The Scattered Proud by Gev Sweeney

Posted by on May 11, 2012 in 18th Century France, 18th Century U.S., Featured Book, Historical Research | Comments Off on The Scattered Proud by Gev Sweeney

Creatures of Conscience in a Scary World

For such a small historical (84K), The Scattered Proud is difficult to talk about. It’s too personal, I suppose: founded upon questions and subjects that have fascinated me since I was a child. In fact, several years ago, when I first blogged the opening chapters, it began with a series of those questions: “Why does a certain set of people come together to endure the unimagined horrors of life? Is it coincidence? Fate? The workings of a higher power? Or is it a little bit of everything, born of the desire to not suffer alone and the fear of dying forsaken?” Those wonderings were, I think, inspired by the opening of David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” I wanted readers to know that The Scattered Proud, the memoirs of a fearful girl finding hope and love as she grows up among missionaries in late 18th century France and America, is a story of substance, not of mere entertainment. My narrator, Janet Watters, and the people who fill her life are creatures of conscience founded in religious principles. Their world is a scary place made mysterious yet miraculous by the lack of what we consider modern medicine and technology. They live every day knowing that death is breathing in their faces, and that life itself is a protracted test in uncertainty and tragedy.

I’ve always loved history, especially the history of Federal America, which roughly encompasses the period from 1776 and the start of the War for Independence through the first quarter of the 19th century. I think it’s because I grew up in New Jersey, which was one of the original Thirteen Colonies and is loaded with historic sites and artifacts, including buildings, battlegrounds and publications. History smells like home to me, and I’ve always liked to see the times captured with a certain degree of authenticity in print and film.

An early reader called The Scattered Proud “an American Jane Eyre.” I’ve never denied that my retiring, unpretty narrator and her name, Janet, are deliberate echoes of Bronte’s heroine. But there, I think, the similarity ends. When I set out writing the story that became The Scattered Proud, I wanted to tell the kind of tale that I had grown up reading and that people didn’t tell any more. I wanted to write something that recalled the classics. And I wanted to touch upon a subject that few people knew about. As it turns out, I touched upon several subjects, some of which reach beyond the eight years covered in the book.

I think it helped that when I thought of the story that would become The Scattered Proud, I was working with the French and living in New York, and everyone was getting ready to celebrate the Bicentennial of the French Revolution. I also had access to some terrific research materials at the New York Public Library, including bound volumes of the Moniteur Universel, the French national newspaper during the Revolution, and original maps of Paris. I would spend hours in the main reading room, poring over those papers, reading transcripts from sessions of the two legislative houses, the Council of 500 and the smaller Council of Ancients, as well as adverts for things like operas and horse shows.

While all this added layers of small details to my understanding of the daily life of people in the later years of the Revolution, I learned, too, of the extent of the massive dechristianization of the country. The French revolutionaries viewed the Roman Catholic Church as an evil tool of the aristocracy as well as its breeding ground. Crushing the Church was as essential as executing King Louis XVI and his family. The dechristianization was a methodical eradication that saw the closing or razing of churches, convents and monasteries, and the changing of the calendar to rid the week of Sunday. Clergy who refused to abandon their orders and swear allegiance to the new government and its bizarre, atheistic cult of Wisdom were prosecuted and executed.

To my surprise, the persecution of the clergy continued into the later years of the 1790s. When Janet joins the Episcopal Church’s secret mission in Paris in 1798, it still is a crime to be Christian and to practice a Christian religion in public. Though Kit DeWaere, the mission’s young vicar, is a Protestant, he’s still a Christian and risks arrest if he’s caught ministering in public, especially since he runs around Paris with a small Book of Common Prayer hidden in the tails of his Directory coat. Add to this the fact that France and America were engaged in the Quasi War, a naval war over shipping in the Caribbean, and the 1798 was a pretty dreadful time to be American or Christian in France.

Now speaking of coattails: I’d grown up reading War and Peace, watching period movies that featured Men in Breeches, and eyed many a piece of historical clothing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I never realized those tails could hold pockets until watching a performance by the Spanish Riding School at Madison Square Garden in the early 1980s. The riders rewarded their horses for doing complex steps with treats that they carried in pockets sewn into the underside of their coattails.

Sometimes the realities of history are delightfully closer than we think.

Gev Sweeney, April 9, 2012