Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 30, 2015

How Much History Should Go in a Historical Novel, and Other Questions

Anytime we put an adjective in front of a novel – such as women’s, Jewish, Irish, or historical – we can make it particular, but also risk it being seen as limiting what we expect of fictional elements such as tone, style, and structure. I want to blend my present concerns with those of people gone before, drawing from history to explore themes that engage me now, though I love the way that history may offer the gift of a plot. … For more of my thoughts about Finding Fiction’s Sweet Spot Between Past and Present, please click on A Writer of History.


A favorite historical novel for me this year was The Hawthorne House, which shows Sophia Hawthorne struggling to balance her roles as devoted wife to the novelist, Nathaniel, as the mother of three, and her creative life as a painter. So I am thrilled that the novel’s author Erika Robuck, who is not fond of Louisa May Alcott’s classic (and asks that we please don’t throw pencils) wrote: “Little Woman in Blue is the Little Women I have always wanted, and for those who enjoy literature of this time period, and complicated female protagonists, I highly recommend it.” You can read her whole review here. Disha at Franklenstein: Frank Book Reviews, was another who never felt charmed by the four nineteenth century girls, but writes: “If you loved ‘Little Women’ as a child, this is the book to read as a grown up.”

Are any others of you who weren’t such Little Women fans? Step up. I don’t believe a single pencil was thrown. You can love a book, as I did this novel about the moral lives of girls, yet have reservations. For me what rankles most in Little Women, besides an unflattering depiction of the youngest sister, was the way that anger held a moral quality, as if good people never got mad. Not so. The girls in the book had plenty to be angry about, and in life, Louisa and her mother had still more that silence and a warning pillow on a sofa couldn’t and shouldn’t quench. Not acknowledging the anger – well, I’m a novelist, not a psychiatrist, but I believe some of that made Louisa kind of judgmental about her youngest sister who had a conscience, but also generally a happier life.



On the other hand, I couldn’t be more pleased to have my novel praised by someone who describes herself as a bit of a Little Women fanatic and book nerd who visited the Alcott’s “home and special collections, submerged myself in their letters, scrapbooks and diaries.” Both fan girl and scholar (she can be in my club any day), Stephanie Burns (who took the above picture) is offering a giveaway of Little Woman in Blue at Book Perfume, along with her review. You just have to post your favorite Little Women character (though you might want to join the interesting discussion!) by Friday Oct. 2 at 6 p.m.

In other news, it’s fall and the air is delicious.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 28, 2015

Joy and Angst at the Desk

I’ve had a rocky relationship with creative writing for a bit. I’ve been doing book marketing, as my patient and loyal readers know perhaps too well, between softly hammering at a manuscript, trying to beat out a better structure. The plot muse is shy. Really I haven’t been violent – just tapping – but it still seems the plot might need not force, but time to step into view. Maybe my problem wasn’t with writing, but that I was trying to write the wrong thing.

Yesterday I left my novel and worked on some new poems, with sunflowers in a vase at my side, faces down, but still bright. Is my quiet joy a sign I’m on the right track? I take it as such, though a friend recently told me about how labored her writing can feel. We discussed Plath and Van Gogh, depression and other illnesses, the risks of art and the world. My friend says her journal is the one place where writing feels good. There she can say what she wishes, run on about whatever steps in her path. And sometimes what steps in can be used for other ongoing work.

Are you someone who loves to write or who hates it, though perhaps finds some pleasure in having the writing be done? For my teacher friends, how much is happiness or hard times at the desk part of your conversation about writing? I generally say I like writing and I generally do. But writing is a long road. I like getting ideas and I like tying them up, but there are places in the middle where my pen sticks and my breath stutters. These are parts I have to get through, like the tree pose in yoga, in order to enjoy the stretches at the beginning and end of the class. Those middle parts may need a little will power or its more fun-loving sister, obsessiveness, to power through. Or perhaps we need to give ourselves a break, look up or down for beauty along the way, which is what we mostly have.


