How did So Much More evolve?
This story came from history. I’ve always loved the idea of stepping back into another time and place and seeing the world from that perspective. My love of history combined with my devotion to women’s history brought So Much More to life. About twenty years ago I’d been part of an amazing group of scholars, teachers, professors and historians who had discovered original research on notable women from New Jersey. I found an incredible woman from Morristown, Alison Turnbull Hopkins, who had been a debutante and society bride in 1902 and eventually become a radical suffragette with Alice Paul. (another NJ notable NJ woman!). All this fed my imagination and I wanted to create a life behind the façade of balls and debutantes and marriages at the turn of the last century in a small quiet town.
As I researched I discovered a town of hidden millionaires. There was more money and mansions in Morristown at the turn of the last century than there were in Newport, Rhode Island! I found this astounding and was determined to discover who these families were. My work led me to financiers, importers, bankers and investors. Most lived tucked away in huge stone mansions on mountains in Somerset County or at the end of tree lined drives in Morristown. A few of these homes still exist and some have been converted to nursing homes or offices. Their facades remain holding secrets of the families who lived there. My discovery of so many famous names fired my imagination to think of the role of women at the turn of the last century. Few had lives of their own, being handed from father to husband at their weddings. Their days filled with fashion, babies and gossip. A few did good works for the community or worked for the poor or the rights of women but they were only a small percentage.
I wanted to give voice to three women from three different perspectives. Thus Alice, Francesca and Claire appeared. They came to life through their mansions and families. Each one was a totally different version of the woman of the early 20th century.
Alice was named after Alison Hopkins. Though Mrs. Hopkins was devoted to women getting the vote, Alice was passionate about art. She needed to create and paint and immerse herself in canvas, oils and watercolors. In choosing a career over a man she went against everything Morristown revered. Her widowed father only wanted the best for her and was convinced a steady, reliable young man would guide her back toward a ‘normal’ life.
Francesca is a mystery. I’d always loved this name and needed to make her character equal to her tempestuous, exotic nature. She has a secret and that makes her seductive to men and a threat to women. Her mother is a beauty who has instilled in her only child the importance of knowing your strengths and not allowing others to curtail your individuality. Mother and daughter are seen as unusual and not the norm in this staid community. Francesca’s father is equally strong willed and charming and has an import business which offers a foreign intrigue to their family dynamic. Francesca wants to prove a point about her life, she is dismissed from Morristown society, but she knows her secret will elevate her to a position none of the other families can equal.
Claire is a down to earth horsewoman. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly and speaks her mind. She is much more comfortable in her stable than at a ball or afternoon tea. Though she can dress the part and follow the unwritten rules of society, she only wants to ride and have a stable of her own. Claire has three sisters and her father is determined to have them all launched into society and married. He has no patience with women who think they know what they want, he knows better.
During that summer in Morristown a young English aristocrat arrives to recover from a wound he received in the Boer War. He only wants to rest at his cousin’s house and the last thing on his mind is finding a wife. He is introduced to all the beauties of town at a summer party but finds himself attracted to a delicate blond beauty and an exotic dark haired worldly woman. My idea for William Barret came from an old photograph of an unknown young man sitting in a photographer’s studio in evening dress. His face was strong and yet innocent. He seemed to draw me into creating a life for him beyond this photo. I often find myself wondering if he would be happy in the life I created for him.
I studied literature and history at American University and have combined these two passions in my writing. My special passion is for women in Greenwich Village from 1910 to 1920 when free love, free thinking and freedom were on the firing line. These special, intriguing women artists, writers, sculptors, politicians and activists fired my imagination every time I read another biography. When I walked the streets of Greenwich Village I felt them walking next to me urging me to tell their stories and what happened to them.
As my education continued to a Masters and eventual Doctorate my love for women’s history grew. My dissertation was a critical biography of the rise and fall of Zona Gale, a women from the Midwest who became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1921. She was on the cutting edge of women in journalism, poetry, drama, the occult and literature. Gale was a prolific writer and well-loved and popular in American from 1905 to 1930. Though she is not remembered today, she was one of the women who broke with a secure, quiet life in Wisconsin to seek her destiny in New York City and eventually follow her star to a writing career.
So Much More could be seen as the pre-quel to my other novels of women who would spring from towns like Morristown. As the 20th century evolved, women took hold of their lives by force and forged a place for themselves at the table. Claire, Francesca and Alice were all forerunners of today’s strong women, still looking for a place in the world and fighting for their right to be at that table we call life.
Excerpt Two from Chapter Seven of So Much More by Janet Gibbs – 1, 098 words
William stood and gasped. Francesca Dunbar was obviously used to this reaction. She thoroughly enjoyed seeing men catch their breath when they saw her. Her hair was softly caught at the back of her neck and she wore a pale blue flowing dress which outlined her tapered waist and emphasized her elegant neck. Huge pearl earbobs danced as she came toward them.
Clearly aware of the power her presence had, her eyes sparkled at the effect she had on him. Though she dressed like a gentile lady she had a look of danger which both repelled and excited William. She walked slowly to the chaise and lay like a fallen swan on its faded silk damask. Her arms rested on its wooden frame and her body languished on the entire length.
