When Concise isn't Nice

'Marie Curie: A Biography'

by Diane Leach

27 March 2011

Is Marie Curie: A Biography, as the back cover declares, an "informative, accessible, and concise" work? Not exactly.
cover art

Marie Curie: A Biography

Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

US: Dec 2010

Recently an acquaintance of mine began gaining weight.  She was newly married, so I attributed the excess flesh to newfound marital happiness.  But I watched her carefully, and as the months passed, the fat suddenly disappeared, replaced by a rounded belly.  When the woman stopped by my office, I took in her new figure and raised an eyebrow in silent femalespeak.  Soon we were dancing joyously about the office. 

This anecdote may seem far from a review of Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie’s biography of Marie Curie. The book, advertised as a “concise biography”, is indeed short at 189 large-font pages.  Concise it’s not.  It is poorly written, employing such basic, circuitous language that I seriously wondered if it was intended for adolescent readers.  Surely only adolescents require definitions of Anti-Semitism or to be told the Sorbonne is “The University of Paris”.  I searched the publisher’s website and read the book’s promotional materials to no avail.  But I could not bring myself to contact the publicist to inquire about the book’s audience.  I feared asking an overweight woman when the baby was due.

Even if Ogilvie intended to aim her book at young readers, the lack of editing is inexcusable.  Keeping one’s emotions private is “discrete”,  while Madame Curie’s initial stoicism at the public outcry of over her affair with scientist Paul Langevin left her “unphased”.  Circular sentences lead to awkwardly repetitive paragraphs, such as this one, describing Madame Curie’s friendship with fellow scientist Hertha Ayrton:

“During her second visit to the Royal Institution…Marie had met a second collaborative couple…Hertha Ayrton…and her husband.  Although Marie and Hertha’s scientific accomplishments had little in common, there were similarities in other aspects of their lives.  For instance, both women were married to scientists with whom they collaborated…The backgrounds of the two women were quite different, though each had encountered adversity in her younger years…Marie Curie and Hertha Ayrton appeared to be quite different in their personalities…Both women, however, were stubborn and dedicated to science.”

There are several such descriptions, along with a great deal of historical background, which, while accurate, is both digressive and distracting.  Anyone even passingly familiar with Madame Curie is well aware of her notorious single-mindedness: in Madame Curie, daughter Eve’s biography of her mother, early examples include little Manya Sklodovka’s (referred to by Ogilvie as Maria Sklodowska) siblings piling chairs around the oblivious child, who is too absorbed in her book to notice. 

As a young woman at the Sorbonne (that would be the University of Paris), Madame Curie dealt with her impoverishment by skipping meals, frequently fainting from hunger.  One night her garret was so cold she piled the furniture atop the bedclothes, hoping for an illusory sense of warmth.  Meanwhile, her daughter Eve writes:  “...a layer of ice was slowly forming in the water pitcher.”

By now the astute reader must realize I vastly preferred Eve’s account of her mother over Ogilvie’s.  Although Ogilvie is more honest than Eve about the lesser aspects of Madame Curie’s personality, Eve’s biography is far more intimate, as can only be expected, and far more illuminating.  Describing Curie’s lifelong frugality, as Ogilvie does, is one thing; Eve’s inventory of her mother’s scant jewelry collection is classic example of show: don’t tell. 

A short biography is forced to skimp on detail, and the loss is felt here, particularly in the tragic death of Madame Curie’s beloved husband, Pierre.  The ever- preoccupied scientist was crossing the street on 19 April 1906, when he fell beneath a horse-drawn cart.  The wheels crushed his skull. While Ogilvie notes that Madame Curie was grief-stricken, relaying the gory anecdote about the bloodied rags her sister Bronia forced her to burn, she neglects to mention the woman had to be pulled off her husband’s body.  Nor does she include the 1912 photograph of Curie, alone her lab, garbed in black, staring out a window, her face a bleak summation of every widow memoir currently on the market. 

Eve’s biography of her mother was published in 1938, a time when extramarital affairs remained anathema.  Her accounting of Madame Curie’s public humiliation over her affair with Langevin is reduced to one oblique paragraph.  Now, when no information is too much and the lead players are all deceased, Ogilvie is free to discuss how “phased” Madame Curie was by Paul’s estranged wife, Jeanne, her viscous blackmailing, and the sensationalistic French press, who nearly destroyed Curie’s career.

Does Ogilvie give a concise account of Marie Curie’s life?  Ultimately, yes.  Ogilvie, a retired professor of the history of science, does write clearly about science and the work that made the Curies famous.  If you want historical influence with your science, Ogilvie provides it, including long descriptions of the Russian occupation of Poland that clouded young Manya Sklodovka’s existence and the later impacts of the world wars.  The education of women and misogyny toward females working in the sciences is extensively documented. 

All of this is very well, but some lives do not lend themselves well to summary.  The journey of a motherless Polish child to one of history’s greatest scientists is one such story.  Madame Curie’s story is a deep one, richly told by her daughter.  For a more current, perhaps more objective version, Ogilvie often refers to François Giroud’s 1986 Marie Curie: A Life.  I have not read this book, but it is translated by the magnificent Lydia Davis, an excellent sign.

The book’s epilogue merits a final comment.  Ogilvie goes into a long apologia regarding the difficulties of the biographer, including the trouble of biographer bias, writing:

“The interpretation placed on an event , or since it is impossible and undesirable to embrace every experience in a subject’s life, those events chosen for inclusion and discussion will reflect the author’s particular interests if not his or her biases.  For example, a biographer who is mainly interested in Marie’s scientific contributions might de-emphasize the personal elements of her life while stressing her commitment to science.”

Once again, the question is of audience.  Certainly adult readers have no need of the above. 

Marie Curie lost her mother and sister to tuberculosis; her country to Russia; her husband to a wagon wheel; her privacy to the press; her health to radioactivity.  She nonetheless contributed enormously to science, winning two Nobel Prizes and bringing the new, lifesaving practice of radiology to World War II’s front lines.  She raised two daugthers. One won the Nobel prize in Chemistry; the other became a writer and devoted her life to UNICEF.  This strange little book is a disserve to a great woman who deserves far better.

Marie Curie: A Biography


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