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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, March 16, 2003

Books Examine Women's Lives: Real and Imaginary

March is full of women's events, including National Women's History Month, International Women's Day, Uppity Women Day, and Universal Women's Week. I celebrated by attending the March 8 Albion Fellows Bacon fundraiser "The Vagina Monologues," and I'm reading books by and about women.

It's the perfect time to review some recent biographies and fictional biographies of women. Since I've spent the past month researching Virginia Woolf, I'm cheating a little by starting with her classic biography. The rest of these titles are of recent vintage.

Virginia Woolf, a Biography by Quentin Bell (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972).

Written by the author's nephew, this beautifully written book gives us an intimate glimpse of Virginia Woolf and the rest of the London Bloomsbury Group.

Virginia and her artist sister Vanessa were heirs to literary genius (through their father Leslie Stephen, editor of the "Dictionary of National Biography") as well as to artistic ability and physical beauty (through their mother Julia Duckworth). They grew up surrounded by Britain's finest scholars, authors, and artists.

Unfortunately, Virginia also inherited her father's insecurities. Devastated by the death of her beloved mother, she suffered her first nervous breakdown when she was just thirteen years old. After her 1912 marriage to fellow Bloomsbury intellectual Leonard Woolf, the pair endured three rocky years before Virginia seemed to outgrow or at least adjust to her mental condition, settling comfortably into marriage with Leonard.

What is truly amazing is how much she managed to accomplish, despite her delicate health. She wrote and published nine novels, several collections of short stories, numerous essays, and two biographies. She and Leonard founded the Hogarth Press, the successful publisher of the era's most daring writers. Her homes became gathering places for her fellow artists and authors.

When Virginia drowned herself in 1941, at the age of fifty-nine, she had just endured the destruction of both her home and the Press in the German Blitz of London, as well as the daily bombing near her country home and the constant worry about the fate of her Jewish husband, if the Nazis succeeded in their invasion attempts.

Clara by Janice Galloway (Simon & Schuster, 2003).

This is a sometimes heartrending fictional biography of Clara Weick Schumann, the 19th century German pianist and composer who married brilliant and tortured composer Robert Schumann, raised eight children, and carved out an illustrious performing and teaching career. Musical giants such as Lizst, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Chopin populate its atmospheric, stream of consciousness pages.

Wrapped in Rainbows: the Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd (Scribner, 2003).

This critically acclaimed biography covers the life of the African-American novelist and folklorist who penned Their Eyes Are Watching God. A key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston died in poverty in 1960, but her books have been resurrected and promoted by such authors as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker.

Lucy: A Novel by Ellen Feldman (Norton, 2003).

A member of my book discussion group recommended this novel detailing the love affair between Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor's secretary, Lucy Mercer Rutherford.

I am Madame X: a Novel by Gioia Diliberto (Scribner, 2003).

A fictional retelling of the life of Virginie "Mimi" de Avegno Gautreau, the beautiful American expatriate depicted in John Singer Sergeant's famous painting "Portrait of Madame X." Part of the Creole "aristocracy" in the South, Mimi and her family fled to France during the Civil War. There she became a "professional beauty" who worked her way into Paris' best salons.

Ungrateful Daughters: the Stuart Princesses Who Stole Their Father's Crown by Maureen Waller (St Martin's Press, 2003).

If you enjoy English history, try this account of how the Catholic King of Britain, James II, lost his crown in 1688 due to the desertion of his own daughters, Anne and Mary. Anne eventually became the last Stuart monarch.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.