THE BOOK: Jessie: The Adventures and Insights of a Nineteenth Century Woman.
PUBLISHED IN: 2017
THE AUTHOR: Dean Robertson
THE EDITORS: Dean Robertson and Alison Daniels.
THE PUBLISHER: Kindle Direct Publishing.
SUMMARY: “Jessie” is the story of a young Philadelphia woman, born in 1840, coming of age during the American Civil War. Jessie Ashmore is restless, opinionated, and delightful. She is often accused of being too serious. She is twenty-two years old, and she’s in a bit of a rush to figure out who she is and what she wants. When it comes to the choice between a husband and an adventure, Jessie wants both. When it comes to the fight for women’s rights and an end to slavery, she wants to be involved. She’s just not sure how much. When it comes to sex, she’s pretty sure she likes it. When she has to choose between two men who have asked for her love and her hand in marriage, you will struggle with her. Jessie’s story will keep you turning pages, and entries from her journal will show you her heart.
THE BACK STORY: Two years ago I published a work of non-fiction that involved research into the life of a local woman. Before moving to Norfolk, Virginia, at the age of twenty-five, she lived in Philadelphia. I did everything I knew to do, in libraries, on the Internet, on the telephone, and even contacted her family in Norfolk, but I never found one single piece of information about her life in Philadelphia. So I decided to imagine it, and that’s what this novel is. It involved a huge amount of research about Philadelphia, a city about which I knew nothing and, specifically, Philadelphia during the period in which the novel is set, 1861-1865, the years of the American Civil War. I had no idea where her family lived, what their social or economic level was, nothing. I looked at Philadelphia neighborhoods that existed during the period and arbitrarily decided that her father was a member of the new middle class, the owner of a fine tailoring shop. I made that decision by researching likely professions in that class at that time. I wanted to involve the Society of Friends and got lucky because there was a Quaker Meeting House very near the neighborhood I had chosen. It is still there, both a historic landmark and a functioning Meeting House. I researched the Underground Railroad and the Abolitionist movement—both of which were centered in Philadelphia. I looked up clothes, furniture, you name it. I’m sure I still made a good many mistakes, but I finally decided this was a novel, after all, and not a history text book. It was a lot of fun and a lot of hard work.
WHY THIS TITLE?: I looked up 19th century names and was delighted to find “Jessie” which happens to have been the name of my favorite aunt.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? It’s a pretty straight historical novel in some ways, but I think its strength and the thing that makes it just plain fun to read it that the characters are eccentric and interesting. Jessie is a delight; I think any reader would like her. There are some sad, serious, even disturbing scenes in the book so I’d issue a warning.
REVIEW COMMENTS: None yet. I’m waiting for a couple of folks to finish reading.
AUTHOR PROFILE: On paper, I’m a 71 year old retired English teacher and I don’t know how to make that sound like other than it is. I spent 35 years in independent high schools and private colleges and I loved every minute in the classroom. That said, I expect my eccentricities make Jessie’s look fairly tame. I have raised llamas; I have kept bees. I have tattoos. A recent comment from one of my neighbors was, “You are the oddest person I’ve ever met.” I don’t think she gets out much. I am the single mother of one son who, at 45, just had a son (with some co-operation from his wife). I am just the worst kind of doting grandmother. I never had the slightest idea of writing. My retirement plan was to catch up on my New Yorkers. Then I wrote this nonfiction/memoir that just sort of happened, but I was completely convinced—and had a lot of very good reasons—that I wasn’t capable of writing fiction. Since the publication of my co-authored novel, Memory Is the Seamstress, I am a writing fool. I have just put the finishing touches on the sequel to Jessie.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: The great-granddaughter of the woman who is the inspiration for this novel said to me, when I told her what I was thinking about doing, “Maybe imagining her is how you will find her.”
