Despite the title stolen from Conan Doyle, there are no brilliant detectives or glamorous, worldly courtesans in this account of the 1930 murder of a young Melbourne woman. The murder remains unsolved; A Scandal in Bohemia is more interested in the life of the victim, Mollie Dean, and her afterlife as an Australian literary muse.
Remember my post about Tsaritsa Sophia Alekseyevna of Russa and her amazingly cranky face? Well, I accidentally inspired an anthology, which is crowdfunding as we speak. This is the most viral a post of mine has ever gone.
The crowdfunding campaign coincides with a blog tour celebrating various cranky women in history, so if you enjoy history, feminism or good stories, this is your lucky month.
Which brings me to today’s Cranky Lady, Janet Kincaid.
You probably haven’t heard of Janet. The problem with history is that, by and large, we mostly know about the wealthy and powerful. Monarchs and aristocrats and people who happened to be in the right place at the right time and were remarkable enough that others paid attention and wrote about them.
Janet Kincaid is not one of those people. In the mid-nineteenth century, her husband went to try his luck on the Victorian goldfields, leaving Janet in Glasgow to care for their six children. By sheer luck, one of her letters to her feckless husband survived, leaving us with a vivid impression of a very cranky woman:
You left to better your family, you don’t need to write that any more, we have had enough of that talk. You had better do something for them. You left the ship to better your self and to get your money to your self. You never earned much for your family, far less for your Wife, you sent five Pounds, two years and a half ago. You mention in a letter to me that you made more money at the digging than ever you made at home. You might have sent us the half of what you made. You are a hard hearted Father when you could sit down and eat up your children’s meat your self. I was a poor unfortunate Wretch, little did I think when I was young what I had to come through with your conduck. We might have been the happiest couple in Greenock, you got a good wife and many a good job at home if you had been inclined to do well but folks that cante do well at home is not to be trusted Abroad … poor Duncan does not know what sort of thing a Father is, he thinks it is something for eating … find a proper place where I will send my letters. No more at present from your deserted Wife Janet Kincaid.
The letter is in the archives at the State Library of Victoria, so it presumably reached the elusive Mr Kincaid. How he replied, if at all, is unknown.
The narrative of the Victorian goldfields, when I was growing up, was about the Brave Single Man, Seeking His Fortune. Janet’s letter was printed in Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, a book rich with cranky ladies, which points out that many of those gold diggers had families left behind — and many others brought their families to the camps. It’s a shame Janet Kincaid and her six children didn’t come to Australia — or maybe they did, and the record is lost.
“You left to better your family, you don’t need to write that any more, we have had enough of that talk.” Ladies and gentlemen, an 1850s Skyler White. Respect.
This post is written as part of the Women’s History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour. If you would like to read more about cranky ladies from the past, you might like to support the FableCroft Publishing Pozible campaign, crowd-funding an anthology of short stories about Cranky Ladies of History from all over the world.
I posted this to my Tumblr a few days ago, thinking a couple of my followers would appreciate it. When I went to bed last night, it had 30 notes, which is well above the average for anything I post.
When I woke up at 3am, it had 380 notes. (Look, the little notifications kept lighting up my phone’s screen, of course I was going to peek!) Right now, it’s 583.
I always meant to post it here eventually, just for the sake of archiving, but also to correct the typo now spreading like a virus through the world. In terms of wacky history adventures, it’s probably the spiritual cousin of this post.
Every now and then — okay, it usually involves a Wikipedia binge — I come across a portrait of some historical figure that’s just so arresting that I have to stop and gape. (I have been resisting the urge to make a whole separate Tumblr for it.)
This cranky lady is the Tsaritsa Sophia Alekseyevna of Russia (1657 – 1704). She was the daughter of Tsar Alexis I, and served as regent of Russia for seven years.
The mere fact that we know her name and have her portrait is unusual, because in Sophia’s time, the Tsar’s daughters were kept secluded from, well, everyone. They were of such high rank that it was unthinkable for them to marry a mere Russian aristocrat, but it was equally impossible for them to marry outside the Russian Orthodox faith. So they spent their lives in the palace, and were heavily veiled and guarded when they went out in public. Most weren’t educated, although in this era, the majority of Russian aristocrats were illiterate, so that wasn’t just ye olde sexism.
Sophia rebelled against these restrictions from a young age. She demanded to be given the same classical education as her brother, Feodor. Their father, who seems to have been pretty reasonable for a guy with the title of “autocrat”, agreed. Thus Sophia was one of the most highly educated people in Russia, and probably one of the most educated women in Europe.
When Sophia was 19, her father died at the early age of 46. He left three male heirs: Feodor and Ivan, both of whom were disabled, and, by his second wife, Peter, who was not. History remembers Peter as “Peter the Great”, so, spoilers, Feodor and Ivan aren’t long for this world.
In fact, the book I’m reading (Peter the Great by Robert K Massie) tends to bang on about how Feodor was so very disabled he was a really ineffectual Tsar, only to turn around and then list Feodor’s achievements. Considering that he was frequently bedridden (he was partially paralysed and had some kind of spinal and leg dysfunction), he was quite a reformer.
Of course, it helped that he had Sophia by his side, working with him. Some historians credit Sophia with all of Feodor’s achievements, but this seems unlikely.