These days I miss having a four-legged companion on my walks, butI keep my eye open for dogs who seem to be looking for a moment of admiration and owners who are willing to stop for strangers to hold out a hand to be sniffed. I told one dog, “You’re so cute and so good,” and the woman with the dog replied, “That is a dog’s Namaste.” We may look forward to writing “the end!” or hear benedictions or those The-light-in-me-sees-the-light-in-you’s, but really may best stop in the midst and call them up.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 25, 2015

Moving Between Poetry and Fiction and Back Again

In my last blog, I wrote about my path from writing for children to writing a novel for adults. I also shift between writing prose and poetry. I am not a brander’s dream. But most of us read a variety of poetry, novels, and nonfiction – exquisite and trashy — so why not write in all forms? Yeah, there’s that issue of time (speaking of which, where did September go?) I’m not talking about writing quickly: that’s not in my repertoire. But I find myself sometimes craving the deepening that poetry requires, and sometimes want to sprawl into the width a life demands. And I’m not sure there’s as much difference as Samuel Coleridge suggested when he called prose words in their best order, and poetry the best words in the best order.

In the past I turned a novel to narrative verse and have known others who’ve done that, too, or the other way around. You can learn a lot by crossing genres. But May Alcott, the youngest artistic sister of the writer Louisa, never seemed a subject for verse of any kind. I wrote my debut novel for adults, Little Women in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, as prose because these sisters wanted to talk. May was a painter who loved and was inspired by nature, always good topics for verse, but I wanted the context of the long curve of her dream to have a life that included both art and love. The conflicts that arose from that desire and all its obstacles demanded some bulk.

Fiction offers a bigger room, though I remain fussy about every word, and the rhythm and syntax of sentences. The poet can’t entirely disappear. My writing group pointed out scenes that repeated themes and didn’t add much to characterization. These had to go. Housework was a huge part of May’s daily life, but there are only so many times someone wants to read about doing the dishes and washing windows. I cut some accounts. Drafting a novel is like crafting a long branch I’ll need to lop off near the trunk; most leaves can be raked to the side, but I might pick up one or two.


Writing Little Women in Blue took a long time and a lot of research, let’s say around fifteen years. I loved most of that reading and the dwelling necessary to turn the facts to fiction. Between drafts I worked on other manuscripts, sometimes working in verse, taking a well-lived life down to its beautiful bones. I was particularly inspired by the way Marilyn Nelson brought alive the scientist in Carver: A Life in Poems and Karen Hesse’s beautiful, spare novels. Somewhere between drafts of my novel about May, I wrote nonfiction about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, and Marie Curie, which I eventually turned into verse for Borrowed Names. The nonfiction had kept me to the biographical high points, while I wanted some of what’s common, coming from inference and imagination, which poetry allows, to connect the famous person to readers.

And now? I’m working on a novel, reading slim volumes of poems every chance I get, and standing by with broom and dustpan for when copy edits return for Finding Wonders: A Verse History of Girls and Science, coming from Atheneum next year. I’m also doing what a writer must do between finishing a novel and seeing that it finds places in the hands of readers who like history and women who didn’t get their fair place in it, readers who loved Little Women and also those who did not.

Chances to win a copy of Little Woman in Blue are being offered this week at Under my Apple Tree or at Broken Teepee.

For the Poetry Friday roundup, please visit the insightful and generous folks at Poetry for Children.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 23, 2015

Writing for Children/Writing for Adults

Some people have asked how I went from writing for children to writing for adults. As with most conversations about the creative process, the answer is winding, but here’s my short answer. Really, it began the other way around. I was writing for adults in my twenties, and published some short stories but not the two novels I then wrote. Marrying and having a child made me less interested in angst and more in hope.

Becoming a mom also got me reading and thinking about books I’d loved as a girl. Little Women was uppermost in my mind, and driving on Rt. 2 toward Boston, passing the exit sign for Fruitlands, where the Alcott family lived when Louisa was ten, I wanted to know more about Louisa May Alcott’s life as a child. I wrote about that time in my first novel for young readers, Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands.


