Writing a Woman’s Life

As someone who turned up her nose at the idea of Women’s Studies, it’s a surprise to find myself immersed, as a publisher and as a writer, in many projects about women and feminism . This page describes some of my work related to women and power, and my growing interest in the varied ways that exist for writing a woman’s life.

Karen Christensen & William H McNeill

This photo was taken 29 May 2013 in Colebrook, Connecticut. Two days later I went to Christie’s in New York to see some of the items from Valerie Eliot’s flat that were going to be auctioned, a visit that turned out to be the starting point of Too Near the Flame. 

Not long before this photo was taken in 2013, Bill (William H.) McNeill decided to write my life story, interviewing me with surgical precision. It was a dramatic experience for both of us because of a strange intersection in our lives that took place years before we met. Beyond that, having a famous historian (and biographer) examine my life was shocking and ultimately transformative. Weekly suppers with Bill were part of my life until his death in 2016, at nearly 99. Bill’s The Rise of the West was A History of the Human Community won the National Book Award in 1964, the year after Rachel Carson’s Secret Spring was a finalist. My preoccupation for years has been the intersection of ecology and community, and these were subjects Bill and I always came back to. Read more about him: W. H. McNeill (1917-2016) [obituary] in the New York Times and my reflections, “Celebrating William H. McNeill.”

Too Near the Flame

Too Near the Flame is the title of the book I’ve been researching and writing since 2013. I’ll finish it after the new version of The Great Good Place is published in Autumn 2024. The Great Good Place is relevant to current politics as well as to climate change, so it’s taken priority.

Too Near the Flame is a blended narrative that includes the stories of two famous keepers of the flame: Sophia Wittenberg Mumford (1899-1997) who was married to the US social critic Lewis Mumford and Valerie Fletcher Eliot (1926-2012) who was the second wife of Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot. Sophia and Valerie were young typists who eventually became keepers of the flame and guardians of the legacies of the men they loved. The stories of the Mumfords and Eliots intersected over many decades, and when I was young I became Valerie’s confidante in London and then Sophie’s friend in upstate New York. When Sophia died at 97, she and I were working on a book about her life.

“Dear Mrs. Eliot,” my memoir about working with Valerie Eliot, was the cover story of the Guardian Review on 29 January 2005, but I only saw the connections between these keepers of the flame after Valerie died in 2012. I was indignant about the way their stories were being told , and hoped I could learn something from Sophia and Valerie’s live – not least because I myself knew what it was like to have a famous older lover (there had been a couple of them). And I was worried about how my current Cinderella story might end.

As I began to look for other examples of intelligent, ambitious women drawn to charismatic, dominating men, I found similar patterns in the story of Heloise and Abelard, in the Victorian novel Middlemarch, in early feminist writing, and in accounts of Chinese concubines and modern dragon ladies (this is a subject I’m working on as an associate in research at the Fairbank Center at Harvard). Women have long sought independence and power, as well as love and passion and motherhood.

I found many examples in fiction (think of Pride & Prejudice). Here is a passage from Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn, from Madame Goesler’s letter to the Duke of Omnium turning down his proposal of marriage:

I will own that I have been ambitious, too ambitious, and have been pleased to think that one so exalted as you are, one whose high position is so rife in the eyes of all men, should have taken pleasure in my company. I will confess to a foolish woman’s silly vanity in having wished to be known to be the friend of the Duke of Omnium. I am like the other moths that flutter near the light and have their wings burned. But I am wiser than they in this, that having been scorched, I know that I must keep my distance.

In Middlemarch, I found a passage that summed up the kind of woman I was writing about – not women who sought money but who were looking for a path that would take them into a bigger world.

Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self.

