357 p. 2002
Marele Day has subtitled her book “The Real and Imagined Life of the Captain’s Wife”, signposting that this is not a straight biography, but nor is it pure fiction either. The book is organized around a fairly large collection of existing Cook artefacts which, from the the notes at the back of the book, are located in various museums, libraries, churches and parks across the world. Some of them are documentary, but several of them are domestic objects like drinking glasses, teapots, fans. She uses these real-life objects as the tethering posts to which she attaches her fictional narrative, complete with conversation and internal speech. The narrative unfolds chronologically, with each chapter named for the object which appears somewhere in that chapter.
However, given that many of the objects are rather domestic in nature, it means that the narrative is even more quotidian than it would already have been, given that it is examining the life of the woman left behind by one of the world’s great navigators. At times, too, the narrative becomes quite contorted and unnatural in trying to bring the object into the story- for example, in devoting a whole chapter to the act of buying a teapot.
The ‘imagined’ life in the title mainly revolves around Elizabeth’s emotional and sexual life. A explorer’s wife spent years not knowing whether her husband was dead or alive, and somehow life had to be lived at two speeds: the long years of waiting, reunion and waiting again, and at the same time the day-to-day accumulation of rather banal, land-based, domestic detail. Elizabeth Cook endured the tragedy of outliving her husband and all six children, and the book makes much of her sorrow.
Day has decided to remain true to the main facts of Elizabeth’s life – thus the ‘real’ Elizabeth stays firmly rooted on solid ground, waiting for James to return, with no imagined affairs, imagined illegitimate children, or imagined crimes of passion. The ‘imagined’ part of the book is most clearly seen in the sexual passages, of which there are several. I found them all rather uncomfortable, I must admit. Somehow, looking at that picture of James Cook sitting in his skin-tight white breeches looking at a scrolled map on the table before him will never be the same again:
He would start at the nape of her neck, gently blowing aside the wisps of her hair, and making a place for his lips. He began the journey south, each vertebra rising to the moist warmth of his mouth. The long channel under which lay the reef of her backbone descended to her buttocks, two plump hillocks with a dimple either side. Elizabeth lay with her arms by her sides, and when she shifted, bent her elbows to make a pillow of her hands, James saw the shoulder blades rise up like the beginnings of angel wings….When she was ready, she turned to face him and their desires would meet… Gradually, James’s gentle perseverance awakened Elizabeth’s pleasure. How wonderful that her body opened to him, moistening the pathway he would take. Then he lifted her into rapture and Elizabeth became a wave. (p. 102)
I was never convinced of the emotional and sexual authenticity of this eighteenth century woman, who seemed to me to have a very twentieth century head on her shoulders (and other parts of her body). I was put off by the awkward, didactic tone of the text when the author explained the context and use of particular artefacts, and its juxtaposition with the heavy-breathing, purring tone of passages describing their intimate life.
Nonetheless, the decision to integrate real-life artefacts into the story is an interesting one, and I find myself wondering if there are other ways that it could have been done more successfully. Could the author have inserted herself into the text more in describing the artefact and its provenance in a strictly non-fictional way at the start of the chapter, then moving to the imagined story? Could the artefact and associated information have been marked out typographically from the fictional text?
This book was a bookgroup selection, and I must confess that I would have abandoned reading it had I not felt an obligation to read to the end. It was probably one of the most divisive books we’ve read in recent years: some absolutely loved it; others were distinctly underwhelmed. I’m afraid that I was one of the latter.
I have posted a link to this book on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Good review. Sounds like an interesting idea a little botched in the execution – I like your suggestions for how it could have worked better. It is an illustration of the recurring problem of biographers – the expectation that the subject’s sexual experience should be addressed, but the often complete lack of source material. Writing it as erotic fiction is surely not often the best solution.
Although, I must admit that I found myself wondering about women’s perceptions of sensuality and pleasure in the 18th century. I’m torn between thinking that they must surely be different, and thinking that there must be a universal physiological basis to pleasure. I think that I lean towards the former, but as you say- there’s often a complete lack of source material.
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