Charles Monagan Interviews Carrie Welton
Please join me as I take late morning tea with Caroline Josephine Welton, whose reckless, calamitous, at times bewildering life is the subject of the novel Carrie Welton. We are catching her on a warm spring morning in Waterbury, Connecticut – June 7, 1874. For some reason known only to Carrie, we are seated in her bedroom on the second floor of Rose Hill, the steep-roofed Gothic manse where she grew up and to which she has now returned.
CM: What is your current state of mind, Carrie?
CW: As it happens, today is my 32nd birthday and here I am absurdly seated, knees up to my chin, at my little blue childhood writing desk. That is what my mother would call eloquent. The most extraordinary, unforeseen circumstances have conspired to keep me here at Rose Hill, and I am not happy about that. I have led too interesting and varied a life to again end up a prisoner in Waterbury, and yet I see no way of leaving. My state of mind? By turns furious and forlorn.
CM: If you are not happy now, when and where were you the happiest?
CW: I’ve had episodes of great excitement. When I was 18, I first escaped the suffocation of Rose Hill. I rode my stallion Knight on a five-day journey to Manhattan, where I was to live carelessly among artists and poets in their Bohemian splendor. Once there, I had very few dull moments, and even some that bordered on the truly dangerous. When at last I was compelled to leave, I went to live in Boston where I found mature stability and contentment in my friends and my work for Henry Bergh protecting the rights of animals. I also experienced the greatest exhilaration while climbing New England’s highest mountains, a rare undertaking for a woman. But excitement and contentment are not the same as happiness. In fact, your use of the word “happiest” suggests I should choose from among many periods of happiness in my life, which I have not had.
CM: Well then, what do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
CW: It was the day I realized, fully realized, that my father wished I had been born a boy. I was probably 5 or 6 when that happened – about when my parents knew for sure I would be their only child. To be blamed steadily for something that wasn’t my fault or that I couldn’t do anything about – that was a difficult burden for a little girl to bear. There’s no explaining the power of it. It has dictated the course of my life.
CM: How do you feel about your family, now that you’re an adult?
CW: I hoped for so much more, obviously. But my father was cold and distant (and worse!) and for my mother society was and is everything. She is someone who, when I was a girl, made me stand on my head just before guests arrived so I would have some color in my cheeks and show off well. It doesn’t make for much of a family portrait, does it? Now, with my father’s death three months ago, it’s just the two of us remaining here at Rose Hill, walking the grounds together, reading our books and sharing the awful secret of how he died.
CM: Is there a moment in your life that you look back upon with special pleasure?
CW: I am happy to say that, despite my present state, there are many. Right now I am thinking of an evening in September, 1864, and a so-called “Artists’ Reception” at the Studio Building on 10th Street in Manhattan. It was a true gala, the opening of the new season, and all the artists of the day were there – Church, Homer and many others. As a daring 22-year-old, I wore a loose-fitting, uncrinolined white dress modeled after Whistler’s The White Girl, which had caused much talk at the previous year’s scandalous Salon des Refuses in Paris. I shall never forget the glorious, horrible feeling of having all eyes appraisingly upon me. It was as if I’d floated down from one of the paintings on the studio’s walls.
CM: What are you most proud of about your life?
CW: That I have made my way as a single woman in a world of men, and stayed true to myself, and not fallen prey to convention. I do wonder where it will eventually take me, but I don’t regret the path I’ve chosen.
CM: As to love, what or who is the greatest love of your life?
CW: Finding love has been difficult for me. Largely because of my experience with my father, I have never been trustful of a man’s calculated language or the guiding hand at my elbow. That male confidence, the wish to lead the dance, puts me off rather than draws me in. What I took to be love five or six summers ago in Saratoga Springs turned out not to be that pure, high-minded, eternal, up-in-the-clouds sort of thing you read about in books, but rather something much lower to the ground. I was able to accept it for what it was. As for women, I am comfortable with their close, even intimate, friendship up to a point but no further. At age 32, I find that the greatest love and companion of my life has been my faithful stallion Knight. His unquestioning loyalty and bravery, his strength and even understanding, have meant everything to me, and in a way led me to my life-altering relationship with the ASPCA and other friends of animals.
CM: What is your most marked characteristic?
CW: Ever since I was a girl shocking the neighbors in Waterbury by galloping through snowstorms, my life has been marked by a sort of recklessness There’s always been a desire to go through the forbidden door.
CM: What is your favorite occupation?
CW: Right now it’s hiking and climbing. To stand high up on a rocky ledge and feel the cleansing power of the view, it’s as if you’ve escaped all the error and evil of the world down below. And yet a step or two in the wrong direction can bring your immediate self-destruction. It’s thrilling to balance between those two extremes, even for just a minute or two.
CM: And finally, what is your greatest fear?
CW: My greatest fear is that true happiness does exist and that I will one day find it – and then gradually realize that’s it’s merely another room in the house that already holds me.
Charles Monagan has been a writer and editor since 1972, when he graduated from Dartmouth College. His work has appeared in many magazines and newspapers, and from 1989 to 2013 he was the editor of Connecticut Magazine. In 1997, he won the Gold Medal for Reporting from the national City and Regional Magazine Association. In 2012, he received the Connecticut Press Club’s Mark Twain Award for Distinguished Journalism, a lifetime award.
Monagan is the author of 10 books, including The Neurotic’s Handbook, The Reluctant Naturalist, and How to Get a Monkey into Harvard. Additionally, he wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Mad Bomber, which was produced in 2011 and won first place in the Academy for New Musical Theatre’s 2012 international Search for New Musicals.
Like many who grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, Monagan became familiar with Carrie Welton’s name due to the presence of a striking drinking fountain for horses, topped by a life-size bronze stallion, known familiarly as the Carrie Welton Fountain. Much later, he became intrigued with the scant but colorful details of Carrie’s youth and her terrible death, and he took up the challenge of giving her a full life in fiction. Carrie Welton is Monagan’s first novel.
Monagan and his wife, Marcia, live in Connecticut. For more information about the author and his work, visit Charles Monagan: Stray Voltage and website.
Eighteen-year-old Carrie Welton is restless, unhappy, and ill-suited to the conventions of nineteenth-century New England. Using her charm and a cunning scheme, she escapes the shadow of a cruel father and wanders into a thrilling series of high-wire adventures. Her travels take her all over the country, putting her in the path of Bohemian painters, poets, singers, social crusaders, opium eaters, violent gang members, and a group of female mountain climbers.
But Carrie’s demons return to haunt her, bringing her to the edge of sanity and leading to a fateful expedition onto Longs Peak in Colorado. That’s not the end, though. Carrie, being Carrie, sends an astonishing letter back from the grave and thus engineers her final escape—forever into your heart.