This novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be published on August 21.
As an Australian, I’m sure I only picked up the surface detail of what Clark is doing here in his alternative history of America. That was enough, though, to be both utterly intrigued by the world he’s imagined and to follow this awesome story that I really hope everyone goes out and grabs.
This is alternative history in two senses. One is that there’s airships and some other tech that doesn’t fit with what the nineteenth century actually had; a variation on steampunk I guess. The other is that, partly because of this technology, things went somewhat differently in Haiti after and during the slave revolt there, and when Napoleon tried to reimpose slavery; and, possibly connected to this although that’s unclear, things are also different in the USA: like it’s not the USA. This is post-Civil War, but instead of reconstruction, Confederates and the Union are still separate. Oh, and New Orleans is neutral, and basically seems to be operating as its own city-state.
There’s a lot going on here, and all of that is just background to understanding why our protagonist, Creeper, is trying to find someone to pass along some information to, and then ends up in an unexpected adventure.
This is a beautifully written novella, both fast-paced and with complex enough characters that I cared about them. Creeper is awesome, there are seriously odd nuns (I REALLY want a story about them please and thank you), and the captain of an airship who takes zero nonsense from anyone. Plus a scientist with dangerous knowledge in his head and… yeh, you get the picture. The characters are a multitude of colours and ethnicities and nationalities, as befits New Orleans as a neutral and open port; there’s really interesting discussion about old, African gods being brought to this new world, and what power they might have. This is alternative history that really works: it makes sense (see caveat above re: me and American history), and it challenges modern conservative white notions of what alternative history is; it also just straight-out challenges boring old racism pretty much just by its existence.
I loved it a lot and would be very happy to read more in this world.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Allen&Unwin, at no cost. It’s available now; RRP $32.99.
The premise of this book is to examine how literature has shaped history – in fact, not just literature itself, but also the inventions that have facilitated the dissemination of literature around the world throughout history. It “offers a new and enticing perspective on human history,” according to the blurb.
Some of the ideas in the book are really interesting (can you tell where this review is going?). The first chapter, about Alexander and his obsession with the stories of Troy, offer quite an intriguing (although I don’t think new) insight into one of the things driving that man to go and conquer so much land. However, even if all the chapters were individually interesting, it doesn’t feel like there’s an overarching connection between them. Yes there’s the idea of literature (more on that in a bit), but the ways in which literature has impacted on people is vastly different, and Puchner doesn’t seem to try to find commonalities – or draw out the differences in any way. And then it jumps to chapters about technology, which I’m certainly interested in but they seem even more disconnected. Additionally, there’s way more emphasis on retelling stories, like that of Troy or Gilgamesh, than I had expected; it feels quite unnecessary when the specifics of a story aren’t important to the history that the book should be focusing on.
There are other issues, too. For instance, there are grand generalisations for instance about “scribes” and their roles and attitudes; and then there’s the bit where Puchner presents a short biography of the biblical figure Ezra… and then admits that it’s just one possible version of his life. But probably the most egregious is the fact that there is no effort to define literature. And that’s a serious problem. For me, ‘literature’ is fiction, and it’s a value judgement; you can’t consciously set out to write literature (we can have a fight about this if you like). Anyway: Iliad? Sure. Epic of Gilgamesh? No problem. The Tale of Genji? Haven’t read it but given its status, happy to accept it. The Bible? well… ok, I can see how that works. Anything written by Martin Luther? The Mayan codices? Ben Franklin’s newspapers and letters, The Communist Manifesto? Uh, I think not. And does it have to be written? Play scripts aren’t really intended to be read, for example; so there’s a whole issue with the chapter on enscribing oral traditions. So… what ties these together? Puchner doesn’t bother to tell us.
Yet more problems: there’s a chapter on Goethe that alleges to be about world literature as an idea, but it doesn’t develop that concept in the slightest, just talks about Goethe. The last chapter has an incredibly snobby attitude towards Harry Potter that’s remarkable for not being that remarkable. Apparently HP merchandising is “out-of-control” (p332) and… somehow that takes away from it being literature? Or something?
