Memory, Meaning and Misfits: The Lioness of Boston by Emily Franklin
BY LEE ANN ECKHARDT SMITH
Emily Franklin is an accomplished author who has published in many genres, including short stories, young adult novels, non-fiction, screenplays and poetry. Her latest book, The Lioness of Boston (Godine, 2023), is her first historical novel.
“Writing across genres hones my craft in all genres,” she says. “Certainly, the poetry helps tremendously with cadence, word choice and rhythm. Writing The Lioness of Boston opened up a new world to me, and I feel very much at home in the world of historical fiction.”
The book was inspired by Boston’s famous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which to Franklin is “a place of magic” and a favourite since childhood. It presents the story of the visionary woman who built a mansion to showcase her vast collection of old masters, antiques and objects d’art.
By the time the museum opened in 1903, Isabella Stewart Gardner had suffered two devastating tragedies and rejection from upper-class Boston, plus was well-known for scandalous behaviour. She died in 1924, leaving her museum “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever,” stipulating that anyone named Isabella would be granted free entrance (also forever), and most importantly, that each piece in the collection was to remain fixed in the place she had set for it and never moved. In fact, when thieves stole 13 pieces of art in 1990 – a crime that has never been solved – the empty frames were left hanging as placeholders.
“Someone who is determined to keep everything as it was,” says Franklin, “is determined both to have their vision shared with others, and also to, in some way, be remembered, and to be remembered specifically in the way that they arranged.”
This theme of memory and the meaningful items that we keep is one that has long fascinated the author. In this book, Franklin reveals, “the theme developed right from the beginning of the novel and all the way through my research. Art — paintings, photographs, writing — is another way to be remembered, or to fix a particular moment in time.”
Although Gardner left an enormous mansion filled with objects collected over decades, she left much less of her personal writing. This for the author was a “great blessing. It afforded me, as a novelist, great gaps of freedom for my storytelling.” As a result, Franklin explains, “there is a careful blend of history — the opening of the Boston Swan Boats, for example, which was real, and Isabella cutting to the front of the line, which was not, but which illustrated a point about her and the friends she’d made at that point, like the head gardener at the Boston Public Gardens.”
Specific pieces in the art collection also provided Franklin with some storytelling freedom. “The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has detailed records of the provenance of many of her objects and art,” she states. “When I came across one that had no details of its acquisition, that situation also afforded me the space to create a scene around how, where and why she might have decided to add this piece to her collection.”
Franklin loved all aspects of the research needed for this historical novel. “I was always an academic kid,” she laughs, “and enjoyed learning about everything.”
She began her research with a timeline of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s life, and then added “layers” of historical context within which to place Isabella, both in Europe and locally. “I read everything I could about the people in my novel and about art,” Franklin explains, “and the other people alive at the time, as well as scientific inventions, opera performances, the kinds of street lights in Boston in 1861, who exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (where Isabella met painter Anders Zorn for the first time), all sorts of gardening pamphlets that were available and that she might have stumbled across. Whether or not Isabella Stewart Gardner personally interacted with the historical events or people, I still, as a writer, needed to make sure I knew what was happening.
“Above all else,” Franklin declares, “I wanted to portray Isabella Stewart Gardner as a strong, quirky, determined, brash and ahead-of-her-time person who triumphed over loss. In The Lioness of Boston, I highlight the ways in which she was ahead of her time and, frankly, misunderstood. So, I researched other strong women from that time – and then had Isabella interact with them.” Franklin especially enjoyed writing the interactions between Isabella, who was “a bit of a misfit,” interacting with other people who lived at the edges of society, including artists in various parts of the world. “Those scenes were particularly meaningful to write,” Franklin says, “as Isabella experienced such rejection when she arrived in Boston as a newlywed in 1861.”
Emily Franklin’s next project is another historical novel. “I can’t wait to have time to dig into it,” she says. “This one is set in Europe in a slightly earlier timeframe than this story in Boston.”
About the contributor: Lee Ann Eckhardt Smith’s passion for history and storytelling has driven her writing career. She is the author of two acclaimed non-fiction history books: Strength Within: the Granger Chronicles (Baico, 2005) and Muskoka’s Main Street: 150 Years of Courage and Adventure Along the Muskoka Colonization Road (Muskoka Books, 2012). She’s written articles for many magazines and newspapers, primarily about how to write family history and memoir. She is currently working on her fourth collection of photographs and poetry, inspired by the beauty she finds in her everyday world. Find out more at her website.