The research pulled me into the whole family. Seeing artwork done by May Alcott hung in Orchard House made me curious about a nineteenth century painter who didn’t get the credit she deserved. Writing is writing, but with May I was more interested in her life as an adult than her life as a child: she wasn’t the spoiled girl that Louisa depicted in Little Women, but she was more intriguing as an adult who tried to balance work and romance. I felt the breadth of her experience more suitable for a thick book. I wanted conversations between sisters and sweethearts, and more room for description, though I did try to keep it under rein, or at least wedged between action, which can be conversation.

I wrote more about moving from writing for children to writing for adults at Nicole Evelina’s blog. Click on the link for all, which includes:“Many years ago, Little Women’s Jo March — huddled in a chilly garret penning plays and stories — gave me my first inkling that a girl could grow up to be a writer. My curiosity about other women writers stuck and carried me through college. I was unsatisfied with most reading lists, but scanned the stacks for books by women who’d been forgotten. I wrote some papers about them, and while I kept a scholarly tone, felt as if I were playing dress-up, again immersed in history.”

I’m not going to say I don’t still set up imaginary tea parties. You never know who might share the shortbread.


Click here on Broken Teepee for a chance to win a copy of LITTLE WOMAN IN BLUE. Thank you, Patty. Also many thanks for kind words at The Write Review, Booksie’s Blog, and Thoughts from an Evil Overlord who wrote, “I’ve noticed that the more tabs I’ve added to a book while reading, the more I’ve enjoyed it. … I adored this book!” And I adore those colored tabs!


You can hear me read an excerpt from LITTLE WOMAN IN BLUE at The Author’s Corner. It was fun recording, but all I will say is that I admire those audio readers, who make driving so pleasant, more than ever.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 21, 2015

Archives of Books, Land, and Memory

A lot of research happens with books, but sometimes we should take the words and images for walks. We need to let the words come back to us through the senses. While stepping where the people we write about once stepped, we have to take into account new roads and buildings, and climate change, but beyond that we can connect through the senses. Photographer Mark Ruwedel wrote, “I’ve come to think of land as being an enormous historical archive.” And from Galielo’s Telescope: “Places are the archives of the truth they have witnessed,” which sounds a bit like something Ralph Waldo Emerson, May Alcott’s neighbor (and the kind man who broke tragic news to the family) might have written.

Lots of us who write about the past get pulled into it because of a love of reading and a small taste for spying. Rewards aren’t often quick. You need a high tolerance for heading in wrong directions. And those of us who turn our findings into fiction or verse are often the ones who liked to play dress-up as children, and haven’t entirely stopped.


For more of my thoughts on research, please read Plundering Back Cupboards in Reading the Past. And at The Writing Desk I consider research as a treasure hunt: “Besides a fascination with what remains from the past, or what’s hidden, I write historical fiction because I get to read a lot. I like ferreting out details and weighing various points of views to decide who’s telling what kind of truth. Historical fiction begins with research, though it doesn’t stay there. We may be given a plot, place, and characters, but it’s what we do with them that make a novel come alive.” (Click the above link to read more.)

Here are some books essential to my research for Little Woman in Blue.


This is Orchard House, which holds the biggest collection of May Alcott’s paintings, in a photo I took in July.

orchardhouse.summerJPG copy

Inside are May’s watercolors, often of rivers and lakes, some copies of J.W.W.Turner’s works, and drawings of Greek gods and goddesses she did on her bedroom walls, and an owl she drew over Louisa’s hearth.


(photo by Susan Branch)

Looking at an artist’s work, thinking about subjects and styles, is part of research, too. So is walking on the path between her house and the Hawthorne’s.


Nathaniel is said to have walked this path, too, to avoid Bronson spotting him on the road and keeping him with long conversations. In these woods, May met his handsome son, Julian, or headed on visits with Nathaniel’s wife, Sophia, who must have inspired May with her painting and scared her with the way she stopped doing much art due to family duties.