Chapter One Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Jessie Augusta Brynley Ashmore found herself in a familiar situation, one of many that made her realize how badly she wanted to change her life. These occasions usually involved doing something she didn’t want to do, which had the immediate effect of reminding her that she needed to figure out what she did want to do. Today, for example, Jessie was on her way to the dressmaker, and she would rather be doing almost anything else. It was time to make some decisions. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a very decisive person when it came to decisions about giant leaps into unknown territory, or nearly anything else. She was fine with the giant leaps. It wasn’t the leaps that stopped her; it was all that pondering. No doubt about it: Jessie was a bit of a ponderer.
She wasn’t an anarchist. She wasn’t Joan of Arc. She couldn’t cut her hair off and go off to fight Rebels. And like most women who were twenty-two and unmarried, she lived at home with her parents. It wasn’t unusual; it was just that Jessie, being Jessie, was finding it unusually unsatisfying.
She was brave enough to attend lectures and help out at the large Arch Street Meeting House of the Society of Friends (commonly called Quakers), brave enough even to prepare food or roll bandages for the soldiers coming home from the war down south or to bring meals and what she could offer of comfort to the widows of those who didn’t come home. But she never quite had the courage to go against her father’s wishes and work with the Quakers on behalf of the abolitionist movement that had spread like wildfire throughout Pennsylvania.
He had sat her down one day, taken both her hands in his, kept his pale blue eyes a little averted, as he always did, and said,
“Jessie Augusta, you must listen to me and do what I ask on this one thing. It is a dangerous world out there right now. You are the light of my life, and I could not bear it if anything happened to you. Make tea at the Friends Meeting House and wipe the sweat from our soldiers’ faces. Don’t put yourself at risk trying to help slaves come up from the South; feelings are running high and people are getting hurt. Do I have your word?”
“Yes, Father, you have my word.”
The conversation ended, and the subject was never brought up again.
Jessie had never played any part in helping a runaway slave to escape capture, had never worked with the near-mythical Underground Railroad, that finely-tuned system by which a man who had fled his slavery in one of the southern states was passed from person to person and house to house and, finally, to safety and freedom.
The problem, and one that had prompted her to promise, without argument, to do what her father asked of her, was that along with the growing support for the slaves there seemed to be increasing—sometimes violent—opposition to the slave owners. Some of them had been hurt by Pennsylvania abolitionists when they came looking for their slaves; Jessie had even heard that one slave owner had been killed. Working for the Underground Railroad was now a risky business.
Franklin and Augusta Ashmore were typical of a large part of the population; they supported the idea of abolition but had never harbored a runaway slave or helped to “discourage” a slave owner in pursuit of his runaways. Franklin had a family and a business, and those were his priorities. He knew that he had asked Jessie to stay clear of a completely justified and very popular cause; he also knew it was dangerous, and Jessie was his oldest daughter and his favorite.
This was, of course, terribly frustrating for Jessie and, in her more frivolous moods, Franklin Ashmore’s favorite daughter sometimes dreamed of running away altogether and joining up with one of the travelling theater companies. There were the medicine shows and the minstrel shows although, honestly, she thought that selling phony tonics and making up in blackface sounded equally distasteful, and what there was of the burlesque was mostly in New York and was, she had heard, more than a little racy. Although she longed to break the restraints she felt were binding her, Jessie had been
brought up in a particular way and, in spite of her resistance to its rules, she couldn’t help believing that proper young ladies didn’t go into show business of any kind.
Besides, when she thought seriously about what was possible and about what she wanted—about what suited her best–Jessie realized that she probably wasn’t cut out for hiding runaways or fighting their owners. What she was doing wasn’t just some second-rate activity she’d adopted because she lacked courage. She was actually happier setting up the Meeting House for visiting speakers; she was excited about her first few times sitting with returning soldiers, just listening to them right now, or writing letters if they asked, but it was a start, and she liked it. And occasionally, she had the chance to talk to a grieving widow. She thought she might be good at it. There weren’t many people doing those jobs and none that she knew of who were doing them with a sense of their importance. Although she might not understand yet who she would become, without realizing it, Jessie was discovering who she was.
