The only thing I knew about ‘dance marathons‘, prior to reading Sarah Bird’s new novel, was that Lorelai and Rory took part in one during that episode of Gilmore Girls. Turns out, they were all the rage in the 1930’s during the depression in the USA. It was a time when people were down on their luck and wanted something to root for, someone to cheer for, and ultimately something loud, ridiculous, chaotic and fun to distract them from their troubles.
This is the world that Bird’s heroine – Evie Grace – finds herself swept up in. Although Evie dreams of becoming a nurse, when her previous life in vaudeville catches up with her, it’s through dance marathons that she finds a glimmer of hope to regain the future that she lost. This book was fun, picaresque and full of adventure in a way that perfectly suits this glitzy, turbulent time period.
A few years ago, the University of Edinburgh ran a project online called The Dangerous Women Project, which posed the question: ‘what does it mean to be a dangerous woman’?
The project asked artists, writers, photographers, academics and more to explore what being ‘dangerous’ as a woman means (both historically and now). They ended up publishing over 365 responses between International Women’s Day 2016 and 2017. These responses were so vast and varied – with some artists reflecting on their own work, some original poems and tons of stories about fascinating women living at various points of history who, for one reason or another, were deemed ‘dangerous’. Maybe they were dangerous because they lived outside of gender norms, or they pursued ‘masculine’ professional careers, or because they fought for women’s rights, or simply refused to live by whatever the standard of feminine behavior was at the time.
When I first heard of this theme, I knew I had to write something for the project and one person immediately came to mind. A 19th century sculptor who (sadly!) isn’t very well known today. Her name was Elisabet Ney. Not Elizabeth, Elisabet (sans ‘h’)! And like her name, she was really quite unique.
She became known in her own time for sculpting statues of famous men in Europe and, later, Texas. These included the famous philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, Otto Von Bismark (the prime minister of Prussia), and (my Texas readers will know these last two!) Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin.
In addition to being a gifted sculptor, she was a really unconventional individual: she never took her husband’s last name (as an early feminist, she insisted on keeping her own name), wore trousers, and generally had very forward-thinking attitudes about gender.
I came to know about her because her former home in Austin is now The Elisabet Ney Museum and I was taken there on school field trips growing up. I don’t know how to say this without sounding hokey – and I don’t fully understand it myself – but even from a very young age I have felt, shall we say, connected to Elisabet Ney. She’s always really intrigued me as a person. I always thought she was world famous but when I moved away from Texas I learned that, like many female artists, even relatively successful ones, her work is largely unknown by the general public.
The Elisabet Ney Museum is also a calm, beautiful space – lovely stone walls and full of her statues, which were all enormous and snow-white. A really tranquil place. I should definitely do a blog post on it the next time I’m in Austin!
So I wrote a short story about her for the Dangerous Women Project and specifically about the last sculpture she made, which some believe to be somewhat autobiographical: a sculpture of Lady Macbeth. This story is absolutely historical fiction. I took a few of the details I knew about her life and character to inspire it, but much of it is invented or imagined too.
I was also delighted when, a few years later, the Dangerous Women Project asked if they could include my story in a book which would feature articles, art and stories about female creativity and danger. I said absolutely yes! The book came out this spring (2021) and it’s truly an impressive volume which I’ve loved reading through. It’s called The Art of Being Dangerous: Exploring Women and Danger Through Creative Expression, published by Leuven University Press.
I’m glad that my story about Elisabet has found a place to sit alongside so many accounts (personal, historical, fictional, non-fictional etc.) about ‘dangerous’ female artists. I imagine she’d be happy to be amongst that company.
I’d absolutely love to work on a longer piece about Ney at some point because she really did live such an unusual life and rubbed elbows with so many influential figures in her day. Truly a fascinating character.
Let me know if you’d like to learn more about Elisabet Ney. And, if you read the story, let me know what you think!
Are there any historical artists, or historical figures generally, you wish were more widely known today? Anyone from your local area perhaps?