5 Inspiring Facts About Beatrix Potter


Peter Rabbit, the adorable bunny in the blue jacket, is a familiar character to us bookworms. You might have learned of his mishaps when Grandma read them to you; perhaps you got to know him better when reading to your children.

He brings to mind youth and innocence, reminding us of how it felt to be a child willing to think outside of the box. How much do we know about the woman behind the rabbit?

Beatrix Potter wrote many stories aside from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Not only did she come up with charming animals and their adventures, she also illustrated them. The stories might have deprived her of some things, though. Potter didn’t have a conventional love story, but she had a happy ending.

Here are five inspiriing facts about Beatrix Potter.

Peter Was A Real Bunny

Have you ever written a story in which someone special made a cameo appearance as a character? Beatrix Potter did this with her bunny, Peter Piper! He was her close friend, traveling everywhere with her. Eventually he became famous as a protagonist in one of the most beloved childrens’ tales.

The first story featuring Peter Rabbit was written in a letter to the son of Potter’s former governess. The young boy was ill. She wanted to make him feel better, but suffered from writer’s block; she did not know what to say.

It is said that she was sitting in the yard with her bunny when composing this letter. Deciding to tell a story instead, she made up the adventure of Peter with his sisters Mopsy, Flopsy, and Cottontail. The rest is history.

She Fell In Love With Her Editor

Beatrix Potter had a tragic first romance. She had taken her stories to a publishing company called Bedford. The company was run by a father and his three sons—Harold, Fruing and Norman.

Norman was the editor. Some have described it as love at first sight: Beatrix, an intelligent woman, admired Norman for his mind. He must have enjoyed meeting a woman he could hold a real conversation with. It was not long before he had proposed to her.

Unfortunately, Norman became ill. Beatrix had gone on holiday with her family when he was diagnosed with leukemia and died. Beatrix did not find out until after her return. He refused to write of it because he did not want to distress her.

One must wonder if Beatrix’s parents were sad—they did not approve of the match.

She Had An Excellent Education

Beatrix Potter had an excellent mind and was able to hold conversations about science, history, and other subjects considered unladylike at the time. Where did she learn about the biology of a bunny? How did she draw such realistic pictures?

She was born into a wealthy family in which both parents were heirs to cotton fortunes (hence their disapproval of her match with Norman). Her father took great interest in painting and photography. He taught his daughter to draw, and they shared a love for art.

Beatrix had access to her father’s library of books, where she was free to learn about science, voyages, historical figures, and other unladylike topics. She later tried to enter the science circles of the time, but they were too superstitious to let a woman into their chambers.

The Science Book

It would be wrong not to elaborate on how gifted Beatrix Potter was on the subject of science. Her understanding of nature was so advanced that she was able to make remarkably detailed illustrations of fungi and insects for the time.

Though Beatrix also drew animals, she focused on wild fungi. She completed a book of illustrations and presented it to the male-dominated science circles. The drawings were outstanding, but she was a woman. She didn’t have much of a chance at becoming a scientist.

Now her images of fungi are lauded by modern science, but in her own time Beatrix Potter gave up that dream and moved on to storytelling. Perhaps we can be grateful for this—if she had become a scientist, Peter Rabbit might never have existed.

Happily Ever After

Beatrix Potter finally found found love at the age of 47. She married a solicitor named William Heelis in 1913, and they moved to the beautiful Lake District. She and William lived a comfortable life in their secluded house, where they grew old together.

Beatrix purchased a farm where she could interact with the animals. Though the Lake District had no shortage of inspiration, it seems that Potter had become tired of writing. When at last she married, she favored a peaceful life exploring the country.

When Beatrix Potter died, her body was cremated. She told a trusted groundskeeper to release her ashes at an unmarked spot in her beloved Lake District. To this day, no one knows the location of her remains. We can still find her in the stories she wrote.


My inspiration for writing about Beatrix Potter hinges largely on my sudden obsession with drawing mice and frogs. I don’t know where I’m going with this hobby; am I simply procrastinating writing? I do enjoy learning new things, and it’s good for the creative to try all sorts of mediums.

Beatrix Potter is one of my inspirations for my nature-based art. I have no illusions of drawing like she did, but Peter Rabbit is alive in all of us. I hope you have a good Friday!

As an added bonus, here’s an excerpt from my lately well-loved sketchbook!

The Tragic Life of L.M. Montgomery


I often find authors’ lives more fascinating than the novels they write. I’ve written posts about Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott; in the process, I discovered there was more to these ladies than happy endings.

To make it as a writer all those years ago, you needed resilience and character—especially if you were female. Women so feared the ill repute of being a writer that they used pen names.

L.M. Montgomery, writer of Anne of Green Gables, is a woman whose life was not what I had expected. Her life was marred by tragedy, yet she pressed on with her books.

