My So-Called (Bridgerton) Life

Note: Contains spoilers for Bridgerton, Season 3.

I recently awoke on a Saturday faced with the delightful prospect of a day without obligations. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the morning air was cool and pleasant. It was a storybook beginning.

I rolled out of bed, pulled on my dressing gown, and imagined myself as a lady of leisure. I took it a step further and imagined myself in the world of Bridgerton – or at least as close as I could get in America of 2024.

I proceeded downstairs to the kitchen and poured myself a cup of fresh coffee. The coffee was ready and waiting, prepared not by a servant, but by my conveniently programmable coffeemaker. Outside, I sat in the garden while my dog lolled on the grass. I listened to the birds. I fussed over a container of bright yellow pansies (pansies are everywhere on Bridgerton) and admired the hydrangeas about to bloom.

A little later, I dropped off a jar of homemade strawberry preserves at my neighbors’ house, a small token of appreciation for a favor they’d done me. I walked in the streets of my respectable but not fashionable neighborhood, admiring the well-tended yards and lamenting those that were not. I attended to a few household matters and attempted some writing – longhand, in cursive – including the draft of this blog post.

In the afternoon, I called at a local dress shop. This activity felt remarkably Bridgerton-esque: I traveled to the shop on foot, met a friend there whose advice I’d enlisted to guide my choice (I was shopping for a wedding dress), and needed the assistance of the salesclerk to get myself in and out of the gowns. At one point, the salesclerk had to buckle my shoe for me: I was literally standing on a pedestal, immobilized by yards of crepe and Italian tulle. The amount of fuss unsettled me, as did being unable to do even the simplest activities on my own. Still, part of it felt fun – when else had I received such attention? Or reveled in simply searching for what would make me feel beautiful?

For say what you will about Bridgerton, it is beautiful. The homes, the clothes, the gardens, the characters. Rarely do you see poverty, disease, or work of any kind (aside from the servants, and even then, their chores are apparently mostly carrying trays and arranging hair and fetching the occasional snuffbox.) The Bridgerton ladies themselves rarely engage in any activity more demanding than taking a constitutional or ringing for tea. Dancing, I suppose, may be an exception, and there are the few ladies who ride.

I managed to practice my French. I neglected my music (in my case, an electric guitar, which is decidedly anachronistic), but did decide to take advantage of the fine weather for some exercise. I went on a late afternoon ride, by bicycle, through very pretty woods and afterwards, enjoyed an indecorous pint of ale. Unchaperoned.

I thought of what the show gets right about the Regency era. Or at least, doesn’t overly distort or misrepresent: the strict social rules, aristocratic privilege, the pressure on women to marry, the vast disparity between genders in what was sexually acceptable.

Yet there is much that is fantasy. The racial equality among the ton and portrayal of Queen Charlotte as a black woman are two plot points on the show of deeply questionable accuracy. And as much as I would have liked for the romance between Brimsley and Reynolds, as well as other same-sex pairings, to be able to flourish in the early 1800s, in reality they would have been subject to sodomy laws that would have considered their intimacy a capital offense.

Heterosexual relationships also came with real risks, particularly for women. Women had no lawful political power, no voting rights, no ownership rights to property once they married. The second her wedding ceremony concluded, Penelope would have forfeited every penny of her earnings as Lady Whistledown to Colin Bridgerton. Her children, too, would be considered her husband’s property (this was not settled until decades later, through the remarkable case of Caroline Norton). The show does not address the fact that Penelope would stand to lose a lot more than the power of her pen once she became Mrs. Bridgerton.

Of course the era did have many brilliant women: Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and others. This was also the period of Byron and Keats and incredible exploration and scientific discovery. It was likewise a time when syphilis could be a death sentence, half of the female population was illiterate, and it was considered acceptable for a six-year-old to work a 10-hour factory shift. Don’t even ask about maternal and infant mortality.

I look at Bridgerton as a cautionary tale as much as it is an escape. It is a reminder to beware of making over the past in our own image. To pause before rushing to snap up show-themed merch without any understanding of what it is we want to imitate. To proceed carefully so as not to forget the truth of history. Amnesia may be convenient, but it is no cure.

Producer Shonda Rhime’s Mayfair is sparkly and entertaining and shamelessly sanitized. It could be a fun place to visit, but no one actually lives there.

