Books I’ve Read This Week: Women in History and Literature

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 36: Women in History and Literature: In recent weeks, I have been reading books about famous women. There is a strong focus on literature including books about Charlotte Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s Wife), and the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays as well as a lesser known novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery. In addition to these books about women and literature, I also read a novel about Lady Jane Grey and a biography of Clementine Churchill. Here are this week’s reviews:

#246 of 365 Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell

Genre: History/Biography

Dates Listened: September 4-10, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 17 hours and 32 minutes

Review: An engaging biography of Clementine Churchill that might also have been titled “The Churchills at Home” or “The Churchills and the Roosevelts” as the author devotes the most attention to Clementine’s influence over her husband, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the couple’s often difficult relationship with their children and the Churchill family’s rapport with American President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during the Second World War. Clementine emerges as a strong personality in her own right who supported her husband’s political career while also challenging him in private and assuming an unprecedented public role of her own during wartime.

Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King praised Clementine’s accomplishments and thought that her achievements during the war deserved to be better known. However, the author’s use of the term “First Lady” to describe Clementine in the introduction to the book is sometimes distracting as the spouse of a Prime Minister in a constitutional monarchy has a different role than the spouse of a President in a republic. Otherwise, an insightful and interesting biography of a historical figure who should occupy a more prominent place in histories of Britain during the Second World War.

#247 of 365 Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays by Tina Packer

Genre: Literary Criticism

Date Read: September 8-11, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Fanfare Books, Stratford, Ontario

Format: Hardcover, 312 pages

Review: A engaging study of how portrayals of women evolved in Shakespeare’s plays over the course of his career, informed by the author’s extensive experience performing, directing and teaching all the plays except Cymbeline. Although Packer has conducted a wide range of research concerning Shakespeare’s life and work, the narrative is very much a personal one, incorporating her feelings while performing the female roles and the decisions that she has made as a director. The book is strongest when it focuses closely on the plays. Packer’s speculation concerning what Shakespeare might have been thinking at any given time in his life is sometimes distracting as there is so much that is still unknown about his life experiences. A fascinating read, especially immediately after watching a Shakespeare performance.

#248 of 365 Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds by Lyndall Gordon

Dates Listened: September 10-14, 2018

Genre: Biography/History

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 10 minutes

Review: The popular image of American poet Emily Dickinson is of a reclusive figure who kept herself apart from the wider world. Lyndall Gordon, however, places Dickinson at the centre of a wide circle of friends and correspondents as well as a dysfunctional family who fought with each other for generations to control the poet’s legacy. The title is a reference to Dickinson’s grandmother Gunn, who was renowned for her fierce temper. The strong personalities and passions of Dickinson’s relatives come alive in the text as well as the momentum of the family conflicts that were passed from parent to child. In addition to documenting the conflicts within the poet’s family and wider circle, Gordon also discusses the possible reasons for Dickinson’s period of seclusion, presenting research that she may have suffered from epilepsy. An interesting biography of a literary family that reads like a 19th century novel.

#249 of 365 Shakespeare’s Wife by Germaine Greer

Genre: History/Literary Criticism

Date Read: September 11-13, 2018

Acquired: Purchased at the Stratford Festival

Format: Hardcover, 406 pages

Review: A fascinating biography of Anne Hathaway that places her and her daughters Susanna and Judith within the context of the social history of Stratford-upon-Avon. Greer’s conclusions are necessarily speculative because so little is known about Shakespeare’s personal life and his relationship with his family. Nevertheless, her analysis is a welcome counterpoint to longstanding assumptions that Shakespeare was pressured into his marriage and left town as soon as possible. In addition to examining how Anne Hathaway’s experiences compared with that her neighbours, Greer also examines portrayals of marriage in Shakespeare’s plays, especially The Merry Wives of Windsor. Like the author, I hope that new sources concerning Anne Hathaway will emerge, providing more details about the life she led in Stratford-upon-Avon.

#250 of 365 Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman

Dates Read: September 14-25, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Fanfare Books, Stratford, Ontario

Genre: Literary Biography

Format: Hardcover, 480 pages

Review: A well researched and engaging biography of Charlotte Bronte with a strong focus on her emotions and inner life. Harman begins with Charlotte’s unrequited fascination with Constantin Heger (the inspiration for Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre) during her time studying and teaching at his school in Brussels, and the contrast between her placid exterior and strong emotions.

For Charlotte, her extended time in Brussels was a rare period away from her family. The isolation of the Haworth parsonage and the insular world created by the Bronte siblings is at the centre of the book. Charlotte, however, was the most sociable member of her family, forming outside friendships and studying abroad and she is therefore the Bronte sibling who left the greatest amount of source material about her thoughts and preoccupations.

In addition to examining Charlotte’s correspondence, novels and other writings, Harman includes the latest research concerning Bronte’s health including the likelihood that her death was caused by hyperemesis gravidarum, a pregnancy complication suffered in recent years by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. A fascinating look at the inner turmoil experienced by the author of Jane Eyre.

#251 of 365 The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

Genre: Classic Fiction

Date Read: September 20, 2018

Acquired: Free E-Book from Faded Page

Format: E-Book, 174 pages

Review: A beautiful and comparatively obscure novel by LM Montgomery who is best known for writing Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon. The Blue Castle is the only one of Montgomery’s novels set entirely outside Prince Edward Island and the book is filled with evocative descriptions of Muskoka in all four seasons. While most of Montgomery’s heroines are children, at least at the beginning of their stories, Valancy Stirling is 29 at the start of The Blue Castle and feels that her life has little purpose. Montgomery provides a sensitive portrayal of her unhappiness at the beginning of the novel and how she finds gradually finds fufillment after receiving alarming news about her health.

Although there are serious themes addressed in the book including family estrangement, depression, alcoholism and the social stigma attached to unwed motherhood in the 1920s, the novel is also filled with moments of dry humour, especially when Valancy decides to stop trying to meet the expectations of her overbearing relatives and just be herself. A satisfying read with engaging characters.

#252 of 365 Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey by Alison Weir

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 18 hours and 14 minutes

Dates Listened: September 20-24, 2018

Review: A mediocre novel about a fascinating historical figure. Weir adopts multiple first person narration and the result is a sprawling narrative that sometimes loses sight of Lady Jane Grey to follow extended tagents concerning other characters such as Catherine Parr, Queen Mary I or the Duke of Northumberland. The narrators also adopt a similar narrative style, heavily foreshadowing historical events that would not have seemed inevitable to the people involved in them and describing their clothing and residences with the detached tone of an outside observer. Even four year old Lady Jane Grey describes “the clasp of the jewelled gidle, with its hanging pomander, at my waist.”

The novel also repeats some tired Tudor stereotypes. For example, Anne of Cleves is depicted as having strong body odour, Frances Grey subjects her children to corporal punishment at every opportunity in the novel and Lady Jane Grey is constantly surprised by events, even though she overhears numerous conversations about court intrigue over the course of the narrative and her parents openly scheme for their own advancement. There are distasteful scenes concerning Jane’s marriage to Guildford Dudley. Only in the final chapters is there real character development for the central figures in the novel. The audiobook is poorly organized by hour instead of by chapter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.