Three true stories of women who pushed boundaries of convention

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm


In my fantasy version of summer, I am sitting on a beach, no schedule or deadlines, a pile of books at my side. Some people prefer water skiing or rock climbing, or hiking or scuba diving or riding horses or learning to play in a rock band - yet all those adventures can be found inside a book. For some, the escape is in a light romance; for others, dark thrillers. This summer I want true stories of women who lived bold lives, who were ahead of their time. Here are a few that have fallen through the cracks of history.

A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert by Gertrude Bell, edited by Georgina Howell (Penguin, August). Bell was born in north England in 1868 into a family of wealthy industrialists. She was presented at court in 1889 but soon went abroad. She visited Europe, as was common, and Persia, which was less so. During her life, she travelled around the world twice - but she left her heart in the Middle East. She spoke eight languages, including Persian and Arabic, and trekked across the desert with camels and guides, gifts for the sheikhs she met and cameras to photograph (with huge glass slides) her archaeological discoveries.

In A Woman in Arabia, editor Howell organises and explains excerpts of Bell's voluminous correspondence and diaries to shape our understanding of her curiosities, romances, hazardous journeys and, above all, frame her actions in the complex political manoeuvrings involved in establishing modern Iraq.

Assigned to the Cairo intelligence office in 1915, Bell served as a spy but advocated for local autonomy and argued that schools and hospitals "provided a more convincing form of propaganda than any which could have been invented by the most eloquent preacher or most skilful pamphleteer". She preceded T.E. Lawrence to the Middle East by about a decade, but her story has been overshadowed by his in contemporary culture - though Bell's story will finally come to the big screen this autumn, with Nicole Kidman playing her in Werner Herzog's Queen of the Desert.

Linda Rosenkrantz didn't go as far from home as Bell, but she was adventurous. In 1965, she and her two best friends went from New York to East Hampton with their bathing suits, a supply of gin and Rosenkrantz's tape recorder. She recorded their conversations and turned them into Talk (New York Review Books Classics, July).

Published in 1968 as fiction, the book is told in dialogue only, as "Marsha" and "Emily" (both straight) and "Vincent" (gay) flirt, gossip, eat, drink, sunbathe, and discuss art and drugs and relationships and affairs.

Someone who never ducked the spotlight was Ultra Violet, the artist and Andy Warhol film star. "My rebellion is getting attention from the press, and I love it … If need be I'll be crazier than the others, bolder, more daring, to keep eyes and cameras focused on me, me, me," she writes in her memoir Famous for 15 Minutes: My Years With Andy Warhol (Open Road Media, e-book).

The book was originally published in 1988, after Warhol had died and when Violet - born Isabelle Collin Dufresne, a French Catholic - had become a Mormon, so she sometimes vents a wry perspective on the narcissism and mad indulgences of Warhol's world.

But she also remembers it as a fun, fun, fun, creatively electric time. She channels Warhol's deadpan perfectly, sums up his hangers-on in biting vignettes, and captures scene after scene of naked bodies, half-drugged characters and their outrageous stories at the original 1963-67 Factory.

Violet is so fascinated by Warhol that she tries seducing him - he flees, terrified - and she portrays his enigmatic magnetism, surrounded by his crew of hangers-on, enablers, casualties and stars. There are cameos, of course, by Bob Dylan, Truman Capote and John Lennon. Violet loves to name-drop.

I like to think what each of these women would do if their lives overlapped, interchanged. Bell could have used someone like Rosenkrantz, whose relentless drive towards intimacy might have revealed the truth about the parts of her life that still remain mysterious.

What would Violet have done if she hadn't found herself at Warhol's factory but on the edge of the Syrian desert?

Perhaps Bell, if she were in New York in the 20th century art world, would find it engaging enough - but she'd probably set out for a place less familiar.

Then they'd all write about the experiences, and I'd be gladly reading about their adventures.

Los Angeles Times