I’ve been collecting women recently. Ordinary women. Ornery women.
It began innocently enough. Last year, I came across an article that caught my attention, and I googled the name of the woman involved. Nothing.
I googled the name of her husband. Lots.
I tried to find out more about the woman. Failed. Tried to forget about her. Failed again. She popped into my head at odd hours; laughed at me from behind my back.
I couldn’t find out any more about her story, so I did the next best thing. I made it up.
Turns out, making up stuff is fun. Before I stumbled across Miss Brown, I’d only written nonfiction. But writing fiction, even the type based on real life, is liberating. I’ve been plugging away at it ever since, compiling a collection of pieces inspired by the lives of pioneering women.
To keep things fair, I write about women whose lives are already documented. To keep things manageable, I choose stories that relate to travel or transport. To keep things challenging, I limit the length of the pieces to five hundred words.
I research the women as best I can; try to place them in their historical context. The facts of their lives support the interior life I imagine for them. And some of those facts are astounding: circumnavigating the world disguised as a boy; being sentenced to hang for piracy; designing, building and racing aircraft.
Each woman I discover, ordinary or ornery, leads me to another. So far, I’ve found pirates and pilots, engineers and emigrants, prostitutes and proselytizers. The women are fascinating in their own right, and together they offer an insight into the challenges of being female throughout history.
I hope I do them justice.
And Miss Brown? Here’s the article I found her in:
The marriage of the famous airman, Walter Brookings, and Ms. Brown, the daughter of William Brown, a former Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania has been annulled by the courts of San Antonio, Texas.
The two had met at Palm Beach, Florida, the fashionable winter resort where Brookings was flying a seaplane. Brown told the court that she had been ‘hypnotised’ by Brookings after he had agreed to allow her fly with him. In the course of that flight – with the plane at 1,000ft – Brookings had proposed marriage to Brown and she had accepted. The wedding took place immediately, but Brown told the court that as her husband’s hypnotism had worn off, disillusion had quickly set in. She further said that she no longer admired her husband, except for his skill in flying.
Brookings (25) had previously been married and divorced.
And here’s my version of her story. Hope you enjoy.
The Airman’s Wife Petitions for Divorce
When I say I was hypnotised, I do not mean in a conventional sense. I did not fall under the spell of his eyes. My senses did not depart at his quick smile and ready laugh.
I admit I thought him handsome when I first saw him leaning against the plane. When he caught my eye and patted the wing, I did not hesitate.
We followed the curve of the coast, the seaplane’s shadow chasing us on the sand. Men raised their caps in salute. Boys ran after us until they were too tired to run any more.
Looking down, I began to understood the immensity of the ocean. I watched the waves approach the shore, saw how they turned back on themselves at the last minute.
We veered inland, flew over Lake Wurth. Above us, clouds stretched in a thin white line.
‘Higher,’ I shouted, and leaned over his shoulder. When we reached a thousand feet, he turned his head and mouthed the words, ‘Marry me!’
I said yes.
What came afterwards was not intolerable. But I was shocked when he said I could no longer fly with him. Anger pooled in my heart. I couldn’t bear the thought of him soaring above me while I stayed on the ground. When he asked if I was jealous, I laughed.
I was never jealous of the girls he took up in the plane, had already seen the way they looked at him. I knew there’d be girls like that at every race, every exhibition. I knew he’d smile at them and enjoy their company. I would have endured it all if they understood the gift he had given them.
But they were all so silly. Content to have their photograph taken with the famous aviator, thinking they stole a march on me when they kissed him behind the hanger. Your honour, I swear these girls must be blind.
It was not the man that hypnotised me.
It was the view.
12 thoughts on “Miss Brown and her Unfortunate Marriage”
Wow, Aileen. Glad you’re sharing your words between fiction and non-fiction. I really enjoyed reading that. And, having just walked upstairs after finishing an Anne Tyler novel, the bar was high!
Please keep writing all kinds of things
Thanks for the encouragement! It’s good to stretch a little – try something new. I still have lots to learn, but I’m enjoying the journey. Hope all well in your part of the world. Was thinking of you a few weeks ago. Finally saw a starling murmuration! It was amazing. Wonderful.
You have a light touch with the words in that piece. That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed it. I wonder if that’s your non-fiction clarity shining through.
Starlings are such unassuming bringers of joy, aren’t they? Our local Brighton starling crew have changed piers and left the burned-out West Pier to the herring gulls. Not enough shelter, I suppose. Now they swoop around the fairground lights of the Palace Pier and dive underneath to sleep. Where was your murmuration?
Maybe. I’m a bit of a minimalist with words. Good at paring back – not so great at expanding! I’ll never write a doorstopper, that’s for sure.:) The starlings were in Athlone, on the banks of the Shannon. Thousands of them – a huge roost.So glad I got to see them.Found it strangely affecting, to be honest. Still mulling it over.
Were you reading A Spool of Blue Thread? Haven’t read it yet, but love Anne Tyler. Nice to be read at the same time as her!
No, I was reading ‘The Amateur Marriage’. I’d picked it up in a charity shop. They’re wonderful places for finding clothes and books adrift from the relentless chronology of fashion or publishing dates, aren’t they?
I do like a minimalist way with words. I wonder if it’s because I tend the other way when I write – so it’s like loving dead straight hair when your own is full of curls. 🙂
Hah! The old straight hair versus curly hair divide! Haven’t read The Amateur Marriage yet. Love the title!
Wow! This is such a brilliant idea, Aileen! Well done. I love the mix of research, ‘life being stranger than fiction’ and fantasy. Such a fun way to write. XXX 😀
Life definitely stranger than fiction, Fran! Glad you enjoyed the piece. Good luck with the new website. Looking forward to seeing it live.
Nice Aileen, well written. I often think that so little history is recorded, and one person’s account can become factual over time no matter how speculative. You may be nearer the truth than you imagine with your fiction.
Hi Roy, so many stories out there to discover! I’m enjoying delving into these lives a little. But who knows what anyone is really thinking or feeling? As long as the reader understands the imaginative element, I suppose.
Nice piece of writing. I love your idea to flesh out these little human dramas beyond the dry, impersonal, historical record. I could imagine a whole book of such “capsule” stories.
Ahh. Thanks so much. So many stories hidden in those dry historical records. Pity I didn’t realise that years ago when I was buried in the rare books room at college!