I’ve watched the recent craze for “adult” coloring books with a mixture of amusement and nostalgia. While some people are celebrating the idea as both creative and consoling, others find it one more sign of the infantilization of our culture. For me, it brings back a lot of memories of family camping trips: coloring books and markers were necessary camping gear for us, along with Scrabble, cribbage, and my dad’s guitar. As I recall, it wasn’t only the children who colored, though I think for the grownups it was more a way of keeping us company than a choice they would have made left entirely to themselves. I’ve held on to and sometimes gone back to my collection of coloring books over the years, and all this fuss has had me thinking that it might be kind of fun to get them out again. In fact, I bought some new markers last weekend (OK, I admit it, I couldn’t resist the back-to-school displays, even though in principle I abhor that they were out as early as July). Maybe a little coloring is just what I need to get me out of my slump!
The coloring books that set off this recent fad are pretty different from mine, though. As you can see from the photos, mine are not abstract or flowery but historical and (though I didn’t realize this about them until recently) political. It was the 1970s when I got them, after all — and, though this too was not something I understood at the time, I had pretty progressive parents (the kind who bought us “Free to Be You and Me” and then, later, Our Bodies, Ourselves, both of which in those days were new and radical). They also never, as far as I recall, stood between us and any book we were interested in reading, which for me meant that I was deep into Jean Plaidy’s historical novels at an early age — not to mention Gone with the Wind (my changing relationship with which I wrote about at length at Open Letters a few years back).
That historical interest explains why two of my favorite coloring books were Tudor ones: Henry VIII & His Wives and Queen Elizabeth I. Both are actually designed as paper dolls, though we rarely cut the figures and outfits out. I do have a loose cut-out of Elizabeth in the “Walsingham dress,” however, even though that picture (done in an entirely color different scheme) is still in my book: we must have had two copies of it at some point. Maybe my sister and I each had one. (Sarah! did I steal your Gloriana paper doll? sorry!) As I recall, I got the Kings and Queens of England book a bit later; I seem to have been taking the coloring more seriously then, as most of the pictures that have been filled in are done fairly carefully according to the information given about the colors of the actual portraits they are taken from — as with this earnest rendition of Richard III (my hero!), which I signed (!) and dated in 1980:
It’s the two coloring books of famous women that strike me as particularly interesting now, though — or, I should say, the book of “great” women and its evil twin, the book of “infamous” women. The childish printing of my name in the former suggests I got it not that long after its publication date (1974); it opens with Sappho and includes Cleopatra, Boudicca, Lady Murasaki, Joan of Arc, Pocahontas, Amelia Earhart, Susan B. Anthony, Bessie Smith, and Marie Curie, among others. All come with brief biographical notes and usually a literary quotation or two. Infamous Women is copyright 1976; it opens with Semiramis (naked, just by the way) and follows with Messalina, Queen Isabella, Margaret of Anjou, Lucrezia Borgia (of course!), Charlotte Corday, George Sand (?), and Mata Hari. This book has full page biographies for every woman: “Isabelle of Bavaria made herself the most hated queen that France ever had,” begins one; “Naples has had many cruel rulers, but the Neapolitans boast particularly of wicked Queen Joanna: she had, they say, many lovers, killed when she tired of them, and many husbands treated similarly.” What’s not to boast of, indeed?
What interesting artifacts these books are. Recently I joined in a bit of a communal Twitter rant about this piece on women’s “forgotten history”: forgotten by whom, is a reasonable question? Women’s history is actually a pretty venerable field now, so I think the real (if inadvertent) point is not that it is forgotten so much as that the writer, and apparently the authors she interviewed, took their own relative ignorance of women’s history as definitive. The wheel they’re busy reinventing wasn’t brand new in 1974 either (my first book is just one of several scholarly works looking at women’s history in the 19th-century) but second-wave feminism helped turn it into a vast and vital area of research. It’s easy to see Great Women as part of this feminist reclamation of the past, yet the pit-and-pedestal pairing of it with Infamous Women shows that simply bringing women into the story doesn’t necessarily transform the story itself: much depends on the underlying assumptions the facts are used in service of. There’s no doubt, though, that these coloring books are one way that I learned that history was not just the story of great men.
That, plus the nudity and the accompanying stories of sexual misdemeanors and often quite chilling violence (my parents clearly did not worry at all about corrupting my young mind, for which I sincerely thank them) means that my childhood coloring books were pretty adult fare to begin with! Now: should I start in on Eleanor of Aquitaine (quick: guess which book she’s in), or bring poor pallid uncolored Jane Seymour out from the shadow of the ever-dominant Anne Boleyn?
By the way, I am more than thrilled to discover that Bellerophon still carries these coloring books! If enchanted forests aren’t your thing, you can order your own copy of Infamous Women and have some fun with cruel Queen Joanna yourself.