Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Review: 'Bad Girls from History: Wicked or Misunderstood?' by Dee Gordon

When I was still at university I quickly began specialising in women from history. I absolutely loved discovering fascinating upon fascinating women in my text books, seeing how women always rebelled, in one way or another, against the rules imposed upon them by the patriarchy. Those discoveries are one of the things I miss most. A book like Bad Girls from History is like a treasure trove to me. Are some of the women in this book despicable? Absolutely. But each mini biography in Gordon's book is an insight into a period in history, into a certain mindset, into a certain ideology. There is a lot to work with and to think about, and I love both of those things when it comes to historical women. Thanks to Pen & Sword and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 30/09/2017
Publisher: Pen & Sword
 You wont be familiar with every one of the huge array of women featured in these pages, but all, familiar or not, leave unanswered questions behind them. The range is extensive, as was the research, with its insight into the lives and minds of women in different centuries, different countries, with diverse cultures and backgrounds, from the poverty stricken to royalty. 
Mistresses, murderers, smugglers, pirates, prostitutes and fanatics with hearts and souls that feature every shade of black (and grey!). From Cleopatra to Ruth Ellis, from Boudicca to Bonnie Parker, from Lady Caroline Lamb to Moll Cutpurse, from Jezebel to Ava Gardner.
Less familiar names include Mary Jeffries, the Victorian brothel-keeper, Belle Starr, the American gambler and horse thief, La Voisin, the seventeenth-century Queen of all Witches in France but these are random names, to illustrate the variety of the content in store for all those interested in women who defy law and order, for whatever reason.
The risque, the adventurous and the outrageous, the downright nasty and the downright desperate all human (female!) life is here. From the lower stratas of society to the aristocracy, class is not a common denominator. Wicked? Misunderstood? Nave? Foolish? Predatory? Manipulative? Or just out of their time? Read and decide.

So yes, I love women who are considered bad. Jezebel? I wish the Bible had had more of her. Women ruling the Gangs of New York? I’m so here for it. Mata Hari being over the top till the very end? Tell me more! So Godon’s Bad Girls from History was always going to be something I enjoyed. I devoured the book in a day, pouring over the biographies of women forgotten by most. Gordon digs up women ranging from the widely known and infamous, to those reduced to a footnote in most books. What I enjoy most about these types of books is that it shows how women have always forged a path for themselves one way or the other. Did they do so for bad reasons, did they do so with murderous intent? Some definitely. But other women saw opportunities in the small niche allowed for them and exploited it for all they could. This is why I love history, because it shows you that while society may dictate one thing, in the end, most people do what they want anyone. And going down in history as a bad girl always brings with it some respect.

The book is split into six different sections. ‘Courtesans and Mistresses’ contains such illustrious characters as Cleopatra for her affairs with Caesar and Mark Anthony, as well as Kitty Fisher. ‘Madams, Prostitutes and Adulterers’ presents us with the likes of Anne Boleyn and Sidonie Colette. This is perhaps the chapter that had me most confused as some of these, like Boleyn, really didn’t seem to fit. ‘Serial Killers’ is a truly horrendous and fascinating chapter full of women like the Countess Bathory and Lizzie Borden. This was a runner up for my favourite chapter. ‘One Off Killers’ is easier on the mind than the previous chapter, but includes mostly women that haven’t gone down in infamy. ‘Gangsters, Thieves and Con-Artists’ is the chapter for anyone in love with Bonnie & Clyde. Here you will find even more women breaking the law left, right and centre. The book finishes with ‘The Rebel Collection – Pirates, Witches, Megalomaniacs, Exhibitionists’ and since I have a massive penchant for female pirates and witches, I adored some of the women appearing in here. There’s Anne Bonny, Boudicca, Empress Cixi and much more. What this overview hopefully shows is how diverse, in some ways, Bad Girls from History is. There are many women from different walks of life, all of which were considered bad once upon a time. Some of these women, like Bergen-Belsen guard Irma Grese deserve that judgement outright, while many other of the women in this book seem very much a victim of their time.

Gordon passes no judgement in this book, and often also doesn’t go very much deeper into her subjects than the bare boned facts, as far as those are available. As such, Bad Girls from History is more like a dictionary of women who, one way or another, drew attention to themselves. Maybe they wrote beautiful yet divisive poetry like Sappho, maybe they acted outside of normal gender patterns like Calamity Jane. Although I would have liked to see Gordon dig into these women, analyze what led them to their actions, how they were forced into certain situations by gender roles etc., Bad Girls from History is not that book and also never pretends to be. The fact I wanted more, however, shows that Gordon presented and interesting and well-written case. Her biographies are interspersed with humour, small comments upon the actions of this or that woman, and ruminations upon how their actions would be seen now. But mostly she lets these bad girls’ actions speak for them.

I give this book…
3 Universes!

 I really enjoyed Bad Girls from History and found myself racing through its pages. I wanted to know more about those women, more about what they did and why. As such, Gordon's book is a perfect starting point for any reader. The facts on many of these women are scarce, yet Gordon does the best with the material available to her. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in women throughout history.

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