Continuing with the discussion started in the previous post, about nonfiction trends in my reading this year, I’ve also noticed that I read a good amount of biographical books about women of letters:
Sara Coleridge, a Victorian Daughter: Her Life and Essays, by Bradford Keyes Mudge (1989)
The book is a scholarly biography of Sara Coleridge, and tries to offer a fresh understanding of the value and meaning of her literary accomplishments and of her editorial work of Coleridge’s oeuvre after his death.
Drawing upon much original manuscript material (such as Sara Coleridge’s essays, her introductions and appendices to the editions of Coleridge’s work, and her private letters and memoirs), Mudge traces the main events in her life: the youngest of the four Coleridge children, Sara was to spend very little time in her father’s presence throughout her childhood and adult life; from an early age, she displayed great intellectual gifts, and had already published two books by the time she was twenty-two years old; in the first ten years of marriage, she was pregnant seven times, and had three miscarriages in four years; a notably frail woman, Sara was frequently ill, went through numerous psychological breakdowns, was deeply addicted to opium, and, at the end of her life, struggled with breast cancer. Seven of Sara Coleridge’s essays are reprinted in full in an appendix, from which we can have a taste at her writing style.
I think the book does a good job at introducing Sara to the reader. However, for me, it is very unconvincing in its revisionist interpretation of her literary accomplishments. Mudge’s premise takes on a simplifying note: according to him, Sara’s work as her father’s editor (and commentator) was her sole means of expression as a woman in Victorian times; furthermore, the author argues that Sara’s illnesses were merely a form of psychosomatic protest against the domestic duties related to marriage and child-care. In this last point, Mudge conveniently disregards the fact that Sara had no concrete need to take refuge in illness “to escape domestic duties” (as he claims), given that she led a sheltered and economically privileged life, and had no less than four servants in her household. He also dismisses the fact that she suffered form ill-health since childhood, as did her father.
According to Mudge, Sara Coleridge was a talented woman who found in her editorial work over her father’s oeuvre both an outlet for her gifts and a way to gain professional recognition without compromising her social reputation. Given that the profissionalization of women writers’ was met with scorn and disapproval at the time, the author argues that Sara found, in the task of ordering Coleridge’s fragmentary literary remains, a role consonant with Victorian expectations of female selflessness, which also allowed her a means of self-expression. To the author, under the guise of compliance with her familial duty, Sara was in fact evading the constraints of Victorian social norms concerning the participation of women in the public sphere. Furthermore, Mudge claims that the full development of Sara’s intellectual abilities was constrained by the fact that she sacrificed her own talents in service of her father’s reputation. Finally, the author argues that Sara used her introductions to Coleridge’s works as a means of expressing her own ideas.
To me, the author shies away from nuance, when he claims that Sara’s lack of talent for poetry and fiction lies solely in the fact that she was prevented, by an oppressive society, from developing what would have otherwise been her natural gifts. Counter to that, we have Mudge’s own account of the encouragement she received, from an early age, at home, to develop her intellectual talents. Rather than reducing Sara’s writing to a set of complicated strategies designed to manage and overcome the transgression of female authorship, the author would have done better if he had explored Sara’s own ambivalences and prejudices against female agency, and her criticism of feminist movements and of any form of social transformation and unrest.
Mudge’s attempt to see ‘Sara’s subservience to patriarchal authority simply as a complicated form of empowerment’ is, at the very least, oversimplifying – and this ends up having the opposite effect of what the author seems to have intended with the book: rather than as an heroine negotiating the terms of her enslavement, Sara comes out of the book as guilty of the very prejudices of which she was a victim; rather than as a writer to be taken seriously as a literary figure in her own right, Sara comes out as an untalented woman who would have been better at writing if ever she had been allowed the ideal conditions of temperature and pressure. Rather than a book that aims at offering a fresh perspective and new critical stance over Sara’s oeuvre, this book ends up being a well-researched biography about how she was a victim of her own circumstances, prejudices, and choices.
About the book:
- Yale University Press, 1989, 312 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 3 stars
Mad Madge: The Extraordinary Life of Margaret Cavendish, by Katie Whitaker (2002)
The book is a scholarly biography of Margaret Lucas Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, believed to be one of the first women to publish books under her own name.
Born into a wealthy Essex family in 1623, Margaret lost her father when she was two years old. She received little formal education, but enjoyed unusual freedom in her upbringing, and took to writing at an early age. “Margaret never absorbed her culture’s ideal of obedience – one of the most important of female virtues, a vital part of any woman’s relationships with parents and husband, and a religious duty owed to God. Instead she grew up believing she should be free to follow her own wants in life, so long as they were lawful, honest, and did no harm.”
