A historian’s experiment in creative fiction

For an interdisciplinary seminar I’m taking this semester on the bourgeoisie and the city in the nineteenth century I decided to compose a work of creative fiction as my first paper rather than a traditional research essay. It was probably the first time I’ve written fiction since elementary school. Somehow I thought it would not only be more fun than writing a research essay, but faster as well. I was wrong on the latter point and not entirely right on the former. It took much longer than I expected and actually required a good bit of research beyond the course materials and theoretical approaches we were required to utilize and engage with. For a research essay or book review, I generally write at a rate of about an hour per page. (That is after I’ve completed all of my reading and outlining.) For this work of fiction I’d say I more than doubled the amount of time spent on each page.

Some of this was due to the additional research I conducted in an effort to make the fiction more immersive and hence more believable, but I also wasted a lot of time worrying about whether or not what I was writing was any good. This happens, to a degree, with anything I write. My professors, critics, and colleagues are often in my head as I outline and while I consider how to phrase a particular idea or argument. Eventually, of course, I have to kick them out and follow my instincts. Plus some are just too darn chatty to allow me to get anything done. But I found this process a bit more difficult when writing fictional narrative. As a student of history, I was quite self-conscious about writing fiction. Was I doing it right? Was I committing all kinds of literary sins, the very names of which I would be incapable of comprehending? What, I wondered, would the english-lit folks in class think if they ever read it?

Concerns aside, I was rather surprised to experience that old familiar feeling of satisfaction at having written something that effectively communicated my thoughts–while writing fiction! Who knew? Enter the fun aspect. I remain convinced that what I’ve produced is useful to my goal of understanding the lived experience of a person in a particular historical setting. I’ll leave it up to others to determine whether or not it contains any actual literary value. Posted below for your reading pleasure (or displeasure) is what I concocted.

The Legacy of Maxwell Montclaire

Maxwell Montclaire dressed himself swiftly and quietly. He preferred not to wake the young woman sleeping amid the tangle of sheets in the bed behind him. She breathed steadily and heavily in the dim, humid air, seeming completely at peace in her slumber. Maxwell wondered for a moment at her ability to achieve a deep sleep even in the presence of a virtual stranger. He supposed that somehow, from one night to the next, this woman had accustomed herself to her situation and that it must be her ability to accept whatever circumstances she found herself in at the end of her day that enabled her to enter the tranquil state in which she now rested. He regarded it as a remarkable achievement, but not one that he fully comprehended. Maxwell was a man of little means but much ambition, and he intended to rise in the world. To him, circumstances were a reality to rise above rather than accept and make peace with.

He returned his attention to his dress. As his long, slender fingers worked the buttons of his fine white linen shirt, Maxwell considered the reflection in the mirror before him. In his thick black hair, dark eyes, and aqualine nose Maxwell saw the traces of what the Montclaires had once been and the promise of what he could make them again. His features greatly resembled those of his grandfather, Gerard Montclaire, once a savvy merchant and the proud patriarch of a great family. As he righted his collar and made minute adjustments to his French blue-grey silken cravat, Maxwell called to mind the few clear memories of his grandfather he possessed. They were all quite similar.

In his mind’s eye he saw his grandfather, seated upon a sturdy parlor chair composed of rich, dark mahogany. The chair’s seat and backing were covered in a blood-red brushed velvet. His grandfather leaned intently over a letter desk carved of the same fine mahogany and made entries in an oversized book with a worn leather binding. Now and then he paused, lips moving silently, and dipped his silver-tipped pen into an ornate inkwell wrought in the form of a lion. The carpet at his feet bore ornate Turkish patterns at its borders and seemed as thick and full as moss on a deep forest floor. The heavy smell of cigar smoke, cognac, and furniture polish hung in the air. Nearly all of Maxwell’s memories of his grandfather were set in the old family parlor, yet he could not recall a single instance of his grandfather truly at leisure in the domestic space. There were, to be true, a few sparse memories of his grandfather reading a heavy book in the parlor, his pale white hands gently fingering the luminously gilded edge of a page as he contemplated the text. Maxwell could even recall his grandfather savoring a luxuriant evening meal in the elegant dining room, glass of fragrant dark wine sparkling in his hand under the delicate glow of the crystal chandelier. But it seemed that Gerard Montclaire had always moved with the family firm somewhere in his mind. And although he was only a boy of eight at the time of his grandfather’s death, Maxwell’s memories of the man left him with the strong impression that his grandfather had been a man of the utmost seriousness, dignity, and dedication. Of course, in those days things had been quite different for the Montclaires.