Jessie Augusta Brynley Ashmore was named after her mother (Augusta) and a distant cousin of her father (Brynley Walter Ashmore), who had run off with the pastor’s wife and was seldom mentioned at family gatherings. Jessie’s mother (called Gus) had just liked the way “Brynley” sounded, and he really was a very distant cousin.
From Jessie’s Journal What I Like About my Mother
I like that my mother has chosen to be called “Gus,” a man’s name, really, rather than the very proper “Augusta,” and my very favorite thing about her is that she chose to add “Brynley” to my string of names, when she knew perfectly well that “Brynley” was that wild cousin of Father’s who did something terrible—I heard the rumor that one day he just up and left town with the preacher’s wife, and has never been heard from again. And she gave me his name for no better reason than she wanted to do it. I overheard Father grumbling about it once when he and Mother were having one of their infrequent disagreements, but I’ve never heard a whisper since. My mother, Gus, is a quiet woman who never talks much or offers a strong opinion except to lecture me about the dressmaker, but it’s funny. No one ever seems to want to cross her. She’s smart, and not too beautiful, and she got a husband and he loves her and she pretty much does what she wants.
So I’m still trying to figure out that whole situation. Meanwhile, I can tell you that I don’t think nearly as much about getting married as I do about having an adventure. And so far I haven’t seen any evidence that one can do both.
No one seemed quite sure how they had come up with “Jessie,” but the name stuck and the older she got the more entirely it seemed to suit her. As for having three given names, it was a tradition in certain branches of her family, and not uncommon
among her friends. At least two of the girls she knew in the neighborhood had a string of names just as long, but Jessie was secretly proud of the history of “Brynley.” She felt it set her apart, even if no one else knew about it.
She was born in 1840 in the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia was a city of neighborhoods, and Society Hill was one of the oldest, dating back to the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Ashmore family lived in one of Philadelphia’s signature row houses. The house had been a gift from a relation of Gus’s father, when Gus and Frank married. Society Hill was a wonderful place for a child to grow up—street after street of the brick rows, two and even three-story houses that gave the place a delightful look that Jessie described one day when she was five as “just like a painting.” The thing she didn’t like was that name, “Society Hill,” which the more well-heeled residents liked to think meant exactly what it sounded like. They would have been disappointed to know the truth.
Jessie, on the other hand, was delighted when her father told her the real story. Society Hill was started in the eighteenth century when a group of merchants who called themselves the Free Society of Traders obtained a piece of land and started building; people around the city called it “The Society’s hill.” For Jessie this meant it wasn’t entirely a place for people with money. In fact, Society Hill was really a neighborhood laid out in layers, much like those huge cakes with icing in the middle that her mother was teaching her to make. Her house was more-or-less in the middle, and she was curious. Finally, she asked permission to explore.
“Now, Father, you know I can be trusted to go exactly where you tell me I can, and nowhere else. I will be happy if you give me a small number of streets I’ve not visited before, then I’ll set out one morning and walk around and I will come directly home once I’ve seen those streets. Maybe then you would consider giving me a few more streets on another day.”
Jessie did not have her sister Alice’s way with their father, in fact wouldn’t have even considered tilting her head and looking up coyly from under her eyelashes—a little performance Alice had already mastered at the age of seven. At eleven, Jessie’s accomplishment was the development of a slightly exaggerated sense of her own dignity. Alice’s wiles would have been beneath her. So she stated her case, folded her hands in her lap, and waited for her father’s response. Of course, he said yes. So Jessie set out to investigate, and even with the limits her father had set, she found some of the back streets and alleys with their much smaller houses and a few of the free-standing mansions of the truly wealthy. And she began to realize that there were many different kinds of people in Society Hill. It was a bustling neighborhood with just about anything anyone might need, including the large clothiers that her father owned. She knew that all the most prominent men in the city came to Franklin’s for their suits and shirts.
