Five scandalous women worth reading about

When was the last time you heard of someone being ruined by scandal (speaking only of our rich Western nations, I hasten to say)? Unless a conservative institution - say, a bank, or the British Royal Family - is involved, the transgressor is more likely offered a book contract or a reality TV show.

Is that why scandals, and the scandalous, are so boring these days compared to those of previous eras? Because so little is at stake?

How much more interesting are the stories of scandalous behaviour of times past, the desperate need to escape the "boredom of convention", or to transgress a repressive code of conduct, and nearly always paid dearly. Small wonder too, speaking of repression, that it was practically always women who were scandalous. Men who caused public outrage became notorious, from the Latin notus, "known", but women who did the same were scandalous, from the Latin scandalum, "cause of offence".

Here are a few of my favourites among history's famous "scandalous" women, and some good books where you can read about them, and consider whether their offence was perhaps simply an inability to not be who they were.

Isabelle Eberhardt

"A mystic and voluptuary Slav who galloped off into the Sahara dressed as an Arab. She died at thirty, riddled with diseases which were the price of her freedom, but still believing that she could go as a man into a man's world, and thus live more fully." This is how Lesley Branch introduces Isabelle Eberhardt in her group biography of four headstrong 19th-century women travellers, The wilder shores of love, an intriguing (now that I look back) birthday present in my teen years from my Slavic mother.

Herself an adventurous traveller, Lesley Blanch clearly identified with her subjects (she later titled her own memoirs On the wilder shores of love), revealing her voluptuary streak in her prose's somewhat elated tone, and her intelligence in insightful phrases such as the "boredom of convention" I quoted above. Most notable of all is the energy level, both in her writing style and her research, which included hunting down dwellers of the Sahara who had actually known Si Mahmoud, as Isabelle Eberhardt was known to them, 50 years before. The book itself is over 50 years old, so these really are voices from a lost world.

Isabelle's own voice can be heard in The nomad: the diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt, and a book of her stories, The oblivion seekers, translated and with a preface by the poet of the Saharan mystery, Paul Bowles himself. There is even a play by John Berger, Isabelle, a story in shots.

My best Isabelle moment, and one I think John Berger would have appreciated, or if not John Berger, certainly his disciple Geoff Dyer, was when I searched for one of her books and whatever website it was where I found it suggested that "You may want to read" a book about astronaut Sally Ride.

Jeanne Duval

Kathy Piehl, what are you saying?

 "Black Venus by James MacManus:
 VERDICT Historical romance fans with an interest in Baudelaire or a penchant for 19th-century Paris will enjoy this novel, but others may tire of the poet's self-indulgence.
 - Kathy Piehl, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Mankato (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC."

Those throngs of historical romance fans with an interest in Baudelaire surging into libraries to obtain a copy of his novel would surely have made the day of the Managing Director of the Times Literary Supplement.

Our copies are all off in parts of town which boast higher numbers of this species of reader (3 copies in Takapuna!) so I haven't been able to have a look at this novel about the Haitian cabaret singer who helped Baudelaire squander his money on laudanum, while serving as the muse for the erotic poems which earned him an obscenity charge and were for a time banned, but the American Library Association reviewer dissents from Ms Piehl's opinion, and judges it an engrossing tale which will leave readers "swooning and reaching for a recording of La bohème".

Manet: Baudelaire's mistress, reclining

I'm sure it is a good read. But if you want a great reading experience, that would be Angela Carter, whose story about Jeanne Duval gives the name to her short story collection Black Venus. If you've read Angela Carter, you'll have an idea of what she could do with the material; if you haven't, here's a taste:

     Indeed, I think she never bothered to bite any apple at all. She wouldn't have known what knowledge was for, would she? She was in neither a state of innocence nor a state of grace. I will tell you what Jeanne was like.
     She was like a piano in a country where everyone has had their hands cut off.   

Read the poems inspired by Jeanne in Les fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil).  In her story, Angela Carter quotes from one of them, the wonderfully-titled "Sed non satiata"-- Never satisfied.

