I received this book via NetGalley.
I’m a bit conflicted by this book.
On the one hand, it’s a pretty great introduction to women in science – and the fact that women have ALWAYS been “in science”, they’ve just been obscured (deliberately or not) on a personal level or an institutional one; by which I mean, “science” has been constructed as a discipline in order to leave the ladies out (eg midwifery isn’t really medicine). Recovering the presence of women is always good.
I LOVE that Marie Curie isn’t mentioned until the last chapter. Seriously: the authors make this choice an explicit one, explaining that she gets used as the exemplar and that’s not useful (and also people ignore a whole bunch of facts about her, too).
I liked that the authors aimed to go back to ancient women, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence (because patriarchy AND because time); they make a good case for ways in which ancient women would have been involved in scientific endeavour.
On the other hand…
I wasn’t always sure whether the authors were picking women as examples, or if they thought they were being exhaustive. If the latter, then they didn’t succeed – and surely they weren’t trying for that in a book intended for the general reading public – but I would have felt more comfortable if they had been clearer about their decision-making paradigms.
There were some sweeping statements about “women” and their access to education/lack thereof. Very occasionally there were comments about how class also interacted with gender – but I felt there was a serious lack of this latter point. Class had a HUGE impact on access to time, let alone equipment; this intersection should have been made much more obvious. As well, other discussions about women’s involvement in science has pointed out that gentlemen-scientists, for instance, often had female servants assisting; that’s not discussed here.
Occasionally, the authors do not walk the line I think they intend to. For instance, when Western Europe experiences a craze for natural history and botany, the latter in particular is seen as appropriate for women to be involved in, for various reasons. The authors point out that it was thought women were closer to nature, and therefore had an affinity for botany… and then seem to suggest that women really were better at botany? I was a bit confused about what the authors thought they were doing here.
This is, too, an overwhelmingly European (and eventually American, largely still of European descent) book. Not exclusively – there is mention of women in ancient Egypt (of course; that’s basically European in the way it’s often discussed!), and women medical practitioners in ancient China. There’s a Japanese scientist in the 20th century who did awesome things regarding ocean currents and nuclear fallout, a woman of mixed Irish/Mexican ancestry who was an archaeologist, and a few others. I would have liked to see an acknowledgement that evidence is overwhelming white, because colonialism (in Europe and America) and because… lack of access, or something? for Asia. Africa, South America, Australia…
I got whiplash when the discussion leapt from Algoanice, living in probably the first century BCE, to Hildegard, who was born in 1098 CE.
As a way of enlarging your understanding of women’s place in science over time, this is a fine place to start, as long as you remember the caveats about class and race.
This is one of the best history books I’ve read in years.
It’s written superbly. The language is a delight – but not so clever or lyrical that it gets hard to read. The pace is just right, and the level of detail is an absolute delight: the right balance of fascinating without getting into ridiculous minutiae.
It’s wonderfully historical: it uses primary sources and historians to make arguments and illustrate points, and they’re all woven within the story seamlessly. It uses endnotes, so you don’t have footnotes cluttering the page but you still have the reassurance that the author has done the research!
It illuminates (heh) the context magnificently. The Renaissance, Italy, and Florence are really not my scene, beyond knowing a few names (Medici, Borgia. – and Sforza for some reason?). The author sets the general scene for all three so that I felt completely comfortable going in. The book is ostensibly about Vespasiona, the “king of booksellers”, who started as a fairly uneducated boy working in a book binder’s in Florence and became the man who could either track down a manuscript or have a beautiful new one made for you – where “you” could be a wealthy-enough person in Florence or, like, the Pope (a few of whom he knew by name, hello). Beyond being a biography, though (which would have been fascinating but not that long because info about his early life is lacking) this is almost a biography of TEXTS, as objects and sources of knowledge, in this crucial moment – the 15th century. Why was it crucial? Well, a bunch of ancient Greek texts were being rediscovered and translated – especially Plato, who was being brought into the Christian fold as Aristotle was two centuries before. There were changes in the way knowledge itself was perceived, and an increase in the number of people (let’s be honest, basically men, but still) who were chatting/arguing/ getting fiery about various bits of knowledge. OH, and THEN, Gutenberg and his crazy weird moveable type (NOT first invented by him, of course, that was happening over in Asia already, and the author acknowledges that) comes along. The way the author contextualises that, and discusses the stats about book publication (mss numbers rose when print came along – probably because of increasing literacy) – it’s all just an absolute delight.