Franklin Ashmore was part of the new merchant class and was very successful as the owner of one of Philadelphia’s largest and finest clothiers. He didn’t talk about it much with his children—although Jessie was interested from an early age and asked endless questions—but Franklin had started out as an apprentice in a small tailor shop. She knew there had been a job at a local stable that her father had left when he married her mother and that when Gus’s Aunt Morris had offered to set Frank up in whatever field he chose, he had thanked her but refused. It was important to him to decide what he wanted to do and then to find a way to do it on his own. At seventeen, with no training or significant work experience, an unpaid apprenticeship was the best he could hope for. The conditions were harsh, but Frank had learned the trade well and could still, years after he had opened his own prosperous clothing establishment, sew the neatest button-hole in the city. He sometimes demonstrated this for his workers and was always gratified by their reaction. And he was able to say to them, without qualifications, that he had done it all himself and if he could do it, they could do it.
Jessie knew they must have plenty of money, although her mother always told her it was best not to mention such things. Mentioned or not, they had enough for a small staff of servants to take care of the house and gardeners to maintain the extensive grounds. And the Ashmores were known for parties in which the candles were lit, the rugs were rolled up for dancing, and supper was served late. She could recall the conversations overheard from her parents’ bedroom before every party, “I hope everything is the way you like it for the party,” Gus would say quietly, followed by some grumbling from Father about this or that not being as nice as the last time. Then Mother’s firm, clear voice, “I gave the money that the five additional servants would have cost—the exact amount—to the Society for the Care and Support of Young Women with Children.” And with what Jessie knew was her sweetest smile, Gus would say, “I’m sure you will agree dear, since you have always been in the lead in collecting the funds to maintain that program.
“Now button me up in the back, and let’s go down to greet our guests. Oh, Frankie, for heaven’s sake. You will ruin my hair and get me too flustered to greet anybody. Stop it now!”
And they would laugh quietly, then the door would open and they would walk down the staircase to be, once again, the best host and hostess in Society Hill.
As a young girl, although she was never interested in these parties, or in the almost identical ones held in her friends’ homes, Jessie had considered them a harmless kind of entertainment. But when she was a bit older she had begun to notice people on the streets outside her neighborhood who seemed not to have proper coats in winter or wore shoes with soles that had pulled loose and were flapping, and she had found herself becoming more and more disturbed by those parties. She didn’t understand why her parents weren’t disturbed, as well. They cared about the poor. They donated money to groups that helped them; they volunteered at some of the places that gave out free food on holidays. It was too confusing, and she finally decided just to ask someone. One morning after breakfast she went looking for her mother. She finally found her in the
scullery, an unusual place for her to be when Cook’s girls were clearing up. Gus was scratching her head and looking frustrated and tired.
“Mother, do you have a few minutes for a talk?”
“Of course I do, my dear. In fact, let’s make a pot of and sit in those very comfortable chairs in the morning parlor; the sun should be coming through the windows right about now. And I must admit I could use a break.” Great pots of tea, mugs filled liberally with milk before it was poured, were essential for any serious discussion in the Ashmore household. Whether those discussions took place in the parlor or in the kitchen, they seldom occurred without tea. After they had settled into their armchairs and Gus had poured, Jessie—feeling a bit self-conscious—began.
“Mother, have you ever noticed the people on the street right around the corner when we leave the neighborhood—the ones who don’t have very good clothes or have shoes that are falling apart or sometimes don’t look very clean? Have you seen them?”
Gus was very quiet for what seemed to Jessie like a long time before she answered.
“Yes, Jessie, of course I have seen them, I have noticed them. Yes. Did you want to ask me something about them, because I probably don’t know much, just that they are very unfortunate.”
This time it was Jessie who waited to speak. “I know you and Father give money to help poor people, and I know you sometimes go down to hand out free food. I know that.”
“Yes, dear. We do.” The conversation stalled, but Jessie picked it up.
