Too Near the Flame is my work-in-progress, a book about women and power, about women’s desire for epic lives, and about our need to tell our own stories and the stories of our foremothers.
It began as a dual biography of two famous keepers of the flame whom I knew when I was young: Sophia Wittenberg Mumford (1899-1997) was married to Lewis Mumford and Valerie Fletcher Eliot (1926-2012) was married to T. S. Eliot. I first delved into their lives after Valerie Eliot’s death in 2013 because I was indignant about the way their stories had been told. I was also trying to understand my own experiences with several prominent older men, hoping that I could learn something from Sophia and Valerie’s lives. I found that the questions I was asking are questions that many women are still struggling with. They seemed to be universal, too. 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 “dragon ladies” (one of the topics I’m working on as an associate in research at the Fairbank Center at Harvard).
As a result, Too Near the Flame is 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.
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, Women and Leadership, and the 2021 Organization of American Historians panel “Three Loves” is below.
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.