What We Know So Far

SH-Letterpress jumbleYou can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Coming Up for Air, will be out later this year.

You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the subscribe button on my home page. When you do, my stories will speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.

Please share these with your friends, co-workers, and all the family members that you like best. I understand they go great with morning coffee.

This week, Carding’s town blogger, seventeen-year old Will Bennett, shares his research into spiritualist Victoria Quartermain’s life, and why her archives may be a treasure worth fighting for.

By the way, Victoria Quartermain is the lead character in a new series of books that is moving from my back burner to the front. The first novel in the series, tentatively titled Victoria Quartermain and the Dragon’s Embrace, will be published after the next Carding novel and a collection of Carding Chronicles.

There are two previous Carding Chronicles about Victoria Quartermain here and here.

Ever since the Victoria Quartermain archives were discovered in the attic of the Carding Academy of Traditional Arts, there’s been a loud buzzing noise in and around Carding. So I thought it would be a good idea to do some digging into the life of the woman who claimed to be the world’s only true spiritualist.

In spite of the fact that she was one of the most famous and scandalous women in America when she died in 1937, very little is known about Quartermain’s early years. To quote writer Hansen Willis, “It was if she arrived in the world fully hatched, with no past.”

At different points in her life, Quartermain claimed she was born in Boston, in a sod cabin “somewhere in the Midwest,” in New York City, and on a boat sailing from Jamaica to London. In interviews, most of them with Hansen Willis, Quartermain claimed she was born in 1865, 1871, and 1878.

And it looks as though we’re going to have to live with the discrepancies because at least three different birth certificates have been found in her archives.

Here is what we do know:

  1. In the 1880s, Quartermain became one of New York’s most famous actresses. Based on theater reviews clipped from the city’s many newspapers, Victoria made the role of Lady Macbeth her own in a production at Augustin Daly’s self-named theaters in New York and London.
  2. Quartermain was a favorite subject in New York’s infamous scandal sheet, The Tattler. She supposedly had affairs with two of the most notorious robber barons in the Gilded Age, Jay Gould and Russell Sage, an accusation she adamantly denied. “Everyone knows that rich men make the worst lovers,” Quartermain told Hansen Willis in an interview. “And those two were the worst of the lot. I wouldn’t have taken off my hat for either of them, much less my dress.”
  3. In the 1890s, Quartermain took on a new role in life when she reserved an upstairs room in Delmonico’s restaurant for weekly séances. At first the public scoffed but as time went on, securing a seat at her table became the hottest game in town among the rich and insecure.
  4. Quartermain was always outspoken when it came to women’s rights. She testified before the New York legislature in Albany and the city council against “the masculine dominance of property and property rights.”
  5. Because of her reputation and the ease with which she moved in high society, wealthy women began to ask Quartermain for assistance in what were then called “delicate matters” such as blackmail and ending messy love affairs.
  6. Because of her work on behalf of women, Quartermain became a threat to some of New York’s most powerful men. But the more they tried to stop her, the more outspoken she became.

Bowing to pressure from some of the city’s most influential men, city newspapers stopped printing stories that mentioned Quartermain’s name in 1897. But the spiritualist just laughed and went around the obstacle.

One of her favorite tactics was the distribution of pamphlets to spread the information she unearthed about public figures. Using a network of servants and street urchins, the scandal sheets would appear overnight, plastered on walls throughout the city, and impossible to stop.

As you can imagine, this did not always sit well with men in power.

Quartermain’s career reached its apotheosis between 1907 and 1911 when she solved a number of high profile robberies and murders. Concerned for her safety and exhausted by her efforts, she retired to live in the artists colony that was flourishing in Carding, Vermont at the time, building a house next door to her good friends Hansen and Emily Willis.

The remainder of her life was relatively quiet though her summertime salons were famous among the artists, writers and musicians who flocked to our Corvus River Valley.

Quartermain died in 1937 and is buried in Carding’s Commons Cemetery. According to her will, her estate was left to Hansen and Emily Willis, including but not limited to “my journals, diaries, letters, and books-in-progress.”