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The Year of Maybe

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang, but a whimper

T.S. Eliot

These lines from “The Hollow Men” (first published 1925) are as fitting a sentiment to mark the end of the year 2020 as any other . Since 2020 often required more effort from me than I wanted to give and included many days where my primary emotion was exhaustion, I indulged in a small act of rebellion at its passing. That is to say, I ignored it. I refused to stay up until midnight, but went to bed early, and slept soundly.

It seemed to me that what was most needed was not forced gaiety, more stuff, or more obligations. I wanted my holidays to be a period of rest. I kept them small and quiet. My introvert self enjoyed the solitude; I wish more of the world could understand that being alone is not always lonely.

For many of us, 2020 was a year of great loss.

It is the reckoning of who and what I parted with, and what remains within my universe at the outset of 2021, that prompts me to write now. 

Downton Pittsburgh. Summer 2020.

I suppose that in hindsight, the signs that 2020 would be a dumpster fire were there from the start. I began the year with health issues that placed me on temporary medical leave  from work. In February, my long-cherished hopes of building a family through adoption were dashed when I received a phone call with devastating news: the child’s relatives had inexplicably withdrawn their consent. The information came just hours after a video call in which I’d seen and spoken to the dark-haired little girl who I dreamed would someday be my daughter. (We later learned that a social worker had given the family false information, but by that point, it was too late to resurrect the international adoption process.)

March 2020 brought alarming harbingers of global pandemic. The vast majority of my colleagues within my department at a Fortune 500 retailer were furloughed; I did the job of three people on a reduced salary. My husband and I agreed to divorce.

Over the summer, America seemingly ruptured into its worst self. Violent, hateful, deadly. The COVID-19 pandemic did not meaningfully abate, and those sworn to protect the public were filmed choking the life from an unarmed man while bystanders pleaded with them to stop.

Then came autumn, and with it a surreal presidential election – and aftermath –  where American democracy felt more fragile and vulnerable than at any point in my lifetime.

I could say more. I could write about the loss of my grandmother, who passed only days ago after succumbing to COVID. Had she lived until April, she would have celebrated her 100th birthday.

But you read the headlines. You’ve heard the news reports. You know that the pandemic is not contained, despite vaccines at last making their way to the public. You recognize that our country is far from healed.

And yet. And yet, I cannot tally 2020 as a total loss. In many ways, it was a successful and even joyful year for me. I spent hours rambling through the beautiful hills and paddling the waters of rural Pennsylvania. I earned a certificate in game design; I mucked around with PlayStation and started to learn guitar. I stayed out until midnight on a hilltop looking at stars. I published articles in my professional realm which drew pleasing and humbling bits of attention. There were Zoom calls with Dr. Anthony Fauci, Giselle Fetterman, and women in my district running for state office. I attended a virtual cocktail party hosted by Lord and Lady Carnarvon of Highclere Castle (known to millions around the world as the setting of Downton Abbey).

I even baked homemade bread.

All told, it wasn’t all bad. Therein lies the rub.

2020 was a tremendously complicated year for me. I could start the day with my favorite coffee, read headlines that made me wish I hadn’t picked up the news, have Zoom meetings and conference calls and appointments with varying degrees of value, take my dog to the vet for the umpteenth time, wipe the kitchen countertops with disinfectant (again), and somehow end with a glass of wine and a chapter or two from a novel. Small wonder that the challenge of holding multiple and often conflicting feelings tested my endurance. It was a life of many realities converging together. 

I had intended to experiment by making 2020 the Year of No. It often seemed the universe was saying no to me instead, and I had little choice in the matter.

But I did say no. No to an unsalvageable marriage. No to a job with a company whose values did not reflect my own. No to dating guys who were good-looking and intriguingly tattoed, but flaky. No to excusing others’ bad behavior.

I don’t know yet if 2021 will be the year of yes. I hesitate to say anything so absolute. But it may be the year of maybe.

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Beyond Binary: The Aftermath

Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels

2020, the year of disruption. It took a global pandemic, the most bitter social and political fragmentation I’ve ever witnessed in American culture, and a painful end to my marriage, but I’m at last shaking free of the pursuit of something that just maybe, I should not have been chasing in the first place. I’ve given up looking for normal.

“Normal” is a loaded word these days. Some of us want to “get back to normal” or “adjust to the new normal.” Others believe that the establishment, in any form, is not to be trusted and that we’d be a lot better off crying foul on the status quo. In the days and weeks following the 2020 presidential election, I’ve been thinking a lot about normal. Is it what is comfortable? Familiar? Routine?