Apparently at some point Puchner’s editor said that he should add more of himself to the text, and I have to disagree with that decision here. Sometimes it works – Bethany Hughes’ reminiscences about being in Istanbul were charming – but here they just come across as indulgent; not helped by sometimes being irrelevant.
Some choice quotes that bugged me: “Nothing is more familiar to us than a rabbi holding a scroll…” (p56). You what? Also, on that same page: he calls it the Hebrew Bible. Dude.
Here’s a minor one: people using framing narratives as in One Thousand and One Nights: lots of people have used this idea, “from Chaucer to Boccaccio” (p134). Mate. Boccaccio died first, but also, they lived in the same century. That’s like saying “there’s been some good Australian musicians, from John Farnham to Jimmy Barnes!”
In the chapter about the Popol Vuh and writing in the Mayan culture, Puchner refers to the people being invaded by Pizarro, Cortes and their cohorts as “Indians” (chapter 8).
Hey authors, your job’s really easy right? “It’s not such a terrible job, being an author. You do some research, come up with characters, shape a plot that unfolds central themes and ideas. Once you’re done, you find a publisher, who in turn finds a printer…” (p193). Oh my. And apparently the American Declaration of Independence influenced the proclamation of independence in Haiti… by way of the French Revolution, which Puchner neglects to mention. Goethe talking to his friend about how excellent Chinese novels were, and the latter is amazed: Puchner comments: “One sympathises: Who wants to read thousands of Chinese novels?” (p235). OH MY WORD. DUDE.
The take away here is: great idea, average to occasionally poor execution. I was sad.
The title is misleading, because she was never the head of MI6 or anything. But she was one of the few women working in MI6 when it first got going and she did end up pretty senior, so I guess it’s what you get when you’re trying to come up with a catchy title.
Anyway, Daphne Park sounds like one helluva woman. Grew up in Tanganyika in the 30s, stayed with aunts to go to school in the UK, got a job in World War 2 that was kind of undercover and went from there, with some missteps along the way, to being an actual spy in MI6. She was a product of her time: deeply suspicious of the USSR for her whole life, a supporter of Margaret Thatcher, and probably someone I would have argued with a lot by the end of her life. But she also seems to have been fearless, determined, entrepreneurial, ruthless, and generally pretty amazing as a spy. She was eventually made a peer! Can’t help but wonder what she and Gertrude Bell would have made of one another, what with their getting into other nations’ business and all.
As well as this being a biography of a remarkable woman (remarkable in what she did, and remarkable in being very rare for her time), it’s also an exploration of the role of spies during the Cold War. There were several moments where I vocally expressed my displeasure, for instance regarding the international interference in Congo’s first elections. I’m horrified by what the UK, and the US and others, felt they had a right to do in those third-party countries. So it’s unlikely you’ll come away from this thinking Park was always in the right… but she certainly did her job. Sometimes, above and beyond. And, while she didn’t quite do it backwards and in high heels like Ginger Rogers, she was definitely battling that good old sexism for pretty much her entire career.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Monash University, at no cost. This review initially appeared in the History Teachers of Victoria journal, Agora.
The year I got back to teaching Year 9 history I happened to visit Canberra. I wasn’t that keen on the Australian War Memorial – not being a huge fan of military history – but my co-traveller wanted to, so we did. Knowing that I would be teaching something about the conscription debate as part of our history unit, I looked out for what the AWM might say about it. I found it in the 1916 room on the First World War: a single display, showing some postcards from the Yes and No campaigns, accompanied by very little explanation about the situation. When we got to the book shop, I asked whether they had any books on conscription or, failing that, any books on the home front with information about the debate. No, they didn’t.
