Culture & Conversation

A Historian’s Dilemma

Sophisticated readers know that book flap blurbs are not always to be trusted. (Just think of the word rollicking and how seldom it applies to the reading material it describes.) A reader who picks up Merry Wiesner-Hanks’ The Marvelous Hairy Girls could, however, be forgiven for thinking she was going to read “the extraordinary story of three sixteenth century sisters who, along with their father and brothers, were afflicted with an extremely rare genetic condition that made them unusually hairy.” These three sisters are, after all, the “marvelous hairy girls” of the title, and the assumed subject of the book.

The women in question are the Gonzales sisters—the daughters of Petrus Gonzales, a native of the Canary Islands whose body and face were covered in hair. Petrus was brought to France as a boy and served in the court of Henry II and Catherine Medici in 1547. He eventually married a “normal,” or non-hairy, woman and had three daughters, Maddalena, Francesca, and Antonietta, all of whom were hairy like him, and at least two hairy sons.  

Wiesner-Hanks is a historian and she faces a historian’s dilemma. She has the makings of a good story but, as she herself admits, few sources of information. To overcome this obstacle, she takes the following approach: “By taking a few steps backward and widening our scope … we can see and hear a great many things about the times in which [the Gonzales family] lived.” 

Throughout The Marvelous Hairy Girls, we do indeed learn many things about sixteenth-century Europe and prevailing attitudes toward natural curiosities. Explorers brought home stories of unusual (most often mythical) beasts, which, together with local tales of monstrous beings, fed into common beliefs about how the natural world worked. For example, it was thought that children born with deformities were the result of their mothers being frightened or otherwise affected during pregnancy. (Being frightened by a hare could cause harelip, and so on.) Curiosities, such as the Gonzales family, were things to be collected, not only by the medical and scientific communities, but also by the wealthy and powerful.  Antonietta Gonzales was given to the marchesa of Soragna as a gift, and her brother Enrico was given to one of the Duke of Parma’s brothers.

Wiesner-Hanks covers everything from attitudes about women and childbirth to medical marvels and art history, as well as the politics of the time. Despite this, the book remains unsatisfying on the question of the “hairy girls” themselves. We are barely introduced to them, and there is so little information about them that Weisner-Hanks relies heavily on phrases such as “of course we will never know” and “but that remains speculation.”

The Marvelous Hairy Girls would have been a more successful book if it had been billed as a history of natural marvels in the sixteenth century instead of a portrait of the Gonzales sisters. Instead, the book leaves us, like Wiesner-Hanks, to speculate about what life would have been like for these three hairy women.

Maria Schamis Turner is a writer and editor based in Montreal. She is the editor of the literary magazine carte blanche.

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