Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History | BYU Studies

Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History

Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History
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Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History
Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History
Author Carol Cornwall Madsen,
Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2017

Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History

Reviewer Cherry Silver,

Carol Madsen's biography of Emmeline B. Wells published by the University of Utah Press in 2017 is aptly titled An Intimate Biography. Madsen depicts the private life of a scrappy thinker and doer, an editor, suffragist, club woman, and Relief Society leader. Emmeline Wells stood less than five feet tall and operated with limited financial resources as a single woman supporting herself during the last thirty years of her life, yet she exerted a major influence in her Intermountain West community because of her expansive intellect and compelling personality. She had a remarkable memory for people, literature, and facts. She seemed to know the community elites and ordinary folks alike. While editing the Woman's Exponent for thirty-five years, she kept her office open to local people and travelers, becoming an informal bureau of information. She maintained a heroic work schedule, writing late into the night after meeting people and press deadlines through the day. She balanced devotion with a healthy skepticism that life would ever be easy for her. She often felt ill or lonely, sorrowing over her losses privately in her diaries but declaring continual faith that she was guided by the Lord and was a woman of destiny. In the final decade of her long life, Emmeline was called to lead the Relief Society as its fifth general president and was the last women's leader to have known Joseph Smith in Nauvoo (3–6, 69–73, 446).

Readers will engage well with this detailed study of a major personality and her society. The chronology flows logically, the narrative is compelling, and the personalities are strongly drawn. Chapter endings provide teasers to draw us into the next set of Wells's adventures and challenges. With footnotes at the bottom of each page, it is easy to explore the scholarship underlying the narrative. The bibliography is comprehensive, current, and conveniently divided into manuscript, periodical, and other sources. The indexing is thorough, and a genealogy list briefly explains relationships to ancestors, siblings, sister wives, and descendants. I have read closely and found only minor editing slips in identifying a photo or listing a granddaughter's death date, but the scholarly strength of the volume is reassuring.

Not just facts and events but inventive analysis and finely expressed characterization make this five-hundred-page biography a volume to esteem. Every chapter, every page invites the reader into the thinking and the social world of Emmeline and her contemporaries. Without adopting an assertive feminist polemic, the narrator champions women's lived experience. This era of female writers and defenders of the faith, of innovators and preservers of tradition, and of socially alert women in times of transition will undoubtedly be better understood and valued because of Carol Madsen's notable achievement.