The author discusses Correspondence Course: The Bathsua Project, her multi-layered debut novel.
The Year of Magical Thinking, the title of Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir written in response to her husband's death, well describes Rhoda Trooboff’s complex debut novel. Correspondence Course, The Bathsua Project follows a “magical year” that takes Dee Young, a retired English teacher, from paralyzing grief at the death of her husband, Dan, to acceptance of the past and hope for the future.
Dee does not undertake this journey alone. Clinging to the possibility of reaching Dan in cyberspace, she sends obsessive emails to their joint email account. At the same time, she embarks upon a secret correspondence with Bathsua Makin, a 17th-century schoolteacher and tutor to one of the daughters of King Charles I. This correspondence begins innocently, if supernaturally, enough. Soon, in a niche in the Library of Congress’ Main Reading Room, the two women begin exchanging notes that bring their lives to life.
Bathsua Makin isn’t a household name. How did you discover her?
I first learned about Bathsua in the 1980s, when I was preparing to teach British Literature at National Cathedral School for Girls. Who were the women who deserved to be in the English literary canon before Jane Austen and the Brontës? I wondered. So Correspondence Course started with a question. I soon found myself a 17th-century women’s literary history hobbyist. My first notes about Bathsua were dated 1985, when I read Antonia Fraser’s The Weaker Vessel: Woman's Lot in Seventeenth-Century England. Bathsua lived during exciting, stressful times in English history — the Civil War, the regicide of Charles I (1649), the Plague Year of 1665, and the Great Fire of London (1666).
In 2001, I discovered Frances Teague’s excellent Bathsua Makin, Woman of Learning, which carefully documents Bathsua’s accomplishments as a teacher, linguist, and educational theorist. Teague’s book also provides excellent contextual material and points out poignant archival documentation of her personal life. Dry stuff, perhaps, but suggestive of a rich, compelling emotional life. I could hear so many dramatic stories behind every fact I learned.
Given your fascination with 17th-century history, how did the coupling of Bathsua’s 17th-century story with Dee’s modern-day life come about?
Confluence. Fascinated as I was by this obscure historical figure, wondering what lay behind the recorded facts, and fretting about bringing to life an obscure and ordinary woman living in a time of enormous national upheaval, I found myself, like others, unhinged in the year after 9/11, our annus horribilis. Might I explore Bathsua’s life through the lens of a modern DC woman who also lived at a time of enormous national upheaval? Parallels — correspondences — between Bathsua’s life and Dee’s started presenting themselves.
Would you call Correspondence Course an epistolary novel?
Absolutely. The novel begins with emails — our substitute for handwritten letters. But I’m nostalgic about “real” letters — the long, discursive, handwritten kind! So I decided to have Dee exchange old-fashioned letters with Bathsua — and at the same time continue to email Dan. During the 10 years or so that it took me to write Correspondence Course, I observed that email was totally changing the nature of letter writing. So I knew that I had to use both the old epistolary form — letters — and the new one — emails — as well as their enclosures, attachments, and mailboxes. Perhaps Correspondence Course is an elegy to the lost art of letter writing.
When only a few facts are known about Bathsua’s life, how were you able fill your novel with vibrant scenes that bring her alive?
Both research and imagination were crucial — and interdependent. Real-life events helped me create an appropriate timeline and context for Bathsua’s life. I did a lot of library research on many topics — the precarious lives of newborns and their mothers in the 17th century; the way schools functioned; the last days of King Charles and his precocious daughter Elizabeth; the history of Bedlam Hospital, where Bathsua’s brilliant father spent his final days. I spent valuable time in London at the Museum of London and walking in the neighborhood where Bathsua spent her childhood. The office building at No. 30 Saint Mary Axe Street, now the second tallest building in London and known fondly as the Gherkin, rises beside Saint Andrew Undershaft, where Bathsua first taught in her father’s schoolroom. These are only a few examples. All this research led to thrilling imaginings.
When Dee asks Bathsua about her relationship with her sister, Bathsua doesn’t answer directly but invents five amazing fairy tales that hint at it. And when Dee explores her relationship with her own aging father, she doesn’t analyze it, but examines it in the course of teaching “King Lear” to her students. Can you talk about this process?
I learned that the night before King Charles was executed, he was visited by his daughter Princess Elizabeth. She had been Bathsua’s pupil — a precocious, talented teenager under house arrest when Bathsua taught her Greek, probably by having her study and translate classical tragedies like Sophocles’ play “Electra.” Elizabeth was eventually taken off to a damp, drafty castle on the Isle of Wight, where she died several months later. I found myself imagining the last tutoring session, the last time Bathsua and her star pupil saw each other. Those imaginings became “A Play in the Style of a Sophoclean Tragedy.” There was no historical record of that tutoring session, of course, but there is evidence that Princess Elizabeth was familiar with “Electra.” And after Elizabeth’s death, she was compared to that ancient doomed princess.
Similarly, I imagined both Dee’s and Bathsua’s elderly fathers growing more and more problematic — now we call the condition senile dementia — and I decided to tackle their last days fictionally. I don’t know why Bathsua’s father died in an asylum for the insane, but I tried to imagine how that might have come to pass in 1635. In the case of Dee’s father, as you said, I used the device of the literary parallel to Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and Dee’s teaching the play as the key to unlock that sad time. In both cases, and throughout the novel, I sought fictional ways to explore huge crises in the personal lives of these two women.
At one point, Dee talks about how easy it is to present real life as fiction. “Rearrange some details, add others, subtract something here and there, assign characters fictitious names, and poof.” Is this what you did? Are you concerned that people might see your novel as memoir? Does it matter?
I’ve been intrigued for years by texts that inhabit the blurry, porous, contested borders between fiction and memoir and between fiction and nonfiction. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried may have sparked this interest. Other novels I love do this, too. Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name and Laurent Binet’s HHhH, both of which I’ve reviewed [for the Independent], are two such novels. So, too, is Zola’s L’Oeuvre, about the early Impressionist painters living and working in Paris.
Writing teachers say, “Write about what you know.” This makes huge sense. And I think creativity is like the workings of recombinant DNA, or like playing with a bag of Legos: Artists, scientists, composers, writers disassemble what they’ve been given in life and recombine that raw material — a little bit of this moment, that gesture, this emotion, that fragment of memory or melody or event or place or person — dislodging bits and pieces from their original situations and transforming and combining them with other bits into a work that is wholly new. So I’m okay with friends noticing bits of my life in Correspondence Course…and perhaps a few bits of their own lives, too.
Ending a book that deals with the supernatural can pose problems for an author. Without needing a spoiler alert, can you talk about the way you wrestled with this issue?
I fussed over this for a long time. As I approached drafting the last chapter, I was considering three possible endings. I then put the manuscript away for about a year. I knew I had to end Correspondence Course somehow, whether it worked or not. (Writing teachers also say, “Don’t get it right; get it written!”) Finally, I chose the ending that seemed easiest to write, perhaps because it’s the most plausible. I’m pretty satisfied with this ending, but I can still imagine ending the novel differently.
Well, I’m a children’s book publisher here in DC (Tenley Circle Press). I’m thinking about a book for young readers about a spunky, smart girl who grows up to be someone like Bathsua Makin!
Harriet Dwinell, a frequent contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books, has written for a number of local and national publications.