Book Review: These Particular Women

These Particular Women

“Biographies are fictions we contrive about lives we find meaningful.”

These Particular Women, by Kat Meads, is a collection of ten essays, each offering a potted biography of famous or infamous women and those who lived alongside them. Perhaps to protect herself from the failings many biographers are accused of, the author quotes liberally from others who have already written of her subjects. This brings to light the many contradictions in accounts, and how the prejudices of the writer colour what is reported.

The first and longest essay focuses on Virginia Woolf. I say focus but Meads’ lens is more often a moving panorama. The legends surrounding Woolf are both numerous and various. Why this should be is explored as well as how Woolf may have thought and acted. Like many included in this collection, the subject is not presented in a particularly positive light. There is nothing catty or overly critical, it is more the overall picture highlights characteristics challenging to admire.

The second essay offers an overview of the woman who became William Faulkner’s widow. Estelle Oldham had many personal critics during her lifetime, including her mother. Like many in the literary world, it seems, there was heavy drinking alongside numerous affairs. The window into family life offered by children reveals unhappiness amidst supposed success. Meads tries to gain a snapshot of homelife by visiting family houses that have become museums. Any lingering ghosts have been carefully staged by the modern curators with little apparent concern for authenticity.

Next up is Jean Harris who shot dead her lover, Herman Tarnower, in his bedroom. Two writers published works about Harris written from quite different perspectives. One even became the murderer’s friend and advocate.

Meads then delves into the life of Agatha Christie, especially her eleven day disappearance. What comes to the fore here is the role played by the media – how publicity can be both a blessing and a curse. Authors wanting to retain control of their own narrative may struggle when a voracious public demand to know Who? Why? When? How? Where? Which? – the plot structure so often lacking in real life. When authors draw on autobiographical detail in their fiction, – including interviews – gaps will be filled by their readers.

Kitty Oppenheimer is the next subject scrutinised. The theoretical physicist considered the father of the atomic bomb was her fourth husband. Kitty’s life with him does not appear to have been happy, although accounts of her are generally negative so perhaps evasive.

“Kitty did what she had always done when she found herself without a man. She looked around and saw that another was available, this time Robert Serber” …
Of note: no source accuses Robert Serber of an inability to be without a woman; no source accuses Robert Serber of attaching himself to the female nearest at hand.”

Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind, is considered around the frame of the apartment where she wrote her famous work. The guide who takes Meads around this ‘tourist attraction’ does not come across as enamoured with his role, adding humour to an account of how false such places are now.

The arts reviews written by the next subject, Mary McCarthy, sound amusing if scathing. Critics took the same approach to her novels. Given current habits of  mostly talking up contemporaries, this sounds almost refreshing. McCarthy herself would offer critiques of her own work. Her memoirs were written by an unreliable narrator. Much of her fiction drew on autobiography. Described as outspoken, what she said was often short on truth.

Although the author Caroline Blackwood is the subject of an essay, it is her writing on a perhaps more famous woman that draws attention.

“To say that Blackwood’s go at the Wallis Windsor story differs from other accounts on my Wallis shelf is to wildly understate.”

What follows is a saddening account of the Duchess’s final days, when her gatekeeper was a ‘necrophiliac lawyer’. Unlike this widow of a man who was once King, Blackwood was true blue aristocracy. Like many born to such a fate she suffered a bleak childhood, her fun only beginning when she escapes. There is much name dropping as her coterie is revealed.

The penultimate essay takes a swipe at mothers, particularly those of Mary Flannery and Sylvia Plath. It is interesting to consider how they regarded themselves and the support they offered alongside views of their famous offspring on these topics.

The book closes with Meads encounter with a book – Grace Margaret Morton’s The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance – first published in 1943 and picked up second hand at a sale. The copy contains annotations from a previous reader. What is of most interest is changing expectations of women, and also what views are still, depressingly, prevalent.

“The world still wants its women to conform to certain standards of beauty”

What each of these essays offers is a fresh take on lives that much has previously been written about. Meads offers up her thoughts with a light touch but still insightful viewpoints. She does not affect to be an expert but rather to highlight discrepancies in what those laying claim to such a title demonstrate with their output. As we all now know, memory is fallible.

One take from such elucidation is the shadow success and fame casts over personal lives, and how those directly involved deal with their unhappiness. Perhaps these subjects merit repeated attention because the contented are not regarded as interesting enough to keep the typically salacious reader engaged. Meads’ approach may come across as factual but there is nothing cold in her witty summations.

An interesting and entertaining collection that shines light into corners where certain debris accumulates. An intriguing addition to the histories of these famous women.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sagging Meniscus.


One comment on “Book Review: These Particular Women

  1. peterleyland says:

    This is a great review which makes me want to read the book. Thank you

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