Natasha Lester-On Researching ‘Her Mother’s Secret’

Natasha Lester author of A Kiss From Mr Fitgerald and Her Mother's Secret

Welcome to the Fabulous Natasha Lester

Natasha Lester worked as a marketing executive for L’Oreal, managing the Maybelline brand, before returning to university to study creative writing. She completed a Master of Creative Arts at Curtin University as well as her first novel, What is Left Over, After, which won the TAG Hungerford Award for fiction. Her second novel, If I Should Lose You was published in 2012 and her first historical novel, the bestselling A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, was published in 2016. Her latest book is Her Mother’s Secret (2017). The Age newspaper has described her as “a remarkable Australian talent.”

She has been the recipient of grants by the Australia Council, and a writing residency from Varuna, The Writers House. In her spare time, she loves to teach writing, is a sought after public speaker and can often be found drinking tea, buying shoes, doing headstands at yoga, or playing dress-ups with her 3 children. She lives in Perth.

Her Mother’s Secret


1880’s Girl: For Her Mother’s Secret there were so many avenues of research there is New York City, Sutton Veny, the history of cosmetics from cottage industry to million dollar market, the clothes, department stores, Elizabeth Arden, the Spanish flu, 1920’s upper-class night life just to name a few. So…

Q1: How much research do you do before you start writing?

Natasha: None!

I do a little research while writing my first draft; every lunch time I take half an hour to eat and to read from a research book. But that’s about all I do, except for quick, basic fact checking that I can do on the internet, such as: what was the street address of Lord & Taylor department store in 1920. The reason I do it this way is because I’m a pantser; I don’t know what the story is until I’ve written it. If I was to research first, I’d research too much and I’d research things I don’t actually need to know about.

Once I’ve finished the first draft, I then have a research blueprint. I research to fill in all the gaps in that first draft, so I can be really focused. I’ll take about a month off writing at this point and just do research, which might involve travelling to locations, going through archival material, reading primary and secondary sources etc.How do you balance the story with historical accuracy?

Q2: How do you balance the story with historical accuracy?

Natasha: I always aim to be as historically accurate as possible. If I discover that a certain plot point isn’t possible based on the research, then I have to work out a way to alter the plot so the story can still unfold in a similar way, but with historical accuracy.

This often means spending lots of time on painful small details, such as which passenger ships were making the run between England and New York after the end of the first world war and at what month in 1919 was it likely that my heroine might be on such a ship. But, to me, it’s important that the reader feels completely swept away into the time and place in which my books are set, and you can only do this if the history is as accurate as you can possibly make it.

Q3: Where did you find your information on how to make cosmetics?

Natasha: I purchased Volumes 1-4 of Cosmetics: Science and Technology, which were the first cosmetic chemistry handbooks ever to be published in 1957. They provide an overview of traditional recipes for every kind of cosmetic, plus trace the evolution of those recipes through to the 1950s. This made me realise that a lot of the natural beauty websites which now provide recipes for going back to basics and making your own cosmetics are based on the recipes women used pre-1920, before they could purchase such things in stores.

Q4: What motivated you to have-a-go at making Cosmetics yourself rather than just reading about it?

Natasha: I wanted to know what it felt like. To write accurately about

To write accurately about a woman mixing up pots of lip colour on a stove is only possible if you’ve actually done it. And, once I discovered how few ingredients the early lip colours had (pre-lipstick tube days) then I knew I had to have a go. It’s just wax, oil, pigment and scent, so four basic ingredients. I feel like the scenes where Leo is experimenting with her cosmetic formulations are so much more authentic now as they’re based on my own experience of doing the same thing; I know how the texture changes as it heats, how the mixture looks once the pigments are stirred in etc.

It’s just wax, oil, pigment and scent,  four basic ingredients. I feel like the scenes where Leo is experimenting with her cosmetic formulations are so much more authentic now as they’re based on my own experience of doing the same thing; I know how the texture changes as it heats, how the mixture looks once the pigments are stirred in etc.

Q5:  How did you locate and then get access to primary sources?

1880’s Girl: For Her Mother’s Secret you accessed Elizabeth Arden’s archive, and for A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, you went through the medical notes of some of the first female medical students How did you locate and then get access to these primary sources?

Natasha: The first thing I always do is go straight to the source. In A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, Evie attends Columbia Medical School. So I went to their website and located the pages about their archives. Every archive has a Finding Guide, which is usually on the website. I looked through the finding guide and discovered they had the papers of a woman who’d been to Columbia Medical School in 1922.

Then I emailed the archivist and asked if it was possible to view the papers when I was in New York. I explained what my book was about and he then suggested some other resources from the archives that might be of use. So I booked in a time and date with him, he made sure to get all the materials out of the archive that I needed, and when I arrived I spent the day looking through them. Always tell the archivist what you’re working on because they know the collection better than anyone and will be able to suggest extra materials for you.

I followed the same process for the Elizabeth Arden archives and, just recently, to view Claire McCardell’s 1930s-1940s fashion illustrations at Parsons Design School in New York.

The New York Public Library recommended by Natasha Lester

The New York Public Library has fantastic resources for the amateur historian. Photo Attribution see here

Q6: If a writer/amateur historian finds an archive they would want to access what is the best way of going about getting access?

Natasha: These days, archival material has often been scanned and made available on the internet. The New York Public Library, for instance, has digitised a lot of its photo collections so you can access images online quickly and easily and I love using their resources. For example, for both books, I used Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York series of photographs from the 1930s extensively, which are all available online. So that’s the first thing I’d try.

When looking for archive resources, begin with the archive Finding Guide. This will narrow down your search and let you know which material can be accessed online and which can only be accessed in person, and whether you need to make an appointment or if you can just turn up.

If the materials aren’t online, email the archivist. Their details will be on the website. Tell them what you’re working on, what you’d like to see and ask whether you can access it. Sometimes, only rarely, I’ve wanted to see materials that are so delicate they’re not made available to anyone other than university fellows. But always ask, because you never know! Then make an appointment and off you go!

Q7: How much do you rely on internet sources for your research?

Natasha: Besides accessing digitised archive materials, not that much. I only use it for quick and easy fact checks, such as the date the Germans arrived in Paris in the second world war. Even then, I would always double check the fact from two reliable websites.

