If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? --Albert Einstein

Monday, May 14, 2012

"I went to Manderley again..."

I first read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier in the eighth grade and loved it for its romance, but more for its darkness and mystery. Now, about forty-six (yikes) years later, I loved it again, but obviously with a new view.

This English romantic suspense written in the 1930s features a protagonist whose first name is never revealed. Du Maurier later stated she just couldn't think of one. However, the very young lady’s companion falls into company with the older, more cultured Maximillian de Winter, master of the country estate, Manderley. The two meet in the south of France where he is recovering from the tragic death of his wife, Rebecca.

They fall in love, marry, and return to the beautiful, yet oppressive manor house. There, when compared to the fabulous Rebecca, the new Mrs. de Winter falls painfully short in the eyes of the servants, friends, and family of her new husband. She finds the memory of her “perfect” predecessor an overwhelming obstacle to happiness. And then things go bad.

The second Mrs. de Winter is meek, unsure, and eager to please--a good description of my eighth-grade self. She is not beautiful or classy like Rebecca had been; it seems she has little fashion sense or charm of any kind. Again, a good description of me at thirteen. I could feel her humiliation at each faux pas and snide remark about her hair, her skirts, even her reticence to offer opinions.

Now, closing in on sixty, I read the book from my post-menopausal perch and mentally urged the character to speak up, ask questions, talk to the more friendly characters, wishing on her a confidence I only learned over years. Yet, I fully empathized with the girl and pulled for her every step of the way.

Another difference is the lifetime of experiences that helped me comprehend the complications and deep personal risks for the players. My goofy little grade-eight self had no reference for such emotions--except fear and humiliation. But the story grabbed both “me’s” with equal passion.

Rebecca, it seems, has the greatest trait of a classic story: it holds up over decades. Here is a book I loved as much at thirteen as fifty-nine, albeit for different reasons. It has a depth that appeals to many aspects of the reader and never disappoints. I cannot recommend this book more strongly.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Who's Your Daddy?

In 1869, the Supreme Court of Louisiana published its recent findings, including Case No. 1639, St. Felix Casanave, Administrator, v. Adam L. Bingaman. To understand the premise of this case, please read the post below or click here. Otherwise, suffice it to say that Adam Bingaman and his consort, Mary Ellen Williams, may well be my ancestors.

I don’t know if these two guys hated each other or were just greedy; either is possible. Casanave was unofficially Bingaman’s son-in-law. I found a letter from 1860 written by Mary Ellen Williams to inform her friend, as she says, “of the marriage of my daughter, Marie Sophie Charlotte Bingaman to St. Felix Cazanave” in the St. Louis Cathedral on April 30th of that year. Yet, Charlotte’s obituary lists her by her maiden name and as Casanave’s consort. Casanave was mulatto like her, so I’m confused.

Either way, on July 12, 1867, following the drowning of his brother-in-law, James, Casanave put through the paperwork to be named administrator of the boy’s considerable estate (again, see the previous post).

On the 9th of July, three days before, Bingaman had filed a claim that he was the boy’s natural father and sole heir. Court records state that ol’ Adam had formally recognized his mixed-race children in July of 1865. To do that, one needed to make a formal statement before a notary public and two witnesses. The lower courts recognized this as legal and named Bingaman as the heir.

This seems to have incensed Casanave, who took the case to this higher court. Quoting the court’s decision, “The grounds upon which the plaintiff chiefly relies are: First, that the defendant was not the father of J. A. Williams; second, defendant could not legally acknowledge him” because Louisiana laws forbid a white man from “legitimating his colored children.” Casanave claimed that Bingaman’s profession of fatherhood came after years of public denials and it was “evidently made in the exclusive interest of himself, and was therefore inadmissible without additional proofs…”

This is where it gets sticky. Further research took me to the New Orleans’s newspaper, The Times-Picayune, which printed the obituary of Casanave’s wife/consort, Charlotte, under the name Bingaman, taken from the man he claimed was NOT the father of her brother. Also, I was stunned to discover Charlotte was already dead before her brother’s tragic accident, and Casanave had remarried two days after James died, merely two months after Charlotte’s death. I smell greed.

Whatever the case, the court didn’t give much weight to any denials of paternity Bingaman might have uttered. They probably made a few such denials themselves. To the point that it was illegal to do so, they claimed the law only forbid such recognitions when the children were deemed “adulterous and incestuous bastards.” Harsh. Since no incest had occurred and Bingaman was not married at the time of their conception (his wife was deceased), the judges saw no impediment to his declaration of fatherhood.

They did make clear that “illegitimate children who have not been legally acknowledged, are allowed to prove their paternal descent provided they be free and white; provided also, that free illegitimate children of color may also be allowed to prove their descent from a father of color only…”

We can’t have a darker version of the master knocking on the plantation door, crying, “Papa!” now, can we? But since this was a white guy claiming his child of color, and no wife existed to be disgraced, it was okay.

Chalk another one up to the Good Ol’ Boy System.