This book reminded me a little of those times you begin to read over the names of fallen soldiers on a war memorial. Name after name is listed, each one representing a chasm in the lives of the loved ones left behind, and you know that each deserves a moment of reflection, of honour… and yet… the sheer number of names means that each is given only a cursory glance at best before you stop seeing them all together. That, unfortunately, represented my experience of much of this book. The names of the women included often felt like more of a roll call. To be fair to Mosse, she recognises that there is an inherent problem if attempting to collate the women who are her ‘Warrior Queens and Quiet Revolutionaries’ in this way: she knows that each has an individual story, and that she does not have the luxury of space to give voice to each narrative that underscores the name. I think I would have preferred a more curated selection of names, although, again, I recognise that the difficulty that would come in attempting to select which women’s names should feature, and those who remain unrecognised for their achievements within the fields that Mosse has delineated to explore.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book for me, is the way in which used her exploration of her own personal family history to interlink with the ways in which women contributed to this world in which we live. Mosse recognises her privilege as she did so. As a woman of a middle-class history much of her immediate family history was recorded. Her grandmother also happened to be a novelist herself. So she had access (albeit with a bit of serendipitous luck thrown in) to a written history that could tell her something of her own past and where she fits into it. This, in turn, raised issues of class and the silences – the long, vast, empty spaces – on the bookshelves recording women’s history. The issue of class is one that has been very much on my mind lately, because it seems to me that is the voices of working class women – where my own family history lies – that are so often absent from the historical record. And we see it time and again in literature, where working class women are so often under-represented or appear as solely a convenient device to serve an author’s narrative intent (yes, I am looking at you Maggie O’Farrell with The Marriage Portrait).
I think what Mosse has done with this book is given the reader a springboard for further research. There are many women listed whose history sounded fascinating who were given only a few lines in this book. I think there is real merit in what Mosse was doing, but I couldn’t help feeling a little frustrated and sad by those stories that have been lost or forgotten as I finished reading it.
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