And if, but its very definition, normal is so unexceptional, why do we yearn for it so badly?

I’m beginning to think that in 2020, it wasn’t normality that was shattered. Instead, our habits and our complacency and our worldview were threatened at an existential level. There is no longer a common set of undisputed facts on which to base a shared understanding of reality. The world is tilted and off-center.  We’re in a space that we can’t predict, and with a set of unknowns we can’t control. 

And as a species, when the necessity to adapt forces itself upon us, we tend to resent it. Any behavioral economist will tell you that human beings are creatures of emotion, not logic. Just because we know better doesn’t mean we do better.

But we should. Maybe it’s not logical to expect “normal,” if normal means a return to what was before. How could it be? These are strange and often frightening times. 

Much of life as we remember it is past. Perhaps, ultimately, we may find parts of it are not worth going back for. Yet things remain that are worth holding on to, and those have little to do with whether or not our local gym is open, or if we’re required to wear a mask, or if a curfew has gone into effect.

Human behavior is often highly contextual. But there is almost always a choice. And I will not give up on the big picture. I will not give up on decency, civility, or kindness. I will not give up on the expectation that my elected leaders will follow established precedents for conduct befitting their office. And I won’t give up on America, or on my fellow Americans, although I’ve felt more grief and anger and disappointment in these past 12 months than I believed possible. 

For as Winston Churchill is alleged, but not proven, to have remarked, “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”

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Bourbon-Free in New Orleans

Bougainvillea in New Orleans.

The first pictures I formed of New Orleans came from Anne Rice. Like thousands of other teenagers, I devoured Interview with the Vampire in both its novel and film variations. In my imaginings, the images of New Orleans came through vampire eyes – a place dark and romantic, full of strange and slightly threatening beauty.

And like Rice’s vampire protagonists, I came to New Orleans hungry. I feasted on cafe au lait, boudine hash, scrambled eggs, and biscuits topped with cane syrup. An inconvenient headcold prevented me from sampling any of New Orlean’s alcohol or legendary nightlife, but I did indulge on the pleasures of food. Gumbo file. Chunks of alligator meat seasoned with Cajun spices. Shrimp (of course). Red beans and rice (of course). Obligatory beignets from Cafe du Monde. I ate like a tourist. And I ate well.

But I came to New Orleans for more than food. In this I was not disappointed. I visited the bayous and watched as our guide lured alligators from the brown swampwater with a few tossed marshmallows. I toured stunning plantations, included the fabled Oak Alley (used in the film Interview with the Vampire, and set cinematically alight by Brad Pitt), and listened as guides spoke of both the Creole families who lived in those mansions and the slave families that built them.

I sloshed through Bourbon Street one night in the rain, the refuse of a thousand indiscretions detectable on the breeze, and in the water rising around my ankles.

I spent nearly a full day at the World War II museum, lost in time and feeling shaken from my vantage point of having been born well after its conclusion. Certainty, I learned, is a gift that comes only in hindsight.

Perhaps inevitably for a city that has built its recent reputation on hedonistic pleasures, much of New Orleans is predictably tacky. Hordes of intoxicated tourists roam the thoroughfares, some of them pushing strollers. Shops sell T-shirts with lewd slogans, and beads and bottles of hot sauce are everywhere.

Still, there is something mysterious under the surface. Despite modernity, the city is still defined by its geography. The river. The levees. The heat. Nature cannot be escaped, and must be tolerated.

Even in October, vines and blossoms flourished, and trees grew thick with Spanish moss. I caught glimpses of the pastel mansions in the Garden District as the streetcar rolled past. The sides were open, allowing in a rush of humid air. I stepped off and soon reached the gates of one of the Lafayette Cemeteries. A black crow fluttered in one of the treetops. It would have been ominous were it not so perfectly times. I walked among the grounds, weeds and grass poking through the crumbling pathways. The mausoleums are overrun with plants as if even stone and concrete can decay.

In the 300th year since its founding, New Orleans was a reminder that America was not always American. The land was a battlefield for European empires, and home to millions of native inhabitants. New Orleans, after all, had been French. And before that, Spanish. And before that, the Chitimacha tribe farmed, fished, and hunted along the waters leading to Lake Pontchartrain.

