Write Byte

Out of Their Time
And Into Our Hearts

(February 17, 1998)

I noticed a name new to me in the voting for the 1998 All About Romance Reader Awards – Eileen Charbonneau. Not only did I hear about this author, but I heard about the characters she’d created last year. I was intrigued and decided to ask Eileen about creating such special characters, especially in light of past discussions at this site about anachronistic behavior.

Here is what she had to say:

It’s said that no writer can write of any but her own time – that historical novelists see the past through the prism of the present. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to characters who think and act out of keeping with the conventions of their own times. My 1805-1818 Virginia-set The Randolph Legacy provided many challenges in this regard! I felt the guidance of many real people who had the courage to live out of their time. They helped me to create the fictional characters of The Randolph Legacy.

Fortunately, my heroine Judith Mercer belonged to the Society of Friends. This eased my way into being out of her time. Admired by the American Founding Fathers, Quakers were pioneers of enlightened thoughts and deeds. They often endured harsh punishments for supporting religious freedom, universal education, women’s rights, the abolition of slavery. They worked diligently toward the improvement of hospitals and prisons, and relief during and after wars. Sound modern? The Quakers, with their old-fashioned clothes and speech were way ahead of their contemporaries in the areas of science, technology and human relationships. Any wonder that I set up Judith Mercer as a paragon among them?

Judith and her father have been visiting Elizabeth Fry in England at the beginning of The Randolph Legacy. Elizabeth Fry was a real woman and a powerful force in prison reform. So it was natural for Judith, under her influence, to take on Ethan Randolph’s cause. Ethan’s position is grim. Impressed into the British Navy just before the Battle of Trafalgar, he was beaten to within an inch of his life for refusing to swear allegiance to Britain. He grows up crippled and hidden below decks by a sympathetic Frenchman. When the captain discovers his existence, he’s sentenced to death as a spy. Ethan needs Judith’s influence with the leaders in Washington very badly.

But my heroine needs my war-torn hero, too. Judith’s Quaker upbringing hindered her recognition of dark elements – both the nature of Captain Willis’s obsession with Ethan’s demise, and the vendetta against Judith’s family’s survival. Quakers believed themselves “Children of the Light” – divine possession. But they were not believers in demonic possession. Though she was an expert in seeking and “lighting” the good in others, from the cynical Frenchman Maupin to the disagreeable Winthrop Randolph, Judith was less able to understand the festering despair of the Standard’s captain, or the rage of the Loyalist family her father had supplanted. She needs Ethan’s help in both understanding and defense, and he, of course, provides.

The story of Judith’s girlhood rescue of her father I drew from an account of events dramatized by E.P. Roe in his nineteenth century story A Brave Little Quakeress. It was not difficult for me to think of Judith as the little girl who climbed the inside of a chimney to cut down her father before he was hanged by Loyalists taking their revenge on a Quaker and his family.

Judith’s Quakerism also proved problematical. Some to-do has been made of Ethan being younger, crippled and possibly even shorter (I’m never telling what “not the tallest of men” means in feet and inches!) than my heroine. And he is a mess after captivity, so I needed a way to tell the reader that he’s a dish, once he’s up on his legs and recovered. Ethan believes himself to be small, dark and ugly, so we’re not going to get a true picture from him. I thought of leaning on Judith to give the reader a clearer view. But her Quakerism obliges her to look toward inner beauty only! So I had to rely on the wife of the justice of the peace who officiates at their elopement wedding to spill the truth to patient readers in dialogue:

“We like your man. He’s very handsome, isn’t he, girls?”
Her daughters agreed with nods and giggles.
“Do you think so?” Judith asked. “I mean, I’ve always seen him so, but others, when he was sick, and what with his lameness…”
“Lameness? What lameness, dear?”
“You didn’t notice?”
“Notice what?”
“Of course his boots help.”
“Now what woman with any eye for beauty would be looking at the boots of that fine-formed man?”

