The title of Jill Lepore’s novel – The Secret History of Wonder Woman – is a tad misleading. Rather than detailing the history of the most iconic, feminist, female superhero, Lepore’s book is more of a biography of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston (also known by his pen name, Charles Moutlon). Readers who were hoping for more of a trajectory of the fictional Diana Prince might be a little disappointed, but Marston’s story is a fascinating one that puts Wonder Woman’s creation, development, and mythology into a more complete context.
Without giving away too much, Marston is an interesting historical figure, and one who was, in many ways, ahead of his time – not only as one of America’s first-wave feminists, but in the way he challenged other social norms. For example, he challenged societal expectations as a polygamist – living with two different women (his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, and his mistress, Olive Byrne) and fathering children with both of them; he attended sex parties, and was fascinated with bondage, all of which was considered unheard of and taboo behavior in the early twentieth century in which he lived. In addition, he was a teacher, a psychologist, and an inventor, and was the man who developed the first prototype for our modern polygraph machine – a.k.a. the lie detector test. There’s no question that the man’s life was not only a full one, but an interesting one, even without taking into account that he created the female third of DC Comics’ famous trinity. And within the context of this book, Jill Lepore lays bare an impressive amount of research exposing every facet of it, much of which didn’t come to light until many years after his death.
What becomes perfectly clear the more we learn about Marston’s life, however, is that every single aspect of it informs the creation of Wonder Woman. His bondage fetish? Well, why do you think Diana Prince always ends up tied up with chains when fighting her villains during the early years of her comic run? The lie detector test he invented? Clearly the inspiration for the lasso of truth. Even many of Wonder Woman’s early villains are pulled from Marston’s real life, based on his academic and professional rivals, while it’s impossible to understate how many personality and physical traits of Holloway and Byrne that Marston incorporated into the character of Diana Prince herself. And they’re not the only two women who influenced the feminist icon either; indeed, many of Wonder Woman’s early storylines and characteristics were inspired by the famous birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger.
But again, the story of Wonder Woman herself – while sprinkled throughout the book – is not the main thrust of the story. This isn’t a bad thing, however, for Marston’s tale is nothing short of captivating. Jill Lepore deserves all of the credit in the world for bringing it to light so completely, detailing all of these little known facts for the first time. Though the writing itself can be a bit tedious at times – not because it’s bad, but because it often reads like a historical textbook – the book itself deserves all the praise in the world. It is a conglomeration of many different subjects, including, but not limited to: Marston’s biography, the beginnings of feminism, the rise of comic books, the creation of Wonder Woman, and an exploration of life during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, right as many societal shifts began to change in America and around the world. In many ways, the best way to describe this novel is as a historical snapshot of a very specific period of time, Which Lepore anchors around the story of William Moulton Marston and all of the events that happened within his life, which led to his most famous, still beloved creation.
With Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman still dominating the box office, I cannot recommend Jill Lepore’s endlessly engaging The Secret History of Wonder Woman enough. Whether you love the character of Wonder Woman, are a fan of comic books in general, an avid feminist, a historical buff, or a lover of biographies, you’ll find something to enjoy within the pages of this book. It’s the perfect remedy to continue riding the Wonder Woman high that the world seems to have been on since the release of Warner Bros.’ film of the same name a few weeks ago, and the perfect novel to read while waiting for the biopic detailing Marston’s story to hit theaters on October 27th, 2017 – Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.