The Garnett Family

Christopher Isherwood

Toward a Recognition of Androgyny

Reinventing Womanhood

Lady Ottoline' s Album (editor)


Cl 3203 H '-1'1 JCf~7






Copyright © 1g88 by Carolyn G. Heilbrun. All rights reserved. Published simulta- neously in Canada by Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 2801 John Street, Markham, Ontario L3R 1B4. Printed in the United States of America.

THE TEXT of this book is composed in Caledonia, with display type set in Caslon. Composition and manufacturing by the Maple-Vail Book Manufacturing Group. Book design by Marjorie J. Flock.


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Heilbrun, Carolyn Writing a woman's life/Carolyn G. Heilbrun.

p. em.

1. Women-Biography-History and criticism. z. Biography (as a literary form) 3· Women-Biography-Authorship. 4· Autobiography. I. Title.

CT3Z03:H44 lg88 87-33773 g20.72~Cl9

ISBN 0-393-02601-9 W. W. Norton & {::ompany, Inc., soo Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. wuo W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., 37 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3NU




To justify an unorthodox life by writing about it is to rein scribe the original violation, to reviolate masculine turf


T HERE ARE FOUR WAYS to write a woman's life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write

the woman's life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process. In this book, I shall discuss three of these four ways, omitting, for the most part, an analysis of the fictions in which many women have written their lives. For these stories in women's fiction, both the conventional and the subversive, have been examined in recent years with great brilliance and sophistication by a new generation of literary critics, and the work of these feminist critics has been so penetrating and persuasive that learning to read fictional representations of gender arrangements in our culture, whether of difference, oppression, or possibility, is an opportunity now available to anyone who will take the time to explore this vast and compelling body of criticism.

It has been otherwise with the lives of women. True, num- berless biographies of women have appeared in recent years,

12 Writing a Woman's Life

many of them making use of new feminist theory developed by literary critics, psychologists, and historians. In 1984, I wrote in an article in the New York Times Book Review that, since 1970, I had added seventy-three new biographies of women to my library. That number has certainly doubled by now, and yet there are countless biographies of women that I have not acquired. In 1984, I rather arbitrarily identified 1970 as the beginning of a new period in women's biography because Zelda by Nancy Milford had been published that year. Its signifi- cance lay above all in the way it revealed F. Scott Fitzgerald's assumption that he had a right to the life of his wife, Zelda, as an artistic property. She_ went mad, confined to what Mark Scharer has called her ultimate anonymity-to be storyless. Anonymity, we have long believed, is the proper condition of woman. Only in 1970 were we ready to read not that Zelda had destroyed Fitzgerald, but Fitzgerald her: he had usurped her narrative.

With equal arbitrariness, I would name 1973 as the turning point for modern women's autobiography. The transformation in question can be seen most clearly in the American poet, novelist, and memoirist May Sarton. Her Plant Dreaming Deep, an extraordinary and beautiful account of her adventure in buying a house and living alone, published in 1968, eventually dismayed her as she came to realize that none of the anger, passionate struggle, or despair of her life was revealed in the book. She had not intentionally concealed her pain: she had written in the old genre of female autobiography, which tends to find beauty even in pai~~o transform rage into spiritual acceptance. Later, readmg her idealized life in th~-h~p~ful e-yes of those who saw her as exemplar, she realized that, in ignoring her rage and pain, she had unintentionally been less than honest. Changing times helped bring her to this realiza- tion. In her next book, journal of a Solitude, she deliberately

Introduction 13

set out to recount the pain of the years covered by Plant Dreaming Deep. Thus the publication of journal of a Solitude in 1973 may be acknowledged as the watershed in women's autobiography.

I call it the watershed not because honest autobiographies

had not been written before that day but because Sarton delib- \ 4 erately retold the record of her anger. And, above all other prohibitions, what has been forbidden to women is anger, to- gether with the open admission of the desire for power and control over one's life (which inevitably means accepting some degree of power and control over other lives). Nor have those born earlier than Sarton honored the watershed, or deigned to notice it. No memoir has been more admired and loved in recent years than Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings. Yet I think there exists a real danger for women in books like Welty's in the nostalgia and romanticizing in which the author, and we in reading them, indulge. Virginia Woolf remarked that "very few women yet have written truthful autobiogra- phies."

