No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, August 17, 2006

#76: The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits -- Emma Donoghue

In the Foreword, Donoghue says, "My sources are the flotsam and jetsam of the last seven hundred years of British and Irish life: surgical case-notes; trial records; a plague ballad; theological pamphlets; a painting of two girls in a garden; an articulated skeleton." Some of the stories are slight, a moment from a life, the punchline of a ballad. Others are carefully-constructed miniatures that illustrate more of the protagonist's life and times than simply the events recounted in the story itself. None of the stories is very long: there are seventeen stories in just over 200 pages.

The earliest of the stories, historically speaking, is 'The Necessity of Burning', set in Cambridge in 1382 during the Peasants' Revolt: the latest is 'Looking for Petronilla', which begins in contemporary Ireland. The stories tend to cluster in the 17th and 18th centuries. I think this is partly because there are so many more sources available, and partly because human experience -- society, psychology, religion, science, urban life -- were (or could be portrayed as) more like our own than in medieval times.

Each of the stories has a female protagonist, though she is not always the narrator. 'Acts of Union' (Ireland, 1798) tells the tale of a spinster from the point of view of a drunken English captain who wakes up with more than he bargained for. 'Dido' (England, 1770s) is a tale about slavery, and the argument that led to Lord Mansfield's opposition to it. 'Account' (Scotland, 1496) is a story in the form of a list:

  • Number of daughters of Lord Drummond: 3 (Margaret, Euphemia, Sibilla)

  • Number of languages in which Lord Drummond's daughters could say 'Yes, Sire': 3.

  • Number of Lord Drummond's daughters invited to and installed in Stirling Castle, two months after the King's visit to the Drummonds in 1496: 1 (Margaret)

There are stories that can be read as lesbian romances: for instance, 'How a Lady Dies' (Bath, 1759) in which a young woman turns up at her female friend's house, crying that she cannot live without her. Stories that illuminate some of the nastier moments in history: witch-burnings, exhibition of freaks, scientific fraud, slavery, clitorodectomy. Stories that describe the many facets of female friendship and sexuality.

Many of the characters in these stories have only the vaguest notion of the world around them, of their location either geographically or temporally: some of the stories gain meaning and context from the explanatory afterword that follows each, though each story can certainly be read alone without context being required.

Sometimes there's a righteous rage simmering under Donoghue's simple prose: sometimes there's a wry humour, as in the first story, 'The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits'. The overall impression is of an author with a magpie mind, who retains and reworks the fascinating footnotes that proliferate in any decent history book.

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