The family had once been held in high regard in their native country. The Montclaires may not have been noblesse ancienne, but they were widely respected throughout France’s tightly-woven circles of commerce and exchange. The exploitation of military conflict was their specialty, and Gerard Montclaire in particular was known for his uncanny ability to predict the route the Montclaire wares would need to take in the event that hostilities erupted. He always seemed to know not only exactly what needed to be ready to move but also when the best time to move it was. He had been just a child during the Napoleonic Wars, but it was said that he cut his teeth in the arms business by selling to the révoltés in the weeks leading up to the Trois Glorieuses. In fact, this was Gerard Montclaire’s first great victory for the family and was celebrated as an assurance that his generation would not merely contribute to the family legacy but build upon it. By the time of the conquest of the Algerian territories, Gerard had ascended to brokering a large share of the nation’s weapons and matériel purchases. His dealings in the Revolutions of 1848 solidified his reputation as a man highly adept at foreign commerce and reliable as a source of essential goods in times of widespread chaos. But it was his timely shipment of guns and ammunition to the Allies on Brassey and Peto’s Grand Crimean Central Railway during the Siege of Sevastopol”s late November starving time that earned him the most fame—as well as record returns.

By then the situation of the family seemed so secure that none of them could imagine a future in which the Montclaires did not continue to rise. Their grand stone estate on the western edge of Le Marais, near Paris’ business district in the deuxième arrondissemont, regularly hosted esteemed guests from every corner of the nation. The family enjoyed sumptuous surroundings, the finest food, the latest fashions, and one of the best wine collections north of Burgundy. Although Maxwell’s father, Bernhard Montclaire, seemed to possess none of Gerard’s commercial savvy or instinctual attunement to the ebb and flow of nationalistic passions, it was assumed Bernhard would eventually find some niche of his own that would enable him to contribute to the Montclaire fortune. Yet, in spite of the many opportunities Gerard found for his son, Bernhard floundered.

Donning his doe brown tweed knee-length frock coat, Maxwell again regarded his visage. His heart quickened and he felt a flash of heat at the recognition of the dissonance between his features and those of his father. Bernhard Montclaire, genealogical aberration, omen of familial misfortune and ruin, had possessed a physicality entirely inconsistent with the Montclaire tradition. He had been a lean, almost gaunt man with thin, featherweight pale brown hair, a nervous temperament, and a delicate stomach. Maxwell’s mind conjured up the image of his father’s small, bluish hands being wrung. Those effete, overrefined hands contorting in discomfort and anxiety symbolized to Maxwell all his father had lacked. Bernhard had inherited none of the great patriarch’s élan vital; he was a disappointment in both appearance and intellect. And when, little more than three years after the triumph of Sevastopol Gerard Montclaire died in a fit of convulsions, young Maxwell beheld in his grandfather’s horrified expression what he now interpreted as the ghastly specter of the family’s future. The loss of grandfather Gerard heralded the ruin of the Montclaires; Bernhard’s desperate efforts to assume his father’s place resulted in the fast and steep decline of the family’s economic and social stock. Maxwell set out on his own as soon as he was able, though the incongruous circumstances of the intervening years significantly affected his psyche.

