Hester Prynne Watches “Salem” on TV

Standard

“Salem” is a scripted TV show on the WGN America network. It turns the 1692 witch trials into fictional baroque melodrama–because they weren’t hysterical enough in their real form, ha ha.I confess I have a liking for the show. It doesn’t claim to be historically accurate; rather, it uses facts as a basis for its own purposes, perhaps the way the real Salem judges did. It’s a bit like when Demi Moore played me in her film version of The Scarlet Letter, passion over substance, but it is great– what’s the word I should use here–“fun”?  Or something like that.

The TV show “Salem” is based on the premise that witches are real and actually sympathetic, when you get to know them. I love the main character, the beautiful Mary Sibley, played by Janet Montgomery. Impregnated then deserted by John Alden (who goes off to war not realizing what he has done), Mary is inculcated into witchcraft by Tituba, also a lovely young woman with problems of her own. The main gist here is that women become witches because they have awful husbands/fathers/lovers and this is their only way of assuming supreme power over their lives and society. Or else they’re just really, really greedy…Trying to stop them is Increase Mather, stern and sadistic patriarch, and his son, Cotton–a reluctant witch-finder; he is kind of a “wimp”, browbeaten by his father. At the end of the season, when forced to witness Increase’s torture of Tituba, he has a psychotic meltdown in the woods. Other interesting characters are John Hale (a 17th century version of a hippie, with his long, gray ponytail and mellow manner), outwardly an upstanding member of the community but secretly a warlock, and his red-haired, willowy daugher, Anne (Tamzin Merchant). Anne wants to be good, not just for the sake of her own soul but to bring a breath of fresh, pure air to Salem. What’s stopping her? Let’s see: all the other girls her age are in a coven, her own father wanders the forest with Satan and, when John Alden returns to Salem, Anne falls in love with him–thereby attracting the attention of the jealous and very powerful Mary Sibley. Outside the orphanage which she runs, Anne remarks wistfully to John that she wishes Salem could be a place free of evil and accusations for just one day. Shortly after this, Anne learns her father is a shape-shifting warlock and John Alden is himself arrested for, you guessed it, witchcraft.

The show has been renewed for a second season. Personally, I hope Mary Sibley finds happiness. I think that, in spite of sealing a pact with the devil, turning her elderly husband into a comatose fool by means of suckling a toad, casting spells so that young girls go crazy and letting her former lover John Alden possibly swing on the gallows, she’s a good person at heart–just historically, not to mention geographically, challenged.

Heidi Wishes You a Vintage Halloween

Standard

Only Jane Eyre and Alice, used to the traditions brought first to England then to the US by the Irish–such as apple bobbing and jack-o-lanterns–are excited by Halloween. Hester Prynne is appalled by a day dedicated to celebrating the devil, though it also secretly intrigues her. Emma is bored by the whole thing (the French today consider Halloween as a contrivance promoted in their nation by American corporations, the holiday equivalent of fast food.) Heidi, too, is suprisingly indifferent, though she is young enough to go trick-or-treating. But in Protestant countries such as Switzerland Halloween just doesn’t fly, not even on a broomstick.

Then Heidi goes to a flea market and buys a mystery box for $5. It turns out to have once belonged to Melissa, a little girl from the 1970s and is filled with Halloween treasures. There is a book for young children, with psychedelic-colored illustrations in chartreuse and turquosie, called “Dorrie and the Blue Witch.” Heidi learns that witches can be ordinary little girls who want to use their powers purely for good–and to make the world a brighter place.

The next thing in the box is a board game called Which Witch? It takes the form of a haunted house and players move “enchanted mice” around; you can even drop a silver ball down the chimney. In UK, this game is called Ghost Castle.Who can resist the “bat’s ballroom” or the “spell cell?”