The book balances political history, social history, and a bit of economic history to make a thoroughly well-rounded examination of the period. And it still manages to revolve around this one man, Vespasiano, who coordinated the production of beautiful books and magnificent libraries, who became an author himself in old age, and was probably a bit of a cranky old man about those new-fangled print books.
Gosh I loved this book.
I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.
I am ambivalent about this book.
The good things:
- Reclaim the women! I am always in favour of a book that highlights a woman who has either been forgotten, or whom history has portrayed in an unfavourable-because-patriarchy light. This book largely does that, going into details about Marie’s life, highlighting the reasons for the decisions that she made as well as the importance of those actions, not just her womb. These are really important things.
- It’s accessible. This is intended for a general readership: there are no footnotes, it opens with a list of people the reader can refer back to when the titles etc get to be too much, and it usually balances complex foreign policy decision-making with ease of reading.
The slightly uncomfortable things:
- The lack of footnotes etc means it’s not the most detailed of historical research: there’s not that many primary sources directly used, and no other historians are referenced, which makes me a bit queasy.
- There are some editing mistakes. Sentences that lack of a primary verb, probably because there are so many clauses that it’s easy to get lost; sentences where it’s unclear whether one person with multiple titles, or several different people, are being discussed.
- Marie’s apparently deliberately decision to remain single after James V’s death is lamented as sad for a woman in her 30s. But… she’s a widow twice over, she has the disastrous example of her mother-in-law to show how badly things can go for a widowed queen with an infant monarch. Why couldn’t this be a sensible political choice? Why couldn’t this be a relief to a woman whose life has been tied to the idea of marriage for more than two decades, usually not at her own decision? No evidence to suggest that she regretted this, and so… attributing emotions is a fraught business. It shouldn’t be done.
The negative things:
- At one point, Clegg describes Marie’s daughter Mary as having various ailments, and suggests they may be dismissed as nothing more than an anxiety related disorder. Uh. That’s… not good.
- The way Marie’s whole life is framed around men. Now I understand that to some extent, with the biography of a powerful woman in the sixteenth century this is unavoidable; her male relations were always going to play a huge part, especially early on, and any husband likewise. However, it felt like a lot of space was spent on men and their doings, sometimes only tangentially connected to Marie’s life. Perhaps this was for added context, but it just served to detract from making Marie the focus. The greatest example of this is the title. In a book of nearly 220 pages, Henry VIII dies on p140. Marie was on a list of possible wives but got away; she got in his way to some extent around the issue of young Mary marrying Prince Edward… but to call her the Scourge of Henry VIII is ridiculous. I guess it made a good title? But I was expecting to discover that she had actively, and over a long period, skewered Henry’s ambitions in the north. Yeh not so much.
Look, overall, for people wanting to find out more about Marie of Guise, this isn’t a bad option – not bad at all, in fact. Just beware that it’s by no means perfect.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley.
You don’t HAVE to read Mermaid Singing, the first of Clift’s memoirs about living on a Greek island in the 1950s, in order to understand what’s going on here; not least because they’ve moved islands, so it’s a whole new crowd of people. But I think it helps, because you come with a sense of what Clift and her husband George Johnston have already experienced, why they left London, and thus can better appreciate their experiences.
Like Mermaid Singing, this is a “domesticity in the exotic” story – Clift and her family living now on Hydra, a small, largely poor Greek island, on the cusp on becoming A Destination for the Artistic, the Beautiful, and the Hangers-On. Clift and her husband/collaborator have bought a house, which brings with it large dollops of angst: partly because of the never-ending requirement for repairs, on a budget that’s basically nonexistent; and partly because now they are settled, they are halfway back to being bourgeois, and many of their fellow Artistic Types can’t figure out if they’re jealous or derisive. Both, it seems.