On my first night in the city, music and shouts from the street brought me to my hotel room window. Looking down, I saw what first appeared to be a parade. But on second glance, the figures were recognizable as a wedding party. The bride and groom led the way, followed by their guests and a second line that created a joyful procession through the street. And during my last meal, I heard music again – horns and drums that grew louder and louder until they literally passed by the window I was sitting beneath, and established themselves in the restaurant’s back room. It was a funeral, and in true New Orleans style, it sounded like a hell of a party.

Where I ate:

  • Trenasse, Hotel Intercontinental, 444 St. Charles Avenue
  • Mother’s Restaurant, 401 Poydras Street
  • Broussard’s, 819 Conti Street
  • Buffa’s Bar, 1001 Esplanade Avenue

Where I stayed:

Hotel St. Pierre, 911 Burgundy Street, New Orleans

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America’s Gun Myth

Ad for Daisy air rifle, c. 1968.

Columbine. Red Lake. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Santa Fe. The names of the schools where shootings have occurred ring out in a frightening, familiar litany. Some remain in the public consciousness for years. Other fade from memory as soon as the news cameras and microphones are put away.

Twenty years ago, my own district became the site of one such shooting. Edinboro, PA. Late April, 1998. I was a high school senior set to graduate in a few weeks’ time, and had spent the day with classmates on a field trip to Toronto. We visited the CN Tower and felt the thrill of vertigo standing on its glass floor, and cracked jokes about receiving Canadian currency in change after lunching at a nearby McDonalds. I toured the Ontario Science Centre with a group of friends and marveled at the tiny poison frogs, preternaturally bright, in the rainforest exhibition. We chattered on the four-hour bus ride back, arriving back in Edinboro shortly before midnight. And we returned to our homes and went to sleep, not knowing that our quiet college town had just become a bellwether for a horrifying trend of shootings that would only grow more nightmarish in the coming years.

I learned the news early the following morning. Four people had been shot, one fatally. The casualties included my middle school science teacher Mr. Gillette, a tall, blue-eyed former football coach. He was only in his 40s, but his balding head made him appear older, at least to my teenage eyes. He and I had a good relationship, once talking about geodes and minerals after class following my family’s trip to Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. And now Mr. Gillette was dead.

I remember walking out to the backyard in shock.  It was a beautiful spring day, bright and warm, with white clouds drifting in the sky. I sat in a hammock and looked at robins hopping on the tree branches, wondering how the world went on, how nature could be so oblivious to the fact that my entire town had been rocked off of its axis.

As the weekend passed there were vigils and songs and candles and prayers. Come Monday, we returned to school. I walked a media gauntlet every step along the sidewalk from the parking lot to the school entrance, a gauntlet now lined with news vans and cameras and reporters from the local newspapers all the way up to national networks. I didn’t want to look at them. I didn’t feel like “news.” I felt only sad, confused, invaded. And pissed off.

We weren’t headlines. We were kids.

At home, I saw my town and the story of what became known as the “Parker Middle School shooting” surreally played out on CNN and other outlets. It quickly grew into a repeated narrative: a 14-year-old loner named Andy Wurst had taken his father’s gun, entered the venue where the off-campus dance was being held, and shot Mr. Gillette on the patio. He then opened fire on his 8th grade classmates before running out of the building into a nearby cornfield. The venue’s owner, armed with a shotgun, gave chase and Andy was taken into police custody. He remains in prison today.

Lake Edinboro. Edinboro, PA.

Eventually the reporters and their ever-present cameras went away, and I was relieved. While the media was present, they had a wildly distorting effect on everyday life. The story they told about the place I lived wasn’t one I could recognize.  I’d grown up a free range kid, riding bikes with friends across town and spending hours playing imaginary games in a nearby woods. My parents hardly ever locked their doors. Violent crimes were practically unknown. And yet, overnight, home had seemingly become a place where previously unconceivable violence could – and had – occurred.

Too many other American towns have shared in this experience. Too many other students have lost classmates, friends, teachers. Too many other children haven’t lived to see their high school graduation.

I am angry. I am angrier now than I was 20 years ago. Because we have seen this. Again and again and again. And again. We grope for ways to explain it, for ways we can assure ourselves that every time will be the last time. All too often, the answer is another gun. We create the myth of escaping death by becoming capable of inflicting it. This myth has long, insidious roots.

