Friday, July 17, 2015

Roberts & Wessely, Cranky Ladies of History (2015)

Tansy Rayner Roberts and Tehani Wessely (eds.), Cranky Ladies of History. FableCroft Publishing, 2015. Pp. 320. ISBN 978-0-9925534-5-6. AUD$34.95.

Reviewed by Valeria Vitale

Cranky Ladies of History, edited by Tehani Wessely and Tansy Rayner Roberts, and published by FableCroft, is the literary outcome of a crowdfunding campaign in March 2014. The theme, as the fundraiser announced, are the stories of women who have challenged (and sometimes changed) the expectations of what sort of behaviour was acceptable or appropriate for them, from ancient to more recent times. I was fond of this project even before reading the book. I liked the idea that these stories would contribute to make women in history a little more visible, to remind us that these protagonists (and many others like them) were not mere accessories or docile companions. In other words, in spite of what history written by men wants us to believe, this anthology points out that women existed and had agency, not only as daughters or wives or mothers of someone else.

It is indeed frustrating to encounter so few female figures when studying history or just reading about the past. It can even let you believe that women were almost absent or systematically relegated to marginal positions. But, actually, if we look more carefully, browsing the books from the inaccessible top shelf of the library, the most dusty archives’ documents, the discarded pictures in the collections, we do find out that, yeah, there were women around in the past too and, yes, they also did, wrote, created, said interesting things (although too often no one thought of recording them).

The anthology features 20 stories and 2 poems. I can imagine that, when you’re editing a book and receive many good submissions, you’re tempted to publish as many as possible of them. Personally, I prefer shorter collections. I think they let the reader (or at least me) get more attached to the single stories, leaving them time to sink in. While, with long ones, I have the feeling that stories with some similarities tend to blur a little in the reader’s memory. That is why I thought I would have started reading all the stories, but finish only the interesting ones. Truth is, I ended up reading—and finishing—them all.

As a person who has worked in public engagement, I am very interested in the use of storytelling to stimulate interest towards historical characters. But this strategy is potentially both very effective and very misleading. When it is the historical character herself, telling her own story, even within a fictional context, the public tends to assume that the story is true, and to forget that is always based on the author’s speculation and assumptions.

Although several of the cranky ladies’ stories are told in the first person, and all of them are objective and not hypothetical in style (i.e. they always tell “what happened” and not “what might have happened”), I have to say that only in a couple of occasions I wondered whether some part of the story was actually historically documented or born in the imagination of the writer. Usually the distinction is quite clear (or so I believe), to the point that several authors have no problems introducing non-realistic elements (from the use of magic to the presence of gates that lead to the Land of Fairies) in tales about historical characters, producing interesting and unexpected twists.

Among this kind of stories is one of my favourites of the book, “Mary, Mary” by Kirstyn McDermott. It tells the life of Mary Wollstonecraft—philosopher, writer, activist—in a series of flashbacks that start when she lies in her death bed. The fantastic enters the story in the shape of a mysterious lady dressed in grey and always wearing gloves. After her first accidental (?) meeting with Mary, the Grey Lady becomes a constant presence for her in the most crucial moments: her professional successes, her burning failures, her love sorrows. The unnamed lady, who only Mary is able to see and hear, seems to have a connection to wasps, and be able to predict someone’s destiny from their smell. She is next to Mary until her very last, painful moments. The lady would have left, after Mary passed away, if she had not just met Mary’s daughter (the future Mary Shelley): a baby with a very, very unusual smell.

I was surprised to discover that three of the stories were about women pirates. I mean “surprised” in a good way. Especially because I recently tried to search the internet exactly for maritime stories with female protagonists, and when I typed “women sea stories” Google tried to correct it to “women sex stories.” Thank you Google… Also, I would have really appreciated if someone had told me, when I was a little girl, that, yes, women pirates were a thing. A real thing. The three pirate-themed stories are quite different, though. The one I enjoyed the most is “The Dragon, the Terror, the Sea” by Stephanie Lai, about the life of Ching Shih, the Terror of the South China Sea. Subverting my expectations, the story is not a series of battles and shipwrecks, but tells of careful planning, political strategy, family ties and loyalty. Again, surprisingly, it’s not about the sea, but the sacrifice of living on the mainland when it is for the greater good. And the protagonist is not a warrior at the apex of her strength and charm, but a woman that knows she is losing her skills.

