Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Marlene organizes a Saturday-night party in a London restaurant to celebrate her promotion at the Top Girls’ Employment Agency. She invites a group of women drawn from history, legend, literature, and art, who tell their stories as Marlene orders food and drink. The stories overlap and compete with one another; the women sometimes listen, sometimes editorialize, and often talk at the same time. Isabella Bird and Lady Nijo are the earliest arrivals. Bird’s story is about her problems with illness, which make her unable to deal with the life expected of a clergyman’s daughter (Bird does not seem to make this connection). Her problems led to travel, a marriage proposal from mountain man Jim Nugent—“a man any woman might love but none could marry”—and a return to Scotland after her sister Hennie’s death. Because of her need to atone, given Hennie’s goodness and that of the doctor who cared for her through her last illness, Isabella married the doctor and devoted herself to caring for him through his long last illness. After his death and her own charitable work, she experienced a return of her own nervous illness, the result of trying “very hard to cope with the ordinary drudgery of life.”
Interwoven with Bird’s story is Lady Nijo’s account of being raised to become a courtesan of the emperor. She enjoyed the beautiful clothes and status while she was the emperor’s favorite; later she took lovers and lost a daughter to one of these lovers, whose wife raised the girl to follow in Nijo’s footsteps. When she lost favor with the emperor, she became a Buddhist nun and now wanders the countryside.
Pope Joan enters next and tells her tale, which begins when as a precocious fourteen-year-old disguised as a boy she left home and traveled with a male friend who was also her lover. They studied theology together until his death. Her intelligence attracted attention, and she rose rapidly, becoming a cardinal and then pope. As pope, she discreetly took a lover and became pregnant without realizing it. When she interrupted a religious process to deliver her baby on the side of a road, she was stoned to death.
Everyone at Marlene’s party is by that time quite drunk and giggling at Joan’s description of the pierced chair that subsequent popes are required to sit on to prove that they are men. They are getting ready for dessert when Patient Griselda enters. Marlene tells the others, “Griselda’s in Boccaccio and Petrarch and Chaucer because of her...
(The entire section is 1023 words.)
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