Here are five facts about L.M. Montgomery.

She Didn’t Like Her Name

An author is often connected to their character in personal ways. In Anne of Green Gables, Anne begs Marilla to call her Cordelia. She does not like her name, which is actually Ann, to which she added the e at the end.

L.M. Montgomery did not like her name, either. It was Lucy, but she always preferred to be called Maud—without the e, ironically. She combined these names in her pen name. In her journal she wrote, “I never liked Lucy as a name. I always liked Maud—spelled not ‘with an e’ if you please.”

Here we have a woman who took a pen name, not because she was afraid of what society would think, but because she didn’t like her name!

Her Family Wasn’t Supportive

One thing that doesn’t change over time is how writing is seldom considered a ‘productive’ career. I am fortunate to have a supportive family for my work, but I have many friends who don’t. L.M. Montgomery didn’t, either.

Montgomery’s family thought so disdainfully of her writing that she resorted to working at night by the flickering light of a candle. She did not let their opinions dissuade her from pursuing her passion, for which we are all grateful.

This passage from Lantern Hill is telling: “I struggled on alone, in secrecy and silence. I never told my ambitions and efforts and failures to any one. Down, deep down, under all discouragement and rebuff, I knew I would ‘arrive’ some day.”

Anne Was Inspired By An Old Journal

Many authors keep journals in which they store ideas. So did Montgomery. She was paging through one of her old notebooks when she came across a note she made a decade before: “Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for a boy. By mistake a girl is sent them.”

Montgomery breathed life into her old idea. Her intention was to write it as a serial and submit it to a newspaper, but things did not go as she planned, and Anne took on life as a novel.

Her manuscript for Anne of Green Gables was rejected by every publisher she sent it to, so she put it away in a hatbox for a while. In 1908 she gave Anne another chance, and the book was published.

No Stranger To Tragedy

Montgomery was among the hundreds who caught the Spanish Flu in 1918. Though she survived and went on to write novels, she lost her best friend Frederica Campbell MacFarlane to the illness.

The Spanish Flu was one of many dark times she survived. She also lived through the First and Second World Wars. Every writer and artist knows how tragedy affects our stories.

L.M. Montgomery used her writing to cope with the darkness of war. This is evident in Rilla of Ingleside, my personal favorite in the series. We think of Anne’s world as one of comfort and meadows; in this book Anne’s family is torn apart by war.

She Had A Dark End

On April 24, 1942, L.M. Montgomery died in her Toronto home. Her body was laid to rest in her beloved Prince Edward Island, and a wake was had at the Green Gables House. The certificate blamed her death on coronary thrombosis, but that was not the end of the story.

In 2008, Montgomery’s granddaughter revealed a shocking truth. She believed that her grandmother had not died of thrombosis; she had ended her own life with a drug overdose. The beloved author had left a note apologizing to her family for what she was going to do.

The family decided to reveal this in 2008 to open up dialogue about mental health. It’s important to talk about our struggles, because life has no shortage of challenges to throw us. We should never feel alone.


L.M. Montgomery and her character Anne Shirley hold beloved places in our hearts. I did not read her books until last year; her description and storytelling made me believe in magic. If you want to see these stories from a different angle, learn more about the creator of Anne Shirley.

Are you doing Annetober this year? It’s a challenge in which we read the Anne books in the month of October. I did it last year (reviewing each as I finished) and might try again this year.

In my opinion, there is no better time to read about Anne than in the fall, when the leaves make golden carpets on the grass!

3 Myths About Autumn


We are entering September, the beginning of earth’s slumber. Though we might still get some hot days in the weeks to come, soon it will be palpable when the trees shrug off their burdens–something we should learn to do.

A lot of people are melancholy at the thought of autumn, especially if winter is considered lacking in magic or wonder. To appreciate every moment, even in the colder seasons, it might help if we learned how our ancestors approached them.

Autumn and winter do not need to be boring. The right activities enable you to make as many memories as you did in the summer. Some people go out of their way for Halloween parties; others focus on recipes for holiday treats.

However it is that you celebrate the chill, these myths about autumn will provide context as foliage turns golden. Humans tell stories by nature; myths bring wonder to even the most sleepy of times.

Persephone & Autumn

In Greek mythology, the seasons revolved around Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Her mood determined whether days would be be sunny or chilly. It was not until Demeter suffered great heartbreak that the four seasons began.

Demeter’s daughter Persephone was a lovely child. Flowers would spring up in the earth wherever Persephone walked. As she grew into a beautiful woman, Persephone caught Hades’ attention. Her abduction is one of the most famous Greek myths; a great many stories hinge on this event.

When Demeter was unable to save her daughter from the spell of the Underworld, she fell into a depression. The crops died and plants dried up, causing farmers to go into a panic.