I get the most value out of location research and archival research. Nothing beats primary sources or being on the ground. My next most valuable set of resources would be books published in the era: I have a book called New York in 7 Days, for instance, which I purchased from Abe Books. It was published in 1922 and details the walks of two ladies around different parts of the city. It lists the buildings on each street, landmarks, where they go for lunch and what they eat, what they buy at which shops; it’s like having a bird’s eye view of an area in New York in 1922.

Q8: How do you organise your research so you can go back to it?

Natasha: Anything I find online I save as a weblink or pdf in Scrivener, so it’s right there in my manuscript. Any photographs I take on location I save straight into Scrivener so I can easily look at them when I’m writing. I can even create a link in a particular sentence in Scrivener to take me straight to a particular photograph.

When I’m in an archive, I photograph everything I think I might need: pages of lecture notes, fashion illustrations—nobody photocopies anything anymore when your phone is the best way of saving and storing material.

For information from books, I just use an old fashioned notebook and pen and take lots of notes. Once I’ve finished taking notes, I’ll go back through what I’ve written and highlight particular sections that I know will fit straight into the book, or make a note on which chapter of my book they might go into or, sometimes, I’ll make a note in my writing notebook of a scene I know I need to write based on what I’ve learned from the research. It’s a pretty simple process but it works for me!What was your

Svenska: Fransk modeteckning. 1920-tal. "Médée". "Jaquette de kasha uni bleu lin"

Who doesn’t love 1920’s fashion? Love this ensemble from Fransk modeteckning. 1920-tal.

Q9: What was your favourite thing to research?

1880’s Girl: Though I think I know the answer, would by any chance be clothes?

Natasha: I love all of the research; I think you have to in order to write historical fiction.

I loved the thrill of sitting in the Columbia Medical School archives and reading the handwritten lecture notes of a medical student from 1922. I also loved going to The Met Museum in New York and seeing their latest costume exhibition—nothing helps you describe the clothes of an era better than having actually seen them, photographed them and having them as reference points to use later.

Walking the streets of Paris as research for next year’s book was pretty cool too—hard to believe that it’s actually work!

Thank you, Natasha Lester, for this fabulous interview.

To grab your own copy of Her Mother’s Secrets Visit Hachette

To connect with Natasha go to:


4 Tools Archivists Use to Digitize Our History-In the stacks of the Battye Library:


Information desk at the Battye Library Perth WA

The Battye Library is located inside the State Library of Western Australi at the Perth Cultural Centre

In celebration of National Library week (22-26 May 2017) the State Library of Western Australia ran ‘back lot’ tours of the Battye Library, taking the eager and the curious into the stacks where 100,000’s of items are restored, preserved and stored. 

It was more exciting than Universal Studios backlot, at least for the amateur historian and lover of all things old. This isn’t a pretty post but I write it for those who like to know.

I was especially interested in how archivists digitise items. This work is vital for the modern day researcher, it helps to preserve the original items and makes them available to the wider public. 

How else, may I ask, is a historical fiction writer in Western Australia going to access archives in England and Europe?

Or how can a researcher in Queensland look through the journals of explorers kept in Perth, WA?

Digital Images of Primary Sources

Here are four of the methods used at West Australia’s very own Battye Library


Okay if you want to get nit-picky all these methods are forms of photography hence why they are overseen by a photographer. George was the photographer on duty the day I toured. He was very generous with his time and expertise.

An overhead digital camera allowing for the best angle and lighting.

It captures all the information required to make a digital record for access by the public.

2-Flatbed Scanner

No this is not at all like your home scanner from office works, for one thing, it is much much bigger. It is an A3 flatbed scanner which can do everything from glass slides and daguerreotypes to large photos.

This particular specimen is a technological dinosaur but George tells us there is nothing newer that does the job as well. They even have to keep an old PC in good repair in order to operate the scanner.

Sorry for the wonky angle I was trying not to get any people in the shot.

He showed us an example of Australian Diggers posing on a pyramid in Egypt 1915. The original photo was slightly larger than an 8 1/2″ x 12″ and contains over a hundred soldiers.

The quality of the scanned image is so clear that it can be magnified on the computer for researchers to identify individual faces.

Pretty impressive.

3-An Up-right scanner

An upright scanner being used for soft negatives as opposed to glass slides which are rigid

I’ll be completely honest, I can’t remember exactly what this scanner is called. I have never seen one like it. It is for capturing things on soft film such as 35mm photos. Another words smaller negatives that can bend as the scanner rolls them through the mechanism.

4-The book scanner

This is my personal favourite!

The book scanner

This book scanner has a soft cradle to cushion the ageing book and a thick glass shield that comes down to press the pages flat and protect the book, then it scans from overhead. Lift the glass, turn the page, lower and scan again.

The image quality is beautiful, full-colour showing every water mark and yellowed edge. It is the next best thing to handling the item yourself.

I wish there was somewhere you could pay to use this machine, I’d love to preserve my great-Grandfather’s book in this fashion.

For less antique items, for instance,  hand typed transcripts on foolscap, they use a high-speed office scanner capable of doing I think it was 100 images an hour.

Hours and hours of work go into making these priceless treasures of the past accessible on-line for the general public.

Hop on over and check out what treasures await you at the State Library of Western Australia

Melissa Ashley’s Top 3 Tips for Amateur Historians


Portrait of Elizabeth Gould, artist unknown

Elizabeth Gould the original portrait, painted from life.

We have it on the authority of an art-critic from Melissa Ashley’s University faculty that this portrait was likely painted from life.  And though my artistic skills are amateur in the extreme, I have to say, seen side by side, this portrait would be my obvious choice. There is a clarity to the features a brightness about the eyes that is absent in the second portrait, the one with the cockatiel.

If you aren’t convinced have a look back at last weeks post and compare the two.

Now drum roll, please….

Melissa Ashley’s Top 3 Tips                                     for the Amateur Historian

1. Google Books, Google Books, Google books

I got the feeling that Melissa would have put Google Books for all three of the top tips.

While talking to her, I mentioned I wanted to find a digitised copy of Burke’s Peerage. In about 30 seconds she found the exact book which is actually called Burke’s Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry. 