Maxwell turned back once more to ensure that the young woman slept on and, positioning his felt derby hat in place, moved carefully for the door. It eased open without a sound, leading him to wonder if its hinges were kept well-oiled for the express purpose of enabling silent departures such as his. He pulled his hat down lower on his forehead and made his way down the darkened hall. He averted the eyes of the few women he passed and offered only the briefest of glances to the men. Stepping out onto the street he confronted a host of odors that had yet to reach their peak in the morning air—the sticky ash of burned coal, vegetables rotting in the gutter, dried horse urine mixed with the cypress planks that lined the road, and the fried, salted catfish that constituted the breakfast of so many of the Acadians of the district. The glare of the rising sun struck his eyes sharply as looked up at the skyline of the city of Lafayette. Although it was late June the early hour and a cool breeze moving west off the Vermilion River meant that Maxwell would arrive at his destination without becoming too damp and disheveled. This was good, as appearances mattered a great deal where he was going.

He moved at a leisurely pace, allowing his hands to slip around the front of his coat and into the pockets of his green twill trousers. With slackened arms and relaxed shoulders, Maxwell studied the world around him as he made his way through it. The buildings that lined Pinhook Road consisted primarily of drab single or double-story tenement houses constructed of a combination of cypress, ash, and dogwood. There was little oak to be found in this part of the city. Flapping lines of laundry hung in patches from most of the porches, the dull color of the garments suggesting a grime that belied washing. What few windows there were appeared smoky with dirt. Most of the district’s inhabitants had either already set out for the morning to fish or were just beginning to stir; Maxwell only had to endure one or two harsh stares for his meticulous dress before he turned toward Johnston Street and left the Acadian district behind.

He knew it was perhaps unwise to move through the Cajun French areas of the city adorned as he was in the style of a gentleman, but the recreation was a release from the strictures his ambition imposed upon him. The clothing had taken much time and effort to acquire, but the sort of business he needed to conduct to rise in the world and create a legacy for himself demanded a wardrobe that was every bit as serious as he was. As Maxwell drew nearer to Johnston Street the scenery and atmosphere of the city began to shift. The air grew clearer and fresher. The ground was less marshy, the road tidier. The buildings became larger and taller and although cypress remained the dominant wood, splashes of oak and maple could be seen here and there. The homes were constructed in a consistent manner; many were lacquered with bright white paint. True architecture began to emerge in the form of ordered, decorative facades, rounded porches supported by thick columns, and rounded windows with shining panes of clear glass. Turning onto Johnston Street, even more impressive buildings of brick and stone began to appear. Maxwell’s destination could be seen just two blocks away: a stout rectangular hotel in the colonial style, rising up several stories from the ground. The sight elicited a feeling of relief in Maxwell that swelled the nearer he drew, but it was not until he entered the lobby that his relief gave way to an ease he had only known in childhood.

As he drew the smell of leather, cigar smoke, fresh-cut flowers, and perfume deep into his lungs, Maxwell’s past came up to meet him. In the midst of the hotel’s polished floors, stone columns, bright lights, elegant guests, and luxurious furnishings, he was again a Montclaire. Like his grandfather he was serious, dignified, and dedicated, his mind completely focused on achieving the task at hand. He experienced no anxiety as he glided across the marbled floor of the lobby’s standing area and onto the plush carpet that led to an arrangement of well-upholstered sofas and chairs. He opened his frock coat and seated himself in a rosewood armchair with lightly striped silk padding. Next to him was a lustrous pecan side table with scrolled edges and clawed feet. It was here that he would meet his client and complete the next link in a chain of transactions that would lead him toward redemption. Maxwell possessed the unadulterated commercial and instinctual faculties of his grandfather, and he meant to use them to restore the Montclaires to greatness.

One comment

  1. Wow, great story Michelle! Very nice attention to detail–I particularly like the smells in the street and the non-squeaky door. The aspects of family/generational personality present in physiognomy definitely reminded me of Buddenbrooks. Very impressive!

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