It turns out I shouldn’t have been surprised at the lack of books on the conscription debate; there hasn’t been a “book length treatment of the conflict since Leslie Jauncey’s effort to document some of the key actors, developments and sources in 1935” (p6). This is amazing and, frankly, depressing, since it “was a defining feature of wartime Australia” (p2) and “unique… quite without precedent – not just in Australia, but anywhere in the world” (p3). The aims of The Conscription Debate are manifold: to offer new interpretations; to compare the Australian experience with other English-speaking countries at the time; and – most provocatively – to “intervene in current debates about how to understand the war by contributing to a more accurate and rounded picture of how it was experienced” (pp6-7). The authors do meet these aims – not always in a great deal of detail, given the length of the book, but sufficiently to give an overview of the issues.
Chapters 1 and 2 (Douglas Newton and Robin Archer) make up Part 1 and set out the philosophical and political context of the conscription. These were the two chapters I found most difficult to follow. I think they would be best read with at least some understanding of nineteenth-century British and Australian political philosophy, especially of what it meant to be ‘liberal’ at that time, as well as an understanding of the ins and outs of contemporary British politics more generally. This is not my area of expertise, so I found myself floundering through the discussion of Liberal Imperialists and New Liberals and Little Englanders. Nonetheless, these chapters are important to the overall picture this volume is putting forward: that the traditions of liberalism, and the existence of the labour movement, are fundamental to understanding the conscription debate.
Part 2 consists of Chapters 3 (on the Antis); Chapter 4 (on the Yes campaign at the University of Melbourne); and Chapter 5 (an examination of the poll results in both 1916 and 1917). In Chapter 3 Frank Bongiorno gives a clear, if brief, overview of some of the incentives for voting no: tyranny vs freedom, women as mothers, and (embarrassingly) ‘keeping Australia white and free’. He speaks not just of the well-known names like Daniel Mannix but also those who have largely slipped off the historical radar. In Chapter 4 Joy Damousi looks at a group of Melbourne University academics such as Alexander Leeper and Jessie Webb who actively campaigned for conscription, pointing out that the yes campaign has rarely been analysed “as a set of arguments or as a movement in its own right” (p93). Such arguments included the suggestion that voting no would significantly contribute to a German victory and Australia becoming a German colony, and that it was democracy that was at stake in this war – so citizens must “show themselves worthy of these freedoms” (p101). Intriguingly, many of these academics went on to be involved in the League of Nations Union. In Chapter 5, Murray Goot undertakes a detailed examination of election results to try and understand voting patterns amongst Labor voters and not, in metro and regional areas, among women, British and German migrants, and between Catholics and Protestants. This chapter is not for those afraid of percentages, but for those interested in the history of Australian voting it is deeply fascinating.
John Connor (Chapter 6) and Ross McKibbin (Chapter 7), in Part 3, match Part 1 in a sense: they put the Australian conscription debate into international context by comparing experiences in other English-speaking countries. Connor gives a chronological overview of English-speaking countries, all of which instituted conscription in some form, while McKibbin provides a more detailed comparison of Britain and Australia. These two chapters highlight the remarkable nature of Australia’s experience at the time, since nowhere else put the question to its citizens in the same way. It also suggests that this issue of conscription and how citizens respond is one that warrants further research.
Finally, Sean Scalmer in Part 4 gives an overview of how the conscription debate – and especially the Antis – have been remembered in Australian history: from being a labour-movement legend to its eclipse thanks to conscription in World War 2 and, more recently, how it fits in with “the broader revival of Anzac commemoration and enthusiasm” (p206). Deeply interesting, this chapter too suggests that there is a lot of room for further research.
One issue I had with the book overall was the use of the word ‘referendum’. My understanding was that non-binding polls like this, which were not asking to change the constitution, were properly called plebiscites. Most of the authors in this book call it a referendum… except Frank Bongiorno in Chapter 3. I would have appreciated some discussion of the terminology, and an explanation for the words used (also consistency).
