When I entered graduate school, the thesis process intimidated me. I think it intimidates most people. I had never written any thing that long and although I’m a good writer and a good researcher, the end result was going to be manuscript bigger than any thing I ever imagined producing. So I knew I had to find a topic that I was passionate about because if I wasn’t passionate it about the topic, I might never finish.
As I began to explore the landscape of history and possible topics, professors encourage us to look at Arkansas History for 2 main reasons — 1) we were in Arkansas and the primary research materials would be accessible, and 2) strong, scholarly history needs to written about the state. This was my problem – I was passionate about late Imperial Russian history. Nicholas and Alexandra, court society, and pretty clothing. Arkansas was about a far as you can get from the Imperial Court of the Autocrats of All the Russias! Or so I thought.
In 1999, I began working at the Old State House Museum. In their collection was the court gown of Katherine Carson Breckinridge. Her husband, Congressman Clifton Rodes Breckinridge of Arkansas, was appointed Minister to Russia in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland. The Breckinridges traveled to Saint Petersburg in late 1894 and arrived 3 days before Tsar Alexander III died. In this twist of fate, Katherine Breckinridge witnessed the funeral of a Tsar, the wedding of the new Tsar to Princess Alix of Hesse-Darnstadt, the coronation of the Tsar and Tsarina and the birth of one of the Grand Duchess. In fact, Arkansas and Russia are not that far apart.
Once I discovered the dress and Katherine Breckinridge, I was on a mission. This WOULD be my thesis topic. The new question became what direction will the paper take – will I focus solely on the dress or will I do a biography of the woman and include the dress as a part? Although I believed I had enough to write just about the dress, the designer John Redfern and the events Breckinridge attended in Russia, I didn’t have her whole traveling wardrobe and it would be difficult to produce roughly 150 pages on one garment. So a biographer I would become.
I soon found out that Katherine Breckinridge wrote letters. Yes, I know that everyone wrote letters in the 1890s but she wrote hundreds of letters from Russia to her friends and family in the United States. She wrote about life in Russia, about the Imperial Court and the wedding and coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra. All her papers are in the Breckinridge Family Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. And in many cases, both sides of the correspondence existing the Breckinridge Papers because she was writing to other family members. It was a gold mine. The details that she was able to convey. I have only found one other American woman (from Minnesota) who was present at the coronation and she published her collection in a volume that is only available at a few repositories in the US.
But even with the letters, there were lots of questions left unanswered. What about her childhood and her family in Louisiana? Why did she go to New York to live with her mother’s sister? What kind of mother was she? What was her relationship like with her husband – traditional or non-traditional? Who is John Redfern (fashion designer) and why can’t I find any information on him in traditional fashion and costume histories? All questions needing answers. And I found the answers to most of them. I will do a series of posts on KCB and more to come…