding of the age, then tell your story in the best way possible.

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High Fashion in Hats

 

Continuing my search for historical authenticity, I’ve been looking at women’s hats in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Hollywood has given us all an idea of headgear from previous ages but not all movie depictions are accurate.  I once saw a version of a Jane Austin novel where the women wore Victorian dress – billowing sleeves, tight waists and voluminous skirts – not the slender silhouette of a Regency lady.

One way to determine what people wore, is to look at photographs of the time and place. The B.C. Archives contains a wealth of such information.  The archives can be searched on-line anywhere, or in person at 675 Belleville Street,Victoria, BC.

 

Hannah Maynard multi-exposure

Hannah Maynard, Victoria’s own lady photographer, took hundreds of pictures of our province and its people between 1862 and 1912, many are self-portraits as she studied the science and art of photography.  There are no hats in this one, where she shows herself pouring tea on herself in a multiple exposure print of herself at a tea party, made up of herself, herself and herself, but it illustrates her sense of humour.

 

For the purposes of this blog, I’m focussing on hats. I’ll save sleeves, necklines and corsets for another day.

 

Indian Annie

Here we have a picture of “Indian Annie” from 1879 taken at Yale, B.C. Annie is an Indigenous woman, but she wears European garb in this photo.  Her hat is straw, broad-brimmed to protect her from the sun and low crowned.  A very practical accoutrement.

 

Hannah Maynard again, in the 1880’s wearing a typical hat for a woman of her standing in the city of Victoria.  A modest affair, with a rolled brim, and feather ornament on a low crown.

 

 

 

By 1890, headgear was more elaborate. This photo is of Evelyn Berens, an Englishwoman who went adventuring with her husband in the Rocky Mountains.  Note the high crown and the elaborate ornamentation.  Of course, just like our celebrities, she wore the latest and most extravagant of the current fashion.

 

Violet 1900

If Ms Berens was in the forefront of fashion, this young woman, Violet wasn’t far behind. The photograph was taken in 1900 and shows a higher crown than previously.  The brim is wider and tilted forward while the piled ribbons speak to a more elaborate direction for ladies hats.

 

And just to show that fashion is cyclical, this towering concoction is offered to any woman with a mailing address. It comes from the 1877 Eaton’s catalogue.

I’ve listed some reference sites below if you want to explore more, but I warn you, gentle readers, you may feel you’ve gone down the rabbit hole when you delve into the lives of our foremothers.

References:

B.C. Archives> Portraits> Women

Mail Order Catalogues in Canada

Hannah Maynard

B.C. Historical Newspapers Collection

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Photograph

I had a new portrait taken this week.  I like the photos I’ve been using, but they are ten years old and I felt like a liar when I looked at them.  So, now you can see the truth.

The whole experience got me thinking about cameras and photographs.   With photo apps on cell phones our age is awash in pictures.  What we eat, where we travel, who we meet, our pets, our children, our messy kitchens — all show up in a photo and posted to social media for all the world to see.

It was not always so.  Many indigenous people, including those in Canada, believed that if someone took your picture, he stole your soul.   I use that bit of lore In my book Her One and Only

 I’ve been studying photography and cameras for my work-in-progress since the heroine is a photographer in the late nineteenth century.  I grew up with the notion that “the camera never lies.”  Nowadays we know the camera lies all the time.  Photoshop has put editing tools in the hands of everyone who owns a computer, but I’ve learned that from the beginning, the camera “lied.”  Hannah Maynard, a famous photographer in Victoria, B.C. created many odd effects by cutting up her photos, rearranging them and then photographing the results.  Thus she was able to create a picture of herself having tea with herself in the guise of five guests.  She also created what she called “gems.”  These were faces of children cut out and rearranged so that they formed fantastical shapes, like a fountain or a house plant .

While Hannah Maynard was experimenting with photographic effects in Victoria, George Eastman was experimenting with the technology of cameras in New York.  By 1885 he had developed a box camera loaded with enough film for 100 photos.  Previously, images were captured on glass plates making photography cumbersome and awkward.  Eastman’s “Kodak” camera used thin celluloid film and a fast shutter speed  allowing the user to hold the camera in her hand rather than setting it on a tripod.  Photography as a hobby burgeoned.  Women especially were caught up in the new vogue.

Once the one hundred photos were taken the whole camera was shipped back to New York where the Kodak company unpacked the film, developed it, reloaded the camera for 100 more pictures and returned the whole lot to the customer.  In our day of instant everything, it’s  hard to believe such a cumbersome process was considered the height of convenience!

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