The Radium Woman (1939)

The Radium Woman by Eleanor Doorly

My copy is in the lovely yellow Puffin Story Books cover from 1953, but it was originally published in 1939. It is based on Marie Curie’s daughter’s book Madame Curie, retold for children by Eleanor Doorly.

I didn’t have anything but the vaguest knowledge of Marie Curie prior to reading this book, which is shameful given that she was the first woman to win a Nobel prize and then the first person and only woman to win it for the second time, and the only person to win it in multiple sciences (chemistry and physics). That’s aside from the enormous difference her work made to the soldiers in WWI where she outfitted x-ray machines and drove them to field hospitals and trained staff in how to use them, and to science and mankind in general. If this achievement wasn’t enough, she was born in Poland when it was under Russian rule, the use of scientific tools was disallowed, and women were not allowed to study beyond age 16. Yet she spoke 5 languages fluently and clearly managed to make up for her lack of early education. She believed in science and the quest for knowledge, not in personal gain, and did not patent the radium-isolation process to allow the science community to use her discoveries for further research.

What is even more remarkable that she seems, to use that old feminist adage, to ‘have had it all’. She was deeply in love with her husband Pierre Curie (with whom she won her first Nobel Prize) and had two daughters. She apparently still managed to keep house and be a loving mother to her daughters without employing any help at all. And at work, her genius was widely recognised, and a number of hitherto all-male domains were opened to her without her having to, seemingly, make any special issue about it. Even if private pains and problems may be glossed over in her biography, she was by all accounts a truly remarkable woman!

So, on the one hand, the book made interesting reading, and I didn’t begrudge the afternoon I spent reading it as I definitely learnt something new. On the other hand, this is the first book I’ve come across on the Carnegie list where I definitely feel they must have scraped the barrel ever so slightly to find a winner that year.

Officially all categories of books, including poetry, non-fiction and graphic novels for children and young people are eligible for consideration for the Carnegie Medal. The judging panel is asked to consider plot, characterisation, and style “where appropriate”. Furthermore, CILIP (who instructs the judging panel) used the ask that the book that wins the Carnegie Medal should be a book of outstanding literary quality (This has now been reworded, something I’ll discuss in a future blog entry). Therein lies part of the problem; I am not sure that a non-fiction book truly belongs on a list of books selected for literary value and with expectations of plot and characterisations. However, at the beginning of the Carnegie Medal, several non-fiction books won, but none (I think) since ‘The Making of Man’ in 1960. I’ll be interested to see how The Radium Woman compares to the other non-fiction winners.

The other problem is with the quality of The Radium Woman as a biography. It is very flattering and uses a single secondary source – flaws that might even disqualify it as strictly non-fiction. It is not badly written though extremely flowery and very, very kind to its subject who is described as intelligent (which she undoubtedly was) – and very beautiful and multitalented and ethereal besides. In short, it is a hagiography and would not, I think, stand up to today’s more stringent expectations.

The Radium Woman won in 1939, and at the outset of another war, there may have been a need for this kind of story. Marie Curie (as described in the book) displayed all the characteristics that were necessary for society in general to absorb; grit, determination, loyalty to family and country, hatred of the occupying forces, possession of a strong work ethic and a disregard for luxury.

While I was not wowed by the language, I was seriously wowed by the subject. As a feminist icon, and a person to admire she’s close to a 10, but as a work of literary value, I would give this book 3.5/10

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