Megan Mayhew Bergman’s short-story collection Almost Famous Women, I admit, would have caught my attention simply by its title, as I have an insatiable fascination with eccentric women in history. This is also exactly what the book delivers, but in a surprising and intriguing package.
The women Mayhew Bergman chooses to focus on in this collection come from wide-ranging eras, but all led creative and passionate lives, sometimes causing them to make reckless decisions. For many, this also meant a life of loneliness. Mayhew Bergman uses these women as a starting point for each of these historical fiction stories — intimate, imaginatively told tales that explore the figures’ muddled relationship with fame and greatness.
The book begins with its strangest story, which warns the reader that this will not be a book of comfortable narratives but rather of darker ones. The story, “The Pretty Grown Together Children,” features Violet and Daisy Hilton, English conjoined twins who toured in sideshows and vaudeville circuits in the 1930s in Europe and the United States. It is a bold choice for Mayhew Bergman to inhabit the voice of one of the twins, and a moving one, as the inner-workings of Daisy’s mind reveal the intensely human and sensual side that everyone denies the twins of. They were so beautiful and strange that they were admired, but also ridiculed and abused. The story of the twins sets the tone for a book that explores the lives of unconventional women, told always with a remarkable, and intriguing, sense of sympathy.
The second story does not alleviate the uncomfortable feeling aroused in the first, but rather dramatically increases the book’s pace. “The Siege at Whale Cay” tells the incredible adventure of M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, known as the fastest woman on water. The story is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (if Gatsby were a woman named Joe). It takes place on a private island and is packed with scenes of enormous, celebrity-filled parties; complicated, tense, and ambiguous relationships; boats gliding at top-speeds in the late of night; flowing whisky, guns, and even a mermaid. The story is told through the voice of a very young American woman whom Carstairs plucked from a theme park in Florida based on her looks and incredible strength as a swimmer, and whisked to Whale Cay to be her next lover. As in “The Pretty Grown Together Children,” “The Siege at Whale Cay” reveals the extreme vulnerability of our main protagonist, the seemingly invincible M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, as the evening culminates with her breakdown.
One of the most interesting aspects of this entire collection is the perspective that Mayhew Bergman takes with each near-legend, embodying either the women themselves or a close caretaker, lover, or friend. Equally compelling is the way in which the characters’ invented inner lives diverge, intersect, and at times even surpass the historical figures’ outer lives. Mayhew Bergman writes in the acknowledgement section of the book, “While I absorbed facts about these women’s lives, I did not stay inside the lines: each of these stories is unequivocally a work of fiction.” Also in her acknowledgements is an excellent list of references and other books from whence these stories were inspired — fodder for those women in history junkies like me. In browsing this list, for instance, we discover the author’s encounter with “a stunning photograph of Lucia Joyce” — the daughter of the Irish writer James Joyce — “in a hand sewn costume,” inspiring Mayhew Bergman to write “Expression Theory,” which tells the story of “the moment the family members decided Lucia was deeply troubled” and sent her to live in a mental institution.
A number of perturbed women figure in Almost Famous Women. There’s the eerie tale of Romaine Brooks, an American painter who lived mostly in Paris and who is best known for her paintings of women in masculine or androgynous dress. Mayhew Bergman begins with a quote from one of Brooks’s notebooks: “We are what we can be, not what we ought to be.” The story is told through the voice of Brooks’s live-in nurse, who alternates between wishing Brooks would die and longing to express the painter’s under-appreciated talent. As in her other stories, Mayhew Bergman takes an unapologetic walk into the darker parts of Brooks’s psyche, often through those who surrounded her.
One of the strongest, but also most tragic, stories, “The Autobiography of Allegra Byron,” is set during the depression of the 1820s and vividly describes the confluence of what was happening in the larger picture of history and how it affected people on a very personal basis. The story follows the life of Lord Byron’s illegitimate child, who was sent to live in a convent in northeast Italy, where she dies at the young age of five. The narrative is filled with the haunting absences of those who have been abandoned. The narrator is a nun who takes care of Allegra at the convent, and whose husband and child have both died from typhus. In the beginning of the story she explains, “At the convent I’d nearly found what I was searching for: blankness.” In her daily recitation of prayer, which she admittedly practices to not have to think about her grief and loss, she explains, “prayers were dead songs lodged in my head.”
Mayhew Bergman’s writing is economic in style, and what is left out creates the unmistakable tone of mystery. Most of the stories left me wanting more and sent me to the internet rabbit hole, researching facts, looking up more images, and questioning more about these women’s lives. Despite Mayhew Bergman’s fictional take, the stories have an intense feeling of reality, perhaps because their historical backbone is so strong. Yet the command of Mayhew Bergman’s characters, pacing, tone, and language certainly does more than just aid history — it ignites it.