The stories in “Almost Famous Women” by Megan Mayhew Bergman stand out in my mind as some of the most exciting fiction in both content and style that I’ve read for some time. Here the author has chosen a group of women from history who have rubbed shoulders with fame or were associated with a celebrated person. Stories include fascinating figures such as conjoined twins Violet & Daisy, actress Butterfly McQueen, Alegra: the short-lived illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister Norma, black trumpet player Tiny Davis. She has fictionalized scenes from each of their lives in which she brings their unique and forgotten perspectives to the forefront. Almost every story is proceeded by a photo of the woman in question which adds a striking visual reference point grounding these fictional conjurings in docemented history. They are women who each showed tremendous talent and intelligence in the arts or sports, but for some reason they have been relegated to the footnotes of history.
These stories are so extraordinarily entertaining while also making bold statements about the plight of women in society at their time. The fact that many have fallen into obscurity says more about the way history is largely informed by a patriarchal agenda. Perhaps the author is also making a statement upon the valiant feminist mission which underlies this book when she comments in one story: “Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women. Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.” In this book a select group of women are brilliantly and rightfully celebrated in all their complexity!
Many books of short fiction are made up of disparate pieces which the author has written over many years. It’s rare that a central concept unites a book of stories in the way of “Almost Famous Women.” One book which does bear a similar resemblance is Greg Johnson’s brilliant book of short stories “Last Encounter with the Enemy,” several of which I discuss in my review of his collection “Women I’ve Known,” in which he writes about fictional encounters in the lives of several great female authors. I’m also reminded of Joyce Carol Oates’ tremendous book of short stories “Wild Nights!” which fictionalizes the end of several famous authors’ lives. Short stories should, of course, stand independently, but it adds a level of complexity and poignancy when there are overarching themes connecting them in a collection. Although the stories in “Almost Famous Women” vary greatly, they do form a larger statement about these unique female lives which have mostly been forgotten and deserve to be given a voice.
What’s fascinating about Bergman’s technique is that, for the most part, she approaches her female subjects from the side. Except in a few stories where we are more or less centred in the perspective of the woman from history that the author has selected, most are narrated by or entrenched in the perspective of someone associated with these women. In one of my favourite stories ‘The Siege of Whale Cay’ the story is told from the mistress of cigar-smoking heiress M.B. “Joe” Carstairs who was known as the fastest woman on water because of her motorboat racing abilities. She purchased a Caribbean island to rule over and live out her eccentric lifestyle in relative seclusion. But her story unfolds through the perspective of Georgie, a woman who used to play a mermaid at an amusement park and who Carstairs has taken to the island to live as her mistress. Through Georgie we learn of Carstairs’ lavish soirées, affair with a famous actress and sometimes tyrannical nature informed partly by the trauma she endured during WWI.
Although this isn’t explored in the stories of this collection, Carstairs also had an affair with Dolly Wilde, the niece of Oscar Wilde. In fact, Dolly is given her own story in ‘Who Killed Dolly Wilde?’ which is also narrated from the perspective of someone close to Dolly rather than by Dolly herself. It follows the sad and slow demise of this flamboyant socialiser, writer and drug-addict despite the earnest attention and love of her friend/patron who narrates the story. The story about Romaine Brooks ‘Romaine Remains’ also has a connection here as both Dolly Wilde and Brooks are known to have had affairs with Natalie Barney, that famous woman who held court to some of the greatest writers and artists in early 20th century Paris. Therefore, it’s almost surprising not to see a story about Barney included in this story collection as well.
‘Romaine Remains’ focuses on the painter’s much later life when she is living as a cantankerous recluse. It’s told from the perspective of Mario, a young homosexual who works as the elderly Romaine’s carer and housekeeper. He’s fascinated by this woman’s extraordinary life but tortured by his impoverished state which requires him to be subject to both this difficult old artist and his domineering mother. It leads him to take control of the vulnerable woman he’s employed under stating “Power is a funny thing. Sometimes you can just take it.” His fervent desire to become an artist despite his circumstances suggests how both he and many of the women in this collection are prevented from realizing their full potential in part because of their strained economic circumstances.
Running through each of these three stories is also a fascinating perspective on queer identity. It’s shown in very different manifestations through these characters’ individual perspectives. Sometimes compromises must be made in order to live the way they want to with their chosen same sex partner and sometimes they unapologetically/defiantly live the way that feels natural. Another story which touches upon a unique historical example of a homosexual figure is ‘Hell-Diving Women’ which conjures a period in time of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm who were the first integrated all women’s band in America. It’s told from the perspective of Ruby who was trumpet player Tiny Davis’s lover. Here the struggle this lesbian couple face is subsumed over more pressing overt concerns of racial intolerance the band experienced while touring under difficult situations.
Some stories have what feels like a more overt agenda to yank back a historical person’s integrity from what’s been (to date) a mostly male-dominated historical narrative. The story ‘A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down For Lunch’ is proceeded by a quote from Ernest Hemingway about aviator and memoirist Beryl Markham. Arguably, it’s because of Hemingway that Markham is still known at all. Yet he gave her a typically backhanded compliment praising her writing effusively while also denigrating her personally. What follows is a tender story about Markham living in hard-won independence in rural Kenya. She works to tame a horse for riding. The autonomy she forms within her existence here where she’s left her husband is very difficult, but there is a triumphant pleasure in it where she can exist without needing to pay heed to the opinions of men. What a satisfying way of rendering Hemingway’s arrogantly macho opinion insignificant!
In a departure from the other stories in the collection, the very short tale ‘The Internees’ unusually uses the collective voice to describe groups of women liberated from the Nazi internment camps in Bergen-Belsen. Last year I saw André Singer’s devastating documentary ‘Night Will Fall’ about the filming of the camps by Allied forces after their liberation and the political complications of making a complete documentary. In it there are testimonies and footage of women in the aftermath of being freed and their intense desire for clothes and make up to feel like themselves again. In Bergman’s story she resurrects these voices in a way which makes you consider the meaning of identity and femininity.
I feel like I could go on and on about the stories I’ve mentioned and many more which are contained in this book. That’s how provocative and thrilling they are! They make you want to rush online or to the library to research more about all of these fascinating women. One other story I was particularly struck by was ‘Hazel Eaton and the Wall of Death’ about a woman who performed dangerous motorcycle stunts in a carnival’s motordrome. I felt a personal connection to it since its set in the state of Maine where I grew up, although this story is set early in the 20th century. But I was also deeply moved by the philosophical query it raises about what makes a fulfilling existence. Bergman writes: “She was questioning then, as she does now: what makes you empty and what makes you full?” Questions and conundrums like this which prod at the centre of your being pop up throughout the stories in this book. The author’s great skill as a writer and a deep thinker are what make this fiction so compelling. Underlying the compelling stories Bergman creates out of these women resurrected from their nearly-forgotten place in history are much deeper meanings about life, identity and society.