Companion Reads: ‘The Invisible Woman’ and ‘Katherine Swynford’

June 2, 2016 at 6:03 am Leave a comment

This post is part of our on-going 2016 Spring Reading Spree. Kick off your own reading spree this spring by giving some love to the unread books on your shelf!


Ah, mistresses. They are a constant source of intrigue and interest throughout history, often holding unique positions of power and influence over their menfolk. And yet there is frequently a marked lack of information left behind them. Their identities becomes so sublimated to their romantic partners that little source material remains for historians to use to try and understand the women themselves.

I recently read one such book that triumphs over such source-related adversity and it reminded me of another triumphantly good “a woman lost to history” biography. I speak of Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens and Alison Weir’s Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt’s Scandalous Mistress, the latter of which I first read and enjoyed seven years ago. Both tackle the challenges of writing about mistresses with aplomb and historic precision and both share the goal of bringing vital women back from historic obscurity.

I’ve written about Katherine Swynford here before, but much like Swynford, The Invisible Woman is a terrific example of how to write a great biography when sources are few and far between. Basically, the rule of thumb seems to be: GO BROAD. Both Weir and Tomalin are truly great at building a relevant context while keeping their eyes on prize and the focus on their subject. When sources directly related to their subject are lacking, they go broad and examine the times, places, and people near their subject, a tactic that makes for surprisingly fascinating reading in both cases.

In Tomalin’s case, I didn’t expect to read a thoughtful exploration of the place of woman in theater at the turn of the eighteenth-to-nineteenth centuries, but it was an interesting and invigorating diversion. In Weir’s case, I was treated to a great discussion of the beginning days of the War of the Roses (also both super-interesting and totally unexpected). And, in both cases, I came away with a better understanding of the women being studied because of the direct relevance of this context.

Tomalin’s book benefits greatly from having a Victorian subject, rather than a medieval one, so she a lot more source material to work with, even for her “dark” periods when Ellen Ternan totally disappears from the historic record. She also does a better job than Weir at differentiating between fact and various levels of supposition. Weir is prone to flights of fantasy as she ponders what might have been; Tomalin systematically explores that most plausible things that could have happened and explains why she believes one of them is the truth.

Both books are excellent, and quick, reads — particularly if you’re fascinated by the history and lives of forgotten women. Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman is a perfect example of the serious, excellent biographies of women that came out in the late 1980s and early 1990s following the rise of women’s history as an academic discipline in the 1970s. It’s well-researched, readable, interesting, and surprising. I can only look forward to discovering more books like Weir’s and Tomalin’s!


Entry filed under: Biography. Tags: , , , , .

‘Just My Type’ by Simon Garfield ‘The Wood Beyond the World’ by William Morris

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