Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 28 Feb 2019

Member Reviews

Midnight is built around a fascinating premise: a look at Jane Austin, Mary Shelley, and Joan of Arc at crisis ("midnight") moments in their lives. However, while the idea is sound, the execution, particularly in the last third of the book, falters.

The section on Jane Austen is the shortest, and centers on Jane after she finds herself without a permanent residence, moving with her parents and older sister, Cassandra from Bath to various friends and relatives' homes. Shorr poisits that Jane was unable to write as she wished, and then moves to a marriage proposal Jane recieved, accepted, and then withdrew from in the span of less than a day. While no one knows why Jane did this, it certainly is interesting, and Shorr uses this, along with a fortuitous inheritance by another brother that let Jane, Cassandra, and their parents to move into a permanent residence that delighted Jane, who then went on to produce many of her novels in their final form. Shorr doesn't cover any new ground, but the writing is good and the pace is brisk. 

The second section covers Mary Shelley, and centers around the time of Percy Bysshe Shelley's death. As she waits in Italy for word from him, as he was supposed to be returning by sea from a short trip, Shorr has her reflect on her almost death prior to his, their unorthodox relationship (to start with, the involvement of her stepsister Claire within their relationship from the beginning of it), and her own writing. 

It's the most successful part of Midnight because there's so much ground to cover and it's a look at a very remarkable young woman (she was 25 when Shelley died, been and was a scandal, and had already written Frankenstein) who lived more (beautifully and horribly) in her first two decades than mist of us do in our entire lives. 

The final and longest section of Midnight focuses on the death of Joan of Arc, including her renunciation and subsequent change of heart. Sadly, this is the weakest section of the book, as Shorr decides to "frame" Joan's actions by writing her as someone who divides herself into "Girl X" who is afraid of dying and Joan of Arc, who continues to hear the voices of her saints as she burns to death. Shorr seems to have done her research for this section, based on the few materials available (even then, most of the sources related to Joan's life and death are from years later) but her attempt to explain who Joan of Arc was at the time of her death via the dual-sort-of view points doesn't work. 

The thing about Joan of Arc, in my opinion, is that all attempts at armchair psychology and psychiatry regarding her mind and mental state, as well as even analysis of how and why a teenage peasant girl managed to inspire a movement to defeat the largely mercenary forces of the English army in France, attempt to label and contain something that was--if not quite miraculous, certainly close to it--which is that despite every odd and obstacle, not just limited to her family, her age, her lack of social standing, and her gender--Joan of Arc believed in what she saw and heard so much that she defied every norm of her place and time to convince a king and a country to not just believe in her but to follow her. 

And it was her belief-- her unshakable faith--that accomplished so much, and is so hard for us to understand. Who has that kind of faith in anyone or anything these days? Who can or could withstand the scrutiny and accusations prior to her capture like she did? What terrified the English, and fascinates us is not just how she inspired (which is awe inducing in its own right) but that how, even after capture, Joan continued to out talk educated priests who wanted to prove she was a liar (hertic) and to believe in what she heard and felt. That--the belief of a peasant girl, a literal no one, to stand up for herself, to insist that her beliefs were as solid and real as those who were more "learned" and above her socially--of course she burned. She was terrifying. A girl, an unlearned nothing, with the belief that she and what she believed mattered--could upend and change the world. Which she did, and died for. And all before she'd left her teens. 

So, Midnight stumbles quite a bit in that last section, and is scant in the first, while gossipy but interesting in the second, but I would still suggest it for readers who want to read about women who faced for their--or any--age both in years and in history seemingly insurmountable odds and not just survived but thrived, their works and names still with us centuries later.

Tl;,dr: Women who got massively impressive sh*t done.
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