Saturday, December 15, 2007

Jennifer Lee Carrell

by Steven Williams

Jennifer Lee Carrell color photography by Lyn SimsJennifer Carrell Helenbolt, who continues to write under the pseudonym Jennifer Lee Carrell since her marriage in 2002, this fall published her debut mystery novel Interred with Their Bones. Carrell began her career as a writer beginning with a decision to attend graduate school to study English literature. Her decision was based on an expectation that the life of a professor would support, both financially and by its lifestyle, her interest in writing. She found that the life of scholarship and teaching was almost perfect for her. Unfortunately, a professional life in academe requires coming to terms with academic politics, something she learned to hate. A professional life teaching at the university level means earning tenure and earning tenure means focusing almost entirely on academic research, writing for publication in scholarly journals, and teaching. For Carrell this meant postponing her long time interest in more literary writing for ten years or more. While Carrell was on vacation backpacking in Arizona, she read a copy of Once They Moved like the Wind: Cochise, Geronimo and the Apache Wars by David Roberts. Intrigued to find out that Roberts lived near Cambridge, Massachusetts, she contacted him when she returned to work. From this bit of casual contact as a fan, a friendship developed. Eventually Roberts was able to help Carrell get some of her non-academic writings published.

Arizona twilight skyline color photographCarrell had earned degrees from Oxford and Stanford before she went on to attend Harvard to earn a Ph.D. in English and American literature. After receiving her degree, she went on to teach in the History and Literature Program at Harvard University, earning three awards for excellence in undergraduate teaching. At Harvard she also directed the university's Shakespeare performance troupe, the Hyperion Theatre Company. After four years teaching at Harvard, Carrell decided to leave in order to concentrate on her writing. She returned to her hometown Tucson and began to seriously work on a professional writing career. In the beginning she reviewed classical music and opera for the Arizona Daily Star and took on various freelance writing work for other publications including as a regular contributor to Smithsonian magazine. In 2003 Carrell's nonfiction book The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox was published. She has also done some work on screenplays that includes co-writing The Black Prince, a medieval war epic as well as an independent film adaptation of Shakespeare's play Macbeth, titled Come Like Shadows, co-written with Nick Saunders. It is interesting to note that her Ph.D. dissertation was about how, when modern fiction began to emerge in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, people expected to find greater truth in narrative that had previously been available through other literary forms.

The Speckled Monster by Jennifer Lee Carrell front coverThe Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox (2003)
This is Carrell's first published book. It describes how, early in the 18th century Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in England and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston in Boston worked to uncover and implement a type of inoculation for smallpox. Called variolation, this type of inoculation actually exposed people to a mild form of smallpox causing them to exhibit relatively mild forms of the disease but also making them immune to it. Lady Montagu's discovery and promotion of smallpox inoculation as it was practiced in the Ottoman empire is placed in context to her own personal losses to the disease as well as the political ramifications of the high death rate, particularly where this disease affected the coming and establishment of the House of Hanover on the throne of England. Dr. Boylston became aware of Lady Montagu's discovery through reading her doctor's account of the inoculation of her children while they were in Istanbul with her and their father, a diplomat. Boylston also became aware, through the interests of Cotton Mather, of the knowledge and techniques of smallpox inoculation as it was practiced in sub-Saharan Africa at that time. This discovery came to Boylston through Mather’s enslaved African servant. Though it would be more than fifty years later before the safer process of vaccinia inoculation for smallpox became available, the efforts of Boylston and Montagu paved the way for the advances in immunology that would come later. Carrell's story of these events is notable for her use of novelistic techniques, including narrative, but based on thoroughly researched original documentation. This book does an excellent job of reconstructing the horrors as well as the social and political repercussions of smallpox as a disease, all within the context of the lives of the very real and very human participants in these events.

Interred with Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell front cover
Interred with Their Bones (2007)
A literary mystery involving a Shakespeare scholar and theater director and the possible discovery of a lost Shakespeare play. The scholar’s mentor gives her a mysterious box. The evening of the very day she receives this gift, her mentor's murdered body is discovered in the fire damaged Globe Theater. Even stranger, the woman's body had been laid out in the theater in a way that mimiced the murder of Hamlet's father. It turns out that inside the box is a Victorian mourning brooch with clue that seems to connect with the character of Ophelia from Shakespeare's Hamlet. As the scholar begins to follow additional clues left by her dead friend, there are more murders and even she turns out to be at risk. It turns out that there is a Elizabethan era manuscript for a play titled Cardenio and that Shakespeare may have written it. In tracking down the play and researching the possibility that the play was actually by Shakespeare, the main character finds herself traveling as far as Harvard's Widener Library and then on to the American Southwest.

The Globe Theatre stage color photograph

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Creative Commons License
Jennifer Lee Carrell, a skilled blending of history and literary fiction by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

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