A 19th century writer-rock star, King James’ obsession, costly commas, and the Clinton impeachment revisited: newsletter, Sept. 7, 2018

September 10, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, grammar, history, newsletter.

This newsletter was emailed to everyone on Jim’s email list (x) on August 30, 2018

Too much good stuff to read, too little time. I am in the middle of an excellent novel by a well-known author at the moment, and I will tell you about it in a week or two. I’ve also started a book about the American Revolution that focuses on the relationship between Benedict Arnold and George Washington. I have also reached into the 19th century and spent some time with Sut Lovingood, George Washington Harris’ scamp of a character.

Then there’s Frances Hodgson Burnett, the most famous writer of the late 19th and early 20th century. She’s the main feature of the newsletter this week, and I’ll have much more to say about her in the coming weeks. The garden is finished, but there’s still the pasture to mow — and then there are all those projects that I have put off until “the weather gets cooler.” It’s September, but the weather so far isn’t that much cooler, so I suppose they can be put off a little longer.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ve had a wonderful week and are looking forward to a great weekend.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, a rock-star writer of the 19th and early 20th century

Frances Hodgson Burnett, another of The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, wrote prolifically and made a ton of money doing it. She traveled extensively, lived peripatetically, spent extravagantly, and maintained a lavish lifestyle that most of us could only imagine.

During her 30 years atop the world’s literary stage, she was one of the world’s most famous women.

When the serialization of Little Lord Fauntleroy was published in 1885, it was so wildly popular that readers waited breathlessly for the next installment and stood in line to buy copies of St. Nicholas magazine in which the episodes appeared. The story set off a fashion trend that eventually became the basis for the Buster Brown clothing line. The episodes were gathered together into book form in 1886 and became an international best-seller; the book was translated into 12 languages.

Burnett was, indeed, the J.K. Rowling of her day.

We remember Burnett for her children’s books today, but during her time, she also wrote best-selling adult fiction and highly popular stage plays. Little Lord Fauntleroy was turned into the stage play title The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy. Burnett had discovered that an unauthorized version of the book was being produced in a London theater; she then pursued and won a ground-breaking lawsuit for copyright infringement. The play she wrote went on to make as much money as the book did.

Burnett was born in Manchester, England, in 1849, but the family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, during her teenage years, to be close to an uncle. After the Civil War, however, Knoxville could offer them little in the way of economic opportunity, so Frances took up writing to try to earn an income. She sold her first story to Godey’s Lady Book in 1868 and thereafter worked manically at her writing, often sacrificing her health to keep up a steady income.

Frances married Swan Burnett, a Knoxville neighbor, and they eventually left Knoxville to live in Washington, D.C. There she became famous for the literary salons she hosted on Tuesday evenings, which the rich, famous, and politically powerful attended. She also had two sons on whom she lavished attention. Vivian, the younger son, was the model for Little Lord Fauntleroy. The marriage ended in divorce, as did her second marriage.

There is much more to her life’s story that what I have been able to relate here. 

She has been the subject of at least two major biographies:

Thwaite, Ann (1991), Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1849–1924, David R. Godine, ISBN 978-0-87923-790-5

Gerzina, Gretchen (2004), Frances Hodgson Burnett: the unexpected life of the author of The Secret Garden, Rutgers University Press, ISBN 0-8135-3382-1

I have been living with Burnett and her work for the last few weeks since we at the Blount County Public Library have decided to issue a new edition of The One I Knew the Best of All, Burnett’s autobiographical novel of her childhood. It will be the first of a series of books we will publish about the area or by authors associated with Southern Appalachia. Stay tuned. I’ll have more to say about that in the coming weeks.

Costly commas

God save the Queen!

God, save the Queen!

The presence or absence of punctuation — particularly the ubiquitous comma — can change the meaning of a sentence. And it can have massive consequences.

This BBC website article,  Pocket: The commas that cost companies millions tells about how the absence of a comma in a contract cost a dairy company in Portland, Maine, $5 million earlier this year. And this is not an isolated story.

“Punctuation matters,” says Ken Adams, author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. But not all punctuation is made equal: contractual minefields are not seeded with semicolons or em-dashes (here’s one: – ) waiting to explode when tripped over. “It boils down to commas,” says Adams. “They matter, and exactly how depends on the context.”

Learning and applying the standard and well-evolved rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation is the key to effective communication. Despite the many changes that our modern lives have witnessed, the importance of the rules of the language still rules.

Giveaways and offers

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”


King James, Bible scholar and witch hunter

The famous opening scene of The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare begins with the speeches of three witches. They predict what will happen in the play, but they are more than a dramatic device. They were a very pointed and obvious political statement.

That statement — something of a cheerleader’s “We’re with you all the way!” shout-out — was pointed directly at King James I.

We remember King James as the man who authorized the most famous translation of the Bible in history — the King James Version. He not only authorized it; he sent some specific directions to the translators and monitored its progress.

