Tuesday, February 9, 2010
A Short History of Women
I just finished reading A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert, a beautifully written novel chronicling five generations of women. One character is a suffragist who starves herself for women's rights in 1914. I have always been fascinated by the suffragists, and would like to know more about this historical period. As I read this novel I was reminded of Virginia Woolf's writing, especially Mrs. Dalloway. The structure of A Short History of Women is, like women's lives, circuitous. My life story doesn't have much narrative drive -- it is meandering. My story is a story of relationships, a sometimes feverish attachment to my children, marriages (coupling and uncoupling, then coupling again)....with work and life and love intersecting and entangling. For a decade I raised children and worked in a desultory way (writing, painting, teaching) always fitting myself into the margins of the lives of husband and children. Then, for a decade, I was head-of-household, breadwinner, slavishly working and constantly anxious. Now I am in another phase, feeling something happening, perhaps the sense of a self about to expand.
Above my desk I have a framed photograph of my great-grandmother, Belle. She is like me, and though I never met her, I feel we communicate. She raised four daughters alone, and in the photograph she sits surrounded by daughters: Margaret, Katharine, Beatrice and Constance, in white, high-collared dresses, with great, white bows in their hair. In the center sits Granny Belle, still young and beautiful, with dark hair in a pompadour, her serious dark eyes staring steadily into the camera. This dark-eyed woman, surrounded by dark-eyed girls, must have been brave, moving to New York City, living as a divorced woman in an era when divorce caused a scandal. I often look at this picture and wonder about the stories hidden in the dark eyes of Belle and her daughters.