Freaked Out

The Marvelous Hairy Girls by Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks

Books History Natural World

Don’t be put off by the title. The three Gonzales sisters, born covered in long, soft fur, are Merry Wiesner-Hank’s route into an imaginative and enjoyable exploration of 16th-century Europe.

The father of these three marvels, also “not less hairy than a dog”, was a native of the Canary Islands, who was brought as a child to the court of Henry II in Paris. He was kept for the amusement of the king, along with various other exotic humans and animals, and later married a French woman. They had several equally hairy children who were kept at various European courts.

As women born without money or status, the sisters should have left no trace on history. But the 16th-century fascination with the abnormal made them famous. Their portraits hung in the castles of Europe, they were discussed in letters between noblemen and studied by doctors and scientists. Despite this celebrity, no words from any of the sisters survive. Even the dates of their deaths are unknown. Wiesner-Hanks takes these blanks as an opportunity to imagine what they would have felt or done. She leads the reader through the events that touched their lives: the wars of religion, court life, the history of the Hapsburg and Medici families and the exploration of the New World. She imagines how life would have been for them by examining women’s experience of marriage and childbirth, how they were expected to behave and to dress. One sister married the man who looked after the Duke of Parma’s hunting dogs – perhaps this was a joke on the part of the duke? Marrying for love was unusual and the match would have been arranged and a dowry paid.

The author also asks what would have been in the minds of those who saw these hairy girls. Europeans of the 16th century still inhabited a pre-scientific world, where natural events were pregnant with meaning and open to all kinds of interpretation. Every individual was significant as part of a planned, coherent universe. As a result, there was intense interest in freaks and monsters – what did they mean? Were the hairy girls a warning of divine displeasure with a sinful age, a sign of impending apocalypse? Or perhaps they had been conceived while their mother was lying on a bearskin rug?

What emerges most clearly from this book is the 16th century’s capacity for wonder – suspended between the pre-modern and modern worlds, they were surrounded by the unknown, in the as yet uncharted areas of the world beyond Europe and the workings of their own bodies. In such a world of unknowns, hybridity was dangerous as well as fascinating. The Gonzales sisters blurred the accepted boundaries between one thing and another. Were they civilised people or wild savages, courtiers or domestic pets?

Wiesner-Hanks follows the sisters’ story wherever it leads: to the writings of Martin Luther, the prophecies of Nostradamus and the fashion for the monarch to be followed by a retinue of dwarves. These digressions, paired with speculations about the girls’ thoughts and actions, could easily seem tenuous or contrived, but an eye for gripping details and a formidable grasp of the material make it work. She highlights the unknowns in the story: women disappear from the records after marriage, a medical student leaves out the most gruesome details of an autopsy and a non-hairy Gonzales brother is mentioned at his birth, then never again. The fact that these details are lost to us is itself evidence, which she uses to speak for the voiceless as well as for history’s great men.