Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

By Rosemary Dinnage
New York Review of Books,
300 pages, $24.95
Remarkable women, remarkable lives


Its title alone is enough to arrest a reader’s attention, and Alone! Alone! will not disappoint readers who take the time to dip into this collection of brief biographical essays. A London writer whose articles on literary and psychological subjects frequently appear in The (London) Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books, Rosemary Dinnage’s elegant essays on “outsider women” are a pleasure to read.

Ms. Dinnage discusses almost two dozen notable women, including the painter Gwen John, writers Rebecca West, Isak Dinesen, Katherine Mansfield, Barbara Pym and Olive Schreiner, theosophists Annie Besant and Madame Blavatsky, the opera singer La Strepponi, the reclusive Alice James and more. The book is divided into six categories: Solitaries, Partners and Muses, Seers, Exotics, Reinventors and Trapped.

Despite the title, not all the women seemed to have lived particularly solitary or lonely lives. The author devotes a chapter to Clementine Churchill, arguing that though Winston Churchill adored his wife and the marriage was probably the saving of them both, the two spent much time apart, not only because of the demands of his career but because they often took separate vacations. Intelligent, perfectionistic and loyal, a lifelong feminist who at heart always preferred the Liberals to the Tories, Clementine preferred the museums of Paris to the “rich French Riviera set” her more vulgar husband enjoyed. “God -- the Riviera is a ghastly place” and “I am suffocated with luxury and ennui,” she wrote.

Often the book seems to be as much about love and marriage as about aloneness. One of the most interesting chapters is about Dora Russell, an educator and wife of Bertrand Russell for 12 years. The marriage fell apart under the weight of mutual infidelities despite both partners being ardent proponents of open marriage. Dora Russell devoted much of her energy first to the birth control movement, then to a free school she and her husband established, which she continued to run for 11 years after their divorce. Her conviction that modern education brutalizes people, that the way to happiness lies through instincts and the emotions, seems as relevant today as ever. Reading about an Arizona school district replacing all textbooks with handheld computers for their students, you wonder if Dora Russell had it right: “There are all these tape recorders and television sets and God knows what; we’re relying all the time on the external thing, on external gadgets, until there’s nothing left of what’s inside the child -- they all come out exactly alike, we’re turning out machine-made people.”

Ms. Dinnage is at her best in writing about writers, and the chapters on Isak Dinesen and Rebecca West and Katherine Mansfield are particularly good. Her essay on Dinesen blends sensitive commentary about the writer’s work, including such lesser-known books as Carnival and Angelic Avengers, with a sympathetic discussion of a woman who suffered so many tragedies that she emerged from the crucible with a faint odor of the sulphur from hell. In “Satan Laughed: Isak Dinesen,” Ms. Dinnage depicts Dinesen’s transformation from an insecure woman to a somewhat sinister high priestess of her own cult. “The survivor -- quod fecit, fecit -- is sometimes more disturbing than the suicide,” Ms. Dinnage writes.

Four or five of the chapters seem out of place, squeezed into the book because they were already written, not because they belong. Despite this flaw, Alone! Alone! will intrigue far more readers than it disappoints. It may spark a desire to read more about the women Ms. Dinnage discusses. (It’s hard, after all, to say all there is to say about a life in 10-12 pages, and Ms. Dinnage wisely does not try.) It will certainly bring home to the reader the peculiar, mysterious paths people travel. Ms. Dinnage has provided vivid snapshots of some of the accomplished women in 20th-century Anglo-American culture. Taken together, their lives are so different, so far from forming any pattern, that their remarkable destinies underscore how strange and singular are the lives we lead. You put down the book aware more keenly than ever of how alone each of us is in her life. That, as Ms. Dinnage’s book suggests, is our tragedy and our unwitting genius.

Margot Patterson is a staff writer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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