There is also this gem with a doozy of a title: A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland, Enjoying Territorial Possessions Or High Official Rank: But Univested with Heritable Honours, Volume 4, also by the estimable John Burke, dated 1838. (This is where you’ll find Mr Darcy)

If you’re curious, check out this link.

I, for one, am a convert.

Here are the reasons why every amateur historian should check out google books/play.

  1. Many out-of-print books are digitised and freely available.
  2.  Access to 1,000s of primary or contemporary sources for your time period without even needing a researchers ticket or librarian.
  3. Google Play or  ‘Books, My Books,’ stores your digital books which you can read on any device logged into with Gmail account. You can often make electronic notes, bookmarks, etc.
  4. There is also the option to download these texts as a PDF, they can then be printed for those of us who prefer to make handwritten notes and markups.
  5. If you have the funds and a copy is available you may be able to buy the actual physical book, Google books links you to a range of print booksellers.

Now be honest, how many of you at number 5 went all dreamy-eyed and giddy at the thought of owning the actual faded document with its yellowed pages and smell of dusty decay?

2. visual Aids

This is Melissa Ashley’s wall of inspiration for the novel she is currently writing, about the 17th-century fairy tale writer, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy

If you are doing historical research for the purpose of writing fiction consider collecting images of artworks, illustrations, objects, documents and items from the time period to inform and inspire your writing.

Try looking for….

  • Fashion plates
  • Maps from the time period
  • Architecture
  • Illustrations and periodicals from the time period (Google books can help with that)
  • And don’t forget to check museum on-line catalogues for artefacts that may be helpful, pottery, paintings, tool etc.

You can also use Google Maps, satellite view, to wander the streets of the city you are writing about.

3. check your sources

Don’t just see something on a blog post or Wikipedia and assume it is true, rather use the information in the post to start a trail.

Where did the writer source their information? Is Wikipedia their only source or is it from a reputed authority? Is it reliable? For example is it from a reputable institution or known expert in the field? Or is it simply pulled off of Pinterest?

Bibliographies are always a good sign, such as A Damsel in This Dress includes, but other bloggers, for instance, 1880’s Girl, might be more challenged in the area of organising their sources and bear checking up on.

The Birdman’s Wife Cover reveal…

Now Last but not least the secret inside the cover of The Birdman’s Wife.

You won’t know this if you borrow the book from the library.

Slip cover for The Birdman's Wife by Melissa Asheley

This beautiful slip cover, with its touches of gold, has not been used to dress up a plain and dreary cover

The true cover of The Birdmans wife by Melissa Ashley

It is secreting the nest of a superb fairy wren.

Now you see why The Birdman’s Wife is short-listed for the Australian Book Design Awards 2017!

Buy The Birdman’s Wife here.

It is definitely worth reading!

To find out more about Melissa Ashley and her writing check out her blog

Or connect with her on…

Facebook: @1melissa.ashley

Twitter: @Baronessdualnoy

Instagram: @sylviemina

5 Lessons from Melissa Ashley to Boost Your Historical Research

Promotional photo of Melissa Ashley

Melissa Ashley Author of The Birdman’s Wife

A week ago I had the privilege to talk with Melissa Ashley over the phone and pepper her with questions about how she researched The Birdman’s Wife, about Elizabeth Gould and about her current work in progress based on the life of Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, a French writer of fairytales before the days of the Grimm brothers.

I only wish I had a podcast so you could hear the whole conversation, in lieu of that here are 5 valuable lessons I picked out to help you along the winding road of historical research.

To purchase The Birdman’s Wife  go here.

Meet Melissa Ashley

Melissa Ashley is the author of The Birdman’s Wife (Affirm Press, October 2016), the fictional memoir of the extraordinary 19th-century bird illustrator, Elizabeth Gould. The Birdman’s Wife is the child of her PhD in creative writing research (University of Queensland). In addition to a PhD, she has an MPhil in creative writing and a first class honours degree in literature. She teaches creative writing workshops at the University of Queensland and has worked in disability services and as the assistant director of the Queensland Poetry Festival.

The Birdman’s Wife has been short-listed for the General Fiction Category, Australian Book Industry Awards 2017 AND has been short-listed for the Australian Book Design Awards 2017 and it is easy to see why.

The Birdman's Wife by Melissa Ashley

This has to be one of the most gorgeous covers in modern bookmaking, and it has a secret.

Melissa Ashley In conversation with 1880’s Girl

While reading The Birdman’s Wife I made a list of 10 general topics and 8 factual characters, other than John and Elizabeth Gould, that Melissa describes or discusses with depth and animation.  I have to admit it makes me feel a bit slack in the research department and I was dying to know how she went about it.

Here are the highlights from our conversation.

Lesson #1: Biography vs novelisation-How to choose

Everywhere I look I see novelisations of the lives of real people I was curious to know what influenced Melissa’s decision to write a novel instead of a biography.

Consideration #1 availability of primary sources: The chief difficulty facing a would-be biographer for Elizabeth Gould is that, to date, there are only 14 letters and 8 pages of her diary. And there is her collection of over 600 illustrations but as they are all of birds, it doesn’t open the door to the private life of Elizabeth Gould, her thoughts or personality. Not a lot to go on for an entire book.

Consideration #2 Personal Expertise: Writing a biography is a different kettle of fish to writing fiction, as anyone who has tried will know.  Melissa explained that as her academic background is all to do with creative writing, not non-fiction, that had the strongest influence on her decision to write a novel over a biography.

That being said Melissa was a stickler for the story following as closely as possible the real life and times of Elizabeth Gould and her husband John. Her focus was to illuminate the life of this amazing woman and her accomplishments, to help Elizabeth step out from the shadow of her husband.

Lesson #2 search out and remember “forgotten” women

In an email conversation with Melissa she told me she intends to devote her future writing to forgotten women in history, her current project is focused on a group of female writers in 17th century France.

History is littered with women whose accomplishments, discoveries and contributions are glossed over, omitted or credited to men. I love the idea of uncovering the lives of these “Forgotten”. In researching The Birdman’s Wife, Melissa came across these women whose trail you may be interested in following.

