Naked Truth: Or Equality, The Forbidden Fruit
Hayes’ debut novel couldn’t have more captivating or exciting protagonists. Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, led careers as spiritualists, aspiring politicians, and some of the first female brokers on Wall Street. Hayes recreates the sisters between 1868 and 1877, when their brokerage firm rose and fell, their weekly magazine got them sued for obscenity and libel, and Victoria ran for President of the United States in addition to headlining suffrage events. Tennessee, no less gifted or ambitious, has more private torments, like her love affairs with Cornelius Vanderbilt and newspaperman James Gordon Bennett, which she hides alongside more painful secrets, among them a brief failed marriage, an illness she fears is syphilis, and an illegitimate pregnancy. Around them, powerful New York titans strive to either aid or topple these determined women, while their family circle seethes with lies, blackmail, betrayal, and earnest devotion.
Hayes’ short, pithy scenes leap swiftly from event to event; readers who like narrative continuity, exposition, and deep character studies won’t find that here, though eventually, like a pointillism painting, the small dabs together create a portrait of a fascinating pair of women paying a steep price for their independence. Some aspects of the leading ladies’ lives are skimmed to make room for an at-times crowded cast of point-of-view characters, including P.B. Randolph, Reverend Beecher and his formidable sister Mrs. Stowe, and suffragette leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The style may feel breathless, but the integration of excerpts from news articles, speeches, and presumed memoirs shows the breadth of the sisters’ activism: in addition to equality for women, they advocated Marxist socialism, free love, and justice for the oppressed. Hayes offers glimmers of fresh insights into these oft-discussed, oft-challenged women, providing an excellent, entertaining, and provocative read.