The Radium Woman

As war looms, the Carnegie Medal honours feminism and science with The Radium Woman.

The Carnegie winner for 1939 can lay claim to a number of firsts. It was the first non-fiction winner and the first by an author born outside of the United Kingdom (Eleanor Dooley was born in Jamaica, although she moved to England at the age of 7). According to Keith Barker, it was also the first (and probably the only) winner to be made over the heads of the award committee: he says that they had not wanted to make any award that year, but were overruled.I’m hoping to find out more about this in due course, but haven’t had a chance to dig into it yet.

The book is a biography of Marie Curie, adapted from the biography for adults written by Marie’s daughter Ève Curie. I confess that this is one book I wasn’t too enthusiastic about reading: I’m not a great reader of biographies, and the jacket of my Puffin edition is even more boring than the first edition jacket which graces this post. The idea that it was a forced choice for the Medal also made me rather wary. As it turned out, though, I found it fascinating. I know very little about Marie Curie, so almost everything in the book was new information for me, and she’s a pretty amazing character (as one might suspect from the fact she was the first woman to win a Nobel prize). Doorly also opens the book in a way totally calculated to win my sympathies:

Why not? Why not? Why not? Why shouldn’t Manya be allowed to read? She didn’t ask the question. She would not think of asking her gentle, beautiful mother why not; she only puzzled her own little stubborn head where a pair of bright, grey-blue eyes looked penetratingly out from under a shock of yellow hair.

Give me a female character who loves to read and isn’t allowed and you’ve already halfway won my heart. Refreshingly, it turns out that there’s not any oppressive reason for her not being allowed to read; it’s that she’s so precocious (having learnt to read before her older sister) that her parents are worried about hot-housing her. In fact, one of the themes that runs through this book is the idea of family as totally supportive: we see Manya/Marie’s family all working together to look after one another, and later when she marries Pierre there’s very much the sense of them working together to support one another and their family. The book isn’t explicit about it, but I got the strong sense that this foundation of mutual support was key in allowing Marie to achieve the things she did.

Hard work is a theme which has been present in the other Carnegie winners so far, and it’s certainly a major theme of this book. We see Marie first working hard as a governess to earn money to support her sister in Paris, then in Paris herself working feverishly to gain as much education as possible. She is clearly someone who loves her work, to the extent that she organises her entire life around freeing up as much time for her scientific work as possible (for example, she has almost no furniture so there’s less stuff to clean) and frequently forgets to eat. One thing I really liked about this book is that all of these details are presented exactly the way they would be in a book about a man; that is, they’re just reported as facts which illustrate something about her intellectual commitment to her work, without being an implicit commentary on her status as a woman or mother. The book does take it for granted that when she married and had children, she was the one who would have to be responsible for running the household, but this is just treated as another obstacle to her getting on with her work. It’s also made very clear that she loves her children, but that her work comes first, and there’s no implication this compromises her love for her children. From a feminist perspectve, this is all very refreshing. I wonder how much this reflects the times? It strikes me that the idea that you must be terribly conflicted about combining motherhood and a passion for a career might be more acute now than it was in 1939.

Another major preoccupation of the book is Marie’s Polishness. Dooley emphasises her struggles in the context of Russian controlled Poland, her early work supporting Polish nationalism (for example, she teaches village children to read when working as a governess, despite knowing that this could result in her being sent to Siberia), and her lifelong affection for her country. There’s also quite a lot of emphasis on her love for the countryside; her one year of freedom and play in between school and starting to work really hard for a living is spent in the country enjoying traditional countryside hijinks. It’s easy to see from these themes why this was a book which might have appealed to the Library Association on the eve of war.

Is this as good a book as the others on the winning list so far? It’s a little hard to judge given that it’s non-fiction, although it’s written in a fairly novelistic style. It does have a certain tone to it, especially once it gets to Marie’s adult life, which is a little old-fasioned, though rather difficult to describe. And I think a novellist might have made more of some of the more heart-rending aspects of Marie’s life, notably the deaths of her mother and her husband. But the book is definitely compelling, and holds up well for a modern reader. I’m not sure whether children today would enjoy it, but I can imagine it having a MASSIVE impact on a reader (especially a female reader) in 1939. I definitely think the Library Association were right to give this book an award rather than have no award at all, and I’m glad to have read it. In fact, the more I write about it the more awesome I think it is. If I had a daughter I would give her this to read.

Special bonus passage to finish: a reminder that Twitter did not invent trolls. This takes place after Marie wins her second Nobel prize and after her husband has died tragically young:

One would have thought that all the world would have gloried in her as a scientist and treated her gently as a sad woman. But, unfortunately, there is a strange disease which causes certain people to feel very cruel when they hear of someone being very successful or very beautiful. Marie was both, and suddenly people began to write her anonymous letters and to tell extraordinary lies about her and accuse her of doing wrong things of which she had never dreamed.

HATERS TO THE LEFT. Marie Curie has TWO NOBEL PRIZES and two beautiful daughters one of whom went on to write a biography about how awesome she was.

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 7/10

Plot: 10/10 for awesome things done by Marie Curie; 7/10 for the way they are arranged within the book

Characterisation: 5/10

Themes: Work, science, biography, feminism

Publisher: Heinemann

Illustrator: Robert Gibbings