I have no idea why I bought this book, or when. I assume that I thought it was mostly about Lenin, and how he got to the point in April 1917 that he arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd and revved up the Bolsheviks to commit further revolution.
It does have that. But a lot of the book is about the development of revolutionary sentiment more broadly in Europe in the 19th century… or the consequences of revolution… actually, thinking back, it’s a bit confused. And apparently it’s a great classic, which… I am unconvinced by. Maybe I’m out of the appropriate context to really appreciate it.
Turns out the book was written in 1940, which is all sorts of interesting given that it’s by an American, during World War 2 (although before American involvement), and before the Cold War. This date also means the style is not quite what I am used to, and therefore not always enjoyable or easy to read. And there are some seriously cringeworthy aspects too, like Wilson’s insistence on attributing certain things to a stereotyped national character, in both appearance and personality. And the worst times he does this are in relation to Jewish people – Marx, and Trotsky. I found it deeply distasteful; I can’t imagine what it would be like as, you know, a Jewish reader. (Well, I can; if you are Jewish, probably don’t read this.)
The first part of the book focuses on some French authors, the only one of whom I’ve heard of is Michelet. It examines their attitudes towards the French Revolution and suggests the ways that the 19th century changes how many French regarded their first revolution. I’m really not sure what the whole point of this section was, in retrospect. It was interesting to learn that attitudes changed, but I don’t really see how this led to the development of socialism. This development is the focus of the middle half, and was genuinely interesting – I think socialism is one of the most interesting of political ideologies and the different ways people have thought about it and considered its real-world application is fascinating. There is, of course, a significant amount of space devoted to Marx and Engels. I actually knew very little about the two men and their working relationship so that aspect was revelatory – Engels compelled to work as a bourgeois manager basically to support Marx! Marx a deeply unpleasant fellow (this does not surprise me)! I started getting my hopes up that Wilson wold give me a good overview of Marx&Engels’ communism; and while I do now understand the issue of dialectic materialism (… well, ish), without a more thorough grounding in Hegel I’m still in the dark about some of the finer points. As are most people, I think. Possibly including Marx.
The final section of the book is about Lenin and Trotsky (Ulyanov and Bronstein). I don’t know too much about the early lives of the men, so that biographical aspect was again quite interesting. Wilson was surprisingly favourable towards Lenin – the introduction to the book makes excuses for this, pointing out Wilson’s lack of access to sources given when he was writing, and providing some examples of Lenin being a right horror, as balance. I did not, in the end, feel like I got much more of a grasp of Lenin and Trotsky’s politics, which is interesting to reflect on.
I think I’m ok with having read this, having already read a lot around both the French and Russian Revolutions. I won’t be recommending it to anyone, though, except for historical reasons – that is, understanding what someone in 1940 thought about it all.
My mum picks such interesting books for me! I hadn’t heard of this before it arrived for my birthday; I had heard of Turner and Richardson but knew nothing about them – I’ve never read anything by any of these women.
Before talking about the great things, there were two things that disappointed me deeply about this book, and they’re both factual errors that really don’t have a connection to the histories themselves but are nonetheless troubling. I can only hope they’re both editorial mistakes. One: in speaking of the English suffragette movement, Niall mentions “Adela Pankhurst and her daughters”. This should be Emmeline – Adela is one of the daughters. Adela was the one who ended up in Australia, so I guess this is an understandable mistake. However, in speaking of Australian suffrage, Niall gives 1908 as the year in which (white, which is also not stressed) Australian women gained the right to vote; it was actually 1902. Like I said, superficially small errors, but pretty significant for the history suffrage.
The book is set up as biographies – primarily literary biographies – of the four women. As individuals their lives are all quite fascinating: Baynton is probably my favourite, although the one I would be least likely to befriend; for instance, she was annoyed at her third husband for refusing the crown of Albania (there’s a whole story about why taking it would have been a dreadful idea). All four of them dealt with a variety of hardships – some particular to their era, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while others are all too familiar (family hardship, women ignored, the difficulty of being paid as a writer…). Niall writes engagingly and seems to have done spectacular archival research to dig up letters and diaries to get into the mindsets of these very different women.
