William Moulston Marston was many things: a psychologist who took credit for inventing the lie detector machine, a failed academic who kept bouncing from school to school, a supporter of women's rights, a man who ended up in a happy triad, a man who insisted that his bondage activities were strictly scientific, and the creator of Wonder Woman.

Jill Lapore's recent book delves into a lot of this, and also into the history of the U.S. feminist and birth control movements. The third member of Marston's triad, Olive Byrne, happened to be a niece of birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Byrne's mother went on hunger strikes to support the movement; this, and watching Marston write her books, made quite an impression on her. Much of the imagery of the early Wonder Woman comics - the breaking out of chains, the ropes, the lassos - came in part from early feminist cartoons, and in part from Olive Byrne. The bracelets Wonder Woman wears are hers.

That's all the nice scholarly part so that you can feel good about reading the book and that you learned something. The fun stuff is all of the gossipy stuff about Marston, his wife Elizabeth Holloway, his lover Olive Byrne, and the triad they set up and concealed. This includes great stuff about the way Marston used both of them to write little articles saying how amazing Marston was, the trials of running their household, since generally speaking only Holloway earned a reliable income, their kids, and oh yes, the bondage. Holloway, in many ways, took over the traditional role of the husband, Byrne functioned in the more traditional "wife" roles, while working as a freelance writer, and Marston continued to have issues. And Wonder Woman joined the Justice League as a secretary. (Reading that I became much more resigned to the current new 52 Wonder Woman/Superman relationship.)

It's a fascinating and lavishly illustrated read, if, somehow, a little sparse, especially once Marston died, and Wonder Woman was passed to other authors. Part of the problem is, as Lapore acknowledges, it's not really all that easy to figure out who wrote various issues of Wonder Woman - although the issues that featured a lot of chained up women tend to be Marston's. It's also fascinating to see the reactions of DC editors to all of this sort of stuff, and the way Marston left specific information in his scripts explaining just how long all of the chains had to be. (It was his thing.) Unfortunately, after Marston's death, we get a lot less of this behind the scenes creative stuff, which is a disappointment, but then again, Wonder Woman's later creators don't seem to have been as interesting, or as influential.
A few weeks back, [personal profile] supergee discussed Call Me Burroughs, a new biography by Barry Miles of influential Beat Generation writer William Burroughs, using it to raise the fascinating question of whether an artist's work can allow us to overlook his or her life. It sounded like exactly the sort of juicy, gossipy biography that I love, so I got the book from the library as soon as I could. This may or may not have been a good thing. The biography is detailed, gripping, enthralling in more than one section. It also left me feeling faintly to seriously unclean as I read. This was a book I had to put down frequently.

Cutting because although I think all of this is important, it also got much longer than I anticipated. Rant ahead. Also, brief mentions of child abuse and animal torture. You've been warned. )
Ah, Victorian England: prim, proper and also touched by the occasionally horribly gruesome murder of a three year old, as detailed in Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which I just finished and highly recommend.

But first, a bit of a rant: throughout the internet and on other forums, I keep coming across the insistent myth that the labor force greatly changed in the 1960s when women started to work outside the home and/or in professional jobs for the first time.

And then I read books like this one, discussing events in 1860 and the later 19th century, where nearly every woman discussed or mentioned in the book at one point or another held down full time jobs – most for their entire lives.

These included, I need to add, middle class women. And a woman convicted of murdering a child.

The jobs varied. The second Mrs. Kent worked full time as a governess and housekeeper before marrying her employer. Once married, she employed three young women in their 20s as full time servants: a cook, a housemaid and a nursemaid, and also hired a fourteen year old girl to come in and assist the nursemaid on a daily basis and a charwoman to handle the heaviest cleaning. Even with these servants, and with sending the laundry out on a weekly basis, the evidence given at the trial shows that her two oldest step-daughters, technically members of the middle class, continued to do significant amounts of physical labor with household chores – preparing food, running errands, carrying the laundry, cleaning, helping to supervise their younger siblings, doing the household sewing (apparently no small task) and other jobs. They later worked full time as governesses and nurses.

It is possible that these servants were slow, lazy, inefficient workers, which is why the household (a three story home described as "comfortable") needed so many of them and still needed the oldest girls to help out? Maybe, but Mr. Kent never hesitated to fire unsatisfactory servants, and even in the midst of a murder investigation, no one accused the cook and the housemaid of not staying busy and working. The same went for the oldest two girls. The nursemaid was accused of sleeping around and not immediately reporting a missing child – but one reason she didn't report the kid's absence was that she had so many tasks to do in the morning.

Outside the household, we see women working as bakers, as novelists, as skilled, professional naturalists and watercolorists focused on creating scientific books, actresses, singers, nurses, artists, schoolmistresses, laundresses, governesses, innkeepers, boarding house managers, and seamstresses.

Even the convicted murderer worked as a skilled artist in mosaics – her work is still displayed – and later as a highly skilled, trained and greatly respected nurse.

The exceptions? A wife who seems to have been too sick to work, the first Mrs. Kent, and various thieves and prostitutes. If we put "prostitution" under "job," the percentage of women working full time increases.

Look, I don't want to sugarcoat things. The types of jobs available to women were clearly limited. At no point does anyone suggest that one of the Kent girls can go and study marine biology with William Saville-Kent at the British Museum or Brighton Aquaria, for instance (although both of his wives later helped him with his work). The detectives and police are all men; the lawyers, judges, and members of the jury are all men; the doctors are all men; the government employees are all men; the major religious figures (with the exception of one Anglican nun) are all men; the journalists are all men; the politicians are all men. And so on. The women who did manage to work as novelists, scientists and artists on their own were clearly limited in their options – Constance Kent eventually gave up mosaic art for the more lucrative nursing profession which based on her possessions when she died was not all that lucrative. (She may also have had other reasons for giving up mosaic art beyond money.) It is also clear that most of these jobs were very badly paid: at one point, people point out that one of these working women, a seamstress, is near starvation because her job pays so little money. It's very clear from contemporary reports that working as a nursemaid – or at least Mrs. Kent's nursemaid – was a thankless job even if you didn't end up getting suspected of murder. But it was work, paid work, and it is fully documented in the historical records.

And of course, the history of women is not particularly linear – at any given decade in history, women might be doing very well in one place, and not at all well in another place. Louisa May Alcott made some pointed observations on the roles of married women in the 19th century United States, comparing them, not all that kindly, to women in 19th century France. It gets even more complicated when we look at other eras where the historical record is more scanty, or non-European cultures where some of the underlying principles differed. And even in those cases we see variation: the roles and rights enjoyed by women seem to have varied from city to city in the ancient Roman Empire, for example, if the documents we have are any guide – including documents often very hostile to women.

But what I do want to counter is the idea that women just began to enter the labor force in the 1960s, since this is not borne out by the historical records.

What makes this particularly notable is that this is not even a focus of this book, which is interested in how Victorians viewed detectives, not women's labor. The jobs are mentioned casually – in part because they were taken for granted by contemporaries. Victorians did worry about governesses and servants and allowing these outsiders into the inner sphere, and worried about whether or not they were effective (since most of the first Mrs. Kent's children died young, and since the second Mrs. Kent lost a child to murder despite having two servants specifically directed to care for her children, this worry apparently had a pretty valid basis). But for all of the mythology that the Victorians believed that a woman's place was in the home, they also accepted that women could and did work.

Ok. Rant over. Back to the book, which is actually a lot more interesting than I just made it sound since it's about murder not Victorian employment options. Summerscale uses the evidence given at the various trials and investigations and newspaper interviews to reconstruct what happened in the home of the Kents on Friday, June 29. Or at least the agreed upon details, since by the following morning, Saville Kent, the three year son of the household, a cute if occasionally mischievous child, was found brutally murdered, throat sliced through, stuffed into an outdoor privy.

Suspicions immediately fell on the nursemaid, who did not immediately report that the child was missing. The nursemaid countered that she had assumed the kid had gone to his mother (another child did sleep in the parents' bedroom). Many assumed that Mr. Kent was sleeping with the nursemaid – he had, after all, married the governess of his oldest child. Rumors ran rampant. Scotland Yard sent one of its first detectives, a Mr. Whicher, to investigate. Mr. Whicher had another theory: the murderer was the young teenage Constance Kent.

As I noted, Summerscale's main interest here is in murder, and in the development of the detective in both a literary and real life sense. The Kent murder mesmerized the British press and many readers, who all turned themselves into amateur detectives, much like the Casey Anthony trial would years later. It also helped to inspire a number of mystery and sensation novels, eventually leading to the great Golden Age of detective fiction.

And it also offers a mystery for contemporary readers to solve. After all, someone did eventually confess to doing the murder – but did she? Or was she covering for someone else, or deciding to sacrifice her life to save an otherwise innocent person under suspicion?

Summerscale doesn't say, since it's impossible to tell, which may leave readers somewhat unsatisfied – but there's enough here for anyone to create a theory, not to mention a variety of other tidbits.

