Talking About Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer with Mary Sharratt

The award-winning author of seven acclaimed novels, Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write overlooked women back into history. Her latest novel, Ecstasy, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2018, Mariner Trade Paperback 2019) explores the dramatic life of composer and life artist, Alma Schindler Mahler. Ecstasy was a Chicago Review of Books Best Book of the Month and a New York Post Must Read Book. Sharratt’s Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen won the Nautilus Gold Award and was a Kirkus Book of the Year 2012. Sharratt’s articles on women’s history are published in The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Catapult, and Electric Literature.

Take it away, Mary!

How would you describe what you write?

I’m on a mission to write overlooked women back into history, a task I find both exhilarating and daunting. To a large extent, women have been written out of history. Their lives and deeds have become lost to us. To uncover the buried histories of women, we historical novelists must act as detectives, studying the sparse clues that have been handed down to us. To create engaging and nuanced portraits of women in history, we must learn to read between the lines and fill in the blanks.
Thus far, I’ve written about the Pendle Witches of 1612 in Daughters of the Witching Hill, revealing these much-maligned women in their true historical context as cunning women and healers. My 2012 novel Illuminations explores the life of visionary 12th century abbess, polymath, composer and powerfrau Hildegard von Bingen. In The Dark Lady’s Mask, I delve into the life and work of Aemilia Bassano Lanier, England’s first professional woman poet and possibly Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. My most recent novel Ecstasy is drawn from the life of composer and life artist, Alma Schindler Mahler, a woman, who in my opinion, has been unjustly dismissed and vilified.

My aim is to shine a light on overlooked women, to take them out of the margins and place them center stage. To make their lives and work accessible and relevant to contemporary readers.

What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?

Unfortunately we, as writers, can run into problems when we present a view of historical women that challenges common misperceptions. On the one hand, readers and critics are justifiably skeptical about novelists who present plucky historical heroines with attitudes that feel too contemporary and thus anachronistic to their time and place. On the other hand, if you sit down and do the research, you will discover that every epoch had its radical voices, movers and shakers, extraordinary women who rocked the establishment. Think of Sappho, Hypatia, Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth I of England, Aphra Benn, Anne Bonny the Pirate Queen, Emma Goldman, and Rosa Parks, to name a few. Too often readers and, unfortunately some reviewers, appear to have a distorted and uninformed view of women in history and seem too quick to label any strong heroine anachronistic, even if the author has backed up the fiction with considerable research.

My hope is that as more authors delve into the lives of historical women and present them in all their nuanced glory, public perceptions on women’s history will undergo a long overdue sea change.

What’s your next book about and when will we see it?

My next novel, Revelations, which will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2021, is a trip back to the late Middle Ages. Revelations should be of special interest to fans of my 2012 novel, Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. Here I return once more to the realm of the female medieval mystics. Revelations is the story of the intersecting lives of two spiritual women who changed history—earthy Margery Kempe, globetrotting pilgrim and mother of fourteen, and ethereal Julian of Norwich, sainted anchorite, theologian, and author of the first book in English by a woman, Revelations of Divine Love.

Imagine, if you will, a fifteenth century Eat, Pray, Love.

In addition, I am also collaborating with composer Sarah Kirkland Snider to adapt my novel Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen into an opera, entitled Tongue of Fire. The opera will debut at the Prototype Festival in New York in January 2021.

My question for Pamela: If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?

This is always tricky, because high school history books tend not to get into a lot of detail. (Or at least they didn’t when I was in high school.) So I feel that it is not enough to pick a woman who should be better known, but one who played an important role in a major event—a role that changes our understanding of that event when they are included.

One example would be the women who flew airplanes for the United States as part of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program. They were not allowed to fly in combat, but they trained male pilots who later served overseas, they transported planes of all types for military use within, and they served as test pilots for new airplanes. Their service made it possible for the United States to build a functional military air force, and consequently helped end the war more quickly. (And as so often happened, they were treated badly by the government after the war. But that’s a story for another blog post.)

Want to know more about Mary Sharratt and her work?

Check out her website:

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Come back tomorrow for three questions and an answer with Kate Jermain, the host of The Exploress, one of my favorite women's history podcasts.

Talking About Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer with Angela Mace Christian

Dr. Angela Mace Christian is a writer, lecturer, and pianist working in the field of music history. She specializes in music, culture, and society of the “Long Nineteenth Century”(1789-1914). Christian’s work focuses on the life and work of Fanny Hensel (born Mendelssohn), and her research interests include the Mendelssohn family and their circle, early nineteenth-century piano music and German art song, and issues of style and influence, gender, society, and kinship. Dr. Christian received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Music from Duke University, and her B.Mus. in piano performance from Vanderbilt University. She has given 600+ lectures in university classrooms and conferences in 7 countries, and she has published books, essays, articles, encyclopedia entries, and blog posts on Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn.

