Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
I was gripped by curiosity on December 18, 2012, as art handlers carried our donated painting of Adèle de la Lanceau off to Portland Art Museum. It was an irresistible urge to learn more about who she was and her connection to my mother and “Aunt” Jeannette, from whom Mother inherited the painting in 1962.
I went to the library and began foraging in Ancestry.com Library Edition. Not only did I find census reports and city directories that included individuals whose names I had, I found messages from others who’d done research on the same families, including two distant cousins who were both related to Adèle.
Through them, I learned that , after 25 years of marriage and seven children, Adèle’s husband had divorced her to marry his pregnant mistress. He accused Adèle of adultery, the only valid grounds for divorce in New York State at that time, and won, despite being himself the adulterer. An attorney, he was friends with all the judges in St. Lawrence County.
This reminded me that my paternal grandmother Emma
and my paternal great-aunt Edith reversed the situation a few years later. Both of them divorced their husbands: Emma on grounds of cruelty in Michigan, and Edith on grounds of adultery in Illinois.
Emma was trained and then worked as a nurse.-Jeannette, who, it turns out, was born the same year as Emma, 1878–was involved in business and politics in Brooklyn. I found this a provocative platform to explore the transition between a woman forced to submit to her husband and women who were becoming more assertive and determined to pursue their own goals–as well as sustain a successful marriage.
I realized in recent months, that I have a thematic arc: from “infidelity rampant” in 1898 to “infidelity thwarted” in 1945. And I think the story almost divides itself into three volumes: Betrayal, Call to Arms, and Standing Together. I hope Dorothy Parker is right and that it’s true that “the art of writing is the art of applying the ass to the chair,” because that’s what I’ve been doing. My working title is Women Absent Their Men. And I’ve complete my first draft: 72 chapters, almost 700 pages.
The next phase will be applying as artfully as possible the excellent coaching from an Oregon Writer’s Colony one-day workshop with Donald Maas in June. We spent hours working with his suggestions on how to give your writing a stronger emotional impact. I scribbled pages and pages of notes.
I think this part will be fun.