Sherwood, Frances 1940–
Sherwood, Frances 1940–
PERSONAL: Born June 4, 1940, in Washington, DC; daughter of William (a lawyer, biochemist, and linguist) and Barbara Sherwood; married three times; married a photographer; children: (first marriage) daughter (deceased); (second marriage) Lark and Leander (twin sons), Ceres Madoo (daughter). Education: Attended Howard University, c. 1960; Brooklyn College, B.A., 1967; graduate study at New York University, 1968; Johns Hopkins University, M.A., 1975. Politics: Liberal. Hobbies and other interests: Flute playing, folk and country western dancing, baking, gardening, traveling, pets.
ADDRESSES: Home—South Bend, IN. Office—Department of English, Wiekamp Hall 3171, Indiana University—South Bend, 1700 Mishawaka Ave., P.O. Box 7111, South Bend, IN 46634. E-mail—customer [email protected]; [email protected]
CAREER: Writer, novelist, and educator. Indiana University—South Bend, creative writing and journalism instructor, 1986–94, professor of English, 1994–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Teaching fellow at Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, 1973–74; Stegner fellow in fiction, Stanford University, 1976; visiting fellow at Yaddo, 1986; O. Henry Awards, 1989, for short story "History," and 1992, for short story "Demiurges"; National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, 1990; finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award, for Vindication; nominated for Nebula Award.
Everything You've Heard Is True (short stories), Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1989.
Vindication (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1993.
Green (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
The Book of Splendor (novel), W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
Night of Sorrows, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to anthologies, including Best American Short Stories 2000. Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Greensboro Review, Sonora Review, Playgirl, Seattle Review, Kansas Quarterly, California Quarterly, Sequoia, and Cream City Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Frances Sherwood garnered critical acclaim for her first novel, Vindication, a fictionalized biography of the eighteenth-century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft; at the same time, she became the center of a literary controversy. Vindication closely follows the historical details of Wollstonecraft's life, although at certain points Sherwood creates situations and a psychology for the character, which prompted objections from some reviewers. Ironically, the very inventiveness Sherwood displays in Vindication—a novel which caused Margaret Forster to "worry" in the New York Times Book Review that readers will mistake the fiction for biographical truth—was also perceived as a compositional strength. Forster stated: "If I had known nothing about Mary Wollstonecraft I would have loved this novel."
The Wollstonecraft of Vindication is first portrayed as an abused child. Her father regularly beats his wife and children, while the family's nurse sexually molests young Mary. Tragedy occurs frequently throughout Wollstonecraft's relatively short life: she is cheated out of her inheritance by her indifferent brother; her most meaningful relationship (with childhood friend Fanny Blood) ends abruptly in death; and her romantic entanglements (with painter Henry Fuseli and adventurer Gilbert Imlay) result in her own obsessive behavior and psychological breakdown. When Fuseli breaks off their affair to remain with his wife, Wollstonecraft goes mad and is committed to the London asylum for the insane known as Bedlam—notably, this ironic fictional event is particularly offensive to critics who view Wollstonecraft as an early pioneer for women's independence. "There are instances where Ms. Sherwood is not simply filling in gaps but inventing events that never happened and that are alien to the spirit of Wollstonecraft," stated Forster in the New York Times Book Review. On the other hand, Richard Eder noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that "Sherwood's accomplishment is to give her Mary, with whom she takes various historical liberties, a voice and a mind that dart erratically as if released from a dark room into the light…. Her growing notion of what women should be comes in dizzying flashes, like stars from a blow to the head."
As Wollstonecraft matures, she fails at several different attempts to live independently of a husband—including a stint as a governess in Ireland, a position from which she is dismissed for refusing to beat the children—and ends up sick and desperate on the doorstep of her publisher, Joseph Johnson, who takes her in, employs her on his journal, and encourages her writing talent. Through his efforts, Wollstonecraft publishes her best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, a manifesto demanding equal rights for women. In Johnson's house she also meets such nineteenth-century luminaries as Thomas Paine, William Blake, and William Godwin (she will eventually marry Godwin, by whom she will give birth to Mary, the future wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of the gothic classic Frankenstein). While Wollstonecraft flourishes as a writer, she is witness to certain defining details of the era. "The excesses of the French Revolution are acutely observed through Wollstonecraft's eyes," noted a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, who praised Sherwood's "meticulously rendered background detail."
