“And what do we women do? We play our roles; we speak our lines,” says Dorothy Trevor Townsend, the frustrated matriarch of Kate Walbert’s third novel, A Short History Of Women. The irony of Dorothy’s declaration, delivered drunkenly to the nurse who cares for her two children, may be lost on her, but it organizes her life, and the lives of four of her descendants, through a series of cascading vignettes.
One of the first wave of girls to attend Cambridge (though they weren’t allowed to take their degrees there), Dorothy nevertheless winds up fixed in domesticity with a husband missing in Ceylon; becoming a suffragette, she starves herself to death in 1914 while the rest of the world turns toward war. Her daughter, Evelyn Charlotte Townsend, who is introduced watching in horror at her mother’s bedside, sheds responsibility for the political scene and flees to New York, where she becomes a chemistry professor and companion to a much older widower. Evelyn’s niece, also Dorothy, becomes politically energized in the wake of her slowly failing marriage to a former POW and her son’s death from cancer; later, her daughters Liz and Caroline, working mothers in New York City, fret about her consciousness-raising blog, which seeks to re-orient her life by the example of Florence Nightingale.
Though narrower in scope, Walbert’s rich, difficult novel brings to mind Marilyn French’s feminist classic The Women’s Room in more than title: Self-consciousness tails each generation even as they assert their right to make their own decisions, from Dorothy’s refusal to admit regret or sadness over an affair with a campus anarchist to her namesake’s arrests for photographing coffins on the way home from Iraq. The significance of the elder Dorothy’s decision to die is lost on future generations, but each woman reaches her own point of helplessness, though shoehorning in Caroline’s daughter proves to be too much.
The multi-generational approach isn’t novel, but Walbert’s skill with surprising, artful similes is (like Evelyn describing her students as “patient yet shifting as the carriage horses who wait for passengers in Central Park”); a phantasmagoric segment taking place on V-J Day finds a kernel of silence even in the heat and tumult of the crowds. The expression of each story as if it were taking place in the same urgent space as the others smoothes the fractured narrative over while still allowing for surprise.