Posts filed under ‘Biography’
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. (more…)
Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself…. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree. This kind of book becomes part of our experience.
— Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (16)
One of my favorite authors, Anne Fadiman, edited a collection of essays some years ago called Rereadings where she asked various authors to revisit a book from their past and write down their impressions. The first time I read Rereadings, I hated it, plain and simple, and felt the essays “ruined” perfectly good stories with their intrusive dissections of literature. I shook my adolescent fist at literary criticism, grumbled about the book, and shelved it.
Inevitably given the title, I ended up rereading Rereadings over the years and, every time I did, I found the essays more thought-provoking (and significantly less ruinous) than I had in my previous reading of the book. How could that be? I started giving other books second chances and lavished long-held favorites with new attention. The very idea of rereading became a fascination for me — books don’t change, in theory, but somehow every time you read them, they’re different.
And, crucially as far as Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is concerned, you are different.
As I continue to read and think and reflect, I realize [George Eliot] has given me something else: a profound experience with a book, over time, that amounts to one of the frictions of my life. I have grown up with George Eliot. I think Middlemarch disciplined my character. I know it has become part of my own experience and my own endurance. (266)
Not to beat around the bush, I must now note that Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is terrific. It’s a memoir of the best possible kind. It’s a biography researched and presented with vigor, sympathy (in the most Eliotian sense*), and clarity. And it’s the most warmhearted form of literary criticism I’ve ever encountered. No sterile dissections here; no, instead we’re treated to a wonderful entwining of life, books, theory, relationships, and, of course, Middlemarch itself. (more…)
In her Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — and the World, author Rachel Swaby provides 52 mini-biographies of the famous and forgotten women of scientific history. Each one is brief — too brief, I dare say — and begins with a snappy hook, followed by a recitation of each woman’s early life (and inevitable early calling to scientific endeavor), and a review of her incredible accomplishments.
As a lover of the history of science and women’s history more generally, I was charmed and intrigued by Swaby’s opening salvo in which she berates the New York Times for its sexist obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill (it began by calling her “world’s best mom” and praised her for following “her husband from job to job and [taking] eight years off from work to raise three children” before mentioning her scientific achievements). Swaby, understandably, took offense and was inspired to write Headstrong in hopes of taking one small step towards halting the all-too-common prioritzation of a woman’s professional accomplishments somewhere below her domestic ones.
It’s a great Introduction. Indeed, the Introduction is probably my favorite part of Headstrong. The rest of the book, I’m sorry to report, is hagiography, unapologetic and gleaming with fervor, in its purest form.
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women was disappointing to me. I chose it because the premise sounded ripe and fascinating — fictionalized biographies of interesting women who time and history forgot. Bergman’s stories run through time, intersecting and diverging with each other while jumping through narrators.
By the end of the book, I expected to have learned new snippets about interesting historical women. Instead, I found myself somewhat numbed by the book and vaguely dissatisfied.
But I think this lack of satisfaction was actually part of Bergman’s plan. In her afterword, she writes, “the world has not always been kind to its unusual women.” This is both sad and true and Bergman’s story collection ends up feeling the same way. I finished the stories and felt somewhat let down. Not as a reader, but as a woman. These are not happy stories about exceptional women defying convention. These are hard stories of women “whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes.” They never got their due in life and don’t receive it now, even in fictionalized form. (more…)
I discovered a pair when I read Judith Flanders’ A Circle of Sisters earlier this year. A wonderful biography of the Macdonald sisters (wives and mothers to various famous men of Empire), Circle of Sisters paints an incredibly intimate and detailed portrait of an ever-expanding British family in the late Victorian age.
Grandly sweeping through decades and themes, Flanders takes her time and revels in all that is perfectly ordinary about the Macdonald sisters. In the end, the fact that they married well or that they birthed poet laureates and prime ministers almost doesn’t matter. It becomes more interesting that these women were not exceptional — for how rare is the biography of the average person?
Somewhere in the middle of A Circle of Sisters, I recalled a faint echo of something familiar. Generations of one British family? The arts and crafts movement? The coming war? It didn’t take me too long to make the connection to A.S. Byatt’s wonderful The Children’s Book. (more…)
Offering an engaging look at the family lives of Britons in the 19th century, Claudia Nelson’s Family Ties in Victorian England is a delightful journey through the intricacies of familial relationships during the Victorian period. Nelson divides her book into categories of relationship, offering chapters dealing with husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and so on. Each chapter is liberally scattered with the kind of uniquely Victorian anecdotes that one can expect from any broad history of the period—people frequently “descend” into such unfortunate circumstances as “incurable insanity,” “invalidism,” and (worst of all?) the working class.
Nelson’s book is an unusually accessible text for something written by an academic presumably for other academics and one which benefits greatly from Nelson’s clear passion for the topic. (Her other books include studies of fatherhood and adoption in the 19th century.) Her prose is evidently fascinated by the remarkable foreignness of a culture so tantalizingly close to our own and this preoccupation goes a long way towards making the book breeze by.
The main downfall of the book is its lack of variety of source materials. Nelson is not a historian, per se, but rather a literature scholar and her choice of sources reveals her own background. While she makes initial efforts at going beyond contemporary literature, with occasional quotes from etiquette manuals and newspapers, the majority of the book hinges on short stories, novels, and works of polemical fiction, aided by biographical material about literary figures of the age. This actually works pretty well, particularly when she uses biography to provide examples of various relationships, but one does wonder occasionally at her unquestioning use of literature of a source of historical record.
On the whole, however, Family Ties is a great little foray into the Victorian world. Its focus on the domestic sphere and family offers a refreshing look into a well-studied period and I often found myself pleasantly surprised by some little factoid, glimpsed biography, or literary insight. With less than 200 pages, Family Ties is a quick read, but one which leaves you scouring the bibliography and notes section for more.