Women Writing Women’s Lives

November 8, 2015 at 11:06 am (books, history, research) (, )


As a member of BIO – the Biographers International Organization – every month I get to savor a Newsletter (The Biographer’s Craft). This month features another piece about the group WOMEN WRITING WOMEN’S LIVES. I’ve known about WWWL for some little while, but find myself compelled to write about their latest conference because of the comments and questions raised in the BIO Newsletter.

For instance,

  • Whose life is valuable enough to deserve a biography?

WWWL’s response: “Any life has the potential to be a biography.”

At the “founding”, 25 years ago, ‘the two organizers listened as one woman after another poured out her concerns about the obstacles involved in researching and writing the lives of women—including the need to find “the courage to think that women’s lives, on their own and without any attachment to men, were important and interesting enough to deserve being put into print.”’

I can never claim for Mary or Emma – even for someone as dynamic as Mamma (Mrs. Charles Smith) – that they “overcame obstacles and achieved remarkable things”. But I know, in my heart, that their lives, so indicative of the “ordinary”, being so well-represented in letters, diaries, even published memoirs, IS remarkable. If just for the tenacity of the items to surface! Certainly, we cannot understand – cannot imagine – life in another time (200 years ago) without the ability to feel placed within the shoes of someone who LIVED in that other time.

Austen_Emma

And, truth be told, their lives WERE filled with so much drama and pathos, joy and heartbreak. It would be beyond fiction, if it weren’t all true!

A very interesting section of the article concerns the “selling off” of female-related material. Rather brings to mind the wonderful cache of letters relating to Emily Duchess of Leinster. It’s amazing that the family would, at some point in the past, have given up such TREASURE (Emily’s letters are in the collection of the National Library of Ireland).

I have the book Dear Abigail (about Abigail Adams and her sisters), cited further down the article; with its emphasis on the life of Abigail (and therefore John Adams), I’m not sure the author was as successful as could be hoped in presenting the story of a “sisterhood”. I, on the other hand, an only child, SEE how a “sisterhood” of siblings (brothers and sisters) functioned in the gentry class of London society at the beginning of the 19th century. Their solidarity is FASCINATING to study.

suttons_Mary-silhouette2

One question near the article’s end is of major concern to me:

  • Do publishers still care if no one has heard of the subject? Well, yes.

And there’s a major reason for the existence of this blog! Not only to help me find more material (and it has!), but also to connect with people who just might give a damn about Mary & Emma and all my “cast of thousands”. That “connection” has been its own reward.

The parting shot of the article?

‘[B]y holding the biographer to a high standard of both writing and scholarship … [i]t has also raised the bar for biographers as narrators. Nowadays, as Bair noted, “the biographer has to be able to write a page-turner and yet refuse to relinquish truth and authenticity.”’ I feel that my skills are up to the task, but in the end only people like YOU will give thumb down or up.

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