The past, as many have said, is a nice place to visit, but most of us wouldn’t want to live there. While the world is by no means a wonderful place for women and is in many ways seemingly regressing its advances, one has to admit that many historical periods were much harder times to be female. Learning these lessons from the past helps us appreciate our present, and even potentially shape the future. One of the best ways to do this is via literature, which makes these lessons not just dry concepts, but fascinating and even fun. In this week’s book club, you’ll be transported back in time to three very different countries and time periods, and witness the evolution of rights, status, and conditions via these authors’ historical research and imaginings.
1. And the Spirit Moved Them: The Lost Radical History of America’s First Feminists by Helen LaKelly Hunt ($19): Our first volume deals with strict historical fact and interpretation of a group of unsung women who author Hunt claims founded American feminism years before the more famous Seneca Falls Convention. Intersectionality and its necessity in feminism found a resurgence as a wildly popular term and subject in the wake of the globe-spanning Women’s March, but Hunt argues that we can find intersectionality much further back in feminism’s history. From beginning to mid-19th century, a set of abolitionists and feminists began to keep very close ties, culminating in the 1837 Anti-Slavery Convention. This gathering was notable for doing something no convention in America had done before; it was organized by women, and it was designed for women. It was also attended by white and black women, who planned for the future together. Unlike the common current cases where religion is used to justify discrimination, these women proudly used their religious beliefs to call for freedom, firmly convinced that it was their spiritual duty to dismantle the slave state and the patriarchic model.
So why isn’t this convention History 101? “As a longtime feminist and activist, I knew the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 was considered to be the birthplace of the American women’s rights movement,” Hunt writes, but when she found the earlier convention’s minutes, she “felt confused. Was there another national women’s convention during this era that I’d never heard of?” Hunt believes the convention’s religious and intersectional overtones led to it largely being ignored by both progressive and conservative historians.
She then ties this story into her own; one of the major builders of women’s philanthropic networks, Hunt channeled her inheritance from her father, conservative silver magnate H.L. Hunt, into the support of women, feminism, and gender equity. She founded, among other organizations, the Women’s Funding Network, Women Moving Millions, and The New York Women’s Foundation. A relationship therapist with a PhD from Union Theological Seminary, Hunt found herself in the middle of faith and feminism and found a place where they were mutually inclusive. With a foreword by Cornel West, the book promises to be a captivating look at a group of women who were part of the past, but certainly ahead of their time (and possibly even ours).
2. Anne Boleyn: a King’s Obsession by Alison Weir ($28): Each of Henry VIII’s six wives was forced to watch the depths of her husband’s depravity, philandering, and greed, as he pillaged, ate, and raped his way through 16th century England. Each wife in turn, quickly or gradually, became a scapegoat, as the inability to produce a male heir loomed larger than her husband’s misdeeds. Eventually accused of crimes like adultery, conspiracy, and treason, they fell to the executioner’s blade so Henry could find a new wife. Alison Weir’s series of historical fiction based on her study of each of the wives hits its second volume with the story of Anne Boleyn, possibly Henry’s most famous wife (and, ironically, possibly the one who left the least material to study). Boleyn’s initial rejection of the married Henry was probably wise, but her eventual decision to elevate her family’s standing by agreeing to supplant Katherine of Aragon led to her downfall.
“She knew she was fortunate, being a girl, to receive a good education. Father had very advanced ideas, but then he was always concerned that his children should do well in life — which, of course, would reflect favorably on him.” Weir presents Boleyn as an early feminist, picking up these ideas as she grew up in the Netherlands and then the French court, spending time debating feminist issues and reading progressive writers when she could escape her court duties. Since much of what we know about Boleyn is hearsay, and in particular hearsay from a court ambassador who hated her, Weir combines research with imagination to create a somewhat different, fleshed-out portrait of her novel’s main character.
This is not to say that she venerates Boleyn; in fact, she presents her as complex and not always fully sympathetic; her outspokenness led to plenty of friction, and her open desire for the death of her predecessor Katherine and Katherine’s daughter Mary will make most uncomfortable. However, by the time she confronts her own death, the reader will have gone on a complex, emotional journey. The book may also be worth it alone for the “opulence porn” — descriptions of lavish parties, food, and outfits abound. Anne Boleyn’s story may be done, but this book humanizes, dramatizes, and modernizes it like it’s just beginning.
3. The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer ($27): So, as promised, we’ve got historical fact and historical fiction; now how about a little historical fantasy? Winawer time travels us back to Siena in 1347, where her heroine Beatrice Trovato awakens, Outlander-style, to find herself a far cry from the New York hospital where she works as a neurosurgeon. When Beatrice’s brother passes away and she must travel to (present) Siena to close his estate, she finds herself shamefully grateful for a break from her emotionally exhausting work, which has suddenly started to get eerily empathic: “I’d touched people’s brains with my hand,” she says, “but I couldn’t know how it felt to actually be inside of someone else’s head. Today, though, it seemed I had.”
As she grieves her brother, she finds something to divert her interest: a conspiracy, hundreds of years in the past, that was designed to cripple the city. One of the instigators is an artist named Gabriele Accorsi, and she finds that some of his art features an unnervingly accurate portrayal of her. When she recovers from the shock, she’s in medieval Siena, which is no picnic for a modern woman. Not only does she have to deal with a staggeringly different place in society and a conspiracy on the rise, but guess what’s on the horizon? Yes, even a modern neurosurgeon, minus her tools, may be no match for the Plague.
With all this disease and danger, the weird part is that Beatrice actually finds herself enjoying aspects of a somewhat less hectic medieval life. She also, naturally, meets Gabriele: You have two guesses as to whether or not they fall in love, and the first doesn’t count. Winawer describes the world of medieval Siena in painstaking, fully realized detail, as Beatrice starts to wonder which world she belongs to. One thing is for certain, though: If she doesn’t do something, Siena will be destroyed long before she’s even born. And that’s a lot of history.
Which books make history come alive for you? Tag us in your next bygone read @BritandCo.
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