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Julia Ward Howe’s Civil Wars, by Elaine Showalter.

November 27, 2015

Julia Ward Howe’s Civil Wars: A Biography, by Elaine Showalter.  Simon & Schuster (2016), 320 pages.

4 stars

An excellent biography of a nineteenth-century poet, lecturer, and advocate for women’s rights who fought a personal civil war against her husband’s domination.

Julia Ward Howe is best known as the iconic author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” during the civil War. Less known is the story of her life and the difficult struggle she waged against her husband’s demands for her submission and isolation. Elaine Showalter is to be thanked for researching her personal as well as her public life and retelling it as an easily accessible narrative.

Showalter is an Emeritus Professor of English at Princeton. Beginning in the 1970s, she has been one of those who have created and defined Feminist Literary Criticism. With her knowledge of nineteenth-century literature, she is particularly qualified to write a biography of Howe. Her scholarship is impeccable and her use of the extensive Howe manuscripts is well documented. She also understands how nineteenth-century America defined and enforced gender definitions in ways that shaped the lives of many upper-class women. Yet her scholarship never overwhelms readers interested in how a specific woman, Julia Ward Howe, lived her life within those limitations and why she eventually rebelled against them.

Julia Ward was the daughter of a wealthy New York banker, a loving but controlling father. She later described herself growing up as “a princess in an enchanted castle,” beloved and pampered but not allowed to explore the world at large. While still a teenager, she married a dashing man eighteen-years her senior. Samuel Gridley Howe had already spent years fighting in the Greek Revolution and afterward was known to family and friends as “Chev”, a nickname for an honorary title he had received for his efforts. Returning home, he continued his heroic stance by founding a school to save deaf children from their afflictions. He was close friends with Senator Charles Summer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other political and intellectual leaders of pre-Civil War Boston.

While Showalter is careful not to demonize Julia’s husband, she makes clear that his expectations for his wife were totally in contradiction with hers. He believed a woman should be a creature, totally obedient and serving his every desire. Julia was accustomed to being a social “belle,” and had hoped that her marriage would bring her into New England’s literary world. Chev’s male friends, however, shared his image of women. Chev was quick to attack, verbally and physically, and shame Julia for any gesture directed away from him. When she managed to print her rather conventional poems, he was dismissive. Frequent childbearing also complicated her life. Although she repeatedly tried to please him, she was seldom successful. He threatened to divorce her and perhaps had affairs with other women.

Abolition was one cause the couple shared, and Julia accompanied Chev to Washington, D.C. when Civil War broke out. After hearing Union soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body,” she wrote words that have become “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was a work unlike her other writing and made her into a national icon, but it also increased her husband’s anger at her. She began to lecture and speak publicly. Soon she was caught up in the movement for women’s rights, where she gloried in new bonds with other women. She continued her activism in the long years after her husband’s death.

I found Julia Ward Howe a fascinating woman, and her story is well told by Elaine Showalter. I gladly recommend his book to anyone interested in nineteenth-century women, women’s rights, and the clash of gender expectations.

Thanks to Edelweiss for providing me with an electronic review copy of this book.

Gifts of Passage: An Informal Autobiography, by Samantha Rama Rau

November 22, 2015

Gifts of Passage: An Informal Autobiography, by Samantha Rama Rau.  Restless Books, 2015.  First published 1961.

3 stars

A reprint of a book first written in the 1950s by a woman from India about her early life and her world travels.

Gifts of Passages is a collection of stories which Samantha Rama Rau first published in American magazines, like Holiday, The New Yorker, and Vogue in the 1950s. Her introductions to the stories are meant to shape them into an account of her life, her autobiography. She wrote the stories collected here when she was in her twenties and thirties, and she would go on to travel and write for almost fifty more years. Her later works include a dramatization of E.M. Foster’s Passage to India, and she assisted author Gayatri Devi in writing her book, A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur. (See my review.) She lived much of her later life in the United States, but retained a loyalty to India. Often the purpose of her writing is intended to make India real, understandable and non-threatening for post-World War II American readers. In both the autobiographical introductions and the stories themselves, Rau writes brisk, cheerful accounts, suited to her American audience of the 1950s.  She makes no effort to be introspective or literary, which makes her an interesting contrast to the similarly structured autobiography of Sandra Cisneros that I just read.