Zeus was forced to strike a deal with Hades that would allow Persephone to leave the Underworld for six months every year; that was when the cycle of four seasons began.

Proserpine, Roman goddess of the Underworld, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Horae

Also known as the hours, the Horae in Greek mythology were goddesses of the four seasons. They were also wardens at the gates of Mount Olympus.

They are mentioned in two groups. The first was associated with Aphrodite and Zeus. The Horae in this group are linked to the classical three seasons of the year: Thallo as the goddess of spring and blooming, Auxo the increaser of plants, and Carpo linked to the harvest.

The second group, associated with Themis and Zeus, focused on law and order. Dike was goddess of moral justice, Eunomia goddess of order and good laws, and Eirene goddess of peace and wealth.

It’s interesting that these virtues are linked with the seasons; good qualities are therefore considered necessary as the change in the weather for the health of society.

Norse Gods of Weather

Though not specifically about autumn, Norse mythology held that there were gods who had power over the weather.

Skadi was the goddess of winter and snow. She brought coldness to the atmosphere. Vikings feared her because a terrible winter would freeze the crops and they might starve. Some scholars believe that Scandinavia was named after her.

Thor was the god of lightning and thunder. He had a pair of goats pulling his chariot; whenever he rode across the sky, the sound of their hooves could be heard below.

Freyr was the god of summer and rain. Vikings believed that, if they made appropriate sacrifices to him, they would be given plentiful harvests and good weather.

Thor went up against Jormungand by Charles Edmund Brock

This time of the year is great for storytelling. We can enjoy traditions that come with Halloween–like our favorite ghost stories. There also scary novels, poems, and even recipes to learn.

As I learn more stories associated with autumn, I’ll share them here. Do you have a favorite ghost story? A tradition you would like to pass on? Feel free to leave a comment!

5 Amazing Facts About Louisa May Alcott


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is one of those books that every child knows. The antics of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy stay with us long after we reach adulthood. It reminds us that a good life has its hardships, even in fiction. The resilience of the March sisters gives us hope that we can survive our trials.

This book has been made into movies and continues to inspire readers. Its characters live on as readers pass it down to their children. What do we know about the author, though?

Alcott was a unique woman for her time. A defender of women’s rights and fiercely independent, her life can inspire us as much as her book has done. Here are five amazing facts about Louisa May Alcott.

1- She Turned Down A Marriage

Many female writers of the time chose writing over marriage (even if it marred their social stance). Like Jane Austen years before, Louisa May Alcott turned down a marriage proposal.

Mr. Condit was a prosperous manufacturer of silk hats. He proposed to Louisa in 1860. Her family was in a hard place financially, making it difficult to refuse, but she did not love him.

What was more, she feared that her career as a writer would vanish if she took a husband. In the end, she chose her writing over a loveless union.

2- She Was A Civil War Nurse

In 1861, the Civil War hit. Alcott was not the sort of woman to be idle in dire times. First, she volunteered to sew uniforms for the soldiers. Itching to become more involved, she became a nurse, going straight into the chaos.

Alcott saw horrible things while tending to wounded soldiers. In a Washington D.C. tent-hospital, she comforted wounded men as they died. These events left profound scars from which she found solace in writing.

Alcott recorded her experiences in journals and letters to family. She published Hospital Sketches in 1863. It is a fictionalized account based on her letters. The book became massively popular and was reprinted with more material.

3- She Didn’t Want To Write Little Women

Alcott wrote her most famous book, Little Women, after much resistance.

Her father was asked by an editor at a publishing house if she would write a novel for little girls. Louisa was not keen on the idea of writing for children. She refused and a year passed.

When her father was trying to publish his own book on philosophy, the editor once more requested a book for little girls. He would publish the philosophy book if Louisa agreed.

Giving in, she used her childhood with her sisters as a topic for the book. The first part of Little Women was published in 1868. It became a huge success—perhaps to her chagrin–and she went on to write the sequels, Jo’s Boys and Little Men.

4- She Adopted Her Niece

Alcott never had children, but was able to experience motherhood at the age of forty-seven. In 1879, her sister May died after giving birth to a daughter. On her deathbed, May told her husband that she wanted the child to go to Louisa.

He honored his wife’s last wish and trusted the baby to Alcott. She was named Louisa after her aunt and nicknamed LuLu. Alcott raised the girl during the final years of her own life.

Alcott died of a stroke when LuLu was 8 years old, and LuLu was sent back to Switzerland with her father. Though they were together for a short time, Lulu carried fond memories of her aunt Louisa.

5- She Was A Suffragette

Alcott advocated for women’s rights when the movement was in its infancy. She wrote for a women’s periodical in the 1870s and went door-to-door, encouraging women in Massachusetts to vote.

