terrible virtue book coverReviewed by Alexander Morrison

Margaret Sanger lived one of the 20th centuries truly great lives. One of eleven children to an impoverished Irish socialist and his sickly wife, Sanger’s early education was scattershot, but illustrated one thing very clearly: the town’s wealthiest women were almost universally healthier than its poorest women, and their access to contraceptives – and thus to family planning – played a role in that health. Thus began a lifelong quest to educate American women on how to take care of their own bodies, a quest that led to the founding of Planned Parenthood, the creation of the birth control pill, and countless legal battles against unjust, censorious laws. But she was also an incredibly passionate woman, whose many loves helped her meet some of the era’s most prominent artists and wealthiest citizens, even as her own family life often took a back seat to her mission.

Writer Ellen Feldman captures the character of Sanger very well, but the pacing of Terrible Virtue makes it hard to really appreciate the difficulty of what she accomplished — and, because of that, makes it hard to understand how indomitable she must have been to go so far. Feldman’s writing feels torn between trying to capture Sanger’s larger-than-life romantic endeavors, which found her sharing a bed with activists, artists, and thinkers the world over, and her political battles, which found her tangling with a powerful conservative politicians and media figures throughout the United States. Consequently, her battle with conservative watchdog Anthony Comstock or her infamous 1929 ‘gagged speech’ are mentioned but essentially glossed over… but so is her romantic relationship with H.G. Wells, which helped inspire a character in one of his books. Feldman covers so much of such an eventful life that it often feels like a greatest hits album: undeniably impressive, but not a necessarily coherent whole. A great example of this is in the accusations of racism that Sanger’s enemies often leveled against her for her belief in eugenics. She fought passionately for racial justice at the time, but the book largely ignores that, compressing the entire controversy and rebuttal into two pages of material. Rather than show us the accomplishments that put lie to the claim, Feldman just has one character basically say, “Eh, it’s not true, don’t worry.”

But that headlong rush through Sanger’s entire life means that when Feldman does slow down the facts tend to hit that much harder. Periodically, Feldman will interrupt Sanger’s first-person narration and bring a supporting character in to tell the story for a couple pages, often to give us a contradictory point-of-view or show how Sanger’s drive can alienate and anger those closest to her. Sanger was a brilliant, driven woman, but Feldman smartly never loses focus of what those things cost her in her personal life. Not all of them hit terribly hard – the Havelock Ellis/Hugh de Selincourt section is so brief it’s hard to get terribly invested in that particular drama – but the ones that do, mostly from Sanger’s children or sister, can be a brief, brutal reminder about the costs of ignoring your personal life. One section, in which her sister Ethel Byrne steals the book for a couple pages, is perhaps the most emotionally difficult, absolutely engaging section. While I’m glad the device itself was only sporadically used, it’s a great counterpoint to Sanger’s often more focused narration.

I read biographies and profiles to learn about someone’s accomplishments; I read historical novels to feel a deeper connection to the person, to get a sense for the internal mechanisms behind the achievement. The biggest issue I have with Terrible Virtue is that its lifelong scope, which takes Sanger from childhood to her deathbed, is far more interested in the facts of her life than the drive that inspired her to will those facts into existence. Terrible Virtue is a solid read about one of America’s most fascinating, ambitious characters, and Feldman aptly captures the scope of her accomplishment and the determination that led her there. But in prizing scope over detail, she makes it all feel slight in a way that Sanger’s life and struggles absolutely were not.

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Alexander Morrison is a writer and educator in the Midwest. He divides his time pretty evenly between reading, writing, film, and Overwatch, so you can tell he’s pretty well rounded. You can read his thoughts about love & sex in pop culture at Cinema Romantique, or follow him on Twitter at Ikiruined.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.