Tag Archives: women

Imperial Woman, The Story of the Last Empress of China by Pearl S. Buck

Imperial WomanThis remarkable novel fictionalises the extraordinary life of Tzu Hsi, the last Empress of China. I was utterly enthralled from start to finish. Chosen to be a concubine, she rose to become head of the Qing dynasty through her own intelligence, diligence and careful planning. She studies determinedly to understand affairs of state and eventually rules with a mixture of altruism, serenity and extreme ruthlessness. Only a writer as skilled as Pearl S. Buck could have brought such a complex and ambiguous character to life so vividly; I empathised so deeply with the Empress that even her acts of violence seemed necessary to sustain the most important thing: the integrity of the nation. Her central struggle is the preservation of the ancient ways against Western industrial and cultural influence.

The plaque hanging above the Empress is inscribed with her full title, literally translated as "The Current Holy Mother Empress Dowager of the Great Qing Empire, Cixi (kind and auspicious) Duanyou (upright and blessed) Kangyi (healthy and well-maintained) Zhaoyu (clear and pleasant) Zhuangcheng (solemn and sincere) Shougong (long-living and respectful) Qinxian (royal and sacrificial) Chongxi (magnanimous and prosperous).

The plaque hanging above the Empress is inscribed with her full title, literally translated as ‘The Current Holy Mother Empress Dowager of the Great Qing Empire, Cixi (kind and auspicious) Duanyou (upright and blessed) Kangyi (healthy and well-maintained) Zhaoyu (clear and pleasant) Zhuangcheng (solemn and sincere) Shougong (long-living and respectful) Qinxian (royal and sacrificial) Chongxi (magnanimous and prosperous)’ and I thought having a double-barrelled last name was excessive.

The writing has a few of the hallmarks of fairytale at the start, easing the reader in and emphasising the glorious setting, customs and costumes as if other-worldly. This contrasts starkly with the real political and personal trials that Tzu Hsi encounters. The details are magnificent – I think I’ll adopt the ancient tradition of having the day off the first day that the wisteria blooms. The description is perfection: ‘her thoughts circled about him like mourning doves’ and ‘ancient twisted trees were planted and tended as carefully as though they were human, and indeed some of the trees were given human titles, such as duke or king.’

I am totally fascinated by this era of history. As soon as I had finished reading, I went straight online to learn as much as I could about the Empress and to find images of her and the palaces she so adored. I spent many hours in a Wikipedia hole.

Since finishing this book I have tried to start a few others, but nothing is taking my interest. A book this vivid, evocative and riveting is proving hard to follow.


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Marilyn by Gloria Steinem

“When the past dies, there is mourning, but when the future dies our imaginations are compelled to carry it on.”Marilyn - Gloria Steinem

I’ve just finished the new ebook edition of this 1986 biography and I sort of miss it. I want more of it to exist, perhaps because of Steinem’s sensitive style, perhaps because mysteries which remain unanswered. More than a simple biography, this felt like a thesis on why things fell apart for Marilyn Monroe, or Norma Jeane. Steinem’s starting point is the sad young life of Norma Jeane: abuse, foster homes, her mother’s mental health issues. Steinem hypothesises how these experiences coloured Marilyn’s adult choices including her career and unsuccessful marriages. It is an intelligent study of fragility and celebrity.

Talking of intelligence, one of the most interesting aspects of the book was learning the depth of Marilyn and her love of reading and her natural intellectual curiosity.

“Her searches after knowledge were arbitrary and without context. It was as if she were shining a small flashlight of curiosity into the dark room of the world.”

She never finished high school as she was forced into an early marriage and always regretted her lack of education. She studied acting with great drive and devotion, striving to be better and brighter in every aspect of her life. She wanted children, but medical complications made that impossible. My heart broke with the description of her sitting alone on a park bench, disguised so that she could watch the children play.

The most profound moments of the book are when Marilyn’s own words are used. This includes passages from her unfinished autobiography and an interview conducted just weeks before her death. She cared little for money and turned down the offer of an older male friend to marry her so that she would inherit his fortune.

Marilyn_Monroe_by_George_Barris_1962‘Because she was sometimes forced to give in, to sell herself partially, she was all the more fearful of being bought totally.“What have you got to lose?” asked a friend who was urging the marriage to Hyde.
“Myself,” Marilyn said.’

Marilyn Monroe felt to Norma Jeane like a fictional construct: a person separate from herself that she often referred to in the third person and ‘turned on and off’ by doing the walk or adopting the mannerisms. This means that a lot of what she said is contradictory, unreliable, and probably not the truth. Steinem has done a thoughtful job of sifting through the claims and looking for evidence to piece together her life story. What is interesting about the book is that it critiques other biographies and seeks to get as close to the truth as possible, while recognising its limitations. Steinem used it to make wider points too, about the social construction of femininity, fame and psychoanalysis, with varying levels of success. There were pictures too: poignant, beautiful pictures.

I found it fascinating and deeply memorable. My ever-patient loved one listened to me recount the entire life story and then proceed to evaluate the book for a whole car journey. Be delighted, my dear readers, that I provide you with the condensed version!

Many thanks to NetGalley and  Open Road Integrated Media for the copy.

Have you read it? What did you think? I haven’t read a huge amount of biographies: do you have any recommendations? Do let me know in the comments!

As always, liking and sharing is hugely appreciated.

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A Letter to Persephone Books

Dear Persephone Books,

 These last few days, my time has not been measured in hours and minutes, but by pages and chapters, so deeply has Emma Smith’s ‘The Far Cry’ absorbed me. The vivid, multicoloured, extraordinary description of the sudden flight of a young girl and her father to India is a delight to read. The sense of place is sublimely evoked by a gift for listing unparalleled in modern literature!