The research that Sherwood gathered on the life of Wollstonecraft persuaded her to write a novel, rather than the straight biography she had initially conceived. "I was fascinated by the history of underwear, plumbing, food," the author told Gayle Feldman in Publishers Weekly. In researching various aspects of the late eighteenth century, Sherwood uncovered elements that, while not directly related to the historical Wollstonecraft, enhance the spirit of her fictional counterpart. "In the novel, Mary's first love is gay, but in reality she didn't fall in love with him. But that gives me the opportunity to talk about discrimination against gays. The book is full of fabrications, but I also hope it is authentic," Sherwood was quoted as saying in Publishers Weekly. In Newsweek, Laura Shapiro observed that "Sherwood doesn't try to outdo the facts; she plunges into them, discovering (or creating—it hardly matters) a horribly mistreated child, a tormented woman, an angry feminist, a passionate writer."
Vindication, stated Shapiro in Newsweek, "is startling, depressing, enlightening and unforgettable, and that doesn't begin to do it justice…. This astonishing first novel exerts a grip on the imagination that can't be shaken off." Eder commented in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that "Vindication makes the feminist as real as the woman; something that Camille Paglia also aims at, in a way, except that Paglia is a polemicist, not an artist. Sherwood, the artist, yokes two battling souls in a personage as bright and unstable as the blue light and red shift of a quasar." In response to the controversy surrounding Sherwood's fictionalization of Woll-stonecraft's life, Catherine Texier remarked in Harper's Bazaar that "after reading Vindication, I plunged into a couple of Wollstonecraft biographies, trying to find out what Sherwood had made up. Less than I expected, it turns out…. Sherwood's major twist is her characters' eroticism. Mary's infatuations are turned into full-fledged sexual liaisons, and her love affair with Imlay becomes a kinky fantasy of S&M games and cross-dressing." Texier concluded that the novel "reads like a fast-paced, literary bodice-ripper." Such was the intention of Sherwood, who told Contemporary Literary Criticism interviewer Jennifer Brostrom: "I wanted to create an authentic sense of what life was like during this time, and I also wanted to write a really juicy book that people would want to read—a real page-turner."
Sherwood followed Vindication with another coming-of-age novel, albeit one set in the twentieth century. Green follows Zoe McLaren, a teenager in Monterey, California, in the 1950s. Zoe, a free-thinking misfit in her straitlaced Mormon family, describes herself as "Raggedy Ann coming apart at the seams." Until, that is, she meets another outsider: Margo, a "knee-grow" girl adopted into a Jewish family. Through Margo, Zoe is introduced to sex via a would-be poet first, and Margo's father second. She then meets her future husband, Greylen ("Grey") Cloud, who claims to be Native American. The couple embark on an emotional journey that takes them to beatnik-era San Francisco, where a drug-addicted Grey abandons Zoe with their infant daughter. "She is finally acquiring a sense of self when Grey returns—and brings tragedy," according to a Publishers Weekly contributor. The same critic praised Sherwood for believably "evoking the California scene of the 1950s, from bomb alerts and uptight nuclear families to Beats, astrology, and alternate lifestyles." Antioch Review critic Gerda Oldham commented: "As she did in Vindication, Sherwood "writes about a young woman in conflict with her world."
In Vindication, Sherwood wrote of the mother of Mary Shelley, who envisioned a man-made monster in the gothic novel Frankenstein. But the Frankenstein tale—actually a version of the ancient legend of Prometheus—had been explored in fictional form before, most notably in the tale of the Golem, a medieval monster/savior created by Rabbi Judah Loew after he breathed life into a lump of wet clay. In 2002 Sherwood revisited this tale with The Book of Splendor. Set in Prague at the start of the seventeenth century, the novel tells how Rabbi Loew creates the Golem to protect the Jewish community after Emperor Rudolph II threatens a pogrom (attack) against them. But the Golem, called Yossel, proves to have intelligence and empathy, if not a voice to express them. Yossel falls in love with a young married seamstress; she, Rochel, is "the real protagonist" in this novel, remarked a Kirkus Reviews critic. Indeed, Booklist reviewer Gillian Engberg compared Sherwood's book to Beauty and the Beast as a story that "explores creation and death, physical and divine love, exile, redemption, and the conviction that nothing is as it appears." The love scenes between Rochel and Yossel, said New York Times writer Richard Eder, begin with "caresses, then much more. Ms. Sherwood writes with quiet but arousing eroticism; no small achievement for a coupling of maid and mud."
