the problem (and opportunity) of Joanna Kelley

You’d think that by this point in the book I’d have a stronger grip on all my characters.

On good days it’s almost like channeling. Edward Kelley’s con-artistry, Jane Dee’s frustration, and John Dee’s obsession all spring easily to mind at this point but Joanna Kelley eludes me.

Which is nonsensical because of all these historical figures I probably know the least about her and so have the most leave to make things up.

Dee didn’t have a strong opinion about her; Edward Kelley “loves her not, nay, I abhor her”; Jane Dee apparently took her side in arguments with Kelley. Charlotte Fell-Smith’s 1909 biography of Dee describes Joanna as “lively and docile” but Fell-Smith tended to speculate.

It’s not clear why Kelley married her – the “angels” ordered him to marry but didn’t specify a bride. Wooley suggests someone (who?) might have paid him marry her in order to legitimize children she had with an aristocratic lover; Bassnett argues she was the widow of a clerk named John Weston. It doesn’t seem she brought any status or money into the marriage. Only two things are clear: she was only 19 when she married Kelley and he didn’t like her.

Why would she marry someone like Kelley, a volatile man with few (legal) prospects who didn’t want to get married in the first place?

I’ve mixed bits and pieces from the scholarship for Joanna’s backstory, but even if I know how she got into the Dee/Kelley household I’m still not clear on how she manages once she’s there. Optimism and resilience would help her endure Kelley’s tempers. Smarts and adaptability wouldn’t hurt, given dangerous travel and domestic strife.

The idea of “Firefly”‘s cheerful engineer Kaylee Frye sprung to mind. A fictional sci-fi character may be an odd inspiration for an Elizabethan housewife but I can imagine that someone of Kaylee’s uncultured enthusiasm would charm everyone around her but get on grumpy Kelley’s last nerve.

Beaming girl in fluffy, ruffled dress.
I imagine Joanna being just this sweet and gauche when she comes to Mortlake for the first time. Less floofy dress though. The only linkable version of this pic I could find.

My hardest plot challenge of all is why does Kelley hate her so? No one else seems to. I’m considering several possibilities (no spoilers) but even at this late stage I’ve not got this crucial factor ironed out yet.

Maybe it’s difficult for me because while I know fear, anger, and obsession, I’m not exactly a ray of sunshine.

Fortunately I’ve completed the day job certification that ate most of my time for the past couple of months and am eager to get back to editing. Hopefully I’ll get into the zone and she’ll evolve organically out of rewrites.

References:

Bassnett, Susan. 2006. “Absent Presences: Edward Kelley’s Family in the Writings of John Dee.” In John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in English Renaissance Thought, 285–94. Dordrecht: Springer.

Wooley, Benjamin. 2001. The Queen’s Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Henry Holt and Co.

the inevitable post

Because you can’t write about John Dee for very long without addressing the Voynich Manuscript, the “book nobody can read”.

page of medieval manuscript showing red and blue flowers and strange script
A page from the mysterious Voynich manuscript, which is undeciphered to this day. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In an early draft of the novel I had Edward Kelley stumble across this strange tome in Mortlake’s library, but I ended up cutting that scene because Dee likely never owned it. Bursting further myths, he didn’t create it either – it’s carbon dated to the early 15th century, well over a hundred years before Dee’s time. Nonetheless as a mathematician and steganographer he certainly would have found it interesting. Hell, I find it interesting and I’m just an ordinary schlub.

The manuscript got its popular name from Wilfred Voynich, the bookseller who purchased it in 1912. Before that it passed through many hands and it’s origin is unclear. It currently resides in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, and is available for viewing by appointment only (though they did loan it for an exhibit in DC, see below).

It has a bit of everything, from apparent star charts to plants to segmented pipes or containers to swimming naked ladies. And of course, lots of indecipherable text (available as a TrueType font, if you’re so inclined).

