Great Accomplishments and Tragic Personal Histories Collide in Maria Popova’s ‘Figuring’
Can genius (whether artistic or scientific) and romantic love coexist peacefully? This question comes up often in any number of biographies of famous men and women, and the answer usually seems to be “no.” Some aspect of the life suffers, whether the personal or the professional. And it seems especially hard for those who have same-sex attractions as well as aspirations towards genius.
In Figuring, Maria Popova, founder of the popular newsletter Brain Pickings, has written a hybrid history/biography/speculative non-fiction about the lives and loves of female scientists and artists, mostly in the nineteenth century, mostly in the United States. Popova highlights the lives and work of women like Emily Dickinson (the famous reclusive poet of Amherst, Massachusetts) and Rachel Carson (the mother of the modern-day environmental movement). She shows that love and genius often make for an uneasy mix for women, especially when their historical circumstances don’t condone the love they seek nor support the work they do. But just as valuably, she highlights the lives of women who, once prominent in their own times, have sunk into the recesses of our collective scientific and artistic history.
The Library of Congress has archived Popova’s Internet work along with other “culturally valuable” materials. They needed to figure out a way to capture her, since she’s an unorthodox writer in many ways, both online and in this book. Popova presents here not a dry history of each woman’s life but an investigative, at times speculative, look at their emotional lives. Oddly enough for a book that focuses on queer women of science and art, she begins with a discussion of Johannes Kepler racing to his German hometown to save his elderly mother from the Inquisition. He’d written playfully of her “magical powers” in a pamphlet, and is horrified to learn that the authorities have charged her with witchcraft.
But it all makes sense in the end. Popova strives to show that women who’ve sought to lead their own lives in their art or science have often been at the mercy of the mob, or of forces that try to corral them into something more mainstream. She vividly describes how each woman shaped the future while being forced into uncomfortable roles by the times in which they lived. In that sense, the books stars Margaret Fuller, a name with which I was honestly not familiar before picking up this work.
As Popova points out, the anachronistic assignment of modern terms like “queer” or “lesbian” doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the complexity when it comes to sexual identity in pre-modern times. Fuller, a journalist and writer who counted Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne among her social circle, was also a woman who loved other women. She lived a chaotic, dramatic life, all of it within only 40 years. When Fuller died alongside her Italian husband and young child in an 1850 shipwreck in New York harbor, an epic history of the Italian revolution that she’d witnessed firsthand was among the items lost.
Fuller’s tumultuous life and many loves make up a good portion of Figuring. But other less well-known women who shared Fuller’s affinity not just for same-sex love but for creativity, like sculptor Harriet Hosmer, Elizabeth Peabody, and Maria Mitchell, crop up throughout the narrative. Popova also showcases the attraction Herman Melville felt for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson’s love for her sister-in-law, and the tragic beauty of Ida Russell, whose early death left her male and female admirers heartbroken.
Perhaps the most poignant portion of the book deals with Rachel Carson. We name-check Carson’s book Silent Spring every Earth Day. But until now, the public knew little about her private life. Carson spent most of her non-work-time caring for an invalid mother and the nephew of her deceased sister. But she also made room for an unexpected love triangle with a married woman, Dorothy Freeman (whose husband not only knew of the love affair, but approved of it). As an insidious case of cancer cuts short Carson’s time with her love, Popova really captures the agony of finally finding fulfillment when life is slowly dripping away.
Popova, a dynamic and engaging author, makes us care about the women she profiles. She sometimes skirts the line between fiction and non-fiction (as I said, there are some speculative aspects to this work), but she does so in a way that serves to highlight the emotional lives of the women she profiles. Figuring, if anything, serves as a corrective to the male/straight school of historical writing, showcasing women who tried to live their own lives and create their own worlds in the face of dismissal and neglect. Finally, perhaps, women like Fuller, Mitchell, and Carson have found their best chronicler.