Category Archives: The House of Kingsley Merrick
There’s a lot of information about Victorian clothing on the internet; back when I originally wrote this novel (1977), I had to rely on books and pictures. But I’m not sure I’m any better informed now than I was before. There are so many choices! Even then, though, I knew Kingsley needed to look as though he was successful already, in order to get the loan he needed. When I went about preparing him for his interview with Uncle ’Lije, I found that the hat was a very important part of his presentation. Many men wore a top hat even to work; they were absolutely required for the more elegant, successful male. As the president of a coaching company (which didn’t yet exist) Kingsley bought one he couldn’t afford, as well as a walking stick, or cane — with a gold knob – which he also couldn’t afford. But these were essential in convincing his uncle that he was a man of substance.
The entire subject of the male hat is an interesting one, in terms of social history. In the mid nineteenth century, the protocol was fairly rigid, though I don’t remember reading about the Hat Police. But if you were a member of the working class and wore a top hat like the one pictured here, you were an imposter. (Kingsley was treading a fine line). At about this time, though, the crown of the top hat was dropping and becoming round and – voila – the derby. And the bowler, which is supposedly different. All the guys wore them, and the top hat was relegated to history.
These top hat permutations were eventually overtaken by the fedora,made popular by Victoria’s son and heir, Edward, whose attire was the model for men of his time.(The hat was called a “homburg” then). Seems it was also adopted by the mafia, but became standard headgear for every business men, regardless of the implication. I have to digress long enough to describe the arrangement my father-in-law and his neighbors made in the ’30’s. Money being tight, four of them bought a car, sharing equally, and called themselves “the syndicate”. The automobile was garaged in rotation, and when it was time to disband, the syndicate sold it and shared the proceeds. (BTW, “syndicate” is slang terminology for an underworld business. Nobody could have been more proper than my father-in-law and his friends, and everyone got a big kick out of their being a syndicate.)
Finally the 60’s arrived, and its more relaxed standards made male head-coverings optional, or at least more casual (i.e. the little sporting model fedora, or the more serious flat cap.)
Most of us know that Australia was begun as a penal colony. Once the American Revolution had been won, there was nowhere to banish criminals, and the prisons were overpopulated to begin with — after 1783, their population exploded. Eleven ships were sent down under (Read Morgan’s Run by Colleen McCollough of Thornbirds fame, which is about the convicts and their deportation. With more details than I personally thought necessary, I have found it unforgettable because of them!) Here is a painting depicting the arrival of that first fleet.
Kingsley is visiting Waterford in the first place because he wants to get a loan from his uncle in order to start a coach line in Australia. The generalized detail I was able to include, both in this chapter and in chapter four, (when Kingsley returns successful and rich), reflect the facts in the life of Freeman Cobb, my husband’s second “ancestor of interest”. Gold was discovered in Australia in 1848, but news of it was suppressed, and the rush itself didn’t begin until 1851. The Melbourne area hadn’t developed much at that point. Its port was a swale, as Kingsley described it to all those adoring listeners who were willing to overlook his undesirability now that he was rich (see A BASTARD?), and British coaches were the only transportation available, built along traditional lines and very heavy.
Enter the Concord – light and therefore very fast. While the English coaches were stuck, the Concord could float.
If you look carefully, you may be able to see “Cobb & Co” on the side panel. Perhaps the four founders chose to use Freeman’s name because it sounded catchy and quite Yankee-American, or perhaps because Freeman made the largest financial contribution. It really was as successful as I described, though I suspect I’ve exaggerated the actual money made on this venture. But, in fact, it was enough to build the mansion in Waterford and set Kingsley up until the 1870’s, when he tried again in South Africa, (as did Freeman Cobb.)
A stamp commemorating Cobb & Co. was issued some while ago (I think in 1951). I’ve always loved it.
I’ve also got a letter of Freeman’s, with his VERY fancy signature. It’s quite beautiful, don’t you agree?
Back to the subject at hand — Kingsley Merrick. He had come back to Waterford to get a loan from his uncle, who had never treated him well, just as Waterford itself had never treated him well.
Many reviews (so far) mention that one of his social difficulties is illegitimacy. I guess I asked for that — I wrote illegitimacy out of the second edition without realizing that reviews of the first might serve as a kind of “cliff note” for todays reviewers. The disdain that accrues to Kingsley in the “nicer” part of town indeed has to do with his father (Kingson Merrick) getting his mother (Susan Slater) pregnant out of wedlock. The result of this union was a baby girl– a child who died when her mother did, of some sort of fever or another. Kingsley was the second offspring of “Sonny” and Susan, who were married by then. But Susan’s reputation was forever tarnished, therefore tarnishing Kingsley’s. To make matters worse, “Sonny” became an alcoholic after Susan died, a double whammy for the boy. (His mother was a whore, his father a drunkard.) That’s all it would have taken, in those days,to cause Kingsley to be questionable, even undesirable.
OK. But why, you might ask, did the author change his status from bastard to simply undesirable? His unacceptability was essential to the plot, wasn’t it?
