The Story Behind the Story

Dana Mack, author of All Things That Deserve To Perish, is an historian, journalist, and musician. She is also the author of two non-fiction books: The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family and The Book of Marriage: The Wisest Answers to the Toughest Questions. No doubt we could all learn something from a book on marriage! However, today, Dana is here to talk about the story behind her new novel …

The idea of writing a novel about a  late nineteenth century German-Jewish woman who finds herself drawn into a fragile mixed marriage came to me nearly forty years ago, when I was a graduate student in History at Columbia University.  My German History professor, Fritz Stern, had just completed a biography of Bismarck’s banker, Gerson Bleichroeder. Reading it, I landed on a story that struck me. Apparently, Bleichroeder’s daughter, Elsa, was  a wallflower at her first court ball, not because she was unattractive, but because she was Jewish. The Prussian noblemen present cut her – this was an anti-semitic political demonstration!  

Forty years later, I incorporated that historical incident into my novel, All Things That Deserve To Perish, The reader of this article might wonder how it was that this small incident made such a profound impression upon me. After all,  I am an American Jew, and a fourth generation Californian on three sides.  Why should I care about a late nineteenth century rich girl who doesn’t get a dance? 

My family’s historical roots were in Germany, and many of my grandparents’ friends were German emigres. From my earliest childhood I understood something of the admiration German Jews had for the culture of their adopted country.  And I sensed  their profound resentment of the German people, who so cruelly rejected their sincere efforts to prove themselves loyal German citizens.  As a lifelong student of German and Jewish history, I have run across many historical incidents suggesting that long before Hitler’s rise to power,  German Jews fell victim to vicious anti-semitism;  and this, not  withstanding their significant contributions to Germany’s economic, scientific and cultural achievements. 

For these reasons, I have taken on a sort of mini-mission to try to disabuse the reading public of the widespread idea that the Holocaust was the responsibility of one man — namely, Hitler.  The Holocaust had its roots not only in the criminal dispositions of the Fuehrer and his coterie,  but in toxic attitudes of racial prejudice and distrust that were widespread not only in the lesser educated population, but even among the German elites. It’s not easy to reach people with this news.  But I determined early on that one day when I had time,  I would pen a novel that would explore this phenomenon through the prism of the most intimate of human relationships —  courtship and marital ties . 

 All Things That Deserve To Perish, in fact,  is a love story.  It is the story of a wealthy and intellectually gifted Jewish woman who falls for an impoverished Prussian nobleman despite her suspicion of his romantic motives.  The plot premise is not at all unlikely, considering the historical background.  Intermarriages between Prussian aristocrats and rich Jewesses, while not everyday occurrences, were common enough, by the end of the nineteenth century, that they were commented upon by contemporaries. And not all of these marriages were simply exchanges of a dowry for a title. Many aristocrats considered Jewish women of the “better”  classes interesting and alluring enough to be considered attractive as potential wives.  Jewish women tended to be much better educated than their Christian counterparts —  intellectually engaged, and  outspoken.  In fact, intermarried or not, German “salon Jewesses”  — Jewish hostesses who brought artists, intellectuals and aristocrats into their homes for chamber music and and discussion —  served a very special function in elite society in that they brought together thinking people from different fields of endeavor and different socio-economic backgrounds – people who would normally not have had the opportunity for social contact. 

The unhappy fact of many German intermarriages, however, was that wives of Jewish origin, despite religious conversion to Christianity,  faced social prejudices and open slights in the new circles they inhabited. And not only they suffered:  their children were looked down upon as half-breeds, sullied by what was often termed  the “black stain” of Jewish heritage.  More than this, Jewish women who intermarried very often had to deal with the knee jerk racial prejudices of their own husbands, who more often than not discouraged them from maintaining ties with their families and community of origin.   

My background as a student of German and Jewish history was not the only inspiration for All Things That Deserve To PerishI am a partner in a mixed marriage. I married my non-Jewish husband in 1983. We met while I was researching my dissertation in Vienna, Austria. Soon after we married, we moved from Austria to Luxembourg, where my husband  worked for the European Community. As a new wife and mother living in Europe, I found that I was drifting farther and farther from my Jewish identity. I even became shy about disclosing it at all.  The reason for this was that in my interactions with Europeans I witnessed a kind of reflexive anti-semitism – a general discomfort with Jews, and a distrust of Jews and the Jewish religion.

