Natalie Wexler is the author of the new historical novel The Observer. She also has written the novels The Mother Daughter Show and A More Obedient Wife. She blogs about education for Greater Greater Washington, and she lives in Washington, D.C.
Q: How did you blend the fictional and historical elements in The Observer?
A: As with my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, I had a certain skeleton of historical fact to build my fiction on. In the first book, that skeleton was mostly formed of letters to, from, and about the two real women I was writing about. I put excerpts from those letters into the book and filled in the gaps in the historical narrative with my imagination.
For this book, I didn't have letters, but I did have a year of issues of the Observer, the weekly magazine edited by the real Eliza Anderson, who became one of the two main characters in the novel. (There are letters to and from Eliza that have survived, but none from the year the book focuses on, 1807.)
Eliza wrote much of the magazine herself, so what appears there—along with what appeared in various other Baltimore publications of the time—gave me some insight into what really happened during this extraordinary year in her life. And just as I had used letters in A More Obedient Wife, in The Observer I incorporated excerpts from these articles into my fictional narrative.
When you're working with real historical figures and events, it can be a challenge to construct a plot that both includes what's real and also has a narrative arc and tension and all those other things a plot needs.
Life generally doesn't hand you a good plot! You have to figure out what might have been happening that isn't reflected in the historical documents, and how the various characters might have been connected to one another, and give the whole thing some coherent shape.
I knew, for example, that Eliza had a nemesis, a man who started out as a columnist for the Observer but ended up as her arch-enemy (at least, in her view). I didn't know much else about him, but I realized that he needed to play a major role in the plot, so I had to give him a name (everyone wrote under pseudonyms) and imagine who he might have been.
I also invented an entirely fictional major character, Margaret McKenzie, who is Eliza's maid—and who gives a double meaning to the title, The Observer, since for most of the book she's actually observing Eliza closely and feeding information to Eliza's enemies. I decided to invent Margaret partly because I realized that Eliza had a trait many modern readers would find off-putting: she was an elitist.
I can understand why Eliza held the opinions she did, and I think she had other qualities that make her sympathetic. But I knew I needed to balance Eliza with a character who would both challenge some of her assumptions and perhaps appeal more to a 21st-century reader. So I came up with the idea of giving her a young maid who also serves as a kind of nanny to Eliza's daughter. As the story took shape, Margaret came to play a crucial role in the plot.
Q: Why did you decide to switch back and forth between Eliza's and Margaret's perspectives?
A: I enjoy writing from multiple perspectives and have done it in all three of my novels. I like having two (or three) views of essentially the same events, I guess because it underscores how we're all prisoners of our own points of view, and how important it is to try to see things from the vantage point of others when we can. It also puts the reader in the position of knowing more about what's going on than the point-of-view characters do, which adds an element of tension.
For example, in each of my novels, the story centers on women who appear to be very different and at odds with one another, but who (perhaps unbeknownst to them) have some important things in common. It seems to me that the best way of revealing what they have in common is to bring the reader inside each of their heads.
Switching back and forth was particularly important in this novel because Eliza is something of a problematic character. She certainly has some admirable qualities—she's witty and feisty and fiercely intelligent—and I enjoyed writing in her voice, but it's probably best to have a break from her once in a while.
Q: What more can you tell us about the kind of research you needed to do to write the novel?
A: I did an enormous amount of research—mostly at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore—much of which never made it into the book.
I first got the idea for the novel, or something like it, nine years ago, when I saw a portrait of a strikingly beautiful woman at an exhibit of Gilbert Stuart portraits at the National Gallery. That wasn't Eliza—it was a friend of hers, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte. I originally intended to write about Betsy, as she's popularly known. She was a Baltimore heiress who married Napoleon's youngest brother.
I started by researching her life and going through the 20 boxes that contain her correspondence. But I found her to be a pretty unpleasant character, and her letters could be self-absorbed and tedious. Meanwhile, though, I stumbled across a few wonderful letters written to Betsy by a friend of hers, Eliza Anderson. Who was she, I wondered?
