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The Boston Globe

Books

Book review

‘Margaret Fuller’ by Megan Marshall

‘From a very early age,” Margaret Fuller wrote to a friend, “I have felt that I was not born to the common womanly lot.” In this thoroughly absorbing, lively new biography, Megan Marshall’s sympathy for Fuller — for the dilemma she faced as a powerfully intelligent woman whose time and place repeatedly thwarted her ambitions — nearly outpaces her admiration, though the book passionately evokes both. Fuller, so often misunderstood in life, richly deserves the nuanced, compassionate portrait Marshall paints.

Born in 1810 and raised in Cambridge, as a child Fuller’s brilliance was noticed and fostered by her father, whom she thanked for treating her “not as a plaything, but as a living mind.” His educational methods were rigorous and at times critical, an “unwearying scramble up the hill of knowledge,” according to Marshall, who also describes a family knotted in both affection and conflict; unable to appeal to her father as her mother did by great beauty, the young Margaret early on “made up my mind to be bright and ugly.” The rest of her life, she led with her brilliance (though friends saw also a noble heart and rock-like strength). As for ugliness, while that may have been a stretch (she was often described as plain), Marshall finds evidence that Fuller regretted it, envying her beautiful friends and suffering deeply when rejected by men.

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