Bonus: a sidenote here is the biography of early marine biologist William Saville-Kent, who studied, drew, painted and categorized numerous species in Australia's Great Barrier Reef for the first time. His work The Great Barrier Reef was a standard reference book for years; you can still find it in many research libraries. (I've seen a copy although Pacific corals, not my field/thing.) He also liked owls. Those with an interest in this sort of thing, or in the history of cultured pearls, might want to check this book out just for this (I'll be honest, that's why I picked up the book) even though, as said, it's sidelined.
Royal mistresses are often given a bad rap. After all, by definition they are either engaged in adultery or enjoying (or enduring) decidedly outside of marriage sex with little hope for marriage. Beyond this, many such women are accused of acting solely out of greed: why else, after all, would anyone sleep with a prince or a king? To be fair, in some cases, said prince or king may not exactly be a model of good looks (Charles II, anyone?) even when the contemporaries of said prince or king (Charles II, again) assure us that whatever we might think of their looks, they were very very hot and sexy. (Hi, Charles II.) Still, given that many royal mistresses received jewelry or titles or money or estates from their lovers, this greed thing might not be completely unfounded.

But what happens when the royal mistress is the one financially supporting her lover?

Dora of many, many last names depending on the circumstances, but generally known by her stage name of Mrs. Jordan, was one of the most successful actresses of the English stage in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Primarily known for her work in comedy and her Shakespearean roles, she worked a punishing schedule, often performing two plays per night in front of large audiences (her primary London theatre could seat 2000 people) or doing exhausting road shows. Thanks to her popularity, she could, and did, command very high salaries; she also wrote music and helped write plays. She became known for championing plays written by women, and was talented enough that she could continue to play teenagers even when she was decidedly no longer in that category. What makes this particularly astonishing is that she did this while seemingly constantly pregnant: she bore at least 14 living children and reportedly also suffered multiple miscarriages. She typically worked right up to the point of giving birth, and took very short maternity leaves, often bringing whatever child she was nursing to work and sometimes even on stage. I mean, I hurt just thinking about this.

Her first pregnancy was apparently the result of what we would now call sexual harassment. This was before she had earned her later popularity, and Dora at the time had no money and only limited social connections; also, she was illegitimate herself. That pregnancy also forced her to take the name "Mrs. Jordan" (socially a "Miss" could not be so heavily pregnant, although the lack of a "Mr. Jordan" was an open secret.) Dora adored her little daughter. It's very possible that, however negative that first experience, the fact that she had been able to continue to work through and after the socially unsanctioned pregnancy encouraged her to have later relationships without the benefit of marriage. Or, more likely, she just fell in love.

One of these later lovers was the Duke of Clarence, third son of George III, later to become King William IV. In these pre-king days, the Duke of Clarence had very little to do: he spent some time in the Navy, and then was taken out of it for the fun of just hanging around and not doing much. Shockingly, when you have nothing to do, you end up spending a lot of money, and arguably one reason the Duke stayed with Dora was that she often paid his bills, and continued to pay her own. After all, she had more money than he did.

Despite his debts, they seem to have been very happy: they had a large house on the country (Dora commuted, often having to stay in town) and the Duke was very kind to Dora's children who weren't his (three of them) and Dora in turn was very kind to the Duke's son who wasn't hers (one of them.) When not together (because of her work obligations) they wrote each other constantly and affectionately. Until, that is, the Duke dumped her.

By this point Dora was turning fifty. The Duke was still in debt, and so Dora remained the main breadwinner for their family and their children. The boys started military careers at what we would consider horribly young ages (14, 11, and so on). The girls stayed with their father, but king's son or not, money was tight, and they continually begged Dora for money. A son-in-law cheated Dora out of money just as her health started to decline – she had, after all, been working a demanding job for decades, even beyond all the childbearing. Now deeply in debt, and unable to continue working the same schedule, she fled to Paris – close, she hoped, to one of her military sons – and died in poverty. Not exactly the royal mistress makes out big sort of story.

Claire Tomalin's Mrs Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the Prince is a delightfully gossipy biography of Mrs. Jordan that tells you all the important things, like, who was sleeping with whom, and how an attack of black beetles can attack even the best of households, and the circumstances leading up to court martials, and suicides, drug abuse, actresses, bigamous marriages (well, ok, just one) and other scandals. It could have benefited from slightly better copyediting – I caught a few typos and grammatical errors, and one of the footnotes claims that Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was Lady Harriet Bessborough's younger sister; it was quite the other way around. But still, quite a lot of fun, and if you've been reading my Georgette Heyer posts and want to know more of the background, recommended.


Jul. 5th, 2013 06:30 pm
Brad Rizza's Super Boys tells the story of writer Jerry Siegel and his best friend artist Joe Shuster, who together created Superman. It didn't benefit them much. Infamously, as Rizza details, Siegel and Shuster were so desperate to get their creation in print that they sold the rights to Superman for a pathetically low amount, and later, worn down and weary, accepted a very low settlement for the rights to Superboy during a long lawsuit that might have won them more cash.

It's a fairly depressing read. Siegel and Shuster were the sons of Jewish immigrants, something Rizza finds significant but then really doesn't know what to do with, who met in high school. Discovering a mutual love of science fiction and horror movies, they began to create comics together, starting with Shuster illustrating Siegel's high school stories, and continuing onto real comics. They created several in multiple genres. Superman was their first, and really only, blockbuster success, and it was followed by lawsuits, World War II, more lawsuits, financial problems and a pathetic interview at an early Comic Con where fans helped Siegel lobby Warner Brothers for cash before the release of the 1978 Superman movie. Things even once reached the point where Jerry Seigel attempted to turn his publishers into the FBI. This failed, because the snappily dressed J. Edgar Hoover didn't know who Siegel was.

Siegel did write other things post Superman, going here, there, and everywhere; Rizza, a major Siegel fan, likes many of these later efforts, especially those written for Archie Comics, more than Siegel's publishers did. Shuster had more issues. After watching Siegel walk off with his girlfriend (they later married) in a drama that apparently no one wanted to get on record about, Shuster ended up drawing a lot of pornographic cartoons and sleeping on city streets. Later, he rushed into an apparently none too happy marriage.

So, yeah, not the most pleasant of reads. It's also not helped by the problem that from time to time Rizza seems to have issues distinguishing the early lives of Jerry and Joe, whose families did come from similar backgrounds, and by the fact that at the time of Rizza's writing and interviews, both estates were involved in a bitter lawsuit with Warner Brothers, and were therefore reluctant to speak too much on the record. In some cases, Rizza admits that he's not clear on the timeline, which muddles things further. Also, Rizza's clear hero-worship of Siegel hampers him from time to time: reading through the lines, it's fairly evident that from time to time Siegel was just not a nice man. He went through a nasty divorce and was estranged from his son. (In a nasty twist, the son only contacted Siegel's daughter, his half-sister, over concerns about legal issues with Warner Brothers.) At other times, Siegel could be by all reports generous and kind, but there's stuff there that Rizza doesn't seem to want to deal with.

But the book does have some fun tidbits of information about the early days of science fiction (Hugo Gernsback really treated everyone like crap, didn't he? Can I just pretend that the Hugo Awards are named for Victor Hugo, not him? Thanks muchly), comics, cartoons and the start of San Diego Comic Con. Rizza's done a good job of detailing life in Cleveland between the wars, and if you're at all interested in the history of comics, this is worth a read.
First, thank you to whoever kindly paid to upgrade my Dreamwidth account for two months! It's much appreciated, even as it also served as a reminder that I haven't done that much blogging lately. So on that note...

The recent rather heated chatter about SFWA provided one unexpected benefit: I learned that someone named Robin Roberts had written a semi-official biography of Anne McCaffrey, which I somehow missed when it came out in 2007. I guess I was doing a lot of things. Anyway, I've picked it up now.

I'd say almost everyone reading this blog is familiar with science fiction/fantasy writer Anne McCaffrey, arguably best known for her Pern series, which featured another world filled with telepathic dragons, and for being one of the first science fiction authors to make regular appearances on the New York Times bestseller list. The biography covers this, her early life, her marriage, her relationship with her agent Virginia Kidd, her move to Ireland, and a few other gossipy bits.

It's a somewhat odd biography for a number of reasons. Robin Roberts, the author, appears to have more training in academic writing than popular narrative biography. The biography has several places where the timeline is not at all clear. In addition, I get the sense that she wanted to say more, and couldn't, either for legal or other reasons (not enough documentation.) She's not helped by the fact that many of the people discussed in the biography are still very much alive, or were when she was writing the book, including McCaffrey herself and McCaffrey's ex-husband. * So Roberts gives us a lot of information about agent and editor Virginia Kidd (dead), a nicely salacious story about Isaac Asimov (also dead) at Boskone and a throwaway mention that Marion Zimmer Bradley (also also dead) once hit on McCaffrey and that McCaffrey used to go bar hopping to pick up guys, and then drops back to maddeningly discreet hints about other things, which would be less maddening if not for what was already revealed. Mind you, these hints are almost certainly about considerably less interesting or exciting events, but still.

The perhaps most notable gap is with Betty Ballantine, one of McCaffrey's long time editors, all the more glaring thanks to a chapter liberally quoting McCaffrey's correspondence with Kidd, and a offhand concession that Ballantine, not Kidd, helped shape Dragonquest -- the novel that was to help establish Pern as a series. Since McCaffrey's cowriters are also alive, they, too, feel notably absent, with the arguable exception of Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. This is particularly odd since Roberts suggests that McCaffrey was pressured into these co-written books by editor Bill Fawcett, described by Roberts as "aggressive." I sense Roberts believes that McCaffrey should have spent the last years of her career focusing on her own work instead of these co-written projects, but it seems something that could have been explored more.