And here’s a photo that I took in the Galleria dell’Accademia (where others were taking selfies with Michelangelo’s David). I loved so much in Florence, looking at art May admired when she visited Italy in 1871. I wanted to give May another look, though this came when my book was in galleys. Just because a book is published, we don’t stop asking questions.

Giveaway! Comment by September 25 at Let Them Read Books to win a copy of Little Woman in Blue. Jenny kindly writes, “Jeannine Atkins has shone a spotlight on the other talented Alcott sister, exploring the nature of sisterhood, the effects of fame on a relationship, and the emergence of the modern women.”

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 17, 2015

Little Woman in Blue: What People are Saying

Readers and reviewers: I am in awe. I’m grateful not just for kind words about Little Woman in Blue, but since publishing my first novel for adults I’ve learned how many people are willing to take a chance on a book, not only to read, which is wonderful, but sometimes to put their responses into well-considered paragraphs, too. Visiting blogs, some familiar and some new to me, and peeking into the minds of readers and their communities makes me feel at home in a wider world of readers who are listening to each other. It’s like being allowed to sit at someone’s kitchen table, with eggs and toast in the shadow of a stack of books.

And it’s fun to see pictures of the novel I wrote in other kitchens, coffee shops, or on commutes. I took this from Unabridged Chick, delighted that May gets to be back in the Boston area, missing carriages and cobblestones.


I’d love to see any photos of yours!

Below are a few spaces on the Internet and words I’m particularly grateful for.

You can read an interview I did with Debbi at In the Spotlight (How long did this book take to write?) and get a chance to win a copy of Little Woman in Blue open until September 19, Saturday at midnight, EST.

Both novelist Gabrielle Donnelly and Susan Bailey at Louisa May is My Passion are Alcott family experts, so it’s a thrill, and a relief, to know I’ve created a woman they recognize, but have developed further. In “May Alcott Gets Her Due!” Gabrielle writes: “The first thing to remember when you start to read Jeannine Atkins’ marvelous novel … is to forget Amy March. Amy, the spoiled youngest of the March family of Little Women, who burned Jo’s books in a fit of childish pique, was at best questionably talented as an artist, and ended up – wouldn’t she just – marrying rich and dashing Laurie and leading a very nice life, thank you, as a Victorian lady who lunched, is nowhere to be seen here. Instead, you’ll meet the real woman behind Amy, Louisa’s sister, May.”

The blog Hungry for Good Books? categorizes books by food groups, (mine includes Grandma’s Pot Roast and Pigeon Pie). “Little Woman in Blue conjures the world of Little Women’s Alcott sisters so vividly that readers will find themselves astonished to look up from the page and not be living in nineteenth-century Concord, Massachusetts.” At A Teaching Life, Tara Smith calls it “an engrossing read – Atkins has thoroughly researched both the intellectual scene in Concord (we get to rub elbows with Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne!) as well as the artistic scene in Paris (we meet Degas, Manet, Mary Cassatt!), and the reader feels very much a part of these richly recreated scenes and conversations. May’s own struggle to create and preserve an artistic authenticity at a time when women were simply not given opportunities to do so, was especially poignant to read.”

Meg writes at A Bookish Affair “This is a look at the complex relationship of sisterhood with all of its love and rivalry.  … The author gets us super close to their lives and the characters, especially May and Louisa begin to feel like friends.” Exactly what I hoped! And at Let Them Read Books: “Jeannine Atkins has shone a spotlight on the other talented Alcott sister, exploring the nature of sisterhood, the effects of fame on a relationship, and the emergence of the modern women. … a well-rounded portrayal of a woman who knew what she wanted but was still plagued by doubts, who wanted to be taken seriously on her own yet still yearned for acceptance and companionship.” Um, have I ever known someone like that?

Last but not at all least, my older sister, who decades ago played Little Women with me, and was writer Jo March, is reading and says she likes it. Awesome.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 15, 2015

Little Woman in Blue: Publication Day!

