Friday, January 19, 2007
Books! Women in History!
An intriguing, maddening boxed-set came our way late in the last year, and it served as a reminder of how much we here at Stevereads do love a good boxed set.
Part of this is practical, naturally - boxed sets are more convenient than loose books: self-contained, independent of bookends, even stackable. But more of our appreciation stems from the wonderful ideological unity boxed sets promise (And sometimes disunity! 20 years ago, for instance, Penguin published 'War and Peace' in a handy two-volume boxed set, with the split happening right before Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Readers encountering Tolstoy's masterpiece for the first time in such a format couldn't help but read a different book from those who slogged all the way through one volume, bailing it together with rubber bands and fetishistically counting both pages read and pages remaining)
On those grounds, the boxed set before us now, "Women in History," isn't a total success. It makes a bunch of dumb mistakes we're itching to correct.
Seven volumes in this squat box: 'The Courtesans' by Joanna Richardson (the most famed dozen courtesans in Second Empire Paris), 'Unnatural Murder' by Anne Somerset (the Earl and Countess of Somerset's involvement in the 17th Century murder of Sir Thomas Overbury), Lesley Branch's edition of the Regency memoirs of Harriette Wilson, H.F.M. Prescott's biography of Mary Tudor, Michael Grant's biography of Cleopatra, Maria Bellonci's biography of Lucrezia Borgia, and Elizabeth Jenkins' biography of Elizabeth I.
Some of our problems with this particular boxed set are obvious even from the recitation of that roster. 'Women in History' is a big, juicy subject, after all - is it really best served by not one but two books on courtesans? (Richardson's book is very nearly worthless, and we'll get to Blanch's book shortly) Or, for that matter, two Tudor queens?
But the problems go deeper than that, naturally. Except on purely commercial grounds (that 'except' will, perhaps, earn us a Lockean 'Ya think?' - but even so!), we here at Stevereads would challenge the right of many of these titles to be in a set called 'Women in History.'
It goes without saying that in a world where three of the four greatest novelists of all frickin time are women, where virtually every nation that's ever existed has at some point been ruled by a woman (a free book to the first of you to tell me one of the times this was true of America!), and where the fight for women's rights contains a roster of some of the bravest people in history ... well, let's just say that in such a world, we probably shouldn't be spending so much time reading about courtesans.
Cleopatra? Yes, probably - not only for iconic name-recognition reasons, but because an argument could be made that Roman resentment of the lavish treatment she received from Julius Caesar helped to precipitate the man's assassination. There's absolutely no historical evidence that she was anything more than a war trophy with moxy (mytho-historiographers jumped on her - so to speak- pretty quick, so our surviving historical record is not to be trusted), but thanks to Shakespeare (and Liz Taylor), she's the most recognizable female name in history, so she probably deserves a place here.
But Mary Tudor? True, she has a popular drink named after her, but she was a boring failure as a queen, and what's worse, she wasn't a very good Tudor. Oh, she had the weird brain-wattage so typical of the breed, and like the rest of the family she was utterly fearless of her own safety. But her reign was a failure in main part because she was too stiffly doctrinaire and too inept at politics - very un-Tudorlike failings for which there's nobody to blame but the lady herself.
Elizabeth I of course (although it's not for any contemporary historian to bestow the sobriquet of 'the great' ... true, there's a long and fascinating thesis to be written on the whys whynots of how that title gets bestowed, but it's history's to give or withhold .... In the history of English monarchs, only Alfred gets it - not Henry VIII, not Victoria, not Edward III, and not Elizabeth) - true, she benefitted more from happenstance than most of her advocates would like to admit (she faced a uniquely weak coalition of potential European foes, and she was smarter than every single one of the men in her realm, and, not incidentally, a massive freak storm scattered the famed Spanish Armada before its soldiers could overrun the island), but her claim to prominence is undisputed.
