Really, 18th Century Women Voiced Opinions?

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

By Jill Lepore

On page 242 of Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s fascinating, insightful, and thoroughly researched resurrection of Jane Franklin Mecom, youngest sister of Ben Franklin, she gets to the heart of her biography that does quadruple duty:

“What would it mean to write the history of an age not only from what has been saved but also from what has been lost? What would it mean to write a history concerned not only with the lives of the famous but also with the lives of the obscure? What would it mean to turn the pages of Jane Franklin’s Book of Ages?”

These are more than rhetorical musings on the part of Lepore; these are the questions she addresses using Jane Franklin’s thin chronicle of the births and deaths of her children and those close to her. Expanding this document are Jane’s letters to Ben and his to her, as well as a vast collection of primary and secondary materials delineated and explained in footnotes and a narrative bibliography.

The letters between the sister and brother, extracts of which Lepore presents with all the grammatical and spelling blemishes preserved, enable readers to view how much these two people, who rarely saw each other in person, cared for and respected each other. As avid readers and writers, they were able and willing to express their feelings in words. Jane it seems was every bit as intelligent as her heralded brother. But she lacked access to education and opportunity outside the narrow role defined for and confining women of her time, and women in general until the twentieth century.

Telling the story of one person requires telling the story of many. Lepore incorporates many luminaries of the times, especially those in the Boston area, where Jane lived. She touches on the lives of many more lesser known people, among them the large Franklin and Mecom families. Jane and Ben had ten brothers and sisters. Jane, who gave birth to her first child at 15, had twelve children and those surviving to adulthood had numerous children of their own. A difference between Jane and Ben regarding family was that Jane involved herself at close range while Ben, after leaving Boston for Philadelphia at 17, offered help from a distance, often long distance.

In these lives lies the tale of the times, which Lepore brings to life. It’s one of hard work, of a crafts and home-based economy, of hard luck, of religious and social stricture, of segregation and unequal treatment of the sexes (not to mention races), of primitive sanitation and medical care, and death, early and constant death. Film and television has lent a sheen of glamour to life in earlier times. Perhaps those at the highest levels enjoyed lives something like that portrayed in dramas. However, the vast majority of people lived as Lepore illustrates. Their lives may appear simple from our perspective, but there’s nothing simple about figuring out how you and your family will manage to survive another year.

Lepore leaves us with no doubt that Jane Franklin was an intelligent woman, one who accomplished a lot in her limited sphere. As was the case with women of her time, Jane received no formal education. Families that could afford education for their daughters sent them to schools that segregated the learning, teaching the girls little beyond the rudimentary, while devoting time, effort, and material on the boys. You wonder, as it appears Lepore’s intent, how much more Jane could have done with the freedom and opportunities Ben had, and how much better off we all would be if women had received even a modicum of equal treatment.

All in all, a superlative bit of biography and history made all the more pertinent by the lessons it holds for us today. 267 pages of text; 175 pages of footnotes, bibliography, and research narrative. w/c


An Unsexy Novel about Sex

Madam: A Novel of New Orleans

By Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin

New Orleans certainly boasts a colorful history, what with Andrew Jackson and pirate Jean Lafitte teaming to defeat the British at the close of the War of 1812 (actually after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, so technically after the war had ended), the city constantly battling the encroachment of Gulf waters, and, the subject of this book, the confinement of prostitution and bordellos to a red-light district. While many cities have had formal red-light districts (and some still do, like Amsterdam and many German cities), New Orleans’ version has always held a sort of romantic appeal, perhaps because of its nickname, “Storyville,” or that it is way back in history.

Lynn and Martin attempt to resurrect the period, really 1898, the time leading up to the inauguration of the district, by novelizing the life of a young prostitute. While interesting and definitely portraying the misery that was (and is) street prostitution, it’s never as compelling as you might expect a novel on this topic to be. Truth be told, it’s kind of flat. Lynn and Martin might have done better by shortening the build-up to the instituting of the district and lengthening the portion devoted to the district.