When she was twenty years old, Margaret was chosen as the maid of honour to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. While in exile in Paris, during the English civil wars, she married William Cavendish, 30 years her senior and one of the wealthiest aristocrats who supported the King. They enjoyed an unconventional life together, and their home was a centre for artists, philosophers and writers. Unlike the way his male contemporaries treated their wives, William engaged in serious intellectual discussions with Margaret, encouraged her to take part in scientific experiments, and supported her writing and publishing endeavours.
Margaret was an eccentric and flew in the face of socially sanctioned ideas about femininity. She cultivated an extravagant style of dressing, designed her own clothing borrowing freely from male dress, and resisted fashions. Clothing was her way to express her personality in all its uniqueness. In her writing, she tried to compensate with originality her lack of formal education: “Rather than learning and absorbing the ideas of others-which she feared would threaten her own individuality – she always wanted to create and invent for herself.”
In a society where women were not expected to enter the public sphere, she deliberately published poetry under her own name. Not only that, her first published poetry collection flirted with natural philosophy – another prohibitive topic for women at the time – and espoused atomism – not only a dangerously atheistic view for the time, but also an unusual subject for poetry. In a society where women were urged not to speak about politics, philosophy or science, Margaret published plays, short fiction in prose and verse, science fiction, philosophical treatises, letters, moral dialogues, scientific speculations, essays, and a biography. At the age of thirty-three, she wrote her own autobiography – where, to the sceptical readers who ask “Why has this Lady writ her life? Since none cares to know whose daughter she was, or whose wife she is?”, she answers: “‘Tis of no purpose to the readers, but it is to the authoress, because I write it for my own sake, not for theirs.” Asked why she wrote, Margaret bluntly said that it was because “all heroic actions (…) and public employments (…) are denied our sex in this age“. In a society where women were encouraged to be modest, she aimed at nothing less than immortality. Margaret published twenty-three volumes between 1653 and 1673 – no small amount, considering that, between 1600 and 1640, only forty-two books by women were published.
Thomas Hobbes praised her plays, “filled throughout with more and truer ideas of virtue and honour than any book of morality I have read.” Charles Lamb loved her for her “fantastical and original brain“. Mary Evelyn, wife of the diarist John Evelyn, wrote of Margaret: “I hope, as she is an original, she may never have a copy.” Virginia Woolf wrote about her in ‘A Room of One’s Own’: “What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind!”
The edition I read is illustrated with coloured and black and white images, and a facsimile of a love letter that Margaret wrote to William in 1645. The book also does a good job at depicting the historical background, weaving it together with the events in Margaret’s life. We are also given a glimpse into several important historical figures of the Civil War and Restoration eras. It is a well-researched and comprehensive biography, but the writing is a little dry, at times too meticulous and overdetailed.
Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the ambivalent picture it paints of the Duchess of Newcastle – as an original thinker who was unapologetic about her atrocious spelling mistakes and illegible handwriting, and who could also be as lazy and self-indulgent as she was bold and eccentric.
About the book
- Vintage, 2011, 448 p. Goodreads
- First published in 2002
- My rating: 3,5 stars
A Secret Sisterhood, by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney (2017)
The book aims to explore four ‘hidden literary friendships’ and their formative character on women writers. The authors’ premise centres on the idea that scholarship has overlooked female friendships, in favour of an image of women authors as “solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses”. The book aims to show how four of the most prominent anglophone female authors – Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf – sustained their creative lives through friendships with other women. The book also tries to analyse how documentary evidence of these ‘sisterhoods’ has been suppressed from the scholarship, for not fitting the stereotype of the female author as a lone wolf, a cloistered spinster, or an isolated genius.
The authors claim that Jane Austen have enjoyed (and benefitted from) a close and creative friendship with the family governess Anne Sharp. In the diaries of Austen’s niece, Fanny, there are references to Sharp’s interest in playwriting, as well as to her bond with Austen. Further evidence of their creative exchange would be, according to the authors, the fact that Austen not only asked Sharp for her opinion on some of her novels, but also gave her a rare presentation copy of Emma; Sharp was one of the last people to whom Austen wrote before her death, and she appears in several of Austen’s letters; she even inherited a lock of the author’s hair.
Charlotte Brontë enjoyed a creative bond with her former schoolfriend, the feminist writer Mary Taylor. The authors claim that Taylor’s progressive views may have had a strong impact on the more conservative Charlotte. Evidence for that lies in the fact that, having received from her friend a copy of Jane Eyre, Taylor wrote her back to say that the book was “perfect as a work of art”, but unfortunately lacked “a greater political purpose” – which, according to the authors, may have inspired Charlotte to write Shirley.