Samantha Rama Rau (1923-2009) was born in Madras, India, and lived her early years in the large multi-generational home of her grandmother. Although she claims her family was neither rich nor poor,” they were not only wealthy; they were distinguished actors in the creation of modern India. Her father became a highly respected diplomat, taking the family to England when Rau was six, to be a part of negotiations about Indian independence. After World War II, he was the Indian ambassador to Japan and the United States and head of a major Indian bank. Her mother founded a birth control organization in Indian and participated in the creation of International Planned Parenthood in 1953.

The most well-known story in the book is “By Any Other Name,” an account of a British school teacher trying to give Rau and her sister “more pronounceable” names. My favorite of the stories was about a young man, educated in America, trying to reject the woman his family arranged for him to marry. With Rau’s unintended help, the determined young woman patiently learns to please him into marriage. Other stories describe her travels and include a negative account of a particularly narrow-minded missionary she met in northwest China. Often however, Rau displays genuine sensitivity toward the people she describes. For example, her account of the trial of Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya shows real sympathy for both sides; the white settlers who had made Kenya their home and the displaced blacks who had responded with violence.

Gifts of Passage is an unusual book, one that I recommend to readers who enjoy travelogues from the past.

I am grateful to have received a digital copy of this book through Edelweiss.

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee.

November 19, 2015

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee. Harper (2015), Edition: 1, 288 pages.

4 stars

A controversial book by the author of To Kill a Mockingbird that I found to raise significant questions about race and gender.

Harper Lee’s newly published book was written in the 1950s. It had never before been published, and it has drawn extensive criticism. Admittedly, it is flawed book, but I found it to be profound and moving in ways that Mockingbird was not. We loved Lee’s iconic novel which told us that the problems of racism could be resolved by a courageous and honorable white man standing up to the bigots. Since it was published, we have learned that racism is stronger and more complex than that, but like Jean Louise in Watchman, we feel betrayed and angry when forced to face more complex realities. And like Jean Louise, we don’t see a clear path out of our dilemmas.

Given all I had heard, I didn’t intend to read Watchman. When the reading group chose it, I gave in and fought my way through the first third of the book. Then Jean Louise discovers that her father is not the perfect, god-like figure she had believed. Her world falls apart; she confronts him, and ultimately decides to return to her small Alabama town. Suddenly, I was caught up in the theme of betrayal and my own history of realizing that the values I had been taught were shams.

I never worshiped my father the way Jean Louise worshiped Atticus and my disillusionment was not as sudden and dramatic as hers. And I grew up in southeast Oklahoma, not Alabama. Still, I remember clearly that the first time I challenged my own father was over his racism. I was in high school, and he was on the local school board in 1954 when the Supreme Court handed down the desegregation decree. The board was deciding to build a new “colored school” so that “they” won’t try to integrate the “white” schools. The new school would be full of vocational facilities to teach “them” to be better maids and handymen. Their rationale was benevolent paternalism, just like Atticus’s, and like Jean Louise, I rejected the white supremacist assumptions on which it was based. Other than Sunday School, I don’t know where I got such a radical idea.

Once caught up in the sense of Jean Louise’s sense of betrayal, Lee’s book had real meaning for me. Reading it, I could understand the southerners’ anger at the Supreme Court, the government, and the NAACP, and their overall sense of betrayal by those they had trusted and respected to protect their power over those they believed to by inferior. I recognize a similar sense of betrayal today in the Tea Party and in Republican leaders who are trying to reinstate the power of white men over blacks and women. But Watchman shatters our belief in benevolent paternalism.   A few good individuals, like Atticus, can not save us.

Lee gives the narrative of the internal story of the whites, but her book raises more questions in the end than it resolves. That is not an entirely bad thing, but it leaves some of the tension in the book unresolved. I was left with a sense of disconnection to the social and moral questions that powered the book. As in so often in books about race, African Americans appear as appendages, flat figures that enable the white plot to proceed. At the very least, this account needs to be balanced by stories which flesh out the other side. And by a recognition that personal solutions, even if possible, are not enough. Racial healing requires that both sides play active roles.