Turner wanted to be taken seriously as a writer; Seven Little Australians was a money-making machine and she ended up being pigeonholed as a children’s writer (so familiar for too many women). I’d never realised that this book has an urban setting and just how remarkable this was for its time, when Australia was so much about the bush, thank you Banjo and Henry (whom Turner knew). Conversely, Baynton wrote about the bush – but in almost vicious terms; the one story I really want to read was throwing Henry Lawson’s story “The Drover’s Wife” under a bus. Henry Handel Richardson was considered for a Nobel Prize, and also wrote urban stories – and wasn’t especially interested in being considered a particularly “Australian” author, which was intriguing for the time. And Palmer was, for her time, a leading critic and champion of Australian authors – not a leading female critic, but leading critic, period.
My mum knows me well: this books fits within Joanna Russ’ campaign for women to know their literary ancestry – to remember that there have been women writing before them, that we do have a history to be proud of. Australian literature’s history isn’t all bush ballads, or the agony of Patrick White. It’s also the story of girls at private schools, kids in crappy inner-city suburbs, and epic ‘European’ novels. These writers need to be reclaimed as an important part of our heritage.
As with Living on Stolen Land, I don’t want to be the white woman talking about and appropriating an Indigenous woman’s words. So if you’ve been thinking about reading this book, do it! This review is intended to prod people into doing so, and in no way is a substitute for Moreton-Robinson’s own words.
I saw Aileen Moreton-Robinson at the Broadside feminist festival last year and she was intriguing. On the panel I saw, about women of colour and how they approach feminism, she was the oldest by perhaps a decade or more, and she seemed to get quite impatient by what some of the panellists were saying – and how they were saying it; she told them (in a poor paraphrase) that feminism is a white woman’s thing and they, not being white, needed to think differently – and maybe white feminism wasn’t actually what they needed. That’s a very poor paraphrase, actually, but I think it gets some of the sense of what she said – and for me, as a white feminist in the audience, it was eye-opening and kind of stunning. I am in a weird halfway place I think between second and third wave feminism; I don’t think I think that all women are sisters and experience oppression in the same way, but I’ve definitely had to work on fully manifesting intersectionality in the way that I think and act. The panellists too were intrigued by how Moreton-Robinson spoke; at one point someone (only half-jokingly) suggested the panel should be the rest of them asking Moreton-Robinson questions.
The other thing that really stuck in my mind was the fact that this book was published in 2000, and Moreton-Robinson had never before been asked to speak at a conference in Australia about it. Never. Nineteen years of a book that was the first Indigenous Australian interrogation of feminism… and conferences have ignored it, and her. That’s a disgrace. There is, at least, a 20th anniversary edition out this year, and Moreton-Robinson seems to have been on some programmes (ABC Radio, The Drum), so that’s a bit of an improvement?
So, the book. It took me quite a long time to read, partly because this year I have been struggling to read new stuff – which I think is the case for many people – and partly because it’s been a while since I read any theory; it’s not every chapter, but several deal with anthropological theory and feminist theory so I knew I needed to read it slowly to actually absorb what was being said. Rushing through would have been a disservice to the book, and I wouldn’t have really appreciated everything being discussed.
Throughout the book Moreton-Robinson talks about “the subject position middle-class white woman” which I found challenging, in some ways – because as she points out, women like that/women like me are indeed accustomed to being the default. And even when I am aware that I am those things, constantly having it pointed out (like Indigenous women, like African-American women, like… etc usually experience) is a novel experience. And an important one. And is one of the core points of the entire book: feminism – especially as it was in the late 1990s, in some corners I think it may have changed a bit in the last two decades – has been developed by white women with themselves at the centre, and while we’re busy interrogating various positions of power etc we forget to think about how, even in our gender oppression we massively benefit from (and help to support) racial oppression.
Moreton-Robinson begins my talking about how Indigenous women have presented themselves in their life-writings, pointing out the differences in those experiences compared to middle-class white women. She then tackles a massive job in looking at how various feminists have theorised ‘difference’ and ‘race’ over time and in different places – mostly white feminists, since they have been the most significant for Australian ways of thinking. And along with a whole bunch of interesting things here the main take-away for me is that white feminists haven’t considered that they are white; that they (we) have race/colour/ethnic position. And then the third chapter was perhaps the most gut-punch, from a historical point of view: she gives an overview of how white feminist anthropologists have talked about “Indigenous women” and all the ways that has been part of the colonising process, which chapter 4 also continues to interrogate.