In 1869, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote on any issue involving education and children. Alcott registered and became the first woman in Concord to vote.

She and nineteen other women voted that year, initiating a great change. Alcott was passionate about making sure that women’s voices were heard. The Nineteenth Amendment was cast in 1890—decades after Alcott’s death.


Louisa May Alcott was a devoted writer. Though she is best known for Little Women, her collection of complete works is staggering. More attention should be given to this impressive and fearless woman.

Behind every great story is a greater story; in the case of Little Women, it is the writer’s life. She valued her independence, worked to support her family, and fought for the woman’s vote.

We miss out on a great deal when we don’t look at an author’s background. Timeless stories don’t come out of the blue; there is always a fascinating chain of events forming the foundation of a classic.

5 Surprising Facts About Jane Austen


Despite having such a devoted fan base, Jane Austen’s life is shrouded in mystery. She was an unusual woman for her time, holding firm to her values. She believed in love matches; her stories are full of unlikely couples, yet she remained unmarried.

We don’t have much correspondence from which to learn her thoughts. Following the custom of the time, Jane’s sister Cassandra burned many letters after the author’s death.

Fortunately, not all was lost with those yellowing pages. Enough history remains to offer us a satisfying portrait.

Here are five surprising facts about Jane Austen.

1- She Enjoyed Gothic Novels

It’s not surprising that Jane Austen was well-read. She spent hours in the family library immersed in classics such as Shakespeare.

As always, literary tastes at the time were changing; she also enjoyed reading then-popular Gothic novels.

Her favorite authors included Frances Burney, Ann Radcliffe, and Maria Edgeworth. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho was mentioned in Jane’s novel Northanger Abbey as one of Catherine Morland’s favorite books.

Want to learn more about which books Jane read? Here is a list!

Portrait of Author Frances Burney

2- Jane Austen Hated School

The Austens were unique in their belief that education was important for all children, not only boys.

Jane and her sister Cassandra attended boarding school as young girls. Jane was only seven when she first left home to study. There is speculation about why she left at such a tender age. Some think it was because she could not bear separation from her sister.

They attended Mrs. Cawley’s boarding school for girls, where they were taught sewing and French. Jane would later write about her time at school as a torment.

3- She Was Engaged—for a Night

On December 2, 1802, Jane accepted a marriage proposal from family friend Harris Bigg-Wither. The Bigg-Wither family owned a large estate; marriage to him would ensure Jane’s happy retirement.

The following morning, she’d changed her mind. She called off the engagement, a choice that perplexed everybody–she wasn’t getting any younger.

Why did Jane choose spinsterhood over a comfortable home? We know that she believed people ought to marry for love; perhaps that was her reason.

I found this article about Harris Bigg-Wither interesting.

Drawing of Harris Bigg-Wither

4- Charlotte Brontë Wasn’t a Fan

There has been a rumor circulating that Charlotte Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre was inspired Austen’s character Jane Fairfax in Emma. This article criticizes the rumor, but it doesn’t deny that Brontë wasn’t a fan.

One can hardly blame her, seeing the big picture. Rare were female authors brave enough to publish with their names. They were generalized as lady authors, and Brontë was tired of being lumped in with Austen when their novels were so different.

I’m thankful that there is now room for different kinds of lady authors. It’s possible for us to write light-hearted romance or Gothic pieces–whatever we please!

5- Austen’s Last Piece was a Poem

Many famous authors have died and left novels unfinished. Jane Austen left two books unfinished—Sanditon and The Watsons—but her last complete work seems to have been a poem.

Titled Venta, it was dictated to Cassandra three days before Jane’s death. It’s a satirical piece about the people of Winchester, poking fun at their fervor for horse races. Jane wrote that they cared more for the races than they did for their patron saint, St. Swithin.

Various poems by Jane Austen can be found here.


It’s always fascinating to do research about the lives of famous authors. This little post does not begin to cover Jane Austen’s life, but I hope it taught you something new!

5 Myths About Sea Monsters


Humans tell stories to shed light on the unexplained, giving it a face we can imagine. It’s been our custom for centuries, and one of the most frightening mysteries our ancestors faced was the ocean.

Whether they were fishing or embarking on voyages into the unknown, they had no guarantee of a safe return. The ocean was a moody mistress; they personified her by giving her faces.

Now we know more about the world under the sea, but there remain mysteries that will never be explained. Stories make things interesting; why not learn some ocean folklore to uphold the ocean’s personality?

Siren Art by Mark Heine

Each-uisge

Not all sea monsters are giant squids of Jack Sparrow fame. The human imagination is adept at giving a shape to fear; something like water is impossible to keep in a set form.

Each-uisge is a sea monster of Scottish folklore. Its literal translation is water-horse. This monster is a shapeshifter; it can turn into a horse, pony, even into a handsome man!