Unlike Mermaid Singing, Clift is much more ambivalent here about the whole experience: both her own experience, and what island life is like. While in the first she and George are actively writing a novel together about the sponge divers, here she seems to be entirely consumed with looking after the house and the children – indeed, she is hugely pregnant as the book opens, an experience which understandably consumes a significant part of her mind and time. George gets to clatter away at the typewriters, but Clift is busy buying food, making dinner, caring for the baby and the other two children, and so on. Sometimes she seems content with this, and at other times deeply frustrated, worried she is merging into that always-has-been, always-will-be experience of motherhood that she sees all around her. So… a fairly familiar experience, no doubt, for many women who find motherhood a time of personal conflict.
Island life bounces between the seeming idyllic – the beach swim every afternoon, cheap and bountiful food, glorious landscape, interesting if infuriating neighbours (usually it’s the foreigners who are infuriating) – and its opposite. There’s hardly any water to be had in summer. Many people’s health is poor, there are huge prowling alley cats, rubbish is dumped directly into the harbour and no one knows where the sewers drain. Clift doesn’t shy away from the negatives, and also makes little effort to reconcile the two extremes; it’s the reality of life, after all.
A lot of time is spent talking about the other foreigners, for whom she uses pseudonyms, and it’s probably a good thing she did. Having read the introduction, though, it seems their identities are – were? – no secret; Henry and Ursula are Sidney Nolan and his wife Cynthia. Clift presents the various non-Greeks as looking for inspiration or pretending to do so, living dissolutely because they can afford to; some of them are getting allowances from parents, for instance, so they barely even need to dabble in their art. Not so for Clift and Johnston, who are trying to eke out a living on royalties. I don’t even want to look up Hydra today, for fear it’s exactly as Clift prophesied – fancy tourist hotels for the Beautiful People – which may or may not have had positive benefits for the people whose ancestors initially colonised the place.
In some ways I can’t believe this book is more than 60 years old. Parts of it show what feels like a very modern sensibility, while other bits are clearly products of the 1950s. It’s gorgeously, evocatively, provocatively written and I hope lots of people get to read it.
It really annoys me when people say ‘this book isn’t what I expected’ and then write a negative review as if it’s the books fault that the reader had the wrong impression.
This book isn’t what I expected.
My review isn’t a negative one, but I do want to explain what I expected, in case others are similarly misled.
I thought this book was predominantly about words, and lost words, and gendered language. I expected the narrative to be driven by words and for them to be centre stage, or that they would somehow frame the narrative.
Books, and the development of the Oxford English Dictionary, are indeed important to the story. But words do not drive or frame the narrative. Esme, the main character, grows up around the men compiling the OED and herself becomes involved in that; she does find and compile ‘lost words’, in the varied senses of that phrase. The story, though, is the story of Esme as a young white English woman at the turn of the 20th century, and her experiences: with the OED, of sexism, of the women’s suffrage movement, of loss and love and friendship. She uses the words she finds to help navigate the world; she learns words from people of different classes in an effort to validate the existence of all words; and sometimes, of course, words are useless. Contrary to my expectations, words are secondary to the biography of Esme.
Having said all of that, this is a lovely novel. Williams writes beautifully, she does use the idea of words as gendered in interesting and meaningful ways, and Esme is of course living in a fascinating era. I wasn’t expecting the suffrage issue to be as significant as it turned out to be: I already know a lot about this as an issue, but for someone coming to it with little knowledge, this is a pretty great introduction to the actions (and words) of the suffragettes, and those who were opposed to their means.
You might notice that I don’t read a whole lot of realist fiction. When I do, I want it to do something interesting and clever and make me think. I have thought about gendered language, and about the gatekeepers of knowledge and language, so for me the ideas weren’t brand new. They are, though, presented in a deeply engaging manner, with neat intersections between ideas and with sympathy for different perspectives. I really enjoyed it.
I had thought that I liked travel memoirs. And I do – I can enjoy a good ‘and then we went here and experienced that’ story. But I’ve eventually realised that what I really enjoy is what I choose to call ‘domesticity in the exotic’. Exotic is a loaded word, but I use it here to evoke a sense of difference that I don’t think ‘foreign’ really captures; and I’m just as including a Brazilian or Nigerian writing about moving to Melbourne as I am a Londoner moving to Provence (I think Romulus, My Father arguably fits neatly into my category).
Before A Year in Provence or Under a Tuscan Sun came Mermaid Singing, by Australian Charmian Clift.
I read this book thanks to NetGalley. I’m incredibly pleased that it’s been republished.
