Book Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

What’s it about?

This is a biography of sorts. It’s the story behind Wonder Woman and her creator, William Moulton Marston (WMM). Yet it’s also a history of feminism in the twentieth century USA, and a look at the roots and rise of comic books.

My thoughts

I started this book not knowing much about what lay behind Wonder Woman. I reckoned that there probably was a male creator, and I knew there was a poorly received film released last year about WMM and the ménage-à-trois he lived in. That film was largely about the more intimate side of the group – the Guardian called it ‘saucy’- and that didn’t really seem relevant to me. So I found this book to explore the history more thoroughly.

I found it fascinating. I’m fairly au fait with feminism in the UK, as it’s what I’ve grown up with, but I had no idea what happened over in the States. I also didn’t realise how couched in feminist theory the original Wonder Woman comic strips were; Lepore helpfully includes excerpts to illustrate her points and findings.

What mainly emerges from these points and findings is the picture of WMM as a very unusual man. For instance, he is very forward-thinking in his depiction of Wonder Woman as a feminist, who will never marry, but he builds this household of women, one to look after his children and one to earn the money, so he can do what he wants. Lepore is sympathetic, but I agree with J Edgar Hoover in calling WMM a ‘phony’.

There is sex implicit in the book, and a very interesting section about how problematic the perennial appearance of bondage in the stories was, but it is not centre stage, despite what the film suggests. Indeed, the family appear to have been a very happy one, with Elizabeth Holloway Marston (his legal wife) and Olive Byrne (his common-law-ish wife) living together long after WMM died. In fact, until the end of Byrne’s life.

Stylistically, I had a few issues with the book. Lepore is a Harvard historian but also a New Yorker staff writer, and at times it felt a little journalistic. Without spoiling it, I’m all for extra colour, but there are limits. I also felt some of the conclusions she makes are somewhat reaching; for instance, she suggests that ‘Holliday College’, the college in Wonder Woman, is an amalgam of ‘Holloway’ and ‘Mount Holyoake’. Perhaps, but I’m not convinced.

Would I recommend it?

If you’ve an interest in Wonder Woman or feminist history, yes. If not, then maybe give this one a miss.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore is published by Scribe priced £9.99.

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