Should somebody mount it while it is in horse form, they are only safe if the ocean is out of sight. A glimpse of the water changes the rider’s fate. The water-horse’s skin becomes like adhesive, making the rider helpless to dismount as the each-uisge dives into the sea.

Highland people are wary of wild horses—nobody wants to be drowned by a pony!

The Flying Dutchman

Ghost ships have marked ocean lore for as long as men have died at sea. Perhaps the most famous is the Flying Dutchman. Books and movies have been made about this spirit-ship doomed to sail on forever.

The oldest version of this legend originated in the 18th century. If hailed by another ship, the Flying Dutchman would attempt to send messages to land. At times, these messages would be to people long dead. Considered omens of death, sightings of the Flying Dutchman were dreaded by sailors.

Literary references to sightings of the Dutchman include a passage from Travels in various part of Europe, Asia and Africa during a series of thirty years and upward (1790) by John MacDonald:

The weather was so stormy that the sailors said they saw the Flying Dutchman. The common story is that this Dutchman came to the Cape in distress of weather and wanted to get into harbour but could not get a pilot to conduct her and was lost and that ever since in very bad weather her vision appears.

More literary references can be found on Wikipedia. A well-known sighting was reported by Prince George of Wales in 1880, the future King George V.

The Flying Dutchman by Stephen Palmer (Source)

Charybdis

Scholars have placed this sea monster from Greek folklore in the Strait of Messina. Charybdis appears with the sea monster Scylla to challenge heroes such as Odysseus and Aenas. Later myths identify her as the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia.

Charybdis and Scylla lived under large rocks, one on each side of a narrow channel. There was no way to escape their trap; the term ‘to be between Charybdis and Scylla’ means being presented with two opposite dangers.

Charybdis created giant whirlpools three times a day. She did this by swallowing large amounts of water, pulling sailors to their doom. In some variations of the myth, she is simply a giant whirlpool.

Siren

Ocean mythology would be incomplete without mention of the Siren. Not to be mistaken with a Mermaid, Sirens exist in different cultures under different disguises.

Some cultures portray them as beautiful women who live in the ocean; others describe them as women with birds’ feathers and scaly feet. What all Sirens have in common is a wicked custom of luring sailors to their death, usually with their songs.

Ovid wrote that Sirens were the companions of Persephone as a young girl. After Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, Demeter gave them wings to find her. When they failed to locate Persephone, Demeter cursed them. They were destined to live only until the humans who heard their songs passed by.

Another legend says that Hera persuaded the Muses to participate in a singing competition with the Sirens. When the Muses won, they plucked the Sirens’ feathers as a punishment. Wingless, the Sirens fell into the sea of Aptera, where they formed the islands known as Leukai.

Funayūrei

Ships are not the only ghostly bodies thought to dwell near the ocean. According to Japanese legend, Funayūrei are angry spirits of the sea. They appear in writings from the Edo period; they have not faded from modern folk customs.

Funayūrei are said to be the spirits of humans who died in shipwrecks. These angry spirits want to doom more humans to death at the bottom of the ocean. They would make ladies fill boats with water in order to make them sink.

Their appearances vary widely in the different legends. Some float above the water; others appear on ships to haunt sailors. They are more likely to appear when it is raining or during nights when the moon is full.


Maybe you’ve never seen The Flying Dutchman, but have you heard the sound of wind before a storm? Have you ever stared at an approaching wave and wondered if it was coming for you?

The sea is full of mysteries. Since humans can never control the sea, it strikes fear into our hearts. Coming up with stories gives us a fleeting grasp on it.

I’ve gathered butterfly myths and star myths. The stories of our ancestors are a great part of who we are as a race. Get to know those beliefs; you might find that a voice deep inside of you still believes.

Mona Lisa’s Romantic Disappearance


Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R. A. Scotti is a book that helps put Mona Lisa’s fame into perspective. Most people know her as Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.

We can get a better grasp of her fame after learning about the drama that took place in 1911.

In August 1911, the Louvre Museum was stirred from its routine by horrific news. Usually displayed in the Salon de Carré, where she was visited by artists and suitors, Mona Lisa had vanished. Under the spot where the portrait had hung was a plaque reading her name, but she was nowhere to be found.

Her empty frame was discovered in one of the corridors, as well as the glass case meant to protect her from outsiders. A broken doorknob indicated a route of escape that the thief might have taken.

1910 Map of the Louvre

Pre-Theft Louvre

How was this possible in a museum containing so many treasures? The ugly truth is that the Louvre Museum before Mona Lisa’s theft was lax in security. It was understaffed and too large for there to be guards everywhere.

The director of the museum was fired after Mona Lisa’s disappearance.