Roberts also has some rather odd choices of which of McCaffrey's books and characters to focus on. Killashandra Ree gets several passing mentions, but Roberts never stops to tell readers anything about Crystal Singer or its sequels. None of the Pern novels are examined in any depth. Dragonflight is mentioned several places, but never discussed, odd since based on other parts of the biography, McCaffrey's troubled marriage seems to shed some light on that book, and vice versa. In part this is because Roberts earlier wrote a second book focusing just on McCaffrey's fiction, but the standard for literary biography is to include a couple of paragraphs about the author's major works, and Dragonflight, the first of the Pern novels, would certainly seem to merit that attention here. The books Roberts does discuss tend to be McCaffrey's Gothics. It seems Roberts assumed that most readers of the biography would know McCaffrey's science fiction and fantasy. Pern, certainly; I'm less certain about the rest of McCaffrey's works.

This also results in a surprisingly short book. I thought at 243 pages it was already slim for a biography; finding out that forty of these pages contain an index and endnotes with very wide margins just emphasizes how short the book is.

That said, reading about what influenced McCaffrey as a writer and the struggles she went through was illuminating. McCaffrey had certain advantages: a Radcliffe education, a husband who supported her financially if not emotionally as she started to write; a family that had encouraged wide and deep reading. Against this, she faced major sexism inside and outside the publishing industry (her experiences unquestionably shaped many aspects of the earlier Pern books), an abusive husband, multiple episodes of depression, and severe self-esteem problems, not helped by the sexism. She was a trailblazer, but it was not an easy trail to blaze. It's not mentioned in the biography, but it cannot have helped that just as she finally got fully "established," (if by "established" we mean "New York Times bestseller") she came into criticism for being too popular. Her science fiction was often criticized for not being "scientific" enough, or having too much romance. Interestingly enough, one main criticism I hear now about the Pern books is that the romance in the Pern books really isn't romantic at all, but borderline abusive, especially in the earlier Pern books.

As a writer, I must note that it was more than a bit depressing to read that you can earn the Hugo, Nebula, and New York Times bestsellerdom and still be subject to depression, insomnia, massive doubts about your writing, and financial stress. Sigh. To be fair, the financial stress came largely from McCaffrey's legendary financial generosity, so legendary that although it's not mentioned here, at Dragoncon in the late 90s and 2001 unsourced rumor had it that McCaffrey's entourage – her three children, agents, editors and assistants – deliberately vetted fans for financial problems to ensure that McCaffrey wouldn't get taken in by another sob story. From the biography these rumors seem to be greatly exaggerated, but McCaffrey certainly did help out multiple family members, and the biography blames her multiple and not always successful collaborations with various midlist authors in the 1990s on this same generosity. Still.

One minor warning: one or two minor editing issues slipped through here and there. For instance, after continually referring to McCaffrey's elder brother as Hugh throughout most of the book, Roberts suddenly and without explanation calls him "Mac," which leads to a bit of confusion. It's still worth picking up if you're interested in a brief read about one of science fiction's trailblazers.

* Incidentally, this is also the first biography I've read where I can confidently say I've met many of the people mentioned.

Going Clear

Mar. 7th, 2013 11:53 am
Some science fiction writers spend their time sending off hopeful submission after hopeful submission hoping to rake in the money. Others, after a few years of this, say, screw this. I'm starting a religion.

Ok, maybe just one went with option two.

L. Ron Hubbard seems to have led a colorful life before deciding to go the religion route. I say, seems, because as Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief notes, the details of Hubbard's early life are not entirely clear and may have been partly made up. It appears, however, that Hubbard did spend a lot of time travelling, was at least in the military (disputes about his military record form a large section of his book), was extremely successful at selling science fiction to pulp magazines, was abysmal to at least two of his three wives (and according to this book cheated extensively on all three of them), made friends with various science fiction writers and enemies of others (the quotes from L. Sprague de Camp are among the book's highlights) and founded a religion. Of sorts.

One reason Scientology has had issues obtaining official "religious" status is that many of its elements do seem to come from pure space opera – not surprisingly, given Hubbard's background. Wright details the more, um, interesting of these, while also noting that the earlier stages of Scientology – the ones advertised in those endless Dianetics commercials years back, have a combined quasi scientific and "Buddhist" feel. (I'm not sure that either Wright or Hubbard knows much about Buddhism.) The whole "reading" thing (to really oversimplify and risk the wrath of Scientologists, a machine that "reads" your energy as you kinda work through your memories and your problems going "up" various levels until, as the book's title has it, you are "clear,") is encased in scientific wording; the reincarnation is...well, it's not really Buddhism; the space opera stuff is pure pulp fiction. Ahem.

(Sidenote: MS Word is ok with Scientology, but not Dianetics. JUST SAYING.)

This science fiction background helps explain why John Campbell, editor of Astounding for one, was an early adherent. Heinlein, however, was more skeptical, and eventually even Campbell backed off. But the science fiction writers backed off for multiple reasons. Scientology thrived, as Wright documents, by finding adherents in Hollywood, and by taking many of its most devoted followers on ships where they could be more easily controlled. In Wright's version – and in the testimony of many ex-Scientologists – the Scientologists engaged in frequent physical and emotional abuse of its members and engaged in techniques similar to brain washing (although Wright also notes some skepticism about whether or not brainwashing actually exists.) Top Scientologists within the church hierarchy enjoyed luxuries not available to others. They became, in the terms of many, a cult (many anthropologists reading the book will be banging their heads against the nearest wall when they reach that point of the book, but moving on). Defenders noted that some of their critiqued behaviors are at least superficially similar to some groups within the Catholic Church, which has a history of indulging some of its top leaders (hi, Vatican) and practicing self-flagellation in some groups. And, of course, Scientology could offer the hope of making connections in Hollywood.

It's easy to see why the Church of Scientology objects to this book. Wright scrupulously includes comments from multiple people, perhaps most notably Kristie Alley, who claim to have been helped by Scientology, and discusses Narconon, a Scientology program many people credit with breaking their drug addictions. Wright also scrupulously notes multiple denials from the Church and from various lawyers for John Travolta and Tom Cruise. (It's safe to say that Travolta and Cruise's attorneys would still not be happy with the final result.) But these denials and legal statements are generally buried in footnotes, and some of the more questionable negative stories about Scientology, like this one:
David Mayo was sent to the RPF. He was made to run around a pole in the searing desert for twelve hours a day, until his teeth fell out.
are presented without skepticism. The endnote for this anecdote credits an interview with Bent Corydon, a biographer who worked with Hubbard's estranged son Ronald DeWolf to write a biography that the Church of Scientology strongly disputes. I'm willing to admit that running around a pole in the searing desert for twelve hours could cause all sorts of medical issues, but unless David Mayo had prior major dental issues (the text doesn't say) I don't think that teeth falling out is one of them. "Collapse" or "death," sure. Teeth falling out....maybe not.

And although attorneys for Cruise and Travolta apparently reviewed sections of the book (and objected), other attorneys and celebrities did not, most notably Kristie Alley and two of Cruise's wives, Nicole Kidman and Katie Holmes. Given that Alley was reportedly a witness to some of the events Wright mentions, and Kidman and Holmes form a part of the allegations against Cruise in this book, this seems a bit odd. (None of the three are portrayed in a negative light; it just seems odd.)

Wright has one or two odd moments elsewhere. For instance, in his comparison of Scientology and the Catholic Church (specifically Franciscan friars), he claims that unlike Scientologists, Franciscans can enter or leave their orders without needing to cut off contact with friends and family. This has not always historically been true. (And going beyond the Franciscans, it's not always true today for some enclosed orders.) It's a minor slip, but it makes me wonder what other minor slips are in there. And from a narrative point of view, it might have been better to tell the story in a straightforward way, rather than beginning with screenwriter Paul Haggis, going back in time to Hubbard's life, then forward to Haggis, then back to Hubbard and so on. It's not particularly difficult to follow; it just made the book feel, how do I put this? More literary and less detached. I was also annoyed by Wright's continued avoidance of the word "bisexual" – come on, Wright, it's 2013. Some people are gay, some people are straight, some people are John Travolta, and some people are bisexual.