  • Maria Sibylla Merian(1647-1717), Germany, naturalist and scientific illustrator.
  • Sarah Stone(1760-1844), England, naturalist and scientific illustrator.
  • Lady Jane Franklin(1791-1875), Tasmania, scientist, explorer and wife of the governor.
  • Harriet (1830-1907) and Helena(1832-1910) Scott, Ash Island in the Hunter River New South Wales, entomologists and scientific illustrators.
  • Georgiana Molloy(1805-1843) Western Australia a botanical collector and budding botanist.
  • Louisa Anne Meredith(1812-1895) Tasmania, a novelist, natural history observer and an illustrator.

The first two are mentioned in The Birdman’s Wife.

Currently while researching another novel (unpublished) Melissa discovered an entire group of aristocratic women writers who held literary Salons to perform their music, poems and stories.  These women were influential and important as their work on fairytales predates the Grimm brothers collection. Although academic scholarship has been carried out on their contribution to the fairytale, their fascinating life stories are not that well known

Lesson #3 Balancing Research and Writing

Melissa Ashley, volunteer taxidermist at the Queensland Museum

Melissa Ashley learning the art of taxidermy in the name of research.

Melissa spent four years researching and writing The Birdman’s Wife as part of her PhD in creative writing. She says, “I’ll never do that again,” with a wry smile in her voice.

She explains:

I did about 6 months of reading before I started. One day my supervisor said to me, “Are you going to start writing?”

“Oh no, I’m not ready.”

“Well you’ll never be ready so just start.”

And I started. I started writing like crazy and doing a bit of reading as I was going along.

With The Birdman’s Wife, there was so much she needed to keep a hold of in her head and have factually correct that she kept returning to her notes and rewriting.

Her next novel about, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, is entirely different. While there is endless material to become familiar with, a new century, new country, new culture, the architecture and legal structure, as a published writer she no longer has the luxury of devoting several years to full-time research. So she writes, then reads, then writes doing a bit each day, making notes about details or events she might need to check. The second time around her research is a lot more targeted.

The moral: You’ll never feel “ready” to start so just start and research what you need to know as you go along.

Lesson #4 How to keep track of your research

This is 1880s Girl’s biggest problem is keeping track of what I saw where so I can reference back to it. There are probably as many ways to get organised as there are ways to research but here are two from Melissa’s Experience

Round 1: For The Birdman’s Wife Melissa had a physical folder for each chapter with copies of references, Elizabeth Gould’s illustrations for that chapter and other visual and written information. She does not recommend this solution as it turned out to be so time-consuming to organise and we all know how our inner procrastinator would rather file than write.

Round2: For Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy she is trying to go digital, keeping information for each chapter together with the chapter on the computer. This includes articles and web links.

In Common: For both projects, she has a large A3 notebook she uses to outline, stick post-it notes on and visual inspiration. She also finds it helpful to print out sources or use a digital format that allows note taking to be able to actually highlight, bookmark and make notes for future reference.

Elizabeth Gould with cockatiel

Elizabeth Gould with Falcon

Can you guess which one was painted from life and which is the copy?

The answer will be revealed in the next post along with secret hiding in the cover of The Birdman’s Wife.

Lesson #5 using digital resources and Librarians

Maximise use of digital resources

There is no way I could write either historical novel without the internet. It opens the whole world for you and is so democratic. Anyone can go online to discover their own favourite little pocket of history.

Some of the resources she found of invaluable use were: Images of the Gould’s work, especially from the Kenneth Spencer Research Library which has digitalized all 2,000 items in their Gouldanian collection, home guides to taxidermy and lithography from the 1820s, advertisements, fashion plates and newspaper articles all from their era.

For Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy she is using 17th-century travel guides, maps, architectural drawings and google earth along with digitised collections of 17th-century English translations of the French fairytales.

Befriend a research librarian.

They are the guardians of their institutions precious primary material (that you want to get your hands on),  and in my experience they are morte than  happy to help you retrieve material, or show you how to do this yourself, as it can get complicated.

Melissa couldn’t have written The Birdman’s Wife without the invaluable assistance of the librarians at the Spencer Library who helped her locate specific documents. Every institution has their own way to sort and file so a librarian is your best bet to find what you are looking for, especially if the information is very specific.

These are only 5 of the lessons I learned from the delightful Melissa Ashley. I am so looking forward to her new book and will let all of you know when it comes out.

Check back with us next Monday for Melissa Ashely’s Top 3 Tips for Amateur Historians.

Until then check out Melissa’s beautiful blog at

Or connect with her on…

Facebook: @1melissa.ashley

Twitter: @Baronessdualnoy

Instagram: @Melissa Ashley @sylviemina

Bernice Barry’s Top 3 Tips for the Amateur Historian

Bernice Barry author of Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines

On Monday we heard from the lovely Bernice Barry author of Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines, if you missed it do go here and have a look.

These are Bernice Barry’s top 3 tips for the amateur historian:

1. Keep a note of everything

Keep a note of everything, a passing record of sources. It doesn’t take a moment to put a scribbled list of document names into an ‘Old Stuff’ folder for safekeeping or to copy and paste a link from your browser into the notes you’re making for a particular chapter. Years later, a name or a place might finally surface in your research and you’ll realise you’ve seen it before, somewhere…

2. Retrace your steps occasionally

Retrace your steps occasionally. As you learn more, your knowledge of the subject or topic widens and deepens. At first, you’re sort of skating the surface of information, top level facts, but as time passes the small details and secondary characters become more relevant and interesting.

Digging deeper where you’ve already dug once before often reveals new things that you wouldn’t have recognised the first time around.

Even now, I sometimes re-read documents or online links I first saved twelve years ago and I notice something new just because I know so much more today than I did then. And more old sources are being digitised all the time so a repeat of an old search today can sometimes bring up information that wasn’t available online even a few months ago.

3. Spread your net wide

Spread your net wide. The key information you gather about what happened and when and where is the spine of a story but I think it’s the accumulated effect of tiny background details that fuels your own empathy with the people you’re writing about.

Reading contemporary texts gives you a feel for the sentence structures and vocabulary of the time, and adverts in newspapers tell you so much about people’s lives – what they desired, feared, laughed at and what they bought and used in their homes.