This is, to coin a phrase, the book on conscription we had to have – because it’s essentially the first. It’s not the book on conscription I wished for; that imaginary book has a lot more about the individuals (I adore Vida Goldstein) and groups that were campaigning both for and against the issue. But The Conscription Conflict does an admirable job of reminding us why 1916 and 1917 were important years for Australia outside of the fighting going on in Europe; it sets out areas that need further research; and hopefully, it will serve to inspire someone (or many someones) to dig deeper into this fascinating period in Australian history.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. This review first appeared in the History Teachers of Victoria journal Agora.
If you are especially keen on the history of the Byzantine Empire, or the Eastern Roman Empire, like me you might have bought the classic John Julius Norwich trilogy. Again if you are like me, you may have got to the end of the second book and thought, “No more!” Despite that, the city at the heart of that empire (thrice-named, eat your heart out New York) has always enthralled me – and, Bettany Hughes suggests, has fascinated, enticed, and aggravated people for a good few thousand years.
Firstly: don’t be put off by the page count. Those 800 pages include an extensive timeline, detailed (and interesting but not imperative) endnotes, a thorough bibliography and an index. At 600 pages, with often quite short chapters, this is a very approachable book for such a complicated subject.
Hughes attempts to do two things in this book, and generally succeeds; she calls it “an organic examination – an archaeology of both place and culture” (6). It is a chronological examination of the development of the city now called Istanbul – the invasions and innovations and growth through successive regime changes (although “not a catch-all of Istanbul’s past” (3)). However, woven through that is a social history of the people who made the city what it is. This includes such luminaries as Theodora and Constantine and Süleyman II, but also the everyday people who made the city function. There are chapters, for instance, on the presence of eunuchs in Constantinople, and the realities of the harem (insofar as they can be known), and the Varangian Guard. Hughes includes discussion of the various peoples who threatened, worked with, and generally impacted on the city (Goths, Vandals, Vikings, Turks). In doing so she naturally expands her focus beyond the city walls, but this is unavoidable when dealing with the likes of a city such as Byzantion. Indeed, it adds greatly to the context of the book: how to understand the numerous Muslim sieges and eventual conquest of the city without an understanding of the growth of Islam? How to understand the birth of Turkey as a country and the move of the capital to Ankara without the context of the First World War and the internal Ottoman politics of the time? And so on. Hughes does a magnificent job of weaving all of these pieces together into a coherent whole.
Nominally the book’s narrative stops at 1924; there’s a chapter after that about Istanbul’s future, but it’s a fairly sweeping overview of the following ninety years. However, something that I very much enjoyed and which added to the book’s approachability is that Hughes makes occasional reference to contemporary events from when she is writing (2016). A passing reference to Prime Minister Erdoğan acting in a similar fashion to Justinian, preparing “to take his money and to fly” (219), points up similarities in situations that may provoke and intrigue the reader. Describing the city as “well designed for rioting” and using the Gezi Park/Taksim Square riots to indicate this truth in 2013 (when Hughes was herself in the city), and then proceed to discuss the AD 532 Nika riots, suggests a continuation in the city’s physical existence that is extraordinary over that span in time.
One of the most captivating aspects of Hughes’ book is her wonderful use of archaeological evidence. There are frequent references to discoveries made in Istanbul and elsewhere around the world, and how the goods and structures uncovered are continuing to change historians’ and archaeologists’ understandings of different periods. For a historian to remind her reader that the story of a place is not completely known is refreshing. She contextualises these sites, too: to find “one of the few scraps of evidence for one of the most remarkable phenomena of the medieval world” (the Varangian Guard), one passes “young men push[ing] second-hand mattresses… on wooden carts and kids sort[ing] through piles of redundant television aerials” (321). This provides a visceral feel for the city as it is today – a living city, not abandoned; a city continuing to leave behind remains for future archaeologists to sift and puzzle through. Hughes also has a lovely sense of humour that occasionally pokes through: in discussing the archaeological finds at Tintagel (which indicate trade connections between that part of England and the Byzantine world), she describes the finding of the graffito reading “Artugno” as “[u]tterly unhelpful for the historian but irresistible for the tourist guides” (292).
