Madame Zee is Whitewashed- Why?
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Madame Zee. Congratulations on writing a highly entertaining and informative novel.
I plan on presenting your book to my reading group. As a result I have read much about the infamous Brother 12. Almost all the biogrophers present Madame Zee as a zealot - more severe and cruel than her cohort, Wilson. In the novel you tend to make her more sympathetic, only touching briefly on her severity with the colonists. Do you have evidence to have come to this conclusion? Did you choose to humanize her for the sake of writing a more interesting novel?
Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed Madame Zee enough to recommend it to your reading group. In the back of the paperback version, I wrote an essay, "Madame Zee, Psychic, Fiend, or Femme Fatale," that addresses my motivation in imagining a woman who was not entirely evil, as she is sometimes presented.
In short, I was disturbed by the willingness of biographers--of the Brother XII--to vilify Mabel Rowbotham a.k.a Madame Zee, based on very little surviving information, much of it based on the account of a man who was only a young boy when he knew Madame Zee. How many of us would be surprised to find that a schoolteacher, seen as hard and unforgiving in our childhood, did not stand out as unkind when viewed from an adult perspective?
In reading about Zee, I came across numerous contradictory accounts of both her appearance and her character, and it struck me as unfair that others had chosen to focus on her perceived negative qualities.
When I considered her situation, it seemed to me that she might have good reason for unhappiness--she had been unlucky in love, was poorly treated and even badly beaten by a jealous lover, was chosen as the mistress of a man many other women desired, was named a "Brother" amongst men who must have resented her for that reason alone, and was then charged with the responsibility of overseeing those men and getting them to take action.
I can imagine, then, that life was not easy for Madame Zee. Under those circumstances, in that particular milieu, in the 1920s, any strong-willed woman might have been perceived as "unfeminine," and unlikeable. If her frustration was also accompanied by bursts of temper, as all accounts suggest, then it is easy to understand how she might be remembered as cruel and contemptuous by those who disliked her.
But what if the elderly witness, relying on boyhood memories, had blown those accounts out of proportion in his young mind? In my opinion, Madame Zee deserved to have at least one person imagine her differently.
My own mother was an unhappy woman, beaten down by circumstances and bitterness, prone to fits of rage in her middle years. Yet I know that beneath an exterior that often felt frightening and irrational to me, a softer woman also existed, with the same hopes and dreams as others, and with friends who valued her. I imagine that Madame Zee was not so different. So perhaps I had more reason, than the men who wrote otherwise, to want to imagine Zee as a complete person, rather than as a witchy caricature.