Parade of Antiques and Horribles

Bradford VT Fourth of July 1909 The July 4th Parade in Bradford, Vermont, 1909

Half the fun of writing an historical novel is doing the research. The Parrish Women is set mostly in the early 1900’s, perhaps my favorite historical period. As I was writing a chapter that takes place at a July Fourth celebration in Plainfield, New Hampshire, I found this photograph, which translated into the following:

    A horn blast erupted from somewhere behind the grange hall. The exodus paused. A shout went up, and from the back of the hall, a horseman rode forth, holding a rag-mop high. He wore a bedraggled, filthy uniform of unknown vintage, but everyone knew he was the leader of the Parade of Antiques and Horribles, known simply as the Horribles. Quickly, the crowd reformed on either side of the street, with much laughter and cheering. A parody of the august Ancient and Honorable Artillery Companies of parades long ago, the Horribles had not made an appearance in years. Kimball let out a laugh, and ran, waving to Earle to follow.
With some quick costume changes, many who had just marched now reappeared in different guise. The first wagon had banners proclaiming “Antiques and Horribles” in suitably old-fashioned lettering. Upon the wagon stood, sat, and reclined a thoroughly dishonorable-looking troop of soldiers. These struck poses and placed hands in their coats. This was followed by the Horrible Band, members of the Plainfield marching band who had switched instruments, so that no one was playing an instrument that they knew how to play. The resulting cacophony was met with uproarious laughter.
Next came a carriage driven by Mr. Dunn doing a creditable impression of President Roosevelt. He kept standing up to wave, flashing his teeth and shouting “Bully!” then falling back into his seat as the horse pulled along. Many in the crowd remembered seeing Roosevelt during his Cornish stopover in 1902. He had arrived, shot a boar in Corbin Park, made a speech, and left.
But then there was a pause. Children groaned in disappointment. At last, a horse appeared pulling a very strange vehicle. Soon it became clear that it was a four-seater carriage made over to look like one of the new motorcars. There was a barrel lying on its side in front for the engine, with washboards on either side. A window sash was placed to look like a windshield. On the glass appeared the words “Cornish or Bust!” Wooden siding was nailed on to complete the effect. Every few feet, a wheel would drop off, and the horse would stop. The men would jump out, loudly cursing the “unreliable motorcar,” scratching their heads, playing it up for the crowd, which was howling with laughter. Helpful (and some not-so-helpful) suggestions were heard from the sidelines. The “motorcar” and its occupants, who were dressed in three-piece suits and straw boaters, was meant to poke fun at the summer people. Several motorcars had been seen in town recently. Fred Parrish had just bought one, and Doc Churchill drove a 1903 Matheson touring car. Parrish was well-liked among the Plainfield natives. He loved to stop and talk, especially about his new motorcar and its many quirks. Since he was known to be very mechanically inclined, it made sense to the villagers that a wealthy man such as he would enjoy owning such an expensive—and time-consuming—extravagance. Most everyone, though, considered the motorcar to be nothing more than a rich man’s toy.

Researching the novel

Back around 2009, I came upon an interesting book called The Make Believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin by Alma Gilbert. As an artist, my work is based on photographs, and I’ve always admired the work of Maxfield Parrish, who also used photographs in his work. Gilbert’s book gave a fascinating glimpse into Parrish’s working methods. She displayed his paintings next to his original resource photographs. As I read, I learned how his most frequent model, Susan Lewin, was also his lifelong companion of fifty years. I was intrigued. What was that like? I wondered. There’s a story I’d like to know more about.

But there wasn’t much written about the relationship between Parrish, greatest illustrator of the early twentieth century, and his model. As I’d always wanted to write a novel, this seemed like a good subject for me to tackle. It seemed all I’d have to do is a little research, add some dialogue, and I’d have a novel. If I’d known how wrong I was, I might never have started!

Some seven years later, I completed a rough draft 140,000 words long. With my wife, Chris, I’d traveled to Vermont and New Hampshire. At Dartmouth, we spent a week at the Rauner Special Collections Library, photographing (with an iPad) hundreds of handwritten diary entries and letters, plus photographs. Haverford College, which Parrish attended, had some more letters. It took nearly a year to transcribe it all.

I read. A lot. Both fiction from the period (Wharton, Howells, Cather, Dreiser) and nonfiction, giving myself an education in the world of fin de siecle America. I learned about the Cornish Colony, where the Parrishes lived, as well as the artists and writers who were their friends, especially Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the great sculptor.

By the time the rough draft was complete, I realized the story I wanted to tell was not Parrish’s, but his wife Lydia’s. Her story was much more interesting, more compelling. Parrish’s life story is fascinating, but as material for a novel, it’s pretty dull stuff. He was not the prototypical struggling artist, battling with inner demons, and so forth. He was, in fact, appallingly happy and well-adjusted. Everything fell into place for him, and he had a brilliant career lasting nearly 75 years. Dull, dull, dull. So I set to work with my editorial ax, and chopped out 40,000 words.

But Lydia: now there was a story. She left behind hundreds of pages of diary entries and letters, telling of her life as the wife of a hugely famous artist. She’s the one who had the struggles. She had to deal with a marriage falling apart, a husband building a studio next to their home and then moving into it with his pretty young model. For her, motherhood is unremitting drudgery and boredom. She wants something more from life. And she finds it in the most unlikely place: the Sea Isles of Georgia, hundreds of miles away from New Hampshire. She discovers the Gullah people–former slaves with a unique culture and language–and finds herself drawn to them. She ends up spending most of her life living among the Gullah and writing a book about their songs. The book, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Isles, published in 1942, was a pioneering work.

The Parrish Women is the story of Lydia’s journey of self-discovery, self-acceptance, and, finally, self-realization, as well as a look at the little-known Cornish Colony and its most famous resident, Maxfield Parrish.