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).
"Why so?"
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.


Jeff E. said...

I'm going to say that the first woman ruler of the US was Eleanor Roosevelt during the final days of FDR.

Beepy said...

This one has been driving me nuts because I know that I've heard the answer at one point. One of our presidents was so ill during most of his term that all major decisions were maade by the missus. But I can't remember who the heck it was. Darn this manatee brain!

I would recommend leaving in one book about courtesans though, Steve. Some very powerful, intelligent women chose that path in life and should be represented in this imaginary box set. I'd opt for a biography of one person instead of a collection, which seems more likely to just be going for the scandalous elements.

In fact, I'd say there should be at least two box sets. The second could contain biographies of women in other fields. Eleanor Roosevelt for example. Madame Curie. Maria Callas. Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. Oh, my, the list goes on. Of course, since I only read about one book a season, I don't know if any great biographies exist for some of these women. But you do...

Beepy said...

I wonder who the four great writers are, in the mind of Stevereads? Jane Austen, George Eliot and who?

Sam Sacks said...

Yeah, I guessed Tolstoy and Woolf were the other two of the four, Beepy, but I'm not sure. (Eliot greater than Dickens? Maybe that's a little surprising, although I sure love the Eliot novels I've read.)

I'm equally unsure how many of the executive decisions in the 1980s were the consequence of Nancy Reagan's consultation of the zodiac charts.

In any case, best--post--of 2007

steve said...

OH! Beepy's manatee brain came SO close!

I'd have to disagree with Jeff about Eleanor Roosevelt - it's true that FDR was pretty much a vegetable towards the end, but it was his aides who did the governing, not his famously indifferent wife.

Although she WAS First Lady, so maybe by my own criteria, she counts.

But certainly not as the first! The glaring earlier example, the one nagging at the back of Beepy's brain, was of course Edith Wilson, who ran the country after a massive stroke all but killed her husband.

Nancy Reagan is a fanciful answer, but it raises the question of how engaged she OR her husband were in the day-to-day running of the country.

But there's another example! Anybody care to hazard a guess?

steve said...

Also: leave it to Beepy to stand up for the ho's.

locke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beepy said...

Wilson! Arggh!

Sam - I'm not sure Steve is a big Dickens fan, although I sure as heck am. I'm not saying that I think that he dislikes Dickens, merely that Dickens might only make Steve's top ten.

Who would you put in your top four, Sam? Anyone else want to weigh in?

Hippolyta said...

I'm with Beepy. The ho's stay. But that's assuming that this box set should even exist in the first place...

My complaint here is not that the bios chosen are about courtesans or bad rulers. Imagine for a moment a volume like this about great black people in history. Or about great homosexuals in history. A little demeaning? Like they're in a different league. Can't compete with the ruling class?

It's rather like saying Mary Cassat was a great woman artist (woman is a noun not an adjective, and that's always bothered me, and if someone can explain how that cavemanish term came into existence that'd be awesome, but that's beside the point). Why not "Mary Cassat was a great artist"? Mind you, I question her overall greatness as a historical figure because she quietly (obediently) and without rebellion painted dormant little scenes that would inspire the likes of Thomas Kincade, but the woman could paint.

Anyhow, questions of her greatness aside (Georgia O'Keefe might have been a better example) the more grouping and categorizing we do, the less we recognize ourselves as being equal. And "separate but equal" is bullshit, as we all know. It's like saying "yeah, she was a great person (artist, author, politician, what have you) ...for a woman."

steve said...

Oh! Thomas Kincade! He paints what we're all FEELING!

Anonymous said...

Eliot, Austen, Tolstoy, Woolf and that Chinese (Japanese?) author Steve loves, name escapes me. Those would be my guesses about our host.

Sam Sacks said...

Chinese, Japanese, what-EVER.

Golly, Beepy, I feel dreadful abashed at my inability to give a confident top four. My top three are pretty cleanly Tolstoy, Eliot, and Dickens, but my reading into Austen, Dostoevsky, Woolf (well, her novels--I've read nearly every word of her nonfiction), Mann, Twain, and Melville is sadly too incomplete. (It probably says something of me that I kind of want to make Fitzgerald my number four.)

Sam Sacks said...

Hippolyta, these books seem to me more to be saying, "here are woman who lived spectacular lives." My feeling is that reading them in succession as a collected package would go further to erasing stereotypes than pretending that gender distinctions haven't been hugely significant in our history. It's not necessarily demeaning to notice that there tend to be fewer women in the history books, and respond to that by saying, "But that's not because women don't belong there, and here's a bunch of books that prove that they do."

But maybe I'm just talking as a Jew, for whom grouping and categorizing is a divine privilege. How ARE all my non-chosen friends doing out there today? Still muddling through, although despised of the Lord?

Beepy said...

I'm adopting that as my new motto. "Muddling through, although despised by the Lord" We'll see if that does me better than my old motto "Dads love evil." (Take a look at any Father's Day table set up in a bookstore, if you doubt the truth of that motto.)

Beepy said...

Anonymous - I think that the name you are reaching for is Lady Murasaki. Steve's got it bad for her.

Sam Sacks said...

Inexplicable omission! Given the parameters of what I've read, I now boldly nominate Edith Wharton the fourth best novelist.

steve said...

Anonymous is, in fact, entirely right (leading me to think anonymous is no stranger to me)! Tolstoy, Murasaki Shikibu, Eliot, Woolf, and Austen are my top five.

Edith Wharton would certainly make my top ten (Dickens probably wouldn't) - although not the top five! Too often, I think, her consciously-narrow setting inadvertently makes her prose seem a bit provincial, in a bad way. Same thing happens to Hardy, I think, and it keeps them both out of the upper rank.

Trollope would make the top ten. And Fielding. And my beloved Robert Louis Stevenson.

What the blogosphere is clearly longing for here is a patented Stevereads LIST! Shall we say, top 50 novels of all time? Would that set you all a-drooling?

Hippolyta said...

My heart races just thinking about it! ;-)

Kevin Caron said...

As a wise man once said:

Bring. It. On.

Hippolyta said...

Nope, I believe that was Kirsten Dunst in the ever so intellectually stimulating film "Bring it on." Sorry, Kevin.

Kevin Caron said...

You didn't know that Kirsten Dunst is a man?

locke said...

This is not a democracy, it's a cheerocracy.

steve said...

What's wrong with a cheerocracy?

I kinda like the sound of it ... if they're cheering for ME, that is...