In 1911, the Louvre had more exits available for thieves to slip through. Visitors were allowed to grab paintings for photographs without written consent. Curators and guards were so busy that none of them noticed Mona Lisa’s disappearance for three days.

She was last known to have been in the Salon de Carré on Sunday evening; her absence was not discovered until Tuesday morning.

Parisians were outraged that it had been so easy for the painting to disappear under guards’ very noses. The greatest available detective would be required to solve such a mystery.

Alphonse Bertillon was called in the very Tuesday that Mona Lisa’s disappearance was noticed.

Alphonse Bertillon, detective. He pioneered in using photography to help solve crimes.

Sherlock Holmes’ Hero

Alphonse Bertillon was Chief of the Judicial Identity of the Paris Prefecture. He was the closest they could get to Sherlock Holmes in this most Holmesian of cases.

In a short story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of the Naval Treaty, Holmes tells Watson that he admires the French policeman Alphonse Bertillon. Naval Treaty was published in a collection of Holmesian short stories in 1893.

Sherlock uttered these words before the Mona Lisa disappeared. Was it a premonition?

Bertillon came with all of the tools of the trade. This included his magnifying glass, dusting powder, and a trail of assistants to photograph the scene. Photography of crime scenes was a new practice which Bertillon pioneered.

He examined Mona Lisa’s empty frame and the glass case that held her. Using his magnifying glass, he searched for evidence that could give a name to the heinous thief: fingerprints.

A perfect thumbprint was discovered on the glass case which had held Mona Lisa.

Paris, France: MONA LISA THEFT, 1911. The gap on the wall of the Carre Gallery of the Louvre Museum, Paris, where the Mona Lisa was exhibited before it was stolen 1911. ©Mary Evans Picture Library / The Image Works

Salon Full of Suspects

Louis Lepine, Prefect of the Seine, arranged for the theft to be repeated by two groups on a different painting of the same size.

The first group to recreate the theft was comprised of ordinary gendarmes. They struggled to remove the art from the frames and did a clumsy job of it. The second group was made up of Louvre workers–people familiar with the museum and comfortable handling art in their cases.

The Louvre workers removed the painting from its frame and case in moments. This provided clues for Bertillon—and a great deal of embarrassment for museum staff.

It suggested that the theft had been committed by someone who worked at the museum. He must have been familiar with the halls and glass cases, so that they wouldn’t be such obstacles.

Could a thief have been mingling with curators and guards long enough to plan a heist?

Seeking a Match

Lepine requested that a list be compiled naming everybody who’d had access to the museum between that Sunday and Tuesday.

The long window of time was discouraging. Whoever had stolen the painting could have escaped France by the time guards noticed her absence. He might be on a ship halfway across the world.

Proceedings continued, though officers began to doubt that Mona Lisa would ever be seen again.

Each Louvre custodian, curator, workman and photographer on Lepine’s list was fingerprinted and interrogated. One guard confessed that Mona Lisa had been left alone from eight to ten o’clock on Monday morning. He had been called away from the Salon de Carré to help move paintings in another part of the museum.

This gave the thief two hours’ free rein to remove the painting from its frame and flee.

Mona Lisa’s Lover

The guard then confessed an unnerving detail.

He had been seeing a young man pay weekly visits to the Mona Lisa. Sometimes this man would bring her flowers, as if they were lovers. Could this obsessed visitor have been alone with the object of his affections that Monday? Was he deranged enough to have stolen her?

This revelation provided the Louvre with a way to save face. The thief was not necessarily one of their staff; it could have been one of her unstable courtiers. While police continued to question museum workers, the public was told about Mona Lisa’s admirer.

It was the sort of story that the media cannot resist. Chicago Tribune commented wryly on the matter:

So, Mona Lisa has another lover! … Now, after four and a half centuries, Leonardo’s subtle lady wins another lover, and her tantalizing discretion quite forgot, she flees with her wooer. Ten thousand dollars for her return, cries Paris. … No one man should have exclusive right to feed on that mysterious loveliness.


This ends the first part of my series on Mona Lisa’s disappearance. After I’d read Vanished Smile, I struggled for a way to sum up the story for my blog.

When Mona Lisa disappeared, the world reacted in outrage. When newspapers and the French government offered rewards for her return, false paintings were provided by people hoping for money. Billionaires like J. P. Morgan and artists like Pablo Picasso were pulled into the matter.

To leave out one surreal detail does this story a disservice. There is more to the Mona Lisa than her mysterious smile; there’s a reason why she now has a bulletproof chamber at the museum.

Behind every great story is an even greater story; the Mona Lisa’s is no exception. I will post more about the investigation in a few days.

Learning to Teach History: Interview with Phillip Campbell


In recent years I have discovered a new interest in history. My motto for this blog is that behind every great story is an even greater story.