As such, speculation on what the text might be and by extension what the book is about runs rampant. CipherMysteries.com provides a rundown of the most popular theories, which include everything from blatant hoaxing to alien tech. Certainly it seems to have elements of astrology, herbals, and possibly alchemical recipe books (all those pipes), but doesn’t resemble any of these exclusively.

Decryption obsesses many – even the NSA (PDF) took a crack at it. In 2014 Stephan Bax at the University of Bedfordshire in England deciphered ten words for plants and an astrological sign. Just last week Gordon Rugg of the University of Keele declared it a hoax; other parties disagree.

I was fortunate enough to see the real deal when it was on display in the Folger Library’s Decoding the Renaissance exhibit. Somehow I thought the fuel for so much speculation would be bigger – it’s about the size of a modern hardcover novel. The vellum shows few erasures, so someone understood the strange text well enough to write it with few mistakes. The colors are still vivid even after ~600 years, but the illustrations seem hasty and awkward, particularly the human figures.

My own take is… I don’t know what to think. I’m no cryptographer so I’m not competent to judge the plausibility of the various theories (though I’m pretty sure aliens didn’t write it). If it’s a hoax it’s a good one to fascinate so many for so long. If it’s a code I have to wonder what the author(s) were hiding. In any case, someone went to a lot of time and trouble to create it. Again, the real story is about people and their motives and perceptions.

Current research and the upcoming publication of 898 “clone” manuscripts going for $8000 each (and a Yale University Press edition priced for us ordinary mortals) should keep the Voynich Manuscript in the news (well, the news I read) and send researchers down the rabbit hole for years to come. Me, I’ll just peruse Yale’s scans and consider the fiction fodder.

diversions

Last weekend I took a break from the book to attend my first costume conference in several years. The scholarship has proceeded by leaps and bounds since I last made anything substantial, but the real treat was seeing old friends and making new ones.

Photo of ship Susan Constant at sunset
Reproduction of the Susan Constant, one of the ships that brought settlers to Jamestown. Author’s own.

Even so, I couldn’t avoid the book entirely.

The conference was in Jamestown Settlement/Historic Jamestown, a recreation of the first permanent English settlement in North America and the archaeological site of the original fort, respectively. Neither Dee or Kelley ever came to the New World, but some of Dee’s acquaintances did.

Settler George Percy presided over the winter of 1609-10 Starving Time. The name rang a bell, and a Google search revealed that he was the youngest brother of Henry Percy, 9th earl of Northumberland, called the Wizard Earl for his interest in early science. Percy’s Syon House was near Dee’s in Mortlake, and they ran in similar intellectual circles: the Wizard Earl led the so called School of Night, a group of men interested in clandestine religion and science.

The Jamestown archaeological museum included a selection of early tobacco pipes. Names of prominent courtiers and nobles decorated many of them, among them Charles Howard, first earl of Nottingham. Howard was Lord Admiral of the English fleet ca. 1585 to 1619. In a rather oblique connection, Jane Dee (nee Fromonds) served as lady in waiting to his wife Catherine before her marriage to John Dee.

Though he wasn’t involved in the Jamestown voyage, Dee acted as navigating consultant to earlier English voyages of discovery. His 1577 publication of General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation was the first to put forth the notion of a “British empire” and advocated English colonization of the New World.

These connections aren’t that surprising. The rich, powerful, and educated of sixteenth century England comprised a small group so most were acquainted with and/or related to each other. I just found it amusing that even when I take a break my interests reel me right back into the book.

And I discovered a costume element I can use to make Kelley (more) miserable, so that amuses.

I came out of the conference wanting to make everything, and while I find myself with some surprise free hours this summer, I’m going to stick to short, simple projects. Much as I’d love to drown in linen and lace the book still comes first.

 

 

why I do the weird stuff

No, not that weird stuff!

I mean my biweekly link dumps of witches, occultists, strange/obscure history, and academic papers. Why do I post these (apart from their vague relevance to the work in progress)?