After some detective work, I decided Eliza was the more interesting figure. One of the things I discovered was that she had founded and edited this magazine, the Observer, in 1807. That seemed kind of unusual—a woman editing a magazine in 1807, and at the age of 26 no less.
So I did some research on the history of women editors, and I discovered that all the secondary sources identified someone else as the first woman to edit a magazine—someone who came AFTER Eliza. Not only that, but I found that virtually all 19th-century women editors edited magazines for women. Eliza clearly was aiming at, and reaching, a general audience.
At that point, I stopped working on the novel for a while and wrote an article about the real Eliza for a scholarly journal, because I thought it was important that the historical record be corrected to include her.
Most of the research I did on Eliza and the other historical characters focused on primary sources: letters, the Observer itself, other periodicals of the day. But for the fictional character of Margaret, I needed to rely on secondary sources. She is an ordinary working person, and we generally don't have letters or other documents that have preserved their voices. But I was lucky to find a wonderful book about working people in Baltimore in just the period I was writing about—Scraping By, by Seth Rockman.
Rockman did a lot of painstaking research into things like newspaper advertisements and almshouse records to reconstruct the lives of ordinary people, and I was able to draw on that research in creating Margaret's character and her life. I had to use my imagination to develop a voice for her, but one thing I relied on to some extent was a dictionary of slang from the period that I found online. I now have a fairly extensive vocabulary of earthy terms from the early 19th century.
Q: Do you prefer writing historical or contemporary novels?
A: Writing my second novel, The Mother Daughter Show, was in some ways more fun, because it was set in my own time and place. I didn't have to worry about whether I'd gotten the historical details right, or if I had accurately captured the voices of people who lived 200 years ago.
And I could include all sorts of random observations I had about contemporary life—for example, the way the supermarket checker always asks you if you need help carrying your groceries to your car, even if you're only buying a box of pasta and some chicken breasts.
But I actually find it easier, in a way, to enter into a fictional world when I'm writing about the past, perhaps because it IS so different from my own world. And writing historical fiction is probably the closest you can come to time travel, which is something I've always yearned to do.
The other advantage of writing historical fiction is that nobody you know thinks they recognize themselves in your fiction—even if, in some way, they're actually in there.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Not fiction! For the past year and a half I've been blogging about public education in D.C., which is a subject I find both fascinating and incredibly important. Right now I don't see myself writing any more novels. But you never know.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Although it may seem like there's no connection between what I'm doing now—writing about education—and this novel, I've come to realize there actually is. I found myself comparing Eliza to the two women who were the protagonists of my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, which is set about a decade earlier.
The two women in my first book—both named Hannah—could almost have been from a different planet than Eliza. Their letters were often poignant but rarely made any reference to literature or the larger world. And, as the title of the novel suggests, they basically accepted the subordinate role that society prescribed for them as women and as wives.
Eliza, on the other hand, was a true intellectual, peppering her letters with references to the "metaphysical" writers she treasured and taking on a variety of literary, philosophical, and historical topics in her magazine. And she seemed entirely unconcerned by the fact that women weren't supposed to do the kinds of things she was doing. When people criticized her behavior as un-ladylike, she lashed back at them.
What could account for the difference between the Hannahs and Eliza? Obviously, personality played a role. But I think education also had a lot to do with it. Eliza was extraordinarily well read, probably because her father had a large library and gave her free rein to explore it. But it was also a more general phenomenon: there was a huge increase in schools for girls in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Historians used to think that nothing much was going on in women's history in the early 19th century, but they now see that this educational explosion laid the groundwork for the women's rights movement that began mid-century. Once you give people a genuine education, of the kind Eliza received, it changes not only what they know but also their entire conception of themselves and what they're capable of accomplishing.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Natalie Wexler, please click here.