The Birth of
Sarah Campbell

People always ask me how I came up with the story for A Maiden’s Honor. It’s a long story, (no pun intended). Sarah Campbell’s character has been with me for many years. She took several forms in earlier drafts of A Maiden’s Honor. She was a sailor, a daughter of a Scottish sea captain, a governess. None of those renditions captivated me enough to write her story. So, A Maiden’s Honor remained locked away in my mind until I stumbled upon Paul Gaugin’s journal about his life in French Polynesia. For those of you who don’t know Paul Gaugin, he was a French impressionist painter who left his wife and children in France to live in the South Pacific. He was fortunate enough to find a group of natives who still lived much like their Polynesian ancestors. Gaugin lived as one of them, including marrying a thirteen-year-old girl. While he was there, he captured the Polynesian life through his paintings. He also wrote a journal about his life with the natives. I was fascinated with his insights about their society. Comparing Western and Polynesian women, he wrote:

Among peoples that go naked, as among animals, the difference between the sexes is less accentuated than in our climates. Thanks to our cinctures and corsets we have succeeded in making an artificial being out of woman. She is an anomaly, and Nature herself, obedient to the laws of heredity, aids us in complicating and enervating her. We carefully keep her in a state of nervous weakness and muscular inferiority, and in guarding her from fatigue, we take away from her possibilities of development. Thus modeled on a bizarre ideal of slenderness to which, strangely enough, we continue to adhere, our women have nothing in common with us, and this, perhaps, may not be without grave moral and social disadvantages. 

On Tahiti the breezes from forest and sea strengthen the lungs, they broaden the shoulders and hips. Neither men nor women are sheltered from the rays of the sun nor the pebbles of the sea-shore. Together they engage in the same tasks with the same activity or the same indolence. There is something virile in the women and something feminine in the men. 

This similarity of the sexes make their relations the easier. Their continual state of nakedness has kept their minds free from the dangerous pre-occupation with the "mystery" and from the excessive stress which among civilized people is laid upon the "happy accident" and the clandestine and sadistic colors of love. It has given their manners a natural innocence, a perfect purity. Man and woman are comrades, friends rather than lovers, dwelling together almost without cease, in pain as in pleasure, and even the very idea of vice is unknown to them.                                                                                                                                                                                                                     From Noa Noa
Gaugin’s comparison between the two cultures fascinated me. I was especially intrigued by the idea how men and women running around half-naked could be more innocent than Western people who covered themselves from head to toe.

Then I dared to ask the question, what would happen if you take a Western woman who was born and raised as a Polynesian and place her in the most conservative society in the world – Jane Austen England? That’s when Sarah’s character took form. I knew that I needed to do more research because my story took place during the early 19th century; Gaugin lived in Tahiti during the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the 20th century. Even he complained about the Polynesians becoming too westernized for his taste. I agreed. I wanted to learn what the Polynesians were like before the West influenced their society.

Out of all the journals I poured over, British explorer, James Cook’s was the most insightful. I liked his insights because they were unbiased. That’s not to say that Captain Cook didn’t have opinions about the Polynesian lifestyle. He did. For the most part, his portrayal of the Polynesians was objective. Captain Cook described the native’s physical appearance, clothing, mannerisms, daily life, and a host of other insights into this exotic culture. Another helpful book in my research was written by one of the first missionaries who lived among the Polynesians.

I’ll be the first to admit that I would have liked to have found Polynesian sources, but unfortunately, those were hard to find.  While I have the deepest respect of today’s missionaries, the ones who lived in the early nineteenth century did more harm than good. They moved to places like Tahiti for the intention converting the native to Christianity. Sadly, the most of the Polynesian customs were lost after the missionaries arrived. Even the Polynesians that I interviewed admitted that the missionaries messed up their culture. (Interestingly enough, they had deep respect for Captain Cook, though.) That is the reason I like James Cook’s journal because he met the Polynesians before missionaries influenced them.

I also found journals describing the Polynesian women as willing lovers. Captain Cook admitted that prostitution was prevalent in the Polynesian society, but he also made a point to say that Polynesian prostitution was no different than Western. The author of the Duff journal wrote that many Polynesian women married and remained devoted to their husbands their whole lives. Sadly, Western sailors mistook the women’s scantily clad bodies as an invitation to rape them.

The more I learned about Polynesian history, the more Sarah Campbell’s story came into focus. My heroine looks like a Scottish lass with her red hair, blue eyes, and light skin, however, her thoughts and character are all Polynesian.  Moreover, Western society and all its trappings are foreign to her, including money, clothing, shame, land ownership, etc. She is unaware of Western perceptions about Polynesian women. Sarah also doesn’t understand why the European people welcome her one moment and then reject her as soon as they discover her Polynesian background. That was when I knew that I had to write Sarah’s story. (I know what you’re going to say – A Maiden’s Honor takes place on the Barbary Coast. Sarah’s story had to begin somewhere. Her English saga will take place in the second and third book.)

A Maiden’s Honor is filled with insights about this exotic culture. Every detail was provided by Paul Gaugin, James Cook, or the first missionary to live among the Polynesians. If you would like to read more about the Polynesian culture, my sources are below.

Noa Noa, by Paul Gaugin
Complete Works of James Cook
Journal of a Voyage in the Missionary Ship Duff

Please feel free to leave comments. I would be happy to engage in a discussion about this remarkable culture.

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