Monday, May 02, 2011

Book 34: Scandalous Women

This book arrived in a birthday package from my best friend along with a 12 pack of cherry coke (it's unavailable on bases in Iraq).  It's not something I would have necessarily picked up on my own since I'm always afraid titles such as this will be rather shallow treatments of history.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the book.   Not only were the short biographies well written and engaging, but it also introduced women I have never heard of/ discussed women whose names I recognized and put them in context.  She also had a nice list of references at the back, so I have added a few biographies to my wishlist.
One other thing that I think is very awesome is that this book was the result of a blog which I have already added to my feed ( - make sure you keep woman singular, otherwise you end up on a swingers website).  This obviously isn't the first author I've read who got a book deal as a result of a blog, but I really think it is awesome that someone is using their blog to discuss little-known figures in history.  The blog also includes book reviews of historical fiction and non-fiction, and since historical ficion is a genre I generally like, it will be nice to get someone's opinion on some of those novels.  Like fantasy, it's a genre that can be well-done or take a turn to ridiculous and trashy.
The book is broken down into seven parts or categories entitled Warrior Queens, Wayward Wives, Scintilatting Seductresses, Crusading Ladies, Wild Women of the West, Amorous Artists, and Amazing Adventuresses.  Within each of these parts, Mahon then tells the stories of a selection of women.  Some of the women were rulers, intellectuals and famous in their own right.  Others became famous due to their sex lives and the famous men they slept with.  However, as Mahon points out in her introduction, all of these women stepped outside conventions and made news as a result.  Many of them ended up being very good at marketing themselves, and others used the powerful men in their lives to make a difference or gain power of their own.  I enjoyed reading most of the stories, though there were definitely women I didn't agree with (Carry Nation, for example).  In other cases, it completely changed the myth that surrounded the woman in popular culture (Mata Hari as a spy - not quite so accurate; nor was Calamity Jane a scout).  My least favorite section was probably the one about Wild Women of the West, though I liked the section on Margaret Tobin Brown in that part.  Say what you will about the movie Titanic, but I liked Kathy Bates in it as Molly Brown, and I quite enjoyed the real story behind the woman (who never went by Molly in real life, and was a great philanthropist).  I also loved reading about Camille Claudel, a sculptor, who was Rodin's lover and model at one point.  Unfortunately she became very paranoid, and suffered a breakdown.  Some of her work is on display at the Rodin Museum, so now I feel like I need to go back to Paris, since I didn't even know about her last time I was at the museum.  Other favorites were Emilie du Chatelet (genius, beauty, and involved with Voltaire), Gertrude Bell (spent much time in the Middle East so my interest is definitely influenced by my job), and Jane Digby (also due to the Middle Eastern conclusion of her life).
Overall, it's definitely a good introduction to many of the women discussed and points the way to resources for further reading.  My one complaint is that the book is very Western-centric.  Most of the women discussed are British or American with only very few other nationalities (Frida Kahlo is the only Mexican, for example).  I don't know if there will be a follow up but if so, I hope it includes some women from Asia, Africa and South America, since many of their stories are probably even more obscure to a Western audience.

1 comment:

The Millers said...

That sounds really nifty! I hope all is well!