Find as much as you can that was written at the time and in the region you’re researching and read, read, read. Authentic images and words will find their way early into your writing in a more natural way than trying to inject background research later when you redraft.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in Georgiana Molloy, the early settlement of Australia, the history of botany or for those who enjoy a good historical biography told with warmth and understanding.

  • To buy her book Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines, go here.
  • To read more about Bernice Barry and her work visit her website:
  • Or connect with her on Twitter: @MrsBlunderstone
Georgiana Molloy: The Mind That Shines

1880s’ Girl Highly Recommends Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines, A biography of one of Australia’s first female botanical collectors.

 Bernice Barry’s top on-line resources.

If you are doing historical research, especially for the UK and Australia try…

Thank you again, Bernice for sharing your experience in writing and researching Georgian Malloy: the mind that shines.

Bernice Barry- On Researching Georgiana Molloy

Bernice Barry author of Georgiana Malloy: the mind that shines

Author Bernice Barry, in the bushland Georgiana loved.

Originally from the beautiful, craggy Atlantic coast of Cornwall in the UK, Bernice emigrated to Australia’s far south-west coast near Margaret River in 2001, after two landlocked decades living in England’s midlands. She has spent the last fourteen years creating a native garden in a forest near the Indian Ocean. In 2011, she closed the door on a career in international curriculum innovation, as an adviser on the teaching of literacy, to focus on her lifelong interest in writing, literature and history.

  • To buy her book Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines, go here.
  • To read more about Bernice Barry and her work visit her website:
  • Or connect with her on Twitter: @MrsBlunderstone

A big Welcome to Bernice Barry!

I can’t begin to say how much I enjoyed this book for it’s writing, the journey it takes the reader on and for setting the record straight about Georgiana Molloy and her husband John, who were among the first European settlers on Western Australia’s southern coast.

On With the Conversation…

1880s Girl: In the chapter, An Unbroken Spirit, you say:

“It was a moment of realisation and a reminder why I decided to tell her story always through the historical context of her own time and place.”

In recent years it has become popular to write novelizations of real people and events, for example, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth Gould, Charlotte Bronte and even Madame Mao.

Georgiana Molloy: The Mind That Shines by Bernice Berry

This is a fabulous biography written with compassion, respect and minute attention to detail.

Q1: Did you at any time consider writing a fictional account of Georgiana’s life? What influenced your decision?

Bernice: From the beginning, my aim was to make public the rather different picture of Georgiana that had emerged through my research. It was important to me that new and correct information was made available about both Georgiana and her husband John Molloy.

I had a rule not to include anything, however small, that I couldn’t backup with secure evidence, even down to what the weather was like on the day John Molloy was baptised in London in 1786, so a fictional account didn’t enter my mind.

1880s Girl: I really love that you take the reader on the journey of discovery with you to uncover the lives of Georgiana and John Molloy, and I’m sure I won’t be the only person inspired to take up their own journey of historical discovery.

Now, Bernice, you have degrees in English, French, Spanish, teaching, reading and education so research is not new to you but…

Q2: Take us back to the very beginning how did you start your research into Georgiana’s life? The very first steps?

Bernice: The first steps came from my longstanding interest in 19th Century literature. I’d read a biography of Georgiana Molloy and didn’t really connect with her a lot at that point but it seemed strange that the books she packed in her trunk for the voyage to WA didn’t match with the woman described in the book.

I read her diary at the Battye Library in Perth and saw significant, personal entries not mentioned in the biography. I realised there was a lot more to her story.  I began doing quick searches online. As new information began appearing in front of me, it threw up mysteries in her life and I was hooked.

view of the Blackwood River in Augusta by Orderinchaos

The view of the Blackwood River in Augusta Western Australia, Georgiana Malloy’s first home in Australia (photo by Orderinchaos)

Q3: Once Georgiana’s story took full hold on your imagination, on a practical level how did you expand your research? And how long did it take you to write the book?

Bernice: I wish I’d known from the beginning that one day I’d decide to write a book.

The research was spasmodic when I had time. In those days I was still travelling to the UK about once a year for work and I used those opportunities for research visits. I’m very lucky to have a partner who was happy to go on graveyard and dusty archive trips instead of holidays!

I ended up with a huge, jumbled collection of notes and lists and photographs and a picture of her life that was very detailed but not organised as a research project.

One day I realised that if anything happened to me, everything I’d discovered would be lost once again. Writing a book seemed like the best way of gathering all that stuff and sharing it. The first draft took about a year (2011) and there were 12 more drafts before we self-published in 2015. The Picador edition was published exactly a year later in 2016.

1880s Girl: One of my favourite quotes from the book is:

“There are many approaches to research and they do not just involve the finding and interpretation of facts. Sometimes it is only by combining imagination and empathy with knowledge and secure sources that the past begins to appear. Questions that ask, ‘What would I have done in the same situation?’ and ‘What did that mean for the way these people lived their days, hour by hour?’ can sometimes flick open the closed door of time.”

Your empathy for Georgiana, the early settlers and the Noongar people comes across in each chapter. The book glows with warmth and compassion that makes this a unique historical biography.

Kilcreggan pier and village in Scotland is one of the places Bernice visited that was familiar to Georgiana. There is an undeniable familiarity between the vistas of Kilcreggan and Augusta. (Photo by William Craig)

Q4: How important was it for you to visit the scenes of Georgiana’s early life both to inform your writing and to further your research?

Bernice: I think it’s possible to write well about a place you’ve never been to if you immerse yourself in first-hand, contemporary descriptions and images, and feel as if you’ve experienced the place yourself.

Even so, being in the places that were part of Georgiana’s life was the most significant thing of all for me, especially places that are new to the story, like the garden of her school in London and the flower garden in Scotland where she gathered the flowers for her wedding. It’s impossible to describe how very close she felt at those times and, in one particular place where her emotion was running high in 1829 and mine was too in 2007, I felt sure that, somehow, we’d actually connected through time.

1880s Girl: About 9 years ago  just before becoming very ill, I tried to learn more about Georgiana myself through primary resources available at the Battye Library in Perth, but with no experience, no idea who to approach or request information from and suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ and a lack of self-confidence I gave it up. What with juggling being a new mum and debilitating fatigue, delving into dusty archives took a back seat but it raises the question,

Q5: How does a private individual gain access to archives from institutions?

