Margaret Sanger — nurse, birth control pioneer, social activist, free love advocate — led a big life. Too big to be contained in the pages of Ellen Feldman’s slim, fast-paced biographical novel, Terrible Virtue. I read Terrible Virtue in one afternoon, and although the book held me captive, it left me wanting more. Feldman races through Sanger’s long and eventful life, starting with her childhood as one of eleven siblings in a poor Irish Catholic family in upstate New York.
Determined not to become like her mother, “a wife who never had a chance to recover from the last childbirth before taking to her bed for the next; a girl who sped from youth to old age with no stop between”, the young Margaret Higgins enters a nurses’ training program. She elopes with a young architect, Bill Sanger, who convinces her to have children, and for a time they lead a conventional family life. They become involved in the radical politics of the time, “gliding among men and women who believed that love was too precious ever to be denied.” Margaret sheds her “bourgeois camouflage” while Bill remains “obsessed with fidelity”. Eventually, Margaret’s pursuit of legalized birth control sends her first to prison and then overseas, forcing her to abandon her family:
All my life, people have been asking me the same question . . . What made you do it, they ask. What made you sacrifice everything, husband, children, a normal life — whatever that’s supposed to be — for the cause?
My mother, hunched over a washtub full of husband-and-child soiled shirts and socks and underwear; mu mother, bent over a pot of soup stretched thin as water to feed thirteen greedy mouths; my mother, kneeling on a mud-streaked floor that no amount of elbow grease would ever get clean. My gaunt, God-whipped, digger-of-her-own-grave mother made me do it . . .
Feldman presents Margaret Sanger not as a saint or a sinner, but as a complex, flawed visionary, driven not only by her passion for social justice and her vision of a better world, but by her own egotism. The reader feels both sympathy for the personal tragedy she endures and anger at her treatment of her family. Feldman, who tells most of the story from Margaret’s perspective, successfully uses short, straightforward sentences and an urgent tone to capture her voice. When Feldman breaks up Margaret’s narrative to include asides from other characters, addressed to Margaret, she is less successful. These sections, which don’t sound as though they are based on actual correspondence, are intended to add depth to Margaret’s portrayal, but they ring false to me.
Terrible Virtue takes a panoramic view of Margaret Sanger’s life, often skimming the surface. For example, her contributions to the development of the birth control pill take up only a couple of pages. Also, I’ve read that Sanger has been criticized for her support of eugenics and I was curious to see how the novel would address that issue. However, only one page of the novel discusses eugenics, with Sanger defending herself by saying, “Isn’t hindsight wonderful? Doesn’t it make us wise? . . . Eugenics was in the air. Everyone was intoxicated by it. We were going to wipe out illness and eliminate defects by engineering reproduction.” The reader wants details — who was “intoxicated” by eugenics? How were these innovators going to create a brave new world with no illness or “defects”? But, as happens so often in this book, Feldman moves on to another subject.
Often I find biographies and biographical novels bloated, full of minutiae that don’t add to my understanding of the book’s subject. This book is just the opposite, leaving me hungry for more details and more depth. Perhaps Terrible Virtue would have been a better novel if the author had focused on one aspect or time period of Sanger’s life. That said, it’s thought-provoking and absorbing book that’s very much worth reading.
Click here to listen to a fascinating interview with Ellen Feldman (“Planned Parenthood Founder Gets Novel Treatment”).