Well, I was a strange child. And I had help.

I grew up on an irregular diet of “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” and the occasional surprise “In Search Of” when it aired at odd times on TBS. Also one side of my family nurtured an interest in UFOs, ghosts, cryptozoology, and other Forteana/paranormalia: I remember reading my grandmother’s back issues of Fate Magazine from around age 8, and books got passed around through the mail and at holiday get togethers.

I think the cryptozoology thing grew out of the usual childhood fascination with dinosaurs. My interest was intense enough that by elementary school I was making papier-mâché Loch Ness monsters and a faked plaster cast of a Bigfoot footprint for school projects.

I can’t remember my teachers’ reactions.

shelf of books with titles about UFOs, poltergeists, hidden animals, conspiracies
A “shelfie” of my weird collection. The old Fate mags have long since worn out and been thrown away.

Various family members expressed everything from skeptical interest to full on belief – dinner table conversation could go on for hours. As a child I was fairly uncritical about it all; as a teenager I became more skeptical but sought out anything that made my eyebrows jump – conspiracy theories, alien abduction, prank religions – for the sheer WTFery, if nothing else. I can’t remember how many times I checked High Weirdness by Mail out of the library (oh hey, now there’s an online version!).

And yes, in the 1990s I was a dedicated X-Phile. So many of the stories were already familiar, and the writers did a wonderful job with the source material!

As an adult I’m more detached but my interest remains, though I’ve grown so hard-headed it’s difficult to believe in anything I can’t hit with a hammer, so to speak. At the same time I recognize that subjective experience is relevant to the experiencer, objectively provable or not. In the end it’s not about aliens or ghosts or witches, but about people and how they integrate the unexplained into their lives.

Still, my inner curious child still aches to know: what really happened? What did they really see/experience/find? Through writing fiction I can speculate with the luxury of  not having to prove anything, and I have the freedom to make up answers.

I could (maybe I will) do a whole separate post about growing up as a history buff. Suffice it to say I’m not terribly surprised that two lifelong interests collided to have me writing about Elizabethan magicians ~30 years later.

What about you? Do you have any childhood obsessions that still inform your creative pursuits today? Tell me in the comments!

 

 

Dee, Kelley, and – Shakespeare?

When writing about lesser-known historical figures it’s tempting to insert some “stars” to keep the reader’s attention. Dee and Kelley moved in exalted circles, so I have plenty of courtiers, alchemists, nobles and other characters to play with if I so choose.

I didn’t expect William Shakespeare could be one of them.

While it’s not a stretch to suggest that the Bard was aware of Dee – many sources agree he likely based “The Tempest”‘s Prospero on him – it didn’t occur to me that he might have known him personally until I found sources that propose that Shakespeare was a spy working under the name “Francis Garland, he acted as Dee’s courier, and witnessed one of Kelley’s transmutations.

Sound implausible? I thought so too. Only Burns and Bridges have put forth a connection between the three men and even they admit it sounds farfetched.

But consider:

  • Dee’s mentions of Garland in his diaries correspond with Shakespeare’s “lost years”.
  • Acquaintance with Dee (and his connections) would explain Shakespeare’s apparently sudden popularity with Elizabeth’s court in 1593.
  • Kelley dedicates his alchemical poem “Concerning the Philosopher’s Stone” to one “G. S. Gent.”, and Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon baptismal record lists him as “Gulielmus Shaksper”.

Burns asserts that Shakespeare’s plays show familiarity with alchemical imagery and secrets; I’m no expert on Shakespeare or alchemy so I don’t feel competent to judge. She also suggests that Kelley reference to G. S. as his “especiall good Friend” might mean Shakespeare was Kelley’s student and thus an alchemist himself – again I can’t say.