Let us look at what Eudora Welty wrote about Jane Austen:

The felicity the novels have for us must partly lie in the confidence they take for granted between the author and her readers. Were- member that the young Jane read her chapters aloud to her own lively, vocative family, upon whose shrewd intuition, practiced and eager estimation of conduct, and general rejoicing in character she relied almost as well as she could rely on her own. The novels still have the bloom of shared pleasure. The young author enjoyed from the first a warm confidence in an understanding reception. As all her work testifies, her time, her place, her location in society, are no more matters to be taken in question than the fact that she was a woman. She wrote from a perfectly solid and firm foundation, and her work is wholly affirmative …. Jane Austen was born knowing a great deal-for one thing, that the interesting situations of life can, and notably do, take place at home. In country parsonages the dan-

14 Writing a Woman's Life

gerous confrontations and the decisive skirmishes can very conve- niently be arranged. [ 1g6g, 4-5]

The woman who wrote those words about Jane Austen in 196g is the same woman who wrote One Writer's Beginnings in 1983. But the Jane Austen she describes is not the Jane Austen I or many others read today, nor do we believe in this account of the perfect family nourishing her happy talent. Sim- ilarly, I do not believe in the bittersweet quality of One Writ- er's Beginnings, nor do I suppose that the Eudora Welty there evoked could have written the stories and novels we have learned to celebrate. Welty, like Austen, has long been read for what she can offer of reassurance and the docile acceptance of what is given; she has been read as the avatar of a simpler world, with simpler values broadly accepted. In this both Austen and Welty have, of course, been betrayed. But only Welty, living in our own time, has camouflaged herself. Like Willa Cather, like T. S. Eliot's widow, she wishes to keep meddling hands off the life. To her, this is the only proper behavior for the Missis- sippi lady she so proudly is.

As her interviewer noted in the Paris Review, Welty is "extremely private and won't answer anything personal about herself or about friends" (273). Michael Kreyling reported that Welty prizes loyalty and gratitude and disapproves of critics who approach writers with "insufficient tolerance and sympa- thy" (414-15). There can be no question that to have written a truthful autobiography would have defied every one of her instincts for loyalty and privacy.

But why should I criticize Eudora Welty for having written the only autobiography possible to her? From what I know and have heard, she is the kindest, gentlest person imaginable. What then do I want from her? Would life not be preferable if we were all like Eudora Welty?

It would. Yet, since we are not, her genius as a writer of

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Introduction 15

stories rescues her and us from her nostalgia. But it is that nostalgia, rendered with all the charm and grace of which she is capable, that has produced this autobiography, that same nostalgia that has for so many years imprisoned women without her genius or her rewards. Nostalgia, particularly for child- hood, is likely to be a mask for unrecognized anger.

If one is not permitted to express anger or even to recognize it within oneself, one is, by simple extension, refused both power and control. Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas is an ex- ample of a feminist essay that was universally condemned at its publication because of its anger, its terrible "tone." Brenda Silver, writing of this reaction, asks: "What voice would be 'natural' or 'appropriate' for a woman writing a feminist com- plaint or critique of her culture?" (2o). Mary Poovey has re- marked on Caroline Norton's difficulty in finding a proper language or form in her mid-nineteenth-century battle to change the laws governing divorce and child custody (quoted in Silver, 20). Forbidden anger, women could find no voice in which publicly to complain; they took refuge in depression or mad- ness .. As Mary EHmann has pointed out, "the most consistent critical standard applied to women is shrillness: blame some- thing written by a woman as shrill, praise something as not shrill" (in Silver, 13). The other favorite term, of course, is strident.

These days the term may be "feminist" tout court. Michiko Kakutani, reviewing in the New York Times a biography of Margaret Bourke-White by Vicki Goldberg, writes that Bourke- White would, in her profession of photography, "be compelled to break all the conventional expectations for womanly con- duct." But, Kakutani adds, "instead of simply trying to view her subject through the lens of feminist ideology, Ms. Gold- berg judiciously examines the conflicts the photographer ex- perienced herself." Apparently the phrase "feminist ideology"

16 Writing a Woman's Life

has here taken the place of"shrill" and "strident." I have long puzzled over this remark, and wanted to write Kakutani to ask her what she thought the "lens of feminist ideology" was. I had been trying to define it for years. One thing is clear: if it exists, Goldberg, in her excellent biography, was using it. ~Feminist ideology"is another word for trying to understcm.d, in the life of a woman, the life of the mind, which is, as Nancy Miller has noted, "not coldly cerebral but impassioned" ( 1g8o,


