“Scribbling Women” – Marthe Jocelyn – Tales of Extraordinary Women Before the Age of the Blog
“Don’t know much about history,” sings Sam Cooke at the beginning of his 1959 song, “Wonderful World.”
My admirable friend and Canadian author, Marthe Jocelyn, in contrast, knows quite a lot about history, and, in her new book “Scribbling Women” True Tales From Astonishing Lives, does her best to impart its wonders.
“Scribbling Women,” published by Tundra Books, outlines the lives of eleven extremely different yet remarkable women, each of whom set pen to paper (or fingers to typewriter) in ways that literally made history–their lives defying the boundaries of their circumstances, their writings serving as actual historical records of their times. In this series of short and insightful biographies, Jocelyn includes hefty, but digestible, chunks of these records–that is, the actual writing of each of her subjects–allowing readers to savor each woman’s unique voice.
The “scribbles”–ranging fromThe Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, written in Imperial Japan, to Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a 1112 page tome by Isabella Beeton of Victorian England, to the diary of Ada Blackjack, written on Wrangel Island, in the Eastern Cape of Siberia, in 1923–cover a vast range of time, geography, and style. Some of the texts were originally intended for publication, others, such as the diary of South Vietnamese physician, Dr. Dong Thuy Tram, seem to have been written simply to relieve an overburdened heart. To accommodate this range, Jocelyn deftly provides a context for each tale, inserting brief and friendly asides that explain important bits of political and social history, and also past cultural norms and vocabulary. In an age in which some would opt to bowdlerize Mark Twain rather than deal with historic complexity, her matter-of-fact approach to difficult and outmoded tags is incredibly refreshing.
Jocelyn writes primarily for the young adult reader, but the book is great for anyone interested in writing, women and writing women. Despite their “astonishing lives”, many of these women have received little popular attention (at least I hadn’t heard much of them): there is Margaret Catchpole, transported from England to New South Wales for horsestealing and prison escape; her letters now provide one of the few written records of early colony life; Harriet Ann Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, who spent seven years living in an attic cupboard at the edge of her master’s plantation; Nelly Bly, American jounalist, who, with (dare I say it?) crazy bravura, arranged a confinement an 1880‘s women’s insane asylum in order to get the inside story. (Nelly’s findings were reported in two articles in Joseph Pultizer’s The World, and later in the book, Ten Days in a Madhouse.)
Some of the women are more directly involved with the act of writing than others. (Sei Shonagon, for example, worries terribly about coming up with quick poetic responses.) The life of each, however, is fundamentally marked by her womanhood, in terms of both the dangers that threaten her and the opportunities that may avail. The particularly feminine suffering of some of the women, such as slave Harriet Jacobs, and aborigine Doris Pilkington Garimara, is sobering. But Scribbling Women offers lighter moments too, as when Mary Kingsley, English adventurer of the mid-19th century, writes of walking through West Africa:
“…the next news was I was in a heap, on a lot of spikes, some fifteen feet or so below ground level, at the bottom of a bag-shaped game pit. It is at these times you realize the blessing of a good thick skirt. Had I paid heed to the advice of many people in England…and adopted masculine garments, I should have been spiked to the bone and done for. Whereas, save for a good many bruises, here I was with the fullness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort, howling lustily to be hauled out.” From Mary Kingsley, author of Travels in West Africa, as quoted by Marthe Jocelyn, a scribbling woman.
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