In fact, there was a real Mary Deubler, the central character. She, however, wasn’t nearly as downtrodden and hapless as her novelized version. She proved a quite shrewd entrepreneurial type who did operate a house called the Arlington, who even in short biographical sketches sounds intriguing. Probably many of the characters who have basis in history, like Tom Anderson and Lulu White, were more interesting than as Lynn and Martin portray them. Which highlights the weakness of their novelized approach, weak characterizations.

In the end, Madam isn’t really the place to seek out information about or titillation from Storyville. Those wishing to pursue these might try a source cited as a favorite by the authors, Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red Light District and the extant photographic work of E.J Bellocq, E.J. Bellocq Storyville Portraits, as well as novels using the period and location as a backdrop. w/c

Adolf Hitler, Private Dick

A Man Lies Dreaming

By Lavie Tidhar

How to escape the inescapable; how to vent your pain, suffering, and anger for all you have lost and will yet lose for no other reason than you are a Jew; how, then, to escape Auschwitz? If you are Shomer (a nod to Sholem Aleichem), the author of popular shund pulp, you write a novel in your mind in which the chief perpetrator of your fate finds himself pummeled repeatedly, frustrated constantly, embittered always to rage, and condemned ironically to his personal version of hell. And so it begins when a dame, Isabella Rubinstein, walks into the office of a down and out London P.I., Herr Wolf, seeking her missing sister, Judith.

It’s the year 1939; however, it’s a 1939 different from what you’ll find in the history books. Rather, it’s the 1939 of Shomer’s imagination. Hitler and the Nazis lost the 1933 election to the Communists. The Nazis and their hangers-on were forced to flee Germany or perish. Now London teems with them, still operating true to their criminal characters. And worse, to Wolf’s indignantly jealous mind, the banner of National Socialism rests firmly in the hands of the weasel Oswald Mosley and his black shirt British Union of Fascists movement. Wolf could have had more, of course, as old cronies remind him, but he, unlike them, remains a man of principle (hmm, that sounds very familiar), though existing on scraps. Even in this world, even to a man of dubious and discredited principle, money talks; Wolf sets off to find Judith, and readers follow him into the underbelly of a London awash in intrigue, revolution, human depravity, and weird sexual perversions worthy of a lurid shund cover.

That’s the fantasy. Intercut throughout, intruding always like a festering wound, is reality. Reality is the slow, tortured crawl to death that is Auschwitz. Shomer creates to escape and, more, to extract retribution. However, the daily rhythm of living and dying in the camp is the lesser pain for Shomer. Greater, and maybe prime above his other reasons for conjuring his pulp tale, is memory of his wife, his children, their quotidian lives as a family, and the terrible moment of separation on the Auschwitz railroad platform. Nothing, not the cold, the firth, the slave labor, the degradation, the unrelenting inhumanity, nothing inflicts as much torment as his memories. In almost any other circumstance, they would be treasures. But in the bowels of Auschwitz they are like being constantly in the fires of hell. Shomer’s occupied mind is his firewall and his fiction is his revenge.

In the back of the book, Tidhar provides some historical context that includes brief comments on the parade of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in the novel, as well as some Auschwitz victims. A highly recommended imaginative addition to alternate history and holocaust fiction. w/c

An Intimate Margaret Sanger

Terrible Virtue

By Ellen Feldman

Authoring a biography of a life lived publicly can be fraught with challenges, among them the question of veracity, as Virginia Woolf artfully and humorously lampooned in Orlando. Harder still is digging deeper into a famous life, down to the emotional self of the person to illuminate the sacrifices a person makes, particularly if the person engages in a virtuous crusade against centuries of belief and tradition, as did Margaret Sanger. Ellen Feldman lifts the title of her novelization of Sanger’s life from her subject’s own words: in the pursuit of a virtuous cause, Sanger suffered in many ways, among them the sacrifice of a home life with her three children, with the haunting self-accusation that she contributed to the death of her daughter, to a broken marriage and love affairs, to alienation of family and friends.

