The Problem of Mrs. Southcott.

Wendy Hornsby

 The following was  adapted from my semi-weekly column, “No Mystery Here,” that runs in the Long Beach Grunion Gazette.

            The topic of conversation at our house one morning last week was the fractious state of public higher education.   California State University faculty were on strike for the first time ever over non-delivery of a negotiated pay raise, students were tear-gassed at the Chancellor’s Office while protesting yet another fee hike.   Students at Long Beach CityCollege, where I teach history, were noticeably edgy:   spring registration opened last week and already there are waiting lists for many essential transfer classes.   My husband and I were comparing what is happening now with the demonstrations during our own college years, a turbulent time on campus.  Paul chimed in with Dickens’ opening line from The Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….”

            And then, as he is wont to do, he sent the conversation off on a new path by saying, “In the opening, Dickens mentions Mrs. Southcott.  But she never shows up again in the book.  Did he forget about her?”

            I suggested that it’s a big book with a dense plot, and maybe he did forget.  When Howard Hawks was directing the screen version of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” in 1946 one of the screen writers, none other than William Faulkner, noticed that at the end one of the murders remained unresolved.   Hawks and Faulkner called Chandler, and asked, “Who killed Arthur Geiger?”  Chandler reread his book and called back to say that he had no clue; he neglected to tie up that story thread.

         How often do characters and plot lines disappear, never to be resolved?  It was an interesting question, but  I had plenty to do that morning  other than pursue an obscure reference.   The edited manuscript of  The Hanging, the Maggie MacGowen Mystery that Perseverance will publish in the fall, is again in Meredith’s hands, so I am once again at work on the historical novel  that had been put aside for the duration.    But try not thinking about something.    I went to the bookshelves and pulled down the Dickens classic – hadn’t read it for decades – to see what he had said about Mrs. Southcott:  In 1775 Mrs. Southcott turned twenty-five.   That’s all he said.    I Googled her to see what I could find about this anomalous character, and ran right into the endless conundrum I wrestle with as I write my first historical novel:     How does the writer portray people and events from the past in a way that is at once accurate, interesting, and accessible to the contemporary reader?  

           Mrs. Joanna Southcott, it turns out, was an actual person who claimed to be able see the future and who portended doom forLondon, among other prophecies.  If she was twenty-five in 1775, she would have been dead and buried when Dickens dropped her name into his book in 1859, but she was still someone who was well known to his readers.   Dickens used the reference to her age to move his readers back in time about eighty-five years, something like saying to readers, “When Abe Lincoln was a boy,” to give a story a time context.

           The problem for readers now, of course, is that Mrs. Southcott’s fame has faded over time and the reference to her has become so obscure that it is meaningless to most of us who read Dickens.  As a teacher, I figured out a long time ago that I constantly need to update my frames of reference to help students relate to various topics.    Demographically, current undergraduates were in elementary school when 9/11 happened and weren’t yet born when the Cold War ended.  Vietnam?  Their grandfathers tell them about fighting in the jungles.  I can’t drop the Free Speech Movement into a discussion of recent student and faculty protests and expect this generation to know what that was.  If I asked what they knew about D. B. Cooper most of them would only shrug, as they did when I mentioned the Sharks and the Jets, unfamiliar to them even when I sang a little of the “Jet Song:” 

              When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way
              From your first cigarette
              To your last dying day.

I got some giggles from them, but no recognition. 

            In the classroom I can explain and illustrate and repeat – and sing if necessary, dance if I could – until I detect some glimmer of understanding in student responses or on their faces.  In a novel there is no such luxury; quick, deft strokes are we get.   

             My historical tale begins with the beheading of King Charles I in London in 1649.    Big drama, lots of action.   I can’t stop the action to deliver a lecture about the English Civil Wars and why the king is losing his head, but I do need to offer enough explanation so that the time frame is clear, the events are understood sufficiently to support the story, and the characters are believable.   To do this, I use my own versions of Mrs. Southcott by weaving well-known historical figures among my fictional ones:  diarist Samuel Pepys as an obnoxious teenager; poet and teacher John Milton in middle age, going blind; Puritans a plenty; and Oliver Cromwell, of course, riding along the edges.    

           Next issue, making Shakespeare’s contemporaries not sound Shakespearean.   Juggling all the elements is fun, but it is challenging. 

          Let me tell you about Jolly Olde England in 1649.  I could say it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but any editor would hit that with a red pencil so fast ….

        Today we are reminded that no matter how difficult present circumstances may seem, we still have much to be grateful for.   I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving.


5 Responses

  1. Wendy, I’m happy to know that you’re writing an historical novel, and with real-life people sprinkled here and there. I love cranky old Samuel Pepys and his famous diary, and Milton–misogynous and blind, yes, but what a brain! And I can’t wait to hear what you do with Mrs. Southcott. You’ll probably hear her creaking and complaining in her grave, but carry on–she won’t climb out of there to sue. Now you can tell us what really happened to her, something that Dickens failed to do (with such a huge cast of characters in his novels, I can’t blame him.
    I’m grateful, too, to read this delightful post. And now must tend to the turkey. 20 plus coming for dinner, and I’ve forgotten who, other than family, were invited! But then, I’m not writing them into a novel (maybe…)

  2. Thanks for writing, Nancy. I’ll leave Mrs. Southcott to Dickens, the other folk are problem children enough. The biggest hurdle I create for myself is over-researching. It’s time to write the story!

  3. Thanks for explaining Mrs. Southcott!


  4. That’s so funny about Chandler! Then again, that’s why there are copy editors. Thx, Wendy, the whole column was great.

  5. Hi Sue,
    Meredith would never let such a gaffe occur. But maybe when a writer BECOMES, as Chandler did, editors leave their work alone a bit more. A shame, because every book is better after good editing. After the third, fourth or Nth rewrite, story threads might fray.

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