I suspect most of you will be intrigued by all of the Hollywood gossip – I felt new levels of compassion for Kidman and Holmes (I told you Cruise's attorney would not like this book.) Speculative fiction writers, on the other hand, may be more interested in the tidbits at the beginning of the book – the bits where Hubbard is hanging out with the Heinleins and Campbell and so on. Also the bits where Hubbard seems to have been involved with a group that took its guidance from Alistair Crowley, because, you know, Satanism. This is all great stuff and frankly I found the IRS battles and the Hollywood gossip, even with the brainwashings, forced separation from spouses, parading potential spouses in front of Tom Cruise and so on kinda boring in comparison. My quibbles aside, fascinating read. Recommended.
Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: the Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale

In 1858, Victorian courts finally made it a little easier and a little less expensive for unhappy couples to obtain a divorce – if only a little. Rather than requiring an Act of Parliament, petitioners could instead have their cases heard by a panel of judges, or even a jury. Divorce still remained difficult to obtain: men had to prove that their wives had committed adultery, or at least been seen to enter a room with another man and stay within that room for some time. Women had to prove not merely adultery, but also at least one additional problem: severe physical abuse, incest, sodomy, bestiality, bigamy or cruelty. Cruelty and physical abuse, then as now, was a matter of opinion; sodomy and incest difficult to prove. Bigamy rarely came up. Nonetheless, this double standard at least gave women the right to try to obtain a divorce – and the new law also made it slightly easier for men to prove adultery, and thus leave their marriages, to the shock and horror of many Victorians, who recognized the frequent perils of marriage, particularly those marriages made for economic reasons (many of them) but worried about the effects on society should the bonds of marriage collapse.

The well to do Mrs. Isabella Robinson was one of the women deeply affected by the new laws. This was her second marriage. Her first, to a considerably older man, had ended with his death. Her husband left her a child but no money, and although she had some potential money from a potential inheritance, she was for all intents and purposes left as a dependent on her parents. This perhaps helps to explain her second marriage, to Henry Robinson, a successful and well to do civil engineer. Mr. Robinson, in turn, was probably attracted in part by Isabella's wealthy family and her extensive connections – one cousin had married a son of William Wordsworth, for instance, connecting her to the intellectual set, and other relatives mingled in high society. Mrs. Robinson's family settled some bonds upon her to help her financially; Henry Robinson, following the law, was able to claim the bonds and the rest of her money as his own.

The marriage ran into difficulties shortly thereafter, partly thanks to a lack of shared interests, partly because, as Mrs. Robinson discovered, her husband was not exactly the faithful sort, and ended up fathering at least two illegitimate daughters, and partly because, reading through the lines of Mrs. Robinson's diaries, their sex life sucked. They had two sons, and then apparently stopped sleeping together, or stopped sleeping together very much. Mrs. Robinson had a vague diagnosis of a "uterine disorder." The unhappy Mrs. Robinson soon began developing severe crushes on other men – in some cases, they might be called fixations – despite knowing that this was against the codes of her society. She enjoyed "exciting caresses" with at least one, a popular, married doctor who ran a health spa visited by many, including Darwin, and may possibly have slept with this doctor or with others. (In classic overwrought Victorian style Mrs. Robinson drew a veil over the damning details.) That was scandalous enough. But the real scandal was that she wrote the details down in her diary.

When her husband found the diary, he was furious and decided to obtain a divorce, however expensive, using the diary as a witness to her adultery, which should have been grounds for a divorce under the new law. Unfortunately for him, his case ran into two slight snags. First, the doctor denied everything, claiming that Mrs. Robinson's diary entries were nothing more than delusions. Second, no one, but no one, could believe that a woman would admit to adultery, much less write it down. Only two explanations were possible: Mrs. Robinson was insane, or, she had made it all up. Possibly as a draft for a popular novel. In any case, the very fact that she had written down the details of her adultery and her longing for the embraces of other men and her obsession with said other men was very proof that it hadn't happened. The divorce petition was denied.

Summerscale does an admirable job of presenting Mrs. Robinson's story evenhandedly, setting it in the context of changing Victorian views of gender relations, sexuality, and masturbation. She hints that part of Mrs. Robinson's problem may have been that she was unable, thanks to her class and gender, to seek fulfilling employment, although since Mrs. Robinson was also able to publish the occasional poem and essay, I'm not sure how valid this is in her case. I'd say it's more than Mrs. Robinson did have the opportunity to pursue a writing career, but for various reasons, was not successful at it. How much this troubled her is difficult to say, but she did know several successful women novelists of the period, and blamed herself for accomplishing so little. An added problem was Mrs. Robinson's sex drive, which did not vanish just because her husband lost interest in her. Masturbation was regarded as a danger at the time, leaving adultery, or at least hoped for adultery, as one of her only options. The result: a diary so shocking to her contemporaries (not particularly shocking now) that ladies were not allowed to hear it in court and newspapers reporting the story had to resort to careful euphemisms.

Summerscale places Mrs. Robinson's diaries in a literary context, noting, as did others at the time, their relationship to many of the scandalous books of the period, some of which used diary entries as a literary device. (This was one argument for believing that the diaries were complete fiction.) Summerscale also includes several stories of other people of both genders who found themselves trapped by Victorian gender expectations – or confused by how much these expectations were changing. It's a fascinating read, especially for those still wanting to cling to the delightful fantasy of happy, blissful Victorian marriages filled with plenty of children. Those certainly existed – Summerscale details more than one – but even a woman who had certainly enjoyed one – Queen Victoria – could recognize that marriages in the 19th century had their dangers, and that wedding day expectations of happiness were not always fulfilled. Well written and enthralling, and a recommended read.
First, a quick announcement: the upcoming Georgette Heyer reread on Tor.com/Heroes and Heartbreakers that I've been yammering to some of you about really is upcoming – sometime. Sometime soon. It will be accompanying, not replacing, the rereads of children's books, which is going to more than occasionally make me into a cranky [personal profile] mariness (I am decidedly not Jo Walton) but unfortunately, if I didn't do the rereads jointly, I was never going to get around to doing this reread at all. So. The children's books will take priority, so this may end up being an every other week reread. (Again, I am decidedly not Jo Walton.)

Anyway....since that is coming up, I thought it was about time that I actually posted my initial impressions of the recent biography by Jennifer Kloester. Small warning: I read the book and wrote this several months back, so...I actually don't remember even writing this, but here you go:


During her life, author Georgette Heyer was not fond of giving interviews or indeed any information about herself whatsoever; indeed, her readers did not even learn her married name until after her death. Heyer claimed that everything people needed to know could be found in her books, and to a certain extent, that's true. The personality that eventually emerged in those books – a creation in itself – did give a strong portrait of the author. Not that this stopped fans from wanting to know more. After Heyer's death, and in the initial biography from Joan Aiken Hodge (which mostly reads as an apologia for Heyer, and a defiant, yes, yes, Heyer's really good, really, she is, I promise) some details began to emerge.

Despite the impression her later books might have given, Heyer was not an aristocrat, although as a well educated daughter of an upper middle class man she was able to move in some upper class social circles. What she felt there seems to have been best expressed by her later character, Fredericka, who points out, truthfully, that what is acceptable from a daughter of a marquis is considerably less acceptable from a mere "miss." While to a certain extent this reflected genuine attitudes during the Regency period – Lady Caroline Lamb, for one, engaged in some behavior that would be shocking even today, most of which was waved over thanks to her rank and her known indulgent upbringing – Fredericka's statement also ignores the very real truth recorded by Jane Austen: middle class women absolutely engaged in less than proper behavior themselves, and sometimes were even able to re-enter society, to an extent, afterwards. Mary Shelley is probably the best known real life example of this – she did, after all, run off to Europe with a married man, but managed to return to England and regain a slightly respectable life after that. (And also worked full time while raising a child. Yes, that sort of thing also happened in the 19th century.)

Heyer, then, was less reflecting the actual attitudes of Regency England, which certainly allowed its moral lapses – the period is named, after all, for a Regent who married two women bigamously and treated both of them terribly, and who was a model of fiscal imprudence – and more reflecting her own experiences, as someone always on the edge of high society, and never. quite. there.

She tried. She married a thoroughly respectable man – he had trained as a naval officer next to Lord Mountbatten – with ambitions. She travelled to Africa and Macedonia with him, adding the cachet of travel, before insisting that they return home to England. She wrote serious, non genre novels that she hoped would gain her literary respect (for the most part, they did not) and serious historical novels that she hoped would gain her intellectual respect (with one exception, they did not.) She befriended intellectuals, writers and aristocrats.

But she was continually trapped by finances. Her husband had to delay his own professional dreams of becoming a barrister for some years; financial stress kept forcing her to churn out mystery novels (not her strength) and romances (which would slowly become her strength.) The romances frustrated her; the popular ones were the ones featuring the brilliant, witty dialogue that would become her trademark, but their very popularity and humor also ensured that literary critics (mostly male, and suspicious of popular fiction) dismissed her. (Across the pond, Lucy Maud Montgomery experienced the same frustrations.) Her mysteries suffered by appearing next to the masterpieces of Agatha Christie and the thoughtful literary approaches of Dorothy Sayers. Her straight historicals were often boring.

And yet, despite what seems in retrospect terribly obvious, it took her more than twenty years and thirty novels, and a complete failure of a novel she hoped would be received as a serious masterpiece (Penhallow), for her to realize what she was good at writing: witty dialogue. And even then, she was only convinced by comparing her sales receipts. It's both odd and oddly inspiring.

Kloester does an admirable job of tracking this development, although I think she misses one important point: Heyer's mysteries, serious historicals and contemporary novels suffer because she was following literary trends, not creating them. This is not necessarily a bad thing – Agatha Christie, for one, triumphed mostly by staying completely within the expectations of mystery novels. But it was not good for Heyer, who needed to create a place of imagination that she could control, and where she could lead. She found that in the Regency period, a place where she had a certain amount of expertise. Later comparisons between Heyer and Austen completely miss the mark, largely because the two writers were attempting very different things. Austen was critiquing the world she lived in; Heyer was attempting to control hers.