Its most obvious parallel is My Family and Other Animals, and the rest of the Corfu Trilogy. Indeed, they were originally published in the same year, 1956. But ‘parallel’ is right: they seem to start similarly and go in the same direction – family moves impetuously to Greek island, experiences with Greek locals don’t always go as expected, genteel poverty etc – but they are fundamentally separated stories. Where My Family is written two decades after the events, Mermaid is contemporaneous. Where Durrell was the spoilt youngest son of the family and was off having adventures and occasionally going to school, Clift is a writer and a mother and a wife; while she has adventures, they’re not the focus, because she has the cares and concerns of an adult: both for her own family and the way she views the people around them.
My Family is a fond recollection of a childhood dream, /something something the world before World War 2 blah blah. Mermaid Singing is part ‘domesticity in the exotic’, but also a rumination on the hardship of Kalymnos life, and the difficulties of being a woman in the 1950s trying to forge and continue a career alongside motherhood.
Clift writes beautifully, and evocatively. Kalymnos is an island that largely relies on about 10% of its population going out on sponge-diving expeditions for 7 months of the year – a dangerous occupation and one that’s bringing back less revenue as, in the 50s, artificial sponges are taking over the market. It’s also an island still, in Clift’s experience, in the grip of patriarchal attitudes (and Clift herself is part of this as she notes she has no right to comment on whether someone has beaten his wife at the end of a drunken week). The whole reason for moving here is for Clift and her husband to collaborate on their third novel, this one to be about the sponge-divers. And they do manage to do this, in between drinking a lot of retzina and being closely observed by all their neighbours and seemingly endless rounds of engagements and baptisms.
This is no day-by-day account of life. Like A Year in Provence it follows a year, observing the changes to life as the seasons come and go. Clift observes moments: a friend giving birth, experiences in the taverna, the experiences of her two children during Carnival…. As a gifted writer, she uses these moments to reflect on life itself – and death; and she conjures a wondrous view of Kalymnos. Is this likely to reflect the lives of the people who lived there their whole lives? Perhaps not. Perhaps they would recognise some aspect of their lives but be confused by an emphasis or examination. It does seem like a genuine reflection of Clift’s experience – an an ex-pat Australian, a writer, a woman who didn’t quite fit the expected mould of womanhood on the island.
I’m inspired to buy this in hard copy if I come across it.
I read a very abridged version of Beowulf ages ago. I’ve watched that appalling Christoper Lambert film, because Christoper Lambert, but I haven’t seen the Angelina Jolie one. And most recently I read The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley and fell madly in love with it (it’s roughly a modern imagining of the poem).
Then I heard Headley had done a translation of Beowulf. And then I listened to The Writer and the Critic talk about both Headley books, and they reminded me to buy the translation. Of course, after watching The Dig, it was finally time to read it.
What an absolute joy.
The best way to give you a sense of how Headley has approached the translation is to use the example that a lot of people have pointed to, and with good reason: her translation of Hwaet. This word has been translated several dozen different ways over the years. It’s kind of a placeholder “pay attention!” word; I use ‘so’ and ‘all right’. You might use ‘look’, or archaically ‘lo’, or ‘behold’. Headley? Oh, she uses “Bro”.
Translation is always of its time, even if you’re trying to be anachronistically archaic. Headley has fully embraced the fact that this was published just into the 21st century, so there’s supermodern language – stan and swole and hashtag: blessed – that sometimes feels startling but always appropriate. Simultaneously, she has totally gone in for the ideas of rhythm and rhyme and alliteration found in the original:
The nails were notorious, hard as though
smith-forged, and the heathen’s hand
was callused as a carpenter’s, weathered
by work and warring (lines 985-88).
The above paragraph, by the way, is indicative of the fact that reading the Introduction to this book is highly recommended. You could, of course, go straight into the poem – of course you could. For me, though, knowing about Headley’s approach to the whole concept of translating this thousand-year-old poem, how she considered language and the gendered problems with considering Grendel’s mother, deepened my appreciation for her word choices and the entire enterprise.