Indeed, It was while living in Luxembourg that I originally worked up the plot of All Things That Deserve To Perish as a movie treatment.  Being involved also in other writing projects, the treatment soon fell by the wayside, to be picked up and turned into a novel only decades later.  But I am convinced that my experience as an American Jew living abroad among people who had very primitive ideas about the Jewish people laid the foundations for a lot of the situational tone of my novel. 

I have tried to fashion All Things That Deserve To Perish  as a story that engages the reader in thinking about a host of  matters that remain challenging to young couples today —  issues of  preserving ethnic identity and fighting racial prejudice being only two of these.  I hope that my novel  — as a story of a potent, if contentious love between two people from very different ideological and socio-economic backgrounds — will be relatable to the reader, whether or not he or she is interested in German-Jewish history.  In fact,  I think any one of us will recognize, in the romance of my main characters, some familiar gender power struggles, as well as what I hope is a compassionate portrait of  family formation.  

All Things That Deserve To Perish by Dana Mack ~~ The year is 1896, and Elisabeth (‘Lisi’) von Schwabacher, the gifted daughter of a Jewish banker, returns home to Berlin from three years of piano study in Vienna. Though her thoughts are far from matrimony, she is pursued by two noblemen impressed as much by her stunning wealth as by her prodigious intellect and musical talent. Awakened to sudden improvements in the opportunities open to women, Lisi balks at her mother’s expectation that she will contract a brilliant marriage and settle down to a life as a wife and mother. In a bid to emancipate herself once and for all from that unwelcome fate, she resolves to have an affair with one of her aristocratic suitors — an escapade that, given her rigid social milieu, has tragic consequences. All Things That Deserve To Perish is a novel that penetrates the constrained condition of women in Wilhelmine Germany, as well as the particular social challenges faced by German Jews, who suffered invidious discrimination long before Hitler’s seizure of power. It is also a compassionate rumination on the distractions of sexual love, and the unbearable strains of a life devoted to art.

Thank you for sharing the background to your novel, Dana. It’s an important topic and one that deserves our attention. I wish you great success with All Things That Deserve To Perish.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Novels are made of tiny details

I often write the broad strokes of a story first with the basics of setting, the primary actions that occur and the dialogue that moves the story along while revealing each character’s emotions and motivations.

On another pass, I add emotional reactions, inner dialogue and telling details. Like any other genre, historical fiction readers appreciate small details of setting, clothing, facial expressions and so on and, in particular, those that transport them in time and place.

I added a few such details just last week during a final pass at Paris in Ruins before sending it off for a copy edit. Below are just a few to give you a sense of what I mean.

“Bertrand turned west onto rue Faubourg Saint Honore and they fell silent. Most of the small shops were shuttered for the night, but the cafés were lively with patrons sitting both inside and out sharing laughter and boisterous conversation, consuming beer and wine and cognac, smacking their lips and eating with gusto. Here and there a ragged child lingered at the edges of these groups, holding out a hand for a coin or a crust of bread.” 

I wanted to illustrate the inequalities in Parisian society so readers can begin to understand the factors leading to the Paris Commune.

~~~

Camille watched her father drop a dollop of jam on his croissant. He seemed just as calm as usual despite the mounting crisis unfolding around them. They were in the breakfast room, which was located across the hall from the main dining room and much less formal. The room’s pale green walls, floral drapes, and tall windows that opened outward to let in the morning air reminded her of summers by the sea.

Camille is one of two main characters in the story. These details help paint the scene and provide a little background of Camille’s upbringing that was wealthy enough to include summers by the sea.

~~~

After her eighteenth birthday, and with her mother’s encouragement, Mariele had redecorated her bedroom, stripping out all but a few childhood possessions, and replacing the décor with more adult choices including a canopied bed, a new dressing table, and a chaise for reading. Mariele picked up the book of Victor Hugo’s poems that lay on the chaise and added it to her bag.

