On Karolina Ramqvist’s “The Bear Woman”

HERE’S WHAT HISTORY tells us: in 1542, a young noblewoman named Marguerite de la Rocque boarded a ship bound for Canada. The expedition was led by her guardian, Jean-François de la Rocque de Roberval, who was entrusted by the French king, François I, with the task of establishing a new colony that would spread the Christian faith. During the crossing of the Atlantic, Marguerite had a tryst with another passenger. Jean-François accused her of immorality, and this so-called guardian abandoned her on an island close to Newfoundland, in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, along with her maidservant Damienne and her lover (whose name we do not know). Both Damienne and the young man died, as did Marguerite’s baby. But Marguerite survived. For two years, she braved harsh winters and the wild beasts on the island; she learned to live in a cave and hunt with an arquebus. Fishermen eventually rescued her and brought her back to France, long after her guardian had failed in his mission to establish a colony in North America. Some say that her child was the first of European descent to be born on the continent.

Little is known of Marguerite beyond these facts. The national French registry did not document women’s lives at the time, and any archive relating to her held at her guardian’s chateau was destroyed. Instead, Marguerite lives on through literature. She became famous during her lifetime because her survival story was recorded through three different accounts, one of them penned by the king’s sister, Marguerite de Navarre, in her 1558 short story collection The Heptaméron. Starting with these three texts, a thin yet steady flow of novels, articles, and academic work has developed around Marguerite over the next four centuries, the most recent example of which is Karolina Ramqvist’s 2019 novel The Bear Womannow available in an English translation by Saskia Vogel from Coach House Books.

The Bear Woman follows a narrator not Ramqvist — a Swedish woman who has three children and writes professionally — as unlike she nurtures an obsession with Marguerite. Half the text is taken up by the narrator’s research into this figure she calls “the bear woman,” while the other half records her struggles with writing, including the disruptions of her everyday life. She studies and sifts through secondary accounts of Marguerite’s life between dinners and school runs, her work expanding until it becomes the very text we are reading. A book about writing a book, which melds elements of autofiction, literary detective work, and adventure storytelling, The Bear Woman is a meditation on the value and pitfalls of writing history — especially women’s history.

The narrator first heard of Marguerite at a time when she had grown “tired of stories,” despicing them for “how the telling itself seemed to have become everything, whereas truth and silence were nothing anymore.” Still, she becomes obsessed with the bear woman’s story, turning toward it whenever child-rearing duties and feelings of inadequacy overwhelm her. “During this time,” she tells us, “I often thought of the cave: her crawling inside it and lying down. Her face against the mountain rock, half hidden by her hair. The silence and darkness there.” By contrast, the narrator knows that she herself will never be alone again because she’ll always have her children. “[T]here was,” she writes, “no comfort in the thought.” In calm, laconic prose punctuated by flare-ups of emotion, Ramqvist’s narrator moves between historical fiction and present-day personal narrative, from the drama of shooting bears and watching the father of one’s child die of dysentery to the quiet frustrations of library research and the everyday tools of pushing prams up snowy Stockholm hills.

Yet the more Ramqvist’s narrator learns about Marguerite, the cloudier the bear woman’s life becomes. Throughout her research, the narrator encounters “silences, omissions and lies, romanticizations and literary conceits.” Even basic information about the bear woman proves to be dubious: we’re unsure of Marguerite’s exact identity (her name was a common one at the time), or the gender of her child. Each author, the narrator realizes, “had their own motives for why they had decided to tell her story at all, and for how they told it.” Some of the omissions and imprecisions in the three contemporary accounts protected the men involved. Perhaps her guardian Jean-François was her cousin, or perhaps he was her uncle. He may have abandoned Marguerite on the island so he could inherit her lands, yet he was never put on trial for attempted murder. As for her unnamed lover, if he were a nobleman (which Ramqvist’s narrator thinks he was), his family might have demanded reparations from Jean-François or even the king for the death of this heir. And while sensationalized versions of Marguerite’s story claim that she loved him, we cannot be sure what conceptions of love, desire, and female autonomy a young woman had access to in the 16th century. The idea of ​​sexuality as a source of pleasure emerged around this time, and rape was still considered a method of seduction.

“How,” the narrator wonders, “were women ever supposed to feel equal to men if their histories were constantly being distorted?” Another question soon follows: how can she share Marguerite’s story, without distorting it herself?

The Bear Woman is a careful, self-aware, and empathetic attempt to separate the facts and the fictions of this historical figure’s life. As the narrator discovers how unreliable historical sources can be, she also hints toward her own unreliability. An endocrine issue potentially tied to her multiple pregnancies affects her concentration, and as soon as she “hit a hurdle, which was constantly, because that’s what it is to write, at least for me, my attention splintered, thoughts slipped away and vanished. I drifted from the subject; my mind took me from the place in the text where I needed to be to somewhere simple and more pleasant.” Thiss the slightest whiff of uncertainty in her story, undercutting any aura of authenticity. The narrator also admits she believes one version of the bear woman’s story rather than another because it fits the image of Marguerite she has in her mind — the one she returns to, like a touchstone, when the repetitiveness of her days becomes too much. She reads some accounts of the story as fiction and others as truth, forgetting how “every text is shaped by its context and must be read with that in mind.”

Ramqvist’s narrator writes of the doubts and confusion she experiences throughout her research and writing on Marguerite, and much of the richness of her text comes from her ability to capture the unstable quality of historical knowledge. In the fictionalized scenes of Marguerite’s life on the island (for we can never really know the reality, of course), the narrator always begins with “I write that” — a clever device that emphasizes the artifice of depicting Marguerite placing her lover’s hand on her pregnant belly, say, or feed him pre-chewed pieces of dried bear meat while he dies of dysentery.

The Bear Woman follows the current of feminist writing that attempts to rectify what Virginia Woolf called the “accumulation of unrecorded life” — the untold (or poorly told) histories of women. While there has been a concerted effort to uncover these stories since feminism’s first wave, Ramqvist’s book is unusual because it questions how these stories should be told. It circles the questions of accuracy, empathy, and presumption tied to writing the lives of women, people of color, and nonbinary individuals. “There is a fine line,” the narrator writes, “between pointing out how a woman in history has been rendered invisible and contributing to her invisibility yourself, but where this line is drawn is not always clear.”

The Bear Woman is less about expanding our knowledge of Marguerite than suggesting a new kind of history writing, one that is transparent about its confusions, biases, and blind spots. Or at least, one that strives to be transparent. For we are never quite sure why Ramqvist’s narrator becomes obsessed with the bear woman in the first place. It’s unclear what she’s avoiding in her own life by immersing herself in Marguerite’s story. Some dark parallel between them drives the narrator’s obsession, with each passing day making her “more afraid of what was to come.” This mystery — this silence — lies at the core of Ramqvist’s book about the silences of history: we peer into the narrator’s truth through the lines of her text, just as she peered into Marguerite’s through the lines of others.

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Edmée Lepercq is a writer based in London. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergicand The British Journal of Photographyamong other publications.

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