Saturday, October 27, 2012

Laverne Gay

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).


  1. 'Andrew Kels...was hanged for murder on 4 January 1924.'

    I'd have thought this worth looking at: a writer whose father was hanged when she was ten-years-old would surely be influenced by the event.
    Is there any reason to think Gay knew what rewel-bone was? I don't think it would be possible to make a saddle of it- if it was walrus ivory- except in a parody of a romance.

    1. Interestingly, the biographical note about her father is not mentioned in any account of Laverne Gay's writing career. I found a brief newspaper account of it. As to the rewel-bone saddle, I think it likely that Gay took the reference from Sir Thopas, which seems the likeliest place she might have encountered it. Skeat glossed the word as "(probably) ivory made from the teeth of whales", which was I presume the going interpretation of the time. I suspect that the saddle was ornamented with rewel-bone, though perhaps the pommel was made of it. It seems unclear in Sir Thopas. A few lines above rewel-boon, it is said that his sword's sheath is of ivory. Here, too, I would suspect that it was ornamented with ivory, not completely made of ivory. But I'm guessing. Any one out there have a medieval equestrian specialty?

  2. Glad you wrote about Laverne Gay. I discovered "The Unspeakables" at my school library in my teens, and I have copies of it and of "Wine of Satan" in my personal library. One minor correction, Theudelinda's second husband was Duke Agilulf of Turin. Laverne's daughter Janis Gay has written that her mother never really took off in her writing career, in large part because she was haunted by her father's execution. According to Janis, her mother would have nightmares in which she saw her father being hanged. Alex Kels was tried, convicted and executed by hanging for murdering a transient man in 1924. I am not sure that Laverne Gay would have wanted to discuss this, in large part because it might have been seen as a blot on her family's reputation. Janis wrote about how her grandfather's fate cast a shadow on her family, her mother would sit and drink in the evening without continuing her writing career. Janis has become an advocate on behalf of families of executed prisoners. She advocates to help the families of the prisoners, who often share in the offender's punishment.

    Some of the more obscure terms in "The Unspeakables" sent me running for my dictionary.

    1. I've corrected the typo you noted (Turing for Turin). The rest of what you write is very interesting. If Janis Gay has published something somewhere on her mother I'd be grateful to know the reference. In writing these entries I try to stay close to what facts I have gathered, and not to speculate, but anyone would think that seeing one's father executed would have a profound impact on a person. Thanks for writing and adding to our knowledge of this writer.

  3. Janis Gay has an article about her family's experience here

  4. Wally Meyer wrote to my mother, Laverne Gay, an editing note that complained of her vocabulary in "Wine of Satan." My favorite passage is, "I confess that there are places where I fairly ache for a simpler, less involved style, places where I want the narrative interest to gallop--and it's hard to gallop with a dictionary in one hand." Janis Gay

  5. Thanks for writing in. One of my favorite writers, Leonard Cline, was accused of similar supposedly-bad habits, and wrote a marvelous essay entitled "Logodadely" in response. I'll quote some lengthy bits of it here:

    Language is essentially, I suppose, a cart. It is a means of conveying one man’s idea to another. I rather hate to admit it so baldly, but that at bottom is what language is. J. C. Squire, busily engaged in his studies on Life and Letters in pushing pins into a great man’s grave, compels one to the admission. He points out that George Meredith going into a taproom would dispense with his more elaborate polysyllables and labyrinthine constructions in order to leave no doubt in the barmaid’s mind it was beer he wanted.
    Mr. Squire is harsh with Meredith. The poet “was led into obscurity by his desire to impress,” Mr. Squire declares; “he was only intermittently sincere, he liked to ‘show off,’ he overloaded his work with superfluous decoration which was not even good decoration. His obscurities were like the abracadabras of the medicine man; jargon primarily intended to impress the uninitiated. I remember a man telling me that he had spent a day with Meredith and that the novelist, before lunch, had said to him, ‘Would you like to lave your hands?’ Well, a man might say that facetiously; anybody might. But of Meredith it was characteristic.” A page farther Mr. Squire clarifies his intent: “A style which, whatever its other merits or defects, annoys us by its artificiality, is merely the mask of a man who does not really mean, or feel, what he says.”
    The clairvoyance of critics is astonishing. My own slight acquaintance with them in the capacity of laboratory specimen has illumined for me the mystery of why, in those happier days when I counted myself one of their number, I was not so successful as I thought just. I lacked the ultra-violet vision men like Mr. Squire have. I could never squint at two pages of Meredith and, seeing right through them, descry the hypocrite hiding behind. In like manner I could never duplicate the feat of a Yankee critic who bent his omnispective eyes athwart my Listen, Moon! and told the world that a lady wrote that novel.
    But putting aside for Judgment Day this charge of insincerity on Meredith’s part, it seem to me that we are not left gaping entirely without a reply to Mr. Squire’s taproom hypothesis. Perhaps Meredith was aware of different potentialities in addressing a barmaid on the one hand and writing a novel on the other. Perhaps, when he wrote Modern Love, he foresaw the barmaid would never try to understand it? Perhaps he didn’t try to make it intelligible to her? Or even to Mr. Squire?