Mariele is the other main character in Paris in Ruins. The furnishings and reference to Victor Hugo are to help situate the time period. I chose to reference his poems rather than famous works like The Hunchback of Notre Dame to give an insight into her personality. Serendipity led me to Victor Hugo’s poetry – I wrote about one of those poems last week .

~~~

By Unknown author – Le Monde illustré, 17 juin 1871 (Gallica), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65283878

The gates of Paris had closed. No one allowed in or out without permission and the proper documents. Fortified by a wall thirty feet high, a moat ten feet wide, and an outer ring of forts comprising a forty-mile circumference around the city, most Parisians were convinced of their impregnability. The Prussian army, however, had gradually surrounded Paris with a fifty-mile ring of troops and was now digging in, building their own fortifications while assembling the necessary tools of siege warfare: cannons, provisions, bridges, access to water, living quarters, fuel, medical facilities, and equipment. If assessments were accurate, the siege could be long and difficult. Some would not survive.

I wanted to know just how big those walls were and thought readers would too. Their massive size contributed to the cocky attitude of Parisians. On the map below you can see the walls as well as the forts beyond the walls.

Walls and outer forts of Paris 1870

~~~

He lowered the newspaper and peered at her. “Volunteered? At a hospital run by Sarah Bernhardt? What do you know about hospitals? Or about Madame Bernhardt, for that matter? And why would I allow my daughter to do such a thing?”

Camille bristled at his words but knew not to spark a quarrel. Her mother always cautioned with an old proverb: Le miel est doux, mais l’abeille pique. Honey is sweet, but the bee stings.

