Saturday, September 06, 2008


I'm writing a book based on a real person who lived a long time ago. There are lots of descriptions of her when she was a child. She shows up in other people's letters and diaries, ships's logs (and there are descriptions of life on those ships, too). This book is about her childhood.

But as she got older, things changed. She never married, and the references in the letters and diaries got fewer and fewer, and less and less detailed, until, in the last twenty-seven years of her life (she lived to be almost 90), they stop. This really bothered me a lot. I found her in censuses, so I knew that at the end of her life, she was living as a lodger, in two rooms -- and this, too, seemed horrible. I pictured her in some kind of slum, all alone.

I could NOT stop thinking about it and it made me really sad, so sad that I started to wonder if I wanted to write the book at all. Did I really want to spend so much time being so unhappy?

Then, I looked at the census record under a magnifying glass until I could ALMOST read her address and google-mapped it, trying variations on the street name. FInally, I was spelled it correctly and found the address! B is where she lived, A is where her sister-in-law and neices lived; that park was there in those days, and then (as now) B had a view of both the park (called "the Hoe") and the ocean.

And since it's in England, the old houses on that street are still there (I also saw some of the whole street after the blitz: all Georgian houses, built in around 1805) -- I think this one was hers:

From behind the house -- or maybe her own windows if she lived on the top floor-- she had a view not only of the park but of something like this:

Not too shabby! Knowing that she was in this beautiful place at the end of her life has lifted a huge weight from me and from this book, too. I kept telling myself that I didn't NEED to know about all that to tell the story of her childhood, I tried not to think about it -- but I couldn't stop. I guess I've become kind of obsessed by her and her family and finding out as much as I can about them all. Now, I can let it rest for awhile (at least until I am researching the next books in the series) and concentrate on the story of her childhood. I hope I can do justice to it.

And one GOOD thing about being so obsessed is that just as imagining her miserable was making ME miserable, picturing her in this beautiful place makes me happy. Someday, I'll go there and see it for myself -- maybe I'll even get to stay in her house. It's now a hotel. In fact, if anyone publishes the book, the advance can fund the trip and further research!


Anonymous said...

I promise this comment is related--it's just long! :) But perhaps the example of my g-granma will give you an alternate possibility, minus historical record to the contrary.

I have copies of my great-grandmother's journals, which she kept from the time she was about 20 (in 1916) to her death in 1972. The thing about these journals, though, is that she stops keeping them every time something interesting comes up--her wedding, the birth of my grandpa, and so on.

It turns out she was very sick during those times and basically put aside the journaling because she had other things to worry about.

But in her later years, all she journaled about was the weather and the obituaries of her old friends.

I know from oral interviews with my family members that she was extremely busy as a grandmother in her later years-my dad stayed with her for extended periods because he was sick a lot when he was a kid (mumps, once, I think, and it was a form of quarantining him from his siblings). She was canning, visiting family and friends, and just in general had a very busy twilight decade or two--but you wouldn't get that from her journals.

So, perhaps your subject was quite busy with family and friends, but people just stopped worrying about mentioning it because it was something that was common/expected/taken for granted?

Libby Koponen said...

THANK YOU! That's very comforting! -- and very interesting about your grandmother, too. Thanks for writing!


Mary Lee said...

VERY interesting insight into your research process! What a difference your determination made!

alvinaling said...

I love this post, and all the thought that is going into your research.

I hope you won't take offense at this comment, but you live alone in a rented two-room apartment, and you have a happy, full life!

Libby Koponen said...

Not offended at all! Thank! It's true and it made me laugh.

And thank you everyone for telling me that you found this interesting, I wasn't sure it would interest anyone but me.