Bernice: There are times when access is a bit easier if you have academic weight behind your enquiries but my experience has been that most queries end up in front of a librarian or archivist who will work just as hard to help you as they would anyone else. These are knowledgeable, professional people and I’ve always been blown away by their kindness, patience and expertise.

You can usually find a contact phone number or email address, even for the archives of the most lofty institutions. Being a bit shy doesn’t help but I’ve learned to be brave and ruthless when I’m desperate! Knock on a door. Write a letter. Just ask.

1880s Girl: How exciting that moment was when you got to put your hand on the very stem of the Acacia extensa cut by Georgiana herself! Just thinking about it makes my heart palpitate with excitement.

Q7: What were the most exciting moments of discovery for you while researching Georgiana?

Bernice: There were lots. A highlight would have to be the moment when I found the connection between John Molloy and the Kennedy family, leading me to work out when and how John and Georgiana first met, soon after her fourteenth birthday. Another was finally working out where she went to school in London, visiting that garden and touching trees that had been there since those days.

1880s Girl: At the Perth Writer’s Festival you mentioned that for each fact, especially on new information, you set yourself a standard of needing three points of proof.

Bernice Barry organizational tips for amateur historians

Tips on how to keep track of all that information.

Q8: On a practical level how on earth did you organise and keep track of all 630 references that made it into the book and undoubtedly the many that did not?

Did you use a computer program? a spreadsheet? alphabetized manila folders in a file cabinet?

Bernice: I wish I had, but for years I wasn’t planning to write a book. Luckily, I’m an obsessive hoarder so I kept a record of every source as I gathered information.

When I started the first draft, I saved my writing every couple of days with a new filename so I had a complete record of everything, even after I’d deleted bits.

The first notes for each chapter were just a structural collection of the sources and quotes and facts I wanted to group together in that section.

I drew on those and built the text around them as I wrote the first draft. As I was writing, I inserted an endnote as an aide memoire to myself for every fact I mentioned, so I could always track back to find out where each bit of information came from.

When the final draft was complete, I went through and edited the endnotes down to reduce the load but I’ve still got all of them safely saved – just in case.

And finally for the encouragement and edification of all us amateurs out there…

Q9. What websites or online sources do you recommend for the budding historian?

The most useful ones to me have all been obvious but I couldn’t have done my research without them.

  • Trove for Australian history, particularly shipping records, advertisements and clues about the weather!
  • The Australian National Archives and UK National Archives online because searching is quick and easy. When I’ve ordered documents online, the photographs have arrived in moments by email.
  • The British Library website always seems to have what I’m looking for, however obscure. I use it mainly for background information, like photographs or paintings of places to help me with the description of settings and for examples of books or magazines published in the years I’m writing about.

Thank you so much, Bernice, for your time and generosity in sharing your research process with us.

And thank you, readers, for joining us. Check in Friday for Bernice Barry’s Top 3 Tips for the amateur historian.

Travel Guide for New York City-1885

Welcome! It’s New York 1885

Fast facts

  1. Population: approx. 1,360,800 (this is only Manhattan) Almost  25% of the population was ‘foreign-born’.
  2. Mayor: William R Grace, the first Irish Catholic Mayor.
  3. Governor: 1885 was an election year so Steven Grover Cleveland saw 1885 in, David Bennet Hill saw the year out. 
  4. President: Grover Cleveland (left New York for Washington DC)
  5. In 1885 Manhattan was New York City. Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island were separate cities.
  6. Main Newspapers: The New York…Times, Herald, Tribune, World and Sun. And there was stiff competition.
  7. The Statue of Liberty arrived June 17, 1885, but wasn’t dedicated until Oct 28, 1886
  8. The City was already being progressively electrified following the opening of  Edison’s Pearl St Station in 1882.

Though all the sources say it was 1885 this picture is dated November 25, 1884, was it anticipatory promotion?

When you go to visit a new city what do you want to know?

Where to stay, where to eat and what to do. Right? Right

Where to Stay

  •  Astor House Hotel, 200 Fifth Ave.–For the business traveller
  • Sinclair House the corner of Broadway and Fifth–Gentlemen only
  • Grand Central Hotel-acceptable for the whole family, though some may object to its proximity to the theatre district.
19th century New York hotels in 1880

Sinclair house was a decent place for a gentleman to stay. See the advertisement below.

New York City Manhattan 1880's Grand Central Hotel

Notice this hotel is on the European plan.

So what exactly is the European plan?

Well Hotels, lodging houses and vacation rentals would advertise as either American Plan hotels or European plan hotels.

On the American Plan, three meals a day were included in the cost of the room.

On the European plan, no meals were included. Notice in the flyer below that there is a restaurant on the premises for those who wish to dine in.

19th ce Hotel Advertisement, 1880's

This is the sort of flyer that would be printed at William Kerr’s Fine Printery in my Helen’s Season’s series.

There was no shortage of places to stay, there was something for everyone in every imaginable price bracket. If travelling as a family I would look for something on the American plan but if you decide to go out to eat….

where to eat

The inestimable Delmonico’s nicknamed “The Citadel”. Pictured above is the original Restaurant 2 South William Street but by 1885 the Delmonico family had three other restaurants to choose from; 22 Broad St; Corner of Fifth and Twenty-sixth and 112 Broadway.

Most hotels had restaurants. And there were plenty of bakeries and small shops in which to grab a cup of coffee or a quick dinner (lunch).

What to Do

In the 1880’s I would venture to say there was at least the same if not more variety to choose from than today’s offerings.

Take your pick: an educational lecture, light opera, farce, dancing (and dance lessons), there were rooftop garden orchestras, and places to promenade. There were public gardens and private collections open to the public. There was live music on terraces, in restaurants and in theatres.

Operettas were very popular, the best seats will set you back $1.50, 25c for family seating in the gallery.


Visit the National Academy Museum opened in 1825 to encourage art and architecture outside of aristocratic patronage. In the 1880’s it was housed in this building.

New York museum 1880

The National Acadamy Museum circa 1880. Image from The Museum of the City of New York.

Or maybe natural history is more your thing, take stroll down to the American Museum of Natural History

Hand Coloured slide of the American Museum of Natural History, 19th Century New York Museums from the 1880's

Hand Coloured Slide of the Original building built in 1883. From the AMNH archives

Or you could pop by the 15-year-old Metropolitan Museum at its new location in Central Park.

