Back in September in this spot, I was ruminating on the joys and sorrows of writing historical fiction, and what could possibly motivate writers to pursue such a demanding genre. Many of us are drawn to specific points of inspiration, and I mentioned D.C.-based author Carrie Callaghan‘s encounter with a painting as one example. I went back to Carrie and asked if she’d like to share in more detail what drew her to this project and what kept her hooked through long bouts of research. Here’s what she said:
I Stopped and Stared
In the painting, she’s wearing a stiff lace collar as wide as her shoulders, and fine lace cuff at her wrists. In other words, no clothes a painter would actually paint in.
But Judith stares at us, her mouth open as if to invite us to conversation, and her left hand full of at least a dozen brushes. This woman in the late Renaissance dress is a painter, and a bold one. She’s wearing fine clothes, but she sits in front of a nearly-finished canvas, with one brush in her right hand. She’s demonstrating her mastery.
When I first saw Judith Leyster’s self-portrait at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, I stopped and stared. How had I never heard that there had been a woman who attained master status in a painters guild in the time of Rembrandt? And more importantly, who was she?
From a reader’s perspective, historical fiction is merely fiction set in the past. But from a writer’s perspective, historical fiction is an invitation to make sense of the past, and then make it interesting. I write historical fiction partly because I miss school, I suppose. I miss the requirement to dig deeply into some mystery, or to learn some new corner of the world.
But I also write historical fiction because I love the challenge of picking up threads of a mystery and then braiding them with philosophical questions that have meaning for us today, in a way that links our common humanity across the centuries. How did Judith Leyster gain master status when only men ran the competitive painters’ workshops in Haarlem? What, then, did her ambition mean for her personal relationships? To put it in modern parlance, how was her work-life balance?
Maybe it’s because I was raised Catholic, but I’m deeply interested in sacrifice. Blood and knives, sure, but also time. The hours and effort we sacrifice for those we love. In Judith’s story, I knew quickly that to achieve something phenomenal, she had to have dedication and fixedness of purpose. So I wanted to know what she gave up in exchange.
The historical record on Judith’s life is sparse, but we have reason to suspect she studied with Frans de Grebber. Frans had a daughter, Maria, who was a few years older than Judith, and Maria also painted. Well, two female painters under the same roof … It didn’t seem too much of a stretch too imagine they developed a friendship.
But Maria never joined the Haarlem painters guild. Her goals must have differed from Judith’s. I wanted to know what that would do to a friendship.
At the same time, I imagined that no matter how progressive the 17th century United Provinces (as the Netherlands were then called) were about gender roles, there must have been some opposition to Judith’s ascent. The artists’ market was crowded, and the new-found merchant class wealth, a precursor to the middle class, felt like a customer base that was about to disappear. Surely, there were powerful forces interested in keeping upstarts like that lady painter out of the business.
Those are two threads of my narrative braid – Judith’s friendship and the men opposing her. But she lived during the Thirty Years War, a destructive religious and dynastic contest among nearly all the states of continental Europe. Judith’s town was largely isolated from that conflict, but surely echoes of it reverberated, even if only in the tensions between the official Dutch Reformed Church and the banned, but tolerated, Catholics.
She also lived within visiting distance of Rene Descartes, who spent a good portion of his life in the United Provinces. Though Catholic, he had some reason to fear his native French government. Descartes has some musings on sacrifice, so, ah, perhaps a connection there …
It’s easy to say what inspired the first spark of a novel, at least for me. One name, one place, or idea. But that spark catches flame on all sorts of kindling, and I find that the richer the source material, the more fun it is to write.
And I had fun with this one.
Carrie Callaghan lives in Maryland with her spouse, littles, and felines. Her debut novel, A Light of Her Own, is forthcoming from Amberjack Publishing in November 2018. Follow her on Twitter at @carriecallaghan