I was a history major in college and my appetite for historical facts did not die after graduation. I’m a big reader, and historical books, both fiction and non-fiction, are a category that I often gravitate towards. In college I also dabbled with some feminist classes during which I enjoyed proclaiming that I was really looking forward to getting married and having children. I wasn’t one of the radicals arguing that schools should offer “herstory” and not just “history”, but I do enjoy learning about strong females in history.
I recently read two wonderful memoirs about two very different women: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan and The Widow Clicquot by Tilar Mazzeo. Loving Frank is the memoir of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the mistress of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Widow Clicquot illustrates the life of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the force behind the yellow labelled champagne we all turn to for celebrations.
Both authors wrestled with a lack of original and secondary sources on their subjects, but they dealt with it differently. Only bank ledgers, records of the historical period, and family legends passed down through the generations remained to piece together the story of how Barbe-Nicole made champagne popular. Most of Mamah’s documents were burned in a fire, and Horan had to take some creative license with Mamah’s character based on the records of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life.
As a French foodie, I found the Widow Clicquot to be fascinating. I loved learning about the “methode champanoise” and the origin of champagne’s popularity. I don’t particularly care for champagne, I find it too dry, and I was greatly amused to learn that it started out as a ridiculously sweet bubbly drink. I think I would have liked it more then! The story of how Barbe-Nicole leveraged her widowhood to the only son of a family that dabbled in wine-making into an empire was inspirational to say the least. This enterprising woman not only survived the French Revolution, she carved out the possibility for women to take a seat in the world of business and created an industry in the process. The Widow Clicquot is a great read, especially as we gear up to raise our glasses full of champagne on New Year’s Eve.
I really resisted picking up Loving Frank. I am not very interested in architecture and learning more about Frank Lloyd Wright just didn’t appeal to me. Both of my book clubs ended up selecting it as their November read and I started reading it reluctantly. Nancy Horan‘s gorgeous prose won me over quickly. I found it very difficult to like (or pronounce mentally) Mamah Borthwick, the adulterer who leaves her two young children to follow her heart, but even as I shook my head at her choices, I couldn’t help but be moved by paragraphs like: “She loved him with every cell in her body. She found delight in every part of him – his irrepressible laugh, the merry eyes that nearly always looked as if he’d just heard the most amusing punch line, his presence in every waking moment.” I found myself filling the back of my writer’s notebook with beautiful prose and have now joined the ranks of avid Nancy Horan fans. With limited sources, she truly made this woman come alive.