For me, the issue of gender is as significant as that of race. Lee innovatively inserts a daughter into the traditional father-son Oedipal crisis.  But because Jean Louise is a daughter, not a son, her fight and reconciliation with her father does not supply a realistic ending to the book.  Personal solutions can’t work when social structures don’t offer space for alternatives.  To return to her father and hometown permanently and refuse to marry is no answer for her. If she had been a son, she could have studied law and inherited his place in the community. As the early part of the book makes clear, a woman like Jean Louise has no place in her hometown other than submission in marriage. But she is too bright and independent for that. What kind of a future does she have if she returns home? I could not see one for myself in those years, and I have spent the last 50 years trying to unlearn submission.

Harper Lee’s biography is clearly mirrored in Watchman, and Jean Louise’s problem was one she felt personally. Lee attended law school for a time, but never graduated. She went to New York where she was reunited with Truman Capote, the model for Dill in Watchman, “assisting” him in writing In Cold Blood.  While there, she wrote Watchman, which allegedly her book agent helped her rewrite into Mockingbird. She returned to her hometown and her family, doing only scattered writing for the rest of her life. Watchman resurfaced after the death of the sister who had managed her affairs and protected her. Whether or not Lee was duped into publishing the book is unclear.

Whatever the process of publication, I believe that Watchman is an important book that reflects the attitudes of its time and place with disturbing accuracy. These attitudes are all too present today and the sense of being betrayed and of betraying those we love has not gone away. As a society, we are still ambivalent about race and about women who are not submissive.

I highly recommend To Set a Watchman, especially to thoughtful readers who have not read it because of all the criticism.

Margaret the First: A Novel, by Danielle Dutton.

November 17, 2015

Margaret the First: A Novel, by Danielle Dutton.  Catapult (2016), 160 pages.

4 stars

A fictionalized account of an eccentric aristocratic woman who supported the king in the English Civil War and protested the limits she experienced as a woman.

Margaret Lucas (1623-1673) was born into a Royalist family and served the queen in France during the English Civil War. While there she met and married William Cavendish, another English Royalist thirty years older than herself. They lived in Antwerp because he was in exile and his land taken by the English Parliament. With the restoration of royal rule, they returned to England. Eventually his land was returned to him, and he became Duke of Newcastle, making Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle or Lady Cavendish. Margaret was a truly unconventional woman, so much so that her contemporaries referred to her as “Mad Madge.”

What Danielle Dutton has accomplished by fictionalizing Margaret Newcastle is to make this strange and brilliant woman and her writing somewhat accessible to all of us. Dutton is a young writer from California who has already published two other novels as well as stories in major magazines. She also is an editor and teacher of creative writing. She is fascinated with the writing process and enjoys playing with words. Her own writing style is intense and experiential and well suited to convey Margaret’s own fanciful approach to language.

Margaret the First is told in the voice of Margaret herself. The title is one she one she gave herself to represent her view of herself as the equal of kings. She describes herself as a young girl as being shy and an ardent reader. Throughout her life she dressed in her own flamboyant style, a style recreated in her writing and in Dutton’s account.  Often her words flow out as a stream of consciousness. At times she deliberately blends analytic writing with fantasy.

William, Margaret’s husband, moved in the company of Enlightenment figures such as Hobbes and Descartes and other men who were beginning what we know as science. These men were laying the foundation of a world we know as modern. But the men did not include Margaret in their exciting conversations. For years she simply listened. Then she determined to ask her own questions, and to challenge the logical, “clocklike” version of the world they were assembling. “Hadn’t I thoughts, after all? A mind of my own.” She knew that other women wrote, but they simply circulated among themselves their “anonymous elegies for dead children or praise for noble husbands.” She set out to do more. Addressing the intellectual questions of her time, she published her ideas.

If atoms are so small, why not worlds within our own? A world inside peach pit? Inside a ball of snow? And

so I conjured one inside a lady’s earring, where seasons pass, and life and death, without the lady’s hearing.