But none of Quartermain’s writings were found among her effects at the time of her death and their whereabouts remained a mystery until they were found in the Carding Academy’s attic just a few weeks ago.

Now a second Quartermain will has surfaced and the disposition of Quartermain’s artifacts, like her life, is shrouded in question and mystery.

Mozart’s Starling

Mozart's StarlinEven though I am a writer by trade and inclination, I am frugal with my book buying dollars. I always stop at used book sales. I borrow from the library. Sometimes I exchange books with friends (that I know will bring them back). And sometimes, I buy new.

New books are expensive, and even though I know the reasons behind their pricing, I diligently curate my new book buying habit, purchasing only “good stuff” that I’m willing to give space to on my shelves.

One of my annual delights is treating myself to a new book (okay, it’s always more than one) in the month of May.

That’s my birthday month and my favorite independent bookstore, Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vermont, sends me a card good for 20 percent off any book I care to order.

In April, I start making a little list of non-fiction, books I plan to use as references for my own work or explorations into areas that just interest me.

Any of you who have read my Carding novels know that I have a fascination with crows. They appeared in my first book, The Road Unsalted, and my second, Thieves of Fire. Believe it or not, for a bird that’s so ubiquitous, good, readable references for them are as scarce as…well…crow’s teeth.

So when I saw a story about a book called Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, it shot straight to the top of that little list. By conventional publishing standards, Crow Planet is an “old” book. (It was published in 2011.) So I called the book store to see if they had a copy on the shelves.

“Sorry, but we can order that for you,” the woman who answered the phone said. (Yes, I was talking to a real person, not pressing buttons in an eternal tape loop of death.)

And then that old magician, Serendipity, entered our conversation. “Have you read her latest, Mozart’s Starling?”


“Oh, it’s terrific. I just finished reading it and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.”

Oh really? Tell me more.

And after she did, I reserved a copy of that book too.

So I have two recommendations for you. First is Mozart’s Starling. Haupt found her way to writing this book when she got curious about a story linking two of her life’s passions—birds and classical music, particularly Mozart. It seems that the great composer purchased a starling from a pet shop in Vienna when he heard the bird trill a passage of Mozart’s music. (Starlings, come to find out, are incredible mimics.)

Sounds straightforward, right? But there’s a strange wrinkle to this story. Mozart had not released that piece of music to the public. So how did the little bird know the tune?

Intrigued? So was Lyanda Lynn Haupt. And her curiosity led her to rescue a five-day old starling from certain death to raise in her home. (She learned the skills of avian rescue working at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, just over the hill from where we live.)

Mozart named his bird Star. Haupt named hers Carmen.

Carmen turns out to be part curious kitten, part mischievous toddler as well as a teacher and an agile mimic. In addition to saying “Hi Carmen, c’mere” and lots of other human phrases, the bird also imitates sounds from everyday life such a creaking floor and a coffee grinder.

I have a love of books that delve into overlooked crannies of life, especially when they are by authors with the gifts of impeccable research, clear writing, and the ability to weave a narrative out of seemingly dissimilar threads. Michael Pollan did that in Botany of Desire, Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways, and Malcolm Gladwell in Blink.

Haupt has these same gifts in abundance. Not only did I have the delight of vicariously living with Carmen, I learned about new research into bird song, music and the human acquisition of language. With our politics growing darker by the moment, I needed a book that reminded me of what I love most about our spinning blue planet. And living here in Vermont, I am fortunate to be surrounded by rivers and woods and hiking trails and mountains.

It was refreshing to spend time in the company of a woman who feels the same way.

My second recommendation is for shopping at independent book stores such as the one in Norwich. They are such special places and I find that staff recommendations are always worth listening to. I’m certainly glad I did on this occasion.

So, give your spirits a lift. Learn something new. Spend time with an author who’s a delight to read.

You’ve earned that, haven’t you?


Victoria’s Web

SH-Victoria's webYou can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Coming Up for Air, will be out later this year.

You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the subscribe button on my home page. When you do, my stories will speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.

Please share these with your friends, co-workers, and all the family members that you like best. I understand they go great with morning coffee.

