Books feature women who were groundbreakers, but who were misunderstood, obscured or ignored: Mary Anne Lewis Disraeli, Svetlana Alliluyeva (Josef Stalin’s daughter) and Mary Wollstonecraft (and her daughter, Mary Shelley).
Readers of this column know that I am mad, mad, mad for biographies. The British politician Benjamin Disraeli once advised book lovers to “read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.”
Disraeli, prime minister of the Victorian age and an ardent follower of literature, put his finger on it. Biographies show humanity in the rough. It’s harder to impose interpretations on an individual’s story than it is a country, or a war, or a social movement. Biographies showcase humans — including great humans — in all their glorious contradictions
This summer I have been reading biographies that go further — they redress an imbalance. For most of literary history, biographies have been about men, men, men. These three books feature women who were all groundbreakers, but their accomplishments were either misinterpreted, obscured or ignored altogether. Here are three books that tell a fuller story:
“Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance” by Daisy Hay(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 308 pp.,$27). Speaking of Disraeli — this fascinating, succinct and beautifully written book expands his story to include that of his wife, Mary Anne Lewis Disraeli, a widow of means who saved his political bacon. Mary Anne was his financier, his most ardent campaign manager and the object of his enduring affection — though Disraeli fell in love again after she died, he wrote his letters on funereal black-bordered paper for the rest of his life, and was buried beside Mary Anne at the parish church of Hughenden in Buckinghamshire.
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It’s a portrait of a mature and complicated love affair. Mary Anne, 12 years Disraeli’s senior, was a widow when they married. The Disraelis wrote love letters to one another that undermine the convention that all Victorians were strait-laced about sex — both under the spell of the Romantic writers Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, the couple’s passion was grand and explicit (Disraeli was a novelist before he became a politician).
Most of all, this book shows Disraeli’s career as the product of a true partnership. They were two outsiders to English society whose union helped them dominate the country. Disraeli, a converted Anglican, was of Jewish heritage, and Mary Anne was the orphaned daughter of a seaman, and the slurs against his Semitic background and her “common” origins were legion. She endured, not just name-calling, but the specter of financial ruin — at one point, Mary Anne mortgaged her estate, her inheritance from her first husband, to keep Disraeli from debtor’s prison. “She saved his career and his future in England,” Hay writes.
Fashionista extra: Mary Anne Disraeli loved jewels and clothes, and the descriptions of her outfits are eye-popping.
Jumping from the 19th century to the 20th, the story told in “Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva” by Rosemary Sullivan(Harper, 741 pages, $35) reinforces the cliché that the truth is stranger than any fiction.
I remember the huge dust-up created by Svetlana’s defection to the West in 1967. It was considered a great propaganda victory for America and her allies at the height of the Cold War. Then, I pretty much forgot about her. Sullivan tells the back story, documenting a life so fraught with tragedy, melodrama and poisonous politics, the defining miracle of Svetlana’s existence is that she survived at all.
As a child, Svetlana lived in an apartment at the Kremlin, cheek by jowl with some of the most terrifying figures of the reigning autocracy. At the top of that monstrous pecking order was Stalin, her father. She endured her mother’s suicide and the systematic extermination, on her father’s orders, of many members of her extended family. Relatives and treasured family members of both her dead mother and of Stalin’s first wife were either executed or sent to labor camps.
Svetlana would spend much of her life trying to reconcile her father’s crimes with the fact that he did, occasionally, try to be a father to her. Their notes to each other are affectionate (“My dear Papochka … kissing you, my dear daddy” went the typical greeting-signoff of daughter-father note). But it’s clear that the looming presence of her remote, sociopathic and all-powerful father created a giant hole in Svetlana’s life that she spent the rest of her life trying to fill.
Finally, I want to briefly mention a biography already reviewed in The Seattle Times by my colleague Moira Macdonald, “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley” by Charlotte Gordon(Random House, 672 pp., $30). This is the extraordinary story of Mary Wollstonecraft, an English pioneer for women’s rights who risked her life and her reputation to write what she knew and believed, and her daughter Mary Shelley, who ran away with a married Percy Shelley and was shunned by English society as a result. She eventually married Shelley and endured both his tragic drowning and the deaths of three of her children.
Mary Shelley soldiered on, and today is best-known as author of one of the great classic novels of all time, “Frankenstein.” Though her mother died 10 days after her birth, Mary Shelley treasured her mother’s legacy and did her best to live up to it. She did, and then some.