But there is another side to James that we forget today. He believed in witches and witchcraft and did his best to stamp it out both in Scotland, where he reigned as James VI and in England after he was crowned as James I in 1609.

James’ belief in witchcraft and his campaign against it is outlined in an interesting article in HistoryExtra, the website of the BBC History Magazine and BBC World History Magazine. The article is Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King James’s witch hunts  and was written by Tracy Borman), who has authored a book about King James’s attitude toward witchcraft. (Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts )

James’s obsession with witchcraft can be traced back to his childhood. The violent death of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, seems to have inspired a dark fascination with magic. “His Highness told me her death was visible in Scotland before it did really happen,” related Sir John Harington many years later, being, as he said, “spoken of in secret by those whose power of sight presented to them a bloody head dancing in the air”.

The article is a fascinating account of the James we may have thought we knew.

Slow Burn

It’s been almost two decades now (really? that long!), and the impeachment of Bill Clinton still rubs up against raw feelings on the part of Clinton’s supporters and opponents.

And even if you don’t have feelings about it that were generated at the time (maybe you weren’t old enough to really remember), you should list to Slate.com’s podcast series Slow Burn, Season 2: Bill Clinton. Even after nearly 20 years, we still don’t understand it. We don’t understand why Clinton did what he did? We don’t understand why his opponents were so dedicated to his destruction. We don’t understand why Republicans in Congress — when it was clear that the votes in the Senate were not there to convict the president — continued with their impeachment quest.

That lack of understanding is the reason for the podcast in the first place. In the words of podcast producer Leon Neyfakh:

There’s a quote I think about a lot when I’m writing about the past: “You know what the mayor of memory lane understands? The truth is in what happened, how it happened; not how it felt; not how it feels.” It’s a powerful mantra that has served me well. But when it comes to the Clinton presidency and the scandal that engulfed it, “how it felt” was an essential driver of “what happened.” At every step in the Clinton saga, going back to when he was first elected in 1992, people made decisions and had reactions that now seem inexplicable. (Did Katie Couric really float the idea that Monica Lewinsky was a “predatory girl who set her sights on the president”? Yes, she did.) With the benefit of hindsight, it can be easy to condemn those decisions and reactions. But it’s more fruitful—and more exciting—to try to understand them. What were all these people thinking and feeling when they said what they said and did what they did?

Season 1 of Slow Burn was about Watergate. I recommended it to you several months ago. It was truly compelling. If you haven’t listened to it, you should.



John K.: I just wanted to thank you for your informative emails. If I could afford to read all the good books you reference I would have to be a very wealthy man. Unfortunately, I am not. I can only collect free offers from authors through Amazon Kindle (and not KU). I am a senior citizen living on SS and living is month to month. Reading is a joy and I have collected a large volume of books now for when the TV is no longer affordable. God Bless.
Remember your local library if you are close to one. And check out Instafreebie.com for lots of free downloads.

Jean T., on learning a foreign language and Beatrix Potter: There is a school of thought that you can “make” foreigners understand you if you speak loudly enough and add o or io on the ends of words. It never works. 

I speak English and German and quite a lot of French. Thanks to my language teachers at school and my parents who let me do a student exchange with a family in Austria.  (The mother was a teacher and I HAD to speak German all the time). 
It helps that France is 2 hours away by train. Germany is about 3-4 hours away. 
They had an exhibition of Beatrix Potter’s work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery – near where we live in South East London – there were lots of her fungi pictures and they were amazing. If you ever get to see the actual illustrations they are well worth any effort.

Self-publishing workshop at Blount County Public Library, Oct. 6, 2018

My duties and responsibilities as writer-in-residence at the Blount County Public Library (Maryville, Tennessee) continue to evolve. On the first Saturday of October, I will be offering a half-day workshop on getting started with self-publishing.

If you’re in the area and are interested in this topic, sign up here:


Here’s the description:

The workshop will be held Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Sharon Lawson Room. You will learn the basics of self-publishing in this half-day workshop conducted by Jim Stovall, the Blount County Public Library’s current writer-in-residence (www.jprof.com). The workshop will cover everything you need to know about getting started in the world of independent publishing and how to make your book available on Amazon, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, and other book-selling forums. Advance online registration is required as is a $10 registration fee which includes a box lunch from the library’s Bookmark Café. Lunch is not optional, and lunch order options are on the registration form below. Seating is limited to 30. For more details, call Adult Services (Reference Desk) at 865-273-1428 or 865-982-0981, option 3.

Remember, the $10 fee includes lunch!

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Frances Hodgson Burnett



Best quote of the week:

To stimulate life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself, that is the first duty of the educator. Maria Montessori, educator (1870-1952) 

Helping those in need

This is my weekly reminder to all of us (especially me) that there are many people who need our help. It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here). When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org)is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall 


You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter:  Lincoln-Douglas debate, every word; the art of Beatrix Potter; future of English; newsletter, Aug. 30, 2018



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