Because she has had no formal education, Margaret ignored grammatical rules and asks why “grammar should be a “prison for the mind.”

Might not language be a closet full of gowns? Of a generally similar cut, with a hole for the head and neck to pass, but filled with difference and a variety of trimmings so that we don’t get bored?

She also challenge the new interests in experimental science, asking for example, whether enough knowledge was gained to offset the harm done in killing dogs.

A publisher saw Margaret’s manuscript as outrageous and sure to be read. He was right. While a few readers praised her writings, most were critical and viewed her with ridicule. Among her controversial words were those about how women were treated by men.

Men are so Unconscionable and Cruel against us, as they Indeavor to Barr us of all Sorts or Kinds of Liberty, as not to Suffer us freely to Associate amongest Our own sex, but would fain Bury us in their Houses or Beds, as in a Grave; the truth is, we Live like Bats or Owls, labour like Beasts and Die like Worms. [Quoted directly from Margaret’s text.]

Margaret was definitely a creature of her time and of her aristocratic class, yet her words strike a modern note. Today we are again challenging the ideals of the Enlightenment and the sciences which are based on them. Women still find their voices dismissed, especially by those who would define our world. Her words and those of Dutton strike responsive chords.

I recommend this book enthusiastically to those who enjoy words and language and who are open to their unusual uses.

I am grateful to Edelweiss for a digital review copy of this book.

A Banquet of Consequences: A Lynley Mystery, by Elizabeth George.

November 8, 2015

A Banquet of Consequences: A Lynley Mystery, by Elizabeth George.  Viking, 2915.    (Inspector Lynley/Havers Book 19)

4 stars

Another in a popular mystery series that offers thoughtful insights into a variety of individuals and couples.

Elizabeth George is a popular writer who has published a long series of mysteries about Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley of New Scotland Yards and his assistant, Barbara Havers. I have seen some of this series as Public Broadcasting videos. While I have enjoyed what I have seen, I have not read any of her books previously.

A Banquet of Consequences is a fine mystery, full of suspense, misdirection, and surprises. But it is much more. Like the all mysteries I enjoy most, it explores human nature under the pressure of an investigation. While the murder itself is critical to the book, so are the lives and secrets of the people affected by it. George’s expertise in psychology is revealed in her ability to write effectively about her characters even when their behavior becomes psychological. While fascinating, these were not characters with whom I easily identified.

A variety of characters and subplots are loosely combined in this mystery. Lynley and Havers are involved in office politics of New Scotland Yards as well as moving on in their private lives. (When an office secretary tries to tell Havers that what she needs is sex with a man, I got a bit annoyed, but later in the book lesbian characters are sympathetically portrayed.) A feminist speaker, her woman friend/publisher, and her assistant each introduce their own issues and needs in the book. The assistant is a particularly troubled woman unable to recover from a son’s suicide. Around these central characters swirl her husband and his lover, her former husband and his wife, and her sons and their wives and lovers. Couples form and split apart, face tragedies and loss, and face the critical questions of an investigating team. Some of the behavior described is chilling.  Variations of love and loss echo through the characters who are faced with difficult questions of morality and competing loyalties.

Yet while I found each of the book’s subplots engaging, my major complaint about the book is that it was simply too large to have a sense of unity. Repeated themes and connections were not quite enough to hold the book together. Perhaps the genre of mystery is not well served in a 600-page book with so much happening in addition to the murder.

With this reservation, I do recommend this book to mystery lovers who expected thoughtful writing about varied groups of characters.

The Lightkeepers, by Abby Geni.

October 31, 2015

The Lightkeepers, by Abby Geni.  Counterpoint (2016), 340 pages.

4 stars

An unusual novel about the year a woman nature photographer spent on an isolated, dangerous island with a handful of biologists and how she was changed by events there.

Miranda is an accomplished nature photographer, single and in her thirties. Her mother died suddenly when she was 14, and ever since she has dealt with the loss and processed her life by writing letters to her dead mother. The novel is structured as a series of these letters which she wrote during a year spent photographing wildlife on a tiny, inhospitable island off the California coast. She has also used her photography to distance herself from people, but her attitude changes as she faces the hardships and loss of her year on the island. Gradually she becomes a “lightkeeper” preserving life and more open to others.