Beyond this, Kloester's biography fills in many other gaps – discussing Heyer's friends and family, exploring her initial attempts at writing, and confirming that Penhallow was actually meant as a serious literary novel (I know, I know.) She also delicately discusses the state of Heyer's marriage and equally delicately confirms what many readers had long thought: Heyer's husband was not always faithful, but Heyer dealt with this. (The unimportance of merely frivolous affairs, compared to a meaningful marriage, is a subtheme of many later books.) She also discusses a certain legal issue between Heyer and Barbara Cartland (Heyer accused Cartland of plagiarism) in a fascinating sideline.

The biography is meticulously researched and well written, and Kloester made the most of her sources. And yet, Heyer remains a distant, private figure. I can't blame Kloester for this: Heyer's walls were so high, and so tight, that she was willing to create an alternate history to keep them solid.


I'll have more to say as the reread starts. For now I go under a rock for a bit.

Roald Dahl

Apr. 27th, 2012 04:13 pm
Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, by Donald Sturrock

Writer Roald Dahl had perhaps two or three calm years in his life, those right after leaving school, when he worked for Shell Oil. Otherwise, his life was crammed with enough incident to fill three dozen biographies: losing a sibling at a young age, getting severely beaten at school, flying, crashing, spying, marrying a Hollywood actress still in love with Gary Cooper, losing a child at the age of seven and watching another beloved child suffer the effects of a horrific accident, nearly losing his first wife to an unexpected major stroke, sleeping with various famous and beautiful women, conducting a years long affair with the woman who would become his second wife, and, of course, writing books.

It's a lot. To his credit, Donald Sturrock manages to get most of this into this fairly long book, in a dispassionate, clear way. Sometimes too dispassionately: Roald Dahl was, by the accounts related in this book, brutal to his wife after her stroke as he pushed her towards recovery, but Sturrock almost bends over backwards to absolve the guy. He deals with Dahl's pain at losing his eldest daughter – a child both parents later idealized – almost clinically. And because Dahl's son Theo, who suffered a terrible accident with resulting brain damage, is still alive and helped contribute to the book, many issues with Theo are notably glossed over, with the focus mostly on how the accident increased Dahl's interest in brain shunts.

Dealing with Dahl's shifting attitudes towards race is another place where Sturrock struggles – partly because Dahl did. He accepted the concept of British superiority while living in Africa, but later changed his mind and argued for racial equality. When he was accused of racist attitudes in the first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory he was horrified, but swiftly agreed to changes after the NCAAP pointed out the problems with the original depictions of the Oompa-Loompas, in a case of unintentional but institutional, unthinking racism. (He had originally planned to make Charlie, its young protagonist, black.) He had several Jewish friends, but did not think kindly of the Zionist movement or various Israeli leaders and said various offensive things. And so on.

A book like this almost invariably becomes a gripping read, even despite – or because of – the name dropping that was the result of Dahl's years of work in DC as a diplomat and a spy, and later his life with his actress wife, split between Hollywood and England. (After her stroke, Frank Sinatra stopped by. That sort of thing.) It also becomes a question of choosing which story might be true: Dahl changed his retellings of past events frequently, and his first wife disputed many of his versions – but disputed these versions after the stroke which by all accounts changed her personality and severely disrupted her memory. Other issues, particularly Dahl's work as a spy, remain classified. Sturrock does his best to reconstruct events; where he cannot, he quotes liberally from interviews with various people who knew Dahl.

Dahl was notorious for fighting with editors, agents and publishers; friends, family members and neighbors; and Britain's Inland Revenue. (I have to note that one common thread in all biographies of writers who lived and published in Britain in the post-World War II years: fighting with Inland Revenue.) But he was also notorious for unexpected and fabulous acts of generosity, of loyalty to friends, and above all, the ability to entertain children.

I'm not exactly sure when I'll be reaching the Roald Dahl books in the Tor.com reread projects – and I won't be reading all of them – but this was a good introduction to the imagination behind them.
Have I really let about two years pass without a discussion of a Tudor biography? Yes? How awful. Let's catch up, with some chatter about Alison Weir's Mary Boleyn, Henry VIII's mistress – and the sister of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, executed after a few years of married life, since by that point Henry VIII wanted to make the ending of that marriage very, very final.

If you're unfamiliar with Alison Weir, she's a biographer who in the last couple of decades has made a nice career out of writing biographies of British royals, primarily from the Tudor period. Her works are usually competently written and well footnoted. But all of this time spent in Tudor archives has created one slight problem that has appeared in previous books: Weir has developed a hatred for Anne Boleyn, which keeps spilling over into other works, and makes it particularly difficult for her to write an unbiased biography of her sister.

Weir does try, and, more so than in her other books, provides alternative viewpoints or explanations, giving due weight to previous scholars and novelists (I suspect she's received several questions about The Other Boleyn Girl, book and movie, given the number of times this book is mentioned here.) Nonetheless, the hatred – almost venom – for Anne Boleyn slips through here, more than once. For instance, in a chapter where Weir takes some pains to point out that the rumors regarding Mary Boleyn's escapades in France may be greatly exaggerated, she claims that Anne Boleyn lost her virginity in France, to Henry's great disappointment – based on one single comment from an enemy's of Anne.

As I've noted previously, it must be difficult to read contemporary sources and not start hating Anne Boleyn – many of her contemporaries had excellent reasons for at least disliking her, if not outright hating her, and they did not hesitate to write these opinions down. Our primary source for her life is the hostile letters from one Eustace Chapuys, the ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire and Spain to the English court, who (correctly) saw Anne Boleyn as a pro-French and thus political enemy, and also saw her as the personal enemy of Catherine of Aragon, a woman he admired very much. His opinion is thus understandably biased – but it is the most detailed opinion that we have, and thus, influential.

But Weir's careful attempts to give an unbiased portrayal of and defend Mary Boleyn against the accusations of contemporaries and historians alike only highlight her bias towards Anne Boleyn. And, in her zeal to defend Mary Boleyn – a historical figure that, as Weir rightfully points out, we can know very little about – she does something odd: she makes Mary Boleyn seem bland.

Yes, bland. Mary was the mistress of at least one and more probably two kings (although Weir rushes to defend her against the charge that she also slept with the king of France, and makes a credible argument that this may not have been true, whatever Mary's later reputation.) She married twice, once to a prominent courtier, and later to a considerably less prominent courtier, a marriage so unworthy of the king's sister-in-law (as she was by that time) that she was banished from court. Her daughter, Katherine Carey, though given the name of Mary's first husband, may well have been Henry VIII's illegitimate daughter (Weir concludes that the evidence for this is suggestive, but not conclusive – possibly Mary herself was not sure.) Her children became prominent and trusted members of Elizabeth I's court, allowing her son Henry, Lord Hunsdon, to create a large and horrifically overdecorated tomb in Westminister Abbey of very dubious taste. (Er. That bit is my opinion, not Weir's.) Mary watched her sister take her place in the king's affections, and watched her sister's fall – and although we cannot know if she witnessed the executions of her sister and brother, she certainly knew of them.

How bland could she have been?

Well, apparently, very bland.

It's partly because we have very few documents surviving about Mary Boleyn -- contemporaries were more dazzled, or appalled, by her sister, and in any case many documents from the period have vanished from time. And partly because this biography, so determined to defend Mary Boleyn from questionable charges, strips her of most of the stories that made her seem such a fascinating figure.

Which is not to say that the book doesn't have its interesting moments. The Tudor obsessed will probably be most fascinated with the detailed chapter called "Hiding Royal Blood," where Weir carefully examines the debatable fertility of Henry VIII, partly to determine who fathered Mary Boleyn's children. She notes that contrary to popular opinion – fostered partly by Henry VIII himself, desperate to have sons – Henry VIII did father a number of children: at least six with Katherine of Aragon (four died shortly after birth, one was born dead, and Mary, the sixth, lived to maturity); four with Anne Boleyn, with one living daughter and three miscarriages (Weir convincingly argues here, and elsewhere, that the pattern suggests that Anne Boleyn was rhesus negative, which in Tudor times generally caused miscarriages and/or infant mortality); one with Jane Seymour; and one acknowledged illegitimate son with Elizabeth Blount.

In this book, Weir makes a strong argument that Henry VIII also sired two more children: Mary's daughter Katherine Carey, and Etheldreda, daughter of a laundress. In the first case, Henry and Mary had excellent reasons for keeping the paternity of Katherine Carey secret – even if Mary had known for sure, and she might not have. In the second case, Etheldreda's mother was, as you might be guessing from her job description, not exactly of the noble class, and hardly a liaison that the king would be bragging about. Nonetheless, Henry VIII provided for Etheldreda financially and ensured she had some sort of education, enough to allow her to work for and become close to Elizabeth I later.

