Kate Walbert’s third novel, A Short History of Women, explores “the Woman Question” as it shapes five generations of an Anglo-American family between 1880 and 2007. Walbert has said that her characters repeatedly find themselves with “new freedoms” but continue “spinning their wheels a bit” as they find they “have inherited a world that’s not what they expected at all.” The dramatic event resonating across their lives involves Dorothy Trevor Townsend, whose adolescent daughter Evelyn announces at the start of the novel (in a sentence Walbert has identified as the work’s genesis), “Mum starved herself for suffrage.” While the intervening years have brought markedly greater female opportunity to both sides of the Atlantic, Walbert’s contemporary characters continue to wrestle with the meaning of their individual choices across a century when wars repeatedly defeat the dream of feminist-driven pacifism. What begins as a gendered quandary becomes, in the words of Townsend’s great-granddaughter, “a kind of postmodern, existential question no one bothers to ask anymore.”
Walbert skillfully presents this saga in six distinctive voices across fifteen interlocking segments (some only one page long) that generally follow a forward temporal momentum. For most of the characters, chronological disjunctions occur within chapters and recall Virginia Woolf’s associational suffusion of the narrative present with memory-laden reflection. Indeed, Woolf’s influence informs the novel’s characterizations, themes, and fluidly poetic style. In the case of Townsend herself, information about her life surfaces throughout the novel in nonlinear increments: One learns of her self-willed death at age thirty-four long before discovering that, a decade earlier, she had been refused a degree at Cambridge University, despite completing the appropriate coursework, because the “girls” of the Girton women’s annex received only “certificates” for their effort.
One-third of the chapters belong to Dorothy and gradually reveal how she spends her entire adult life starving from a failure to enter and change history. Condescended to by male peers whose intellectual pretensions she can easily deflate but does not, chastised by a mother who expects her to live within the feminine class ideal into which she was born, abandoned by a globe-trotting civil-servant husband, she preaches genteel virtues to her children but boldly displays her lavender suffragist sash and resumes a college-era love affair with a Conservative British member of Parliament. On the same autumn day in 1914 when she decides to stop eating, she earlier listens to a male “expert” deliver “A Short History of Women,” in which he quotes Havelock Ellis: “Every inaptitude of Woman will be in its time accompanied by some compensatory attitude ’even if it has not itself yet developed into an advantageous character.’” Specifically, the speaker explains, the long-awaited female ballot will offer additional support to men as they pursue “incontrovertible necessities” such as the Great War, then in its early stages.
For Dorothy, Europe’s descent into unprecedented militarized violence represents a catastrophe for the civilization it is supposed to further. Not only has it recast suffrage as a dangerous diversion from the war effort but it also demands that women enthusiastically yield their sons to the carnage. Outraged by the news that suffrage will not free women from the role of comforters-in-chief enabling such self-annihilation, she concludes she can no longer play the partnot for the empire and not even for her own children. She convinces herself that she is giving her life for her daughter and in order to “make something happen,” but Evelyn’s final image of Dorothy is as an emaciated body “curved into a singular question.”
The novel’s framing first-person sensibility belongs to Evelyn Townsend, whose opening chapter records her mother’s death and whose closing chapter, set some seventy years later, concedes the approach of her own death. By then, she has in every way fulfilled her mother’s intellectual ambitions: She has secured a Ph.D. in chemistry and crafted a successful...
(The entire section is 1736 words.)