All of the preceding stuff is incredibly important and could have stood by itself. What Moreton-Robinson then does in chapter 5 is present interviews with white feminist academics (ask me how hard it’s been to remember to put ‘white’ at the start of each nominal group… hello privilege), about how those academics think about race and present it in their courses and interact with people from different ethnic backgrounds. And this was illuminating and also for me challenging: who do I interact with and why, how do I present an anti-racist stance in my teaching and also live it in the world, and so on.
Finally, the last chapter presents a history of how Indigenous women (up to 2000, which I think is important to remember, since more will have been done and said since then) have challenged white women and their intentions and words. Which was its own version of challenging mostly because of how white women have responded to being challenged (often, badly).
This book won’t be for everyone; I know that reading theory isn’t going to be appealing for many. But the ideas and challenges that Moreton-Robinson present are vital for us middle-class white women to hear and acknowledge. If you ever get a chance to hear her, please do so. If you think you can cope with some theory, please get hold of this book and read it.
This book was sent to me to review by Magabala Books. It comes out in July – so very timely – and will be $22.99.
I am an Anglo Australian. My most recent migrant ancestor is maybe 4 or 5 generations back. I am a history teacher. And I live on stolen land. I benefit every day from the fact that indirectly each of my ancestors (and directly, in a couple of cases) contributed to the displacement of Indigenous Australians.
Ambelin Kwaymullina has produced what the media release calls a “prose-style manifesto”, and what I would describe as a free-verse lesson about the past and the present and the future. She’s also responsible for that gorgeous cover and the internal images that help make this a lovely object as well as a powerful text.
Kwaymullina covers so much stuff that I want everyone to experience that I’m tempted to re-hash everything she says… which would be, as she herself points out, a white woman re-interpreting an Indigenous woman and that’s exactly the sort of thing that really needs not to exist. (I’m also currently reading Aileen Moreton Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, so… yeh.) So let me say that she makes it very clear – in case there was any doubt in the reader’s mind – about the original ownership of this land we call Australia; about the ongoing problems of the way we settlers talk about the land and its original inhabitants; and also points ways forwards as to how all of the people now living here might actually make it work. For everyone. As the blurb says, this is a “beautifully articulated declaration… a must-read for anyone interested in decolonising Australia.”
There are two bits that particularly got to me. Firstly, as a history teacher, Kwaymullina’s discussion of time is breath-taking (pp12-14): her description of linear time, where “Things that happened / a hundred years ago / are further away / than things that happened yesterday” – and is “weaponised against Indigenous peoples” and gives “the illusion of progress / regardless of whether / anything has changed”. And it’s that last bit that took my breath away. Then she speaks of Indigenous systems where “time is not linear” – cycles, instead, and “as susceptible / to action and interaction / as any other life”. And then she points out that cyclical time is a gift and a responsibility because “The change has not been lost / for justice / for change” and I nearly cried. I have never thought of time like that and never realised that it was even possible that life could work like that.
Secondly, Kwaymullina has a very pointed section about “Behaviours” from Settlers, and the four different ways we might act. Those who speak well and do nothing, the Saviours, the ‘discoverers’ (appropriating Indigenous stuff for their own life… and the change-makers. And this section made me really think about the ways that I act, and have acted, and intend to act.
Look. This book is 64 pages of free verse that will gently and pointedly make you think about yourself and and your ways of thinking and your understanding of history and the possibilities of the future. I will read this book again and again, I will read it to my students, I will share it with other people, I will tell other people to read it. Every household should have a copy of this and I don’t use the word ‘should’ lightly.
I have a long and increasingly cynical relationship with King Arthur, and all the stories around him. I read a fair bit of it as an adolescent – I even did subjects at uni about the mythology and so on. But as sometimes happens, I got cynical and impatient as I got old, and I haven’t read much new Arthur stuff in a long time.
