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A Complete Life: Miss Fuller by April Bernard

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When Margaret Fuller perished in a shipwreck off the coast of Fire Island in 1850 along with her husband and son, the world was quick to forget the transcendentalist author. Male counterparts in the movement -- including Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne -- dismissed her foundational feminist essay, "Woman in the Nineteenth Century," as insignificant, even scandalous. In Miss Fuller, April Bernard takes a speculative scalpel to the life of Margaret Fuller, offering a narrative of her experiences that shines a harsh and unbecoming light on the male transcendentalists. The novel also explores the implications of the misogyny inherent in their actions -- not only for the nineteenth century, but for the present day.

Fuller didn't have to die, we learn from Emerson, who was both her guru and taskmaster. Lack of funds, largely due to Emerson's pressure on her editor, caused Fuller to set sail on an inexpensive, and ultimately dangerous, merchant vessel. Emerson objected to her working in Europe, and moreover objected to her marriage -- only as a virgin, he postulated, could she truly embody the New Woman of the nineteenth century. When she became a wife, she must inevitably belong to her husband.

An equally dark portrait of Hawthorne emerges: Obsessed with Fuller's alleged improprieties, he portrays her as a sex goddess of destruction in one of his novels. Through disturbing revelations such as these, Bernard illustrates how misogyny was a pervasive force even among some of America's most admired freethinkers.

It is Anne Thoreau, Henry Thoreau's sister, who bears silent witness to these events and is subtly shaped by them. Anne is very much a woman of her time: She finds Margaret's vehemence irritating, and upon the news of Margaret's death, Anne can't help but feel that it was somehow deserved. Margaret overstepped the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and was punished for her transgressions.

Yet as the years fly by, Anne has time to contemplate Margaret's written exhortations to women to live a "complete" life... and then she reads Margaret's story. Here, a life that is too short, yet strangely complete, is laid out as an example of the lengths to which one woman can extend herself. Through Margaret's confessions, Anne at last comes to some quiet, uncomfortable realizations about herself and her life.

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness.