Saturday, March 19, 2005

Brenda notes Lucy Hughes-Hallett for Women's History Month

Brenda: "Lucy Hughes-Hallet has been working as a journalist and critic for thirteen years. She was feature writer at Vogue for three years, winning the Catherine Pakenham Award in 1980, and television critic of the London Evening Standard from 1983 to 1987. Cleopatra is her first book."

That's from the back cover of her book Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions and that's all the personal information I know about her life. What I know about her is she is amazing writer and someone who really opened my eyes when I came across her book in 1991. I read and reread this book. It's amazing.

On page 2 of her introduction, she writes, "A story is a protean thing, changing its nature as well as its shape when viewed from different angles. A single set of facts, arranged and rearranged, can point to a variety of contradictory conclusions. The vicissitudes of Cleopatra's legend, to which so many different morals have been attached, may act as a reminder that even the simplest piece of information can be made to serve a polemical purpose. Every story-teller, whether journalist, historian, poet or entertainer, is also -- willy nilly -- something of a propagandist."

And she demonstrates that in her book as she takes you through the various narratives on Cleopatra. How in one period, she's used by writers to demonstrate strength, in another gluttony, etc. It's an amazing book. By an amazing writer and thinker.

Seeing her demonstrate the ever changing last-word on Cleopatra throughout history really opened my eyes to how much of even "dry reporting" is in fact shaped to serve a purpose.
It's a strong feminist book and I love those. (I also love Tillie Olsen's Silences to name another book I'm forever re-reading.) But this book really opened my eyes to something I'd probably had an inkling about but never verbalized.

At The Common Ills, the point is always (to me anyway) that one voice and one voice alone is not the last-word even when it's a chorus of voices (from the Times or NPR or mainstream media or whatever) chanting the same line. And that's the point of Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions. Books are often highlighted here and I know I've picked up a few as a result (including Bonnie M. Anderson's News Flash which I'm reading right now) and I hope that at least one person reading this will be inspired to pick up Lucy Hughes-Hallett's book because it's amazing.

It's not a boring book and the Elizabeth Taylor starring movie Cleopatra is discussed along with other versions of Cleopatra. What the book does is demonstrate how nothing is really concrete and society's view on something is constantly being revised. I think it's an important message and a powerful book. There are few books that I can say changed my life but this was one.

[Note: Brenda e-mailed this Tuesday. This post was done ahead of time and saved to draft so that a friend could post it while I was attending rallies this weekend. It will go up Saturday and if you're considering attending a rally on Saturday, please do so. Site e-mail is]