Another book in the box is the enchanting “Little Witch” by Anna Elizabeth Bennett. It’s the tale of sweet Minikin Snickasnee–known as Minx–who is convinced her real mother cannot be the evil witch who is raising her and treating her like a slave. Turns out she is right: Madame Snickasnee kidnipped Minx when she was a baby, from a lovely fairy. Minx’s reunion with her actual mother, aided by a serious of magical powders, is as touching now as when it was written decades ago.

In honor of the Bicentennial, colonial costumes were popular in the mid-70s. Heidi finds one at the bottom of the box, and is now eager to dress up and try it out. All she needs is a make your own caramel apple kit and some popcorn balls, and she’ll be all set!

A Boy and His Caul

Standard

David Copperfield was born “on a Friday, at twelve-o-clock at night”, with a caul. In a foreshadowing of e-bay this caul was “advertised in a newspaper at the low price of fifteen guineas.” There were no takers at that price. David goes on recollect, “ten years afterwards, the caul was put up in a raffle down in our part of the country, to fifty members at half–a–crown a head, the winner to spend five shillings. I was present myself, and I remember to have felt quite uncomfortable and confused, at a part of myself being disposed of in that way. The caul was won, I recollect, by an old lady with a hand–basket, who, very reluctantly, produced from it the stipulated five shillings, all in halfpence, and twopence halfpenny short.”

So, what is a caul exactly?  All fetuses grow inside a kind of bubble in the womb. The caul is part of this amniotic sac that, in some babies, refuses to come unattached. So essentially they emerge with their heads in a transparent veil, nature’s bubble wrap. This happens only once in every 80,000 births–so no wonder babies born in this way are often reputed with magical powers and said to have the gift of second sight. 17th century medical books referred to it as “a helmet” or “the Virgin’s shift.” In parts of Hungary, well into Victorian times, peasant women who had such babies were convinced they would grow up to be witches; if such a baby was born, it was carried by its mother up to a rooftop and the mother had to declare “A child was born to our house in a bloody shirt”, as the only means to ward off this fate. Often, but not always, caul-wrapped babies are premature. In 1975, a baby lived outside the womb, but inside the caul, for 25 minutes, not breathing air–and turned out perfectly healthy. Whether he also became clairvoyant, or a sorcerer, is not noted.

 

Austen Vs. Bronte: Which Girl Are You?

Standard

 

Walter Scott said of Jane Austen: “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!”

But Charlotte Bronte thought differently. She is one of the few influential people to voice negative feelings about Austen’s work, saying of it: “the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasionally graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of Death- this Miss Austen ignores.”  She goes on to call her a most sensible lady but a rather insensible woman. The Bronte sisters are, of course, known for their passionate prose and lives full of turmoil. Their brother Branwell died at the age of thirty-one, addicted to alcohol and opiates; he was known to have forged checks to keep himself afloat in his existence as a financially unsuccessful painter. Charlotte, Emily and Anne all struggled in the world as governesses, strained to the point of nervous breakdowns and being forced to return home; Charlotte was, for a time, in love with a married man before she settled down with a vicar. Similarly, their famous characters all wear their hearts on their sleeves. In contast Austen’s heroine’s learn to do a social dance, even if the steps at first prove tricky, landing good, prosperous husbands and sedately happy endings.

In our times an example of each kind of heroine might be find in the British royal family. Princess Diana, with her ready sympathy for others and her penchant for speaking out publicly about her eating disorders, failed marriage and diastrous love affairs, would definitely be a Bronte girl. Kate Middleton, who with her mother’s help carefully plotted her way into an excellent marriage, without ever seeming to have a hair out of place, is Team Austen. Which style of woman do you prefer?

