'The Weight Of Ink' Is A Historical Epic With Modern Resonance For Women With 'Many Lives'

by Melissa Ragsdale
Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

In the 1660s, becoming a woman writer was an unusual, tremendous, taboo feat. But in Rachel Kadish's historical novel, The Weight of Ink, a young woman fights for the chance to write and explore philosophy, despite her culture's strict expectations of women. The story unfolds when a 21st-century history professor, Helen Watt, discovers a trove of 17th-century papers and comes to realize that they were written by a Jewish woman, an extremely rare and remarkable find. She and her assistant embark on a race to understand what the papers mean before the project is overtaken by other scholars.

As they work, they unearth the story of Ester Velasquez, a woman from 1660s London. Ester's family belong to a community of Jews who fled from Portugal to Amsterdam during the Spanish Inquisition. But upon the deaths of their parents, Ester and her brother travel with a blind rabbi to London in hopes of establishing a Jewish community in England. It is there that Ester begins working as a scribe for the rabbi, a strange duty for a woman to have at that time. In this role, she is able to feed her passion for scholarship and philosophy, and she begins to develop her own ideas. In the eyes of her community, Ester's theories are seen as dangerously heretical — doubly-so because she's a woman.

The idea for The Weight of Ink came to Kadish as the result of two annoyances. The first was spurred by a question famously posed by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own: what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister? Woolf concludes that she would have died without writing a word. But this bothered Kadish. "I couldn't help bouncing around and thinking 'What would it have taken for a woman like that not to have died without writing a word? What kind of person would she have had to be?'" Kadish tells Bustle. "She would have had to be a genius at breaking rules, she couldn't have been what you would call nice or obedient, because nice or obedient means you're keeping the rules of the time."

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, $18.48, Amazon

And indeed, Ester becomes very skilled at rule-breaking. She begins secretly inserting her own ideas into the rabbi's correspondence. She uses her position to thwart attempts to arrange her marriage and replace her with a male scribe. Then, in a supreme act of rebellion, she adopts male pen names and begins writing to famous philosophers.

"She would have had to be a genius at breaking rules, she couldn't have been what you would call nice or obedient, because nice or obedient means you're keeping the rules of the time," Kadish says.

Yet Ester's pursuit for scholarship is complicated by society's expectations of her as a woman. She experiences a tremendous pressure to get married... and she even finds herself falling in love. But marriage would mean sacrificing her ability to write, and Ester is caught between her passion for scholarship and the concessions necessary to build a life for herself.

For Kadish, the experience of being torn in this way is something that tie Ester and Helen's stories together, even though they are living centuries apart. About to reach age of mandatory retirement, Helen is fighting her department's administration tooth-and-nail for the right to be able to work on her project. She must also confront the idea that her ability to work may be hindered by a growing illness, and she is haunted by a love she gave up as a young woman. This struggle for balance between one's work, relationships, and livelihood rings true for many women living in today's world. "The questions of women's lives—can you have a life of the mind, and a life of the body, and a life of the heart?—they're certainly not finished just because we're not in the 17th century anymore," Kadish says.

The second annoyance that inspired Kadish to write this book came out of the traditional Jewish story of Masada. During the First Jewish-Roman War in 74 CE, the fortress of Masada came under siege, and the Jews inside chose to commit mass suicide rather than be enslaved. Kadish says that while most Jews have heard the verbatim transcript of what the Jewish leader said on top of Masada, people almost never stop to question whether or not everyone actually died. In fact, two women refused martyrdom and hid in a cave with some children. When they were ultimately taken captive, they gave their story to Josephus, who wrote it into the Jewish lore.

"What bothered me when I was growing up in Jewish day school, is that if these women were ever mentioned, these women who decided to live and to pass along the story, they were described as cowards and traitors," Kadish says. "Because they refused to go along with what was expected of them, which was, you know, to die with that definition of honor. I was haunted by the idea of women who refuse martyrdom and how they're looked at... What's that like on the inside?"

While there are no real-life historical figures that directly inspired Ester, that doesn't mean there weren't women like her, says Kadish. "The historical record is sparse on Jewish women. Their lives were just not recorded. That doesn't mean that they weren't there doing things," she says.

Kadish sees a deep connection between history and the lives of modern women. Ester's challenges are still frighteningly relevant to women today. "It's always been hard to be fully alive, and particularly fully alive as a woman, and speak freely, and not be intimidated. And just because it's hard doesn't mean that we can't do it." Kadish says. "When you look back at history, it's so tempting to feel like 'oh those are another kind of people'...[but] those women were just like us. They might have had a different set of cultural norms that they were thinking about, they might have had a very different set of expectations about their lives, but fundamentally people were reckless, and had things they were passionate about, and were struggling, in any era. "

Continuing to tell women's stories is vitally important for Kadish. "What I was writing was the story of what it takes for a woman not to be defeated when everything around her is telling her to sit down and shut up," she says. "I think we need to keep looking at and telling these stories of what it takes for women to keep pushing."

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, $18.48, Amazon