The poem Beowulf centres, mostly, on the hero Beowulf, who slays the “monster” Grendel, and Grendel’s mother when she seeks vengeance… and he then goes on to be king for decades (that bit’s largely skipped over in the poem), before battling a dragon when he’s too old for that kind of shit. So in a sense it’s a heroic poem. On the podcast Backlist, though, the claim was made that it’s the original horror story too – Grendel coming in the night to kill men in their sleep, and no one can stop him. There’s also the aspect that it’s a meditation on the notion of kingship, and heroism, and masculinity… honestly there’s a reason that there are many dozens of translations and endless journal articles. There’s a lot to talk about.
I’m not a massive reader of poetry, so if you’re put off by the poetry I would say this one is worth a go. The ideas, the language – it’s just enchanting. And I would also recommend doing it the way I did: give yourself a couple of hours and read the whole thing straight through. You get into a rhythm with the language, you get into the zone of the Danes and Geats being all macho, and you follow the thread of Beowulf from hero to death.
I’m so glad Headley was convinced to do this.
Many years ago I randomly came across a book by Tim Severin – I think it was either his Jason or his Ulysses voyage. I was immediately in love: this was a man who takes a mythical journey, makes a ship according to what can be understood of the shipbuilding techniques from the time of the myth, and then sets out to recreate said journey. His point being to see what’s feasible, and to investigate to what extent aspects of the original journey can be matched up to what can be seen today (where ‘today’ is the 1970s, mostly).
Ever since that first encounter, I have sporadically checked secondhand shops to find more Tim Severin books like that first one. I’ve found a few – one of his first travelogues is following the tracks of Marco Polo by motorbike, undertaken long enough ago that he was able to get through Afghanistan but not into China. And just this year I finally came across The Brendan Voyage.
I had never heard of St Brendan and the stories about him and a few monks going to sea in a leather boat (a currach), and visiting various islands, on a voyage lasting months – in the 6th century AD. Severin does a good job of recounting the key points of the story, to give an indication of what he’s trying to emulate.
The first step must be to make the boat, and that in itself is a feat: he literally wants to go sailing in the Atlantic in a boat basically made of leather. Wooden struts, yes, but the hull just… cured leather. Before any construction, therefore, there’s research into what sort of leather and how it can work. Honestly I loved the story of the voyage, but I also really enjoyed the story of just finding the people to make the boat in the first place.
Clearly, the boat is eventually constructed, and the small crew sets out. And here I really appreciated Severin’s skill as a narrator: he doesn’t try to give a day-by-day account, when that’s not necessary. Instead, he gives a great sense of the overall vibe of the thing, and it’s genuinely gripping. After all, the boat is tiny, and we are talking the Atlantic here. As with the Jason and Ulysses stories, Severin is interested to see whether their journey can match up some of the odder, more mythical aspects of the Brendan story, and in many instances I think he makes a fair case. There is no doubt that the achievements of that little boat are remarkable – and show what could have been done by an even more experienced crew, back in the day.
Last year, I got to fulfil one of my longest-held, quite esoteric, dreams.
I got to visit Sutton Hoo.
I have been fascinated by this place for longer than I can remember. It’s the site of a ship burial and other grave mounds from the Anglo-Saxon period, and the origin of some of the most beautiful archaeological pieces dug up in England. Every time I’ve been to England I’ve wanted to visit, and it’s just never worked out. But this time – this time I made it work.
Making it work wasn’t easy. We had to catch two trains – one from Cambridge to Ipswich, and then another to Melton, the closest station. Except on the day we were travelling, our train to Ipswich was cancelled, so we caught a train to Ely in order to get a different train going to Ipswich. Ely is in the completely opposite direction from Melton. All of this took a bit over 2 hours.
Notice I said “we”. For reasons that are still beyond my ken, my friend living in Cambridge decided to accompany me, as did her somewhat-bemused husband whom I had known for exactly seven minutes at this point.
From the Melton station it’s about a half-hour walk to Sutton Hoo. Through a village, and then along a main road with dubious pedestrian access. But then… oh, then.
You see this, a replica of the ship that was buried. And you see the visitor’s centre with its replicas of the great treasures – all of which are now in the British Museum, because the original owner of the property made them a gift; which means I’ve seen the helmet and the shield and every else a number of times. But now I was actually there, where they were found. It’s fair to say my friends thought I was a bit off my nut.
