Review: Franklin & Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley

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I don’t know quite where to start this post.  Even though this book was incredibly enjoyable and highly uplifting, I’ve avoided writing anything about it because it was so darned good and I fear that anything I have to say about it is going to do it little justice.  But as Franklin Roosevelt himself said: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’   My fear is off to the kitchen to make me a cup of tea so while it’s away, here goes.

I’m Australian and American history is not taught here in schools though it does occur at some universities.  When I was at university, I chose British politics and Middle Eastern politics to study so I know zip about American history.  I’d heard of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States in the 1940s or thereabouts, but only in the context of his visit to Australia during the war and that was about it.

But over the last few years, I’ve become greatly interested in American political history and the cause is rather an unusual one.  A few years ago I read a brilliant biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, the English feminist, educator and thinker of the late eighteenth century.  The biography was by Lyndall Gordon, called Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, a passionate and highly-researched account of Wollstonecraft’s life.

In her book, Gordon outlines how Mary in her early twenties started a school in the North London suburb of Newington Green.  It was the 1780s and Mary’s neighbours were dissenters and radicals, most notably the preacher Dr Richard Price, a radical intellectual and supporter of the American War of Independence who was to have a significant influence on Mary’s thought.  His published pamphlets on Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty and Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution were highly influential, the last being written for American revolutionary leaders such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin (an old friend of Price), John Adams and others.  Through her exposure to Price and his ideas, Wollstonecraft was able to develop her own ideas on education for children and women’s rights.

What was exciting about reading this chapter in Gordon’s book was the proximity I felt to the lives of not only Wollstonecraft but also people like John and Abigail Adams (John Adams being the second President of the United States), who were friends of Price and Mary.  These were ordinary people (albeit at the extraordinary end of the spectrum) living a life in which ideas of revolution and human rights were the topics of conversation du jour and where the circumstances being created in the United States were enabling those ideas to become a reality.

This ability of Gordon’s to enliven the present of Wollstonecraft and her political contemporaries and convey that present to a 21st century reader generated more questions for me than the book was able to answer.  Who were these people that helped to form the ideas that created the United States?  Who took up the baton later on to develop and implement these ideas?  How has the United States throughout its history embodied those ideas?  Big questions but they are the ones that cause me to pick up books on American history in the hope of finding some answers.

In the last year, a number of overwhelmingly glowing reviews of Hazel Rowley’s book, Franklin & Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, began appearing in Australian newspapers.  It sounded as though it was right up my alley: a mix of the personal with the historical and likely to expand on my understanding and knowledge of the history of the USA.  So after a bit of a wait at my local library, I finally read it.

In brief, it’s the story of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s marriage – how they met and got together, how they lived together and how they worked together to change the face of 1930s and 1940s America.  In the 1930s, Franklin’s government, with its ‘New Deal’ dragged the US out of the recession caused by the Depression, ended prohibition, introduced a public works program, fostered the arts and introduced the Social Security Act; in the 1940s the Roosevelt administration kept the US out of recession by producing armaments for the Allies in the 1940s, and managed to perfection the US’s entrance into WW2.  Eleanor was a great part of this, becoming Franklin’s eyes and reporting back to him because his polio-ravaged body prevented him from walking.  She was particularly active during WW2 when she instilled herself in the frontline of the war effort, visiting troops and countries all over the world to inspire and lend courage.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt also provided a stunning example of how to make a marriage work in a non-traditional fashion.  Each had romantic relationships with other people yet, as Rowley highlights, the most important thing to each of them was the other.

Their achievements, their ability to embrace living and the large circle of friends and colleagues that they assembled around them as part of their family are all highlighted in this book with grace and compassion by Rowley, but what stands out for me was the Roosevelts capacity for courage and, in particular, Eleanor’s capacity for self-change.

It’s well-known that Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio at the age of thirty-nine and as Rowley documents in a particularly moving chapter (Chapter 4), it was with Eleanor’s help and courage that he passed through it and continued on his trajectory to participate in American politics, elected as first the Governor of New York State (1928) and eventually the President of the United States (1933), but what is less known is the change that Eleanor wrought within herself to become a formidable and powerful political force within her own right – she was a highly influential member of the Democratic party and later, after Franklin’s death, helped to develop the International Declaration of Human Rights.

Rowley says that Eleanor was a shy young woman, marrying Franklin at nineteen in 1905, and embarking on what she thought would be a life as wife and mother.  But with Franklin’s political career kicking off as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1913), a post he held during WW1, there were social responsibilities that she had to deal with, quickly forcing her to overcome any inhibitions she may have had.  She is quoted as saying something like that in order to deal with your own shyness, the best thing to do is to be interested in other people.  Already at this early stage, she was learning to change herself.

By the end of WW1 in 1918 a number of social changes also caused Eleanor to change her views and outlook.  As Rowley notes, the Russian Revolution inspired a new political radicalism in the United States and there was racial tension throughout the country.  It was this doubt plus growing older and feeling more confident that caused Eleanor to question her values and those of people around her, in particular her mother-in-law.  In October 1919, Eleanor attended a meeting of the International Congress of Working Women in Washington where they talked about ‘the exploitation of women workers … they questioned the traditional role of women in marriage … Eleanor was interested in their ideas and impressed by their courage’. (p.88)

She was to take on many of the ideas discussed at the Congress and later elsewhere and became good friends with a number of the attendees.

In a significant way, I find Eleanor’s life of greater interest because while Franklin was always expecting a political career, Eleanor had no expectations other than of being a good wife, a good hostess and a good mother.  To make of herself a creature that advocated and achieved liberal causes, and was one of the driving forces in her later years in drafting of the United Nations International Declaration of Human Rights, I find to be a far greater achievement in some ways than Franklin’s polio-afflicted attainment of the Presidency.

I apologise if that sounds glib but I have experienced – and do experience – the weight of societal and familial expectations that are placed on women in western culture.  Moving that weight to create something other of yourself is a feat that deserves enormous and profound respect.  Her life was about creating a self rather than realizing a self.  This too is Mary Wollstonecraft’s triumph, one that is highlighted so well in Lyndall Gordon’s Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft.  Mary’s early life was characterized by poverty and limited education but from this she become a leading intellectual light of her time, advocating strongly for the moral and educational rights of women and children.

In her introduction, Hazel Rowley writes:

More than half a century has passed since the death of FDR.  We talk about him a great deal these days, with admiration and nostalgia.  Eleanor Roosevelt, too, seems more impressive than ever.  In a world where progressive values seem to be crumbling all around us, we could do with some inspiration.

Hazel Rowley is right, so right.  I found the Roosevelts’ beliefs and their capacities to act on those beliefs utterly inspiring.  I also greatly admired Rowley’s ability to create a vibrant and compelling story of their marriage and its political offshoots.  As with any writer who inspires me, I searched for more information about Hazel Rowley.  I knew she had died not long after the release of Franklin & Eleanor but after reading and loving Franklin & Eleanor, her death became more personal.  Hazel Rowley died in 2011 after a series of strokes, just before she was to begin a book tour of Australia.  She was 59.

Rowley quotes Eleanor as saying once: ‘You must do the things you cannot do.’  It’s a very fine summation of Eleanor’s character and a maxim that I’m going to try and employ in my own life.

Book details:
Franklin & Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley, Melbourne University Press, 2010, 345pages (notes and index start p.303).  This was a damn library copy – I wish I owned it.

(Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon, Virago Press, 2006, 562 pages, (abbreviations, notes and index start p.453), personal copy.)

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