Bridges theorizes a connection between Kelley and Shakespeare’s Dark Lady in his text for exhibit at the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague. I still can’t decide. Given multiple suggested identities for the Dark Lady, maybe one could fit. Somehow, it still smells like one connection too many.

I find the idea that “Francis Garland” was a spy the easiest to believe. Sixteenth century travel was dangerous, difficult, and rare. Any mobile, learned man would be a catch for Burleigh and Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymasters. If Garland was a courier this reinforces the notion that Dee and Kelley were spies as well – or perhaps being spied upon, given Burleigh’s attempts to lure Kelley back to England to make gold for his queen.

All tempting to play with, but Shakespeare’s not going to cameo in my book. I’m not writing a sixteenth century spy thriller (though that would be awesome). Also I’m in the process of deciding which secondary characters stay and which go – it’s no time to add more!

What do you think – was the Bard a spy? If so, for who and why? Or is this all wishful thinking? As ever, I’d love to hear your take.

References:

Burns, T. (2008). Francis Garland, William Shakespeare, and John Dee’s Green Language. Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition2(15). Retrieved from http://www.jwmt.org/v2n15/garland.html

Campbell, J. S. (2009). The Alchemical Patronage of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley (Awarded Research Masters Thesis). Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from http://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/handle/10063/1269.

Vincent Bridges. (n.d.). [Mp3]. Retrieved from http://occultofpersonality.net/vincent-bridges/

 

biweekly links 3-23-2016

black and white photo of candles, talismans, ritual knives, a crystal ball, and a book with a pentagram inscribed in the cover
An altar with some of Doreen Valiente’s ritual objects. Courtesy the Doreen Valiente Foundation/Culture24

Early modern English Muslims, 20th century occult collections, and fin-de-siècle French Satanists for you:

Trebon and back again – an ugly American’s tale

I made one trip out of Prague for the book. It went…ok. If nothing else I learned what not to do next time.

When Emperor Rudolf kicked Dee and Kelley out of Prague his second in command William of Rozmberk gave them refuge in the southern town of Trebon. Most of Kelley’s alchemical successes and the infamous wife-swapping took place while they lived in Trebon Castle and a lot of the 16th century building remains. Of course I had to see it. I’d heard great things about the Czech Republic’s train system and it was only a 2 hour ride – what could go wrong?

Heh heh heh…

First off I severely overestimated my understanding of the train schedule. Prague to Trebon looks easy until I discovered I had to change trains: I had to know both my destination and my terminus, and ideally be able to pronounce both.

Which was my second mistake: I can’t speak Czech. It’s my own damn fault; save a few important words (Praha = Prague, knihy = book) I relied on everyone to speak English (ugly American, me).

My third bad assumption tied into the second: I was under the impression Trebon was a sizeable town and, therefore, full of English speakers. We got off the train to discover it was a one-taxi town – and the taxi driver spoke German.

The upshot was that we missed our first train and while we caught our second we were rushed and highly dependent on our phones’ ham-fisted Google translations.

So, yeah, not my finest travel moment.

I went on the only tour available in our short time-frame – Czech, with English handout. Though they didn’t permit interior photography (the Czech site has a nice photogallery) I got a handle on the smaller scale of a country palace. To my surprise the tour mentioned Dee and Kelley – there’s even a room set up as a makeshift alchemical lab.

Evidently there’s also a medieval-themed tavern named for Kelley on-site, but we didn’t have time to stop in. A mile sprint got us back to the station just in time to catch our ride back to Prague.

In lieu of Trebon Castle pix, have this one of the Rozmberk Palace in the Prague Castle complex. The Rozmberks scaled this one for grand city living.

Interior courtyard of Rozmberk Palace, Prague
The interior courtyard of Rozmberk Palace in Prague. It’s been a noble’s palace, school for unmarried noblewomen, and is currently the home of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

weird Prague – the ghost and witch tours

Most walking tours hit the highlights: places, dates, battles. All of which is good and interesting, but I wanted a flavor of the local folklore that doesn’t make it into history books. I find ghost tours are the best way to learn about the weird history of a place, and I found two I enjoyed.