Another aspect of Hughes’ attitude towards the city and her people over time is the sympathy she displays. In speaking of the development of iconoclasm, for instance, which she says historians have “[o]ften described… as an irrational, typically ‘Dark Ages’ response” to the consequences of the Theran volcanic eruption in AD 726, Hughes insists “we have to pause for a moment to think of the horror of Thera’s eruption” and proceeds to describe the physical realities of such an eruption (300). This is a lovely moment of historical empathy that enables the reader to glimpse life for an eighth-century Byzantine.
As a physical object, it’s well-designed. The cover is perhaps predictable but gorgeous nonetheless. There are three sets of colour plates, covering a range of people and events, and many black and white images throughout. Each section (there are eight, each representing some important change in Istanbul’s history) has a series of maps at the start, showing changes in the city as well as context such as the reach of the Byzantine or Ottoman Empire over time (there is one section where the map, which goes over two pages, is split by the colour picture insert; that was a bit irritating).
Hughes’ passion for Istanbul – for the history of the place and for the contemporary city – come through across the volume. She delights in all aspects of its history and she wants the reader to share that with her. As an introduction to the complexity of the city’s history, as a history of a place that has impacted on European and Asian history for 2500 years (and was inhabited for many thousands of years before that), and as an example of how history writing can be made approachable, this is a fabulous book.
Gerry Canavan wrote a fabulous essay in Luminescent Threads about ‘disrespecting Octavia’ – about whether or not work in Butler’s archives that remains unpublished ought to be published now, against her wishes. It’s a thoughtful essay that acknowledges it’s not an easy question to consider, and makes the unpublished work sound fascinating while admitting its flaws.
I knew Canavan was writing a biography of Butler when we asked him to write for us, and I’d been meaning to get hold of it… well, all year. I finally did and I finally read it and it is exactly as wonderful as I had hoped.
To call it a biography isn’t quite accurate. It is that, to an extent; you certainly learn the outlines of Butler’s life, and Canavan is quite explicit in looking at the struggles Butler faced in finding the time to write, how much re-writing she did because she wasn’t happy with work at various points, and other aspects of her life like receiving the MacArthur fellowship and so on. But this is also an extended critique of Butler’s work – both published and unpublished, because one of the amazing things about this book is that Canavan had access to the many hundreds of boxes of papers that Butler left when she died so suddenly. They’re stored at the Huntington, and their finding guide alone is over 500 pages in length.
Makes me want to start printing out and filing emails.
Each of the chapters is based around a particular creative period in Butler’s life, which I liked because it foregrounds that the creative output is the focus of the book but/and that it happens in tandem with the actual events in Butler’s life. Canavan traces themes across her work, as well as the ways in which so much of her fiction (12 published novels and 9 short stories!) can be seen as connected to one another: through early drafts and plot ideas as well as the motivating ideas. It makes me desperately want to read some of that unpublished work when I read about what she was trying to do in them… although Doro/Jesus sounds a bit weird even for me.
This is not a long book and it’s not a dense book. It’s not a nitty-gritty, every-day-at-a-time biography, and it’s not a highly technical literary analysis – it’s far more approachable and engaging than either of those would be. This is a book for people who love Butler’s work and want to know more about her and her work. It works brilliantly.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. RRP $32.99 trade paperback; it’s available now.
This is a great idea for a book, obviously; it’s similar in concept to Cranky Ladies of History although with a more pointed political stick, given the timing.
So… look. I have a few issues with it. Some of these are particularly my issues and may not be a problem for other people. So let me start with the good things.
- There are women in here I’ve never heard of. And that includes in the historical section, not just in the more modern sections. That’s awesome. And is largely because…
- The women aren’t just European. That is also awesome. The opening section on Wonderful Ancient Weirdos includes Seondeok of Silla (Korea), Khayzoun (Yemen/ Baghdada), and Subh (Basque/Cordoba), as well as Sappho and Hatshepsut and others.
