Volume LVIII, Number 2 William and Mary Quarterly Reviews of Books The Adventures of Allegra Fullerton; Or, A Memoir of Startling and Amusing Episodes from Itinerant Life. By Robert J. Begiebing. (Hanover, N. H., and London: University Press of New The Adventures of Allegra Fullerton, a historical novel set in the 1830s and 1840s, relates the exploits of an unconventional young widow who attains economic independence and geographical freedom as an itinerant portrait artist. Along the way, the beautiful Mrs. Fullerton also acquires a fair degree of sexual freedom. Robert J. Begiebing's novel makes for a great vacation read for early American historians, and it also provokes interesting comparisons of the crafts of writing fiction and writing history. Historians working in the narrative genre also labor to create a believable past and breathe life into resurrected characters. How does the fiction writer's act of historical imagination differ from that of the Begiebing, a professor of English at New Hampshire College, previously published The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (Chapel Hill, 1991), a novel based on an actual murder in seventeenth-century New Hampshire. Allegra Fullerton has no specific historical referent, but antebellum specialists will have fun identifying the familiar people, events, and intellectual currents the author has appropriated. Begiebing has clearly done his homework, aided by a fellowship stint at that great repository, the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in Worcester, Massachusetts. The conceit of the book is that a retired scholar has discovered an old manuscript, along with sketchbooks and art supplies, moldering in an unopened box in a local historical society in Massachusetts. The manuscript, an episodic, first-person narrative by Allegra Fullerton, is bundled with a rejection slip from a censorious editor at Ticknor and Fields (an actual Boston publishing firm), who complains that the manuscript is too frank, too revelatory. The unwomanly independence of the main character is scandalous, the insertion of well-known individuals into the plot ill-advised, the editor writes. Of course, what guaranteed rejection in the 1850s (at least by Ticknor and Fields) is tame by today's standards, and the elderly scholar arranges for publication, merely modernizing punctuation and spelling. Except for the hint provided by the art supplies in the box, Begiebing shrewdly never clarifies whether we are to take Fullerton's narrative as a "true story" of a woman's life or whether the manuscript could instead be something a risqu nineteenth-century author concocted. Either way, he is right in step with the literary productions he is imitating, many of which deliberately blurred the line between fact and fiction. In many respects, Allegra Fullerton is a plausible "true" character for her day. Although uncommon, traveling women artists did exist, among them the folk limner Ruth Henshaw Bascom, whose decades of diaries are in the AAS collections. At least one woman artist invites speculation about her sexual intimacies outside the confines of marriage: in 1828, Boston portraitist Sarah Goodridge painted a miniature (2.5 x 3 inches) of just her naked breasts framed by gauze as a present for her very dear friend Senator Daniel Webster. Allegra Fullerton, like Goodridge, is a woman willing to reveal her body. Her status as a youthful widow enhances the likelihood that she would embrace a life with sexual passion and experience. The events, locales, and props of the novel are appropriate to the era. Various scenes feature such distinctively 1840s' settings as a Boston brothel, a tableaux vivants theater, a waxworks exhibit of famous murderers and victims (including Helen Jewett), a lyceum lecture, a daguerreotype studio, a spiritualist séance, a cozy country house run by two  2001, by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture Volume LVIII, Number 2 William and Mary Quarterly Reviews of Books romantic women friends who eschew men, and a Fruitlands-like utopian community in rural Massachusetts called "Newspirit," whose inhabitants all wear scratchy linen to avoid fabrics implicated in slavery. There are mentions of a water cure establishment and the Lowell Mills. There are an evil rake, an attempted seduction, a pistol, and a copy of Fanny Hill. The abortive Italian Revolution of 1848 surfaces as a backdrop at one point, when Fullerton travels to Italy. Throughout the book, real-life worthies such as the feminist Margaret Fuller, the art critic John Ruskin, the teacher and abolitionist Prudence Crandall, and the novelists John Neal and Richard Henry Dana make cameo appearances, dressing up the historical scene with little bursts of recognizable celebrity. The form of Fullerton's narrative is likewise familiar. Feisty women dot the nineteenth-century literary landscape, offering juicy confessional tales. Two examples help capture the range of the genre. An early first-person account, The Adventures of Lucy Brewer (Boston, 1815), takes the heroine from seduction to captivity in a brothel, followed by a cross-dressing stint as a sailor in the navy. Lucy Brewer trumpeted its authenticity as a "true story" but was actually fiction and written by a man at that—not altogether unlike Begiebing's authorship