By Debra Downey, Senior Editor
Many male daredevils have attempted to conquer the perilous plunge over Niagara Falls, but who was the first?
Not a man, actually — a determined 62-year-old retired charm school teacher who became known as the Heroine of the Horseshoe Falls.
Stories of forgotten or “mis-remembered” women like daredevil Annie Edson Taylor are among those in the newly released In the Wings: Stories of Forgotten Women.
A collection of historical fiction compiled by editor Bernadette Rule, In the Wings highlights the little-known lives of women who were connected to — and sometimes overshadowed by — famous men.
Dundas resident Rule said the idea for the anthology arose during a writing course she was teaching at McMaster University. The final assignment in the Writing Women Characters class involved students thinking of a famous man, researching a female in his life and using the tools of fiction to bring the woman to life.
Rule said her students’ papers were so fascinating, she started to do some thinking of her own.
“When I was studying literature and history back in the 20th century, women rarely came up, either as writers or as subjects,” said Rule. “It's not much better in the 21st century.
Rule said she also recalled hearing a radio phone-in show about people's favourite heroines. The only real-life woman who came up during the conversation was Marie Curie.
“The general theme of the program ended up being that there just aren't many, because women have been too busy having children, cooking, etc., to do anything,” said Rule. “This concept outrages me, and I hope In the Wings will help make people rethink our approach to understanding human history.”
Along with daredevil Annie Taylor, In the Wings: Stories of Forgotten Women features the work of 17 Hamilton and area contributors whose subjects include, among others, Rani Lakshmibai, an Indian queen who fought in the Rebellion of 1857, Georgina Hogarth, sister-in-law of Charles Dickens, Pilar Casals, mother of Pablo Casals, Lillian Bounds Disney, wife of Walt Disney, and Joan Douglas, daughter of Tommy Douglas.
Linda Helson, another Dundas resident, brings from the shadows Anne Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare. Authentic to time and place but primarily fiction, her tale traces the couple’s first meeting, through the birth of their children and eventually to Shakespeare’s demise after a night in the tavern with old theatre friends, having had too many beers and oysters.
Helson, a retired English teacher, said the story of Shakespeare’s wife came easily to mind.
“It was as if Anne’s voice was talking to me,” said Helson. “It was one of those easy-to-write stories.”
Helson is a member of the Canadian Federation of University Women writing group, and as part of their meetings, a topic for a literary project is suggested each month. About four years ago, someone suggested genius; genius led Helson to Shakespeare; the English poet and playwright himself sent Helson to the little-known Anne.
When she heard about the In the Wings project, Helson quickly submitted the story that now leads off the anthology.
“I have been a feminist from the time I was a teenager, and over the years, have thought about the unfairness of women’s lot,” said Helson. “I hope readers will be entertained (by Anne’s story) and get a feel for Elizabeth times.”
Editor Rule said she searched for five or six years to find a publisher for In the Wings: Stories of Forgotten Women, then finally found Maureen Whyte and Seraphim Editions, “who did a beautiful job producing it.”
She said designer Rolf Busch, in particular, has provided a book that readers truly can judge by the high standard of its cover.
In the Wings: Stories of Forgotten Women is available at Bryan Prince Bookseller in Westdale or through the BookBand at email@example.com.
Rule hopes the book will prompt readers to start looking more deeply at history and the women in their lives.
“Just as men are more interesting than how much money they make, a woman is more interesting than how sexually attractive she is,” Rule said. “I think the dire state we find ourselves in may well be a result of dismissing the point of view of more than half the population. ”