“May I have some wine, Papa?” He brought her a crystal goblet and she took a sip and let her tongue run over the rim of the glass.
She turned to William and smiled slightly. "Tell me, Mr. Barrett, what did you do in the war? I hear you were wounded."
"Yes, I was hit with a bullet fragment in the leg. Nothing too serious, but enough to send me home. I lost my best friend, it has been hard to recover. I thought a change of scenery would do me good.
"You must have your hands full with this house and the garden. We English pride ourselves on our gardens, they are sometimes more important than the house itself," William said, turning to Mr. Dunbar.
Making small talk was not William's favorite thing to do but it kept him from staring at Francesca as she sipped her drink. She smiled obliquely in his direction, as if she were waiting for her father to leave.
"Yes, it does keep me busy but my wife, Delphine, is a wonderful organizer and she takes care of the house. Ah, here she is now.”
A beautiful, elegant woman entered the room like a warm wind.
Standing immediately, William gave a slight bow to the woman who looked like the portrait in the hall. She spoke first. “Good afternoon, Mr. Barrett. Francesca told me you were joining us for tea.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Dunbar, it was most kind of you to extend your invitation.”
Delphine took his hand and placed her other on top of his. Her touch was warm and comforting. Her voice was soft with a hint of an accent. “It is so rare to have an Englishman in our midst.”
William could not deny the charm of Delphine Dunbar, she was a lady but with a hint of seduction beneath her gaze, not unlike her mysterious daughter.
Paul Dunbar stood and walked to his wife’s side. He kissed her cheek and said, “Now, I'm afraid you will have to excuse me. I have an appointment in town and I'm late as it is."
William shook his hand. "Do sit down, please make yourself at home. I'm sure my wife and daughter will take good care of you." Leaning to his daughter, he kissed the top of her head and walked down the steps to the stables.
Paul Dunbar was a powerful man, large boned with broad shoulders, a master of his world as he walked through the garden edged in tightly cropped boxwood and fragrant roses.
"Papa is so sweet." Rising, Francesca smoothed her gown and looked at her mother. “Mama, I think I will take Mr. Barrett to see the rest of our house."
The lovely woman sitting at her daughter’s side nodded slightly and reached for a cup of tea. “By all means, please enjoy your visit. Be sure to see me before you depart.”
William nodded. "Yes, of course, Mrs. Dunbar.”
As the two made their way through the salon, he caught the scent of jasmine surrounding Francesca as she led him into the salon once again. They stopped by a table laden with sculpture. One particular piece took his eye. It showed a young girl holding a small vase, inclining her head shyly at the observer. Her face looked familiar and he realized it was Francesca.
"Do you recognize me?"
William nodded and pointed to another.
"Yes, these are all of me. When father and I travelled to the orient he had several people sculpt me. I think they're quite true to form, don't you?"
William wondered if this was part of her game. He realized he was sweating and pulled his collar from his neck.
Francesca had an alarming way of making him feel uncomfortable and yet familiar at the same time. He just couldn’t figure it out.
Her fingers were long and tapered and she used them to emphasize her thoughts just like his father did when he was giving William one of his many lectures. He did like to advise his son about life, especially women. There had been rumors about the duke and his conquests but William had never paid them much attention. No doubt those people were just rumor mongers intent on getting customers for their papers. However, nagging doubts sometimes entered his mind when he would see his father dash out in the evening and not return for several days. William had never felt neglected, his nannies and governess made sure of that, but as a young man he wondered about his father and of the stories that began to circulate amongst his friends. They had a habit of talking together and then stopping when he entered his club or on the polo field. No one ever said anything to his face, they were gentlemen, after all. But it didn’t stop William from wondering, if some of the stories were true.
“William, William, did you hear me?”
Francesca’s voice became more insistent as William came back from his daydreams and realized he’d been rude to his hostess.
“I’m so sorry, Miss Dunbar, my mind must have floated back to England for a moment. A credit to your ability to make one feel relaxed and at home.” Satisfied that he had assuaged her worry, he followed her down a long hall to a formal dining room. The ceiling was painted in the style of Versailles with cherubims and beautiful women adrift in ethereal clouds.
“What a magnificent painting, I’ve seen similar in the great houses of England.” William walked around the mahogany dining table with its twenty-four matching chairs, running his fingers along the smooth wood as he stared at the oil paintings and massive crystal chandelier.
About the Author
Janet Gibbs has researched and written extensively on women’s history. She researched and wrote three biographies for the book, Past and Promise, Notable New Jersey Women, published by Syracuse University Press, 1997. Her 2010 dissertation was a critical biography of Zona Gale, Literary Comet.
Her historical romance, So Much More, is an ebook currently appearing on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com. The paperback will appear in January 2016.
She has written non-fiction which has appeared in several newspapers including The New York Times. She was awarded a grant from the AAUW to complete her novel and was asked to read her poetry at the Princeton Arts Center.
Born in England she now resides in Northern New Jersey where she continues to write novels about strong women with a mind of their own.