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.
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.
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.
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.)