19th century New York Museums in 1880

The Metropolitan Museum of Art moved into this new building in 1880, by 1888 it was already in need of an extension.  Image from the Met

Enjoy your stay in New York City!

Feel free to send 1880’s girl a postcard.

If you love the 1880’s and New York and a satisfying love story check out my new book Helen’s Summer

Purchase it here for Kindle and here for Kobo and here in paperback.

Pulitzer- 5 things You Didn’t Know About the Man Behind the Prize

Pulitzer: A Life by Denis Brian; A fascinating biography.

Pulitzer: A Life by Denis Brian; A fascinating biography.

Before reading this book pretty much all I knew about Joseph Pulitzer I learned from Newseis. He was very short sighted with over sensitive hearing. His arch nemesis was William Randolph Hearst. He was tyrannical and given to manipulation and intimidation to get what he wanted.

That is all true but is only a fraction of the whole man.

It took me some time to realize the “baddy” from my favorite movie was THE Pulitzer as in the Pulitzer prize.  It was hard to reconcile the two, how could the originator of one of the most famous literary prizes possibly be this tyrannical, persecutor of newsboys?

Needless to say this book was full of surprises for an innocent 1880’s girl.

In short Joseph Pulitzer was a remarkable person, difficult to live or work with, explosive, obsessive, a workaholic driven by idealism. He possessed an intellectual capacity that we mere mortals can only dream of. Nearly every aspect of this man was a surprise and warrants further investigation.

To get you started here are 5 things I bet you didn’t know.

#1 He came to America to fight in the civil war

At 17 Pulitzer left home, sights set on a brilliant military career.

However due to his poor eyesight he was rejected by the Austrian army, in which his Uncles had distinguished themselves. Undeterred he volunteered to fight for the British in India and the French Foreign Legion in Mexico. Both rejected him. Finally the Americans  accepted him despite his poor eyesight because he could ride a horse and shoot.

He fought for the last six months of the Civil war.

The only person he harmed was a superior officer. He punched the officer for pulling his nose.

#2 He finished his law degree at age 21

From the time he landed in Maryland in 1864, speaking no English to when he was admitted to the bar was only 4 year.  FOUR years!! To learn a language, study law and pass his examinations.

I was not exaggerating his mental capacity.

#3 He was elected to congress

Pulitzer was a crusader for the poor, vigilante extraordinaire in attacking the ‘fat cats’ of New York, uncovering corruption and abuses of power.

He took his crusade all the way to Washington as an elected member of Congress but decided he could effect more change through The New York World than by wrestling with bureaucratic red tape.

He left after 3 months

#4 the St Louis Dispatch was his first Newspaper

If you are from St Louis or Missouri you might know this already but my Dad is from Missouri and it was news to me.

The World was the second paper he pulled from the ruins, the first was The St Louis Dispatch. .After purchasing the crumbling building and machinery of the Dispatch in December 1879,  he joined forces with the Evening Post and became the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

3 1/2 years later, in May 1883, he bought The New York World which was making a $40,000 a year loss. Not only did he successfully resurrect both newspapers but he maintained a tight reign on both papers writing editorials for both and successfully driving the staff in both cities to distraction.

#5 He payed men and Women the same salary

By Historical and Public Figures Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nellie Bly dressed for her trip around the world .               By Historical and Public Figures Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pulitzer believed women doing the work of a man deserved equal pay, a standard many publishers today still struggle to implement. There were many women on his New York World staff including  journalists Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman) and Elizabeth Jordan.

Pulitzer was a man of extremes and contradictions in his personality and in his work. Even his enemies and rivals acknowledged and begrudgingly respected his abilities.

If you you want to know more about the man behind the prize I recommend you read Denis Bryan’s book Pulitzer: A Life, from which I have gleaned this information.

My favorite line from the book is:

“The phoenix had nothing on Pulitzer”

This could be said both about him personally, his struggle with chronic debilitating illness, and professionally, as seen in the fortune he amassed from the purchase of two ruined papers.

To read about Pulitzer and the advent of yellow journalism see: The Fathers of Yellow Journalism.


The Fathers of Yellow Journalism

Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer

William Randolph Hearst

William Randolph Hearst











I just love a good biased news article dont’ you?

It gives you something to disagree with and get indignant over.  Bias stimulates controversy and thus conversation and don’t forget it increases circulation.

Circulation figures for The World and The Journal shows that 19th century New Yorkers  definitely preferred a strong bias with plenty of salacious details. Pulitzer viewed biased reporting to be a duty.

“A newspaper should [do] more than . . . printing every day first-rate news and first-rate editorials. It should have hobbies, undertake reforms, lead crusades, and thereby establish a name for individuality and active public service.”

Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911)

But when does bias become fiction?

Yellow Journalism-What is it?

The general consensus is that it is bad.

To accuse a paper or news source  of yellow journalism is to imply they are playing fast and loose with the facts, to doubt the integrity of their news or to accuse them of being unprofessional and generally disreputable.

Yellow journalism’s rise to stardom happened in New York city in the 1890’s, when William Randolph Hearst bought over The Journal with the express intention of out selling Joseph Pulitzer’s The World, unlike Pulitzer he made no claims to public service, had no agenda to better society, champion the down trodden or bring the corrupt to justice. He wanted circulation and would do anything to get it.

The most important components to 19th century yellow journalism were eye catching head lines, the more shocking the better, and pictures usually artists renderings of supposed events.

Such as this example from the front page of The New York Journal, 1898, under the banner:

does our flag shield women?

By Remington (Image:~SPAIN3.JPG) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Remington (Image:~SPAIN3.JPG) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In response to this picture and headline The World countered with this headline:

the unclothed women searched by men

was an invention of a new york newspaper

Hearsts report was shown to be manifestly untrue, in reality Senorita Clemencia Arango, a young Cuban, had been searched by female officers in a private cabin, never by men and certainly not in the open as implied by this artists representation.

But you see in yellow journalism they don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.  And they barred no punches in accusing each other, latching on to and publicizing each others mistakes or intentional fabrications.

It certainly made for exciting reading!

Why Yellow?