Because didn’t guns win the West? Didn’t the American Revolution start with “the shot heard ‘round the world”? Isn’t the “right to bear arms” as unalienable as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The fact is – for anyone who still cares for facts – guns remained exceptionally rare for America’s first decades. Gunsmiths were few and far between, as only a small number of settlers could afford firearms. Guns were expensive and time-consuming to make. Many components, including gunpowder, had to be imported from England, as colonists lacked the means to produce these materials themselves. During the War for Independence, American forces relied heavily on shipments of French muskets. After the war, American-produced guns remained modest in number; the Hawkens brothers, a well-known pair of St. Louis gunsmiths, employed a dozen men and even then they were only able to make about a hundred rifles a year.  The U.S. government itself shied away from encouraging new gun manufacture well into the mid-1800s. For years after the Civil War, Springfield was stuck using leftover parts from Civil War-era weapons in the rifles that it produced for the U.S. Army. And Army brass frowned upon weapons capable of rapid fire. Bullets cost money, and officers worried that trigger-happy soldiers would waste too much ammunition.

But as American gun production became easier, cheaper, and faster, companies skillfully manufactured a need for guns along with the guns themselves. Advertisements presented firearms in all manner of alluring guises, from the hallmark of gentleman shooter, to a reliable form of home defense, and even as a stylish accessory for fashionable women. During the 1880s and 1890s, manufacturers targeted female buyers with illustrations of attractive, corseted ladies engaged in hunting or sport shooting with “suitable” (i.e. small caliber) rifles. These chic women frequently appeared surrounded by admiring men as well as other quarry. Simultaneously, Colt marketed revolvers toward nascent police forces in America’s larger cities. (In those days, many police officers furnished their own weapons.) The grips of Colt’s 1888 “New Police Single Action Five-Shot Revolving Pistols” are decorated with an image of a uniformed policeman. The officer is drawing a gun against an assailant. His assailant is brandishing a knife.

But what sells guns better than fear? Guns have promised protection against everything from burglars to vagrants to attacking grizzlies. Now some of us look to guns to protect us against school shootings. I believe such hopes will be disappointed. Rather, they indicate the dangers of when inherited beliefs go unquestioned.

Guns did not build America. And I’m convinced that more guns will not save it. Only courage and change will do that. Courage to question and challenge the status quo, as the students from Parkland have been doing. And change that is abysmally overdue – change in our worldview, change in our policies, change in the way we look at guns. Some myths we need to let die.


Douglas C. McChristian. The U.S. Army in the West, 1870-1880: Uniforms, Weapons, and Equipment. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, OK, 1995. p. 107

Laura Browder. Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America. University of North Caroline Press. Chapel Hill, NC, 2006. pp. 3 -7.

Colt’s Military and Sporting Arms, 1888. Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company. Autry National Center, Museum for the American West. Object ID 87.118.167.

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Whose America Is It?

Gardens behind the Governor’s Palace, Colonial Williamsburg.

In July, I visited Colonial Williamsburg over Independence Day weekend. Given the roiled state of American politics, I hoped that taking a step back and looking at America’s past might lend insights into how to navigate today’s turmoil.

But how we choose to remember the past is just as telling as the facts themselves. What gets commemorated? What is left out of the story, and why? Whose stories are being told, and whose are not?

Read more about my visit: Colonial Williamsburg, Where the Past Shines Light on the Present, at World Travelers Today.

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(Ms) William Brown

In September 1815 a London newspaper carried a report that one William Brown, an able seaman with more than a decade of service in the Royal Navy, “was a female African.”

Picture of warship Queen Charlotte
Council of war aboard the Queen Charlotte, 1818.

Her true name, sadly, is not known. Neither is the actual length of her service. She certainly was aboard HMS Queen Charlotte, a ship that had played a role in suppressing the African slave trade, possibly while Brown was among the crew. With 104 guns, Queen Charlotte belonged to the largest class of naval warships, impressive first rates capable of carrying nearly a thousand officers and crew.

Women disguising themselves as men and joining the crews of fighting ships was certainly unusual in 19th-century Britain, but not unprecedented. Brown’s exact role remain unknown. Some scholars discount the newspaper report and believe that she served less than a month before her gender was discovered and she was discharged, as shown on the Queen Charlotte’s muster list. Others, like Suzanne J. Stark, believe that Brown had successfully served for many years, eventually earning an appointment as “captain of the foretop” – and even re-enlisted after her discharge.

