Susan Swan’s 1983 novel The Biggest Modern Woman of the World

The Biggest Modern Woman of the World

Susan Swan’s 1983 novel The Biggest Modern Woman of the World is a fictional autobiography of nineteenth century Maritime giantess, Anna Swan. The novel is divided into four chronological sections, each of which questions, either implicitly or explicitly, gender and national relations during the Victorian era. Like its narrator, the novel is obsessed with bodies—and with ingestions and expulsions. Whether a doctor is trying to take Anna’s measurements or midgets are drinking growth potions, nearly every page features an anatomical concern. In one memorable scene, P.T. Barnum’s curiosities gather for an eating contest at Delmonico’s, “a popular French restaurant at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street” in New York City (76). After having “inhaled [nineteen] puddings like air,” Anna loses the contest to a “normal” because her corset is too tight (77). This scene exemplifies the specificity of her embodied experiences as both an individual of incomparable size and as a woman who remains subject to Victorian mores and conventions. Here, the quantity that Anna eats—too much for a woman but too little for a giant—directly relates to her competing vectors of identity.

Swan, Susan. The Biggest Modern Woman of the World: A Novel. Toronto, Canada: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1983. Print.

Written by: Valerie Silva

Valerie Silva is currently in her final year of the Master’s program at McGill University, where she studies contemporary Canadian literature. Her current research focuses on affect, objects, and the body in contemporary Canadian life writing.