Isadora Duncan

With Isadora, you don't have to read anyone else's words, as her classic autobiography My life was reissued. She covers it all, her life as a dancer, as a woman, as a revolutionary, and as a free spirit. She danced barefoot in white sheaths of Grecian inspiration, at a time when dance was synonymous with the corsets and pointe shoes of classical ballet; she had love affairs with whomever she pleased and two children out of wedlock, at a time when children were synonymous with marriage.

Put like that, it almost sounds as if the disconnect between her intense admiration for the ideals of an ancient civilisation and her revolutionary social and political stances prefigured in some way the tragic deaths of her children at the hands of industrial technology - they drowned in the Seine when the brake slipped on the car they were in - and then of Isadora herself, in Nice, when she hopped into the passenger seat of an Amilcar convertible wearing one of her long flowing scarves, famously calling out Je vais à la gloire ("Off to glory!"), only to have the scarf catch in the rear wheel as the driver accelerated away, strangling her violently - some reports have it actually yanking her out of the car.

"I once saw a wonderful film called The Rail," she wrote in My Life. "The theme was that the lives of human beings are all as the engine running on a set track. And if the engine jumps the track or finds an insurmountable object in its way, there comes disaster. Happy those drivers who, seeing a steep descent before them, are not inspired with a diabolical impulse to take off all brakes and dash to destruction."


Everyone's favourite biography of Colette is Judith Thurman's Secrets of the flesh: a life of Colette. "Secrets of the flesh," Thurman tells us, "sounds rather louche, and that, of course, is intentional - my own ironic bow to Colette's reputation. Her novels were locked away from young Frenchwomen of good families and put on the Vatican's Index of proscribed texts. Simone de Beauvoir had to read Colette for the first time on the sidewalk outside a Paris bookstore. The critics called Colette soulless and perverse, reproaching her for an art 'based solely on the senses'. Even Colette's lover the marquise de Morny - a lesbian transvestite and former drug addict - would complain of her to Willy: 'Colette is an impulsive child without any moral feeling.' The child, who was thirty-three at the time, was amused rather than defensive."

In addition to having pretty much invented the modern teenage girl in her Claudine novels, Colette was the first modern woman, according to Thurman. And "it is not hard to see why Colette always felt more of an affinity with the courtesans, actresses, and artistes she had frequented in her youth than she did with the bluestockings, the militants for women's rights, or the gentlewomen of letters living on their allowances. She respected those ambitious entrepreneurs of her own sex whose notion of a bottom line would never be Virginia Woolf's five hundred a year and a room of one's own, but fifty thousand a year and a villa of one's own, with a great chef, a big garden, and a pretty boy."

Mary Robinson

Even after separating out the books about Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland, and Mary Robinson's "Exercises for Elementary Typewriting" (1972, still available for loan from the depths of the Central City Library basement), you will find many books about the "sex, fame and scandal" Mary Robinson. For my money the best is Perdita: the life of Mary Robinson by Paula Byrne:

"One of the most flamboyant women of the late-eighteenth century, Mary Robinson's life was marked by reversals of fortune. After being raised by a middle-class father, Mary was married, at age fourteen, to Thomas Robinson. His dissipated lifestyle landed the couple and their baby in debtors' prison, where Mary wrote her first book of poetry and met lifelong friend Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. On her release, Mary quickly became one of the most popular actresses of the day, famously playing Perdita in "The Winter's Tale" for a rapt audience that included the Prince of Wales, who fell madly in love with her. She later used his copious love letters for blackmail. This authoritative and engaging book presents a fascinating portrait of a woman who was variously darling of the London stage, a poet whose work was admired by Coleridge and a mistress to the most powerful men in England, and yet whose fortunes were nevertheless precarious, always on the brink of being squandered through recklessness, excess and passion."

My portrait you desire! and why? 

To keep a shade on mem'ry's eye, 

What bliss can reason prove, 

To gaze upon a senseless frame! 

On looks eternally the same, 

And lips that never move.

But what are features? What is form?

To combat life's tempestuous storm.

 - Mary Robinson 'Stanzas for a Friend who desired to have my portrait'

Author: Karen Craig, Reading Engagement Specialist