Violence, upheaval, and death come at the heels of Yossel's heroic quest to protect the Jews. Eder cited a "stunning" climax and concluded that Sherwood "projects her readers, as if by time machine, back to a place where everything is still to be discovered. We do not feel that her characters are keeping appointments. Rather than moving confidently backward out of the clarity of Now, we move uncertainly forward from a foggy Then."
In Night of Sorrows, which a Kirkus Reviews critic called a "large-canvas masterpiece," Sherwood tells the story of Malintzin, an Aztec princess caught up in the devastating conflict between her people and the invading Spanish conquistadors led by Hernando Cortes. As a young girl, Malintzin lived an aristocratic life, but upon her beloved father's death, Malintzin is sold into Mayan slavery by her mother at age ten. She is eventually taken into slavery by the Spanish, and becomes the property of Cortes in the spring of 1519. Bewildered by the Spaniards, Malintzin is not repelled by Cortes; instead, she falls in love with the conqueror whom the rest of her people consider to be the incarnation of a mighty Aztec god. In Sherwood's story, Cortes emerges as a "complex, conflicted figure," noted the Kirkus Reviews contributor, eager to seize the power inherent in being considered a god but also filled with self-doubt. The cunning Malintzin becomes Cortes's translator and assists him, seemingly unconcerned with the effect the Spanish invaders have on her people. The cultural clashes and political manipulations culminate on June 30, 1520—the titular Night of Sorrows—in the capital city of Tenochtitlan, where the Spaniards faced near annihilation by the hostile and inflamed Aztecs. Sherwood "brings the people and the times vividly to life," remarked Jane Henriksen Baird in Library Journal. "Though mostly unlikable, Sherwood's characters are, however, disturbingly unforgettable" in their violence, immorality, and greed, Baird concluded. "This colorful literary adventure paints a realistic, well-rounded portrait of a famous historical event," commented Booklist reviewer Sarah Johnson.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 81, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Sherwood, Frances, Vindication, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1993.
Sherwood, Frances, Green, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
Antioch Review, winter, 1996, Gerda Oldham, review of Green, p. 115.
Booklist, May 15, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of The Book of Splendor, p. 1587; April 15, 2006, Sarah Johnson, review of Night of Sorrows, p. 38.
Harper's Bazaar, May, 1993, Catherine Texier, review of Vindication, pp. 70, 72.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1995, review of Green, p. 736; May 15, 2002, review of The Book of Splendor, p. 696; March 15, 2006, review of Night of Sorrows, p. 260.
Library Journal, July, 1995, review of Green, p. 123; April 15, 2006, Jane Henricksen Baird, review of Night of Sorrows, p. 66.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 9, 1993, Richard Eder, review of Vindication, pp. 3, 9; September 3, 1999, review of Green, p. 2.
New Statesman and Society, June 4, 1993, review of Vindication, p. 40.
Newsweek, June 7, 1993, Laura Shapiro, review of Vindication, p. 64.
New York Times, July 5, 2002, Richard Eder, "Mad Emperor Meets His Match in a Rabbi with a Lifesaving Spell."
New York Times Book Review, July 11, 1993, Margaret Forster, review of Vindication, p. 21; August 20, 1995, review of Green, p. 7.
People, October 16, 1995, Jennifer Kornreich, review of Green, p. 40.
Publishers Weekly, October 12, 1992, Gayle Feldman, "FSG's Vindication of the Slush Pile," p. 20; March 1, 1993, review of Vindication, p. 36; May 29, 1995, review of Green, p. 65; May 20, 2002, review of The Book of Splendor, p. 45; August 12, 2002, Sybil Steinberg, "A Sympathy for Monsters," interview with Frances Sherwood, p. 272.
Times Literary Supplement, May 21, 1993, review of Vindication, p. 23; April 19, 1996, review of Green, p. 24.
Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1993, review of Vindication, pp. 14-15.
Washington Post Book World, June 27, 1993, review of Vindication, p. 9; September 24, 1995, review of Green, p. 14.
Women's Review of Books, September, 1995, review of Green, p. 22.
Curled up with a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/ (September 10, 2006), Luan Gaines, "An Interview with Frances Sherwood."
Frances Sherwood Home Page, http://www.francessherwood.com (September 10, 2006).
Indiana University—South Bend Web site, http://www.iusb.edu/ (September 10, 2006), biography of Frances Sherwood.