This refers to three things. First, it speaks of the effort going on behind the scenes when an author writes a book. Secondly, think of a painting. It’s easy to admire as an image, but often is so much more. If you’ve studied art, you know that very few immortal paintings exist for the sake of existing. Great works of art tend to have stories woven in between brushstrokes.

The third and broadest type of ‘story’ I refer to with my motto is history.

When we see the fireworks on Independence Day, we celebrate our freedom. How often do we set aside the hot dogs and ponder those men who, centuries ago, stood up in defense of their rights?

We idolize Vincent van Gogh for his story and his poignant art, make jokes about the ear incident. Do we know why he cut off his ear? Behind every great (and I mean great in the sense of huge, not always good, as in the case of van Gogh) story is a greater story.

We cannot let these stories become lost in time; they are relevant as the marble statues in front of the Capital building. Maybe we can’t see the stitches in that old quilt Grandma gave us; it doesn’t make the effort of perfecting those stitches less meaningful.

I believe history should be taught thoroughly, and so does my good friend Phillip Campbell. A history teacher, he’s published a book about how to teach history.

How do you present events with the dignity they deserve? How can you see the stitches in the quilt? What can we do to help those we are teaching to appreciate those stitches, too?


The Catholic Educator’s Guide to Teaching History, Phillip Campbell

I asked him a few questions about the past and its significance. I’m excited to read his book, The Catholic Educator’s Guide to Teaching History. My quest for this blog, digging up those small stitches and presenting them to you, will benefit from his wisdom.

It’s not only our duty to learn history–we must also pass it on. Purchase his book today.


Tell us your goal in writing this book. How will it change the way readers think of the past?

I wrote The Catholic Educator’s Guide to Teaching History to be a summary of my 15+ years experience teaching history in Catholic educational environments. This book is for parents or teachers who are trying to teach history in various settings: classroom, homeschool, or co-op. I’m hoping this book will help these people to teach history in a way that is engaging and memorable. 

Too many people complain that they found history classes in school to be boring and uninspiring. This is a true shame, as history is full of the greatest stories one will ever encounter. History is ultimately just the story of the human race! It’s unfortunate that it is often made dull by people who teach it poorly. Hopefully my book will contribute in some small way to turning that around.

There’s a lot to say about how to handle the past as a subject of study, but the crux of my method (at least when dealing with children) is capturing the narrative arc of history. In other words, returning the story to history. Everybody loves a good story, especially children. 

If we can really present our historical content as a story—complete with characters, plot, climax, and resolution—it becomes immensely more accessible. And the best part is we don’t have to create the story ourselves; it’s already there, we merely need to tailor our approach in such a way that the narrative structure of history is highlighted for young minds. This is what makes history “come alive” for people.  

Why is it important to teach and study history?

That is a very broad question, to which many answers have been given over the years. For most people, this question immediately brings to mind the famous quote of philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

I have always disliked it as a comprehensive explanation of why we ought to study history. It takes a very pessimistic view of human civilization, essentially viewing history as nothing but an embarrassing burden we are “condemned” to deal with. Human nature is capable of great darkness, to be sure, but also great beauty. 

I, for one, prefer not to view history as something that only dooms us, something we must constantly be struggling to escape. But beyond this, we could also critique Santayana’s maxim for being too utilitarian. While building a more peaceful society for all humanity is certainly a worthy goal, doesn’t the study of history have some rationale more intrinsic to our own character development? Something more personal?

Traditionally, history has been a core part of the so-called “liberal arts” curriculum. The liberal arts are those studies whose purpose is to develop our own intellectual capacity and character (as opposed to professional or vocational skills). One does not study literature, poetry, or art because this knowledge keeps the electricity running or helps us make a buck. We study them because they form our character by ennobling our individual potential. They elevate our minds. They teach us to think. They make us more human. 

The ancients viewed history in this manner. Cicero said, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” Understanding the things that came before our own life experience is essential to understanding not only the world we live in, but our very selves. 

A person unfortunate enough to suffer complete amnesia loses their identity entirely, for a person who doesn’t know where they have been does not know who they are. Similarly, to the degree we live without knowledge of where we have been, to that degree we remain stunted in our understanding of ourselves. In the words of Cicero, we are still, in some sense, a “child.”

Did any authors or historical figures influence this book?

I was deeply influenced by the classical approach to history as exemplified by the Greeks and Romans. The Greeks assigned history its own muse, Clio, the “Proclaimer”, the inspirational goddess of history. That history should be numbered amongst the Nine Muses—with such subjects as poetry and dance—gives us profound insight into the real value of historical study. 

The Muses were goddesses of inspiration; that is, the arts of the Muses are those that inspire and require inspiration. They help us transcend the workaday world and find value in life in an existential manner, connecting with things bigger than ourselves. That was part of my vision, to enable people to be inspired by history in a way that helps them connect with their own existence in a more meaningful way.