By Richard Felton Outcault [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Richard Felton Outcault [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yellow Journalism got its name from the Yellow Kid named for his yellow nightshirt. The yellow kid first appeared in  The World’s  immensely popular “Hogan Alley” cartoons in 1895.   In 1896 Richard Felton Outcault went over to Hearst taking the yellow kid with him now  starring in The Journal’s  cartoon “Mc Fadden’s Row of Flats”.

So many subscribers followed their favorite spunky cartoon character over to The Journal that Pulitzer commissioned artist George Luks to create the Yellow Kid’s equally spunky twin to be continued in “Hogan Alley”.

To make sure deserting customers didn’t over look this fact billboards advertised the return of the Yellow Kid. And thus was the birth of Yellow Journalism.

In the spirit of biased reporting I will say the 1890’s were a particularly exciting and debased decade for journalism, where Pulitzer anxious to maintain his circulation allowed Hearst to pull him down into the mud with the result they both came out dirty.

The difference between Pulitzer and Hearst was that Pulitzer regretted his decent into the purely sensational while Hearst was completely unapologetic. Truth and betterment of society was never Hearst intentions, his mission was pure and simple: get the most subscribers, increase circulation, make money, beat Pulitzer, no matter how much it cost.

To finish off here is a gem of a cartoon with both Pulitzer and Hearst featured as the yellow kid:

By William Barrit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By William Barrit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Does Condescension Belong in Historical Non-Fiction?

To Condescend

To behave as if one is conscious of descending from a superior position, rank, or dignity, .to stoop or deign to do something

Soap Box 1cropped

Yes it is a return to my soap box and time for a rant.

When we take up a historical subject whether the plight of governesses, the institution of slavery or the narrative of an individual, is it an inherent condescension?

Are we the superior, educated wiser more knowing people who stoop down to explain a past culture? Do we deign to expose their shocking ignorance, cruelty or inhumanity? Is that the way it’s supposed to be?

Maybe condescension in non-fiction is the reason it has taken me so long to come around to reading it. I don’t like high handed dealing with a subject as if our current knowledge somehow  makes us inherently superior.

No group of people past, present or future can rightly condescend to another group of people on the grounds of inherent superiority.

People are not stupid just because they thought differently or believed things we now know to be untrue, because guess what in their day they were advanced and enlightened.

100 years from now some historian will scoff at what naive things we believed way back in 2016. 

Other People's Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon

I did overall enjoy this book and will be buying my own copy as a reference.

Last Monday in my Review of Other Peoples Daughters I said the book equally interested and annoyed me. The interesting bit was the content and the extensive quoting from the governesses and contemporaries themselves. I believe the book was as factual and accurate as as any historical non-fiction can expect to be.

The bit that ruffled my feathers and got my dander up was the condescension.

Now I am going to go very  un-scholarly because I could not locate a single infuriating quote or blatantly condescending paragraph, it wasn’t so overt, and maybe it was all in my reading of the text. 

However it felt like Brandon came to the material with the view point that women of the 1800’s were downtrodden, oppressed, ignorant, without hope, without prospects. The reason for this was men and religion and the governess was the tool by which women were kept in subjection.  This is the lens through which we are shown the governess.

by contrast…

Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

There is mystification, there is wonderment but no condescension

Eve LaPlante in Marmee and Louisa tackles many of the same issues, women’s education,  women’s health, their rights or lack of rights in the areas of marriage, children and property but she never once sounds condescending.

Her account is written with great compassion, with understanding of the overwhelming odds women faced. She also wrote with compassion for the men who tried and failed, in what society saw as, their role as bread winner and provider.  Maybe her compassion arises from the fact that the Alcotts are part of her family history. (For more discussion of Marmee and Louisa see here )

Cane River, Lalita Tademy, Historical Non-fiction, slavery

A fantastic compassionate read!

In Cane River author Lalita Tademy tackles the equally contentious subject of slavery. (Abigail Alcott viewed women’s suffrage as the next great hurdle to leap after the abolition of slavery)

In my late teens early 20’s I had to stop reading about slavery and civil rights because I got so boiling angry at the cruelty and injustice one race of people could inflict on another. (No really my blood pressure would go up, I’d turn red, get dizzy and turn that tension on whoever was at hand)

I did not think it possible to tell a story with sympathy for both sides of the equation and yet that is what Tademy  accomplishes in Cane River.  Again she is writing from her family history so maybe there in lies the source of her compassion. (I will be reviewing Cane River in future)

LaPlante and Tademy put us in the shoes of historical people, make their world live for us, their narrative fills us with compassion, understanding and we feel the injustice without being told it was an injustice, without being repeatedly told we are lucky to live today “when life is so much better.”

Why condescension in historical non-fiction really gets my goat

And here perhaps is the crux of the matter.

Condescension in historical non-fiction really gets my goat because while ,yes we have laws that guarantee equal education, equal rights, equal freedoms it doesn’t mean everyone gets them.

Much of what happened to women, children and minority groups in the 1800’s, is still happening today!

For Example…

In Australia this year,  2016, on average one woman a week dies as a result of family violence, in the US more than 3 women a day are murdered by a current or former partner. Despite the laws, despite education hundreds of thousands of  women around the world are still in the same position as the former governess Nelly Weeton and they find it just as hard to leave as she did.

Is there really room for condescension?

Yes it is terrible that children were considered the legal property of their fathers, in  the same way slaves were the legal property of their owners, no matter how violent or neglectful the father/owner was. But here is a frightening statistic: In the US in 2015 at least 70% of abusers who fought for sole custody of their children won.

Can we rightly condescend to the Victorian’s?

In the course of historical research we come across infuriating view points, inflammatory beliefs and ludicrous reasons to support those beliefs.

But people haven’t changed.

With the advent of the internet, social media and (gasp!) blogs,there are even more infuriating, inflammatory and ludicrous beliefs at large in society today than in the Victorian age.

Life then and now is complicated made up of many layered narratives. That is why I love Historical Fiction, it humanizes history, helps us put ourselves in their shoes because in the end we are all hopelessly flawed.

In summary:

No,  condescension does not belong in historical non-fiction.


How do you feel about Condescension in historical non-fiction?

Does it get your goat and ruffle your feathers?