After spending many years with May Alcott in the form of a manuscript in and out of a drawer, with my patient writing group there to help shape it, and my husband to cheer and edit, it’s wonderful to have more people know more about two sisters who crave wealth, travel, and fame as an artist or writer in nineteenth century Massachusetts. All these years later, I still love thinking, talking, and writing about May. Part of me wants to move on, and I am, with other books in the works. I need the creative roughness that keeps me sane, or should I say stable? And part of me loves seeing May again through new eyes, sharing that friendship. Isn’t she great?


Big thanks to those who’ve let me know that copies of LITTLE WOMAN IN BLUE: A NOVEL OF MAY ALCOTT are arriving in the mail, and for kind comments. Library Journal says: “Devotees of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women will be intrigued by this fictionalized biography of the women behind the characters.” I’m grateful for Kelly Fineman’s thoughtful and warm review on Writing and Ruminating, including these lines: It is my opinion that Little Woman in Blue … is the book for every woman I know. And would be great for book clubs everywhere – especially those who loved books like Loving Frank by Nancy Horan.”

Praise is sweet, but so plain old “getting it,” seeing some of what I did. To be known was what May longed for from her sister. At TeacherDance, the well-read Linda Baie wrote: “Jeannine Atkins shows May’s inner questioning of women’s roles in society at that time, that they cannot have both the passion of art and of marriage. And she shows May choosing “more,” an admirable and risky choice, sometimes even today.” Thank you Melodye Shore for writing at A Joyful Noise: “Alcott aficionados will find much to love between its covers, as will readers for whom this is a first introduction to the sisters in Little Women. Rich imagery. Relatable characters. Settings that are true to an era, and a story that celebrates May’s life, aptly published during the 175th anniversary of her birth year.”

Debbi Michiko Florence writes, “What Atkins paints here is a vivid and layered portrait of younger sister May, who was an artist, a dreamer, independent, and loyal. … I couldn’t stop turning pages as I wondered if May would find success as an artist, find love, or see her family again.” She interviews me at Welcome to the Spotlight and offers a book giveaway open until September 19: you just need to comment at the link.

While today is the official launch day, publishing is quirky, and LITTLE WOMAN IN BLUE: A NOVEL OF MAY ALCOTT has been showing up in mailboxes. I scheduled launch events for beautiful October to make sure the books were on hand. I could not be more excited that my official launch is being hosted by the Odyssey Bookshop 9 College St. South Hadley, MA on Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. More details soon, but there will be cider, baked goods, back stories, and fans!


We’ll also celebrate in May Alcott’s hometown at Barrow Bookstore 79 Main St. Concord, Mass on October 17 at 4:30. This shop is run by two sisters who have a history of working in Orchard House, where May Alcott grew up. We’ll be sure to have a good time.

I look forward to seeing Boston area friends and readers at wonderful Porter Square Books 25 White Street Cambridge, MA Oct. 23 at 7 p.m.

I’ll be part of a Women’s National Book Association Panel at Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street Brookline, MA. on October 27 at 7 PM. Moderated by author Lisa Borders, the panel will include novelists, Lauren Acampora, talking about THE WONDER GARDEN, Heidi Pitlor, author of THE DAYLIGHT MARRIAGE, and Virginia Pye, author of DREAMS OF THE RED PHOENIX.

I’ve got some interviews coming up this week, and I thank M.K. Tod for asking me to write about Finding Fiction’s Sweet Spot Between Past and Present at A Writer of History.

I’m not the first to say it, as is the case with most true things, but it takes a village, and I’m enormously grateful for cheers and contemplation from strangers, family, and friends, for librarians and booksellers, and She Writes Press.

It will be a busy month, but I’ll still be making time to write something new. There are so many stories. I appreciate every one of you who are making time for this one.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 14, 2015

Emily Dickinson and Friends

It was great to tour the Emily Dickinson Museum with Kerry Madden, a writer friend who was briefly in Massachusetts, with Burleigh Mutén as our guide. She led a small group through the Homestead, where Emily Dickinson was born and died, and the once elegant Evergreens next door, which belonged to Emily’s brother Austin, his wife Susan, and their family. Every reading and every guide brings a new angle to the woman and her poems. I knew from conversations how much Burleigh, who wrote Miss Emily for young readers, loves Emily Dickinson, but to hear her speak in the historic house really brought it home. “Tender” was a word Burleigh used several times describing relationships, bringing up the gifts of words or small things exchanged. She passed around a cup of chestnut burrs that Emily used to describe the color of her hair. When we looked at the replica of the white dress, Burleigh pointed out the pocket where the poet carried pencils.