It is highly unlikely, as Weir notes, that Henry VIII would have done this for a random daughter of a laundress (in fact Henry VIII did not provide financially for any of the other children of the various women who did his laundry), and thus, a strong indication that Henry VIII did not always officially acknowledge his illegitimate children, especially if this acknowledgement would be inconvenient. Which in turn eliminates the argument that of course Henry VIII would have acknowledged any children of his with Mary Boleyn. Any such acknowledgement would have been highly inconvenient, especially once Henry was attempting to marry Mary's sister, and ensure that Anne's children had an unquestioned, and above all, stable route to the throne that would avoid civil war. As Weir notes, it's another – if not conclusive – argument in favor for the theory that Katherine Carey was Henry VIII's child.

Details like this, and Weir's carefully constructed arguments, do make this an interesting read. I was just sad that its subject seemed stripped of almost all interest and intrigue.
In my ongoing obsession with biographies of the rich and overly entitled and privileged, I naturally had to pick up The Viceroy's Daughters, the saga of Irene, Cynthia (Cim), and Alexandra (Baba), the daughters of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1898 to 1905. (Curzon is perhaps best known to most of you now as one of the British diplomats most responsible for British involvement in the Great Game, where Russia and Great Britain vied for supremacy in central Asia and the Middle East, and a creator of British policy in the Middle East. As such he is not regarded with universal popularity these days.)

And once again, I learned a surprising, almost shocking fact: people who hang out with, sleep with, or become otherwise obsessed or involved with Nazis and Nazi sympathizers? Turn out to be just awful, awful, people, on so many levels.

I know.. I'll just pause to let that stunning revelation sink in, shall I?

And now to the rest of the book. )
H.G. Wells (1866-1946) is probably best known these days for the science fiction classics The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The War of the Worlds, the last probably best known for terrifying various people who happened to listen to it getting broadcast on the radio. But as Wells' biographer Sherborne notes, Wells wrote more than this -- lots more than this -- continuing to churn out tedious novels for most of his lifetime, along with various nonfiction books. When not writing, he hobnobbed with the great (Winston Churchill, Henry James, Joseph Stalin, Virginia Woolf) and the distinctly not so great (too many names to mention), and had sex. A lot of sex.

Wells generally was both married and keeping at least one mistress plus having assorted one night stands and longer affairs at any given time, which is why despite his insistence on using condoms, he ended up fathering two children in his second marriage and two children decidedly outside of that marriage. His lovers were generally fascinating women: novelists, aristocrats, scandalous journalists, probable Soviet spies, women who slashed their wrists in front of him bleeding all over the carpet (well, this was just one) and so on. His involvement with various socialist movements and insistence on free speech earned him the hatred of the Nazis, who burned his books, but he could also, to the confusion of all, pen anti-Semitic and other racist statements, even while otherwise arguing for complete racial equality. (He expelled Germany from the international P.E.N. writers group when that chapter stopped accepting non-Aryan members.) And this is without getting into his shifting religious beliefs.

All of this makes for fascinating reading, and Sherborne does an excellent job of providing a smooth narrative, from Wells' early life as the son of a servant (which gave him a continued awareness of the struggles of the working class) to his exhausted death, deeply depressed by World War II. He explores Wells' often contradictory statements on race in depth, noting that Wells later retreated from and even repudiated his earlier, racist statements – although those statements tend to be the ones most quoted, and the ones which have deservedly lowered his reputation. He looks carefully, too, at Wells' politics, widely criticized by contemporaries as being astonishingly naïve (Lenin added that Wells was narrow minded and petty), and too easily used by Stalin, who was trying to establish an alliance against the Nazis and had no compunction against using Wells, who despised fascism and its leaders, in doing so. If Wells remained generally unaware of the human costs of collectivization (to be fair, not something the Soviets were publicizing at the time), he did have the courage to tell Stalin to his face about the importance of free speech and the press (Stalin ignored this). Sherborne also, sometimes tediously, discusses each and every one of Wells' books, no matter how dull, and does not hesitate to point out the many flaws in the later books.

(I am admittedly mostly taking Sherborne's word on these later books, which I haven't read, but the brief descriptions just do not sound enticing at all.)

But for general readers probably the most intriguing parts are all of the various love affairs and romances. Truthfully this at times, despite Sherborne's best efforts, becomes a little difficult to follow, and Sherborne also has problems with some of the lovers and Wells' two wives, who generally did not leave documents discussing what they thought about the situation. We don't know, for instance, how much Jane, Wells' second wife (and more than occasional secretary) really knew about his affairs, or if she had merrily agreed to an open marriage (not unknown in their social circles) or if she suffered as Sherborne suggests she did. Wells did, after all, manage to secure one divorce; if Jane was as miserable as Sherborne believes she must have been, it seems that Wells could have secured a second, especially since at least two of his mistresses were urging him to marry them. But Jane and Wells did not divorce, and we have no documents saying that she was unhappy at all. Perhaps she was fine. Perhaps she was not.

This does lead to one groan out loud moment, when Sherborne dryly notes that "For once, Wells failed to rise to the occasion" when confronted with a lover demanding sex. But overall, I'd highly recommend the book, with one more caveat that hit me mostly as a woman who occasionally writes the odd bit of science fiction here and there. Which is Sherborne's insistence on seeing Wells in a literary context as almost entirely influenced by and influencing men. Sherborne's list of prominent science fiction authors influenced by Wells is exhaustive, and seems fair enough, but not a single woman appears on it.

I'm not for the moment doubting that Wells influenced, say, Philip Dick, or that Dick has not been an enormously influential science fiction author. But Wells also influenced, at the very least, C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, who in turn influenced Marion Zimmer Bradley and Anne McCaffrey and Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin and Lois McMaster Bujold, who in turn influenced still more women writers, to name only a few of the more famous names. (Also, Ruth Plumly Thompson had evidently read The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, using them as inspiration in a couple of Oz books.) Over on the fantasy side, Edith Nesbit fully acknowledged her debt to Wells; she in turn was a major influence on C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Walter Brooks (more about him coming very soon) and several others.

What makes this particularly odd is that so much of the rest of the biography focuses on Wells' interactions with women. And using the word "interactions" really understates the case: Wells not only interacted with several major women authors, he slept with them (or, in the case of Edith Nesbit, their daughters). He had a passionate affair with Elizabeth von Armin, author of the popular and influential Elizabeth and her German Garden (L.M. Montgomery, among others, found powerful inspiration in this work), and had a ten year affair with the novelist Rebecca West (their child was the later deeply resentful Anthony West). And these are just two of the longer relationships; Wells had casual affairs with many other women writers and essayists. And Wells frequently collaborated with his wife Jane, who helped type and edit his manuscripts, and was herself a fiction writer.

(Gossipy tidbit irrelevant to my central point here: if you ever doubt the interconnectedness of the 20th century literary world, remember this: H.G. Wells and Ernest Hemingway both slept with the same woman, who also may have helped murder Maxim Gorky although this last may be unkind gossip.)

This was also the man who warned his daughter about giving up her career for a man, however clumsily and condescendingly, a man who frequently advocated for women to enter the workforce and who encouraged his lovers in their writing and journalism careers, if less so their careers as possible Soviet spies (Moura Benckendorf), and who supported contraception partly for ecological and environmental purposes, partly because he occasionally slept with birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, but also because he believed that contraception freed women. So it's a rather grating omission, even beyond my desire to shriek AUUUGH whenever I encounter yet another "women don't read/write" science fiction bit. It feels, as I've noted before, like a personal dismissal.

But this aside, it's a nice gossipy book, and a good introduction to the influences on early science fiction, particularly the social and economic forces that helped spark it.
I can't remember just when or where I first encountered Sybil, that international bestseller about a young girl grossly abused by her mother who had shattered into 16 separate personalities as a result. I do remember that I found it enthralling if not always well written, although when I finished, I had quite a few questions.

Which resulted in one very long blog post that I should probably cut into two parts, but instead will just hide behind a cut. )
Effie: the Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais, Suzanne Fagence Cooper (2010)

After watching The Romantics I was intrigued enough to find out just how inaccurate it was (spoiler: very!) which meant hunting down biographies. This was the first one the library forwarded to me; it's short, but very well done, focusing mostly on the life of Effie Gray. A side chapter tells the tragic story of Effie's sister, Sophy Gray, who developed anorexia and musicophilia and eventually died of depression and starvation. Cooper also outlines the stories of Effie's four daughters, and Ruskin and Millais of course move in and out of center stage.

Effie did not plan to be a figure of controversy and scandal. She grew up with warm, loving parents, although the family stability and joy suffered a severe blow when three children died in the same year, when Effie, the oldest daughter, was only 13. Other children in the family died at a young age as well, quite possibly part of the reason why Effie was to suffer insomnia and other nervous complaints throughout her life, and her younger sister was to die from depression and anorexia. Despite this, Effie excelled in school, and charmed the young John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the time.

Cooper mostly sidesteps the "was Ruskin a pedophile" question, although she notes that Ruskin was initially enchanted by Effie when she was only twelve, and by the age of 19 – nineteen – he was already wistful about her lost girlish beauty. Given that his other romantic interests were 15 and 10 respectfully when he fell for them, questions are reasonable.

But Cooper offers another suggestion of why Ruskin never consummated his five year marriage with his wife. She blames the poor timing of the wedding night, suggesting that it might have happened during Effie's time of the month. The problem with this – and why Cooper is careful to offer this only as a suggestion – is that we have no other suggestions that Ruskin had any particular issues with blood, or was unaware that this is sort of a standard thing with women. And no one suggested that Effie was bleeding all the time; even Cooper thinks more that Ruskin could not get past that initial sight. Of course, this suggestion – that Ruskin could not deal with a wife who had very evidently passed puberty – only leads fuel to the pedophile idea.