    1. [Continuing Leonard Cline's essay]:

      It will not take the clairvoyance of a critic to perceive that I am sensitive on this point. I am. The observations of the reviewers in regard to my own choice of words and patterns have not always been flattering. The clamor is somewhat subdued this fall in regard to The Dark Chamber but it persists.
      Harry Salpeter in The World maintains the curious thesis that the book was plotted and wrought merely for the sake of the sentences in it. “Mr. Cline seems to be overconscious of his prose; his images, his analogies, his phrases, his sentences are simply stunning, but I have a feeling that they were contrived for themselves, to exhibit the author’s power with words.” Nobody will lay any such charge against Mr. Salpeter. . . . But the description of me is quite charming, after all.
      I have always wanted to have power with something. Once a lady drew a picture of me swinging an axe, a picture worthy of the title “Power with Logs.” How I love that lady! And now Mr. Salpeter gives me a trembling of the same thrill. I can see myself striding fearlessly into a cage full of wild snarling nouns and slavering verbs ready to leap upon me and tear me to shreds. (I rather fancy breeches of a sky-blue corduroy and creamy silken shirt, with an orange cravat, and of course my beard at its fine full raven-black length.) Nonchalant I light a cigarette. “Down, Phyllorhodomancy!” I snap, and the great beast slumps whimpering to his belly. “Now up, Agrypnotic!”—and though his tusks flash and his eyes kindle he jerks obediently to his hind legs. “Come now, be sweet, Pnigalion!” And sinuous over the sawdust floor, whether to rend me or fawn not God himself can say, while women swoon and generals blanch, Pnigalion glides. “Ah!” sighs the crowd. Meek as a mistress the cruel brute takes my head on her bosom and folds me close in those death-dealing arms. . . .
      It’s an enchanting picture and I linger over it a while with the stunned Mr. Salpeter; and then I turn the page. Alas! Here is one who asserts that my archaisms and coinages “stick out like sore thumbs.”
      But another reporter seems to have run himself out of wind and can’t gather breath to denounce me. “Cline’s vocabulary is a remarkable one. He has an obsession for rarely used words. Not since the late James Gibbon Huneker wrote has an author appeared who masters such an array of amazing terms. With almost every page, he is certain to send most of his readers scurrying to the dictionary.”
      Well . . . much remains to be said on the decorative value of dictionaries. In this respect however the quality is not to be commended in an efficient, economic age. At best, left open, the dictionary will cover a space of not more than 28 by 16 inches. For the same price one can buy two hundred Saturday Evening Post covers with a total area of 35,200 square inches. It is really better not to invest in a dictionary, unless one is going to refer to it.

    2. [Final bit from Cline's essay:]

      But where, gracious heaven, is the meaning, do you ask? It is there. And although music and color and odor may obscure it in part to many indolent readers they do but clarify it to others. The cadence or upspringing of the melody, the transfiguration of gold and scarlet and blue, give vital nuance to the stark words.
      It may be that the dimmest fathom of the writer’s intent is not seen clear at a first hasty reading. Although the dictionary is at hand one may not at once look up every strange word. The momentum of the story may carry one on with only a partial grasp, a liberal understanding. It is true that every book thoughtful and passionate enough to win a second and third reading gives one always more spacious horizons. It is true that the just reason for a particular turn of phrase may not become apparent to the reader until the dubious passage has been profoundly comprehended. One may have to repeat it aloud or listen to it so. But always one finds in literature . . . as in love, and in creeds, and in aspiration . . . true beauty not only in point of area but depth as well, a depth not to be measured in one effort.
      By starlight some men work, hoping for their books not the success of a season, but the success which is established by a few readers keeping them on their shelves dusted by loving use. One need not worry over the obstacles to an immediate understanding they may present. When you can’t see bottom the water may be deep, not muddy. . . .