I mentioned Cicero above. Another inspiration is Livy, the ancient Roman author who compiled a history of Rome from the founding of the city to his own day. Livy stressed the moral value of history as a lesson in human nature—we are edified by the deeds of the righteous and horrified by the evils of the wicked. I just think the ancients were so much more in tune with the character building aspect of history than modern people.

If a person decided to study history, which three books would you recommend to them?

It depends on what era of history you want to study, and one’s level of cognition. 

Assuming we are talking to adults, I have a few recommendations: an excellent book that gives a solid introduction to the Middle Ages is Norman Cantor’s book The Civilization of the Middle Ages. My go-to book for ancient Rome is Michael Grant’s 1978 masterpiece History of Rome. It gets so much more fragmented when you get into modern history, and American history especially. 

It’s challenging to recommend a single comprehensive book. I guess I will take the opportunity to make a shameless plug for my own two texts on modern Europe and American history: Story of Civilization Volume 3: The Making of the Modern World, and Story of Civilization Volume 4: The History of the United States. These books are meant for younger readers, but adults enjoy them as well because, as I said, everyone loves a story!

It’s important to read lots of books to obtain a well-rounded view of history. For example, no one would say, “If you want to appreciate literature, what three books would you read?” Because the reality is, we develop our literary taste by reading a great variety of books. 

Obviously we have to start somewhere, and I think that’s what your question is getting at. But ultimately if we want to be historically literate, we need to get our history from a diversity of sources as well. I don’t have just one book about a given period. Incidentally, this also helps inoculate you against historical bias, because the more history you read the more discerning your historical sense becomes.

END


The Creators of CARMEN: Prosper Mérimée and Georges Bizet


My recent recommitment to learning the piano led me to a passion for classical music. I have a book of simplified classic songs my late grandmother gave me. It is one of my most treasured gifts from Grandma Colleen.

I’ve been working through the pieces for a little over a month. To my delight, I came across one of my favorite songs: Habanera from the opera Carmen.

Habanera is not a difficult song to play. It’s packed with energy that keeps me awake as I’m practicing it. It makes me want to dance in a frilly skirt and sing off-key. I would venture to say Habanera is one of the songs that most people have heard in passing, even if they do not know where it is from.

There is no such thing as a coincidence, but something delightful happened last month, after I had begun practicing Habanera. I was reading the spectacular memoir The Seine by Elaine Sciolino, and she brought up composer Georges Bizet. He wrote the songs for Carmen’s opera adaptation.

Sciolino told the story of the opera’s premiere. With its sensuality and suggestive language, Carmen scandalized crowds, so its first reviews were heavy with outrage.

Those were different times, indeed.

Depressed by this cold reception of Carmen, Bizet fell victim to depression. It became so crippling that when he died, people speculated he had taken his own life. Carmen was the labor of his hard work and tears; any artist could understand the effect of scathing reviews.

That Bizet took his life appears to be a Parisian myth. In reality, Bizet had suffered from health problems throughout his life. He made a rash decision that winter to go for a swim in the Seine river. This is a bad decision because the Seine was freezing–but also because it’s dirty! After his swim, he contracted a violent fever. This induced a heart attack which led to his death on 3 June, 1875.

If only he could have known that the play would become timeless. Like Vincent van Gogh, his work was not appreciated in his lifetime.


When I had read about Georges Bizet in that chapter of The Seine, I was struck with curiosity about the man who wrote the story–the novella off of which the opera was based. 

Prosper Mérimée, born in 1805, was a French writer. He pertained to the movement of Romantic literature. Mérimée was one of the pioneers of the novella, which is defined as a short novel or a long short story. Carmen is a novella, and I finished it in a day.

Mérimée learned Russian and went on to translate the works of important writers such as Pushkin and Gogol. From 1830 to 1860, he became an inspector of French historical monuments, overseeing their preservation. This included the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. I can only imagine his heartbreak if he could see what has become of it now!

A Still from Carmen. Source: The Guardian

Mérimée seemed destined for great things, because he also made an important discovery that would forever change the world of visual art.

Along with author George Sand, he discovered the famous tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn. Not only did he write Carmen, a story which become a timeless opera; he also discovered those tapestries that enchant us today!

There is so much more to the story of Carmen and her creators, but it would not fit into a blog post. I’m a history geek and I had a field day reading about these incredible men. When I read Carmen, it dawned on me that a story can take on many forms: written and musical. 

When you read intentionally, you find that underneath every great story is a greater story. History is important because it shows us what humans are capable of. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and the lives of these two remarkable men could pass as yarns of fiction.

Never disbelieve that there is wonder in this world: all you have to do is explore history to find it.