In any case, whatever his reasons, Ruskin never did sleep with his wife, as their statements and a medical examination (used for the annulment proceedings, which, icky) later proved. Effie faced the torture of living almost daily (they separated frequently) with a man that did not want her physically, and since she was fairly flirtatious she knew quite well that other men did want her. This also meant that with Ruskin she could not have the children she terribly wanted. To add to the problem, Ruskin was – by Effie's account – emotionally and verbally abusive. By Ruskin's account, and that of his parents, upset that their daughter-in-law came from and still frequently visited a house with painful emotional associations for them, and not thrilled with the money they heaped on a daughter-in-law they saw as a spendthrift – Effie, not Ruskin, was the abusive one, and Effie, indeed, was insane.

Insanity in a wife in Victorian times was no joke for anyone. (Thackeray placed his wife in various institutions, dooming both of them to solitude and her at least to chastity.) Effie realized that she needed to escape, and as if she did not have enough complications already, she found herself falling in love with the very hot young artist John Everett Millais. (The book includes a picture of Millais by William Holman Hunt which explains exactly what Effie was thinking and feeling.) Millais painted a splendid portrait of Ruskin and (gasp. Prepare for like, MAJOR SCANDAL everyone) used Effie in a picture that SHOWED BARE FEET AND LEGS. (The bare feet and legs actually belonged to another model in an example of just how far back that Hollywood tradition goes.) Scandal! (I have to admit, when I initially saw this picture at the Tate, I missed the legs entirely and just wanted to know if that poor dog had to stand on his legs the ENTIRE time that picture was made. I was even terrified of dogs at the time, but it was a concern. Would you believe that nobody at the Tate could answer this question? And they call themselves art experts. Anyway.)

A woman friend informed Effie that an unconsummated marriage was not a marriage, and that she had grounds for an annulment. (Divorce was more difficult and Effie did not have grounds.) So a desperate Effie plunged ahead with the annulment and scandal – and married Millais, and was promptly almost continuously pregnant for years, proving that the sexual reluctance had definitely not been on her side. After several years of financial hardship, Millais' paintings and illustrations eventually earned them enough money to enter the ranks of the well off – and even the minor nobility, when Millais was awarded a baronetcy.

From here, Cooper does an admirable job of defending Effie from one of the worst charges against her (well, one of the worst contemporary charges against her – in her own time the worst charge was that she was an unnatural woman with two husbands who could therefore not attend events with the queen): that after Millais married her, his work went completely downhill and became terribly and embarrassingly sentimental and commercial. (In the process she incidentally notes two more historical errors with Desperate Romantics.) She can't exactly fight back against the sentimental charge, but she can and does point out that the changes in Millais' painting style cannot exactly be blamed on Effie (the timing doesn't quite work) or the need for money.

Cooper also throws in a few entertaining details here and there (women paid less to enter the Great Exhibition of 1851, but once there, had to pay a penny to use the new fangled water closets, which men could use for free) and insights on the difficulties of writing about women even in the relatively well documented Victorian period; we know very little, for instance, about Effie's friend and frequent companion Charlotte Ker, whose letters have not survived. In a marked contrast to the last biography I looked at, Cooper is careful to separate speculation from fact. And she takes the time to record one of the most romantic moments in John Everett Millais' life: on his deathbed, with one of Queen Victoria's daughters as a visitor, he took the opportunity to beg once again to have his wife's social status repaired with an acknowledgement from the queen – the social status she had lost through marrying him.

It was not always an easy life, or a happy one, but it was a fascinating one, with moments of exquisite beauty, a life well worth reading.
Gary Kates, Monsieur d'Eon Is a Woman: a tale of political intrigue and sexual masquerade (1995).

Charles Genevieve Louis Auguste Andre Timothee Eon de Beaumont, 1728-1810, lived one hell of a life as a French diplomat to the courts of Russia and England, a spy, soldier, and occasional scholar, and, at the age of 46, at the insistence of and with the backing of the French king, as someone who changed public genders from male to female, wearing female clothing and living as a woman until her death. A contemporary examination of her body at her death stated that although d'Eon claimed to have been born a girl forced to live as a boy and then a man, and lacked certain male secondary sexual characteristics, d'Eon also had male sexual genitalia (everyone was very discreet about what this meant, so I can't tell you). And since d'Eon met everyone and everybody, this created delightful scandal for everyone.

So I was thrilled to discover that someone had taken the time to write a biography of d'Eon, figuring it would make for fascinating reading. And I'm still certain that a biography of d'Eon would make for fascinating reading. Just not this one, which manages to combine poor organization, tedious writing, problematic sourcing and factual errors with some….shall we say questionable assertions about transgendered people in general and d'Eon in particular.

The disorganized nature of the book forced me to write a rambling review. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. )
I'm a bit – just a bit – of an Agatha Christie nut; have been ever since I read Death on the Nile at the age of nine and got the murderer entirely wrong, and shortly afterwards when I read her Autobiography and found that she had imaginary friends, just like me. I was hooked, and equally hooked on biographies.

The problem is that none of these biographies so far have been very good. Janet Morgan's official biography dripped with officialness and "really, she was awfully like her own self-description except slightly more professional," Gillian Gill's Agatha Christie: the Woman and her Mysteries, was considerably more insightful but limited in her access to documents and people who knew and remembered Christie; Jared Cade's Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days was a brutal slapdash job based largely on third hand gossip; leaving really only Charles Osborne's The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, which is mostly and legitimately focused on the novels. It's not bad, but it leaves a lot out, which is why I was eager to read Thompson's biography which promised a new look.

So, first, let me get some major complaints out of the way, and by major complaints, I'm talking first about the typesetting, which in this case meant that the page printed after page 86 was not, as you might think, page 87, but page 391. The book then continued from page 391 to page 438 (yes, chatting about a later period in Christie's life), then abruptly mid sentence switched back to page 135. Pages 391 to 438 were later repeated in their proper order, but pages 87-134 are nowhere in the book.

Further complaints behind the cut! )
I have to confess: I wanted them.

A picture appeared in virtually every comic book I saw, showing the smiling faces of a family of Sea Monkeys, who looked like some tortured set of mermaids created by a demented wizard. I knew the real sea monkeys would look nothing like that picture - I'd seen pictures of fish and insects and dinosaurs with strange head shapes, but none of those walked on two legs and the dinosaurs were gone. But still, I desperately wanted to know what they were. Did they really look like monkeys? Or little fish? Could they really be trained? Could I have happiness in a bowl?

The problem was, we lived in Italy, and the few comic books we had always came a few months later, brought over by parents on business trips to the States. Which created other issues; our parents kept bringing back Batman, and we wanted Spider-man. Issues were eagerly and fiercely traded on the back of the bus, with everyone hunched over the comic to see what had happened to Spider-Man next. It wasn't that we disliked Batman, mind you -- this was in the Brave and the Bold days, when Batman did a lot of orbiting around earth and teaming up with various other superheroes to prevent people from setting off nuclear bombs which was all kinda cool. But Spider-Man was funny. I also wanted more Supergirl comics, because Supergirl was blonde, like me, and a girl, but unlike me, she could do absolutely anything she wanted to -- fly, punch holes through space satellites, whatever -- and what she apparently wanted to do (in the Brave and the Bold days) was solve mysteries and stop bad guys, which was awesome. Later, I grew impatient with the perfection and superstrength (and questioned why anyone would choose to punch out satellites while wearing a skating costume), but at the time, I wanted to be Supergirl. I still wanted to fly, even if my flying lessons a few years back had not gone at all well for anyone concerned. I caught glimpses of other girls in the comics, too, but not many of them (and for some reason, our parents never seemed to bring back Wonder Woman comics, or if they did, the comics were so unmemorable that they have slipped my mind).

In this fantasy universe, anything could be true. Even Sea Monkeys. But at the same time, girls weren't flying into space and punching space satellites. So I looked at the Sea Monkeys, and wondered. I made up little tales, little explanations.

I had no way of ordering them from Italy, none. And even when we returned to the U.S., I had no way of getting the postal order together to pay for the Sea Monkeys. Instead, we got a worm (this was not approved of) and then a hamster (more approved of) and then a dog. The dog couldn't exactly do tricks - he meant well, but was a Dog of Little Brain - but he was soft and furry and playful and he actually found just the sight of me coming down the stairs marvelously exciting, and I figured I would never find out what Sea Monkeys actually were.

"Brine shrimp," explained someone in college.


"Seriously. I was crushed."

Only later did I realize that brine shrimp are actually awesomely cool and beautiful critters. But that's another post.

This is the astonishing, and genuinely shocking story, of the man who almost got the world to understand the magic of brine shrimp. Read to the end.
Jehanne Wake, Sisters of Fortune: America's Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad

Edited for clarification after some helpful hints from [profile] tcherynobyelo.

Apparently I can't resist big gossipy biographies about American aristocrats, either. But this one is not only big and gossipy, but also a solid, engrossing read, and one of the few biographies that I've read recently where I have almost no complaints.

