In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to his publisher, complaining about the irritating fad of “scribbling women.” Whether they were written by professionals, by women who simply wanted to connect with others, or by those who wanted to leave a record of their lives, those “scribbles” are fascinating, informative, and instructive.
Margaret Catchpole was a transported prisoner whose eleven letters provide the earliest record of white settlement in Australia. Writing hundreds of years later, Aboriginal writer Doris Pilkington-Garimara wrote a novel about another kind of exile in Australia. Young Isabella Beeton, one of twenty-one children and herself the mother of four, managed to write a groundbreaking cookbook before she died at the age of twenty-eight. World traveler and journalist Nelly Bly used her writing to expose terrible injustices. Sei Shonagan has left us poetry and journal entries that provide a vivid look at the pampered life and intrigues in Japan’s imperial court. Ada Blackjack, sole survivor of a disastrous scientific expedition in the Arctic, fought isolation and fear with her precious Eversharp pencil. Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s diary, written in a field hospital in the steaming North Vietnamese jungle while American bombs fell, is a heartbreaking record of fear and hope.
Many of the women in “Scribbling Women” had eventful lives. They became friends with cannibals, delivered babies, stole horses, and sailed on whaling ships. Others lived quietly, close to home. But each of them has illuminated the world through her words.
A note from the author: OOPS! On page 197, the credit for the Portrait of Harriet Jacobs on page 43 should read: courtesy of Library of Congress, not Jean Fagan Yellin. On page 197, the credit for the portrait of Isabella Beeton on page 61 should read: National Portrait Gallery, London. On page 198, the credit for page 147 should be Dang Kim Tram, not Kim Tram Dang. We are very sorry about the mix-up in the Photo Credits, they will be updated on any new editions or reprints.
About Marthe Jocelyn
When I was a child, I liked to read books about ordinary children who stumbled across enchantment. I really thought that if I looked hard enough, I might find a magic nickel or a secret room behind the bookcase or a gnarled gnome whom only I could see. As I grew older, I felt the same thrill of seeing mysteries unveiled when I went to the theatre or read a book. In my childhood activities, I played with dolls way past the normal age, made dioramas out of junk scraps, directed backyard plays with casts of neighborhood kids, and was always, always reading–only as an adult can I clearly see my pursuit of illusion.
When I was 14, I spent a year in a Quaker boarding school in England, encountering a world utterly different from my own, no magic necessary. I learned the advantage of being a stranger; I created a new character for myself, far from my family and not dependent on anyone’s preconceptions. This later fed my approach to fiction: My heroines are small part “me” and large part invention of who I’d like to be, or to have been.
My earliest chapter books (the Invisible trilogy) were about an ordinary child who stumbles across enchantment. My next several books were historical novels (Earthly Astonishments, Mable Riley, and How It Happened in Peach Hill), set in worlds utterly different from my own. It’s easy to see in retrospect that exploring alternate realities began as a game in childhood and eventually became a consuming pastime, otherwise known as research. I love doing research. I depend on what I learn not only for flavor and accuracy of details, but also for the occasional serendipitous discovery that alters the plot of a story.
But then we come to my most recent novel, Would You. It is a complete departure from any of my other stories, because its inception was in the accident that gravely injured my sister when I was 20 years old and she was 27. Paula was hit by a car and remained comatose for several weeks. When she emerged, she was severely brain-damaged and a paraplegic. Ten years later, she was again hit by a car–in her wheelchair–and killed.
Friends were concerned that Would You would be too difficult to write. In fact, it was the easiest book I’ve tackled yet. I didn’t have to worry about plot! The characters are teenagers and the main challenge was to capture their irreverence and humor alongside the tragedy.
The friendship between the sisters, Natalie and Claire, is inspired by that of my own two daughters. As a mother, I delight in the love they have for each other. It is impossible not to think about my own sister and what I have lost. But here I am, 30 years later, having a fine life, and surrounded with the alternate reality that only teenagers can provide. I hope that I have written an elegy for my sister and an homage to my children.
“[CBC’s] Children's Book Panel recommends some great summer reading for kids… Scribbling Women by Marthe Jocelyn….”
—Michele Landsberg, CBC Radio
“…Do you have to ask why I think this is the best sort of book for any girl who wants to be a writer, or any grown up female author who wants to know the great company she is now part of?”
“…an astonishing, intriguing biography, sampler and study of writing and character….”
—The Toronto Star
“Jocelyn draws on real scholarship to paint novelistic portraits of her subjects’ inner lives. The women here truly live up to their billing as ‘astonishing.’”
–School Library Journal
“This beautifully written text evokes women’s private lives down through history as revealed in their own, often astonishing, words… Well researched, informative and engaging… Jocelyn engages the reader’s imagination through her accessible language, attention to historical detail, creative description and narrative skill.”
—Norma Fleck Award, Jury Comments