Friday, October 13, 2006

Malvina Shankin Harlan's Some Memories of a Long Life

A lot of people have been asking me how my novel (set in Washington DC, Mexico City and Paris in the 1860s) is going. Good. Very good, actually. Part of the writing process is not writing, however, but reading. Recently I've been going through Malvina Shankin Harlan's Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854-1911, a sweet and surprisingly moving memoir by the wife of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan. I also love her language. Here are a few of the curious words and phrases she uses:
unspeakable calamity;
my fixed purpose;
to vanish like dew before the sun;
laughing in their sleeves;
a trifle unwise and hasty;
he was my oracle;
uproarious Jehu;
I double-knotted my purse strings;
garments (so-called) of such gauzy texture as to suggest nothing more than a butterfly's wing.

I suppose some of these were cliches of the time. To my ears they sound strange.