“How do you know what Elise thought?”
James Alsop, professor emeritus at McMaster University specializing in British 16th & 17th social history asked, and because he is not the first, I thought it wise to write a response. I share our exchange.
Question: I’m wondering about your sources for the italics – Elise’s thoughts. These are fascinating. They appear to be your reconstruction of what she must have been thinking, based upon your understanding of your subject. Is that correct? Percy’s diary (as cited in your book) does not appear to even hint at her thoughts. He appears to have been untroubled, uninterested, in her thoughts. The 2 really interesting aspects of your book are the Percy diary entries and Elise’s thoughts. Love to learn how you reconstructed the latter.
My answer: Percy’s character was easy. I just lifted his remarks from his diary.
Elise’s thoughts required a great deal more work as I began knowing nothing but that she was born in Germany, her name, Elise Vane, and her dates, 1840-1893, etched on her gravestone.
- I had several of her letters and asked a linguistic analyst, Barbara Becker to dissect them and she provided a character sketch: introvert, thoughtful, reflective, considerate of the feelings of the person she was responding to, etc. If I wanted her to be the heroine of the story, I’d have to have her thinking because she wouldn’t be talking, especially in the context of being the servant in the Criddle family.
- Oral tradition from the Criddle family descendants told me they all loved her and found no fault.
- The Vanes must have loved their mother dearly because they kept so many things, her school report, passport, her brother’s German letters although they couldn’t read German, her letters to Minnie and Harry, paintings, and her two important dresses.
- My father loved and honoured her, and although only age 3 when she died, he had an emotional bond that wanted justice done by giving her grave a name 74 years after her death. Her’s was the only nameless grave in the abandoned Criddle cemetery on the homestead.
- I was very fortunate to have so many original sources—letters and documents. My husband and I discussed the situations they revealed trying to reconstruct the scenes. Indeed. it took a lot of puzzling to make sense the records—how they fit together, and then how that affected Elise.
To prepare myself for writing I read Victorian authors: Dickens, Trollop, Hughes (Tom Brown’s School Days), and Canadian authors, Nellie McClung and Ralph Conner. My extensive bibliography indicates that I read until I felt knowledgeable in that time frame. I traveled to Germany and met her brother’s descendants, with the help of material from the archivists, researched her family’s culture and history. I was born and grew up in the local area and had my feet firmly planted in its rural culture. My age is such that my childhood had no electric power or running water, we travelled with horses—even the 8 miles to school. My father farmed with horses. The weather played an important role, blizzards, dust storms, late and early frosts, hail and thunder storms.
While writing I kept the little room where I worked cold, uncomfortably cold, although not so cold as to get chilblains. (I suffered from them as a child from the long winter hours in the school van.) And I meditated a lot, placing myself in Elise’s shoes, so to speak. A woman blessed with an education, but without power or friends, had no recourse to alternatives as we fortunate modern women have. I wanted her to escape just as my readers do, but I had to remain true to the documents. Sometimes got I stuck and went brooding to bed. On awakening next morning I often had a new insight and enough clarity to continue. On occasion, I wrote something at night; then by morning I knew it was wrong. I hit delete and tried again. I had a guardian angel on my shoulder who I named Elise.
Finally, I had six professional experts, (social worker, minister, vet, agriculturalist, naturalist, family genealogist), read the manuscript to check for authenticity, questioning the validity of the text and characters. It passed their scrutiny with minor changes.
A good actor prepares for a drama, by getting into their character’s skin and I worked at doing the same. It helped that I’m also a woman, with plenty of challenges of my own. I often found myself angry and depressed by the continuing abusive events. To offset my sadness, I kept repeating, “Elise’s suffering was over long ago.” And I clarified my goal saying, ‘My words are simply revealing her story so we can recognize her strength of character and the gifts she passed on to us.’ The book was written for my Vane family, Elise’s descendants. They appreciate knowing the truth of her sacrifice and are very thankful. That many others find meaning in her story is an unexpected blessing.
I hope this is a satisfying answer.
Did you know the book is a finalist in the Whistler Independent Book Award 2016? Oct 14 is the date to await. Whether the book wins the award or not, it is another honour for Elise.