“Mother, do you like the parties that you and Father give. I mean, do you enjoy them? Do you think you’ll go on having them or—I guess I mean do you want to go on having them?” Jessie was aware that her mother had gotten very still.
“Jessie, where are you going with these questions? I’m happy to answer them, but they do seem random and I can’t quite understand what it is you want to know.
“I guess it doesn’t matter. Here are my answers. I sometimes enjoy the parties, but I often don’t. The house gets uncomfortably warm with so many people, and they do talk a great deal, not always about anything interesting or important, and all that talking makes a terrific noise. I frequently have a headache after everyone has left. In fact, sometimes I slip upstairs to bed while they are all still here. I don’t believe anyone has ever noticed.”
“And will you still have them, Mother, since you don’t like them much?”
More silence. It seemed to Jessie that there was a great deal of silence in this conversation.
“I expect we will, Jessie. Your Father likes them very much, and as long as he wants to have them, we will have them.”
Gus knew exactly what Jessie’s questions meant; she was aware of the terrible discrepancy between her own life, with its lavish parties, and the lives of the people
Jessie was describing. It made her weep with anger and, since she couldn’t do anything about it, she had made it a habit to take a different route out of the neighborhood.
And that was that. Jessie sensed that talking about the parties had upset her mother, and so she stopped. But after the questions, and the answers, she went away still unhappy, still with no understanding as to why her parents, who cared very much about the things one should care about, didn’t see that all the money spent on all those parties could be given to people who needed it. She also went away with a rush of anger about those long tables laden with food, perfectly balanced at either end with cut glass punch bowls reflecting candlelight, and the house suddenly filled with unfamiliar servants. She knew this wasn’t the right time to say that. She was afraid it might never be the right time.
Jessie Ashmore was not a beauty, by any means, but she was a wholesome-looking girl, dark-haired, a bit shorter than the average, with good legs and an ample bosom. In spite of what many called her “eccentricities,” people liked Jessie, and Jessie liked people. She was easy to please in everyday matters, not inclined to fuss over chores or to complain about small inconveniences. Granted, she was a bit stubborn when one of her pet “causes” was the issue, but still everyone who knew the Ashmores was surprised that Jessie was still single and confident that any day now she would marry, and marry well.
Not that marriage particularly interested her. Although she would never have dared tell her mother, Jessie sometimes imagined herself as an entirely independent woman, and she knew there were ways of accomplishing that. She didn’t have a sum of inherited money to start her off, and people generally assumed you couldn’t make it without that. But Jessie had some ideas. Her first choice was to become a writer, a real one, who turned out brilliant essays on the political topics of the day or clever observations about the society around her. Perhaps she could write a novel. She would even be willing, for an adequate salary, to write sentimental pieces for Ladies Home Journal on subjects like the purity of a mother’s love or the beauty of a baby’s toes. Jessie was willing to compromise.
Naturally, she would rather not, and there was always the dream of writing for Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular monthly magazine in the entire country, published right in Philadelphia. She had heard they had a policy of hiring women and the current editor, a woman, published three issues a year that were entirely written and illustrated by women. Thinking about Godey’s gave her hope, even though she suspected getting work there wouldn’t be as easy as it was in her dream.
Or she imagined supporting herself entirely as an illustrator. She had heard that there were a few women artists now in England who were sketching the latest outfits for some of the top fashion magazines, and Jessie saw no reason not to be among the pioneers in Philadelphia. She had always liked to draw and, in fact, she had excelled at it. Educated in all the subjects thought suitable for a young lady, Jessie had learned to
play the piano, to sing, to do needlepoint or turn a hem. She could dance. She knew how to arrange cut flowers or make a centerpiece for the table. But what she loved was to use the chalk or paintbrush and to see a picture emerge on a piece of paper or a small canvas.