To write the stories of the Sophia and Lewis Mumford, Valerie and Tom Eliot, and the other women in their lives, I traveled around England, went to Wales and France, interviewed dozens of people who knew the couples (including women who’d been at school with Valerie during World War II), discovered new material, and uncovered stories that they hoped would stay under wraps. I’ve also discovered how resourceful these women were in facing challenges that we still struggle with. Too Near the Flame has become a subversive study of the Cinderella myth, a blended narrative that is primarily about the interconnected lives of the Mumfords and Eliots but includes other stories and explores wider issues. It’s scheduled for publication in the autumn of 2024.

During the years I’ve been doing the research, I have also been writing and speaking about the women whose stories are central to the book. Information about #Thanksfortyping and Women and Leadership (the second edition of which includes my chapters on “Paths to Power” and a new one on “#MeToo and Its Impact”), and the 2021 Organization of American Historians panel “Three Loves” is below.

Biographer Carl Rollyson hosts a popular podcast, “A Life in Biography.” This episode, he explains, is “A wide-ranging discussion with Karen Christensen, publisher and biographer, about libel, indemnity clauses, the widow Eliot and others widows and wives. Click here to listen.

Valerie Fletcher Eliot (1926-2012) was the much younger second wife of T. S. Eliot and guardian of his legacy for nearly 50 years. My memoir about working with her, “Dear Mrs Eliot,” was a cover story in the Guardian’s literary review . Here’s a response to a New Yorker article about the James Joyce estate that mentions me, and here is Valerie Eliot (1926-2012) [obituary] in the New York Times.

Sophia Wittenberg Mumford (1899-1997) was married to Lewis Mumford for nearly 70 years. Her obituary in the New York Times refers to the book about her life that she and I were working on, and the podcast “Sophia Mumford Talks about Working at The Dial in the 1920s” comes from one of the conversations we recorded in 1996.

T S Eliot’s Women

The January 2020 opening of T. S. Eliot’s love letters to Emily Hale was momentous for those who study Eliot. The #MeToo aspect of Eliot’s behavior has divided male and female scholars, and raised questions about Valerie Eliot’s actions before and after her husband’s death. I contributed a piece about being at Princeton on the opening day to the T. S. Eliot Annual. After the archives closed that first day, I stood in a dark hallway by the lockers with a reporter from The Times and told him what I suspected was Valerie Eliot’s role in writing the “I did not have sex with that woman” letter that Harvard had released at lunchtime. Here’s his article in The Times.

Time Present, the journal of the TSE Society, has essays by those of us who were at the archives for the opening. The essay cluster was then published in Volume 3 of The T. S. Eliot Studies Annual.


Thanks for Typing #thanksfortyping

In March 2019, I spoke at a conference at Oxford called “Thanks for Typing: The invisible wives, daughters, mothers, and other women behind famous men.” It took place the week before the London Book Fair (remember those days, actual physical, face-to-face events?). It was thrilling to see all the work being done today to bring fascinating and talent women into the light. I wrote several articles about the event and the concept, was interviewed for a podcast, and finally expanded my paper into a chapter for the book Thanks for Typing, published by Bloomsbury. We’re hoping to hold a second conference – perhaps virtual. But I really don’t think this aspect of writing a woman’s life would have become so important to me had I not been able to meet Juliana Dresvina and the others in person!


Thanks for Typing:

Remembering Forgotten Women in History

Juliana Dresvina (Anthology Editor)

This collection uncovers the wives, daughters, mothers, companions and female assistants who laboured in the shadows of famous men. Revealing the reality of uncredited female contributions throughout history, this book highlights the work of neglected and forgotten women associated with celebrated male writers, scholars, activists and politicians.

Here’s an extract from my chapter, “Jumped-up Typists”:

Although they met only once and were born a generation apart on different sides of the Atlantic, Sophia Wittenberg Mumford (1899–-1997) and Valerie Fletcher Eliot (1926–-2012) had experiences and traits in common, and their trajectories offer contrasting examples of what it means to be the woman behind a famous man. . . . I knew both women well and find that their stories provide a window into the way women have channelled their ambitions into service to an influential mate. . . .