The Farallon Islands, where the novel is set, is a rough archipelago group west of San Francisco, but it is such a hostile place that few have lived there permanently. Sometimes called the Islands of the Dead, the unstable ground, fierce wind, and overwhelming wildlife present constant risks. The six biologists who are living there when Miranda arrives are recording the annual visitation of sharks, whales, seals, and seabirds. Woven smoothly into the novel are fascinating details about each of these as Miranda encounters and photograph each.

Marine Station at Southeast Farallon Island

Readers of the novel also see Miranda’s interaction with the six biologists with whom she shares a tiny cabin. We see each of these primarily through her somewhat limited understanding rather than as fully developed characters. Each of them specializes in one type of wildlife. Galen, the older leader of the group, and Forest focus on whales, Mick on mammals, Andrew and Lucy on birds. Charlene is a young intern helping out wherever needed. In fact all the residents get swept up at times in the intense waves of wildlife. Life is always dangerous, and the book is full of tense between the human residents and the horde of birds and animals which come to the stark island. Only with the Epilogue of the book, written in Galen’s voice, do all he mysteries get resolved.

Abby Geni is an excellent writer, the graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of several other books, which also seem to include the strong presence of animals. Her book is engrossing and full of tension and the simple drama of survival. I intend to read some more of her writing.

I recommend this book to a variety of readers; those who love nature and adventure as well as those who favorite deeply personal accounts. Enjoy.

I am grateful receiving a copy of this excellent book to read and review.

None to Accompany Me, by Nadine Gordimer

October 27, 2015

None to Accompany Me, by Nadine Gordimer.  Penguin Books (1995), Edition: Reprint, 336 pages.

5 stars

Another amazing novel by the Noble Prize winner from South Africa, this time focusing on the lives of whites and blacks as apartheid ended.

Nadine Gordimer is widely recognized as a writer of dense and powerful novels that explore private lives as they are impacted by public circumstances. She probes so deeply into her characters often conflicting emotions that we as readers see unexamined aspects of ourselves. Her novels are demanding for readers. I am always left aware that I never grasp all that she is saying. But what I do understand of her finely tuned writing is more than enough reward for the effort.

In None to Accompany Me, apartheid has ended and the nation of South Africa is struggling to set up ongoing political structures that will provide for black and white equality. Violence continues, however, random and ever possible. Exiles return and must adjust to new conditions. Abstractions like justice must be translated into concrete decisions over empowerment. Roles change as new groupings vie for advantages.

At the center of None to Accompany Me, is Vera Stark, a white woman who is senior lawyer with a non-governmental foundation seeking to protect and assist blacks. In the post-apartheid era much of their work concerns conflict over land ownership. Her work is important for Vera, in past often more important than her adoring husband and two now-adult children. She is a restless, successful woman, exploring her past decisions as she ages. Sexuality has been and continues to be important for her. Ben, her husband has given up his sculpting for his family and centers his life on her. As a couple they struggle to cope with her son’s divorce and their daughter’s lesbianism.

Their black friends, Sibongile and Didymus Maqoma, have just returned to South Africa after their exile during apartheid. Didymus has been a leader in the underground, often leaving Sibongile alone with their daughter, never knowing what he was doing. Coming home to South Africa forces them into major role adjustments as he and what he did for the Movement is pushed aside and she is raised to a leadership role. Other critical characters include a young clerk newly released from Robbins Island and a calm black leader from the settlements establishing himself as a player in national affairs.

Always true to the time and place, Gordimer moves her story through the death of an old man and a young one and through the choices of the next generation. Just as South Africa is experiencing change so are the marriages she describes. Vera, in particular, is revealed as honing herself into a more solitary person as she ages.

This novel is somewhat more sensual and private than others of Gordimer’s works I have read, but like the others I recommend it wholeheartedly for readers looking for depth and intensity in their reading and who care about the connections of the public and the private.


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