Absolutely. And when I wrote the first edition 35+ years ago, I was totally focused on getting each book written, hopefully within the contracted time. I knew what I wanted to say but didn’t know how it could best be accomplished. In Kingsley’s case, illegitimacy was a natural.
This time, I was able to look at the series as a whole, and realized that two books had important male characters born or at least conceived — out of wedlock. To let that remain was not only repetitive, but also unimaginative. And unnecessary. It didn’t take much to tarnish reputations in the 1840’s and 50’s, so Kingsley wouldn’t have needed to be a bastard to be unacceptable. I could work on the other, more subtle ways that society functioned in those days (which was a lot easier to research now, by the way, with google available).
I have to say that the reviewers probably looked to the reviews of long ago, used them to fill the gaps without having to read every word of the book in front of them — which is understandable, considering the amount of reading they do. But somewhat misses the point in terms of the social history I’m trying to portray.
However, that is corrected now!
Now, having ascertained that our fictional Universalist Church was more elegant than the original, let’s take a look at Kingslay trapped trapped in the choir loft with his cousin Julia.
She’s a highly spirited 13 year old. A problem for her mother, who is training her to observe Decorum Befitting a Young Lady, while Julia herself is chafing at the bit, just too energetic to be able to conform to the standards of the day. And then there is the matter of her hat. What would its style be, that she could pin lilacs to its brim? I didn’t have the internet to look at the possibilities 35 years ago when I first envisioned this scene, but now I do, and this is what I thought would work:
You could pin the flowers right around the brim, which is fabric covered, or inside,where the color changes from white to blue. I expect Julia chose the latter, considering her dishevelment half-way through the service.
Then I got interested in what kind of dress would be appropriate for her. She was thirteen, and thirteen year olds were protected, kept young and innocent – in fact, if I’m remembering the right era, girls married quite late – in their early to mid twenties. So Julia is very much a very young girl, and this is the dress I thought was just right for her, considering the bonnet:
I spent a lot of time looking at Victorian garments, but I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for, so modified a hat and dress so they’d match and look pretty together. I’m pleased with the result!
Let’s shift our attention from This is the House, Molly and Elijah, and return to Kingsley Merrick, who has come back to Waterford, ostensibly to attend the dedication of the new Universalist church. Though I have located the new church across the street from the Congregationalists, the real one is actually on main street in Brewster, on land that had once belonged to my husband’s family. Since it was his ancestor, Elijah Cobb, who had broken away from the town church, I think it’s reasonable that the “break away” church would be located on his land, which he probably donated to the cause
In case you’ve forgotten, or never knew, here’s a picture of him in his youth.
In 1858 this church was sold to a gentleman who must have liked the location (a very good address, in business terms.) However, he didn’t tear it down, but instead boosted it up in such a manner that I have yet to figure it out. (Compare the old picture with this one, especially the window placement.)
A long while ago, the town’s post office was located here. In my initial recollection of the place, Donald Doane reigned supreme. He is represented by Mr. Snow, in The Heir. Like so many Yankees, he knew the answers to questions before you asked them, but wouldn’t tell you what you wanted to know unless you asked for the information very specifically. (Everyone knows the example of the tourist who asks if the Yankee knows to way to a certain place, and the Yankee answers, Yep. End of conversation.) And then there’s a neighbor of ours, a Vermont Yankee from way back, who answered the phone; on the other end, someone asked: Is so-and-so there? (So-and-so was an unknown person.) Nope, answered our neighbor, and hung up.
Here’s the store today:
Now refurbished, the post office long gone, it retains the atmosphere of an old-fashioned country store, with amenities like excellent coffee and pastries, shelves crowded with gifts and Cape Coddy things. You can go upstairs where there’s a lot more stuff to buy, and at the back you can see the pulpit on a platform, with a few steps leading up to it. Perhaps the choir sat up there. The “sanctuary” would have been much smaller than the one I picture Kingsley venturing into with his cousin Julia and the rest of his uncle’s family.
(Both of the old photos, by the way, may be found in the third printing of the Brewster Historical Society’s “A Cape Cod Town Remembered.”)
We have left Kingsley receiving the balance from Grandfather and setting off to Boston to live with his uncle. In the next chapter, having run away from Uncle ‘ Lije, finding work where his heart is — with horses and coaches, he is disembarking from the Yarmouth packet, on his way to seek a loan.
“The Yarmouth wharf was a scramble of luggage, wares and people, but Kingsley was well dressed and top-hatted, carrying a gold-knobbed cane which he could barely afford. However, it was a passport of sorts, and he had no trouble securing a boy to take his valise and the presents he had brought his cousins. The youngster, no doubt expecting a good tip, cheerfully led him through the mob, elbowing an opening when necessary, to the center of town and the Inn.”
And it’s still there. standing straight and tall,looking great. It’s used as a restaurant and tavern now, and appears to do a thriving business. However, it’s nowhere near the waterfront, and I can’t figure out where the wharf would have been. The way I pictured it, as you can see from the above quote, the town itself was hustling and bustling, and the road leading to the Inn congested.