Paths to Power: Women & Leadership

Women and Leadership: History, Theories, and Case Studies is written by academics but the subject is one of great interest to me, and overlaps with some of my research. I contributed a chapter on women’s paths to power in 2017, and coauthored one on the impact of the #MeToo movement for the updated 2022 edition. Women and Leadershipprovides a diverse, timely overview of women and leadership, successfully navigating the topic without descending into essentializing claims. . . . Contributing authors are leading scholars in the field, including Alice Eagly and Bruce Avolio. A particularly helpful introduction provides context for the chapters that review differences between women’s and men’s leadership, for example, and examine barriers to women’s leadership and the “leadership labyrinth” (in contrast to the “glass ceiling”). Articles present women as 21st-century leaders and explore changing family dynamics and gender stereotypes, social change issues such as reproductive and GLBTQ rights, and women’s leadership in a wide range of fields. Twenty biographical entries illustrate how the theoretical issues play out in individual lives of contemporary and historical women leaders. The work, suitable for all library collections, serves as an introductory resource to augment classroom instruction as well as support research. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All academic levels; general readers.” –M. F. Jones, Brevard College, CHOICE magazine.

The Loves of Lewis Mumford

Thanks to Chinese law professor Jerome A. Cohen, I met Gerald and Nina Holton in 2014. Through Gerald Holton, I learned about a collection of letters between Mumford and his last lover, Jocelyn Brodie, which are now at the Schlesinger Library thanks to the efforts of a family friend, Ann Braude, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School. Our conversations led to Braude’s organizing a panel on “Three Loves of Lewis Mumford at the 2021 Organization of American Historians Conference. The recording of the panel can be viewed with this link: https://youtu.be/aX2Qlr26pH0. Here’s the program description:

Lewis Mumford, one of the most widely-read and far-ranging public intellectuals of the twentieth century, referred in autobiographical writing to his “loves,” plural, the women who engaged him both intellectually and sexually. Mumford found intellectual and sexual attraction mutually reinforcing. His view that sexual and intellectual exchange could not be separated was an aspect of his call to twentieth-century Americans to live as whole human beings, not as the segmented, alienated products of a mechanized world. But it was also a source of conflict with his desire for a stable marriage that would support his legendary literary productivity. What Mumford did and did not reveal about his adulterous love affairs has complicated the reception of his autobiographical accounts and of biographical treatments of him. It has also obscured the characters and careers of the women he loved.

Upending the historiography on Mumford, this panel will look at his three best-documented “loves” from the point of view of their own interests, and ask how they advanced their own agendas—intellectual, creative, personal, and sexual–through their interaction with Lewis Mumford. First and foremost among these women was always his wife, life-partner, and sometime editor, Sophia Wittenberg Mumford. But he also placed much importance on and exchanged extensive correspondence with two other women, one in youth and one in old age: Catherine Bauer and Jocelyn Brodie. All three of these were notable historical actors in their own right whose stories nonetheless became mere shadows in the bright light thrown by Lewis Mumford. The panel consists of three papers, one on each of these three women, examining her creative work outside her relationship with Mumford before viewing it in light of that relationship.

Karen Christensen’s paper on Sophia Mumford, “A Book of My Own,” is based on extensive interviews she conducted with Sophia Mumford before her death. She explains the self-evaluation that Mumford undertook in her nineties, which included comparing herself with the other women her husband had loved and assessing the choice she had made to let her life be governed by his work and his needs.

Ann Braude, director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School, discovered both sides of the suppressed correspondence of unknown artist Jocelyn Brodie and Lewis Mumford in Brodie’s rural Vermont home following Brodie’s death. The paper situates the ten-year correspondence within the trajectory of Brodie’s literary and artistic oeuvre, as well as exploring both the reasons the correspondence began and the reasons it was suppressed.