While interpretations differ, one thing is clear: William Brown is the first known black woman to serve in the Royal Navy. I like to imagine that she had a longer tenure on the Queen Charlotte as the ship sailed along the African coast, and that maybe Brown herself witnessed the capture of slave ships and had a hand in the liberation of their human cargo. Perhaps someday we will know.


Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, Suzanne J. Stark. Naval Institute Press, 1996.

Wikipedia contributors, “William Brown (sailor),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 28, 2017).


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Lipstick Before a Protest

candles in hands
Photo by Teresa Casale.

Dear Readers –

My political commentary generally relates to events two centuries ago, and in other countries. However, this week’s events have compelled me to break with precedent and write something about the 2016 presidential election.

My parents grew up in the 1960s. They were college students in Ohio during the Kent State shootings; they had classmates who went to Vietnam and never came home. I asked my mother once what she thought of the social protests, if she had ever joined the marches for civil rights, for women’s rights, for peace. She said no. She kept her head down and stayed out of it. She was afraid of being expelled from school. I remember being disappointed in her answer, ashamed of her fear.

Forty-six years later, I can’t sit this one out.

Let me start by saying that I wish our president-elect the best of success. Ready or not, he must lead. I hope that he is able to step up to that great responsibility and lead well. Though I have – often – disagreed with the policies of presidents of both parties, I have always respected the office.

His job will not be an easy one. There are many Americas. We are a fractured country – and have been fracturing in ways visible and not-so-visible for a long time. In 2010 I spent nearly a month driving through the America those on the coasts call the “fly-over states.” Even then I saw towns all but abandoned, empty store after empty store along empty streets. I come from an Appalachian state with pockets of deep and documented poverty, poverty that is mocked and misunderstood, poverty that the people living there can’t simply drive through.

For some, like the 1 in 6 American men who are not working, the economic recovery has been something that other people experienced, and not them. There is a colossal distrust of the American political establishment. In the summer of 2016, Congressional approval ratings dropped to unprecedented lows as constituents expressed disappointment not only with Congress overall but with their own representatives’ performance.

But these trends only show statistics, and this election was won on emotion. Anger, fear, hope, uncertainty. The voting block with more anger than hope spoke, and though they do not speak for all Americans, they decided for all of us who the next president will be.

Some of their anger, I understand. These are the people I come from, and like the author of Hillybilly Elegy J.D. Vance, I’ve moved away but I cannot forget. And yet not all poverty is treated as innocent poverty, and whites may disproportionately use it as an extenuating circumstance for other ills. As an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail noted, “You may have noticed that, the story goes, white people are on drugs because they have no jobs, but black people have no jobs because they are on drugs.”

Economics is a factor but it is not the only factor. Gender is a factor but it is not the only factor. Race is a factor but it is not the only factor. We desperately want an explanation for the unexplainable, but seizing on a simple one only places more blinders around truths that we struggle to acknowledge.

This election, perhaps more than any presidential election in recent memory, is at the intersection of the personal and the political. Now we are all reckoning with the aftermath. Some are feeling joyful and affirmed, others are mourning. We are coming to terms with this new America in our different ways, some with vigils and protests, some by writing, some by carrying signs, some by seeking solidarity. Some methods take us out of ourselves, and others drive us inward.

I hope that none drive us to hate. I confess that this America is a country that I struggle to recognize. I woke up on the morning of November 9 feeling as if I’d been hit with a very ugly family secret. I had believed that the American people had learned from our past mistakes, that we could do better than our institutions, which I will be among the first to admit are flawed.

The path to creating a more perfect union is not merely feeling, but acting. Voting is a small act, but it is a powerful one. Why else would those who had it put in decades of efforts and intimidation and brutality to keep it out of the hands of minorities and out of the hands of women? For many the opportunity to vote was won the hard way. Though it is your right to abstain, please don’t. Too many people sat out this election. We as a nation lost their voices.

Last night I was at the vigil-turned-march in downtown Washington, DC. I left the house with a warm coat and a fresh coat of lipstick. Someone handed me a safety pin and I pinned it onto my jacket. Though some commentators have derided this action, I disagree. Wearing a safety pin doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me feel worse. It reminds me that too many of my fellow citizens cannot feel safe in the country that they call their own, that they have as much of a right to as I do.