In this week’s Carding Chronicle, I have an update one the news from last week about the Victoria Quartermain papers discovered in the Carding Academy of Traditional Arts. It seems that determining who owns the rights to the letters, journals and book drafts is more complicated than first thought.

There’s a house on Carding Green that’s renowned for its complicated ownership. Locally, it’s called “the Tennyson house” but no one in town is ever sure who owns it at any given time.

Or, to be more correct, which family members are in control of the house at the moment.

It’s a rambly old structure with an original core built in 1761. Or at least that’s what the Tennyson family claims.

Over the decades, successive generations have added to the family manse with greater or lesser degrees of skill. One ell, which now houses the wood burned in winter, is so swaybacked, you have to duck when walking from one end to the other. Two of the bedrooms at the back have doors that open into what’s left of the barn (now a garage), and the back stairs are so narrow, no one in their right mind would use them to get to the second floor.

But the kitchen and front parlor, as the two reigning Tennyson sisters like to call it, were built in the 1920s by someone who knew what they were doing. Both rooms are large, airy, and bright.

The kitchen has a bay window where the resident cat sleeps in the sun twined among pots of herbs. And the parlor has pale yellow walls outlined by sculpted wainscoting made when people knew how to make those things.

As I explained earlier, ownership (read control) of the house changes without explanation. Locals suspect that every once in a while, the Tennyson clan meets on a misty hillside to draw lots to see who gets stuck—or who wants—to be in charge of the “great home on the Green” this time.

Or maybe they cut cards for it. No one’s sure.

What is certain is that the Tennyson home is now under the control of two sisters born in in the 1940s. Christened Blanche and Bess, the siblings have traveled the world indulging their interests in all things occult, the collecting of salt and pepper shakers, breeding rare cats, and yarn.

They never knit, you understand. They just like the feel and colors of wool yarn.

Over the years, depending on what interest was paramount at the moment, the sisters have changed their first names to suit their mood. Nowadays, they insist on being called Ginger (née Blanche) and Goldie (née Bess) because they feel those names are “more 21st century” and more magical. They recently co-founded something called the White Iris Society for the preservation of unicorns.

“We believe one always has to make a proper space for magic,”  Goldie explained.

The sisters Tennyson happened to be in Carding when volunteers discovered the Victoria Quartermain archives in the attic of the Carding Academy of Traditional Arts.

Quartermain was a renowned spiritualist—she preferred the term “seeker of answers”— in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not content to simply read tarot cards or conduct séances, Quartermain became a champion of women caught in the tangles of Victorian life. She rescued heiresses from fortune hunters, recovered objects used for blackmail, and in several cases, solved murders in ways that confounded the police and the public.

During her lifetime, writer Hansen Willis (who summered in Carding for decades) interviewed and wrote about Quartermain extensively. When the archives were found last week, it was assumed they belonged to Willis. But further investigation has revealed that the letters, journals, and even book drafts are in Quartermain’s own hand.

The Tennyson sisters claim they are Quartermain’s sole heirs, and earlier this week, they hired an attorney to press their case in court.

“We have family papers that prove Victoria’s intentions to leave her estate in the care of the Tennyson family of Carding, Vermont,” Ginger Tennyson said.

Throughout her long and eventful life, spiritualist Victoria Quartermain was renowned for spinning webs to catch those who thought themselves too clever to be caught. It seems that that ability has now transcended her death.

Stay tuned. This should get interesting.



Web Weaving

Thursdays are devoted to the Carding Chronicles, short stories and sketches about the small town (population now up to 4,100) just off Route 37 in Vermont.

But don’t bother looking for it on a map. For some reason, mapmakers can’t agree on where it’s located.

This week, it’s the latest news about a literary find that has the entire town buzzing. It seems several people claim to be the rightful heirs to the Victoria Quartermain stories.

You can read the initial news story here. And there are moreCarding Chronicles here.

And if you subscribe, each new story will appear in your inbox every week.

Here’s a sample of what’s in store for tomorrow.

SH-Victoria's web

Author of the Carding, Vermont novels, quilt books, and book publishing guides.