“These Particular Women” by Kat Meads

Reviewed by Edwina Pendarvis


These Particular Women (Sagging Meniscus 2023) offers a composite of particulars about eleven women who earned celebrity, large or small, in the 20th century, either through their own accomplishments—in one case a murder—or as wife or mother of a notably accomplished someone. Most of the women will be familiar and of interest to avid readers, particularly to those whose adult reading life began in the last century. Beyond mere human interest, the collection strikes me as an intriguing new take on an old and disreputable form of story-telling.

“Things Woolfian,” the first and longest essay, considers different angles on Virginia Woolf’s personal life: her treatment of and by friends and family; her sanity or lack of it; and her sexuality. Born out of deep admiration for Woolf, Meads’ essay suggests the hopelessness of identifying the truest of many possible truths about Woolf or any biographical subject. In “Cat and Mouse,” she doesn’t attempt the same depth or detail about Agatha Christie, though she speculates on the relationship between Christie’s personal life and the mystery writer’s relatively unknown romances written under a pseudonym. Much of the essay centers on Christie’s eleven-day fugue and its iterations in print and film, including its lack of resolution even in Christie’s autobiography.

I suspect that many readers who, like me, read Mary McCarthy quite a while ago, but had forgotten about her, will be glad to be reminded of this impressive American author in Mead’s essay, “Mary McCarthy Performs Mary McCarthy,” and those who may never have read any of Caroline Blackwood’s work will be glad to learn about a writer whose fiction and nonfiction, claims Meads, boil, “seasoned with rage and spiced with acidic humor” and will, on being reminded or first learning of Jean Harris, feel pity for this writer convicted of murdering her lover and who later in life dedicated proceeds from her books to helping children of prison inmates. Harris’s portrait offers sharp contrast to the essay, “Encounter with a Text/Context’ featuring Grace Margaret Morton’s textbook instructing women on how to dress and behave in a tasteful, feminine manner.

 Entertainingly various in their detail and mood, one essay that stood out for me is Meads’ report on “Margaret Mitchell’s Dump” based on her tour of Margaret Mitchell’s House and Museum in Atlanta. If I hadn’t read Mead’s light-hearted and good-spirited “Faulknerian” novel, when the dust finally settles, I would’ve thought this essay written by a spiteful snob. Even so, I suspected her claim to special insight into Mitchell’s old friends’ (interviews on video) failure to enunciate clearly struck me as neurotic projection. Meads writes, “Since I’m Southern born, bred and inculcated, I can say it: there’s aggression in that verbal thwart and plenty of it.”

As opposed to my sense of Meads as overly disgruntled about the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum tour, I really liked the implied (my inferred) author of “The Afterlife of Kitty Oppenheimer,” an able defense of a bold, loyal, and intelligent woman much disparaged by her husband’s biographers. Part of my pleasure in this essay was Meads’ imagining of the paper wardrobe and accessories a Kitty Oppenheimer paper doll would have—boots and jodhpurs because Kitty was an “accomplished and fearless” horsewoman and a copy of the Daily Worker magazine because Kitty belonged to the communist party for a time. “Charming (To Some) Estelle Faulkner” seemed to pity Estelle an inordinate amount for her skinniness. I didn’t see Estelle as much a victim as Meads presents her. It’s a great credit to Estelle’s strength or her luck that she achieved victory over her alcoholism, a victory William Faulkner never won over that dreadful juggernaut. “Mothers, Inc.” treats Regina O’Conner, mother of Flannery O’Conner, and Aurelia Plath, mother of Sylvia Plath, rather gently, pairing them in an essay acknowledging the difficulties in living with, and the and sadness of outliving, their famous daughters.

Taken together, the ten essays compose a collection unlike any I’ve read before. They are so packed with personal, often intimate and controversial, detail about their subjects’ lives that they constitute a highly articulate and intelligent form of gossip. In feminist terms, they legitimize a despised form of story-telling historically attributed primarily to women and considered ill-mannered and a waste of time, if not downright immoral. In describing through such personal particulars how these women have treated others or been treated, depicted, or remembered, Meads’ work flaunts convention and demonstrates the value of considering such detail in understanding cultural influences on women’s lives and on their after-lives in public memory.

Kat Meads

An award-winning writer of fiction, drama, nonfiction and poetry, Kat Meads is a native of eastern North Carolina. She holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and a BA from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in poetry, a California Artist Fellowship in fiction and two Silicon Valley Arts Council fellowships. Her short stories have won awards from Chelsea and Inkwell Magazine, her essays from New Letters, Lyra and Drunken Boat. Her historical novel, For You, Madam Lenin, received an IPPY Silver Medal and was a 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year finalist. Her mystery novel, Senestre on Vacation (written as Z.K. Burrus), was a 2011 ForeWord Book of the Year finalist. Her short plays have been produced in Los Angeles, New York and the Midwest. She has been an artist-in-residence at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Yaddo, Millay Colony for the Arts, Blue Mountain Center, Dorland, and the Montalvo Center for the Arts. She teaches in Oklahoma City University’s low-residency Red Earth MFA program.



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