I did re-read Susan Cooper recently, which was an excellent choice and is a bit more left-field than other Arthuriana so doesn’t really count. (Also, not new to me.)
And then a friend started raving about this book and while he’s not prone to hyperbole I was a bit like… really? That good? But I was intrigued and so I bought it and…
I’m not sure I can read another Arthur book ever.
This is it. This is everything.
Tidhar knows Arthuriana intimately. He’s referencing medieval romances. I’m pretty sure there are Mists of Avalon references, and Sword in the Stone. There’s the grail, sure, and the Green Knight, which is obscure but not that obscure… but there’s also the Questing Beast, and… and… yeh. So this is in no way someone coming in and thinking they’re reinventing Arthur (which has been done, and oh so badly). This is someone who knows Arthuriana deeply.
The thing I kept thinking of when reading this was A Knight’s Tale, that Heath Ledger break-out film. It used modern(ish) rock music in order to make the point about how people in the 14th century (the time of Chaucer) would have perceived music that 20th century ears hear as weird and ‘old’, and it used utterly modern language. By Force Alone is simultaneously utterly set in the 5th or 6th century – the Romans are gone, Britain is a by-water and non-existent in political terms, the Anglo-Saxons are coming (ignore the historical reality here) – but feels in some ways very 21st century: Arthur screaming ‘Come at me if you’re hard enough!’ Bully boys in London who want to be knighted, talking about being ‘made men’. Picts on the northern border being vicious.
Everyone, actually, being vicious.
This is a vicious book. There is no gallantry. There is no courtly love – which is right because the notion wasn’t really a thing until at least the 12th century and then honestly becomes part of nostalgia basically the next day. There is no honour except for what you can get; kings hold power by force alone; Galahad gets him nickname for quite, um, different reasons from how it’s usually told.
This book left me dazed. It starts with Vortigern and ends where every Arthur story ends. It covers so much at a break-neck speed that honestly it’s all you can do to hold on and see where this beast is going to end up. But it’s all completely controlled and Tidhar knows exactly what he’s doing. And what he’s doing is amazing. He’s setting a monumental myth in context, and exposing some of the nasty underbelly of nationalism and the Matter of Britain, as well as writing intriguing characters out of characters who are just so well known (what he did with Lancelot was… unexpected, and I’m curious to chase up whether it was based on stories I don’t remember or know; the Green Knight was the most amusingly outrageous). And he keeps the fantastical nature of Merlin and Morgan and makes that part of Britain itself… but in such a way it almost feels realistic. Almost.
This book is incredible.
Well I’m only about six years behind on this.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that I don’t much care for Australian history. Except for the women’s suffrage bit. There are lots of reasons for this and some of them are the same ones everyone else trots out and some of them are idiosyncratic (I really like my history to be properly old, and I like the textual/ architectural etc remains, which is problematic for Indigenous history).
Anyway. I loved You Daughters of Freedom and back when we were still able to congregate with others (ah, the good old days), I went to hear Clare Wright speak about it. I took my copy of Daughters to get signed… and then while I was there I thought I should get this, and also get it signed (which meant lining up a second time which she thought was very funny). This is partly because I was feeling a bit giddy-fan-girl, and partly because she described it as her ‘democracy trilogy’ – the third to be about the Yirrkala bark petitions, I believe, which I will absolutely be buying and reading. I also figured that while I’m fairly indifferent towards the whole Eureka myth and the way it figures in Australian history, I could trust that Wright wouldn’t give me a rah-rah-tattoo-the-Southern-Cross-on-your-chest story.
Wright does a marvellous job of peopling the gold rush fields of Ballarat with real people – men and women and children, from many different places around the world. This is the real key to her work. She points out just how masculine the story has been, and the take-away myths that have grown up around it; and then she debunks those myths by not only pointing out that women were there, but by pointing up how significant the contribution of women was.
Women as publicans. Women holding gold licences. Women running shops. Women running the newspaper, and writing copy for it. Women running a theatre. Women holding together their families. Women being expected by the government to make the place more civilised. The lack of Chinese women being used as an excuse to be racist shits. Women giving birth (including in the middle of the storming of the Stockade!) and women dying. Women as reasons for men to try and make more money, to look after the families – and to stop the woman from being the one supporting the family. Lady Hotham being appealed to, to intervene with her husband, the ruler of the colony. They were there. And important. And ultimately shoved back into old gender roles, for the most part, when the gold fields got more mechanised and Ballarat organised itself as more of a regular town and when the franchise got extended to more men, but no women.
