I don’t often read biography. I’m not sure why; it just mostly doesn’t appeal to me, though I do treasure my biography of Michael Ventris* somewhat. And I’m assuming historical fiction based on the life of Cicero doesn’t count. So it has to be something quite enticing to get past this. And this appealed, I suppose, because of the theme and juxtaposition. It didn’t require a fascination with one life above all, but rather an interest in the connecting thread of outcast status among a group of women, some of whose work influenced the others, or who are in some way related, in theme if nothing else, as well as all having had their impact on the literary world. And this did intrigue me – I wanted to see what hypothesis the author might have in connecting these women and their lives. What I got wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but I very much think that the nature of the connected chapters of autobiography, and thus the enforced comparison, really did something to push this more towards being something I enjoyed reading, especially as they are mostly not women I know an awful lot about.
As you can see from the cover, the book goes from Mary Shelley to Emily Brontë to George Eliot to Olive Schreiner to finish with Virginia Woolf, progressing through history (and thus building upon each author to the follower who may have been influenced by her) and literature. The tone is decidedly non-academic (references are reserved for the back of the book, quotations are minimal and decisive statement and bold hypotheses not visibly and immediately supported by evidence are rampant) and definitely aiming for easy reading rather than full on factual provision. In many ways, I see the appeal of this fairly simple and accessible approach – it made the book very easy to pick up and put down as reading time permitted, as well as being easy to stick to for a session of reading. But it did feel somewhat lacking to me. I wanted more substance, more information. Obviously part of this is the necessary brevity of five biographies in one book, but that’s not all of it. There was a sort of insufficiency to the connecting hypotheses around the women of the book, a definite idea, but not enough analysis and discussion to bring it fully to birth.
The real reason I think this comes through is because it feels to me as though the author has chosen to present each women very firmly through the lens of that woman’s own works and words. This came to me most prominently in the Mary Shelley section, where we see Mary’s husband, Shelley, through Mary’s romanticism and love, his actions definitely positive. Gordon does, at the first instance, note that Shelley’s behaviour would, nowadays, be somewhat differently labelled, not as romantic but as “grooming” or potentially “abusive”. Through a modern lens, the early part of their relationship is deeply worrying at best. But once this remark is passed, that’s pretty much it for that. Shelley thereafter remains a figure of romance, no matter what his behaviour. And that is what Mary herself seems to tell of him in her own letters, but wouldn’t have been great to see this relationship from the outside too? To see the views of Mary’s sisters, maybe? Her father? Someone who could look in from outside and say what their world saw, as well as Mary’s own mind and our distant view?
This same issue is true for all the women, but Mary’s is the one I find it most troubling in. Emily Brontë too, I suppose, though in her case it feels more because the author had a dearth of information with which to work, and so it almost feels like what little she had was recycled, and far too much inferred from Brontë’s fiction.
But at the same time, I acknowledge that this is also a merit – it’s clearly what the author has set out to do, to share these women in their own words and actions, and draw conclusions on them from their own mark on the world. Which is admirable, as far as it goes, but the part of me that was taught to side-eye the biographical fallacy when reading the poetry of Horace wonders if maybe this gives too much weight to what we can infer from literary criticism not about the work, but about the author behind it.
But I’m being too nitpicky. Really, I enjoyed reading this, and when I could stop niggling at the way the stories were being told, I did really enjoy the stories. I loved learning more about some authors I didn’t know much about, and seeing how they affected one another’s work throughout their time. It has spurred me into wanting to read more of some of them, and to read more about others. Sure, I am sad for the lack, as I’d have liked it, of analytical insight and historical obsession. Sure, we could have done with maybe some external viewpoints as a contrast and a verification. But fundamentally, I do stand behind the idea of wanting to discover women from the past through their own words, if I maybe doubt the practice of doing so through their fiction.
All in all, a fascinating and enjoyable read, but not one I’d likely recommend for 100% biographical truth. The author likes telling a story, and sometimes that gets a little in the way.
*The man who deciphered Linear B. Because I am nothing if not utterly, utterly predictable. Also he was a really interesting guy and the decipherment of Linear B (seriously, read The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick) is just a really cool subject to learn about.