Take it away, Angela!

Are there special challenges in writing about a woman whose biography is overshadowed by that of a famous man?  

Absolutely. And the biggest battle ground is in my own thought process. Like so many pianists before me, I discovered Felix Mendelssohn’s music as a teenager. I was an avid reader, so I read all of the biographies of Felix I could get my hands on. Larry Todd’s authoritative biography of Mendelssohn did not yet exist, of course, so I only encountered Fanny as a shadowy figure in Felix’s life. I vividly remember performing Felix’s Lied ohne Worte, op. 85 no. 4 for a regional competition; in the edition I was using, the work had the title “Elegie” and I imagined that Felix had written it for Fanny after her death. Little did I know that the work was neither written after Fanny’s death, nor given a title by the composer! So, from my earliest engagement with the Mendelssohn family, Fanny was an amorphous figure, standing completely in the shadow of her brother. I think this is true for many people who often don’t even know that Felix had a sister, much less one so talented and highly accomplished.

Many years later, in graduate school (by then a Ph.D. candidate writing a dissertation on Fanny), I read Virginia Woolf’s seminal A Room of One’s Own in which she posits the existence of a sister for Shakespeare. She very well could have existed and could have been just as talented – or even more talented than – her brother William, but we will never know because society had no use for lower class women who wanted to create. It barely had any use for upper class women who wanted to create. By Fanny’s time, this had partially changed due to the Enlightenment and nascent ideals of equality in the education and treatment of women. But still, Fanny had to fight a very hard battle to fulfill her creative calling. And much of her battle was in her own mind, just as mine is, to convince herself that the rewards of her creative endeavor were worth risking her family’s name and her place in society. As a child, she was rigorously discouraged from any public display of her talents, but was able to cultivate them highly in the private sphere. As an adult, she struggled with seeing herself as worthy of public interest and downplayed her skill, like many women did. Even when her husband and friends begged her to publish something, still she resisted, claiming that she was “as afraid of her father and brothers at age 40 as she was at 14.”

So, I find myself consistently needing to stop and think carefully about if what I’m thinking is based on a long-held assumption about the relationship of a female artist to her brother, or whether what I am thinking is an objective analysis of evidence. I find that this issue crops up frequently when analyzing the music. It is incredibly tempting to compare the music of Felix and Fanny, because it truly does share a sort of genetic fingerprint. I find that many of us also fall into the habit of comparing composers to everyone who came before them; it’s hard not to, especially when a composer like Beethoven was very much alive and working when Felix and Fanny were teenagers. It can even be completely appropriate for some works, such as Fanny’s “Easter” sonata. But what if we didn’t compare them? What if we dug into the music of Fanny, just like we dig into the music of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms? What could we find that we’ve missed? What happens if we truly level the playing field, take gender and kinship out of the equation, and approach the work of art head on, regardless of its composer?* That’s incredibly difficult for me, since I do primarily write on the social context around Fanny, with a special interest in kinship, but it might be the best way to overcome those inherent biases in our minds and the historical record.

How do you define women's history?

Women’s history is the history of all humans. It just hasn’t been written or acknowledged until more recent times because, as we know, those who hold the power get to write the narrative. It’s incredibly frustrating to think about all those centuries of brilliant women who contributed in endless ways to the formation of our world who we can know nothing about. And even more frustrating to think about all the brilliant women whose contributions were never made because they were (and still are) denied access to even basic education.

For example, a high class, educated woman in 19th century Western culture (like Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and her mother, Lea) could be in charge of running a large home, which could include managing staff, the household budget, menu, care and education of children and elderly parents, and social calendar. In this era, the business was the family, rather than an unconnected corporation, so it was crucial to make these connections in the social, private realm – the domain of the women. Thus, a woman could enable her husband’s business success by hosting social events with strategically seated guests, by carefully choosing discussion topics, or by matchmaking. These tight-knit family structures and social calendars also allowed young women to absorb the education and intellectual pursuits of the men around them (or in some cases, exceptionally talented mothers or aunts). Some of these young women were encouraged not only to observe, but also to take part in the advanced pursuit of knowledge or skill. These are the women we know about – Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Caroline Herschel are both excellent examples – but still we know the struggle even they faced. Imagine the struggle of the intelligent women who did not have access to the “right” circle of people, but still managed to glimpse the possibilities. These are the women lost to history.

Today, two centuries later, we still struggle to ensure that all women get the education and opportunities they need to add their voice to the historical narrative. But I believe that we are starting to do a better job of calling out the inherent bias in the historical narrative not just in academia, but also in popular culture. That movement and the opportunity to take part in it extends to people – women and men – of all races, national origin, sexual identity, and religion. We still have a lot of progress to make, of course, but I am encouraged that I can now purchase books for my child that portray heroines with all shades of skin color that made history from the jazz club to moon. Now THAT is a giant leap for mankind.