Sanger witnessed firsthand as a girl growing up in Corning, NY, the toll of unlimited childbirth on her mother and her very large family. She also saw that well-off women avoided having a half dozen, even a dozen, children, as did poor women who could ill afford them. She set about learning everything she could about limiting family size, until, while only a visiting nurse, she knew more than most doctors. And unlike those doctors who did understand birth could be prevented with a bit of education, some of whom were familiar with methods used in more liberal European countries, she set about disseminating that information and those methods, particularly the diaphragm (known then as pessary, and earlier as a womb veil). The latter she learned about when pursuit by the federal government under the guise of Anthony Comstock, a U.S. postal inspector dedicated to preserving Victorian morality at nearly any cost, forced her to flee the U.S. for Europe.

A movement like birth control certainly could not be achieved by just one person. As Feldman’s novelization dramatizes, many of the leading radicals of the day and leading society women supported her cause. However, as was illustrated with her coopting of her sisters Ethel’s hunger strike, Sanger was not above directing the spotlight on herself, alienating many, not the least of whom her own sons who wished for a mother, or at least a bit more of her in their young lives. She also wasn’t immune to stumbling down and supporting discredited causes, the most notable being eugenics, though as Feldman has Sanger point out, this was a couple of decades prior its use to eliminate and prevent what one group or another felt were “undesirables,” namely the Nazis, as well as practitioners of serialization in the U.S.

Sanger proved herself, too, to be a woman of interesting contradictions. Socially and philosophy, while herself engaging in her own version of free love, she did not advocate excessive sex, though she did believe, and found this to be true herself, that birth control could allow women to enjoy and better express their sexuality. She enjoyed time with many famous lovers, with the likes of Hugh de Selincourt (Brits will know him), Havelock Ellis, and H.G. Wells appearing in Feldman’s novel. Also, while a woman firmly rooted in the social causes and pleasures of a worldly life, she was a spiritualist, as the final pages of her life illustrate, her particular expression being Rosicrucianism.

Feldman’s novelization follows a linear path from early life, to working life, to death. From time to time, and with great effect and insight, she interjects statements highlighting and criticizing aspects of Sanger’s life. These statements come from her sister Ethel, her sons Stuart and Grant , her first and second husbands, her legal defender and lover J.J. Goldstein, as well as others, and serve to add dimension showing the effect she and her driven determination had on those close to her.

All in all, Feldman’s novel is a worthwhile and at times penetrating look at a woman who in the eyes of many changed the world for the better by starting a campaign that by no means is anywhere near over. w/c

Our Most Liked Review Ever

The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story

By Lily Koppel

Since we told you about our most hated review, we thought you might enjoy knowing what was our most liked. Sad to say it wasn’t a stellar review of a truly meritorious novel or non-fiction book. Nope.

Sometimes you dash off a blurb of a book review and expect nothing of it. Then, to your surprise, it resonates with people who shared your expectations and were equally disappointed. So it was with Koppel’s really cursory and inadequate coverage of a topic we had high hopes for. More than 9 out of 10 of the hundreds who read the review that follows at the end either found it helpful or concurred with our evaluation.

When Stephanie Savage (known for Gossip Girl) reimagined the book as a limited-episode television event running on ABC, we decided to give it look. Sometimes with the vision and skill of a good show runner a bad book can make for good film. Unfortunately, the television version of Koppel’s book proved as vapid as her book. While the production values, a visually interesting pictorial of the fashions, tract homes and autos of the late 50s and 60s, were quite good, the story line, which included a love interest involving a Life magazine reporter and Louise Shepard, proved mundane, riddled with cliches, and, worst of all, revealed nothing additional about the wives.