- It acknowledges some of the problems with sources, and that info about women can be hard to come at. Too true.
But. Hmm. I’m actually writing this review before I finish reading it, for two reasons. It’s going to take me a long time to read because each entry is only a couple of pages long, and I find that exhausting… and I’m not sure I actually will read the whole thing. But since I got it to review, I wanted to write something about it close to publication.
The above points are absolutely reasons to buy and flick through this book. It’s got a bit of swearing so it’s not quite right for ten year olds, but 15 years olds? oh yes. Do it. Have it on the shelf ready to pull out to point out just a few examples of women being awesome scientists or what have you. However… like I said. Some things rub me the wrong way.
- The introduction includes this: “Where there are mistakes, forgive me. I have done the best I can, and it turns out there is a lot of history out there which I have shoved into my eye sockets. processed through the lukewarm innards of my brain, and squeezed through my fingers. It’s inevitable that some things will have gotten lost on that perilous, squidgy journey” (4). And… it really made me uncomfortable. Why is she disparaging her intelligence? Why is she blase about mistakes? By all means acknowledge there may be some, and I know she’s being humourous, but this way of presenting just irked me.
- The first chapter is “Wonderful ancient weirdos”. I guess she was going for alliteration but these are powerful women she’s discussing, and she’s calling them weirdos? That’s sending the wrong message, in my book.
- Also on this chapter: ancient? Uh, no. Hatshepsut, sure. Sappho, yes. But Margery Kempe, Hildegard von Bingen, and the others are all medieval, or at best early medieval. These terms matter, for me, because the context is important. Everything before the Industrial Revolution is not ancient.
- I don’t love the language. No, this isn’t a tone argument. This is definitely the most idisyncratic complaint, and your mileage may well vary. For instance, Hildegard’s regime described thus: “The strict regime of the convent demanded that each day the nuns have… eight hours of manual labour, which entailed, I dunno, putting up retaining walls and stuff” (26). That’s irksome for me.
- Verging on not caring about historical accuracy: “This is my book, and everyone gets laid” (10), on whether Hatshepsut and her chief advisor were lovers. Just nooo.
- Historical accuracy again: I skipped to the chapter on Alexandra Kollontai, and I can’t tell you how pleased I am that she got a chapter! but it says that International Women’s Day was February 7th by the Russian calendar, in 1917… but it was Feb 23. That’s just careless. Also? “Sorry, New Zealand, I know you gave women [the right to vote] in 1893, but you’re just so little and far away” (376). Far away from whom? Are only Americans going to read this?
- The end of Seondeok’s chapter: “Ugh, men” (18).
- Also, they’re not arranged in chronological order, within their thematic chapters, and that drives me batty.
- Also not in order, this time alphabetical, is the Old People Glossary, which in itself (despite my comments on the language) is quote amusing. I’m fine with using modern slang in these sorts of biographies; I think it can make them much more approachable. But why, why would you not put the words in alphabetical order??
So… there you go. Decide for yourself how annoying these issues are vs having a handy reference to Kollontai and Rosa Luxembourg, Mergery Kempe and Sappho, Queen Nanny of the Maroons and Sojourner Truth, Hypatia and Nana Asma’u and 92 other women on the shelf.
This review first appeared in Crux, the magazine of the Astronomical Society of Victoria.
Amazing things happened at the Harvard Observatory around the turn of the twentieth century. Draper provided funding for photography of stellar spectra, while Bruce gave $50,000 towards a new 24-inch astrophotographic telescope. Pickering found the first spectroscopic binary, and Maury found the second; Fleming classified stellar spectra and discovered novae. Cannon worked on variable stars and explored the relationship between spectral type and magnitude; Leavitt also worked on variables and proposed the period-luminosity relation. Ames and Payne were Harvard’s first graduate students in astronomy.