 Oh, Persephone Books, you spoil me! For it is not just this gem that you’ve excavated from the annals of women’s literary history; you have collated and curated a stunning collection of neglected and out of print works from the early to mid-twentieth century.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding’ by Julia Strachey is another triumph. This close, sardonic deconstruction of a family on a single day makes for a pacey novella worth reading.

 I feel as if I could hole myself up in a grey, paperbacked fortress and be merry for a good long time with only your beautiful wares for company. Never before have I been so enchanted by the endpapers of volumes, so carefully selected from archives and museums to illustrate the era and subject matter of the texts. For Susan Glaspell’s ‘Fidelity’, for example, the image of 19th Century quilting beautifully echoes the scenery and content of the novel. This is such a marvellous story of a woman running off with someone else’s husband. Its moral depth and compassion are admirable.

 I must also mention ‘The New House’ by the brilliantly named Lettice Cooper. This is an intimate portrayal of a single day in the lives of a family moving from a grand house with beautiful gardens to a smaller property overlooking a council estate. The characters are believably complex and their relationships acutely naturalistic. Persephone Books, your choices are exceptional, and I haven’t even got around to mentioning the non-fiction works, or short story collections (‘Tea with Mr Rochester’ by Frances Towers was a particular joy).

Thank you, Persephone Books, for finding and reprinting these wonderful examples of women’s literature. You have made me very happy. 

 with love and admiration,



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Bodies by Susie Orbach

Thirty years after the bestselling ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’, Susie Orbach returns to the concept of culturally constructed ideas of the body. She argues that we no longer accept our bodies as they are, but see them as projects to be remade and perfected in line with mutable ideals propagated by the media and industries. Cosmetic surgery, diet pills, TV makeover programmes and other procedures are all advertised as means for ‘self-improvement’, but is this ethical? Orbach argues: 

 ‘The clash between the new imperative to be beautiful and the limited and limiting aesthetic of beauty we imbibe means that bodies in our time are constantly in need of our attention. They have become less where we live from and more what we can personally manufacture…a fit body, a lithe body, a healthy body and a beautiful body have become both the ambition and the obligation of millions. The supersized, digitally enhanced images of airbrushed and photoshoppped individuals which penetrate into our public and private spaces…makes us super-aware and hypercritical of our own bodies. This has created a cultural climate in which improving the way the body looks and functions is seen as a crucial personal responsibility.’

 Her global perspective and cultural knowledge reveal the idiosyncrasies of each culture’s beauty ‘ideals’, tellingly exposing how constructed and transient they can be. Her exposition of the changes wrought by globalisation and the dominance of Western images is particularly interesting and provides the most clear examples of the impact images can have. For example, she describes the normalisation of plastic surgery in Korea as over 50% of women have had their eye shape altered. She uses fascinating individual case studies to show how the body is experienced by different people and affected by their lives. I was shocked by the single-minded rejection of part of his own body that led a man to force doctors to amputate his legs. I was touched and compelled by the stories of children who had been physically hurt learning to gradually accept touch as potentially positive.

 Susie Orbach’s argument has a clear evidence base and is academic in structure and foundation, but stylishly remains clear and readable. There is no need to know anything about the issues or the field of psychology before reading it: topics are introduced with accessible examples. Though I was less keen on the parts where she discusses her clinical experiences with clients, particularly when she writes about ‘wildcat sensations’ and ‘unconscious transmissions’ from her patients. I feel that she is strongest when discussing the issues as a whole.

 She provides strong conclusions and sound recommendations, something some academics fail to do. I think this is definitely worth reading as it destroy myths around dieting, beauty and the body. However you feel about the issues, it gives a great deal of information worth considering. Essentially, she argues that physical beauty should not be the sum of our human worth. 

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Backwards in High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female

Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. This famous assertion is the headline of Tania Kindersley and Sarah Vine’s modern guide to life as a woman. The tone is friendly and the advice is cheering. It was a supreme joy to read. It is the antidote to all the women’s literature and magazines that proscribe strict beauty regimes, career plans and parenting perfection that amount to an implausible, and frankly tiring, way to live. By drawing from their own life experience, they provide a guide that is sensitive to the complexities of modern life and celebrates a range of female achievements and lifestyle choices.

The wittily titled chapters are brief enough to dip in to, but still retain impressive depth of insight and understanding. For example, ‘The Art of Reconciling the Fantasy World of Work Painted for Your Younger Self With the Mundane and Often Alarming Adult Reality’, ‘How To Call in the Perspective Police’ and ‘How To Read a Fashion Magazine Without Wanting To Cut Your Head Off With a Penknife’ were particularly pleasing and heartening.

It covers multiple facets of life including love, loss, philosophy, friendship, finance, age and politics. Additionally, the ‘Practical Chapter’ has everything from recipes to how to deal with a bore. As well as being thoroughly useful, it is a beautiful book. The illustrations throughout are charming and it even comes with a ribbon to keep your page! They really have thought of everything.

Every woman should read this book. It is honest, helpful and ultimately reassuring. Their positive spin on old age has me rather looking forward to it!

‘Things you can do as you get old.

–          Never again have to go to the gym and do physical jerks while an idiot in a leotard shouts things like, ‘Yeah, ladies, take it to the max!’

–          Admit that you like going to bed at 9.30 with a good book…

–          Never have to sit at a bus stop in a very small skirt at 3am waiting for the N70…

–          Take as long as you damn well need to pull out at junctions…

–          Stop making excuses.

–          Keep the radio permanently tuned to Radio Four.

–          Pretend selective deafness.’

Buy it, find it, borrow it; it is wise and liberating.


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