In “Sex and the Single Woman, circa 1930,” Nancy Cott, Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard University, re-examines Mumford’s formative erotic and intellectual relationship with housing expert Catherine Bauer, a “New Woman” of the 1920s ten years his junior. This reassessment will place the Bauer-Mumford relationship in the context of Bauer’s immediately previous and subsequent sexual/intellectual relationships with men, and compare it to other roughly parallel temporary pairings of her single contemporaries with attractive older partners.

Aaron Sachs, professor of history at Cornell University and currently working on a book about Herman Melville and Lewis Mumford, will respond to the papers and chair the session.

Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar

The Women Writing Women’s Lives Biography Seminar includes approximately seventy members engaged in writing book-length biographies and memoirs. The group first began meeting in 1990 and represents a wide range of feminist perspectives and a variety of professional backgrounds. I was accepted as a member early in 2019 and was thrilled when biographer Deirdre Bair swept me into her working life. At that point she was about to publish her “bio-memoir” Parisian Lives. She was toying with the idea of writing about T. S. Eliot, because she regretting having long ago missed a chance to write his biography. She was interested in my subject (women’s attraction to powerful men) and in my two subjects, Valerie Eliot and Sophia Mumford. She had even taken a class at Penn with Lewis Mumford and had had a curious experience when visiting him in his office. She encouraged me, writing “I think I speak for all our members when I say how much I’d love to be at that conference! What a vital and important topic. And Karen’s book sounds equally as important. I’ll be first on line to buy a copy when it’s published! ” She came to Great Barrington for the weekend and looked through my collection of Eliot books. I stayed with her a couple of times in New Haven after visits to the Beinecke Library. We talked and emailed for months, and she sold her idea for a book on Eliot to Nan Talese at Knopf as she was busy promoting Parisian Lives. I expected to see her at Princeton that January 2020 day when the long-awaited Emily Hale collection of Eliot letters was finally opened to view. That late winter was a whirlwind of canceled plans and then the first lockdowns, and there were no meetings of the WWWL. Deirdre’s health was far more precarious than she had let on. She died of heart failure in April. I learned about it in an email from the WWWL, which she had helped to found.

Women & Sports

International Encyclopedia of Women and Sports

Prominent sports scholars Gertrud Pfister and Allen Guttmann were my collaborators as Berkshire Publishing developed the International Encyclopedia of Women and Sports for Macmillan, and for several years I had the pleasure of joining them and other sports experts at conferences in the US and Europe. We celebrated publication at a beer garden in Budapest. My involvement in sports and sports scholarship always surprises people, but I’ve learned such a lot about leadership and community, seen the political implications of sports competition, and in this project saw how women athletes were a vital part of the women’s movement. We had fun locating historic material about why women should not participate in sports, and scattered extracts throughout the encyclopedia. Macmillan produced three handsome volumes, with lots of illustrations and sidebars and with two-color printing. The rights have now reverted to Berkshire Publishing and it remains a highly valuable and unique resource, a treasure trove of information about the history of women’s sports, and attitudes towards women and sports, going back to ancient Greece and China.

Writing a Woman’s Life

Perhaps setting all this in motion, I read Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life by chance in the autumn of 1990. I was on a book tour for the US edition of Home Ecology and a friend in San Jose told me she was going to her book club the night I arrived and that they’d be discussing Writing a Woman’s Life. I opened my copy recently and found a bookmark from the Elliott Bay bookstore in Seattle, as well as a dried flower, put there the following spring when I was back in England,  exchanging daily letters with a lover in New York and enclosing flowers from the Devon hedgerows. Heilbrun explores why some women stay single or become single mothers in order to pursue their careers and follow their dreams. I thought I was following a similarly self-determined path, not seeing that succumbing to my lover’s pleas that I move myself and my small children to the US would lead me perilously astray. In 2023, I started a Facebook group with the same name, hoping to get biographers talking about the particular challenges they face in writing about women’s lives. 

karen christensen's corona typewriter on t s eliot's desk

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