Now comes the joy of being an author. Of course I don’t know what the scene would have been like, in those days, and when I was writing The House of Kingsley Merrick, I hadn’t even seen the Inn. Sometimes it’s a good idea not to verify the details that don’t much matter. It slows you down. It’s bad enough getting the history right!
So, why not invent a little more? The Inn needs to be placed in a context more like the one I describe. So, taking great liberties, I’ve added a few buildings and a road running down to the harbor. The stage coach would have used the High Road that runs in front of the Inn, presently Route 6A. Here’s my rendition: A little Grandma Moses-like but I’m satisfied, even though I can’t create hustle and bustle!
At about the time Elijah Merrick was agitating for a new church that proclaimed salvation for everyone (not just a select few chosen right from the beginning) the young nation was recovering from the financial panic that made 1819 a nasty year for everyone. Such recessions usually occur in the aftermath of war, but America hadn’t had a war before (the Revolution doesn’t count, since no one had any money to lose) and there were huge sectional rifts too, that polarized the country.
New England saw the Federalist party torn to shreds after the Hartford Convention. James Monroe, another Virginian, was elected president, to the despair of the mercantile community. Would tariffs be imposed to their detriment? Would commerce no longer have protection?
But Monroe was a statesmen, causing a Boston newspaper to coin the term “Era of Good Feelings” in describing his presidency. Up until then, no one in New England was feeling good at all, and the country was divided into opposing factions, with the south and the west pitting themselves against the north. But Monroe went on a national tour to help bind the nation into a unified whole, and arrived in Boston dressed up as a Revolutionary War soldier. The citizenry loved it. He came as a head of state, rather than the leader of a triumphant political party. In fact, he ran his presidency without the help of political parties at all, and won election a second time with only one dissenting vote in the electoral college. There! It was the “Era of Good Feelings”. The vote proved it!
But, did everyone really feel good?
No, not everyone. While Monroe hoped that the country could be run by statesmanship rather than politics, the politicians didn’t think much of that idea, and got rid of it as soon as they could. Their man was Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans – the last confrontation of the War of 1812 that in fact occurred when the peace treaty had already been signed. Of course, neither side knew about that detail, communication being what it was in those days.
Jackson was a westerner (from Tennessee) and championed the rights of mechanics, small farmers, and shopkeepers. Aside from being a war hero, he was even more loved because of his elevation of “the common man”. He proved it by inviting the public to celebrate his inauguration. Everybody came, like, EVERYBODY. Vats of alcoholic beverages were set up on the White House lawn, since there wasn’t room enough inside for all the guests in their muddy boots and coonskin caps. It must have been quite a party. At that point, everyone did feel good, thanks to good ol’ Andy.
Elijah Merrick’s championing the common man certainly was in keeping with Jackson’s vision. If you’re going to take a fall from grandeur, that was a good time to do it.
Let’s shift attention to the second book in the Kingsland Series. There’s a lot more we’ll say about This is the House, but my plan was to drift from one category to the other, mainly so I don’t get stuck on just one. (Easy to do. There’s so much background that has gone into the making of the Series that it’s sometimes hard to know when to stop.)
As The House of Kingsley Merrick opens, we are reminded that Elijah Merrick’s ship, (Sweet Charity) was lost when the Boston Port Authority scuttled it, fearing the plague that had decimated Merrick’s crew was still lingering in the timbers and sails and God-know-what-else. (The ancestor on whom Elijah Merrick is based, and did lose his ship, Seven Brothers, in just this way.)
When Captain Merrick returned, he came back ruined. He vowed to serve the common man, since now he was one, and became an ordinary citizen – a farmer – except for his interest in the Universalist Church. “Grandfather” was a political renegade (a Jacksonian democrat) in a Federalist town. (The party had disappeared by then, but its interests were still represented by Jackson’s opponents.) This, however, was not the reason the children at the Academy disliked Kingsley, Captain Merrick’s grandson. Due to mistakes of his father, the boy was from the wrong side of the tracks, and within the first five pages of Chapter One was in trouble at school because of it. The result – banishment to Boston relatives – was a terrible blow to both Kingsley and Grandfather.
When Kingsley was forced to leave Waterford, Grandfather gave him a gift which has special significance for me. By way of reminder, let me quote from the last pages of chapter one:
Grandfather took a small case out of his pocket and opened it, revealing a tiny scale with miniature weights in graded sizes. “This is called a balance. I used it in Africa,” he said, “to weigh gold dust.” He closed it and pressed it into Kingsley’s hand. “Keep it, lad. I hope it’ll remind you to weigh your choices more carefully, next time, and balance your gains against your losses.”
Here it is:
It’s one of our family’s most treasured possessions. There are several references to it here and there in Kingsley Merrick, but by the time The Heir comes along, I don’t find it mentioned at all. I’m sorry about that, because it’s such a cool device and, in fact, beautifully illustrates The Heir’s Epilogue.