A Matter of Time is chock-full of characters, more so than any other of my novels. Why you ask? Well, when I was researching the place and time, I kept running into people who either met Charles Dickens when he passed through Belleville and Lebanon on April 12, 1842—or might have.
Brett brought up the theory of the six degrees of separation again, and it truly is surprising how this seems to work out every time I write a book. Take Abraham Lincoln, for example. I wrote about him in my first book Time and Again (Did I mention that’s free for Kindle?) because he’s a hero of mine. But after that, he kept showing up in subsequent books without my planning for him to.
In A Matter of Time, Lincoln is mentioned in connection with Rev. Peter Akers, the first president of McKendree College. I won’t spoil that bit of the story here. But once you’ve read the story, you really ought to read this article that explains it. Now, I didn’t know that Akers was connected to Lincoln at first. I only discovered that while trying to come up with who would have been residing across town at the college the day Dickens showed up. I don’t know if they actually met, but I figured Akers would have made the attempt if he knew about his arrival. This is just one example of the cool things you find out when you take the time to understand the historical setting you’re attempting to write about.
Another interesting person who might have been there that day was John Mason Peck. I really wanted to include him in the story but absolutely couldn’t fit him in. I did, however, put some of Peck’s words in the mouth of Mr. Gustav Koerner. Peck was a tremendously important man in the settlement of the frontier, and I thoroughly enjoyed his fascinating book, The New Immigrant’s Guide to the West. (Again, I’ll say how grateful I am for the digitizing minions who make these out-of-print historical books available to the public for free!)
Former Lieutenant Governor William Kinney might also have met Dickens. His party of travelers would have gone right by Kinney’s dry goods store between Belleville and Lebanon on the Vincennes Trail. And he did own a bigger, better hotel down the street from the Mermaid Inn.
However, I lied about him owning the pretentious home called Glen Addie. But it wasn’t a big lie. The real Glen Addie’s builder was James L. D. Morrison who bought Kinney’s property when he died in 1843. One source said it was “a residence which in grandeur might almost rank with some of the baronial castles of the old world.” Since both men had the taint of corruption attached to their names due to their land speculation deals, I thought it was permissible to fictionally appropriate Morrison’s property for William Kinney’s use. No sense adding any more characters than I already had.
I found it interesting that there were so many prominent or soon-to-be prominent citizens living in Belleville in 1842 when Dickens visited there. Belleville is the St. Clair County seat, and a slew of lawyers practiced there, including James Shields who later that year dueled with Abraham Lincoln on an island in the Mississippi River. Gustav Koerner, who later would become lieutenant governor of Illinois, had fled Germany after his protests for freedom of the press nearly led to his arrest. Lyman Trumball began is law career in Belleville and later served in the legislature and senate. He was a friend and associate of Abraham Lincoln and along with Koerner helped to form the new anti-slavery Republican Party.
Having read what I did about these men, I was as appalled as Merrideth was with the way Dickens dismissed Belleville as a podunk town in the middle of a swamp.
Other Real People in A Matter of Time
George Putnam, Dickens’ traveling secretary. He wrote Four Months with Charles Dickens for The Atlantic Monthly in 1870 not long after Dickens’ death. Dickens says of Putnam:
“Was strongly recommended to me; is most modest, obliging, silent, and willing; and does his work well. He boards and lodges at my expense when we travel; and his salary is ten dollars per month—about two pounds five of our English money.”
And here is a letter Dickens wrote to Putnam upon returning to England in which he said, “my recollection of your zealous and faithful services does not weaken with time or distance.”
Jesse Moore (although I have no idea whether he was fond of smiling or not) did graduate later that year from McKendree and went on to become a valiant soldier in the Civil War. I made up the part about his secret benefactor, because, hey, wouldn’t it be cool if Dickens really did get the idea for Great Expectations while he was in Lebanon?
Captain Lyman Adams, owner of the Mermaid Inn. According to the History of St. Clair County (1881), Lyman Adams was born at Hartford, Connecticut in February 1779 to the “celebrated” Adams family.
At the age of eleven Capt. Adams left home and went on board a ship and became a sailor. He followed a sea-faring life for many years, and became captain of a vessel. He was employed in the merchant trade. After quitting the sea he settled in Baltimore…From Baltimore he went to Louisville, Kentucky, and was there employed in the merchandizing and rectifying business. [Boy, I wonder what that is!] He left Louisville in the year 1829, came to Illinois, and settled in Lebanon. He opened a dry goods store, and also a hotel. He carried on this hotel, which was called the “Mermaid,” for some years. The travel at that time through Lebanon was quite heavy, the town being situated on the main stage line between Cincinnati and St. Louis. His house was well known from Vincennes to St. Louis, and many eminent men were entertained within its walls. At the time Charles Dickens made his journey from St. Louis to the Looking Glass prairie, he stopped over night at this hotel. Benton, and many other public men, were frequent guests. With many of the prominent state politicians of that day, especially those of the democratic school, Capt. Adam? was well acquainted. He was himself an active politician, and a strong supporter of the democratic faith. He served as post-master at Lebanon for many years, was, for a long time, justice of the peace, and also acted as Notary Public. He was a man of good business habits, was popular in the community, and well known throughout the county. He died on the second of July, 1851. His last wife, whom he married in Louisville, Kentucky, was Matilda Glover.
James Riggins, owner of the dry goods store. I found him in a listing of early merchants in Lebanon.
Dr. Addison Melrose, the phrenology lecturer. Dickens met him at the Mansion House Motel in Belleville and mocks him in American Notes, but Gustav Koerner says Melrose was a respected and educated man. I give my theory of why Dickens is so cruel to him in A Matter of Time.
The Fictional People in A Matter of Time
Cordelia Adams. I’m sure the captain had a mother, but this isn’t she.
Albert and Glory Adams. Captain Adams had eleven children, one of whom was Albert, but I made up his character out of thin air. I didn’t know the names of his daughters, so I made up Glory, too.
The St. Louis businessmen. They are not patterned after the real ones who accompanied Dickens. But they are amalgamations of many of the annoying people Dickens met along the way, as described in his writings.
Jefferson Brody, the pushy journalist. The name comes from a character Dickens created in Chuzzlewit, and my character epitomizes the many that Dickens actually did meet in America.
Rachel Riggins, the blind sister. I created her just so I could tell you what Dickens wrote about the Perkins School for the Blind and the connection to Helen Keller. (Six Degrees of Separation again?)
Sairy Stamp, the drunken woman at the Mermaid. She, too, is based on one of Dickens’ Chuzzlewit characters.
The Writer Wannabe. Dickens met several such people along the way. Many wanted to cash in on his celebrity—or at least have some of it rub off on them. Dickens’ biographer John Forster writes about it.
Zachariah Harrison, the tin smith’s apprentice. I really liked the way he came to life for me. I chose the name because the Harrisons were one of the earliest families to settle in Lebanon. I couldn’t find out if there really were any tin smiths in Lebanon, but there was one in nearby Millstadt. I made up Zachariah’s contribution to the invention of the Mason jar. But the date and location of the jar’s invention are accurate. And I spent more time than I care to admit snooping down that rabbit trail to find out.
There, I think that’s all of them—the real and the seems-real-to-me characters of A Matter of Time.
Next time: What Dickens’ biographers failed to mention
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