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Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History's Most Notorious Women

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

(Penguin; US: Mar 2011)

There are reviewers who glory in reviewing a work they find lacking.  They trot out their snarkiest adjectives and have at both writer and work with malicious glee. Despite being accused of this myself, I do not enjoy attacking people or their books.  So when Elizabeth Kerri Mahon’s Scandalous Women started off badly (a grammatical error on the first page) and went downhill from there, the final blow a misquote of Zelda Fitzgerald’s novel, Save Me the Waltz, (Here called “Save the Waltz”) I groaned.  Poor Zelda. 


Deep breath. Here we go.


Taken from Mahon’s blog of the same name, Scandalous Women is organized into sections with titles like “Wayward Wives”, “Scintillating Seductresses”, and “Crusading Ladies”.  Within each section Mahon offers vignettes of women ranging from Carry Nation to Amelia Earhardt. 


Mahon is an avid amateur historian whose selected bibliography indicates she’s done her homework.  But she’s no writer.  Both blog and book are laden with grammatical errors (comma placement being a particular problem), clunky sentences, and while the editors managed to clean up most of the spelling and word choices in the book (i.e., “bare” for “bear”, as in endure), there is the Zelda misquote and the use of “hung” for “hanged”.  People are hanged. I know that sounds bizarre. But we are.  Animals, on the other hand, are hung.  English is such an amusing language. 


Most irritating to this reader is Mahon’s slangy, breezy style, taking a solemn subject and dumbing it down.  Phrases like “rock star”, “rocked his world”, (many of her subjects slept their way to power), “new innovation” (as opposed to old innovations), referring to Anne Boleyn as “knocked up”, or describing Charles VI as “not exactly jonesing to be king” are cringeworthy.  So is the opening line in the section on Joan of Arc: “She was just a small town girl, living in a small town world…”


There are two ways to react to books that use allusions to Journey songs in writing about Joan of Arc. The kinder response is “Hey, this really gets that coveted 18-34 female demographic reading about history!” (And buying this book.)  The grumpier response is annoyance verging on other not-so-nice feelings.  History is serious stuff.  Women in history, particularly those with the nerve to resist repressive conventions, deserve better treatment.  Further, such colloquial language means the book will date rapidly: will the next generation know what “rock star” once meant? Will the expression “one taco short of a combination plate” make sense ten years from now?  Unlikely. 


Even if you are a nicer, more easygoing person than I am and can cope with Henry VIII youthful looks referred to as “the centerfold for ‘Hot Renaissance Princes’”, Mahon’s writing soon dulls the vibrant characters she proposes to write about.  The women blend into a rockin,’ knockout cacophony of rags-to-riches seductresses, their complex lives reduced to a few pages.  I realize Mahon intended to give readers a taste of each woman, a sort of “feminists for dummies”, but it doesn’t hold together. 


If you are truly interested in women like Cleopatra or Frida Kahlo, check out Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, which won her the Pulitzer prize, or Hayden Herrera’s excellent Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo.  My point is, there are plenty of well-written biographies about women who defied social mores, and they merit your sustained attention.  Scandalous Women does not.

Rating:

Diane Leach has a Master's Degree in English Literature from Humboldt State University. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New Mobility, and The Collagist. She can be reached at dianesleach@gmail.com.


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