(Historical intersectionality problem: do we erase women, or the disabled? HOW ABOUT BOTH?)
Feodor ruled for six years before he died. His death presented Sophia, and Russia, with a problem. Technically, 16 year old Ivan should have been next in the succession, but he was blind and possibly had some kind of intellectual impairment, plus a speech impairment. He was also not all that keen on being Tsar.
On the other hand, there was Peter. Who wasn’t yet Great, but he was clever, charismatic and … oh, ten years old? Oh dear.
Some political wrangling took place, and the result was two Tsars. Prince Caspian’s uncle may have laughed at the idea of siblings sharing one throne, but there was precedent.
Now, Peter’s mother — herself an educated woman, though not as brilliant as Sophia — was named regent, and this meant that her family had a lot of power. I’m not saying the Russian court was totally powered by nepotism, but … no, it was totally powered by nepotism.
This wasn’t great for Sophia, because she didn’t get on all that well with Peter’s mother or her family, and there was talk of putting Sophia in a convent.
So she did what any woman would do in her situation: she engineered (probably) a bloody rebellion, including traumatising the young Peter by having his relatives butchered in front of him. Then she had herself made regent.
I’m not saying I approve, but it’s impressive, is all.
And Sophia was a pretty good regent. She surrounded herself with able advisors, and gave Peter the space to basically do as he pleased growing up. (What Peter pleased was turning his friends into a small army. He was basically Miles Vorkosigan, except Peter’s “small army” was at least double the size of the Dendarii mercenaries.) Sophia oversaw military clashes with China that caused land disputes still going on today. (Hey, I count it as a victory. I like historical continuity!)
But this couldn’t last. Firstly, Sophia’s government oversaw some epic military stuff-ups. But secondly, Peter was growing up, and there would come a point where there was no need for a regent. Sophia made a desperate attempt to have herself declared tsarina, but this failed.
She was eventually arrested, and spent the rest of her life (fifteen years) in a convent. At one point there was a rebellion in her name — she may or may not have been involved — and the bodies of the rebels were hung outside her window. (Russian history: not for the faint-hearted!) That’s what’s depicted in this picture below, which probably accounts for why she’s looking so pissed off.
IN CONCLUSION, history is great. Especially Russian history, which I have basically only discovered this week? Stay tuned; further amazing portraits may follow.
It’s Interregnum Development.
Currently reading: The Stuart Princesses by Alison Plowden. I like a bit of royal history now and then, because it’s the popular history subgenre most likely to contain books about women.
I also like the Stuarts, because that family produced a hell of a lot of intelligent, educated women who tend to get overshadowed by the Tudors. Okay, in fairness, the two Stuart queens, Mary II and Anne, may have been intelligent but they were barely educated at all, because hey, they’re only the women most likely to inherit the throne, right?
Anne gets a particularly bad rap: she was uneducated, bigoted, a bit of a drama llama, easily led by her better-educated friends and courtiers — WOW, THERE’S A SHOCK — and, worst of all, she was fat. I can’t think of a single popular history of the Stuart queens that doesn’t mention, only about eighty or ninety times, that Anne was a fatty. Never mind that she “let herself go” over the course of seventeen pregnancies in a desperate attempt to produce a living child (and the one that survived infancy died in young adulthood, BECAUSE IT SUCKS TO BE ANNE). She was fat. Fatty McFatfat.
Anyway, mostly what I’m taking from The Stuart Princesses is that the whole family was hilariously dysfunctional, and the world desperately needs a costume drama/sitcom in the style of Arrested Development.
This is especially true during the Interregnum, that wacky period where England was a republic. Because the Stuarts were basically scattered all over Europe, trying to keep up appearances whilst being totally broke. And there were passive-aggressive religious conversions and fights about money, and that time the Duke of York secretly married a Catholic and it was totes awkward, and Charles II basically being the Tony Stark of Europe and concealing his royal angst behind a whole boatload of wacky shenanigans and also a spiffy beard.
Then Charles was restored to the throne, and the shenanigans continued, only they were less wacky and more sad, because Charles was kind of a dick, and his favourite sister was in an abusive marriage with a gay man, and England kept going to war with people. And meanwhile, Charles’s German cousin Sophia of Hanover, was getting on with things over there, happily married, popping out kids and writing voluminous and hilarious letters to everyone in Europe.
So she was super-intelligent, and so were her sisters — Elizabeth was BFFs with Descartes, Louise was an artist who ran away to join a Catholic convent and wound up running it, and Henriette Marie was a confectioner, although then she married a prince and died because that’s what women do, right?
Oh, and Sophia? Heir to the throne of England. Because Anne had no surviving children, and her younger brother was Catholic (OH NOES) and also she’d spent years putting it about that he wasn’t really her brother at all, so she had to kind of flail about looking for an appropriate Protestant heir. And wound up calling the German branch of the family.
Anne was a lot younger than Sophia, but she only outlived her by a few weeks. (BECAUSE SHE WAS FAT – many historians’ opinions.) So Sophia’s son George became the king of England, and that put us on the path that led to mad George III, the vacuous Prince Regent/George IV (HE WAS ALSO FAT, YOU SHOULD KNOW), and eventually Queen Victoria and the current lot.
In short, history is AMAZING. And there really ought to be more costume comedies.