She mentioned the chocolate wrappers and backs of envelopes that Emily wrote on, though the family wasn’t poor. She told us that Emily’s father had given his wife Lydia Maria Child’s popular The American Frugal Housewife, which was a book I’ve used for reference, filled as it is with the details of household chores and recipes. It is good to know how your characters might have made plum wine or pickles, and what sorts of soap were used for linen.

Burleigh told us about the small conservatory Emily’s father had made for his daughters, and showed us copies of pressed plants – apparently hundreds – she’d put into books. The gardens are restored in many respects to years past. I took this picture of a fig tree and some button-or-tassel-like plant I hope someone can identify.


Occasionally Burleigh paused in the talking about Emily to read a poem, without ceremony beyond the words themselves. The poems seemed integrated into the dailiness, but the room brightened. After seeing Emily’s newly restored bedroom, with pink flowered wallpaper, we sat in a room bare of the historic, but with room for folding chairs, to think more about composition. I hadn’t known about the evidence of Emily Dickinson’s revision process left on the pages of the small books she sewed together, found by her sister, Lavinia, in a chest after her death. In a room with a clever board that opened and hid words, Burleigh demonstrated the possible replacements for words within the published poems. Apparently Emily left little markings that don’t appear in the poems as we’ve come to know them. She sometimes put rings of words around a poem, which she considered as replacements, but not always with an indication of which word should be finally used. Each editor chose what those they liked best.


And now there’s more to read, always, including an article in the current issue of Preview Massachusetts about the long research behind finding wallpaper samples and worn parts of floorboards that suggested floor plans.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 12, 2015

Washington DC: A Quick Visit

So lovely to walk down the Mall and see one of my favorite memorials for my favorite president.



An email from my intrepid publicist, Caitlin Hamilton Summie, led to hasty travel plans and a fast visit to the Capitol to record a short passage of me reading Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott for public radio. This was the first time I’ve had my title considered in the seconds it takes to say. I’d chosen five little passages, then the producer picked two. I had practiced reading to keep my pace brisk but understandable. But I felt like the amateur when going through multiple readings, trying to make each one sound fresher than the last. Some words have so many syllables! I pretty much got down enunciation, but was asked for emotion. Without hands to wave! Producer Peter Johnson reminded me that on radio, you may have a few seconds to capture someone before they change the channel. But no pressure.

I LOVE my characters. I DO. But putting depth and height into my voice without sounding false was a challenge, and I’m thankful for Peter’s wise and patient coaching – while realizing no one has coached me in anything for a while. It was humbling. I did my best to pronounce Little Women as if I’d never spoken that title before. I mustered as much passion as I could for muskrat and heron, while Peter reminded me that Walden Pond is not any old mud puddle. I tried to put a sense of glorious history into my reading.

In the end, we were both satisfied, and I’ll post a link when it’s on The Author’s Corner, and perhaps on its way to public radio stations. Meanwhile, you can listen to other readers on the link, including President Jimmy Carter. I expect he needed less practice and prompting, plus that accent goes a long way.

I was happy to get back to my less studied way of talking as I met poet/writer/friend Sara Lewis Holmes at the gorgeous Library of Congress. We walked around amazed by the marble pillars, mosaic ceilings, and Thomas Jefferson’s library.



Since Maria Sibylla Merian is one of the subjects of my forthcoming Finding Wonders, it was thrilling to find her books of botanical drawings encased under glass, like the Gutenberg Bible, though this in a section honoring explorers.


It was also fun to go to the children’s room and spot Borrowed Names on the poetry shelf. Of course the library holds over 36 million books, so it’s not alone: but I was happy to see it displayed. Then Sara and I had tapas and wine and talked poetry.