Anna Draper, that is. Catherine Bruce. Edward Pickering and Antonia Maury. Williamina Fleming. Annie Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt. Adelaide Ames and Cecelia Payne. As Dava Sobel makes beautifully clear in The Glass Universe, women were fundamental to the astronomical work and discoveries at Harvard Observatory in its early years. This is a book in love with astronomy and its history that wants to ensure everyone who contributed—not just the now-big names like Hubble—is recognised.
Sobel points out three groups of women who contributed to astronomy. She opens her book by demonstrating how women contributed financially to astronomical work. Anna Draper provided money and telescopes so that stellar spectra could be investigated at Harvard, and endowed the Henry Draper Medal. This was done in honour of her late husband, but also reflected her own interests: she had observed with Henry, and helped with the photography; part of their honeymoon involved shopping for a glass disk for a 28-inch telescope, which the pair then ground and polished over years to transform into a mirror. At 73, Catherine Bruce’s vague interest in the stars was encouraged by Edward Pickering and by her death in 1900 her gifts totalled $175,000 (over $4 million today). Other women endowed telescopes, awards, and scholarships.
The second group, appropriately taking up most of the book, are the individual researchers at the Observatory. Most of them started as computers: examining glass plates, calculating visible magnitudes, cataloguing spectra. Some of the women worked on this for decades. Some undertook further work as their curiosity was sparked by the spectra they investigated, or the magnitudes they calculated, or they noticed interesting relationships between period and luminosity. These women published papers, and contributed to the papers of other astronomers, especially Pickering and Harlow; some of them were awarded annual medals, although not many; some were honorary membership to societies such as the Royal Astronomical Society, while Cannon was the treasurer of the American Astronomical Society. The work these women undertook was thanks in no small part to the unusual willingness of Edward Pickering and Harlow Shapley (yes, that Shapley), directors at the Harvard Observatory between 1877 and 1952 (Solon Bailey had two years as interim director), to not only work with women but encourage their independent work and acknowledge them in publication. Their work is therefore also acknowledged and discussed, since it would be impossible to separate it from that of the computers in particular.
The third group of women consists of the wives and other family members of acknowledged astronomers. Solon Bailey’s wife, Ruth, contributed to his observatons for the Harvard station in Peru, while Pickering’s and Shapley’s wives played crucial roles at the Observatory in making the whole place work. The third director’s daughter, Anna, became a computer. They are the least well served by the book; it is presumably difficult to uncover contributions if they weren’t acknowledged at the time.
Dava Sobel has not only written a compelling history of Harvard Observatory, and not only conducted a remarkable survey of the contribution of women to astronomy, but has also written an intensely readable book. There’s some wonderful scientific discussions included, about Cepheid variables and their importance to figuring out the size of the universe and the like—but these do not dominate. If you are looking for a book about the history of astrophysics, this is not it and does not want to be it. No understanding of astrophysics is required to read it. Rather, this is a history of the people involved; it has a little about their relationships with one another, but it’s mostly about the work; it sounds like most of them put their work first anyway, so that’s appropriate. It demonstrates just how much computing power was required a century ago to understand the heavens—when that computing power could be jokingly measured in “girl hours”, and sometimes “kilo-girl hours”. The women who worked at the Harvard Observatory were a crucial part of the astronomical community.
I’ve had this book on my shelf to read for a good few years now. I didn’t read it at first because I hadn’t read enough Russ, and then I put it off because I thought the book itself was going to be scary. The other day I finally decided it was Time, and I’m so glad that I did. Because this book is fantastic.
It’s not a book to read if you are completely unfamiliar with Russ, in my opinion. There are a few of her works that I haven’t read and when they were discussed, I was definitely a bit less engaged and a bit left out of the conversation (my fault, not that of the writers). So you really want to have read “When it Changed” and The Female Man, and The Two Of Us and We Who are About To… before coming to this. That said, that’s not exactly a hardship. Well, The Female Man might be; it’s not linear, it’s very 70s-second-wave-feminism in its attitude towards trans women (ie not very positive), and it’s playing rough with a lot of literary conventions. BUT it’s still worth reading and then you can read THIS set of essays and that’s great!
