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Research for Writing: Stories of Women

1800-10 White muslin dress brocaded silk with gold cord chain stitch to drawing floral motifs, and garnished with an application of silk satin ribbon in purple diamond shaped and rectangular. Decorating with ribbon decoration is similar to wearing the dress of the Countess of Chinchon Francisco de Goya portrait in 1800. Museo del Traje.

1800-10 White muslin dress; brocaded silk with gold cord chain stitch and  silk satin ribbon. Diamond ribbon decoration is similar to the dress of the Countess of Chinchon in a portrait by Francisco de Goya in 1800. Source: Museo del Traje; see dress alone

One of the delights of writing about the Regency, especially stories that include soldiers, is the sheer amount of on-the-scene documentation available. This is said to be the first conflict in which soldiers as well as officers could read and write, and many have left diaries and memoirs of their experiences. I used many of their memoirs and diaries as background for The Spanish Patriot.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of these writings are by men, few of whom cared to put the details in that would help me describe a domestic scene during wartime, or even a camp scene that was not part of a battle. Finding a mention of women in all these pages is a little easier than finding a needle in a haystack, but not much. Yet thousands of women also took part in the Napoleonic campaigns, as wives, camp followers, nurses, canteen vendors, and even a few soldiers. How to tell their stories?

For this story, set in Galicia, Spain, I started with the memoir of Henry Crabb Robinson, known as the first English foreign newspaper correspondent. Writing for The Times of London, Robinson covered the British army’s campaign starting in Corunna in 1808, the exact setting for my story. Robinson is a fair observer, and gives quite a bit of detail of dress and demeanor. I based my scene of the Galician tertulia, or “dance party,” from his description:

“At these Tertulias the ladies sit with their backs against the wall on an elevated floor, such as we see in old halls. The gentlemen sit before them, each cavalier on a very small straw-bottomed chair before his dama, and often with his guitar, on which he klimpers, and by aid of which, if report say truly, he can make love without being detected.” – page 273

I found in each of the military accounts a couple of tantalizing details of daily life, but still nothing by women, at least nothing in English. I used Google translate to search for historical texts that might be written in Spanish (which I do read, painfully slowly), and even contacted a British historian of Spain in that period to ask if she knew of any English-speaking women’s writing on Spain from that time. Nada.

I wrote the rough draft, including Spanish, British, and American women characters, while still researching. A little research gets me started writing; it’s not till I have a story fleshed out that I discover what I really need deep detail on.

I decided not to tell the story from the point of view of a Spanish lady; I wasn’t confident I could do her justice. For a brief time, I considered making printer and budding reporter Louisa Wakefield, Lou for short, into a boy, but all-male stories don’t interest me.

Then I remembered Robinson’s odd story of having tea with an English lord and lady who arrived in Corunna but stayed only briefly. Maybe she wrote letters home I might find. Who were they, again?

Lord and Lady Holland. Whig royalty at a time when the Whigs were the minority party in Parliament, they hosted political and literary gatherings at their London home, Holland House. They were so strongly in favor of the Spanish patriots, and of the British joining Spain to fight Bonaparte, that they traveled to Corunna, and then to central and southern Spain during the fighting. And Lady Holland wrote detailed journals.

Bingo. She tells how much things cost, mentions tertulias from a woman’s point of view, and tells what people ate at dinner and with whom they ate it. I could not believe a lady of her stature was in this dusty little town in the midst of war, but I thanked my lucky stars for it.

“The mutton is nauseous, beef excellent; pork in every shape famous all over Europe. … Bread, except at Santiago, quite execrable. At Coruña and all the way to Lugo it is gritty from a mixture of sand and filth, heavy and brown. The common wine very palatable, light, and wholesome. … Candles are in common use, not lamps as in the other parts of Spain. The floors are of wood; not the brick or stone pavements like those I have seen in Spain. The houses are not large, nor are they build round a court or patio. The ventas or posadas [rentals], tho’ far from being good, yet furnish more articles than many do in the south of Spain, such as chairs, sheets, mattresses and plates.” – page 219

Luckily, more and more recent histories in English tell of women’s experiences, gathering those needles into one place. A few I am relying on for my next novel are:

In addition, an account of the war from a foot soldier’s wife has been rediscovered and was reprinted in 2014: Catherine Exley’s Diary: The Life and Times of an Army Wife in the Peninsular War. Her account ran in her local newspaper in 1923 but was then nearly forgotten.

I hope many more memoirs like hers turn up, from attics, newspaper archives, and local libraries. Only the Venning book was available when I wrote The Spanish Patriot; in my next book I’m looking forward to diving even deeper into the fascinating stories of women in this war.

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