Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 27, 2013

Historical Portraits

I’ve been writing a novel based on a woman from history who’s known, but not as much as I think as she deserves. I have my own answers to the question of why and how one would one turn a real life not into fiction rather than biography, but I’m always interested in other approaches. Three books published within the past year suggest different possibilities of ways people might be remembered.


FEVER Mary Beth Keane is an imagined recounting of Mary Mallon, who came down in history as Typhoid Mary, the first person in the United States believed to be a carrier with no symptoms. I love the first line: “The day began with sour milk and got worse.”  We read of the general sense of loneliness any outcast might feel, underscored by Mary’s particular tenderness, and get harrowing descriptions of how this fever took hold. As Mary moves from kitchen to kitchen in search of new jobs as cook, we’re shown how some servants help each other out within the upstairs-downstairs of grand houses, or view one another as competitors.

Mary Beth Keane’s list of sources is fairly spare, suggesting that much of her obviously extensive research was done on New York and its immigrant population in the early twentieth century rather than biographical material on Mary Mallon, who was developed through a novelist’s queries. She’s shown as sometimes sensitive and sometimes a spitfire, often generally oblivious, as we all are sometimes, blocking evidence of what we don’t want to see.


The life of Zelda Fitzgerald — debutante, dancer, painter, writer, and wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald — has been long documented by herself and others. She was famous in her time for her wit, beauty, stays in mental institutions, and accusations of being destructive to her husband’s career, sometimes in almost the same breath as she was called an asset. Who was she? We can’t really know, but in Z: A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD, author  Therese Anne Fowler takes a well-informed and imaginative stab at an answer. Lots of journals, letters, reportage, photographs, and the subject’s own stories and paintings were available, so well-informed, Therese Anne Fowler structured the book partly around some of the hidden motivations within any life. She writes in the afterword of the many myths that were passed down, and took it as her job to look for truths and motivations behind them. For instance, she knew that Zelda and Ernest Hemingway did not get along, and wrote to discover an answer as to why, which appears toward the novel’s send.


Jennie Fields wrote  THE AGE OF DESIRE, a title which is a play on that of Edith Wharton’s THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. The voice that Jennie Fields created, sometimes sensitive, sometimes assured, fit what I imagined Edith Wharton’s voice to be. The novel’s texture is thickened by being told alternately from her point of view and that of Anna Bahlmann, who was first Edith’s  governess, then became her secretary and a friend who knew her perhaps better than anyone. The time period focuses on the years when Edith was in her forties, with the plot taking shape around Edith’s affair with journalist, Morton Fullerton. The points of view of the two women show the tensions between rapture, guilt, hope, fears, and hiding. I was pulled in!

As with the case of Zelda Fitzgerald, Jennie Fields had extensive biographical material to draw from, including many newly found letters, and she notes that she often began her daily writing by reading a few pages of Edith Wharton’s exquisite prose. And her study showed. I felt as if I understood parts of Wharton that I hadn’t understood before. And this novel, like the others, widened my sense of the lives of women from the past. 




  1. Thank you, Jeannine – of course for your reviews, but primarily for your example of writer as curious, astute reader.

  2. I want to know more about the woman you’re keeping hidden from us, at least for now. Too, I’ll be interested to learn why you chose to write her into a novel… 🙂

    I’m thinking I’d like all of the books you’ve mentioned, each for different reasons. Clear, compelling reviews–you drew me in!

    • I hope I don’t sound too coy, but right now it’s hard to say a few words about someone you’ve just devoted about 80,000 to. I will though soon! And, yes, that is quite an array of women. If you’re ever back in the western Ct/western MA area, we should pay a call at Edith Wharton’s house.

  3. I’ve always been fascinated with Zelda and still have the first biography of her by Nancy Milford. But I’m really foaming at the mouth to know who *you* are writing about. Send up a flare when you’re ready to reveal!

    • I remember reading that biography, too, long ago, and reading this novel made me curious to get back to it, though not right away. I’m Zelda-sated for the moment. I will send a flare soon. Finding it a bit hard after all the cozying up to say goodbye to one way of being, the private way, and go public. Thanks for your curiosity and patience, if I can call it that. I’m assuming that mouth foam is metaphorical; if you really want to know, private message me! It’s not a big secret, just that stepping out of and away from the process, I’m trying to take my mind off it while the novel goes off on its own to seek its fortune.

  4. Thank you, Jeannine, for your kind words about my book, “The Age of Desire.” I’m so pleased you found it thoughtful and pleasing. A writer could not ask for more. Good luck with your future novel! I look forward to finding it on a bookshelf in the not so distant future.

    • Thank you for writing such a fascinating book, and for your kind words!

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