of Fullerton. (See Daniel A. Cohen's edition, The Female Marine and Related Works: Narratives of Cross-Dressing and Urban Vice in America's Early Republic [Amherst, Mass., 1997].) Then there is Mary Gove Nichols's intriguing novel, Mary Lyndon, or, Revelations of A Life (New York, 1855), presented as a fiction in the third person but with the tantalizing subtitle "An Autobiography" to keep readers guessing. Nichols's own stranger- than-fiction life, moving from a dreadful marriage to extramarital romances and including a career promoting sex hygiene, hydrotherapy, free love, and spiritualism in succession, shows that Begiebing's Fullerton is no anachronistic portrayal of an 1840s woman. But note that Nichols felt she had to adopt the protective guise of fiction in order to publish the story of Allegra Fullerton is more than merely plausible, from a historical perspective. She is a fully rounded character of the sort who can only be produced by fiction writers or by actors on the stage or screen, endowed with gestures, facial expressions, and emotional states, presented in a continuous, unfolding narrative. Begiebing enjoys the freedom of invention, even as he anchors his protagonist in realistic settings and propels her through activities We historians don't get to invent. We are lucky to find evidence that reveals inner thoughts; rarer still are reports of gestures. Our sources are often haphazard, giving us a few data points and leaving us to guess about the actions, not to mention the emotional states, in between. Getting material over a span of time to show character development is unusual, except for famous people or inveterate diary keepers. Even then, written history rarely attains the immediacy and fullness of novels. At best we can assemble evidence into a credible construction, knowing that our construction only approximates "real life." We do have some simple tricks to flesh out scenes and characters. One way is a process technique of piecing. Alan Taylor, for example, describes in William Cooper's Town (New York, 1995) a 1785 trip made by Cooper on a rugged road into central New York. Although Cooper left no account of that trip, a contemporary traveled the same road a year before in mud season and recorded his observations. Taylor grafts that report into his narrative to evoke what Cooper surely saw. Another way to delve more deeply into a character is through judicious inference. Fred Anderson conjures up an adrenaline-pumping George Washington facing his first encounter with death on the battlefield at the outset of the Seven Years' War. The dramatic opening pages of Crucible of War (New York, 2000) present a scene where the twenty-two-  2001, by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture Volume LVIII, Number 2 William and Mary Quarterly Reviews of Books year-old Virginian loses command of the situation and his Indian guides suddenly massacre wounded French soldiers. Washington's two accounts of the skirmish admit neither to fear nor failure, but Anderson sifts through several other reports that convey the terror of the scene. By this means, he is able to depict Washington as an appropriately fearful man trying hard to maintain military composure. John Demos went further out on the inferential limb in The Unredeemed Captive (New York, 1994), when he not only speculated on the thoughts of John Williams of Deerfield, Massachusetts, and his daughter Eunice, captured by Indians, but rendered those thoughts in first-person paragraphs, set off from his historical text in italics. An alternative method, far more common but less elegant, is to offer speculations with the liberal use of probably, perhaps, maybe to signal readers where the sources stop short A third technique I have found useful involves teasing out elements of a character's inner motivations by comparing sources that in isolation are flat but together create dimension. In writing The Murder of Helen Jewett (New York, 1998), I was puzzled at first by the welter of variant stories published posthumously about the fall from virtue of this New York prostitute. Once I realized that most were stories she told at different times about herself, I could then conclude that Jewett was a fabricator, manipulating her story to gain sympathy from brothel clients. In these and other ways historians cautiously try to inflate characters from the past into lifelike people. The historical novelist, in contrast, can take liberties historians only dream of, limited merely by the requirement that the context be reasonably accurate. To my mind, Robert Begiebing has succeeded in producing a realistic fake racy novel of the kind that protested "founded in authentic fact" on the title page. He has rooted Allegra Fullerton in so many taken-from-life episodes of the times that the concatenation finally pushes the book over the line into the realm of adventure fiction typically bound in yellow paper covers and sold for a dime in that era. But taken singly, each adventure that happens to the beautiful Mrs. Fullerton could indeed have happened—and probably did—to someone, somewhere. University of California, Santa Barbara  2001, by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Source: http://oieahc.wm.edu/wmq/Apr01/cohen.pdf?pdf=review


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