I discovered the Prague witch tour last minute and accidentally, and booked with the thought this will be either the cheesiest thing on earth or a window into contemporary pagan Prague. Definitely more beef than cheese, with servings of morbid history and a dash of ritual.

Our tour guide, Martina, was a modern pagan and a dedicated entrepreneur to boot. The witch tour is her labor of love, and she offered alternative perspectives on some of the usual sights. For example, she explained how Christian elements on the astronomical clock’s face can be interpreted as old pagan symbols to those in the know. While I don’t fully grasp the nuances of the occult “green language” (every word has seven meanings) it certainly lends another layer of history I wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise.

She also introduced us to the legend of 17th century executioner Jan Mydlář. Short version: the role of executioner traditionally stayed within families, but Mydlář committed a murder so grisly that they spared him the axe and gave him the job. He went on to an, er, prolific career and a friendship with the anatomist Ján Jesenský, to whom he supplied cadavers for dissection. Their friendship came to an end when Mydlář’s superiors ordered him to behead Jesenský along with 26 other Protestant leaders, thus kicking off the Thirty Years War. The execution site is still marked in the Old Town Square:

crosses of the martyrs in Old Town Square
One cross for each man. Very sobering.

Mydlář went on to drink away the loss of his best friend at a pub that still exists today. It’s somewhere behind the Old Town Hall, though for the life of me I couldn’t find it a second time:

front of the executioner's pub
The sign over the door. If you squint you can see some of the swords and other weapons hanging on the wall

The rest of the tour was a long walk through landmarks familiar and not: the surviving gothic architecture of Charles University and the “devil’s” fungus that tears the stone apart; the convent of St. Agnes, haunted by girls pressed into the nunnery against their will; the executioner’s storage and training house. Always the symbols passed through a pagan lens, revealing an enduring alternate belief system.

She even conducted a brief ritual of intent for us in a chalk-drawn circle, and I did my best to focus on my goals. The evening wound up in a local pub with excellent local spirits and a wide-ranging discussion about pagan thought. This tour is truly unlike anything else in Prague, and Martina is a delight. Highly recommended.

The underground ghost tour took us under the city hall into chambers that were at ground level hundreds of years ago but were slowly buried by later construction. Only hand-held lanterns relieve the complete dark, creating a still, close atmosphere that’s great for storytelling. Mydlář came up again as a man who tried to save his lover from the axe only to have things go disastrously wrong. Allegedly he also worked with a vampire hunter (how is there not a graphic novel somewhere about Mydlář & co? The black humor writes itself!). Our tour guide was a New Jersey native and the unfamiliar words sounded even more so in his familiar accent, but he knew his stuff and claimed to have had some experiences of his own.

Both tours claim that tourists have gone home to find wisps and ghostly “orbs” in their photos. Alas, the ghosties didn’t come out for me. Though, I did have a devil of a time uploading these images, so make of that what you will.

Prague’s pretty libraries

The first library I remember was the small local branch in the town where I grew up. Housed in a narrow storefront, my memories are vivid despite its small size and lack of air conditioning. The high ceiling, with paint peeling off its old-fashioned tiles, made it seem huge and grand – almost like a holy place, a temple of learning.

Thus started my lifelong love of beautiful libraries, and my desire to see more of them.

Strahov Monastery’s library was among the first places I visited, and I wouldn’t have known about it had my friend Charlotte not suggested it. Big oversight on my part! The collection dates to the twelfth century and endured its share of burning and plundering over the centuries. The current theological hall dates to the seventeenth century and is mouthwateringly beautiful: the globes, the lower shelves jutting out to form benches, the gilded book covers, and of course the high, vaulted ceilings – I want it all. You can’t go in but there’s a small doorway with a big view:

theological hall at Strahov Monastery
Pretty globes all in a row!
Baroque writing desk
We all need a desk like this, right?

