My childhood in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, has story-book qualities. I was the oldest granddaughter and thus the first niece of my eleven young aunts and uncles. Yet, to my utter chagrin, when I was four years old my mother had three babies and a brain concussion. The princess became Cinderella, changing diapers and feeding babies. I had, however, a refuge—my own private room with a small child's desk—which is now at the top of the stairs in my home. When my parents were asleep, I would get up and write stories long and furiously, pretending to be a real writer. What a relief to get to kindergarten!
Every Sunday, all the aunts, uncles, and cousins went to my Grandmother's farm for a potluck supper. Bicycling to the farm was a rite of passage, and Grandmother always had homemade sugar cookies. The farm had a 15-acre virgin forest where we could climb trees and hang ropes, pretending to be Tarzan and Jane. Sun Prairie was about 95 percent Catholic at the time, and besides the usual childhood social groups, I belonged to the Catholic Order of Foresters and the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin. My mother was a music teacher, and I had started piano lessons in about first grade. By the time I was attending Sun Prairie's Catholic High School, I was a very serious pianist and on weekends practiced six hours a day.
I went to college at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, earning both an AB and MA in English. I enjoyed every minute of my Jesuit education; I was far enough away from home so I didn't have to go home every weekend and yet close enough. The Greyhound bus driver would drop me at a tavern on Route 30 near the outskirts of Sun Prairie where Dad would be waiting for me. I would always go to the farm to visit Grandmother and the aunts and uncles—and eat the potluck supper. After graduating from Marquette, I taught at Loyola University in Chicago for four years, met my husband, and then taught at high school, college, and university levels before and while I was earning my doctorate in Literature from Northern Illinois University.
While on an exchange fellowship from the Newberry Library in Chicago, I attended a seminar at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. The very existence of the Folger seemed to validate my life, and I caught a serious case of Potomac fever. After winning more fellowships to Folger seminars, I moved to Washington in 1981. Four years later, after an internship at the Folger and a short stint working at the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress, I initiated a Scholar-in-Residence position at the Folger Shakespeare Library and became one of the first two appointees.
My research soon moved in an historical direction, and I published numerous articles and a book on the relationship between drama and politics in the seventeenth century. When this work oddly led me to the Duchess of Portsmouth, the favorite French (and Catholic) mistress of the womanizing Charles II of England, I moved into pure history. Ferreting out the intricate political and religious implications of her dual role as an English mistress subsidized by Louis XIV became an historical obsession.
After publishing a long article on the Duchess (with 150 footnotes), I decided to take a break and write a short story about my husband, an ex-Carthusian monk, who hadn't minded hair shirts, sleepless nights, 48-hour fasts, and total solitude, but who couldn't tolerate the monks singing off pitch during the Divine Office. Yet, when I discovered that the Carthusians had not changed in any way from 1084 to 1965, even in the design of their undergarments, I was hooked. I had found a slice of frozen history, an unopened window into the eleventh century. My eighteen years of research at the Folger Shakespeare Library took over, and I determined, whatever it took, whatever it cost, to discover the secret life of these monks.
Seven years later, I published An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World's Most Austere Monastic Order. And here we are today.