Five Lives in the Shadows
The untold ‘herstories’ of a family of talented women
In this innovative multi-biography, Jutta Chorus follows a fascinating female family line over the course of the past century and a half. The book begins in the nineteenth century with matriarch Alma and then follows the lives of Alma’s daughter Elly, her granddaughters Sylvia and Elly, and her great-granddaughter Lili. A writer, an agricultural scientist, a journalist, a photographer and a filmmaker. Had they been men, the biographer argues, they would have displayed their talents with more bravado and most likely gone down in history.
A female line is repeatedly concealed behind different surnames and is therefore less visible, realizes Jutta Chorus when she stumbles upon these astonishing women who were all related. An elderly family friend, Lili Veenman, shares a suitcase filled with letters, diaries and photographs, when Chorus shows interest in her forebears. ‘I know nothing of the lives of these women,’ Chorus writes, ‘because they never became famous. Leafing through the documents, I don’t think: how did their lives unfold, but how will their lives unfold? They lived in the shadow of history.’
The matriarch of this story is German-born Alma Bimmerman (1853-1948), an independent woman, educated in the Netherlands. A teacher, she left for Batavia to marry her fiancé, who died just before she arrived. She pioneered as a woman alone and later married a forester who considered women to be equals. In addition to raising her four children, she wrote several novels. The first child born in this egalitarian marriage was Elly Berkhout (1882-1943) whose life began promisingly: she was the first woman to graduate from the Agricultural School in Wageningen. But she abandoned her job as an agricultural researcher to marry a philandering man in the East Indies.
The third generation of women in the book are granddaughters Sylvia (1907-1994) and Elly Brandts Buys (1913-1985). The oldest, the unruly Sylvia, became editor-in-chief of the weekly Haagse Post and developed a new journalistic style. Her relationships with men were troubled. Sylvia’s younger sister Elly had a very different life. She travelled all over Europe, settled in Rome, was well-liked as a fashion model and photographer. Although she married, she remained childless. Finally, Chorus tells the story of Lili Veenman (b. 1930), Sylvia’s only daughter, who trained in Paris and was the first female film director in Rome. In 1960, she married film director Fons Rademakers, and remained in his shadow, working on his sets as an assistant.
Alma’s Daughters is a rich book, written in an engaging style, that provides food for thought on gender inequality and the course of history.