The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul – a novel of the women of Jazz Age New York, featuring Dorothy Parker and her circle

The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul

A novel set in New York City in 1921 would be interesting – when it features Dorothy Parker in all her wit and reality together with the women around her, it is fascinating. In Gill Paul’s latest novel where she takes real women and weaves a convincing piece of fiction around them, Dorothy becomes Dottie, a woman who needs the support of others as she plunges from relationship to desperate state and creative blur and back again. Not that those around her are quiet and lacking in fame and achievement. Jane Grant was the determined first female reporter for the New York Times and passionately working towards founding a new Magazine. Peggy Leech worked on a magazine and her brilliant novels. Winifred Lenihan was a talented actress on Broadway who met with challenges because of her beauty. All these women live, laugh and work hard in this memorable and enjoyable novel which celebrates their relationship despite the pressures each felt in breaking with rules and expectations in a fast moving world. This is a world of Prohibition but where alcohol could be bought, made and enjoyed everywhere, where women faced age old problems of discrimination and vulnerability in new guises, where romance, passion and marriage were not always easy. It is a very enjoyable book as the focus moves from woman to woman for each chapter, revealing their thoughts and ambitions, their disappointments and challenges. It is a novel of friendship and support, gossip and achievement, where Dottie is capable of dry wit and humour in her worst moments as she struggles with her capacity for attachment. It is a novel of the Jazz Age when women had great opportunities and yet discover the world is still against them in so many ways. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent book.

As with Paul’s other novels, she has obviously done a lot of research into the lives of her subjects and made much of the facts that she discovered. In the back of the novel, she mentions how she moved and manipulated the biographical timelines of Dorothy’s life in particular in order to explain her known struggles with mental health, and paraphrased and gave settings for some of her best known quips. Exactly what motivated each woman at each stage is looked at in terms of the widely known facts about their achievements and marriages. Paul also looks at those around them, including the famous playwrights, journalists and writers that were known to them.

This is a book which deals with a very active time in the woman’s lives, when they were pursuing their ambitions despite some of the people around them who intentionally or otherwise put-up blocks to their progress. All of them went on to have an impact in some respect, so the piece at the end of the novel that outlines what happened next is especially valuable.  It is not a time and place I know a lot about, but I gradually learnt a lot about the time and in particular how women lived in the atmosphere of changing values and challenges. Dorothy especially is seen as vulnerable in unexpected ways, and yet none of the women however well meaning and supportive has it easy. I enjoyed reading about each woman from their own perspective, as they discovered the truth about the people around them. Marriage was a goal in some respects, but it was no guarantee of happiness or success. Winifred’s story, in particular, was a revelation, with considerable implications for women’s lives today. Altogether this is a very exciting and interesting book which I thoroughly recommend as giving a voice to women in a specific time and place which has echoes for life in the twenty first century.

The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul – a review of a novel that brings the real woman out of the mystery of Tutankhamun’s tomb’s discovery in the 1920s

The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul

A woman has memories of an incredible time in her life, but those memories are fragile and are at risk. Lady Evelyn Herbert grew up in Highclere Castle (the real Downton Abbey) and yet her greatest memory is of being the first person into the tomb of Tutankhamun, possibly the richest archeological discovery of the twentieth century.  This is a fictional reworking of her life, where historical events are set in a love story that lasted for decades despite all sorts of challenges. Featuring her husband Brograve who became a wealthy man as well as an MP, this is a story that jumps between the 1970s when Eve struggles with strokes that rob her of memories, and the 1920s when the great discovery took place. From a photograph of Lord Carnarvon, Eve’s father and Howard Carter, the archeologist who was the lead in the search for a significant tomb, the third figure of a young woman is given her own story with great success, as her memories are challenged by time and ill health. Her determination, individual charm and so much more are the themes of a book which transforms our understanding of the woman who helped make history, but is seldom mentioned. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this tremendous novel.

This book opens in London, July 1972. Eve has had another stroke, and Brograve is anxiously awaiting to discover what damage has been done on this occasion. The author has gathered information about stroke rehabilitation from a physiotherapist who worked in the field pre 1980s, when scans made diagnosis very much easier. As Eve’s determination to recover her facilities means that she regains many memories of significant events and emotions in the 1920s, including her loving relationship with Brograve, so many things are challenged. Her progress is described alongside Brograve’s help, as the focus returns to 1920, when she met and made good friends, and the scene was set for the archaeological work that led to the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.Various characters appear, including her volatile mother Almina, her much loved if difficult father “Pups” and her great friend, Carter. In the background is the idea of the curse that was supposed to mean disaster for anyone entering the tomb, and was probably largely created by the media of the day. An insistent Egyptian woman who insists on questioning Eve about the discovery, Ana Mansour, provides much of the impetus for Eve to remember what really happened to some of the artifacts found in the tomb, and she is an uncomfortable character in the story throughout. 

This is a beautifully written story of a life and a relationship dominated by events in the 1920. As the author points out in the back of the book, it is about memory and the loving relationship between Eve and Brograve. I found it a completely engaging read, which not only succeeds in giving a real and vibrant life to a woman who was an active participant in a significant historical discovery but also making her a memorable character in her own right. The research in this novel is impressive, ranging from the history, the biographies of the main characters where they exist, and the medical realities of a series of what were seen as strokes in the 1970s. Despite that the narrative is never slowed by facts and evidence; it rather flows between the established time periods in an entirely intriguing way. I really enjoyed reading this book; I recommend it to anyone with an interest in Tutankhamun’s tomb and its discovery, and especially to anyone who is interested in the life of a woman who has been sidelined by history but contributed to a famous series of events in the twentieth century.