6 Degrees covers: Rodham, The Red Tent, Circe, The Silence of the Girls, Galileo's Daughter, Loving Frank, Ahab's Wife

6 Degrees of Separation: Women’s Voices

It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.

This month we begin with Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Rodham, published May 19, 2000. According to Goodreads, Sittenfeld’s novel examines this question: “What if Hillary Rodham hadn’t married Bill Clinton?”

I have not read this book and am not likely to, because Hillary Rodham Clinton is still alive and well, and more than capable of examining and explicating her own life choices. Whether she does so publicly or privately should be her own choice. I find the whole premise of Rodham presumptuous, distasteful, even offensive. 

However, I appreciate fiction that sets out to give voice to unheard women whose lives have been largely overlooked by the writers of history (most of whom have always been men). Here are six novels that do just that.

1. The first novel I remember reading consciously as the effort to give voice to historically suppressed women is The Red Tent (1997) by Anita Diamant. The novel tells the story of Dinah, a daughter of Jacob, who is mentioned only tangentially in the narration about the famous patriarch and his many sons in the Book of Genesis. In telling of Dinah’s interactions with Jacob’s four wives, Diamant imagines what the life of women’s society inside the red tent might have been like during biblical times.

2. Greek and Roman mythology feature many stories of women, both divine and mortal, at the mercy of men. In Circe (2018) Madeline Miller tells the story of one such woman, the daughter of mighty sun god Helios. When Circe turns to the mortal world for companionship, she discovers and perfects her powers of witchcraft while interacting with several mythological mortals, including Homer’s Odysseus. Chosen by Book of the Month subscribers as Book of the Year for 2018 and nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2019), the novel is “a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man’s world” (from the dust jacket).

3. In The Silence of the Girls (2018) Pat Barker gives voice to Briseis as a representative of the thousands of women behind the scenes of the ancient war between the Greeks and the Trojans. First taken as a spoil of war by Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, Briseis soon becomes a pawn in the power struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon, the Greek leader. Barker “brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations” (Goodreads).

4. In Galileo’s Daughter (2000) Dava Sobel turns to the historical figure of Galileo’s oldest child, Sister Marie Celeste, who was the scientist’s main confidante and supporter through his contentious relationship with the Catholic Church. Sobel has translated Marie Celeste’s remaining letters to her father and used them as a basis for this book, the subtitle of which is “A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love.”

5. In 1903 Mamah Borthwick Cheney and her husband Edwin hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design a new house for them. During the construction of the house Mamah and Frank fell in love, although each was married, with children. The two plunged into a life together that scandalized Chicago society. But Mamah Cheney remained merely a footnote to the life of the eminent architect until Nancy Horan brought her imaginatively to life in her 2007 novel Loving Frank

6. While kernels of history provided the sources for the previous books, Sena Jeter Naslund found the inspiration for her novel Ahab’s Wife, or The Star-Gazer (1999) in an earlier work of fiction. A brief mention in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick lead her to imagine a woman whose own life could stand beside that of the relentless Captain Ahab. Amazon calls this book “an enthralling and compellingly readable saga, spanning a rich, eventful, and dramatic life. At once a family drama, a romantic adventure, and a portrait of a real and loving marriage, Ahab’s Wife gives new perspective on the American experience.”

All these works of historical fiction demonstrate how writers can use their art to give voice to people who have been glossed over by history. I would prefer that novelists use their talents in this vein and leave still-living people to own their own stories.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

12 thoughts on “6 Degrees of Separation: Women’s Voices”

  1. I love your chain, Mary. Like you, I have no interest in reading Rodham but The Red Tent was seminal for me and the others you’ve chosen were either already on my to be read list or have now been added! Just need to make the time to get to them…

  2. The Red Tent has languished on my shelves, unread, for years. I know I need to read it, so It never made it into a Book Purge. Has its moment arrived I wonder?

  3. What a strong opening statement, Mary. It made me stop and think, because not for one moment had I wondered what Hillary thinks of Sittenfeld’s book. That’s generated all manner of thoughts in my head on privacy, the nature of truth, the protection of the factual record, and where literary licence might be permitted. Most of the books in my chain involve the reimagining of actual people’s lives. Because I work with archives, and because many of the documents that were created to enable a state or an organisation to function are limited in what they tell you about people, my take is that any non-fiction biography has an element of fiction in it, because unless the person is there to ask, and you feel that their truth about themselves is an accurate one, how can anyone really know? And then there’s the danger that fictional accounts of actual people will become accepted facts about them, because not everyone is honourable in making the distinction between fact and fiction, and particularly not the American Right where Hillary is concerned.

    Thanks for the honesty of your opening!

    I’d forgotten about The Silence of the Girls (too many books and all that!), so that’s gone back on the wishlist. I love the sound of the book about Ahab’s wife from Moby Dick, as well. I’d not heard of that one before. And Dava Sobel’s book about Galileo’s daughter – I’d forgotten about that one, too – I loved her books about the search for a method of measuring longitude and the book about the solar system. I’m intrigued by the book about Mamah Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright (I’m singing the Simon and Garfunkel song in my head as I type), because I know very little about FLW. It’s reminded me, too, of another book I could have added to my chain – Shiromi Pinto’s Plastic Emotions, which imagines the life of Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva and her supposed relationship with Le Corbusier.

    1. Thanks, Jan. I envy your work in archives, as it’s so easy to lose whole chunks of history if no one’s taking care to preserve it. On a personal note, I had a problematic childhood, and my dream has always been to find a stash of letters or diaries in a trunk in the attic left behind by my mother or grandmother that would explain everything to me. Whenever I see that situation as a premise for a novel, I read the novel, no matter how good or how bad it may be. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      1. Goodness. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have gaps in or unexplained aspects to your personal history. When I worked in a county record office, looking after church, coroner, hospital, school and adoption records, one of the most rewarding parts of my job was helping someone find answers to questions about their life. All I do is look after bits of paper, but those bits of paper can solve riddles. All the best to you, Mary.

  4. I really enjoyed your theme of giving voice to women which have been overlooked. The only I’ve read is Circe, which I enjoyed very much. Interestingly, I hadn’t heard of her before I read it, but I know she features in The Odyssey, so I guess that is my own fault.

  5. The Red Tent was the book that turned me into a book blogger. I had been thinking about it for a while but when I read that book I had to write a review. I enjoyed Circe too!

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