County Life: Stories of famous men as told by women

loving-frankBessie’s Books and Other Things

Until very recently history has almost exclusively been written by men.  Often famous men are portrayed as having obtained greatness independent of any assistance.  There seems to be a recent trend in fiction to tell the story from the perspective of the women in the lives of famous men.

For me, this trend started with Loving Frank by Nancy Horan.  Published in 2007 it tells the story of Mamah Cheney who was the lover of Frank Lloyd Wright. An intellect in her own right she was a translator who spoke six languages.  The book painfully reveals the kinds of choices some women made at the time to be able to carve out a life or career independent of being a wife and a mother.

Ernest Hemingway’s first wife’s name was Hadley Richardson and was eight years his senior.  The book, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain tells the story of the tumultuous and passionate relationship that lasted six years and produced one child.  McLain’s story is said to be true to actual events and that notion is confirmed in Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast which takes place in Paris during his time with Hadley.

Nancy Horan followed up Loving Frank by publishing Under the Wide and Starry Sky in 2014.  This book is the story of Fanny Osbourne the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson, like Hadley Richardson, Fanny was older than her husband.  Stevenson was actually in fairly poor health throughout his lifetime and Fanny looked after him so he was able to write.  He died in his forties and what he did produce is very much because Fanny fed him, nursed him, and made sure he slept, as well as read and critiqued his work.

A Canadian writer Carol Bruneau wrote These Good Hands that was published this year.  This book tells the story of Camille Claudel who was a pupil and then mistress of the sculptor Auguste Rodin.  Set in 1943 Claudel has been in a mental institution in France for thirty years and has grown old.  The story of her youth and immeasurable talent is told in alternating chapters between her recollections and the observations of a fictional nurse put in charge of her care.  In the Rodin museum in Paris there is an iconic sculpture of the naked Claudel that exemplifies the profound effect she had on his art.

One other book that doesn’t quite follow the theme but illustrates the history of a very interesting set of sisters was published late in 2014 called Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar.  The book is about Vanessa and Virginia Stephens better known as Virginia Woolf the writer and Vanessa Bell the painter.  The sisters were part of the “Bloomsbury Group” a group of creative people who met frequently and produced a variety of work.

Reading fiction like the titles discussed is my window to a history of women that I would not otherwise discover.  These selections also remind me that rarely do we create something of importance in isolation.

*Originally published in County Life on July 23, 2016.

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