George Eliot led an epistolary friendship with Harriet Beecher Stowe, whom she never met in person. The two exchanged books and commented on each other’s writing, and Harriet even had an open-minded attitude to Eliot’s love partnership with a married man. Finally, the authors claim that Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield have been misrepresented in literary history as foes, greatly due to the fact that Mansfield’s partner, John Murry, excised all mention of Virginia from Katherine’s posthumously published letters and diaries. However, according to the book, Virginia and Katherine enjoyed a complicated but creatively formative friendship. As Woolf wrote about Mansfield, she felt “the queerest sense of echo coming back to me from her mind the second after I’ve spoken”
The book is very readable, and features extensive notes and bibliography. However, I cannot help but feel that its concept was better than its execution. From a book so highly interested in exploring literary friendships, the lack of an account of Brontë and Gaskell’s friendship comes out as a great flaw – by overlooking Gaskell in favour of Tyler, it feels like the authors were more interested in giving a sense of uncovering something hidden, than of actually exploring the ‘sisterhood’ between the authors and their female friends.
Likewise, the section on Austen and Sharp’s friendship consists of a lot of speculation – if it is true that the book has convinced me that the family governess was held in great esteem by Austen, there is no strong evidence of their mutual creative influence. Instead, it felt like the authors were manipulating their sources here so as to try to get their point across more smoothly. I also think the book would have benefitted from a discussion about the friendships female authors enjoyed with male writers, and its impact on their careers. For me, rather than something new or groundbreaking, the book only works as an introduction to some aspects of the lives of the four authors mentioned here.
About the book
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 331 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 3,5 stars
These Ghostly Archives, by Gail Crowther , Peter K. Steinberg (2017)
The book reads like a dual memoir of the authors’ archival research on Sylvia Plath’s life and work. Set out as a collection of essays on related themes, it reads as a personal conversation between the authors: each chapter focuses on a different research topic, to reflect on the experience of studying the poet’s archives, dispersed through various repositories across the United States and the United Kingdom.
By engaging with Plath’s personal objects, the authors throw fresh light not only on her life and work, but also on the intersection of biographical, literary, and archival studies. Much like the researchers themselves, we feel a strong sense of Plath’s presence, when we read about the authors contact with the poet’s ephemera and personal possessions, and the conclusions they’ve come to draw about it. The book also presents unseen photos and some of Plath’s memorabilia.
The ‘ghostly’ nature of the research, hinted at in the title of the book, works as its leitmotiv: the haunting potential of dead writers and their literary archives is a unifying concept throughout the chapters. The objects and works left behind by Plath are seen as ‘ghostly’ vestiges of her presence: recordings of her voice, previously unseen photographs, a prom dress with marks of an absent body, two unknown poems left in a carbon paper hidden in the back of an old notebook, coffee rings on manuscripts, lost journal entries, the memory of a missing second novel, locks of hair, or there mere feeling of Plath’s presence in a room she one lived in. In their Plathian treasure hunt, the authors seem to prey upon faint traces from the past – traces that have somehow retained the potential to haunt us in the present, just as we haunt the archives in pursuit of the writer.
The book not only throws a fresh light over Plath and her work, but also explores the very nature of biographical and archival research. From the debate over the limitations placed on scholarship by lost and privately held archives, to the discussion over the very concept of archive – understood either as a traditional repository of text and images, or as a collection of places, impressions and memories, a ‘living archive’ – the book does a good job at problematizing how archivists’ decisions can shape the biographical and literary research.
I found this book very engaging in its way of displaying the authors’ archival exploration as both a conversation between them and as a kind of detective work. It is also fascinating in its unusual way of challenging the conventional boundaries between literary research, biographical study, and archival work.
About the book
- Fonthill Media, 2017, 208 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4 stars
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon (2015)
This book is a dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, told in a series of alternating chapters.
Although I disagree with the author’s premise, I think the book works well as an introduction to the lives of both mother and daughter. Gordon’s writing style, in particular, makes the story very engaging, through the use of fictional devices, so that her book reads very much like a novel. You can read my full review here.
“The more she wrote, the more Mary discovered that there was a certain power to being the abandoned one (…) It was also true that being abandoned had two meanings: being left behind, but also being wild, or living outside the law.” ― Charlotte Gordon,
That’s all for now, folks. Later, I still plan to continue talking about the memoirs and essay collections I read in 2018. By the way, did you notice any trends in your nonfiction reading this year? Tell me about it.