When a personal meltdown sent her packing, writer and literary critic Jessa Crispin went in search of life’s answers. Traipsing across Europe, she followed in the footsteps of famous authors and notables – mostly dead white men – and decided to ask: what about the women in their lives? What were these generally unsung heroines doing and thinking and how were they regarded or ignored?
The result is a tart and intellectual meditation on art and history that demands the reader pay attention as Crispin jumps from one location and one era to another, often challenging the status quo and honing in on little known facts about people and places. The author is a woman of contradiction and longing, a woman of firm opinions who is willing to ask harsh questions.
The Dead Ladies Project sheds light on figures who’ve been forgotten or who stood for too long at the edge of limelight. Women like Nora Barnacle, the mistress and later wife of James Joyce; Maud Gonne, a British actress turned pro-Irish revolutionary; Margaret Anderson, founder of the avant-garde literary magazine The Little Review, who, says Crispin, freed herself “from the tyranny of being acceptable;” and Jean Rhys, a novelist whom the author dubs the “feminine Ernest Hemingway.”
Crispin’s eye for detail makes the book an enticing travelogue as well, tossing down shots with the natives and leaving a trail of lost underwear across the landscape. She treats the reader to glimpses of Berlin, Trieste and Sarajevo, allows them to linger in the south of France and then cross the channel to London, often leading them through the layers of time and events that make these places what they are and make one want to pack a bag and join her.
Jessa Crispin is the founder of two magazines: Bookslut and Spolia. A former book critic for NPR and contributor to PBS’s Need to Know, she has written for the Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times and Toronto Globe and Mail.