The four Caton sisters – Marianne, Bess, Louisa and Emily – were the granddaughters of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, known to you, if known at all, as the last signer of the Declaration of Independence to die. (He was not selected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention for whatever reason, but his cousin Daniel Carroll, not of Carrollton, was an active member and one of the signers of the Constitution.) But beyond that, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (he always used this full name to prevent confusion with the many other Charles Carrolls not of Carrollton) was also one of the wealthiest men in the thirteen colonies, with extensive tobacco and other estates; served as Maryland's first senator (where he crossed paths and met with one of my ancestors, in one of those oooh! six degrees of separation thing, except considerably more degrees here); and, along with his cousin Daniel Carroll, may have helped inspire the "no establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment, since, as Catholics, Charles and Daniel Carrollton had not been allowed to serve in colonial governments. (I originally heard that on a school field trip, and Wikipedia confirms the legend, but since it's not mentioned in this considerably better researched and heavily footnoted book it may not be true.) When Charles Carroll of Carrollton died, the nation went into official mourning on the orders of President Andrew Jackson, and his body lay in state in Baltimore for some days.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that three – three! – of the Caton sisters married titled nobility of England, one (Marianne) first becoming the sister-in-law of Napoleon's sister-in-law and then becoming the sister-in-law of the Duke of Wellington – yes, that Duke of Wellington – and later Lady Wellesley, Marchioness; one (Louisa) first marrying a nice baronet and then marrying the man who became the Duke of Leeds, eventually becoming a nice Duchess; and the third (Bess) settling for – it does feel like settling, after this – a mere baron.

The fourth sister, Emily, made it all to way to Montreal, hated it, and returned firmly to Maryland, to live out her life there and exercise just a leetle bit of undue influence on her grandfather to suddenly and unexpectedly become his major heiress. Lawsuits ensued. That is all very interesting, as is her social life in Washington's capital, but it kinda pales next to the story of the three sisters in England not to mention all of their investments and speculation in the stock market.

So how did three American women, granddaughters of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, end up in the British nobility? (Other American women, of course, were to marry into the British nobility – quite frequently in the later 19th and 20th centuries – but they were not related, or as directly related, to American revolutionaries.) Two separate factors, it seems. One, the oldest sister, Marianne, happened to marry the brother of one of America's most notorious women (at the time): Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, also known as Betsy Bonaparte, who had married Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, in 1803 at the height of Napoleon's power -- not, it must be said, with the approval of Napoleon.

The young and scandalous Betsy – well known for her habit of walking around with what shocked or delighted observers of the time claimed was excessively inadequate clothing leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination – according to just one quote, "I ought rather say, of her no dress, for if the reports are not much exaggerated, she goes to public assemblies nearly naked." The reports were apparently not much exaggerated. But this was enough to delight Jerome Bonaparte, at least, if not Napoleon, who declared the marriage null and illegal. Betsy, presumably with slightly more clothing, attempted to go to Napoleon to plead her case directly – but was not allowed to step ashore. Jerome married someone else, and Betsy lived in scandal – but the story was enough to gain her some sympathetic British equally unfond of Napoleon friends. Marianne became her sister-in-law, and thus, the sister-in-law of the shamefully mistreated (depending upon who told the story) sister-in-law of Napoleon. It opened doors.

The other factor, of course, money.

Wake does not conceal the unpleasant source of this money: the Carrolls were slaveowners, and the Caton girls grew up on a plantation and estates that made their money, and their inheritances, from slavery. The Caton girls were even given personal slaves who were supposed to be playmates who would grow into personal maids who could be trusted friends since they had grown up together – except, of course, that the slave playmates could be and were severely whipped for even minor offenses. Wake does note and detail that although the sisters lived in a household that supposedly distinguished household slaves from field slaves, supposedly because, as Wake notes, they were still slaves, and even if their status meant that their families would not be separated and sold off, they could still be whipped, lived in considerably lesser quarters, and were tied to the plantation. In a revealing aside that Wake does not explore, one of the white plantation Carrolls complains that the slaves can't be trusted not to drop expensive glass; I can't help but think that some of this breakage was not all that accidental. And in another revealing aside, Wake, who poured through extensive plantation documents, letters and account books, could not find out what happened to those personal slaves. They may have been "just like family," but they did not merit a recording of their deaths.

After a visit home, Marianne took one of these household slaves, a personal servant named Henny, back with her to England. Henny was not one of the original child slaves, but apparently became a friend of sorts; it's not clear if she was freed in United States, but once she reached England, she was free, and Marianne, who brought her to England, knew this quite well.

And yet, as Wake notes, none of the sisters mentioned slavery in their letters at all, even as the Civil War raged on. Marianne died before the start of the Civil War, but the other three lived through it or at least saw its beginnings, and one of them, Emily, still owned slaves. Many of them. They knew, but they stayed silent. And I can't help but wonder if the three older sisters stayed in England precisely because they knew – and did not want to face the truth on a daily basis. I don't know.

Equally fascinating is all of the gossipy stuff when the three sisters reached London and started to mingle with the elite. Parts of this book read exactly, and I do mean exactly, like a Regency novel, complete with trips to Almack's! the vouchers! the Duke of Wellington! Prinny! I had to check and see if Georgette Heyer had written the book, especially after every single one of the grand Patronesses of Almack's were name dropped. (Except that Heyer never really mentions slaves or indeed black people, apart from a couple of random black page boys in early books who were dropped from later books. And she rarely mentions Americans, although with her devotion to the Duke of Wellington, she must have known Marianne's story, at least. I am getting off topic again.)

Marianne arrived in London a married woman, so her flirtations had to be, shall we say, discreet. Nonetheless, the Duke of Wellington fell head over heels in love with her, which opened doors. (And then, after the death of her first husband, she married his brother.) The other two had a bit more freedom to flirt, thus allowing Louisa to marry one of Wellington's staff, an ADC who had lost his arm while fighting under Wellington and afterwards was at Wellington's side at Waterloo. (You can almost hear Georgette Heyer telling this story in a nice crisp British accent.) Louisa's first marriage, with her sister's connections, allowed her to marry the heir of the Duke of Leeds after the death of her first husband, eventually becoming the Duchess of Leeds. Bess enjoyed her freedom and the flirtations, deciding not to marry Lord Coke (another historical personage showing up in Heyer novels) and above all, playing in the stock market. Eventually she married a baron.

Which is another strength of this book: Wake details how these women continued to manage their own financial affairs and fortunes, often successfully (if, in Emily's case, by, er, putting a little pressure on her dying wealthy grandfather—just like something out of Jane Austen! [who is quoted in the book]), despite the belief that women in the 19th century did no such thing. (Unless they were the Brontes.) The sisters kept informed, and made careful, prudent and occasionally risky investments – often under assumed names, or under the name of a sister or a friend since, of course, married women lacked certain rights with these things. But Wake does an excellent job of showing just how the four sisters retained their independence, and how many of them became the financial support of their husbands. Which ends up explaining some of their marriages quite well, indeed.
The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S. Lovell and and Wait for Me: Memoirs, by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire.

I can't resist big gossipy biographies about British aristocrats – an admitted weakness – and the bigger and more gossipier they are, the more irresistible they are. Thus, it was probably inevitable that I would pick up Deborah Mitford's Memoirs, and, after a moment, a volume covering the lives of her and her sisters, since between them the six Mitford sisters knew absolutely everybody. Not surprisingly, since one became an admired novelist, two diehard Nazis and intimates of Hitler, one a communist and American civil rights leader, and one a duchess and sister-in-law of one of the Kennedys. As their biographer notes, two of them were also among the very few people who could claim friendship with both Hitler and Winston Churchill; another had a torrid affair with Charles de Gaulle's second in command, a third was close friends with Maya Angelou, and so on. And on. And on. Even Scott Fitzgerald, Fred Astaire and Hillary Rodham Clinton sneak in here. It's like a roster of the 300 most influential people of the 20th century. (Lovell, clearly overwhelmed with the social schedule of three of the sisters, drops about 3/4 of the names, but the Duchess of Devonshire cheerfully includes every last one of them – I think it's about 800 people in total – perhaps feeling that even the dead would be hurt at getting left out. Frankly by page 400 I was reeling, and I freely admit that my eyes glazed over at the chatter about Charles and Diana's wedding because it was Just Too Much.)

Also, they inspired three Harry Potter characters: Narcissa Malfoy (loosely based on the third sister, Diana Mosley), Bellatrix Lestrange (less loosely based on the fourth sister, Unity Mitford), and Andromeda Tonks (loosely based on Decca Mitford.) This little tidbit is not in either book, and I'm not sure if anyone has informed Deborah Mitford that Helena Bonham Carter's performance was inspired by her sister's life. (The Bonham Carter family were acquainted with the Mitfords, although I don't know if Helena Bonham Carter ever met any of them. Quite possibly the Duchess of Devonshire since see above.)

As you might be guessing, the sisters were notorious. And as you might be guessing, both books turned out to be very problematic indeed, and not just because of the various royal weddings and presidential funerals and cheerful memories of Teddy Kennedy landing on the lawn.

Cut for length, Nazis, problematic dealings with racism, British novelists, and a lot else. )

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