The first five essays deal with Russ in her context, and I found this deeply amazing and exciting to read. Russ as reviewer, Russ in community, Russ being all edgy and spiky and much as I wish I could have met her I think she would have intimidated me! I also loved this section for helping me get deeper into an appreciation of what it was like to be a feminist and a female SF fan in the 60s and 70s. Things are still not always great today but things have, largely, improved – at least in my experience. These essays are all beautifully written, too, and use such a fabulous array of sources from the period that it makes me want to tell everyone to keep their ephemera! Store it safely! Print your emails!
The second, bulkier section includes essays on Russ’ fiction. Some of these go deeply into literary criticism territory – like Tess Williams using Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnival theory – and I haven’t read much lit crit in… quite a few years. So there were definitely a few bits where I did not get as much out of the essays as I might have when I was still studying and had practise. Nonetheless, the ideas that the essayists present are fascinating and intriguing and gave me new ways of thinking about the different stories. They also made me want to go and read Kittatinny, for instance, which I had thought I didn’t really need to. The essays use a range of devices and theory and ideas to get at the meat of Russ’ stories, to look at what they’re saying about society and gender and people and literature. It was actually really exciting to read.
The other thing this book gave me was a love of my feminist foremothers, Russ and the others that she was bouncing off/working with/ inspiring later. It made me really, really appreciative and fiercely grateful and amazed, too.
I’m so glad I got around to reading this book.
The short version is that Muriel Matters was an Australian actress and acclaimed elocutionist who went to Britain and ended up participating in the suffrage movement in the early 1900s, and went on to work with underprivileged children, among other things. She was also one of the first women in a flying machine, and was – as far as we can tell – the first person to engage in aerial leafletting: she tossed Votes for Women pamphlets over the side of the airship basket. She was amazing and this biography captures her wonderfully.
The longer version… is basically going on about some of the other, remarkable parts of Matters’ life. Like chaining herself to the Grille, part of the screen that stopped MPs from seeing the women who were in the tiny little room where they could watch parliament. Or the things that she endured while on her endless speaking tours, such as constant heckling and having eggs – and other things – thrown at her. The stays in prison. And her magnificent speeches about suffrage – which was not an end in itself, for Matters, but merely the beginning of women coming to full participation in social life and the fabulous consequences that would have for society. At the moment, it’s all too tragic to read some of Matters’ hopes and dreams for how women would be able to participate once they had the vote. Because yes, there were some positive changes made in SA, for example, once women were voting, around labour laws and the like. But we still see the ways in which women are hampered from full participation and the consequences of women’s voices not being taken seriously.
Wainwright, who also wrote Sheila, has done a remarkable amount of research here. Matters has never had a biography written before – and I’ve read quite a few books about English women’s fight for suffrage and she has never featured significantly in any of them. Matters died a widow, and with no children, and most of her family gone and overseas, so most of her own papers have been lost. So there’s a huge amount of reconstruction from newspapers, from early accounts of the suffrage movement, and other such sources to find out what can be found out. There are gaps, of course – in particular around Matters’ personal relationships – and Wainwright offers speculation but is clear that that’s what it is.
As to her politics and passions, those seem quite clear from her speeches and from where she devoted her energies. After becoming disillusioned with parts of the suffrage movement, Matters works with striking workers and then eventually becomes one of the first Montessori-trained teachers in Britain, working with children in slum areas. Knowledge of her later life is sketchy because she disappears from public view, which is such a shame because surely this woman didn’t sit at home fuming, after her actions earlier on? It makes me want to encourage everyone to print their emails and keep them in secure vaults so that historians can find them later.
This is an engaging, thoughtful, and generally lovely look at a fascinating and important woman who was part of a historical struggle that most people know far too little about.