A fictional account examines one of the most notorious women in 19th-century America.
In this debut novel, Flynn hews closely to historical facts as she tells the story of Victoria Woodhull, a suffragist and reformer who worked as a fraudulent clairvoyant, opened a Wall Street brokerage with her sister, spent time in jail on obscenity charges, and ran for president in 1872. The book opens with Victoria’s abuse-filled childhood, which she escaped through marrying Canning Woodhull at the age of 14. Canning’s neglect and morphine addiction eventually lead Victoria to divorce him and marry James Blood, a Civil War veteran depicted as the great passion of her life. (Little is known about Blood, and biographies of Woodhull are contradictory; an author’s note addresses the book’s adherence to the historical record.) Victoria and James are as passionate about revolution as they are about each other and advocate for Marxism and women’s rights, though Victoria’s embrace of free love puts her at odds with suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Despite their love for each other, Victoria and James learn that moral and policy victories make personal happiness difficult, and Victoria is on her own as she leaves to build a new life in England. Flynn turns a history with no shortage of drama into compelling fiction, with a vivid setting and strong secondary characters, particularly Victoria’s unfiltered younger sister and frequent sidekick, Tennessee: “My sister,” Tennessee says, “prefers martyrdom. As for me, I do not want the nails in my hands. I have beautiful, smooth hands. Want to feel?” Although the dialogue is occasionally unpolished, Flynn’s prose is often insightful, pithily capturing Victoria’s defining sense of mission (“Mediocrity’s foe and the ugly virgin have joined forces to give the woman the right to vote”). The woman known to the tabloids of her era as “Mrs. Satan” is rendered as both driven and flawed, a fully realized character who will keep readers turning the pages.
A multilayered biographical novel that explores the career and scandal of Victoria Woodhull.