Alice in Wonderland Eats the White Rabbit

Standard

 

As the autumn weather sharpens and cools, appetities increase and hearty meals are required. Alice thinks about the White Rabbit in another context, as dinner rather than a friend. Until the 1950s, when myxomatosis wiped out much of the UK’s bunnies, rabbits were considered an excellent, cheap protein source. Today, trendy eaters are turning again to this low-fat meat, which tends to be dry but is tasty when cooked in a sauce. Marks & Spencer reported a 20% increase in rabbit meat sales in 2014. Top chefs buy their rabbits from accredited game dealers; but there are still some rogue home cooks who might go out and hunt, then skin, their own, especially those which nibble parsely from their gardens. You can make a stew with red wine gravy, bacon, shallots, currant jelly and herbs; simmer the meat in coconut milk; or give it a good fry in buttermilk (Alice’s favorite preparation).

FRIED RABBIT:

Brine your rabbit for 12 hours in a mix of salt and water.

Mix buttermilk with cayenne, garlic powder, paprika and Italian seasoning mixture. Marinate in covered container overnight.

In hot oil (at least 325 degrees), fry rabbit pieces gently–don’t let them sizzle too much. Turn; then repeat for another 12 minutes. Drain on rack before serving at room temperature. 1 rabbit will serve 2-3 people. (For the traditionalist, this works for chicken too).

Southern Fried Rabbit

 

 

Jane Eyre Reviews The Grace of the Hunchback

Standard

When I was growing up in the 1830s, very few women could read or write, not even to sign their names on a marriage register. Throughout the century female literacy continued to improve so that by 1900 it had increased to almost 97 percent. As a reflection of this, penny dreadfuls, or slender novels with melodramatic themes, available for a penny apiece, aimed at the female market, began to grow in popularity.

Currently, The Grace of the Hunchback by Annabelle Troy, is on sale on amazon for 99 cents–the modern equivalent of a penny. Though slender in size, it is no cheap romance. Rather, it is the fictionalized version of the real life of influential ballerina Marie Taglioni, born in 1804. Under the guidance of her father, a dictatorial choreographer, she pioneeres the romantic style of ballet: dancing en pointe, ethereality mixed with athleticism, white tutus, heroines dying for love. Marie always wants to be loved herself but this eludes her. On stage she is considered to be beautiful; offstage she disappoints men with her plain looks and shyness. She marries a heartless French aristocrat who uses her for her money; they divorce after having two children. Marie tries to recover from her heartbreak by dancing in triumph in Russia, before ultmately retiring to Lake Como. Late in life, when she is in her seventies, she loses all of her money and teaches at a girls’ school in London. She never stoppes loving her husband, even though she realizes what she actually craves is a male ideal rather than an actual relationship. Her story is contrasted with that of her former maid, Lucette, who becomes a successful prostitute in the Paris demimonde. This part was a little wicked for me, sometimes inducing a blush, but I do acknowledge that it added a little spice.

Below is the link to the book. I wish you joyful reading. And remember to be grateful that you can read at all.

 

Couture Ice Cream with Madame Bovary

Standard

Fashion week, showcasing styles for spring 2015, runs from Sept. 5-11 in NYC.

In my novel Jane Eyre Gets Real, it is Jane who is known for becoming a businesswoman during her stay in contemporary New York. But Emma Bovary also possesses the touch of an entrepreneur, and shows it by creating ice cream novelties inspired by designers, past and present. Teen model Alice in Wonderland takes a break from the catwalk to help her sell them on the street, via a trendy chartreuse truck–because pink is so last season–during the heat of fashion week.

 

Some of Emma’s favorite creations:

THE COCO CHANEL: 2 scoops of black licorice ice cream in a sugar cone, covered in edible silver “pearls”

THE ALEXANDER WANG: bright lime sherbert sprinkled with coarse sea salt and served in between chocolate sandwich cookies

THE CALVIN KLEIN: vanilla soft serve in a white plastic cup

A model walks the runway at the Calvin Klein Collection fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Spring 2014 at Spring Studios on September 12, 2013 in New York City.

THE MARC JACOBS: Blue Moon and lavender ice cream sundae laced with dark melted chocolate and topped with a ribbon of gummi candy