The writers Katharine Bradley, Margaret Cavendish, Edith Cooper, Sara Mayfield, and William Maxwell went largely overlooked in their lifetime. These four books, out this week, explore their work and honor their legacies.

Odyssey of a Wandering Mind: The Strange Tale of Sara Mayfield, Author

Jennifer Horne. Univ. of Alabama, $34.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-8173-6136-5
This mesmerizing account by poet Horne (Tell the World You’re a Wildflower) skillfully pieces together the disjointed life of biographer Sara Mayfield (1905–1979). Mayfield was raised in Montgomery, Alabama’s upper crust alongside friends Zelda Sayre (later Fitzgerald) and actress Tallulah Bankhead. Mayfield lived a privileged and variegated life (among other pursuits, she invented a new plastic and founded an “unemployment colony” that paid men to clear timber), but in her middle age she began to experience “delusional episodes,” leading her family to commit her to a psychiatric facility in 1948. Upon her release 17 years later, she published biographies of the Fitzgeralds and H.L. Mencken, followed by a novel imagining a relationship between Leonardo da Vinci and the model for the Mona Lisa. Horne excels at balancing the diverse phases of Mayfield’s complicated life and offers a sensitive appraisal of her time as a psychiatric patient, suggesting that encephalitis might have caused her symptoms and that her family’s decision to commit her likely stemmed from a mixture of genuine concern and sexist assumptions that her myriad business pursuits were signs of mental disorder. Well-researched and compassionately written, this beguiling tale of madness and literature shines. (Jan.)

Pure Wit: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish

Francesca Peacock. Pegasus, $29.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-63936-603-3
Journalist Peacock debuts with an excellent biography of 17th-century English author and “proto-feminist” Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas). Born in 1623, Margaret grew up in a wealthy family whose Royalist sympathies during the English Civil War inspired her at age 20 to join Queen Henrietta Maria’s court as a lady-in-waiting. She fled with the queen to France in 1644, where she married William Cavendish, a disgraced Royalist general who retreated to France after a humiliating defeat on the battlefield, and later returned with him to England after Charles II’s restoration in 1660. Highlighting the trailblazing fiction, poetry, and philosophical and scientific treatises Cavendish wrote before her sudden death in 1673, Peacock credits her 1666 novel, The Blazing World, in which a young woman becomes empress of an alternate realm, as “one of the earliest works of science fiction.” Peacock captures Cavendish’s larger-than-life persona (an amusing scene recounts when Cavendish, accepting the Royal Society’s reluctant invitation for her to become the first woman to visit their headquarters, arrived in a “decadent dress... followed by her troupe of attendant ladies as crowds clamoured to see her”) and perceptively teases out her contradictions, noting that despite Cavendish’s “belief that marriage was an oppressive form of bondage,” she lacked “interest in the existence of people who were kept in true slavery.” It’s a nuanced look at the life of a complicated female trailblazer. (Jan.)

The Writer as Illusionist: Uncollected and Unpublished Work

William Maxwell, edited by Alec Wilkinson. Nonpareil, $28.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-56792-796-2
New Yorker writer Wilkinson (A Divine Language) brings together a rich blend of published and unpublished work on writing and family by the late New Yorker fiction editor William Maxwell (1908–2000). The opening section combines excerpts from Maxwell’s journals and articles to present a portrait of his youth; an unpublished autobiographical sketch reflects on the culture shock Maxwell felt after moving from Lincoln, Ill., to Chicago when he was 15, and a preface to his collected stories describes how when Maxwell was 25, he unsuccessfully attempted to get a job on J.P. Morgan’s schooner so he would have something to write about. “The writer has everything in common with the vaudeville magician except this: The writer must be taken in by his own tricks,” Maxwell contends in the standout title piece, which examines how the opening lines of such classics as Moby-Dick and Pride and Prejudice draw readers in. The selections offer an enlightening peek into the tight-lipped author’s personal life, and the lucid prose elevates his astute literary insights. (“Don’t hold back on the first or in fact on any novel. The material, the themes, will many of them be used again, but not in the same way, because you will not be the same person.”) The result is a fitting testament to Maxwell’s considerable talents. Agent: Jin Auh, Wylie Agency. (Jan.)

One Soul We Divided: A Critical Edition of the Diary of Michael Field

Michael Field, edited by Carolyn Dever. Princeton Univ, $29.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-691-20800-8
Dartmouth College English professor Dever (Chains of Love and Beauty) compiles selections from the 30-volume joint diary of Victorian-era British writers and lovers Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, the daughter of Bradley’s sister, who together published plays and poems under the pseudonym Michael Field. Aside from one diary solely written by Bradley from 1867 to 1868, the entries detail the lovers’ exploits from 1888—four years after the publication of their first plays and around the zenith of their modest literary popularity—until Cooper and Bradley’s deaths in 1913 and 1914. The jumbled selections consist of ruminations on poetry and depictions of Britain’s literary elite (they write of Oscar Wilde, “There is no charm in his elephantine body tightly stuffed into his clothes”). Some narrative momentum develops in later sections detailing Bradley and Cooper’s efforts to build a life together after the death of Cooper’s father allows them to move in together, but readers’ investment will depend on their ability to stomach an incestuous central couple who, as their diaries show, were often dismissive of other women writers and the suffragist movement. This curious if unruly literary experiment will chiefly be of interest to scholars. (Jan.)