One of the things I liked about Daughters is that it recognised that Indigenous women were excluded from the achievements of 1902 (although Ruby Hamad has words to say about how this is discussed and to what extent, in White Tears Brown Scars). The Wathaurung people appear occasionally in this story: reminders that they had been finding gold in the area for centuries, and that some of them engaged in commerce and relationships with Europeans, and so on; but overall not that much. It seems that Wright had to do immense digging (heh) in the archives to find the information about the white women that she uses in the book; that there would be far less archival information about Indigenous people and their interactions with each other or Europeans doesn’t surprise me at all. Sadly. Could Wright have done better? Maybe. Would it have made the project even bigger? Absolutely. Was it the point of the book? No. If someone hasn’t tried to do a really in-depth look at the Indigenous experience of the Victorian goldfields, that should absolutely happen.
I have a much greater appreciation for what life was like on the goldfields (pretty shit), the political situation with both Hotham back in Melbourne and the local authorities (also pretty shit, for a variety of reasons), and some of what led the miners to actually create what we know as “the Eureka Stockade” (pretty haphazard, not really intended to be a Great Last Stand Bastion), and of course the place of women in all of this. The entire situation really does deserve a place in discussions about the development of Australia as a democracy, as a social liberal experiment, and in how Australia developed its identity (exclusion of the Chinese, other variations on racism, how people spoke of themselves in relation to Britain, etc etc). Which is something I never thought I would say.
(My enthusiasm has one caveat. There’s this weird bit where she talks about women’s menstrual cycles synchronising, and something something hormones affecting a situation, and… it’s just odd. It doesn’t fit with the rest of her style, and the synchronising almost certainly isn’t true, and… yeh. I was a bit thrown.)
Even if you think you don’t like Australian history – if you like history, and the reclaiming of forgotten groups, this is definitely one to read.
Was there ever a book more up my alley than this? (Well yes but allow me my extravagance.) I came across this book courtesy of Gastropod, one of my very favourite podcasts: looking at food ‘through the lens of science and history’.
Rachel Laudan takes the idea that we ‘are the animals that cook’ (p1) and looks at how cuisine – how we cook – has travelled and been shaped. She makes a very interesting point that I’d never really thought about: just adopting a particular food doesn’t mean you’ve adopted a particular cuisine, or in anyway integrated a part of a culture. Cooking is the key bit and cooking has always been hedged about with culture and taboo and expectations and so on. She also deliberately looks at the idea of ’empire’ as hegemonic political units can do a lot to spread, enforce, and encourage the adoption of cuisine through a whole range of methods. The point of the book therefore is not to consider regional differences but to look at broad similarities in the way that food is treated, and how those similarities came to be.
There are chapters on the development of grain-based cuisines, and what that meant for cooking in general. She looks at Buddhism and its spread and influence, at Islam and Christianity, and how their morals and philosophies and taboos influenced the way food worked. How shifts from Catholicism to Protestantism in parts of Europe changed things, as well as how industry and increasing globalisation changed modern cuisines.
I love that Europe is not entirely the centre here; that the Mongols and the Islamic empires have a significant impact (on Mexico, via Spain, for example). I am intrigued to think about how political and moral questions have shaped some of the ways that I, and my food culture, think and perceive food. I’m also fascinated by how early decisions, sometimes made consciously and sometimes not, have continuing impacts on the way the world acts.
Honestly, grasses have a lot of responsibility in the development of world cultures.
This book was a lot of fun – well, it was a bit of work, because it’s not always a straightforward narrative. But that was usually fun too. It has made me think about why we do things the way we do, and the cascade of consequences through history. It’s so easy to think of the way we make food as just… passive, somehow; unconnected to politics or anything else. Actually, that’s probably only possible for me because I am a part of the ruling elite, so I don’t need to think about the consequences of my food choices – and I live in a place and time where choosing to eat outside of my particular food culture is totally acceptable. So I am privileged. But I am still constrained, too, by the things I have been taught. And this book helps me think about some of those things.
