Sunday, June 14, 2009
A SHORT HISTORY OF WOMEN
By Kate Walbert
Scribner. 237 pp. $24
Kate Walbert announces the high stakes of her fine new novel in the first line: "Mum starved herself for suffrage." It is a startling opening. Dorothy Townsend dies on a hunger strike with a clear moral purpose but also leaves behind two orphans and a mother who says that "it was just like [her] to take a cause too far."
"A Short History of Women," spanning more than a century, follows five generations of females facing moral conundrums. In this telling, "A Short History of Women" is also the title of a 1914 lecture delivered at the Victoria Club by a male philosopher, eugenicist and supporter of women's suffrage. His condescension ("This is not dollies in nappies, ladies") infuriates Dorothy, though she -- soon to starve herself -- cannot bring herself to challenge him. In a delicious turn, his lecture anticipates an opinion to be voiced nearly a century later by Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, on the subject of women's mathematical abilities "at the high end."
Such time-traveling ironies are typical of Walbert, one of five female finalists for the 2004 National Book Award in fiction. The announcement of the five set off a literary snipe fest, and the contempt expressed for "obscure" women writers in 2004 provides an apt echo chamber for this novel's concerns. Walbert's books have all dealt, intelligently if dryly, with the lives of women, but this one is her most ambitious and impressive. The novel shuffles geographies and eras -- a chapter set in 21st-century Patagonia is followed by one in late 19th-century Cambridge -- as if to reflect the non-linear progress of feminism. Walbert also utilizes compression and flashback to sweep through time, her style reminiscent of a host of innovative writers from Virginia Woolf to Muriel Spark to Pat Barker.
Evelyn Townsend, Dorothy's daughter, narrates the shattering time from 1914 to 1918 in an eerily understated voice, her rage sublimated and distilled into frightening clarity. She describes the girls in her safe English boarding school lying "like so many corpses in a trench," linking them not only to her mother and the soldiers dying across the channel but also to her own devastation.
Evelyn's is the only first-person voice the novel employs; the other women's stories are told in the third person, even blog posts and a Facebook profile. After the setting shifts from England to the United States, Evelyn and her blogging niece, Dorothy Barrett, whom she never meets, become the leading characters in this tale, but there are no heroes here, no sentimental visions of what it means to be a suffragist or a late-blooming feminist.
Like the women's movement, this novel is interested in many voices. It is simultaneously funny, moving and horrifying on the subject of 1970s-style rap sessions and their revelations of secret abortions, a gay husband, unenlightened childbirth.
Motherhood is, naturally, one of the central questions of a novel focused on "the Woman Question." In response to her mother's hunger strike, Evelyn, who becomes a chemistry professor, decides never to bear children but to live in chaste comradeship with an older "compatriot." Her niece, Dorothy, has a long marriage and three children, but loses her son to cancer and divorces her husband late in life. Dorothy's daughters, moneyed and privileged, are so distanced from their children, so consumed with free-floating anxiety, that their barrier-free educations and reproductive freedom are no match for the existential questions all humans must face.
Walbert weaves in two other political strands, war and class, both deepening the women's quandaries. Protesters inform every era of this novel: The young Evelyn is horrified by the story of Americans torturing Hutterite pacifists during World War I, and 90 years later the aging Dorothy Barrett, in her quest to be a witness, is arrested for photographing Iraq War coffins. Class is also crucial: In several subversive scenes, wealthy women, hypersensitive to condescending treatment, treat their own servants appallingly. But in the novel's closing chapter, Evelyn, who years earlier arrived penniless at Barnard College, expresses restrained but warm regard for a "scholarship girl" sent to assist her, and the writer's empathy for those who have struggled their way to a sense of worthiness shines through.
That is not to say that Walbert ties up either her novel or her characters too neatly. "A Short History" deals with complicated women living in complicated times, and if it is empathetic, it is also disturbing, as all moral conundrums are. It is a witty and assured testament to the women's movement and women writers, obscure and renowned.
-- Valerie Sayers, professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of five novels.