Stories of Serendipity:Writing Historical Fiction Series Featuring author Marina Maxwell
Stephanie Renee dos Santos
Welcome to week six of the stories of serendipity series where authors share their tales of serendipity and synchronicity while writing, researching and publishing historical fiction, and their speculations about why such things occur.
This Sunday I’m happy to introduce author Marina Maxwell and her intriguing story of uncanny luck while writing and researching for the novel Her Fatal Touch…
“Although I consider myself to be a rational, level-headed person, I am fairly open-minded to the idea that we could have lived before, that we encounter each other over and over again through many lifetimes. For me it explains why, for no apparent reason and, knowing little about them, I immediately connect with certain people or why I am instantly uncomfortable with others. Being an historical novelist, I feel the same about history. Certain periods, places and people seem to call out to me, while others leave me indifferent or cold, some I even avoid at all costs. During the years in which I have been writing historical fiction, I have had some strange experiences which only add weight to this idea but none more so than my “contact” with Lola Montez.
Lola Montez, was the famous 19th Century whip-cracking, cigar-smoking, good-time gal who caused a ruckus around the world including a revolution in Bavaria and left a trail of broken hearts in her wake. I have always had a sneaky admiration for her. She was unafraid of defying the rules of society and she is my antidote to all those simpering well-behaved Regency and Victorian misses (some say Thackeray’s anti-heroine Becky Sharp was based on the young Lola, and I can well believe it). I always knew that I would one day write a novel about her and when I decided it was time to tackle Lola’s extraordinary life, for the title I turned to a reputed quote by the French author, Alexandre Dumas, which goes something like this: ‘Elle a le mauvais œil et il est certain qu’elle portera malheur à tout homme qui mêlera son destin au sien.’ In English:‘She has the evil eye and is sure to bring bad luck to any man who links his destiny with hers.’
I finally settled on the title Her Fatal Touch.
When I began my serious research in the 1990s, Google and online research or book purchases were not yet an option, but I already had a comprehensive collection of books and articles on Lola, although I still needed a complete copy of her own Autobiography and Lectures, published in 1858 in New York. I applied to an international book-searcher to find me a copy. She hunted around the world for it, finally coming up with a list of the five or six copies that were then available. They ranged from less than $200 for a badly damaged copy up to $1,000 plus for one in mint condition. As I really only wanted the content, I opted for the cheapest one.
Within a week, a package arrived for me, postmarked Nevada City, California. I found this rather curious as I knew very well that Lola had lived at Grass Valley, not far from Nevada City, during the Gold Rush days. Inside the package was this small book, shabby and dog-eared. As I opened it, I was astonished to be assailed by a smell of rich tobacco (being a non-smoker, I’m highly susceptible to the smell of cigarettes and cigars in particular). Instantly, a prickle traveled down my spine and I sensed something out of the ordinary in this book: I was breathing history, but not just any history.
There is the name “Jas. Maple” written in pencil on an inside page, and it looks as if a photograph had once been pasted to the inside cover. As I flicked the pages, I saw that many parts of the text were heavily underscored in pencil, with scribbles and notes in the margin that included funny little drawings of a finger pointing. My excitement grew as I began to sense that this cheapest copy was ultimately going to be the most valuable – to me. Mid-way through the book, I spotted a tiny tab of paper bookmarking a page. As I opened it, the piece of paper fell out. It was about 2″ x 1″ and on it, in shaky 19th Century handwriting, were the following words: “Please except the widow’s mite.”
I studied this paper for quite some time, trying to grasp what it meant. Slowly, I came to realize that the word “except” ought to have been “accept” for the sentence to make sense. I then consulted my reference books which confirmed that a “widow’s mite” could be described as a gift of sacrifice or, in other words, “a gift from someone who has nothing left to give.” I then quickly went back and scrutinized the scribbles in the margins, many ill-spelled and that had to do with love and loss. I scoured the book again very thoroughly and this time I discovered a minuscule piece of black lace tucked in the spine.
By now, the prickle had almost turned to electricity. I was overcome with the feeling that I could very well be holding in my hand one of Lola Montez’s own working copies of her Autobiography – the book which she must have used for referral purposes when giving her famous lectures in the closing years of her life in New York. Lola died close to poverty and it could well be that the book was among her last possessions that she gave away to someone; that it was one of her “widow’s mites.” But it was that minute scrap of black lace that clinched it for me, as Lola was world-famous for dressing in black.
Almost frantic to discover the truth about this book, I did a photocopy of the note and sent it to Bruce Seymour, the world authority on Lola Montez and the author of her latest and best biography, Lola Montez – A Life. Bruce had studied many of her personal letters and he would be the main expert in her handwriting.
He replied quickly and confirmed to me that it certainly looked like her writing, that she was an erratic speller and could well have used the word “except” instead of “accept.” Being an academic, Bruce was somewhat sceptical about my romantic notion that this really was Lola’s book, but I have absolutely no doubt in my own mind. The evidence for me is overwhelming: the signature smell of a cigar, the notes with their emphasis on love and loss, the tiny scrap of black lace.
I can only think that someone from Nevada City who had known Lola had visited her in New York towards the end of her life (perhaps “Jas. Maple”) and had been given the book. It was then taken back to Nevada City and somehow remained forgotten and unopened on a bookshelf for 140 years.
I firmly believe that fate, destiny – or whatever name you care to put on it – intended this book for the right person, that it bided its time on that shelf until it finally found its way into the hands of someone who was not only familiar with its subject matter, but had sympathy for the author, and would thus appreciate its message.
It is my hope that Her Fatal Touch manages to capture just a little of the true soul and spirit of that perplexing and fascinating woman, Lola Montez. She had more than her fair share of bad publicity, mockery and derision during her lifetime. Sure, she was no saint, but she was also very much a victim of the hypocrisy of the age in which she lived. For her individuality, her defiance, and her courage in the face of the odds, she deserves to be better remembered.”
For more about Marina’s work:
See you here next Sunday October 13 for writer Denise DiFulco’s serendipitous story — where and when stars align!