Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox by Jennifer Lee Carrell

The last course I took as a graduate student was on 18th century women's literature and was first introduced to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who is one of those historical women who makes you feel like you are definitely doing something wrong in your modern life. At a time when elite women's education meant dancing lessons and maybe some French, Lady Mary was an esteemed poet, travel writer, and champion of the smallpox innoculation. Even after her own experience with smallpox, which severely scarred the famous beauty, she continued to have a varied and controversial public career.

So, in short, the reason I picked up this book was Lady Mary. However, I was not aware that it would focus so exclusively on her. I was looking for something a bit more inclusive, although Carrell also focuses on Zabdiel Boylston, another innoculation champion from across the pond in Boston. Lady Mary and Boylston meet eventually, of course, and become friends. And that right there, is the problem with the book. I thought I was picking up a history book, but this is a weird marriage between history and historical novel. It's too dramatized for me to take entirely seriously as history (although most conversations are backed up by letters, contemporary journalism, and other documents), but it's not dramatized enough to be compelling as novel. Add in the precious references to Alexander Pope, Ben Franklin, and an infant Samuel Adams and you have a serious mess on your hands. An interesting mess, perhaps, but not one I can recommend.

Also, it should be noted that if you are afflicted with a delicate stomach, this is not the book for you. Smallpox is a horrific disease and Carrell's descriptions are detailed. I was fine reading at home, but nearly passed out during a particularly gruesome passage while I was reading on the subway.

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