An early reader recommended that I show the way young women were confined in 19th century Paris by their parents and by society’s rules. The proverb tells us something about Camille and her mother. 

~~~

“You don’t have to do this,” he [André ] said. “It could be dangerous work and I certainly wouldn’t think less of you if you declined.”

Camille squared her shoulders. “I’m doing it for Paris, for my family and friends, for France. It’s important and I want to do something important. I’m privileged, monsieur. Privileged to be part of an educated, wealthy class. With privilege comes responsibility.” Her lips formed a rueful smile. “That’s what my sister would have said, if she were still alive.”

André has asked Camille to collect information about the Montmartre Vigilance Committee, a radical group of women calling for revolution and led by Louise Michel (a real person) and report her findings to him. I wanted to add depth to her motivations for doing so.

I hope you enjoyed these few snippets. As you can imagine, there are many more!

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Love for Three Oranges by Mary F. Burns

What roles do serendipity and synchronicity play in writing historical fiction? Mary F. Burns is here to explain her experience. Mary’s second mystery involving John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget is called The Love for Three Oranges.

The Love for Three Oranges by Mary F. Burns

There are at least two things that I experience when I write, especially when I write historical fiction: Serendipity and Synchronicity.

Serendipity does not come from Latin or Greek, but rather was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of an Indian fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not seeking.” It has come to mean “good luck in finding valuable things unintentionally” but I want to emphasize the word “sagacity” in addition to just accident. We’ll get back to this word in a few moments.

Synchronicity is the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. This term was created by Carl Jung in the 1950s to describe the occurrence and connection between two or more events that cannot be explained as a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity, connected by meaning. A very simple example would be thinking of an old friend one morning, and then later coming across a photograph of that friend stuck in a book you take down at random from the bookshelf, and then getting a phone call from the friend that same day. No one of these events is either a cause or an effect, but they are connected by meaning, Jung would say.

Historical fiction, in its very essence, is a way of falling together in time—a story is set in the past, but it is being written from the present, so, for me, the process of writing such a story is in itself a synchronizing of different times. In the mystery series I am writing that feature John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget, I have structured the stories so that there are two distinct time periods in each book. In the first book, The Spoils of Avalon, the reader can time travel between 1877 Brompton, a northern town, and 1539 Glastonbury, every other chapter, and there’s even a third time reference, in the quotations at the beginning of each chapter from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which is the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, long held to be medieval, but historically, if Arthur lived at all, it was around the year 600 of the Common Era.

In Jung’s terminology, the “meaning” or the synchronicity, that connects these three eras, in my story, concerns the testing of human loyalty, of faith or the lack of it, the mystery of the sacred as it interacts with the secular, and the effects that has on human character and fate. I was very alive to the dramatic contrast between the newly-industrialized, Darwinian, secular Victorian Age of Sargent and Paget—and the still-medieval, agrarian and sacred/seasonal time-in-eternity life of people in Europe in the early 16thcentury. Of course, on the one hand, it’s just a story about a murder and who committed it and why, and how the past is connected to the present through this event—but on the other hand, if you let all the character’s experiences and thoughts and actions roll in and wash over you, I believe you can get a real sense of what it was like to live in both those times, and how understanding the one can help you understand the other, as well as your own present time.

In this second book, The Love for Three Oranges, John and Violet find themselves summoned to Venice in the winter of 1879 to help an artist friend of Singer Sargent’s, whose palazzo is beset with death and ghosts and all sorts of troubling events. The second time period harks back some 140 years to 1739, where we are introduced to a famous Venetian playwright of that time, Carlo Gozzi.

And this is where my other special word—serendipity—played a huge part in the writing of this second mystery. Here’s the definition again: Serendipity is “Making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things one is not seeking.”

Before I even started writing these mystery stories, but after my first book about John Singer Sargent, in which Violet Paget has a very significant presence, Stu and I stayed in Venice for three days or so about seven years ago, with a small group of folks on a tour. We were lodged at a small, former palazzo on the western arm of the Grand Canal, just past the Rialto Bridge, called the Hotel San Cassiano, but also Ca’ Favretto. It had been the home of an Italian artist, Giacomo Favretto, from 1870 to 1887. He was of the Impressionist school, and several of his paintings were hung about the hotel. It was a charming place, and I took a lot of pictures of it.

When I got around to starting The Love for Three Oranges, I knew I was going to set the story in Venice, and I thought of that hotel, and Giacomo Favretto. So, I looked him up and lo and behold, it turns out he and John Sargent were good friends, and that Sargent stayed at the palazzo in Venice occasionally. What a happy discovery! I decided—with great sagacity—that it would be perfect to set the story in that location. Sagacity, for me, is the wisdom that comes from experience combined with the happy faculty of knowing a good thing when you see it.

So then I turned to the issue of the previous time period which would constitute the other half of the story—and you can imagine how hard it was to fasten on one particular century or era in the long, long history of Venice, with all her prominent artists, musicians, and writers! However, upon re-reading a biography of Violet Paget – aka Vernon Lee – I was reminded that in the year 1879 she was finishing up the manuscript for a book that would be published the next year—it was called “Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy”—and a significant amount of the book was concerned with one Carlo Gozzi, a playwright in the mid to late 1700’s in Venice. One thing led to another, and I found a complete copy online of Gozzi’s Memoirs. I read about his youthful days in Venice, living in one of the palazzos his family owned in Venice, his descriptions of its size and structure, its location on the Grand Canal, and its proximity to the Church of San Cassiano, which was his family’s parish, where many of his ancestors were buried. I looked at maps, I studied the streets and sotoportegos and campos of Venice, and I came to the conclusion that Gozzi’s former family home was none other than the Hotel San Cassiano—Giacomo Favretto’s home as well!

So there we had been, on the very spot where Carlo Gozzi had walked and slept and ate and dreamed—and where Sargent had visited his friend Giacomo as he lived and prospered and enjoyed life. And Gozzi the very person that Violet Paget was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about, all right there. Three, or four, or five events in three time periods—all tied together by meaning, by the significance of their existence in relation to each other.

Serendipity and Synchronicity indeed!

Many thanks, Mary. The writing muse can be both strange and capricious!

The Love for Three Oranges: A John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Mystery by Mary F. Burns

This second mystery finds John Sargent and Violet Paget afloat in murder in the fabled City of Venice during the darkest days of the year. Secrets and long-held grudges surface at Ca’ Favretto, an ancient palazzo on the Grand Canal, which has been recently purchased and refurbished by an Italian artist and good friend of Sargent–but will the ghosts of the past allow the new inhabitants to live in peace?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.