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Scribbling Women- Marthe Jocelyn

Scribbling Women book cover

I know I shouldn’t think this way, and I know I’ll be punished for it, but I just love it when bad things happen to people I can’t stand.

Though we might not care to admit it, I’m sure that many of us have felt like this at some point or another in our lives. There’s nothing especially remarkable about the sentiment. What is remarkable is that this quotation is taken from the diary of Sei Shonagon, a tenth century lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court in Japan. Scribbling Women is a book of remarkable women. Remarkable because of the times they lived in, remarkable because of the stories they wrote down, remarkable because their experiences resonate with the women of today.

Marthe Jocelyn became interested in the legacy left by female diarists when researching her book A Home For Foundlings which introduced her to the importance of the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who helped to cure smallpox in Britain by writing letters home from Turkey explaining how the disease was treated there. What knowledge then might be found in the diaries and letters of less prominent women in history? And how would they relate to the experience of modern women?

Taking its title from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s frustrated outburst to his publisher, “America is now given over to a damned mob of scribbling women,” Scribbling Women is a whistle-stop tour of women’s writing in history aimed at, though not exclusively for, young adults. Some of the women may be known to readers, other names will be unfamiliar but all have extraordinary stories to tell. From the letters of Margaret Catchpole, a deported female convict who became one of the early settlers in Australia, to Hatty Jacobs whose story of life as a slave challenged the conscience of America almost every woman has something profound to tell us about her historical period and attitudes to women at the time when she wrote.

I say almost every woman, because I disagree with the inclusion of Daisy Ashford, who wrote The Young Visiters, a novel, as a nine year old. I don’t think that this fitted with the rest of the book which focuses on the experiences of women who lived incredible lives and recorded their memories in non-fiction formats. It’s almost as though Daisy’s story was included as a novelty piece, or curios, and I think that this is reflected in the length of text that the author dedicated to this.

Despite this, I loved this book and my main criticism would be that I think Jocelyn could have taken the concept further to include the stories of even more remarkable women. There are many remarkable women whose stories could have filled the pages, and I would like to see an extended edition, as I think that there would be a market for this book with a greater depth of exploration without it wandering into the scope of an academic text.  I especially liked the way that the story of each woman was linked to the next, comparing their situations or biographies to allow the distance, both physical and chronological, to flow away between the pages.

Zlata Filipovic

A diarist that I really think should have been included: Zlata Filipovic

I noticed that all but one of Marthe Joyce’s women have died, and I think that it would have been good to include some living writers. Zlata Filipovic was a teenage diarist during the war in Sarajevo, and has been compared by many to Anne Frank. However, unlike Anne, her story has had a happy ending. Not only is her diary an important historical record, but Zlata went on to study at Oxford University, and now lives in Dublin. She still writes in support of freedom, and has collaborated on works for children affected by conflict and has been involved writing forewords to projects such as The Freedom Writers Diary, which helps teenagers help themselves and the world around them through writing.

A big thank you to Tundra Books and Marthe Jocelyn for offering me the opportunity to read and review this book. Please check out the Tundra Books website for the chance to win some great Scribbling Women prizes.