History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 February 2010

What a story! Real-life personals as literary inspiration

Pvt. George S. Gaines, First New York Mounted Rifles

A young soldier, of two years' standing in the armies of the Republic, is desirous of conducting a correspondence with some American lady, not over 24 years of age, with the view that it may lead to a mutual desire to become personally acquainted -- that such acquaintanceship may ripen into love, and, by the consummation of our affection, two lives be blended into one; or, in the plain King's English, I am quite anxious to marry . . . None but those who are sincerely disposed to look this matter "square in the face" need reply. In regard to his personal appearance, qualifications and character, the advertiser prefers to say nothing -- a carte de visite, the contemplated correspondence and the future will disclose all that is necessary or desirable to be known on the subject . . . Address Charles P. Hanover, First New York Mounted Rifles, Suffolk, Va.

May 27, 1863

That letter, with a few others dating from the second half of the 19th century, was originally printed in the New York Herald, and these letters were reprinted on the Sunday Opinion page of the New York Times this past Valentines Day, edited by Pam Epstein, a PhD candidate at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the author of a blog called "Advertising for Love."

1st Sgt. Frank W. Mills. First New York Mounted Rifles

I was so struck by this letter that I read it aloud to my husband across the breakfast table the following morning, my eyes brimming with tears. So many thoughts simultaneously crossed my mind as I read it that Cupid might as well have tied each one to an arrow and unleashed his entire quiver at once, every dart striking my heart with a true aim.

First, the letter reminded me of the way I met my husband Scott -- he was stationed overseas. I was a NYC girl at home, looking, hoping, wishing, and wanting love. And by that point, I was open to all possibilities. Scott's first letter to me was also so, well, well-written (and what writer doesn't want an introductory love note that is perfectly spelled and grammatically correct?) that I wanted to know "Who IS this guy?"

When I read Charles Hanover's personal ad in the Times, his writing style struck me as well; his letter was so impeccably crafted, so sophisticated, that I tried to imagine your average grunt today writing something so perfectly phrased, peppered with French, and just skirting the saber's edge between florid and heartfelt.

Pvt. Allen Curtis Smith, First New York Mounted Rifles

And before I began to wonder what he might have looked like (somewhat older than advertised, perhaps, which might have accounted for the sophisticated prose, the French, the initial unwillingness to reveal any details about his looks), I thought ... did he come home?

And then, as a historical novelist I wondered, if Johnny (or rather, Charles) Came Marching Home, had he met his future wife during the war as a result of his personal ad in the New York Herald? How did their courtship play out in letters? And what happened when they finally met in person? Was one or the other of them disappointed? Delighted? Having had the best of intentions, did they eventually wed, or did reality crush their epistolary dreams? What did Charles bring back from the Civil War? Was he wounded? Physically, psychologically, or both? Could his sweetheart begin to comprehend and cope with what he had experienced?

And who was she? What was her backstory? An old maid with pragmatic dreams or a young girl with her heart open to the sky? From the North or from the South? And how would that impact their relationship? What was her family's experience of the war?

Pvt. Reuben Webb, First New York Mounted Rifles

And what if Charles didn't make it home in one piece, or as a sentient being, and what if he came home in a box instead of on two legs, or even a crutch? What happened to the widow that never was?

Have you ever read a letter (not one written by a well known or "famous" person) and thought "Wow! What a novel this would make!" If so, what was the gist of the letter that sparked your imagination. Did you write the story?

By the way, here's a link to some history on Charles Hanover's regiment. http://www.dmna.state.ny.us/historic/reghist/civil/cavalry/1stMtdRifles/1stMtdRiflesMain.htm

A foootnote to history from that site: September 6, 1865, the regiment received the designation, 4th Provisional Regiment, N. Y. Volunteer Cavalry, and its final record will be found under that head.

The regiment lost by death, killed in action, 1 officer, 18 enlisted men; of wounds received in action, 1 officer, 12 enlisted men; of disease and other causes, 4 officers, 125 enlisted men; total, 6 officers, 155 enlisted men; aggregate, 161; of whom 8 enlisted men died in the hands of the enemy.


Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Leslie, I've always thought the way you and Scott met is so incredibly romantic! Thank you for this wonderful post. Like you I'm filled with questions about "what happened next." I find letters so inspiring as a writer. Hortense de Beauharnais Bonaparte's letters prompted me to build part of the plot of "The Mask of Night" round her.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Thanks, Tracy! And I can't wait to read more about the real Hortense, (and your fictional version of her) in "The Mask of Night." I developed a tremendous admiration for her during my research on Napoleon (and his family( and Josephine (and hers) for "Notorious Royal Marriages."

It would be a fun exercise (game? challenge?) to get a half dozen writers (or hoydens) in a room and give them the same letter and ask them to write the story behind it. Every novel would be so different.

7:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your question got me thinking. I have been to many auction, yard sales, flea markets and picked up some different things. Several years ago there was a letter in a box my children found . I can remember reading it and wanting to know what happened to the people involved. Wish I could remember what it was about. Now I'll be wondering where it is hiding and have to go looking for it. The cards, bookmarks, postcards, and dedications I've found in books have been most interesting. I found a beautiful, large Valentine card (1940's) to my aunt in her hope chest. I have no idea who the man was, but it wasn't my uncle. My Dad didn't recognize the name either. That she kept it for 50 years means it meant something to her. Wish she were still here so I could ask - secret boyfriend, WWII soldier who went over and didn't come back, pen pal friend of one of her brothers in the military? Lots of possibilities.

8:55 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That would be a fabulous exercise, Leslie! I often brainstorm with a group of writer friends, and I'm fascinated by the different directions our minds can go with the same idea.

9:40 PM  
Anonymous Emma Hox said...

What a beautiful post and how special it must have been to hear a story so close to reality for you and your husband.

I love reading old announcements and letters such as these.

10:00 PM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

What a fascinating post! I love that peek that letters can give us into other people's lives. At Ashdown House, where I work, we have a letter from Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, to her supporter, the cavalier Lord Craven when she was in exile in the 1650s and was pawning her jewellery to make ends meet. It says: "There is no more to eat and today if no money be found we shall have neither meat nor bread nor candles..." I always wonder what happened next! Did Craven grab a fast horse and hurry over with some food?? One day I would like to write their story.

12:43 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

LibraryPat, there must be some amazing story behind your aunt's treasured Valentine. Even the story of her niece's quest to uncover the secret behind it is a story in itself ... and I can just see the Hollywood movie version of it as well!

Tracy, some years back, several very well known playwrights (of the McNally & Wasserstein ilk) were given an assignment to write a playlet based on the same Shakespeare sonnet (or maybe they each had to choose one; I can't recall the exact details). I believe they had only a short time to put it all together and the playlets were performed as a charity fundraiser.

Emma, thanks for the compliment. These old letters and "personal" ads, notes, cards, etc., can stir the mind so much. I have a copy of a book of my great uncle's correspondence to my aunt, published many years later. He was a US Army major at the time, assigned at the age of 27 to oversee a WWII displaced persons camp that was set up after the war ended in Germany. The letters span a period of 3 months and tell the story, moment by moment, of the trials and tribulations, bureaucratic and internal pitfalls and the daunting responsibilities that my uncle was faced with. And yet they are love letters to my aunt, waiting at home. The title of the book is "Among the Survivors of the Holocaust - 1945: The Landsberg DP Camp Letters of Major Irving Heymont, United States Army."

Yet another movie waiting to be made. I blogged about my uncle Irving's history last year, after he died just days short of his 91st birthday. I had always found him to be a very chilly and stern personality, but the 27 year old Irving in those letters to my aunt Joan shows so many different colors and shades of hope and despair that I discovered a whole different person in the author of that correspondence from the forbidding old man I knew as a child and as a young woman.

In my uncle Irving's case, even what you see in his letters is not necessarily the man he later became.

Which brings me to Nicola's comment (and welcome, Nicola!) Your job sounds enviably fascinating, BTW. I, for one, would love to know what Craven (and what a name) did after receiving Elizabeth of Bohemia's letter. Write it!! Was he a true cavalier and rode to her rescue, or was he ... well, craven?

6:02 AM  
Blogger Tinky said...

Leslie, I felt the same way reading that "Times" piece; thanks to you (and all the commenters) for a lovely morning's meandering through the "what ifs" of real people's romantic histories.

6:16 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Miss Tinky, I'm so glad we added a little something to your day. Thanks so much for stopping by, and for your compliment. And please do visit the hoydens again whenever the urge strikes. :)

2:45 PM  

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