I know it is to be expected in an anthology published in English language, but the fact that the majority of the characters belong to the Anglo-Saxon world is a bit of a shame, because I was really looking forward to discovering new incredible women’s stories. There are exceptions, of course. Like “Bright Moon” by Foz Meadows or “Vintana” by Thoraiya Dyer. The first follows (or, better, imagines) the youth of Khutulun, daughter of the Khan. The girl is particularly keen on outdoor activities, and has, also, very strong opinions on the fact that “women are not allowed to wrestle”. Not only she is going to ride to battle like her brother, but she is also determined to not marry anyone, unless they are able to defeat her in a wrestling competition. A bit like in a feminist (and less gruesome) version of the fairy tale of princess Turandot, many men are seduced by the idea of marrying so easily the daughter of the Khan. But, as often happens, men turned out to have been way, way too confident. In this version of the story, Khutulun is supported by her family, especially when she proudly refuses to marry arrogant, Christian potential grooms. But what will Khutulun do when she is forced to marry by her own father, and when her family’s choice is a not at all displeasing option? The second story, “Vintana,” is one of the few that is, partly, choral. Set in Madagascar at the beginning of 1800, it is, mainly, about proud queen Ranavalona. But also about her husband, her cook, her lover, the high priest, the heir and other members of the community living around the royal family. It is an engaging tale very accurately crafted, where points of view shift continuously but smoothly. The feelings described are strong, the actions extreme. Like queen Ranavalona.

Although I knew, or had at least heard of, half of the characters that populate this anthology, I’m very glad I could meet for the first time the other half. I didn’t know about the empress who invented how to produce silk (“Charmed Life” by Joyce Chng), or Catherine Helen Spence author of A Week in the Future, a story similar to H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, but years before H.G. Wells (the book provides a link to the online version at Project Gutenberg). Interestingly, the author, Kaaron Warren, writes the whole piece as Spence, imagining her rethinking her futuristic utopia when is older, and year 1988 is not that far away anymore.

The anthology achieves a good variety in the age of the female characters. From newborn little girls to old queens and dying nuns. Different roles and perspectives, sometimes connected with different age and experience, find their place in the anthology, to the point that two characters that appear in the first story (“Queenside”, by Liz Barr) mostly as children, Elizabeth and Mary Tudor, appear again in the final one (“Glorious”, by Faith Mudge) as adults.

If I had to point out a flaw of this anthology, apart from the over representation of Anglo-American characters (probably due to the language of publication) or the over representation of high status characters (probably due to the nature of historical documentation), it would be the fact that several of the stories tend to start in a didactic tone that makes the narrations sound a bit like school text-books. All the stories then take off, and that feeling is forgotten. However, it seems like the authors are sometimes too worried about making the historical setting clear to the reader from the very first page. It feels like being in the audience of one of those theatrical plays where the characters start the dialogue saying lines such as: “It’s very hot in this autumn of 1918. We shall open the windows, so we can see the Red Army marching on the street”. Maybe a brief paragraph with a few historical information before the story would have eased the pressure from the authors or, possibly even better, just a little more trust in the reader’s ability to gradually build the narrative context without losing interest in the story.

Cranky Ladies of History is a collection of stories definitely worth reading. The quality of the prose is good, and most of the stories are both, informative and very engaging on an emotional level. It is a fascinating and inspiring parade of great women, some smart some naive, some cunning some brutally honest, some powerful some invisible, some stone-hearted some tender. They portray a rich variety of feelings, relationships, approaches. Although some of the starts are slightly awkward, all the stories then flow effortlessly. Second volume soon?

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