A well-bred young lady was supposed to be educated enough to carry on a conversation in polite company, talented enough to be entertaining, but never an expert, never an intellectual, never too serious. Above all, never a bluestocking. Fortunately, though Jessie was reasonably intelligent, she had never been much of a scholar. Unfortunately, there were other impediments to her finding a suitable husband. Although she did manage to keep her most outlandish ideas safely tucked between the covers of her journal, she could sometimes be too outspoken. The men in Jessie’s world wanted a woman who at least appeared to be a little fragile and in need of their protection, and Jessie’s attempts to appear fragile and needy were unconvincing at best. They had been known to inspire uncontrollable laughter from her family.
In spite of her best intentions—and Jessie’s intentions were almost always the best—she simply could not be counted on to curb her tongue. Many a prospective suitor had shied away when challenged by her strong opinions on slavery or the war or women’s suffrage. And she was especially daunting when she got started about rolling up her sleeves like Florence Nightingale—bathing half-naked soldiers and wringing out bloody bandages.
How often had she heard,
“Jessie, my dear child, there are plenty of ways to help the war effort without that kind of thing.”
Her main problem seemed to be that, all things taken into consideration, she was just entirely too serious. Everyone was concerned about the war, especially since the Confederate army had gotten closer to Philadelphia than anyone had thought possible, but Jessie seemed to take everything a little too much to heart.
From Jessie’s Journal A Brief Note on Spinsterhood and Marriage
I am twenty-two years old and, if I say it myself, an unusually thoughtful and serious person for my age, and yet I often find myself behaving and being treated like a young girl. I wonder if it can really be just because I am unmarried. The spinster occupies a peculiar place in the world I inhabit. She is at once seen as a shriveled-up old maid and a perpetual girl—always a virgin. Admitting I don’t exactly know who I want to be, I am sure it is neither an old maid nor an adolescent. Somewhere in between I believe there lies a whole country where a woman is just herself.
My mother often asks me, in an exasperated tone of voice, “Good heavens, girl! Do you not want to find a husband?” My answer, were I to answer honestly, is that I don’t know
if I want to find a husband. I think the truth is that a husband will have to come and find me.
Like any young woman of two and twenty years, however, Jessie Ashmore wasn’t all Worthy Causes and Lofty Principles. She did sometimes dream of falling in love – really in love, with a splendid, dashing young man, at least just once. Her heart longed for a little bit of romance. She was not yet resigned to the prospect of its never happening. She just didn’t want to end up like every married woman she knew, and sometimes they did all seem just alike. It wasn’t that she had anything against being married. She just didn’t want to be married like that.
There had to be a way to have it all. And she paid close attention to the stories about women like Mary Ann Evans, who was publishing novels under the name George Eliot, and who now lived openly with her lover right in the thick of Victorian England. Evans really did seem to suffer from every possible obstacle to romance—she was too intelligent, far too serious, extremely talented, and physically unattractive. Yet hers was one of the great love stories of the century. Jessie couldn’t quite see herself flaunting the conventions to that extent, but she did feel she was prepared for a bit of adventure, should it come her way.
Today, she had a busy day planned. There was this dreaded visit to the dressmaker, and then, much more inviting, a lecture at the Quaker Meeting House. Unfortunately, it was beginning to look as if she might be late to both.
“So, madam,” she said to herself quite loudly, “Do you really believe you’re going to do anything about changing your life? Anything at all? I, for one, wouldn’t bet on it!”
Jessie hated it when she scolded herself! Her mother did quite enough of that. And, besides,
“I expect if I just wait, that adventure will come looking for me one of these days.”
WHERE TO BUY IT: Amazon.com, in two formats
PRICE: Kindle EBook: $2.99; Paperback: $10.00.
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: email@example.com. I have abandoned the social media, I’m afraid, but I love getting emails from fellow writiers (and fellow readers).
My website/blog is http://pdrobertson.com
I blog on everything that comes into my head, lots about writing. One of my favorite things to do, when I have time, is long elaborate book reviews that go out to all the social media. So scroll down the categories to Book Reviews and take a look at a couple.