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Group Biographies Give Trailblazing Historical Women Their Due

Category: Art & Culture,Books

The third-person voice narrating all this, however — so distinct from those of any of the three women — is jarring. Shorr’s modern intrusions are welcome (of Bath she says, “You might call it the proto-gated-community effect”), and the reminders of the subjects’ youth are crucial: Shelley is 24, and Joan of Arc a teenager here. But these are women who nonetheless attained an astonishing poise and maturity that fails to come across in Shorr’s prose, except when they’re quoted directly. Perhaps it’s an impossible task, but I doubt if any of these headstrong, blazing women would recognize their inner voices in her tepid sentences.

299 pp. Norton. $25.95.

WOMEN WHO DARED TO BREAK ALL THE RULES
By Jeremy Scott

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What do Mary Wollstonecraft, Coco Chanel, Victoria Woodhull (the spiritualist who ran for president of the United States in the 1870s) and Aimee Semple McPherson (the early-20th-century preacher whose Pentecostalist sect still commands hundreds of millions of followers today) have in common? The answer, Scott tells us in “Women Who Dared,” is charisma: “a quality elusive to pin down.” One suspects, however, that had he been more frank he might have informed us that these are women who simply happen to interest him. Telling their stories one after another, moving back and forth among centuries and continents, this group biography really illuminates the limitations of retelling the same lives in new combinations. The desire to consecrate women’s experiences is liable to decrease in dividends if it turns into an industry.

A reader might expect a male author who appoints himself the task of writing biographies of such complicated subjects to display unusual sensitivity to female experience. Instead, Scott seems openly baffled, delighted and infuriated by women. McPherson is “exceptionally pretty with animated face, bee-stung lips and a mouth made for kissing,” he writes excitedly, before later reflecting that she and Woodhull “must have been a nightmare to deal with when their blood was running.” He is attentive, meanwhile, to the trials of men: He feels for the Duke of Argyll, whose thrice-adultering wife, Margaret (one of the book’s designated subjects), was photographed in a sexually explicit position with an unidentified man, lamenting that the duke’s “image as a kilted treasure-hunter … morphed into that of a cuckold and weakling.”

There are some great stories along the way, and Scott tells them with verve, but this is not a book that needed to be written. It feels too easy to accuse him of mansplaining. But here he is on nymphomania: “You will not have failed to note that every one of these diagnoses, categories and labels was devised by males.” You don’t say!

275 pp. Oneworld. Paper, $20.


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