How did you get interested in Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel?

I became interested in Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel through the music of her brother, Felix Mendelssohn. Looking back, I’m a little annoyed that that’s how it happened, but given that I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, without access to the resources I have now, I can’t fault myself too much! I played a lot of Felix Mendelssohn as a high school piano student, and then played his Variations sérieuses, op. 54 in my Junior piano performance degree recital at Vanderbilt University, The Blair School of Music. That performance was the beginning of my serious engagement with the Mendelssohns; I embarked on a senior project on Mendelssohn’s music, and used the Variations sérieuses as my jumping off point. I remember clearly going to the library to find the “M” section in the library. It was on the very bottom shelf, so I sat down cross legged on the floor and pulled every book available on Mendelssohn off the shelf. Among them was the new critical biography, Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). That moment, and that book, changed the entire course of my life. The critical approach, new evidence presented, and heartfelt treatment of Mendelssohn and his music captivated me. I went on to apply to Duke University for their Master of Arts and Ph.D. in Music specifically to work on Mendelssohn with the book’s author, R. Larry Todd.

When I arrived on campus to start my Master’s course work in the Fall of 2006, Larry was already starting to draft his new biography of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel; he felt compelled to do so because as he was writing the biography of Felix, it had become clear to him, and to anyone who read that book, that Fanny was on every page of Felix’s life. As I started to read Larry’s drafts and listen to Fanny’s music, I became increasingly drawn to her story and her work. I could not believe that this woman, about whom I had previously known so little, had done so much in her short life – over 450 works completed!

And so it was that I became increasingly called to take up the work of women’s history and to champion Fanny in particular. The resources were only just coming more fully to light, there was still a lot to discover (like the long-lost autograph manuscript of the “Easter” sonata!), and there was room for making new observations. All that made Fanny the perfect subject for a dissertation. I decided to examine the relationship between Fanny and her brother and try to determine what belonged to Fanny and what belonged to Felix. In the end, I realized that approach was the wrong angle. I found instead that Fanny and Felix were indeed unique and separate composers, but that neither would have existed without the other.

I’ve been incredibly privileged to spend almost half my life now working on Fanny and her life and music. I hope a new generation of performers, scholars, and music lovers growing up now, will find that Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel is not a surprise, but rather a standard part of their lives. The Mendelssohn family more broadly presents an incredibly rich tapestry of possibilities for scholarly exploration, ranging from Enlightenment Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn to 200+ living descendants of the family. The international scholarly and performing community surrounding this family is just as wonderful; it’s an open, supportive and sharing community, dedicated to advancing the state of knowledge on the Mendelssohn family. There’s still much to do, so come on over to the world of the Mendelssohns and stay a while!

Angela asks a question in return: What do you see as the most encouraging trend in research on women in music? How does that reflect, or not reflect, broader developments in the non-academic or non-musical world? (For example, women running for US President, more and more women being named CEOs of large corporations, etc.).

I will be honest. I know almost nothing about research on women in music, so for me the most encouraging trend is that such research is being done. It is exciting to learn that the musical equivalents of Virginia Woolf’s Shakespeare’s sister in fact existed and prospered against the odds.

The fact that Angela and others are bringing such women out of the historical shadows is clearly related to the broader interest in researching women’s lives, both learning more about women who have been lost to history and questioning why they were “lost” in the first place. (After all, this isn’t like losing a sock in the laundry. People made, and make, choices that result in women, and other marginalized groups, being dismissed, ignored and forgotten.) The broader interest in restoring forgotten women to history is intimately intertwined with growing opportunities for women in the world. It works both ways: seeing what women have done in the past makes it easier to believe women can do more now and opening doors in the present make it easier to ask questions about what women have done in the past.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when you put half the populations back into history, you get a very different story.

*Pamela butting in: Angela throws down the gauntlet here for all of us who deal with women’s history. What would we learn if we take gender out of the question when looking at a woman’s work? It’s hard for me to even picture it in the case of most of the women I write about, because their battle to do the thing in the face of opposition is as much of their story as the thing itself. It’s a fascinating question. (Brief pause while I make notes for a future newsletter.**)

**You didn’t know I also have a newsletter? Take a look at a recent edition: In which I write a dud and consider the nature of dud-ery

Angela shared several useful links for anyone interesting in learning more about Angela and about Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

Mendelssohn-Gesellschaft (Mendelssohn Society)
The society for the study of all members of the Mendelssohn family, based in Berlin, Germany. They direct the Mendelssohn-Remise, an intimate museum and event venue at Jägerstrasse 51, one known site of the Mendelssohn family bank. They host a rich array of events related to the Mendelssohns and their circle, as well as supporting the broader musical and scholarly community in Berlin. Their website offers many resources on the family in both German and English.

