Guest Blog–Mistress of Riversdale

I’m very excited to introduce Mrs. Rosalie Calvert, who in her twenty-first century existence is Katherine Spivey. Katherine has read everything I’ve read, and more (and Katherine, I still have one of your books. Sorry about that). This Saturday, Mrs. Calvert, dressed to the nines, will appear at Riversdale House Museum, MD, when we celebrate the Battle of Bladensburg, an inglorious defeat at the hands of the British that took place just a couple of miles from the mansion.

Mrs. Calvert is graciously receiving callers at her splendid house. Come on in and have a nice cup of tea and enjoy some sophisticated, witty conversation of the sort so rarely met with on these shores …

Thanks, Janet, for inviting me to be a guest blogger. I’m honored. Janet and I volunteer at Riversdale House Museum in Maryland, and we’ve co-presented on 18th- and 19th-century literature. At Riversdale, Janet’s a docent, and I’m a historical interpreter/reenactor/person who dresses up and pretends to be someone in history.

The person I interpret is Rosalie Stier Calvert, an emigre from Belgium who came to the United States in 1794. She married into the Calvert family, her parents built Riversdale, and then her family moved back to Europe. We’re enormously lucky to have as a source her treasurer trove of letters, which were discovered in Belgium around 30 years ago, translated, and published by Johns Hopkins University as Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert. Few letters have provided such a robust picture of American life from a foreign and female viewpoint. I’ve been playing her since 1995.

Since she wrote her letters to family and not with an eye to publication, she reveals many things: customs and manners in the fledgling United States (she dislikes most American women), the travails of raising a family (although a large family is delightful if the children are well-behaved), the effects of the embargo and the war (no one has any cash!), gardening and horticulture (“I am disgusted with all controversy except for politics”), politics (her low opinion of President “Tommy Jeff”), fashions, and the economy (she acted as business agent for her father and brother).

In one of her letters she describes the aftereffects of the burning of Washington in 1814. During the Battle of Bladensburg, she saw the “rockets’ red glare” from her bedroom windows. Her husband and son went to the battlefield to render aid and bury the dead. She stored the recovered rifles in her bedroom.

Before the British invaded, people had defined themselves by state, but after the burning of Washington the country united: “We are all Americans now.”

How did I get started reenacting? I met some people at a ball at Gadsby’s and started dancing. Then I started participating in civilian reenactments for the colonial period at places like Carlyle House in Alexandria and the State Department. Then I stepped in as Rosalie Calvert at one of the period dinners during Maryland’s tricentennial: three hours of being a character live. I couldn’t script the conversation; I just had to be Rosalie Calvert: say the sorts of things she might say, include topics she would introduce, betray the opinions she held. While I’m Mrs. Calvert, I don’t say favorable things about Presidents Jefferson and Madison, even though my other reenacting character is Mrs. Madison.

And what, pray tell, does reenacting have to do with romances? Specifically Regencies? I’d read Jane Austen’s ouevre by the end of middle school. I’d read all of Georgette Heyer’s by the time I finished high school. And I did graduate work at the University of Virginia on 18th- and early 19th-century British novels. I love the pace of the sentences, the graduated degrees of intimacy in conversation, the architecture of the works, and the undoubted moralism (well, Mrs. Heyer not so much).

Indeed, Mrs. Calvert’s life reads like a romance in high life–except that she had a due sense of humor and proportion, enjoyed being busy, and had an undoubted capacity for business. Included in all of this was a love of reading novels: “We have 11 novels in the house,” she says, though her mother reads them to improve her English.

The more I work with her, the more she’s begun to resonate with my own life. I’ve started gardening and getting my finances in order, and I’ve even learned to like anchovies. (Life imitates history, after all.) I may even learn to like hock. I just got back from a weekend at the beach; a reenacting event next weekend means I wore a large hat, went out only between 7-9 a.m. and 7-8 p.m., and slathered enough sunscreen to cover Almack’s. I enlisted my husband in my search for cameo brooches, period-authentic amethyst or opal rings, and long kid gloves that fit.

It’s important to remember that she loved her family dearly. She never saw any of them after they returned to Europe; Rosalie was either pregnant or prevented by war/embargo from going to Europe on a visit. She once went a year without getting a letter from her family. I’m convinced she would have been an early adopter (#federaleramomblogger) of social media and probably would have had a smartphone.

That being said, bring on the questions!

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