“Scribbling Women” – Marthe Jocelyn – Tales of Extraordinary Women Before the Age of the Blog

“Don’t know much about history,” sings Sam Cooke at the beginning of his 1959 song, “Wonderful World.”

My admirable friend and Canadian author, Marthe Jocelyn, in contrast, knows quite a lot about history, and, in her new book “Scribbling WomenTrue Tales From Astonishing Lives, does her best to  impart its wonders.

“Scribbling Women,” published by Tundra Books, outlines the lives of eleven extremely different yet remarkable women, each of whom set pen to paper (or fingers to typewriter) in ways that literally made history–their lives defying the boundaries of their circumstances, their writings serving as actual historical records of their times.  In this series of  short and insightful biographies, Jocelyn includes hefty, but digestible, chunks of these records–that is, the actual writing of each of her subjects–allowing readers to savor each woman’s unique voice.

The “scribbles”–ranging fromThe Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, written in Imperial Japan, to Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a 1112 page tome by Isabella Beeton of Victorian England, to the diary of Ada Blackjack, written on Wrangel Island, in the Eastern Cape of Siberia, in 1923–cover a vast range of time, geography, and style. Some of the texts were originally intended for publication, others, such as the diary of South Vietnamese physician, Dr. Dong Thuy Tram, seem to have been written simply to relieve an overburdened heart.  To accommodate this range, Jocelyn deftly provides a context for each tale, inserting brief and friendly asides that explain important bits of political and social history, and also past cultural norms and vocabulary.  In an age in which some would opt to bowdlerize Mark Twain rather than deal with historic complexity, her matter-of-fact approach to difficult and outmoded tags is incredibly refreshing.

Jocelyn writes primarily for the young adult reader, but the book is great for anyone  interested in writing, women and writing women.   Despite their “astonishing lives”, many of these women have received little popular attention (at least I hadn’t heard much of them):  there is Margaret Catchpole, transported from England to New South Wales for horsestealing and prison escape; her letters now provide one of the few written records of early colony life; Harriet Ann Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, who spent seven years living in an attic cupboard at the edge of her master’s plantation; Nelly Bly, American jounalist, who, with (dare I say it?) crazy bravura, arranged a confinement an 1880‘s women’s insane asylum in order to get the inside story.  (Nelly’s findings were reported in two articles in Joseph Pultizer’s The World, and later in the book, Ten Days in a Madhouse.)

Some of the women are more directly involved with the act of writing than others.  (Sei Shonagon, for example, worries terribly about coming up with quick poetic responses.)  The life of each, however, is fundamentally marked by her womanhood, in terms of both the dangers that threaten her and the opportunities that may avail.  The particularly feminine suffering of some of the women, such as slave Harriet Jacobs, and aborigine Doris Pilkington Garimara, is sobering.  But Scribbling Women offers lighter moments too, as when Mary Kingsley, English adventurer of the mid-19th century, writes of walking through West Africa:

“…the next news was I was in a heap, on a lot of spikes, some fifteen feet or so below ground level, at the bottom of a bag-shaped game pit.  It is at these times you realize the blessing of a good thick skirt.  Had I paid heed to the advice of many people in England…and adopted masculine garments, I should have been spiked to the bone and done for.  Whereas, save for a good many bruises, here I was with the fullness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort, howling lustily to be hauled out.”  From Mary Kingsley, author of Travels in West Africa, as quoted by Marthe Jocelyn, a scribbling woman.

Get your copy today!

Mary Kingsley, 1862-1900

(For more about Scribbling Women, Martha Jocelyn, the blog tour for Scribbling Women, and Tundra Books, check out Tundra’s website and Marthe’s website. )

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20 Comments on ““Scribbling Women” – Marthe Jocelyn – Tales of Extraordinary Women Before the Age of the Blog”

  1. Jodi Says:

    I’d love to win this shelf-full of books from Marthe Jocelyn.

  2. laura Says:

    I loved this book. The history of women needs to be on the forefront these days to let young girls know anything is possible.

  3. Teresa Says:

    I am loving the book. There are some great quotes and some fantastic stories.

  4. Jennifer O. Says:

    So glad this was written at a level for 14 yrs olds. My daughter is 12, but her reading level is college level. Exhausted from seeing her read bad James Patterson novels and Twilight-ish books, I’m going to have her read this. Maybe *crossing fingers* it will inspire her.

  5. I thought this was a wonderful book for all ages. I’d love to see more like this and to have a chance to read Marthe’s other books!


  6. Thank you, Karin, for a really considered and heart-warming post! I would say this book could be read starting in about 5th grade. I confess that I left out a few salient details – for keen readers to learn on their own as they get older…

    • manicddaily Says:

      Thank you, Marthe, for the opportunity to read and think about a fascinating book. You included plenty of salient details!


    • manicddaily Says:

      Marthe–I just realized that I should post a correction–I didn’t mean to imply the book was only for young adults and old adults. I will do this.


  7. Christinabean Says:

    The more posts I read about Scribbling Women, the more I can appreciate the research that was done in creating this piece of work. And Marthe is a Canadian to boot! 😀

  8. Heather Says:

    There is so much that can be learned from women’s diaries. I read one book that contained all sorts of food information from the 1800’s that a woman had written down so she would remember. cool stuff you’d never hear of otherwise.

    • manicddaily Says:

      Absolutely! In Marthe Jocelyn’s book, there is a great section on Isabella Beeton who had the first “household management” book in England, a huge bestseller, also with lots of cookery.

  9. Martha S Says:

    often the thought of ‘history’ is so overwhelming that a reader tends to crouch in her own time frame, from a combination of cowardice and embarrassment. one of the great kindnesses of this book is the historical and cultural ‘hints’ the author provides, making us feel up to the task of reading about different times, and our ignorance of those times less embarrassing. thank you marthe! from now on i will feel braver in approaching the long complex history of our world.

    • manicddaily Says:

      Hi Martha, I agree. Marthe is very gentle in her asides and cultural “hints.” This is wonderful for older and young readers.

  10. .The author Marthe Jocelyn photo credit Tom Slaughter..Welcome to Day Twoof the Scribbling Women Blog Tour. Scribbling Women True Tales From Astonishing Lives is a series of stories about little known female authors who documented their lives and the trials tribulations and triumphs along the way.

  11. Carolyn Hart Says:

    I enjoyed the book thoroughly and was delighted to hand it to a thirteen year old friend. I hope it will as inspiring to her as it was to me.

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