March 27th, 2013

The Real Housewives of History

Being a housewife has never come easily to the women in my family. Whether it’s an issue with the soil or some undiscovered mutation, our family tree seems to propagate only non-conformist women. From my flapper great-grandmother who came north to work in the factories, leaving her husband and son behind, to my farm wife grandmother who never milked a cow, but taught school instead, our genetic disposition might kindly be called strong willed, but at other times obstinate and “unwomanly.”

Nowadays, thanks to “The Real Housewives of (Fill in the Blank),” my headstrong, sometimes shrewish self, could easily be camouflaged in sequins and heels, continue to do no housework and still be considered a model of femininity. Somehow I think the real housewives of history, revealed in the books below, would be appalled.

womens history books bar

The Aviator’s Wife—Melanie Benjamin
Anne Morrow, the first female glider pilot to be licensed in the U.S., marries the overbearing aviator Charles Lindbergh and finds herself at odds with his beliefs and her inability to assert her independence.

Eight Girls Taking Pictures—Whitney Otto
Is it possible to balance ambition and the needs of a husband and children? For many of the pioneering women photographers in this novel, self-sacrifice proves their undoing.

The Raven’s Bride—Lenore Hart
Engaged at thirteen, Sally Clemm puts aside her dreams of being a singer to support and ultimately inspire her self-destructive fiancé, Edgar Allan Poe.

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb—Melanie Benjamin
With ambitions that outsize her height, “Vinnie” Bump joins P.T. Barnum’s “freak” revue, finds love and fame and inspires Victorian women to new heights.

Claude and Camille—Stephanie Cowell
Troubled by poverty, her husband’s affairs and loneliness, the first wife of Claude Monet appeared to have suffered greatly for love, but, in reality, harbored secrets of her own.

Wintering—Kate Moses
Was Sylvia Plath’s suicide caused by bitterness over her husband’s betrayal or the inability to balance being a muse, mother and creative poet in her own right?

I also find housewifely duties uninspiring. Oh, I do what needs to be done and thoroughly enjoy the company of my children, but the joys of cooking, gardening, sewing, baking and so on are lost on me.  I fear the day one of my sons brings home a wife. Will it be a Martha Stewart clone chosen to make up for my past deficiencies or an equally opinionated woman? I better figure out how that biting your tongue thing works…

Who’s your favorite headstrong woman from the past?


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January 30th, 2013

It’s Tudor Time!

I like to be engrossed—that feeling of being lost in your reading and immune to the real world.  Lately I’ve been living in the world of Henry VIII.  I never cared much about British history and I don’t much care about Kate and the Prince, but I’ve become engrossed in Henry’s world thanks to Hillary Mantel’s books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (both available at CCPL).

These books are turning me into an anglophile.  I’m fascinated by the politics.  What will Henry do to end his marriage to his latest wife?  And how will Thomas Cromwell, who has to be the greatest “administrative assistant” in the history of the world, manage it all?  The relationships between all the characters are real and complex.  The period of history comes alive as told from the Cromwells perspective.  I’ve learned about the 15th century world with its conflicts between the established church and the royal rulers and what life at court was really like.  What would it have been like not to be able to read the Bible in English, a controversial  issue of the day?  The language and images are so resonant and beautiful that I’m listening to the works now for the second time and I’ve reserved the books for further study.

And that’s still not enough to quench my passion.  I’m watching the Showtime series, The Tudors (also available on DVD at the library) to get an even better sense of the costumes and settings.  King Henry, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, is virile and young and compares to the historical images of Henry VIII like young Elvis compares to old Elvis.  (Rhys-Myers actually played Elvis in a TV movie!)   The accent is on the romance and the drama, but it helps to add definition to the characters I’ve been introduced to in the books.

The library also has some fascinating nonfiction that lays out the family tree and puts the Tudors’ reign in a larger perspective.  A quick search in our catalog of “Henry VIII” brings up a great selection of books, CD Books and DVDs about Henry and his many wives.  So my winter’s reading and viewing is all arranged!  And I’ll be waiting for Mantel’s third book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, to be published.  Maybe it’s time to plan a trip to England in the spring!

What period of history do you enjoy reading about most?


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