Wearing a safety pin reminds me that I should be prepared to keep the promise that the pin signifies. My world has many kinds of people in it, and some may need my help. Mr. Trump has made vicious comments about women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ community members, people of non-Christian faiths, veterans. Those comments have emboldened an ideology that I cannot and will not ever tolerate.  I cannot ever think that this is not my battle. I’m reminded of the Muslim photographer who made me laugh during three days of long photoshoots in DC, of the woman at my gym who works out in a headscarf. Of my sister and her wife. Of my husband, born overseas, and a naturalized citizen who gave over a decade of service to the United Stated Navy.

I think of the time I was on my way to meet a black friend after work and one of my car tires blew out. Someone stopped almost immediately to help – but if our places have been reversed, would someone have stopped for her? Would the helpfulness I encountered in the Midwest have extended to me had my face been a different color?

I don’t know and I cannot know the answer to these questions. I can only try to let the America that I grew up believing in not slip away, and I can only be humble, to not think that by trying to do the right thing that I am righteous.

And I can hope. I can hope America will indeed be great again, but not in the way that Mr. Trump imagines.

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Stepping into History: Pictures from London and Edinburgh

One year ago I packed my bag and my laptop and hopped a plane to London, and from there, traveled by train to Edinburgh, Scotland. My journey allowed me to retrace the footsteps of Katherine Cochrane, whose story is at the center of my forthcoming novel, The Admiral’s Wife.  I walked in Regents’ Park, the London neighborhood where she lived for a time, read her letters at the National Records of Scotland, and visited Culross Abbey House, the Scottish estate where her husband had lived as a boy and which she visited with him many years later. These pictures capture the places I visited and provided a thrilling opportunity to step into Kate and Thomas’ world.

Follow along on the trip through my post on World Travelers’ Today: Books, Bagpipes, and Muddy Boots.

P.S. The slideshow also includes images from Keats House, home of the poet John Keats, a contemporary of the Cochranes.

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Kate Cochrane: Her Life and Times

This week – October 12, to be precise – is Kate Cochrane’s birthday (on the evidence of a greeting her husband sent to her in one of their many letters.) What better time to introduce the lady herself and some of her exploits?

A secret elopement. Intrigues in South America. A knife fight with a would-be assassin. Crawls across rope bridges in the Andes. A four-month sea voyage with a teething infant.

Such adventures, one might think, would make a woman famous, especially if she undertook them 200 years ago, when a woman’s chances of attempting even one such feat were considerably more circumscribed. Kate Cochrane did them all.

I came across her accidentally – and admittedly, through reading about her husband. (Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane served as a model for the literary exploits of Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, and several instances in the film Master and Commander were inspired by Thomas Cochrane’s naval actions.)

Portrait of Kate with her daughter Elizabeth
Detail of a portrait showing Kate Cochrane and her daughter Elizabeth. Private collection.

Kate and Thomas’ relationship likewise rarely lacked for dramatic flair. He was a dashing war hero, aged 37, of an illustrious but bankrupt Scottish family – and he would someday be an earl. Kate was approximately 20 years his junior, a beautiful orphan living in the care of her relatives. They chanced across each other in London, and Thomas was smitten. After multiple proposals and multiple refusals, Kate eventually agree to marry him. The couple hurried off to Scotland by coach and were wed in a hasty ceremony that Thomas tried, but failed, to keep secret from his family. When Thomas’ father and uncle learned of the elopement, they withdrew a sizable inheritance. Kate went back to live with her aunt;  it was many months before the couple set up their own establishment and Thomas publicly acknowledged Kate as his wife.

From this rocky yet romantic start, Kate’s adventures began. Little is known of her early life due to a dearth of historical records. It is uncertain what year she was born, although 1795 or 1796 seems likely, given that she was said to be 69 at the time of her death in January of 1865. She was born the daughter of Thomas Barnes. There is some ambiguity surrounding her mother; some sources identify her as Frances Corbett, while a number of Cochrane biographers speculate that Kate was illegitimate. Kate’s father died while she was young, and she spent her later childhood and teen years being raised by relatives. She was living with a widowed aunt in a fashionable area of London when she met Thomas.

After their elopement, Kate and Thomas eventually set up house together and soon welcomed the birth of the first of their six children. It was a difficult birth for Kate – she had been gravely ill with scarlet fever, and her survival and the child’s were in question. But Kate, not yet twenty, came through the ordeal, and the little boy, christened Thomas Barnes Cochrane, lived as well.