Usually, I understand, visitors get to go up an observation tower, to see the grave mounds from on high. But this was unavailable on the day we visited. Instead, we got to walk amongst the grave mounds themselves – something that is usually not allowed, and won’t be allowed again. So that was remarkable. The whole setting is remarkable, and glorious. And I finally got there.
All of this came back to mind when I watched The Dig on Netflix. I was astonished, to be honest, that the story of an archaeological dig got made into a film with relatively big names – Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan – and has had a fair bit of press. Maybe here in Australia I don’t appreciate that the British public actually does know about the finds there? I also didn’t know there was a novel about it, which is the source material for the film. They couldn’t film at Sutton Hoo – it’s open all year – but it certainly felt to me that they recreated the area well. And I know that aspects are dramatised; much of the personal friction is narrative rather than history. But the fact that they showed archaeologists being meticulous – no Indys here – and the excitement about tiny pieces of iron or gold was just wonderful. The entire film, in fact, is beautifully made. And the story, too – a meditation on death and the place of humans in history and the cosmos (the Fiennes character, Basil Brown, is also an amateur astronomer… well, “amateur”; he wrote about astronomical maps and atlases). The events are very consciously placed in the eve of WW2 – there’s constant reference to war coming, men being called up, and so on – which adds that extra layer of immediacy, needing to get on with things, and also of extraordinary events occurring: the find, and the war. Plus the illness of Edith Pretty, instigator of the whole dig.
Highly, highly recommended as a film. And if you are in, or can get to, England – go visit Sutton Hoo.
I found this book in a secondhand shop, in the travel writing section, when I was well in the mood for reading travel narratives. I figured a travel book that also discussed ancient history and mythology would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, the shop and the blurb are both a bit misleading: while Slattery does include some travel as part of the book, this is much more about having adventures in reading and thinking about ‘the ancient world’ rather than the travel itself. So that was one disappointment.
Overall, I think I mostly enjoyed the book. As that statement suggests, I am ambivalent – was while reading, still am. On the one hand, the cover irks me. It’s so … unnecessary. I assume part of the point is to make the mythology and history seem more real, vibrant, and let’s face it alluring, than might otherwise be supposed. But the original sculptor was already all about the male gaze and sexualising the statue; adding the tan lines feels gratuitous. And then there’s the fact that half her face is chopped off! There’s also the fact that Slattery’s whole purpose is to extol the benefits of reading ‘the classics’ and that access to such things should be available to all (in opposition to the old English-style curriculum where only toffy boys got access to Latin and Ancient Greek). In theory I have no problem with teaching about Stoicism and so on. But the problem starts when you then move further along that line and suggest it’s the only history worth knowing. Slattery doesn’t do that, but it’s a not hard to take his arguments and get to that point. It is, of course, largely male-dominated… unless you’re talking about Aphrodite, or throw in a brief reference to Sappho or Penelope.
I did not, though, hate the book. There were some really interesting bits! I liked the discussion of Apollo and Delphi and Pythia and Dionysus – although I feel Slattery missed an opportunity in not discussing the possible origins of Apollo and Dionysus, given Apollo is thought to have originated as an Eastern god, and Dionysus as more solidly home-grown ‘Greek’ (for all the problems with that word in the ancient world). The chapter about Ithaca was probably my favourite because it conformed most to what I was expecting, and wanting at the time: Slattery on Ithaca itself, and musing on The Odyssey, and the archaeological evidence for Odysseus on Ithaca, and how modern inhabitants feel about it.
I feel that this book probably only works for someone with at least some basic knowledge of Greek myth – although maybe I’m wrong, and Slattery explains things well enough for the complete novice. My knowledge of Stoicism and Epicurean ideas has never been that thorough and he does explain those in a way that I could understand.
As well, the book’s only 15 years old but I’m just not sure that it would get published today – in fact I was surprised to see that it came out in 2005, because it felt… older. And I think the lack of women has a lot to do with that. Plus, Slattery makes a case that the ancient Greek world had many things we value today – religious tolerance, being cosmopolitan, what he calls “Homeric impartiality” (the fact Hektor is the greatest hero in The Iliad despite not being Greek, and I am completely unconvinced about this demonstrating impartiality). Therefore, “we” can learn from the classics. I am unconvinced, even after reading the book, that that’s true. Partly because of the completely different contexts, and partly for vaguer feelings that this logic just doesn’t quite follow.