My hero’s out-of-his-time actions proved more problematical than those of my Quaker heroine. How could I explain a slaveholder’s son who will not even consider owning slaves himself? One whose conscience is so troubled by his family’s traditions that he struggles to turn them around?

My research told me that Southern families of the period often allowed their offspring to be brought up side by side with the slave members of their households. Black and white children worked and played together. They were looked after by the same women. Many plantation owners’ children were “color-blind” until their more formal schooling included differentiating themselves from the black children who had heretofore been playmates. This could be especially true for younger members of a plantation family that already had its heir (oldest son) and “spare” (second eldest, often a churchman, in a tradition that goes back to English feudal times). So I made Ethan a third son–by tradition, often the adventurer or military man.

Taking leave of his family for his adventure came early for Ethan, who decides to join the crew of his father’s merchant marine ship the Ida Lee as a midshipman of twelve. This is before, as the Randolph slave Aaron says, the “hammering in” of black/white, slave/master differences was completed in him. But just in time to suffer at the hands of the British at war with Napoleon.

When Ethan is impressed into the British Navy, then endures a brutal flogging and long service aboard the Standard, he gets a taste of what it’s like to be owned by another. He has scars as deep as a cruelly punished slave. Now his birthright as a plantation owner’s son will never take hold.

But I had another problem. How does a crippled boy who’s what Maupin calls “more of a shade of the underworld” than flesh and blood, survive those ten years below decks? Besides giving him his Frenchman protector, I took for Ethan’s precedent the spirit of an anonymous but very real craftsman. One of his miniature ships is on display in the Maritime Museum in Newport News, Virginia. It’s a vessel created out of old soup bones, scraps of clothing, and the leavings of the occasional woman passenger’s hairbrushes. It has a compelling, rough beauty. Its creator was a captive during the Napoleonic Wars, one of many unfortunates who were held on board British ships for as long as ten years. As I admired the miniature ship a thought birthed itself: this is what this man did to stay sane. Another thought followed on its heels: I wanted Ethan’s story to incorporate his. So, in novelist’s fashion, I “what if’d” until Ethan grew into his manhood – intelligent and sane, perserverant, brave, and with enough French-bred charm to get Quaker Judith Mercer to donate her hair to raise the sails of his miniature ships.

Once Judith gets Ethan back on land and into the arms of his imperfect family, I was faced with another problem for my heroic couple. Yes, Ethan loves Judith and is in agreement with the Quaker stance that no one is or should be a slave to another. But he’s a Virginian, with deep ties to his family and homeland.

For precedent in this dilemma I drew on an extraordinary correspondence related in Dumas Malone’s wonderful biography The Sage of Monticello. The letters Malone cites are between a young Virginian named Edward Coles and the retired Thomas Jefferson. Coles, like my fictional Ethan, is disturbed by the slavery issue – what Jefferson called having “the wolf by the ears.” Although the slave trade from Africa was outlawed while Jefferson was president, Coles in 1814 asks the elder statesman to take up the cause to emancipate the slaves of their beloved Virginia.

Many of Jefferson’s generation believed slavery would eventually die of its own accord. But in the Deep South, the invention of the cotton gin began reinvigorating a dying and profitless institution. Jefferson maintains that the emancipation of slaves is not his fight, but that of the next American generation – Ethan Randolph’s and Edward Coles’. The solution Ethan and Judith come up with parallels Edward Coles’ choice.

Eileen Charbonneau

Eileen’s Backlist:

  • Waltzing in Ragtime – Forge Books
  • The Randolph Legacy – Forge Books
  • Rachel LeMoyne Forge Books (read a Desert Isle Keeper Review of this release)
  • The Woods Family trilogy – historical novels for Young Adults:
    • The Ghosts of Stony Clove
    • In the Time of the Wolves
    • Honor to the Hills

E-mail EileenRead Eileen Charbonneau’s Write Byte on the Warrior PoetRead a Desert Isle Keeper Review of Rachel LeMoyneRead an AAR Review of Eileen’s The Randolph Legacy