Here’s the review:

In the name of comprehensiveness, Lily Koppel sacrifices a lot, that being a deeper understanding of what it must have been like to be the wives of the astronauts, especially wives of the Mercury 7. In fact,the early pages devoted to the Mercury program are the best part of the book. Koppel probably would have produced a better, more in-depth, and more insightful examination had she focused on these early years. Just our opinion.

Too, much of what she does cover we know already. Long periods of separation, check. Pressure on marriages, check. Horndog husbands (except for a few), check. Tears and breakdowns, check. Bossy NASA, check.

There’s a great book lurking in the subject, that’s for certain. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. Decent reportage at best.

Perhaps a brilliant novelist whose long suit is psychological analysis will tackle the subject. Now, that might be an interesting book.

And no index, no listing of astronauts and wives [included in current editions], nothing you would expect in a non-fiction book of this sort.

The astronaut wives endured a lot and deserve better. A disappointment. w/c

New Duplication Method Invented Today … in 1876!

Thomas Edison Patents an Improved Mimeograph

The youngest among you probably are wondering: What the heck is a mimeograph? Hopefully, you’re not wondering who in the heck Thomas Edison was, the prolific inventor who patented an improved process and received his patent on August 8, 1876. (Edison’s patent application, Rutgers Edison online archive)

Over the years, the mimeograph underwent refinement until some reading this might remember their teachers distributing lessons printed in blue ink on sheets giving off a distinctive alcohol-like fragrance. (An example from McMaster University Library, circa 1960)

If you were a teacher in the 1950s through the 1970s, you probably recall arriving at school early to use the machine before your fellow educators either exhausted the ink or the paper and you were left with zip to hand out.

For those old enough to remember the mimeograph, hopefully it’s a pleasant memory for you. For younger people, why not ask your parents or grandparents if they remember and then what memories they bring back, such as the dreaded history pop-quiz, or the alky aroma and high before second period?

Doubtless, one day in the future the photocopy will fade away, as has the mimeograph, and someone will have to remind us that yes, intact, such a thing did exist. w/c

Memento Mori, Postmortem Photography

Remembering the Deceased in the 19th Century

Recently, we watched The Others, a 2001 horror film by Alejandro Amenábar, starring Nicole Kidman (comments to come soon). In the film, Kidman’s character discovers an album filled with strange photographs. She asks her housekeeper about them and learns she holds an album of the dead; that is, a collection of photos of the recently deceased posed as they appeared in life.

Some may not be familiar with the practice as it has all but died out, though occasionally you will still see posed photos of the dead even today. You may be surprised to learn that it was fairly common practice to photograph deceased loved ones to keep as mementos and preserve their memory.

Postmortem photography developed soon after the invention of photography. While the wealthy could easily afford to have their likeness and those of people dear to them captured in paintings for posterity, such expense was beyond the means of ordinary people. Photography provided the rising middleclass with a way to keep a memento of husbands, wives, and children. The practice continued throughout the 19th century, dying out when snap photography came on the scene, allowing for living images.

Postmortem photography proved popular enough that photo studios advertised it as among their business’s specialties. Photographers often posed the dead in life-like situations: seated, reading, playing with toys (in the case of children), and the like. In many photos, you’ll see the subjects’ eyes open, done to create as life-like an effect as possible. Common, also, was posing the dead with their brothers and sisters, with their parents, or in a full family portrait.

While this may seem particularly macabre to us, people of the times regarded it as anything but. Famous and prolific letter writer, and wife of historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle, Jane Welsh Carlyle wrote to a friend in praise of its commemorative value:

“Blessed be the inventor of photography! I set him above even the inventor of chloroform! It has given more positive pleasure to poor suffering humanity than anything else that has cast up in my time or is like to — this art by which even the poor can possess themselves of tolerable likenesses of their absent dear ones.” (Find in her letter to a Mrs. Stirling of Edinburg, 1859, from A letter book, selected with an introduction on the history and art of letterwriting, by George Saintsbury, 1922)

We’ll let hers be the final word on Memento Mori.

To view samples, see these at BuzzFeed. c/w