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October 28, 2010

A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert

Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women has been declared a novel, and certainly it functions with a similar narrative arc, but it’s a novel comprising 15 distinct sections, some of which have been previously published as short stories. The book spans over one hundred years, and four generations of one family, and though there are echoes of her predecessors in each woman’s experience, it is the disconnects between the women that are in some ways more significant. Each woman even disconnected from her own time and place– minds wander back into the past and turn the same pages over and over, all the while the present is overwhelmingly present, but never seems to be the point. The point never the point either– Walbert’s prose is slippery, no sentence or paragraph ever taking you where think that it will go.

If this were a more straightforward book, I’d tell you first that it’s about Dorothy Trevor Townsend, who attended Cambridge University at the turn of the century, but had to get permission to attend lectures with male students (with the promise that she wouldn’t speak), and couldn’t earn a degree, but a worthless certificate instead. She falls in with an Anarchist, but that all falls apart when he quits anarchy to rejoin his class, then fast-forward to fifteen years later when the whole world has fallen in with war. Desperate to give voice to the suffragette cause, which has lost support as the nation turns to the war effort instead, Dorothy goes on a hunger strike, relentlessly, and eventually loses her life.

The heartbreaking postscript to this story being the rest of the story, which is that Dorothy has two children, and they’ve already lost their father. Her son Thomas is sent to live with relatives in America, while her daughter Evelyn makes her own way, surviving WW1 in the wilds of Yorkshire, and then earning a scholarship to study mathematics at Bernard College in New York City. The invisible underscore to the rest of her life being her mother’s sacrifice, which had been her sacrifice as well, but not a willing one. She lives a life that is rich in its own peculiar way, but is also sadly stilted. Her own sacrifice was that she could only ever have one thing or another, and her story ends with a glimpse of a life that could have been more whole than that.

Evelyn never reconnects with her brother or his family, and years later his daughter Dorothy (who grew up estranged from Thomas) is surprised to discover her extraordinary family history. Throughout the book, we see her make conventional choices of marriage and children, and even flirt with second-wave feminism in the most suburban sense, but her awakening doesn’t come until later in life, until after forty years of marriage when she realizes she’s never been who she’s meant to be. Like her grandmother before her, this realization come with its own sacrifices, but there is a freedom with her age, and a world with mechanisms to support her.

Less supportive are her daughters Liz and Caroline, each different from the other but connected by disdain for their mother’s behaviour. Caroline is discovering that her efforts have not culminated in the life she was expecting, Liz is overwhelmed by quotidian demands, and both of their lives are dominated by fear. Both see promise, however, in their daughters– the possibility of hope. But perhaps there is something inevitable, as Caroline writes:

“I find it is the dark of night when you least expect it… regret, perhaps, but not, it is bigger than that, more epic, somehow, padded and full and weirdly historical: this restlessness, this discontent. You’ve done it wrong, again, and you were going to do it perfectly. You’ve lost the forest for the trees.”

A Short History of Women is a demanding book, in which the reader has to create her own space, take some time to find her feet. However, once accessed, the story opens wide with avenues to consider, new questions, connections made. The women’s experiences resemble one another, but not in ways predictable or parallel, and a reader who comes away with conclusions (if she manages to at all) will have had to wholeheartedly engage with the story in the process, with questions of how far these characters have actually come, and where there’s left to travel.

2 thoughts on “A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert”

  1. Alyssa says:

    Your review has piqued my interest – I’ll be picking this up soon.

    1. Kerry says:

      So glad to have that effect. It’s the kind of book I’m heartened to see alive in the world, asking all the hard questions with no easy answers, and therefore being so marvelously true.

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