Laverne Gay (b. Lodi, California, 1 December 1914; d. Sacramento, California, 5 August 1997)
In an online essay on the updating of the entry for the word ruel-bone in the Oxford English Dictionary, the lexicographers (and Tolkien scholars) Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner, have noted that, besides Tolkien, there is another modern writer who re-used the obsolete Middle English word ruel-bone in the twentieth century. The word appears in a line from Chaucer’s “Sir Thopas”: his sadel was of rewel-boon (2068). The word is related to Old French rohal (or rochal) which meant “walrus-ivory”. Gilliver, Marshall and Weiner wrote:
Intriguingly, during the OED revision process evidence came to light of another modern writer using ruel-bone in a text which was published significantly before any of Tolkien’s uses could have come to public attention. The entry now includes a quotation from the historical novel Wine of Satan (1949)—subtitled “A Tale of Bohemond Prince of Antioch”—by the little-known Californian writer Laverne Gay. Her research in medieval sources was evidently sufficient to equip her with a fine array of unusual vocabulary with which to enrich her rather highly-coloured narrative: other examples from Wine of Satan include baselard, a kind of dagger, and nasal used as a noun to mean the nosepiece of a helmet. In the quoted passage, the crusading Robert of Normandy is described as sitting ‘erect in his rewel-bone saddle’. The author could have acquired rewel-bone (her chosen spelling) from various sources—perhaps Chaucer, or even the original OED entry—but her use of the word evidently did not catch on.
This was enough to make me want to find out more of the little-known Californian writer. She was born Mary Laverne Kels, the daughter of Alexander Andrew Kels (1884-1924) and Anna Theresa Handlin (1886-1977). Andrew Kels was a butcher, an immigrant from Germany, and his wife was of Irish descent. Besides their daughter, called by her second name Laverne, they also had one son, John Michael Kels (1923-1958). Andrew Kels had been previously married, and had a son from his first marriage. He was hanged for murder on 4 January 1924.
Laverne was educated by the Domincan Sisters, first at Lodi (St. Anne’s) and later at Stockton (St. Mary’s). Her interest in poetry and journalism was encouraged, and in 1932, her final year, she edited the convent newspaper and yearbook. At the University of California, she majored in Latin and history, and was junior editor of the Daily Californian. Her interest in medieval history was awakened by attending the lectures of Professor James Westfall Thompson (1869-1941). She once reminisced that “it was during his new graduate lectures on ‘The Irish Element in Medieval Culture’ that I came upon St. Columban’s royal friend Theudelinda of the Lombards, whom he later characterized to me as neglected by history and a ‘natural’ for me to do. So she became the subject, first of the original research and later of a first novel.” Laverne Kels graduated from the University of California in 1936, and after taking a teacher’s degree she taught high school for two years in the Oakland School System.
On 28 January 1939, she married Arthur Joseph Gay (1913-1986), an optometrist. After the outbreak of World War II, her husband’s work with the Navy sent the couple to Texas and then to Idaho, before they returned to California. They had two children, Stephen (b. 1942) and Janis (b. 1947).
Gay’s first novel, The Unspeakables: A Tale of Lombardy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1945) was set in the sixth century. It centers on Theudelinda, princess of Bavaria, who marries the Lombard king Authari, and after his death, marries the Duke of Turin who is later crowned the king of all Italy. Reviews were mixed. Kirkus called it “good history—good biography—good reading, though slow-moving in spots” (1 September 1945), while the New Yorker noted that “the tale would have been better in a style less pretentious than Mrs. Gay’s determinedly literary one. Brocade is all right to a point, but four hundred pages of ‘Her light laughter broke on the morning air like shards of finest porphyry’ . . . gets to be rather wearing” (13 October 1945). The Weekly Review added: “there are so many characters in the book, so many battles and so much description of feasting and pageantry and kissing that you may be confused. The opulence of the style will not diminish your mental fog” (21 October 1945).
Her second and only other published novel was Wine of Satan: A Tale of Bohemond, Prince of Antioch (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948). The author noted: “Wine of Satan was on Bohemond, leader of the First Crusade, with a more serious attempt at original creation, especially in character, with the same intention of soundness in historical content and interpretation.” Again Kirkus wrote well of Gay’s work: “Up to par as an historical novel, for which there is always an audience” (1 November 1948). But The Catholic World criticized it for just the quality that has attracted the attention of Oxford lexicographers: “her devotion to archaic words develops into a mannerism” (February 1949). The New York Times gave it more praise, stating that “Wine of Satan is colorful and learned but it is considerably more than a tour de force of archaic spectacle. Miss Gay understands people, and she has contrived, amid all the cluttered wealth of her period detail and the great events of the time, to tell a love story whose characters emerge as human beings” (16 January 1949).
Of the obscure words in the novel noted by Gilliver, Marshall and Weiner, nasal appears only once, in the prologue:
But now his face was a strange and savage-looking mask, with the dank red, ear-length hair dishevelled over it, the ragged beard upon it, and the white streak left on his nose and forehead by the nasal upon the helm. (p. 4)
Rewel-bone also occurs only once:
Godfrey, his noble face alight, his great brown charger restivem stomping for the fray; Robert of Normandy, his high stirrups making his mount grotesquely tall, looking almost child-like at this distance, erect in his rewel-bone saddle. (p. 231)
Baselard occurs at least six times by my count, but I will quote only the first appearance:
As he dismounted, she leaped from her horse, and was backed against a tree, her riding whip in one and a sharp-pointed deadly-looking baselard in the other. (p. 12)
One can see from these short extracts that Gay’s prose has a descriptive vividness to it. Wine of Satan was selected as a Book Club title, and was considerably more successful than Gay’s first novel.
In the early 1950s, Gay worked on a contemporary novel, but it was never published. She did occasionally review books for the magazine Books on Trial, but mostly she seems to have ceased publishing. From 1951 through 1964 she worked on the board of the Mercy Children’s Hospital Guild. Laverne Gay died in Sacramento at the age of eighty-two.
NB: Some details in the above sketch, including Laverne Gay’s reminiscences, are taken from an entry in Catholic Authors (1952).