In praise of magnificent women

Barbara Amiel on literary greats and everyday heroes

Maya Jonas

There’s nothing original I can tell you about the events in Boston apart from a few heart-stopping hours before my former husband, author George Jonas, heard that his blind wife, Maya, who was running in the marathon, was alive and uninjured. “I didn’t run my best time,” she said when she telephoned, which was just as well, since she was about eight minutes behind the explosion. Maya’s no-nonsense approach to adversity has been a standard to which I have tried to adhere but fall terribly short. She lost her only brother to suicide in her 20s, all her sight in her 30s, followed by breast cancer in her 40s and emerged to become a formidable marathon runner looking more beautiful than at any other point in her life. Surely such a vale of tears would be an excuse for full-scale alcoholism or fatty-foods addiction. One can’t envy her afflictions but I do envy the sang-froid and style with which she translates them into opportunities.

Maya would rank high on my list of “who do you admire?”—a type of question beloved by interviewers. Last Sunday’s New York Times grilled accomplished Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Anna Quindlen. “What are the best books you’ve read by female journalists?” she was asked, and “Who are your favourite journalists writing today?” She named four, including Laura Lippman and Julia Keller. Very respectable and very alive, although I don’t really think of Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, Clare Boothe Luce or even Simone de Beauvoir as dead white females, if you know what I mean. Quindlen’s favourite books included estrogen’s national anthem, Pride and Prejudice, and her favourite heroine was Elizabeth Bennet. Jane Austen is very high-quality early-19th-century chick lit and I turn to it unfailingly whenever I need a hit of elegant prose and easy pleasure. Actually, I also turn to Edith Wharton, who was herself a journalist during the First World War, although her Fighting France and A Son at the Front are not on Quindlen’s radar.

The late journalist Dominick Dunne came to Chicago to cover my husband’s trial in 2007. His presence worried me sick, given his clever WASPish ways in print and television. But Dunne was an old friend. We discovered we both thought Wharton’s The Custom of the Country to be her finest novel and we both had an unholy affection for its heroine, the beautiful red-haired Undine Spragg from Apex City. “Undine”—an enchanting mythological water nymph—such a fitting name for her, thought her gentle first husband, Ralph Marvell, of the New York Marvells and Dragonets with “echoes of divers et ondoyant in his brain.”  He mentioned its suitability to Undine’s mother, a simple woman, who replied: “Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born—”

Edith Wharton would be high on my list of writers I admire and Undine Spragg an unforgettable character, though I agree Elizabeth Bennet might be more one of us. But then if it’s literary characters, I’d really like to spend time with Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart before she overdoses on laudanum or Scarlett O’Hara after Rhett Butler gives her the door in Gone with the Wind. Such female literary heroines, including contemporary ones, spend a great deal of their time fighting worldly fashions—I suppose that’s a literary convention. Women who actually accomplished magnificent things never bestirred themselves much about gender or position in society. Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher—or Madame Curie, half-starved and living in a cold French attic while working part-time so she could afford to study physics at the Sorbonne, didn’t worry about social acceptance or the right man. In fact, such women didn’t bother with men much unless one like Pierre Curie dropped into the laboratory. Whatever did happen to the invisible Mr. Meir, one wonders.

There are also the women we admire that directly or indirectly influenced us: in my case Frances Mary Buss who opened up education for girls and in 1850 founded the school I attended, North London Collegiate School. My great-grandmother Fanny Isserlis, a face more wrinkled than a prune when I saw her as a child, with terrifying prickly white hairs growing out of her chin. As a widow she brought her three children to England from Kiev and became one of London’s first certified midwives working the streets of the East End at the turn of the last century. Actually, every female relative I knew as a child worked—teachers, doctors, judges—all of them coming from impoverished means and never worrying about glass ceilings.

Magnificent women are surprisingly abundant: Avital Sharansky campaigned governments for nine years on behalf of her imprisoned spouse; Eleanor Roosevelt was her husband’s legs; Nadezhda Mandelstam sent her unforgettable letters into the nowhere of Stalin’s prisons to her poet husband, Osip. There were unimaginably courageous women who faced torture by the Gestapo and died rather than give away Allied intelligence. But in less interesting times, I’d invoke a simple rule. Heroines are women who naturally self-sacrifice their own needs for others: the mother who interposes her body between that of her children and danger, the wife who donates an organ, the daughter who gives up all to care for an ailing parent. Those people who crossed Boylston Street to help the injured in Boston when, for all they knew, another bomb could go off. Just think of it. In that blood and dust and mayhem, they thought only of others. Human beings are fallible, may lazily accept mob mentality and often yield to the stupidest among us, but when the moment presents itself, whether in small matters or those writ large, we can and do rise to heights the devil himself could never have believed.

Have a comment to share? barbara.amiel@macleans.rogers.com

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