Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ahead of Her Time

There are some lives that don’t need to be turned into historical fiction because they already read like a novel, if not a movie. And there are some historical figures that are alluring to us because they seem ... well, so modern.

Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), is a case in point. She was well ahead of her time, advocating things that don’t seem so radical to us now but which were practically unheard of in the 18th century: education for women that extended beyond drawing and music and the like; physical exercise for females; marriage based on mutual respect and companionship.

But Wollstonecraft didn’t just write about her principles, she lived them: she bore a child out of wedlock to a man she had fallen madly in love with–in the midst of the French Revolution, no less (she had traveled from her native England to Paris in order to write about the events transpiring there). True, when the object of her affection (an American cad named Gilbert Imlay) turned out to be a philanderer, she did what many women in similar circumstances have done, before and since: she tried to commit suicide. Twice.

But then she picked herself back up, wrote another book, and found herself another man–the philosopher William Godwin, who fell in love with her through reading that very book. They didn’t plan on getting married either, because they objected to the institution on principle. But when Wollstonecraft found herself pregnant again (thanks to their birth control method, which consisted of having sex as frequently as possible), they sacrificed their principles for the sake of their child: being born illegitimate was a substantial handicap.

Theirs was a very modern marriage: Godwin, needing his space, maintained separate quarters near Wollstonecraft’s home. In some ways they led independent lives. At the same time, though, they read each other’s work and encouraged each other’s literary endeavors and were generally pretty happy, despite their lack of funds. But it was not to last: Wollstonecraft (now Mrs. Godwin) died as a result of giving birth to their daughter, also named Mary. (She grew up to be Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.)

It’s hard for us, in the 21st century, to imagine how much courage it took to say the things that Mary Wollstonecraft said–and how much more courage it took to live her life the way she did. In an age when celebrities routinely have children out of wedlock (I remember seeing one headline in a celebrity magazine that said something like, “I want to get married BEFORE I have the baby," says Jamie Lynn Spears”), it takes a leap of imagination to understand what it meant for an educated, upper middle class woman to choose to become what used to be called an unwed mother.

Actually, Wollstonecraft didn’t trumpet the details of her unconventional life when she was alive; she even called herself “Mrs. Imlay” before she married Godwin, to conceal the fact that she had had her first child out of wedlock. That cover was, of course, blown to some extent when she turned around and became Mrs. Godwin. But most of the details came out only after her death, when Godwin–in a supremely misguided attempt to pay tribute to his deceased wife–spilled all the beans in a memoir.

For the next hundred years or so, the name “Wollstonecraft” became synonymous with “immoral crackpot.” Even 19th-century feminists, building on her legacy, did their best to disassociate themselves from her.

And of course, in some ways she was a crackpot–or at least a weirdo. She was someone who simply didn’t care what people thought, or didn’t care that much. I sometimes wonder what I would have thought of Wollstonecraft had I been one of her contemporaries. I hope I would have admired and appreciated her, but I doubt I would have had the courage to be her.

And I wonder, sometimes, who today’s “Wollstonecrafts” are. Do I dismiss them as crackpots, or am I able to recognize that they’re the voice of the future?

I don't know. But I do know who should play Mary Wollstonecraft in the movie: Claire Danes. Trust me on this!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Keeping It Real

I’m a big fan of Jill Lepore’s articles for The New Yorker, and I was particularly intrigued by one she wrote back in March 2008, called "Just the Facts, Ma’am." Lepore, who is a professor of history at Harvard, made a number of points that echoed my own thoughts, but what really struck me was her observation that fiction "can do what history doesn’t but should: it can tell the story of ordinary people ... the history of obscure men. Who are these obscure men? Well, a lot of them are women."

Right on, I thought (or would have thought, if I still thought in the idiom of the sixties). That’s what I was trying to do with my novel A More Obedient Wife, and what I’m currently trying to do with the novel I’m working on: taking obscure historical figures–and my main characters all happen to be women–and supplementing the fragmentary evidence with my imagination in order to bring them to some kind of life.

So when I heard that Lepore had collaborated with another historian of 18th-century America, Jane Kamensky–who teaches at Brandeis–on a historical novel set in the 1760's called Blindspot, I was eager to read it. I’ll admit I was a little skeptical when I heard it was a collaboration–I can’t imagine writing a novel with another person (even another person who looks almost like my twin, as Lepore and Kamensky do, judging from the book jacket photo). And I became even more skeptical when a friend told me the book had been panned in Publisher’s Weekly. But other reviews have been pretty favorable, and I tried to approach it with an open mind.

There’s certainly much in the book to admire. The authors know their 18th-century stuff (they’re the kind of readers I dreaded for my own book–the kind who’d be likely to pick up immediately on any embarrassing errors), and the style is fairly authentic to the period, but not so authentic a modern reader will find it tough going.