This is so utterly Peak History Nerd it makes even me laugh.
Many, many years ago – back in undergrad – I was walking through the building I spent way too much time in and there, on a shelf, was a pile of books that were free to good homes.
Reader, I have rarely been able to walk past a free book. I know, it’s adorable.
So I looked through the books, and I grabbed a couple. Just a couple, honest. And they’ve sat on my bookshelf, unread, ever since.
Authorized Pasts is one of those books, and the other day I decided it was finally time to read it. And… it was better than I expected!
The idea behind the essays is the idea of ‘official history’: what does official history look like, function as, in different times and in different places? It’s not something I’ve had much to do with in my own studies, but I am intrigued by official remembering and the uses history gets put to, so I was already coming from a place of interest.
Probably the best thing overall about this anthology is its breadth. It’s not broad spatially; it’s basically all European with a couple of diversions to the USA (I assume this reflects the fact that most contributors were from the same university, which when this was published – 1995 – leaned strongly in those directions). But it’s broad temporally, with the first essay being Ronald Ridley writing about ‘official history in the ancient Western world from he third millennium BC to the third century AD’, and the last being Alison Patrick reflecting on French Revolution history on its bicentennial. In between, there’s discussion about Carolingian history and celebrating the Reformation and how the remembrance of Captain Cook and Christopher Columbus are similar and different.
As a complete book one intriguing aspect is that almost every essay begins with a discussion of what makes something official history, or not. This was fascinating partly because the definitions seem to be different depending on what era is being discussed, as well as the personal definitions of the historians writing the essay. It also included some discussion of what even ‘history’ is, in the context of the time and place being discussed. And I love that stuff.
It must be said that the line-editing of some of these essays is somewhat poor; there are some grammar and punctuation issues that annoyed me, although they didn’t get in the way of understanding.
I don’t think this book is easy to get hold of, and let’s be honest it’s very niche. But I don’t regret picking it up that fine day lo these many years ago.
This was the second book in my birthday haul from my mother this year. The first was… not as good as I had hoped. Happily, this did not fall into the same trap.
The idea behind Harkup’s book is to look into the science that was happening around the time of Shelley writing Frankenstein, to explore what ideas influenced her. I was slightly concerned that this could go down the route that Russ identifies of suggesting Shelley was nothing but a conduit for the ideas of the time, but she does nothing of the sort. She does look into what sorts of things Shelley’s husband, father and friends were into, but only to suggest that this is how Shelley herself could have found out about these things: with Percy interested in electricity, for instance, it makes sense that they may have talked about some of the ideas being discussed by scientists, and so on. So I was relieved that this book is very much about how Mary Shelley herself knew what she did, and how she might have accessed knowledge of galvanism and resurrectionists and all of those other things that are so vital to the development of this story of the modern Prometheus.
As well as being an investigation into the science of the early 19th century, this almost inevitably also becomes a biography of Shelley – where she was when, who she encountered, how different places gave her access to ideas or inspiration, and so on. There’s also a discussion of how popular culture has dealt with the story, and the ways that film versions in particular have percolated through the popular Western mindset – and how these are often quite different from Shelley’s actual story.
Electricity, preservation of flesh after death, skin grafts, the circulatory system, evolutionary theory, blood transfusions, batteries… all of these things were being discussed in the early part of the 19th century and had an impact on Shelley’s writing. This is a fascinating introduction to the science of this period as well as being a fascinating way of thinking about Frankenstein. Harkup also does justice to Frankenstein as a way of interrogating science, and scientists.
I don’t adore Frankenstein – I’ve only read it once – but I really enjoyed this historical context.
Since I started learning about the French Revolution I’ve been fascinated by the women involved in it. The workers Pauline Leon and Claire Lacombe, the intriguing Theroigne de Mericourt, and of course Olympe de Gouges – who wrote the Declaration of Rights of Woman and the Citizeness, in answer to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. And ended up getting executed. There’s not a whole lot about Olympe in English, which I think is an absolute travesty, so when I went on a bit of book-buying spree of revolutionary books and came across this one, I decided I needed to own it.
