Book Quote:

“Dorothy Townsend was an outspoken and active member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, though she broke with them when they advocated violence, and appeared not to have aligned herself with any of the myriad splinter suffrage movements, disillusioned, she wrote in one editorial, by how so many women stood in support of the First World War, their own demands aside. ‘War is a man-made institution,’ she wrote.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Mary Whipple (JUL 9, 2009)

My introduction to Kate Walbert was through her amazing novel The Gardens of Kyoto, in 2001, a book which, I said in a 2001 review, was “immensely powerful in effect, elegant in its composition…and quiet, subtle, and cerebral” with its message, a novel with fully developed characters. If I’d kept Favorites of the Year in 2001, this one would have been near the top.

A Short History of Women is quite a different book, a book in which the message is the most important aspect of the book—a message about the history of women, where we are now, and how we got here. Tracing five generations of one family from 1899 through the present, Walbert shows the myriad ways in which women have challenged the status quo, succumbed to it, or made their statements, for better or worse, their stories here existing almost as a series of interrelated short stories.

Dorothy Townsend, around whom the book revolves, is thirty-four in 1914, with a 13-year-old daughter Evelyn and a 10-year-old son Thomas. Having attended Girton College at Cambridge from 1896 – 1900, attaining a certificate, but not being granted a diploma because she was a woman, Dorothy has finally had enough. For her, the only avenue open as a protest, which, in her mind, is also connected to the cause of peace, is to starve herself to death. Her young daughter Evelyn, the narrator of the first part of the novel, describes her decline and final days—and the dissolution of the family after her death, Evelyn going to a rural boarding school in England, while young Thomas is shipped to a relative in California. Evelyn and Thomas remain estranged for the rest of their lives.

As we come to understand Dorothy Townsend better, through flashbacks in which she is the speaker, Walbert brings the era from 1899 to 1914 alive, describing her college experiences, her affair with the son of a member of Parliament, and her frustration. As the novel progresses, we come to know, also, her daughter Evelyn Charlotte Townsend, her feisty grand-daughter Dorothy Townsend Barrett, and eventually Dorothy Townsend Barrett’s daughter Liz, and Liz’s niece, “Dora” Louise Barrett-Deel.

The family, whose genealogy is illustrated in a helpful (and sometimes necessary) chart, repeats the commitment of Dorothy Townsend through the generations, showing in vibrant and carefully selected details, the quality of life enjoyed (or not enjoyed) by her descendants. Closest to her in commitment is her granddaughter Dorothy, born in 1930, the daughter of her son Thomas, the one who was shipped to the United States upon her death.

Dorothy Townsend Barrett is a feisty old woman in her seventies here, a woman who at the turn of the century challenges the U.S. government during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, continually appearing in a restricted area in Delaware to photograph the bodies of American servicemen being returned from the Middle East. The death of her own son, years earlier, has left her bereft, and whether or not she is in complete control of her emotions and behavior at this point, as she repeatedly gets herself arrested, is open to question. As her daughters Caroline Barrett Deel and Liz Barrett deal with their own suburban lives, and as the daughters of Caroline and Liz go on to college, the family heritage of Dorothy Trevor Townsend looms large. As one of the modern characters says, “It is only at the brink of death that we are truly present for our life.”

As one would expect of Walbert, the novel is full of finely detailed descriptions. One early evening in summer is a time “when the heat should magically drift but does not; it settles, solidifying, like too ripe fruit, gelatinous and capable of rot. Bees are out, hideous swarms around the trash bin.” Evelyn Townsend, describing the “science wing,” where she is a stellar chemistry student at Barnard, notes that it is “a series of bunkered rooms deep beneath campus constructed out of cement blocks and painted a putty yellow…Occasionally we smelled the smoke from the cigarettes in the girls’ lounge just above us, but apart from that it was as if they had put the chemistry students in a separate galaxy, like electrons circling the nucleus of campus, away from the breezy chatter of the quads…”

Overall, the characters are well differentiated, though with so many of them with similar names and a narrative that switches back and forth through generations (requiring frequent glances at the genealogy to keep track of who is who), there are few that one would call fully developed. The characters illustrate the thematic points the author wants to develop, a different situation from what one finds in The Gardens of Kyoto, in which the characters exist fully formed and independent, and secondarily, happen to show through their lives the themes the author finds important.

Fans of feminist literature will enjoy this novel, with its insights into the lives of people like Dorothy Townsend Barrett and even Florence Nightingale, her idol, along with the novel’s depiction of women’s lives over the course of a century. Others, however, may wonder how “real” this depiction is, and the extent to which the behavior of a woman like Dorothy Trevor Townsend, who starved herself four or five generations ago can directly affect and guide the day-to-day lives of her progeny almost a hundred years later. To some, the construction may feel artificial, created specifically to highlight the message of the author, a criticism which may affect the reader’s overall judgment of the novel as a novel.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 37 readers
PUBLISHER: Scribner (June 16, 2009)
REVIEWER: Mary Whipple
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: If you like this one, try:

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

Fanny by Edmund White

Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund


July 9, 2009 · Judi Clark · 2 Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Facing History, Reading Guide

2 Responses

  1. dougbrun - July 11, 2009

    Mary – Nice review. Thanks. My wife, on my recommendation, picked this up. Then she put it aside, not liking it. I’d like to give it a go sometime–though the “to be read” pile is growing by the day. Based on your review, however, I am particularly interested in The Gardens of Kyoto. So many books…

  2. Mary Whipple - July 13, 2009

    Hi, Doug. I much preferred THE GARDENS OF KYOTO, which is subtle and elegant, and I read this on the strength of that book. Of the books I’ve read this year, my two favorites are C. E. Morgan’s ALL THE LIVING and Shahriar Mandanipour’s CENSORING AN IRANIAN LOVE STORY, which is not only enlightening about contemporary Iran but is also very funny (which was the biggest surprise of all). It’s written by an Iranian who is not in exile, though he’s teaching at Harvard this year (after being at Brown last year). Thanks for writing. Best, Mary

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