In 1903, two adolescent sisters, Helen and Olivia Rosetti, published a novel under the pseudonym Isabel Meredith in which they chronicled their lives as radicals, propagandists, and key figures in the European anarchist movement. A glimpse of true intellectual freedom, the novel, A Girl among the Anarchists may be one of the most critically untouched and unacknowledged feminist works of the 20th century.
The book was unprecedented for the scope of its political content, a rare coming-of-age tale that called for complete sexual equality and the violent destruction of religion and state rule. It was revelatory of day to day life in a Victorian-era underground movement, and a keen study of radical and active responses to the universal feelings of rage, boredom, and resignation that to this day remain at the heart of experience for many adolescent women.
The protagonist, Isabel Meredith, is an intelligent, highly capable, sexually active teenage girl with a sense of humor and a sense of pride. She is an orphan living on inheritance who fights beside, organizes, and leads mostly adult men in the struggle for revolution. The book was sophisticated enough to criticize and satirize the actions of (mostly male) political activists, without condemning their sentiments and philosophies.
The novel was poorly received and, many critics agree, poorly written, but A Girl among the Anarchists is a text that shouldn't be lost, especially because the story is true and because our images of girls and women in the Victorian era are predominantly prissy, repressed, and ignorant. At 14 and 16 years old, the Rosetti sisters were publishing works by George Bernard Shaw, hob-nobbing with the anarchist firebrand Peter Kropotkin, and hanging out with Emma Goldman, who wrote about their accomplishments and saw them generally as good news for the future of the movement.
Books like A Girl among the Anarchists are important because they remind us thateven in the 1890s there were women and girls calling for birth control, abortion rights, equal pay, equal treatment, and sexual freedom. In fact, women and girls have been calling for these things throughout human history, and we shouldn't be thrown by the common narrative that tells us the fight for equal rights and justice is a recent occurrence, a struggle confined to the various waves of feminism. The narrative that tells us the fight for women's equality is still essentially a new idea and that we need to be patient is an utter lie. The last thing we need, and the last thing the Rosetti girls would approve of, is patience in the face of repression.
Ultimately the beauty of A Girl among the Anarchists is that the protagonist is brilliant and does whatever the hell she wants. Characters like Alice Piper and Vanessa Michael Munroe, and, yes, even Lisbeth Salander are not new creatures. Their sisters have existed throughout history, and not all of them, thanks to the Rosettis, went undocumented.
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Cara Hoffman grew up in an economically depressed town in upstate New York. In the 1990s, she began working as an investigative reporter at a daily newspaper, covering New York State's rural and rust-belt communities for over a decade. In 2000, she received a New York State Foundation for the Art Fellowship for her writing on the aesthetics of violence and its impact on children. So Much Pretty is Cara's debut novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Cara Hoffman is the author of So Much Pretty