The philosophical hall was completed in the late eighteenth century and is a gorgeous two floor Baroque blow-out with sliding ladders:

Strahov Monastery's Philosophical Hall
Again you can only peek in, but this angle catches a lot of what makes it great. Photo by Charlotte Dries.

The collection is open to the public via a separate, modern reading room. I didn’t visit but I’m pleased that the monastery makes this treasure trove available.

About a week and much walking and blistered feet later, we went to the Klementinum, home of Prague’s National Library. Originally founded by the Jesuits in 1556, it’s possible Edward Kelley confessed to one of the priests here so this was another “setting” visit. Turns out most of the original Dominican monastery has been built over, but the existing structure houses a beautiful Baroque library. They didn’t permit photography of the room itself (do check out the site), but the attached astronomical tower had plenty to see:

Room sized camera obscura with measuring tools
In the 19th century Meridian Hall, a room-sized camera obscura, was used to determine noon with the use of human-sized quadrants.
clockwork mechanism of the astronomical tower's carillon
Clockwork mechanism of the astronomical tower’s carillon
Prague's skyline
Fantastic view from the top of the tower

The library shelves were curiously empty, with paper “place marks” filling multiple empty slots. Turns out many of the rarer volumes are currently being digitized through Google Books.

I’m always looking for more beautiful libraries. Please feel free to share your favorites in the comments!

a tale of two alchemy museums part 2: Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague

If Speculum Alchemiae provides an example of a real alchemy lab, the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague reflects the fantasy. And that’s not a bad thing.

This former residence of Edward Kelley’s in the Donkey in the Cradle house (many of Prague’s older buildings have names based on their “signs”) placed him conveniently near the royal court in Hradčany (Castle Town). The tower and its spiral staircase date from the sixteenth century but I’m not sure about the rest of the house.

spiral staircase
I ran into a lot of spiral staircases in Prague, but this was the tightest, steepest, and oldest

My chief interest was the top floor of the tower where Kelley allegedly had his alchemical lab. Though the reproduction of his study seemed plausible I doubt any of the items were original.

reconstruction of Edward Kelley's study near a window with candle, desk, velvet upholstered chair and sideboard with goblet
Dee’s diaries suggest Kelley enjoyed the finer things – velvet chair and wine goblet fit right in

Explanatory text describes Kelley’s life and sticks to the known facts – mostly. The writer, Vincent Bridges, suggested an association between Kelley, Shakespeare as a spy (?) and the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He’s one of only two scholars I’ve found that espouse this notion so I don’t know what to make of it, but there you are.

Included are wax models of historical figures, most notably a flying Rudolf II (?) and one of Kelley himself, complete with (alleged) wooden leg:

Back of Kelley wax mannequin, showing wooden leg

The “lab” got still more theatrical as I went along, including artfully arranged broken glass representing a lab accident, a homunculus, planets on strings, and a 6 foot long bellows.

6 foot long bellows
Not sure these existed but it’s awfully impressive, isn’t it?

I can’t finish without mentioning Kellyxir, the alchemy-themed bar attached to the museum. Winding glassware adorns the ceiling and “Mrs. Kelley’s” menu includes alcoholic and non- “elixirs” with names that translate loosely to “wonder medicine of the mountains”, “the key to awakening” and the like. I had something called “bear milk” with rum which was quite pleasant. It was a fun afternoon.

ceiling of Kellyxir alchemical pub with glassware and tubing
Alchemical ceiling of Kellyxir, courtesy Charlotte Dries

With its fanciful (?) stories and funhouse trappings the Museum of Magicians and Alchemists of Old Prague has as much to do with real alchemy as Hollywood does with real life. But it works. The historical Edward Kelley was something of a showman so I think he’d approve of black-lit magical circles and flying emperors in his old home!