These Particular Women
“The book runs the gamut from amusing to sad, with a bit of frustration and eye-rolling thrown in for good measure. . . . Meads has an obvious talent to make the mundane interesting and comical.”
Kat Meads’ new book is a collection of essays about women, some of whom are familiar, like Virginia Woolf, others not so much, but their daughters are well known. Meads takes the reader on a bit of a meander through the lives of these women, highlighting the interesting, challenging, and questionable behavior that makes them worth reading about.
So much has been written about Virginia Woolf that another essay may seem redundant. Yet Meads manages to find tidbits from Woolf’s life that will satisfy the most jaded reader who swears there has been enough written about her. For much of the essay, Meads writes about Leonard, Virginia’s husband, and questions whether he did too much for his wife. Referring to Leonard’s “overprotective zeal” Meads raises questions about him, the marriage, and the impact all of it had on Woolf. It’s a different approach to the subject’s life. This is the longest essay in the book, making it apparent the author is an admirer.
Subsequent essays delve into the lives and idiosyncrasies of Lida Estelle Oldham Franklin Faulkner (who gets points for her elongated name), if nothing else; Mary McCarthy; Lady Caroline Blackwood; Jean Harris; and Agatha Christie, to name some.
One of the most amusing essays relates the author’s trip to the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum. Who could pass up an essay titled, "Margaret Mitchell’s Dump"? According to Meads most of what is in the “museum” didn’t belong to Mitchell even though a distant cousin decided that everything in the place was “exactly right.” Alas, the author’s disappointment continues when she finds there were no GWTW snow globes to complement the one she picked up at Graceland. While Mitchell’s epic novel, Gone With the Wind, is her primary legacy, it seems that most folks the author interacted with didn’t give a damn.
The essay on Lida Estelle Faulkner is a sad tale. She seems to have been a stereotypical southern belle who was told early on by her mother to be charming because she was not beautiful. That pretty much set the stage for Estelle’s life. She smoked, drank, charmed and, it seemed irritated everyone, especially Faulkner sycophants. It’s a story of two alcoholics who found but didn’t like or appreciate each other. The essay presents a picture of a train wreck of a life.
Agatha Christie’s well-known dislike of the media dominates her essay as well as the famous 11-day disappearance act her dislike of the media. Still, it is fun to read about an author who wrote so many books loved by so many over so many years.
A couple of issues come through in this collection. Many of these women are not, necessarily, likeable, and, for Kitty Oppenheimer and Estelle Faulkner, their lives took a back seat to their husbands’. The least interesting essay is about Jean Harris and the murder of her lover, cardiologist Herman Tarnower.
The essay “Mother’s Inc.” is succinctly summed up by the author, “Mary Flannery O’Connor got Regina. Sylvia Plath Hughes got Aurelia,” an interesting and worthwhile read.
The final essay is not about any famous personage, her husband, or her mother, but it is the one most fun to read. Or maybe it’s just irritating in a “can’t put it down” way. The essay is about Grace Margaret Morton’s book, The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance. Never heard of it? Not surprised. The book, published shortly before Morton’s untimely death, proclaimed that the “world still wants its women to conform to certain standards of beauty.”
Meads is in Bodega Bay, made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s feathery thriller, The Birds, and she’s attending an estate sale when she finds the book. Morton was a clothing authority and a home economics professor at the University of Nebraska. It was published in 1943, and Morton intended that the book would positively affect women’s fashion and generate a “higher standard of taste among people everywhere.” In other words, Morton intended her book to be the definitive statement on what it means to be a woman.
These Particular Women is a book that can be read in whole or part by deciding which subject will pique one’s imagination.
Essays are sometimes off-putting and, let’s face it, boring or self-indulgent. Meads, however, straddles that knife-edge by presenting a variety of subjects with a writing style that prompts one to keep turning the page. The book runs the gamut from amusing to sad, with a bit of frustration and eye-rolling thrown in for good measure. Meads has an obvious talent to make the mundane interesting and comical. She brings home the idea that celebrity and fame is not synonymous with happiness and contentment. It seems there is something to be said for the mundane that reflects most lives.