It was great to meet my cousin Eileen and laugh and see more art  before flying home. Earlier I managed a run-through of a few halls in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I saw Louisa May Alcott as I got lost in the adjoining National Portrait Gallery.


Fortunately I learned from my organized daughter about planning museum trips with specific works in mind, so had researched which Edmonia Lewis sculptures would be on display. Readers of my last blog will know how I’d found, sort of, this sculptor in Rome.  Perhaps ten years ago I’d seen Edmonia Lewis’s Death of Cleopatra, which got lots of attention at the 1876 World’s Fair, at the Smithsonian in a smaller room, but I like the casual company she keeps here down from desks where some people studied.



Other of her smaller sculptures were behind glass in the Luce Foundation Center, where you happily get to see work that otherwise would be kept in storage. What a great museum in a beautiful city!


Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 7, 2015

Women and Art in Florence and Rome

My daughter and I are back from a great trip to Italy where we walked a lot, ate a lot, and visited a lot of museums. I loved my first ever gondola ride in Venice, a wine tour in Tuscany, and learning from my favorite art history major about Renaissance and Baroque art, though I’m usually looking for the women. Venice with its lovely boats and waterways was a bust in this respect. The Accademi Galleries is supposed to hold pastel portraits by late Baroque artist Rosalba Carriera, but there was construction underway, and maybe they were temporarily in storage.



We did a bit better in Florence, seeing work by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656), who is featured in books about women artists and novels including Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia. She was inspired by Caravaggio, whose work was well-represented in many churches and museums, though Emily told me that he was a bit of an outcast in his day, with some patrons objecting to things like how he painted holy men with realistically dirty feet. We saw Judith and her Maidservant at the Pitti Palace.


And Judith Slaying Holofernes at the Uffizi Gallery. This is thought to have been painted for Cosimo II de’Medici, but because of its violence was put in a dark corner (though the Medici family knew plenty about violence, and this theme wasn’t uncommon). Artemisia Gentileschi wasn’t paid for this work, until her friend Galileo Galilei, who wanted to be an artist before he began focusing on science, came to her aid.


This makes me fond of Galileo, though he’s better known for making telescopes that changed his and our view of not only the sky, but the cosmos.


He saw that Venus had phases like the moon, which showed it rotated around the sun. The moons he observed around Jupiter did not circle the earth. It looked like the earth wasn’t at the center of the universe, a point that got him called a heretic by the church and put under house arrest for almost twenty years. About 100 years later, the Catholic Church admitted Galileo had a point, had his body dug up and buried under lovely tomb in the Basilica of Santa Croce.


Sometimes you have to bring along your own signs of artists. May Alcott studied lots of paintings and sculptures in Rome in 1870. I let her enjoy lunch outside the Pantheon, which includes the tomb of Raphael, one of her favorite painters.


I escorted her to the Spanish Steps, where back in the day artists gathered in the morning, often choosing models who sat there or around the Bernini fountain.


Nearby, a street of houses with big doors that once let in big chunks of marble and let out statues is now filled with swanky shops. I ordered cake and a latte in a restaurant in what may or may not have been Edmonia Lewis’s studio.


May-or-may-not is a theme in her story. We know she worked in a studio where Canova worked, as he did here, and then the Tadolini family, whose work is displayed. I added Edmonia Lewis’s name on my napkin and signed it in the guest book. Because one thing Rome has besides layered history is ghosts.


I wove some of my knowledge of and questions about this sculptor into Stone Mirrors, a verse history to be published by Atheneum in 2017. For those who want facts now, Harry and Albert Henderson’s excellent biography is available as an e-book. Edmonia Lewis was the first person of color to receive international acclaim as a sculptor against odds that haven’t changed enough over the past 150 years or so. According to those fabulous researchers who call themselves the Guerrilla Girls, in most major museums, only about 4% of the art on display has been made my women. And so now I’m back on the porch, jet-lagged and doing laundry, writing by asters and hydrangeas.

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