Thursday, November 03, 2005

Biographies of Women

Last time I visited a brick bookstore I bought two biographies to read, one on Lucrezia Borgia (Sarah Bradford: Lucrezia Borgia) and one on Florence Nightingale (Gillian Gill: Nightingales). They have now both been read as can be seen from the wrinkled shape of the books (I read in the bath).

Biographies are not my favorite reading because the endings are always so sad, but there is something to learn from studying individual famous lives and especially so when the individual in question is a woman. This is because only by reading lots of biographies of famous vomen does it become clear why there are so few of them. Talk about being a sheet going through the mangle!

The juxtaposition of Lucrezia and Florence is interesting in its own right. Here we have two famous women from the opposite edges of the customary moral dimension: a murderess/sexual devourer/hapless victim of male power (Lucrezia) and the lady with the lamp/angel/asexual prude (Florence). These are myths, of course, and myths very much conditioned on the femaleness of the subjects. What the truth was will probably never be known for sure, but I'd be willing to bet that Florence and Lucrezia were both much more complicated human beings than that.

These biographies reveal some of those complications. Take Lucrezia, for example. It is true that she was a member of the infamous Borgia family and that Cesare Borgia, her brother, really was quite a monster who, among other things, traded her sister off for various political reasons. But Lucrezia was not a bad politician herself. Macchiavelli in The Prince praised Cesare Borgia's political skills to heavens. What he didn't point out much was the fact that Cesare ended up being totally demolished, imprisoned and dead fairly young. Lucrezia outlived him and died in power (though still young while giving birth). She was at least as able at playing the diplomatic games as her brother. And not a single murder can be attributed to her.

Florence was a mathematician, a statistician and a formidable intelligence. She knew how hard it was for a woman with these skills to succeed during the Victorian era, and she did what was necessary to do it. Hence the nursing career, the focus on helping others and the asexual lifestyle, though her desire to help others was certainly real enough, given her religious views.

What struck me after finishing the books was how similar the two stories really were. The major theme in both of them is the strength of the societal straightjacket that was fitted on these women and their cleverness in re-tailoring it here and there to get more freedom. When we remember that these are the stories of the rare women who were born into wealthy families and received an education, well, it becomes stunningly obvious why the Lucrezias and Florences of the history are so rare.

Biographies are not the stories of the person portrayed, though. They tell us at least as much about the biographer and the available sources, and whether we get a new biography of some famous person depends on the fashions of the time. But even with these warnings in mind it's not a bad way to spend a bathing hour with Lucrezia or Florence.