Still, my basic reaction was disappointment. I found it hard to care about the characters as much as I wanted to–they didn’t seem quite real to me. Part of the problem may be that the authors are at great pains (perhaps too great pains) to create a bawdy romp in the earlier part of the book, and then, when things take a more serious turn, it’s hard for the reader to switch gears. Or it was for this reader, anyway.

But another problem may be that these characters just aren’t real, in the sense that they don’t seem to think and feel like the vast majority of people of their class and their era. Not only are they sexually uninhibited–a characteristic I imagine has existed among humans in all times and places, at least in private–but they write about their sexual adventures in graphic detail.

I was readier to believe this of the main male character, Stewart Jameson, a portrait painter who is something of a rake, apparently based loosely on the artist Gilbert Stuart. But I had a harder time with the female character, Fanny Easton, a well bred Boston damsel who has fallen into distress. Okay, so she’s been seduced and had a child out of wedlock; but still–given the strict standards of modesty with which she would have been inculcated–I find it hard to believe she’d enthusiastically record an episode of extramarital oral sex in her journal.

Not surprisingly, Jameson and Easton also hold rather modern views on the role of women and equality of the sexes (although, in the authors’ defense, this is partly explained by the fact that for most of the novel, Fanny is disguised as a boy–so by the time Jameson discovers her true identity, he’s already formed certain opinions about her).

And not only are they opposed to slavery, they both have strong relationships to black characters: Fanny considers a slave child fathered by her own father to be her sister, to whom she feels deep familial ties–an attitude I suspect even the most ardent abolitionists of the time would have shied away from. And Jameson’s best friend is an African who has been highly educated by scholars as an experiment on the capacities of the African race, then sold into slavery–an experience that has left him irritatingly, if understandably, embittered. (This is the second novel I’ve come across lately featuring a character in the Boston of the 1760's who has been educated this way–the first being the title character in the intriguing young adult novel, The Astonishing Adventures of Octavian Nothing. How many of these Africans could there have been?)

I can’t say with authority that people who held these attitudes didn’t exist in the 1760's, but having read pretty extensively in the correspondence of Americans who lived some 30 years later, I will say that I’m highly skeptical. I suspect that Lepore and Kamensky just endowed their fictional creations with 21st-century systems of ethics because–well, it’s a whole lot easier to write in the voices of people you basically identify with, And it’s a whole lot easier for readers to get behind them–at least, for those readers who haven’t spent years perusing correspondence between actual 18th-century people. And hey, perhaps you’ll say, what’s the big deal? After all, it’s fiction!

Yes, but. If, as Lepore said in her New Yorker piece, what fiction can do is tell the story of ordinary people, shouldn’t she make sure that her fictional 18th-century characters aren’t just 21st-century wolves in 18th-century sheep’s clothing? Otherwise, whose story is she telling?

In retrospect, I see that this was the advantage of my decision to incorporate into my novels letters to and from the historical figures my characters are based on. At times it's something of a pain: there, in black and white, are these inconvenient statements I would prefer to ignore. I'm forced to deal with attitudes that are alien to me, and are most likely going to be alien to my readers. As reflected in the title–A More Obedient Wife–these people didn’t exactly see marriage the way we do. And some of my characters owned slaves. While it's clear from the letters that some of them cared about the slaves’ welfare, and viewed them as something more than just a piece of property, the fact remains that they owned other human beings.

When I had one of my characters in A More Obedient Wife, Hannah Iredell, muse that it was easy to forget that her slaves had feelings just as she did, one of the members of my writing group objected: how could Hannah say such a thing, she demanded indignantly? But to my way of thinking, how could she not? How could Hannah own slaves unless she was able to convince herself that they were in some fundamental way different from herself?

In the book I’m working on now, set in the early 19th century, I have other problems: both of my upper-crust main characters, to different degrees, express opinions about "merchants" and their vulgarity that are archaic if not downright repugnant. One of them is starry-eyed about titled Europeans–any titled Europeans. The other holds fairly advanced opinions about the role of women, but even she buys into commonly held female stereotypes of the time–and also expresses horror when she finds that her estranged husband has been socializing with servants!

My objective, and my challenge, is to find common ground with my characters despite the radical difference in our views of the world, a kind of "nothing human is alien to me" approach. I feel it keeps my characters real, in the sense that they’re rooted in authentic voices of their period.

But beyond that, it forces me–and, I hope, my readers–to stretch a bit, to empathize with people who were in many ways quite different from ourselves. And that, it seems to me, is one thing fiction can do that–with any luck–will carry over into our daily lives. We all need to figure out how to put ourselves into the shoes, and inside the heads, of people who are definitely not "us."