I should have paid attention to how long it was. It’s only 100 pages of text, and given it cost $66 I’m a bit grumpy. I may still have bought it, but probably as an ebook instead.
I’m also a bit grumpy because of the content. Partly I’m sad because the translation isn’t excellent, so there are bits where I’m not sure if a sentence is a translation issue or a writing issue. Partly I’m annoyed because I think it would be very difficult to read and really get this book without knowledge of the French Revolution. That makes it inaccessible to people coming it at from a feminist history perspective rather than a French Rev one, which is doing Olympe a disservice. I would really have liked to see Mousset lay out more of the context of the revolution than simply mentioning some of the events that were happening around Olympe’s life.
Mostly though I’m dismayed at some of the ways that Mousset talks about Olympe’s life and writing. Some of this comes out of currently reading Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing, as part of our Galactic Suburbia one-chapter-per-episode readalong. One of the things that Russ identifies is the idea that women’s writing is inherently personal, or autobiographical. Mousset frequently sees Olympe in the characters of her plays, and suggests that she is interested in the right of illegitimate children because she is one, in divorce because of an unhappy marriage, in housing for the elderly because her mother died destitute, and so on. As if it’s not possible to care about those things without some personal connection. I’m not denying that those issues may have played a part, but to suggest that this woman – who was clearly driven, intellectual, and passionately interested in making society a better place – was only inspired by things she experienced greatly weakens her commitment.
And then there’s the way that Mousset talks about her writing: “Her lack of culture forced her to constantly make reference to herself” (p31) – which I just don’t understand as a concept, and aren’t we all still in admiration of Shakespeare for probably not having the greatest education early on? Olympe explicitly presents herself in her writing at times, downplaying her achievements – but couldn’t this just be seen as a pose? Check this out:
“I haven’t the advantage of being schooled, and as I’ve already said, I know nothing, I will therefore not use the title Author, although I’ve already presented the Public with two plays, which it was kind enough to welcome. And, unable to imitate my colleagues in their talent and arrogance, I shall listen to the voice of modesty, which suits me in all respects.” (p33)
Doesn’t that just scream Olympe playing the pose of modest woman (which she was accused of not being), but also having a dig at male ‘colleagues’ for their arrogance? Maybe there’s extensive French scholarship to suggest that Olympe was always excruciatingly honest and never played a pose, but right now I’m not buying it. And Mousset follows up this quote by saying that “If there was one thing that she was absolutely not, that was modest!” – which… do we care? Would we make the same comment of a male author? After another passage where Olympe talks about her achievements, or lack of, Mousset says “It’s obvious here that Olympe is mocking herself” (p34), but again I can’t help but wonder if it’s all a pose to get the audience on side. And my irritation is compounded when Mousset comments that “If her lack of humility still seems irritating today, imagine how exasperating she must have been at the time!” (p37, my italics). To which I have no answer because I’m gobsmacked.
Olympe, writing and politically active in the late 1780s and early 1790s, seems like a forerunner of second wave feminism: “Whichever barriers may be encircling you, it is in your power to emancipate yourselves from them; you only have to wish to do so” (p1) – pretty sure enslaved women on what would soon be Haiti wouldn’t have agreed with this sentiment. (It should be noted that Olympe was passionately anti-slavery, to the point of one of her plays being banned for its anti-colonial message.) Mousset does present Olympe’s achievements in terms of her plays being performed, and outlines some of the ways in which she was involved in politics and Parisian society. Partly because she was a moderate in many ways as that became increasingly like an anti-revolutionary, and probably also because she was an outspoken woman, Olympe eventually ended up on the wrong side of the people in charge, and Mousset presents Olympe’s final two years quite well.
For me, this feels like an extensive early version that could easily be twice as long with added commentary on the French Revolution to give Olympe greater context. I do like the way that Mousset presents Olympe’s most well-known work today, the Declaration of Rights of Woman and the Citizeness, with some commentary on the way Olympe changed the wording from what had been adopted by the national government. But I’m not sure I could recommend this to someone – certainly not as an entry to the world of women’s involvement in the Revolution. (That book is Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France, By Lucy Moore.)