(undisputed, yes, but nevertheless - we here at Stevereads maintain that the greatest English queen of all time was Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King George VI and mother of the present queen)
But Lucrezia Borgia? If a (totally spurious) reputation as a serial poisoner didn't cling to her name still, would anybody but Renaissance scholars know who she was? And who she was, frankly, doesn't warrant her a place in this set - just another devout Renaissance barter-wife, sold by men to other men in order to make male heirs. No, what we want for this collection are women whose lives are defined by more than bad marriages (or good ones, for that matter). No Catherine of Aragon, no Mary Queen of Scots, and (once you strip away the whole poisoner canard) no Lucrezia Borgia.
That leaves us with two problem cases. The first, 'Unnatural Murder,' is fairly easy to deal with: as interesting as the Overbury mystery is (did the Earl and Countess really poison him? Were there deeper motives involved than simple jockeying among James I's favorites at court?), it nevertheless remains a footnote in history. Anne Somerset's book is wonderful, make no mistake: this is exactly how history should be written. But we've only got seven spots here, so it has to go.
The second is an equally easy call, but it wrenches a good deal more. The scandalous memoirs of Harriette Wilson are divinely fun to read, and Lesley Blanch's edition deserves the widest possible audience. Wilson's memoirs were notorious in her day mainly because she very candidly offered all her former clients - including some of the most prestigious figures of Regency England - a chance to buy themselves OUT of her tell-all before it went to press. For the low, low price of 200 pounds, she would remove the name (and save the reputation) of any of her former paramours, including the Duke of Wellington, who refused and uttered his famous line "publish and be damned!"
The memoirs are hypnotically fantastic reading. Wilson wrote a number of now totally forgotten (unjustly so, in our opinion) novels, but this, no less novelistic in execution, is her masterpiece. Everywhere it glitters with her sly, piercing wit, as in this exchange with Wellington:
"I wonder you do not get married, Harriette!"
(By the by, ignorant people are always wondering).
Wellington, however, gives no reasons for anything unconnected with fighting, at least since the convention of Cintra; and he, therefore, again became silent. Another burst of attic sentiment blazed forth:
"I was thinking of you last night, after I got into bed," resumed Wellington.
"How very polite to the Duchess," I observed.
Nevertheless, however clever and intelligent our memoirist is, and however much it pains us to set aside so attractive an edition of a book with which the common reader should be more familiar, Harriette Wilson has to go. The competition for her spot is simply too fierce.
And that leaves us where? We're keeping Cleopatra on a long surmise. We're keeping Elizabeth I for state reasons (although I might substitute J.E. Neale's more scholarly and more readable biography of the queen). And we're dumping everybody else - which leaves five open spaces! And this is where one of the most enjoybable aspects of boxed sets comes in: imagining them with different contents (how often have we imagined a 'military history' set, or a 'science fiction' set, and many other themes too nerdy to mention!).
We nominate the following:
Eleanor of Acquitaine and the Four Kings by Mary Kelly - Kelly's writing is a trifle mundane, but oh! Her subject certainly isn't! Instead of merely being a pawn in dynastic intrigues, Eleanor over time became adept and powerful enough to play them herself, at a time when most women in England lived lives indistinguishable from those of the livestock they tended.
Aphra Behn by Vita Sackville-West - Behn is an altogether remarkable figure in history, unprecedently living by her pen as a novelist and playwright in an age and craft thoroughly dominated by men, and Sackville-West's typically gorgeous prose does her full justice.
Jane Austen by Claire Tomalin - Unlike most Austen biographers, Tomalin controls herself admirably ... easy on the petticoats, generous with the textual appreciations. The result is a very readable account of the woman who is the most unlikely of all the world's great novelists.
Empress Maria Theresa by Mary Moffat - How wonderful it would be to see Moffat's long-gone book decked out in the fine colors of this boxed set! And how wonderful it would be if more readers knew the fascinating life of this woman, who lowered taxes, raised literacy rates, put Austria in the front rank of nations, AND went toe-to-toe with Frederick the Great on the battlefield.
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf - Those of you who know us could probably see this coming a mile off, but we can't help ourselves! Not only is Woolf's extended essay one of the finest works of English prose in existence, but it's ABOUT women in history - and so the perfect capstone to our imaginary set!
And there you have it! Wouldn't those seven volumes be a set to conjure with! A good balance of prose, politics, and personalities, with nary a courtesan in sight.