Thanks to Alex and the whole team at Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
Although totally unplanned, I find myself writing this review on the International Women’s Day 2018. One can’t help but wonder about the title of the book, not so much the wicked or misunderstood part (some definitely seem to fall into one of the two categories, while many share characteristics of both, although that depends on the point of view), but the Bad Girls. In my opinion, it makes perfect sense for the argument of the book, as the expression bad woman has a certain meaning and connotations attached to it (very moralistic and misogynistic), while perhaps bad girl allows for a more playful and varied reading. And it has nothing to do with age (the catalogue of historical figures examined by the author includes a large number of women who died quite young, but there are others who lived to ripe old ages as well). It is, ultimately, a matter of self-definition. But I digress.
This book shares a collection of brief biographies (the vast majority are under a couple of pages long), of women, organised in a number of chapters that group women in several categories (although some overlap and the author has to make a choice as to which group a particular figure belongs to). These chapters are: 1) Courtesans and Mistresses; 2) Madams, Prostitutes, and Adulterers; 3) Serial Killers; 4) ‘One-Off’ Killers; 5) Gangsters, Thieves and Con-Artists; 6) The Rebel Collection – Pirates, Witches, Megalomaniacs, Exhibitionists. The book also contains a brief bibliography (I guess otherwise a second volume would have been necessary just to include all the sources), and there are pictures of the women (portraits, photographs, illustrations), and also documents, newspaper cuttings, letters…
Although I was familiar with quite a few of the women featured (in the case of Mata Hari, for example, I had read a book about her not long ago, although in many others I still discovered things I didn’t know) there were also quite a number that I had heard the names of but didn’t know much about, and others that were completely new to me. I have no doubt that most people reading this book will think about other women they would have added to the collection, but I would say all of the women included deserve to be there. This is not a judgment of character though, as that is not what this book is about. The author’s style is engaging and, despite the briefness of the vignettes, she manages to make these women compelling (and horrifying in some cases), and she is at pains to try and paint as balanced a picture as possible, rather than just present them according to the prevalent morality of their time. Reality and legend are sometimes difficult to tell apart, but the author, tries (and at times acknowledges defeat and provides the most interesting versions of a woman’s story available).
Among the many women in the book, I was particularly intrigued by Jane Digby (1807-1881), a lover of travel and an adventurer who also had a talent for choosing interesting men, Enriqueta Martí (1868-1913), who lived in Barcelona and who, according to recent research might not have been guilty of the horrific crimes she was accused of (I won’t talk about it in detail, but let’s say that, if it was true, she was not called The Vampire of Barcelona for nothing), Princess Caraboo (aka Mary Baker: 1791-1864), who knew how to come up with a good story, or Georgia Tann (1891-1950), that I felt intrigued by when I read that Joan Crawford (who has featured in one of my recent reads) had been one of her clients. But there are many others, and of course, this is a book that will inspire readers to do further research and look into the lives of some of these women (or even write about them).
The women in each chapter are organised in alphabetical order, and that means we jump from historical period to historical period, backward and forward, but there is enough information to allow us to get a sense of how society saw these women and how class, patronage, social status, money… influenced the way they were treated. There are personal comments by the author, but she is non-judgemental and it is impossible to read this book, especially some of the chapters, without thinking about the lot of women, about how times have changed (but not as much as we would like to think, as evidenced by recent developments and campaigns), and about how behaviours that from a modern perspective might show strength of character, intelligence, and independence, at the time could condemn a woman in the eyes of society, ruining her reputation and/or destroying her life.
A book to dip in to learn about social history and the role of women, and also one that will inspire readers to read more about some of these women (and others) that, for better or worse, have left a mark. A great starting point for further research into the topic, and a book that will make us reflect about the role of women then and now.