“This Gentle, Charming Mule”: an 1852 compliment to Elizabeth Greenfield

I’m used to all sorts of odd, arcane and sometimes offensive language in my researches: still if the type had been any blurrier, I would have been certain I was reading something wrong. As it was, I read it several times because I could not believe I was reading it right. A black writer, printed in a black newspaper, described Miss Elizabeth Greenfield, the celebrated black songstress and former slave, as “this bird, this gentle charming mule, whose mellow warbling notes had made leaves flutter.”

What on earth?

The context of the article wasn’t too hard to find. In 1852, in Cincinnati, Ohio, black concert-goers with purchased tickets were turned away by white concert-hall managers from their attempt to hear a performance by Miss Greenfield. One wrote to The Cincinnati Atlas about his experience, and this found its way as a reprint into The Voice of the Fugitive, edited and printed by former slave Henry Bibb in Windsor, Canada, (April 8, 1852).

But in trying to decipher the phraseology, I couldn’t find much to go on. The writer admired Miss Greenfield: he was himself black; he clearly did not mean any racial insult. The term which naturally suggested itself to my thinking was that this might be a common corruption of mulatress, widely used at the time to indicate a woman of mixed black-and-white parentage. There were several problems with this, however.

Photographs of Miss Greenfield showed a woman of quite dark complexion, not one who would typically be described as “mixed.” Secondly, hours of searching 19th century slang collections never indicated that “mule” had been used to represent any group of African-Americans, even though the word mulatto was itself derived from the Spanish or Portuguese words for mule. If “mule” was a racial term or designation, it must have been lost, and this would be unusual. Such words tend to stick around and travel down through generations.

I began to wonder if the word had been coined as a personal epithet, as Miss Greenfield was also called “the Black Swan.”

A quick internet search for her as “the gentle mule” turned up nothing, seemingly. But algorithms are strange things. Somewhere, in connection with “the black swan,” and “Elizabeth Greenfield,” a result appeared which discussed British songbirds. And behold:

The hybrid offspring of a canary and a finch is called a mule.

The writer, himself a Victorian and altogether familiar with the Victorian custom of keeping songbirds as pets in captivity, had dubbed Miss Greenfield a songbird!

Mystery solved.

It only needs be added that Miss Greenfield had no control over who was admitted to, or turned away from, her concerts. As an apology to her own, she gave several performances in black venues after the incidents came to her knowledge.

On books: Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian


Entrance to a cave used by Bar Kochba rebels

Admittedly, this is not my usual reading.  At the moment, I’m more likely to be stuck in mid-eighteenth century issues of the Gentleman’s Magazine, or some obscure volume on English shipping and ports.  But having picked up William Horbury’s Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian (2014), I’m glad I did, since it opened a whole new world of historical possibilities to a fiction writer.

Jewish War examines the three notable conflicts which mark the end of Judea as the homeland of the Jews: the war of Vespasian (AD 66-70), the war of Quietus (AD 115-117), and “the Last War,” better known as the Bar Kochba revolt (AD 132-136).  It’s a book that has been described as “encyclopedic,” and it is certainly a dense read.  Yet Horbury’s precision and detail make his analysis convincing as he examines each piece of available documentary and archaeological evidence to form a narrative often different from earlier ones that were less complete.

One of the most fascinating episodes pictured in this book is the War of Quietus.  This conflict, which arose between Jews and Greeks in Cyrenaica, Cyprus, and Egypt, brings eerily familiar echoes of genocidal conflicts more familiar to us: of Bosnia and Rwanda.  It left whole regions devastated, and must have created an infinite casualty list of psychological traumas and tangled human feelings.  Horbury’s approach favors complexity over simplicity: he avoids blanket statements for the causes of the conflict, and acknowledges that there is not only one historical “Jew,” or historical “Greek.”  Rather, his writing leaves the impression that motives are as varied as individuals, and that human beings are not so different now than two thousand years ago.  At the same time, given his complete treatment of the available evidences, his Jews, Greeks, and Romans can easily become living actors in a writer’s imagination.

Jewish War is, regrettably, an expensive scholarly book ($100-130 for the cheapest), and may become harder to obtain in coming years.  Interlibrary loans, however, can provide copies, and I can well recommend it as worthwhile for anyone intrigued by this period in history.

Photo Credit: Udi Steinwell, CC by 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19672598

Blank pages

Just one monkey

Having a keybooad keyboard doesn’t make wiring writing go any faster.  It just means you type a lot of stuff over again.

I’m discovering, as many writers probably have, that there’s an appalling difference between writing a scene that someone may read, someday, in its most polished form, perhaps; and coming up with a blog post right this minute now.

All those bright ideas?  Wispy as the mist gathering over the field outside my window.  All that interesting research?  I can’t think of one clever thing to say about The History of Underclothes or James Boswell on the Grand Tour, or the fact that I was reminded this morning of a rich, tragic, firsthand resource on Scotland’s Rising of the ’45 as contained in three volumes of The Lyon in Mourning.

I’m not an archivist or an academic, with oodles of fun things that pop up at work.  I don’t work in a museum (though it would be a dream job!).  I’d hate to try to teach anyone else how to write, when–only last night–it dawned on me that my opening scene wasn’t working because I needed to bridge the emotional gap between my reader and the hero.  *facepalm*

But a blog isn’t a monologue.  It’s about starting a sort of dialogue, and making connections with readers.  And here, I’m floundering.  Because it begs the question, where can you and I connect?  What would we talk about, if we were in the same room?  What would you want to know, if you could ask me?

So please, come in, sit down, and let’s visit.  I’ll try to answer any serious questions posted in the comments section.