Not Another Music History Cliché!
Musicologist Linda Shaver-Gleason (†2020) finds articles about classical music that contain debunked myths and cliché descriptions.  [Pamela again:  Things have changed since Angela got me this information.  The first blog post that appears on the site is a farewell.  I was stunned.  consider yourselves warned. ]
My scholarly website, where the visitor can download my performing version of the “Easter” Sonata for free and read about its discovery.

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Come back tomorrow for three questions and an answer with historical novelist Mary Sharrat.

Talking About Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer with Elizabeth Cobbs

I first discovered Elizabeth Cobbs’ work through her book of historical non-fiction titled The Hello Girls. I enjoyed it enough that I set out to find out more about her.* I was flabbergasted to learn that she also writes smart, entertaining historical fiction.

Here’s the official word:

Elizabeth Cobbs brings fresh, unexpected perspectives to our understanding of the past and present. Building upon worldwide research and extraordinary life experiences, Elizabeth writes best selling  fiction and non-fiction that is both scholarly and witty. Her path-breaking books and articles reveal a world that is as intriguing and surprising as it is real.

Elizabeth earned her Ph.D. in American history at Stanford University. She now holds the Melbern Glasscock Chair at Texas A&M University and a Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Her books have won four literary prizes, two for American history and two for fiction. Elizabeth has been a Fulbright scholar in Ireland and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. She has served on the Historical Advisory Committee of the U.S. State Department and on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in History.

Take it away, Elizabeth!

You write both historical fiction and historical non-fiction.  Is your research process different for fiction than for non-fiction?

For me, both types of storytelling require research in primary and secondary sources, but there are differences as well. Nonfiction requires developing a careful paper trail. I scour the documents to pin down every fact. It's painstaking and I'll spend hours in far-flung archives. Fiction is more imaginative, and I have to stock my supply of sensations and impressions in addition to my store of knowledge. Writing a novel requires knowing the scent, sound, and exact order of daily events. To the extent possible, I walk the same ground the characters did to see what they saw. I find that sometimes gives me unexpected new insights into facts I initially gleaned from books and letters. For example, to understand how Harriet Tubman could possibly infiltrate 25 miles upriver into the enemy territory of South Carolina, I literally watched how the Combahee moves, put my toes in its quicksand-like mud, and kept a sharp eye out for alligators.

What type of historical figure makes a good base for a historical novel?
I think the richest historical figures are the ones who were conflicted, scared, ready to turn back and yet kept moving forward, tumbling towards the goal that defined them. Personally, I find hand-wringers dull. Give me someone who is all in despite their doubts. The most interesting figures are women and men who run rather than walk towards their destiny--however dangerous or costly the path. I am endlessly curious about characters whose bravery astounds me.
How do you walk the line between historical fact and fiction in a novel?

I will not move or change any fact that we definitely know, regardless of how tempting it might be to do so for the sake of pacing or dramatic effect. As a professional historian, I'm always looking over my shoulder at my university colleagues. Historical fiction, for example, often incorporates sex and romance. When I started writing about Alexander Hamilton, before Lin-Manuel Miranda staged his epic musical, I kept wondering if other professionals would still respect me in the morning. But I felt fairly certain that Alexander and Eliza's eight children were sufficient evidence of late-night romps. Curiously, Miranda strayed far from certain facts for the sake of the show--but then, he doesn't have to turn around and teach U.S. history. To me, writing a historical novel is like "connecting the dots." I get to make up everything in between, so long as events and dialogue are consistent with the fixed points.

My question for you: Were there women warriors who set back the cause of women? How do they fit in our history? Do you avoid writing about them?

There’s a long tradition of collective biographies of notable women, warriors and otherwise, that emphasize the heroic aspects of individual women’s stories. Often they’re written to provide female role models for girls. It’s a worthy goal. I loved those books as a child. (For that matter, I still love them.) But Women Warriors is not that kind of book.

Quite frankly, a lot of the women I wrote about could not be considered a role model for anyone. I wrote about women whose stories included lying, cheating, murder and revenge, as well women who performed acts of astonishing heroism and national heroines. Not to mention national heroines who lied, cheated and murdered in the name of defending their home, nation or religious convictions.

*This, writer friends, is why you need an on-line presence of some kind.

Want to know more about Elizabeth Cobbs and her work?

Check out her website:
Follow her on Twitter: @Elizabeth_Cobbs

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Come back tomorrow for three questions and an answer with music historian Angela Mace Christian, who asked me a doozy of a question.