One Glorious Ambition: The Compassionate Crusade of Dorothea Dix
An author of biographical fiction makes a number of critical decisions. The more that is known about the main character, the more difficult those decisions can be. How many facts? How much extrapolation? How might truth and fiction weave together? Should additional characters be created? Or should only historic figures interact? And finally, how to shape the novel? Begin at birth and close with death? Focus on a few key episodes? Or perhaps a few important years?
Recently I have reviewed two biographical novels for “Bookin’ with Sunny.” Sarah Dunant, writing Blood & Beauty, chose to center its action on half a dozen critical years in the life of Lucrezia Borgia. Susan Fraser King, author of Queen Hereafter, decided to create a fictional sounding board, Eva, who serves as a foil for Margaret, Queen of Scotland. Jane Kirkpatrick selects yet another design. One Glorious Ambition opens with Dorothea Dix’s first foray, at age fourteen, away from her immediate family. After that, the remaining pages of this biographical novel canter and gallop along. Kirkpatrick never pauses long, but instead opts to convey the full sweep of Dorothea Dix’s life and her important contributions to mental health in the nineteenth century. The result is an overview that says as much about nineteenth-century American politics as it does about the inner character of “Miss Dix.”
Dix was a reformer, a woman with a cause, a single-minded powerhouse who refused to compromise her principles. She begins as a teacher, but soon finds her calling elsewhere. To defend the mentally ill, to provide for them medical care and housing, and to force legislatures to separate these poor, unfortunate souls from the common criminal prison populations become Dix’s full-time commitment. Occasional bouts of ill-health are the only events that slow her down. She studies jails, jailers, and mentally ill prisoners, first in one state and then in another. At the same time, she confronts politicians, wheedling them into providing adequate facilities for those in need.
Dorothea Dix was a woman of many acquaintances and few close friends. Her mission took precedence over interpersonal connections. As a result of Dix’s own self-righteousness, and as a result of Jane Kirkpatrick’s authorial decisions to include so many events in her main character’s life, the reader sees Dorothea Dix more from the outside than from within. Reading One Glorious Ambition is to follow the intellectual ambition rather than the heart. Unlike the majority of biographical novels, this one skims the historical surface. That isn’t a flaw, however, because the substance of the book covers some very interesting political terrain.
Another ingredient of the book was intriguing to me. Dorothea Dix never compromised, not ever. Reading about a political persona who always insisted on her own way and never adjusted to the realities of political discourse reminded me of current Washington gridlock. Many historic figures tried to persuade Dorothea to back away from her “all or nothing” stances, but she refused. Forceful, rigid, convinced of her cause, Dorothea Dix was her own woman, and Jane Kirkpatrick effectively traces her career. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Kirkpatrick: A Simple Gift of Comfort; Where Lilacs Still Bloom; A Daughter’s Walk; Promises of Hope for Difficult Times; No Eye Can See; What Once We Loved; Emma of Aurora; A Sweetness to the Soul; Love to Water My Soul; A Land of Sheltered Promise; Barcelona Calling; Every Fixed Star; An Absence So Great; Hold Tight the Thread; Homestead; A Flickering Light; The Midwife’s Legacy; A Burdened Shared; A Mending at the Edge; Mystic Sweet Communion; A Tendering in the Storm; A Clearing in the Wild; A Gathering of Finches;