There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Martin Guerre, a well-off peasant in 16th-century Languedoc, was something of a louse, an unlovable husband who one day vanished without a trace. Some eight years later, a man claiming to be Guerre arrived in town, took Guerre’s place, and moved in with Guerre’s wife. Eventually, though, suspicions began to mount, and the father of the old Guerre (joined, perhaps reluctantly, by his daughter-in-law) took the new Guerre to court. Then the real Guerre, as gruff as ever and missing a leg, returned from an extended adventure in Spain. The impostor was executed, and the story passed into legend.
In 1983, after working as a consultant on The Return of Martin Guerre, a solid if not altogether inspired French production starring Gerard Depardieu, Princeton historian Natalie Zemon Davis published her own account of the case under the same title. Davis felt that the movie had oversimplified its subject, and that historical ambiguities had given way to the director’s need for a clear plot line. The appeal of Davis’ version of Guerre lay in the sharp contrast between the sensational events and the author’s nonchalant style. The narrative moved at a leisurely pace, doubling back time and again to weigh motives and bits of evidence. Davis’ prose was at once pedantic and playful, and the author invited readers to speculate along with her.
Davis’ new Women on the Margins, by contrast, is a distinctly uncharming work—meandering, pointless, and painfully dull. The book chronicles the lives of three 17th-century women, each of whom challenged the conventions of their time: Glikl bas Judah Leib, a Jewish merchant in Hamburg and Metz; Marie de l’Incarnation, a French Jesuit who followed a vision and started a school for Indian “savages” in the wilds of Canada; and Maria Sibylla Merian, a German naturalist and painter who in midlife ventured to the jungles of Suriname in search of tropical insects.
Upon this potentially interesting material Davis performs a kind of reverse alchemy, producing a book so tedious that one almost suspects that Davis has designed it as a kind of perverse joke. Unlike Guerre, Women on the Margins will never make it to the big screen, and for good reason.
In the first book, it was easy to forgive Davis’ detours because the characters themselves were so fascinating: You knew that sooner or later the author would return to the main road. Davis’ new book has no main road, and her detours make it difficult to follow. Women has no focus—rather like a detective novel without a murder. It’s almost as though she has set out to try the patience of even her most devoted readers.
After a distinctly unilluminating prologue—an awkward imagined dialogue between the historian and her three subjects—Davis launches the book with the least compelling biography of the three. Glikl bas Judah Leib lived entirely within the Jewish communities of Hamburg and Metz, preoccupied with the details of family (she had a dozen children) and commercial negotiation. Her life was not without its share of sorrows—she was widowed in her 40s, and after remarrying a decade later was plunged into poverty when her new husband went bankrupt. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to care, since we know so little of her emotional state; after devoting nearly 60 pages to the details of Glikl’s life, Davis describes her subject only with the vaguest of generalities. “Glikl’s joys and sorrows cluster around life—that is, staying alive to one’s appointed time,” Davis tells us, “and around wealth and honor.” That is as close as Davis comes to defining her character, and her significance.
Davis then moves without comment to the story of Marie de l’Incarnation (née Guyart), whose existence followed a certain rudimentary logic: that of the straight line. This was a woman who proceeded on her course with rarely a waver of doubt. A widow by age 19, de l’Incarnation found psychological and spiritual relief in the intense discipline of the Catholic Church; after years of living “in perfection” and punishing herself with nettles and haircloth, she abandoned her 11-year-old son and entered an Ursuline nunnery in 1631. Eight years later, after a vision of faraway lands came to her in a dream, she journeyed to Canada, where she spent the rest of her life teaching God’s word to the “filles sauvages.” And there she stayed.
Davis considers for a moment the central paradox of de l’Incarnation’s life: Through religious self-denial, de l’Incarnation was able to assert an ambition thought otherwise unbecoming for a woman of her time. But Davis never gets inside the mind of this strangely driven woman, and never demonstrates just what it was that led her to take so enthusiastically, and diligently, to a life of nettles and strict devotion.
The last of the trio, Maria Sibylla Merian, led a life of astonishing accomplishment and independence for a 17th-century woman. A skilled artist, Merian was known for her meticulous and elegant studies of insect life, beginning with the well-received, if eccentrically titled, Wonderful Transformation and Singular Plant-Food of Caterpillars. But in 1685, Merian underwent a dramatic transformation, leaving her husband to join the Labadists, a radical Protestant sect proud of its unworldly purity. Because her husband was a nonbeliever—he refused to convert, and she refused to return to him—the Labadists granted her a divorce. Davis cannot explain Merian’s actions and, as usual, does not hazard any guesses.
Merian didn’t last too long as an ascetic, and left the Labadists five years later as suddenly as she’d arrived. After a few years in Amsterdam, she set sail for the Dutch colony of Suriname, returning home some two years later with insect specimens (as well as bites) and painted life-studies that prepared her for her next work, the magisterial Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname, which some naturalists described as “the most beautiful work ever painted in America.” (Some of these illustrations have found their way to D.C.’s own National Museum of Women in the Arts.) Once again, Davis provides us with the outlines of a life that was at times extraordinary, but even she admits she cannot “pin the woman down.”
Davis, too, refuses to be pinned down. She is almost militant in her refusal to interpret, drawing no lessons from the lives she describes in such detail. She never even explains why, or how, she chose these three women out of the many millions alive at the time. More troublingly, she explicitly refuses to put these biographies into a broader context, or to use them to illustrate any historical trend—the sort of thing that could lend significance to lives much more mundane than the ones Davis has chosen. “Each life stands as an example, with its own virtues, initiatives, and faults,” she writes, laconically as ever, in a conclusion that is far from conclusive. “I have no favorites.”
She does make a few vague comparisons among the women: All three “knew the ferment of urban voices and printed words”; all were energetic; all were religious. All three sought novel ways of living, and in various ways reveled in their marginal status, “removed from the centers of political power [and] from formal centers of learning and cultural definition.” Beyond this, Davis says little—not even pursuing the most salient connection, the fact that each of these three women spent significant portions of their lives independent of men. But, having said almost nothing, Davis seems to conclude that she’s said too much. It is not good to work out comparisons in more than a cursory manner, Davis argues, for “[v]arient patterns alert us to mobility, mixture, and contention in European cultures.”
In order to engage the attention of an audience beyond specialists and the obsessively curious, historians have to distinguish their work from mere chronicles; they can’t just tell stories—they have to tell pointed stories. Why should the details of these three lives—randomly chosen and haphazardly narrated—matter to us in the 20th century? In Guerre, based as it was on a wonderfully convoluted real-life melodrama, Davis never had to face this question: The story was strange and primal enough to grab the attention of even those with no prior fascination, professional or otherwise, with 16th-century France. It is hard to imagine what Davis found so compelling about the threesome in Women on the Margins. And she’s not telling.