Portrait of Thomas Cochrane
Portrait of Thomas Cochrane, c. 1807, five years before he wed Kate.

Kate’s troubles, however, were only beginning. Two months after the birth of the couple’s son, Thomas was convicted in a financial scandal and sentenced to serve a term in the King’s Bench Prison. He had had no commission for several years, and with the prize money he’d won in his earlier career not being replenished, Kate and the child were left in straitened circumstances. Kate visited Thomas as she could, and the couple exchanged regular letters. Upon his release, Thomas accepted an offer to lead the fledging Chilean Navy in the nation’s fight for independence from Spain.

Kate set sail with Thomas for South American in early autumn of 1818, with four-year-old Tom and his infant brother Horace in tow. While Thomas waged audacious attacks on Spanish ships and fortifications, Kate traveled on horseback through the Andes, visiting Mayan ruins and paying visits to the regional gentry. On one of these occasions, she crawled across a rope bridge with the newest addition to the family, a daughter named Elizabeth, strapped to her chest.

The family kept a house in the port city of Valparaiso, as well as an estate in the Quintero Valley gifted to them from the Chilean government. While there, an assassin sent by the Spanish chanced upon Kate. The man threatened her with a knife, but Kate gamely held him off until her shouts brought some of the servants to her aid. There is some suggestion that Kate was more than a bystander to the revolution, and that she carried messages and dispatches on behalf of Bernardo O’Higgins, Chile’s Supreme Director. However, the assassin was likely seeking information on Thomas’ orders rather than attempting to thwart Kate’s intrigues.

Image of the harbor in the city of Valparaiso
Valparaiso, Chile – and its harbor – as it looked in the early 1800s.

By the mid-1830s the family had returned to London. After several decades of unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Admiralty and the British crown to grant Thomas a pardon for his earlier conviction, Kate’s efforts – which included personal meetings with the prime minister – eventually carried the day. Thomas had also inherited the title of 10th Earl of Dundonald, and Kate rose to the rank of countess. With the money from Thomas’ exploits in South America, the family purchased an elegant villa, Hanover Lodge, in Regents Park. There Kate entertained in style, and for the first time in many, many years, the Cochranes had a settled residence where they could live in comfort.

Image of Hanover Lodge, an elegant house and home of the Cochrane family.
Hanover Lodge, an Italian-inspired villa in Regent’s Park where Kate Cochrane and her family lived in the 1830s.

Sadly, not all of their children survived to benefit from the family’s improved circumstances. Little Elizabeth died in Chile around her first birthday, and Kate later lost another infant who was stillborn. Five children did live to adulthood: Tom, Horace, Arthur, Katherine Elizabeth (aka “Lizzie”) and Ernest.

Disparities in age and temperament, which had previously strained the Cochrane’s marriage, now led to irreconcilable differences that resulted in Kate living in France. The couple remained cordial – and never divorced – with Thomas sending financial support and paying occasional visits. They continued to exchange letters. When Thomas penned his autobiography late in life with the help of a ghostwriter, Kate’s actions in South America feature in it, and he writes admiringly of his wife’s courage.

Kate did not cross the Channel to attend her husband’s funeral when Thomas died in 1860, though she spoke warmly of his memory afterwards. She spent her final years in the French seaside town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, suffering from bouts of ill health, and died in 1865. She is buried at St. Mary the Virgin, Kent, beneath a simple headstone. Thomas Cochrane was interred at Westminster Abbey.

Headstone at Kate Cochrane's grave
Headstone marking the grave of Lady Katherine Cochrane.

With a larger-than-life figure like Thomas Cochrane for a husband – radical MP, eventual Earl of Dundonald, and contemporary of men such as Napoleon and Lord Nelson  – it is understandable, though unfortunate, that Kate’s story had been subsumed within her husband’s colorful career. Now at last, she is figuring as the heroine of her own story – The Admiral’s Wife.


Narrative of Services in the Liberation of Chili, Peru and Brazil, from Spanish and Portuguese Domination, Volume 1, by Thomas Cochrane, Tenth Earl of Dundonald. The Project Gutenberg eBook.

Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander, David Cordingly. Bloomsbury USA, 2007.

Cochrane: The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain, Robert Harvey. Carroll & Graf, 2000.

Correspondence. GD233: Cochrane Family, Earls of Dundonald (Dundonald Muniments.) National Records of Scotland.

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