265). To denounce women for shrillness and stridency is another

way of denying them any right to power. Unfortunately, power is something that women abjure once they perceive the great difference between the lives possible to men and to women, and the violence necessary to men to maintain their position of authority. I have had students walk out of a class when I de- clared that power is a reasonable subject for discussion. But however unhappy the concept of power and control may make idealistic women, they delude themselves if they believe that the world and the condition of the oppressed can be changed without acknowledging it. Ironically, women who acquire power are more likely to be criticized for it than are the men who have always had it. As Deborah Cameron, an English linguistic theorist, has sardonically observed, male defense of its own power has decreed that nothing "is more ridiculous than a woman who imitates a male activity and is therefore no longer a woman. This can apply not only to speaking and writing, but also to the way a woman looks, the job she does, the way she behaves sexually, the leisure pursuits she engages in, the in- tellectual activities she prefers and so on ad infinitum. Sex differentiation must be rigidly upheld by whatever means are

ll available, for men can be men only ifwomen are unambigu- ously women" (155-156).

Women of accomplishment, in unconsciously writing their …


Introduction 17

future lived lives, or, more recently, in trying honestly to deal in written form with lived past lives, have had to confront!! power and control. Because this has been declared unwom- anly, and because many women would prefer (or think they would prefer) a world without evident power or control, women have been deprived of the n~rratives, or the texts, plots, or examples, by which they might assume power over-take con- trol of-their own lives. The women's movement began, in fact, with discussions of power, powerlessness, and the ques- tion of sexual politics. But investigations into the qualities of womanliness have moved away from the point where male power must be analyzed and seen only in relation to female powerlessness. As Myra Jehlen has written, the danger of at- tempting to find, in this history of female powerlessness, a "female tradition" of autonomy is that, "in the effort to flesh

out this visio. n," one finds that. what ·.·s depi.·cted is "n?_!_l!c~llal ( l independence but action despite depend_ell~~and not a self- i defl~;d leillaf; ~tilt~~~- eitkr' -b~t a. ;ub-culture born out of oppression and either stunted or victorious only at often-fatal cost" (581-82). The brutal truth, Jehlen knows, is that "all women must destroy in order to create" (583). "No woman can assume herself because she has yet to create herself, and this the sentimentalists, acceding to their society's definition [of women] did not do" (593). Jehlen understands the hardest fact of all for women to admit and defend: that woman's selfhood, the right to her own story, depends upon her "ability to act in the public domain" (596).

Although feminists early discovered that the private is the public, women's exercise of power and control, and the admis- sion and exprt:ssiQil.QL!!!l_g~r_!!_~~~s.sary to that e~er~is~, _has until recently been declared unacceptab!~· Yet many of the ) I … topics I propose to examine in this book-"unwomanly" ambi- <) lion, marriage, friendships with women and love for women, l ,,)'

18 Writing a Woman's Life

aging, female childhood-can be seen accurately only in the light of ~ovements toward u!ilil~~ewltn>l. Women need to learn how publicly to declare their right to public power.

The true representation of power is not of a big man beating ' . a smaller man or a woman. Power A.!h.!2.J:I.~t!l.!ilk~..J»le' s

I r:~~;;::i::t~:;;~~;~!~h~~!;!4!: marriage, in friendship, and in politics.

In this book I want to examine how women's lives have been contrived, and how they may be written to make clear, evident, out in the open, those events, decisions, and relation- ships that have been invisible outside of women's fictions, where literary critics have revealed, in the words of Gilbert and Gu- bar, "the woman's quest for her own story" (1979, 22). I wish to suggest new ways of writing the lives of women, as biogra- phers, autobiographers, or, in the anticipation of living new lives, as the women themselves.

This is a feminist undertaking. I define feminist, using Nancy Miller's words, as the wish "to articulate a self-consciousness abo1,1t:women's identity both as inherited cultural fact and as process of social construction" and to "protest against the avail- able fiction of female becoming." Women's lives, like women's writing, have, in Miller's words, a particularly "vulnerable re- lation to the culture's central notions of plausibility." It is hard to suppose women can mean or want what we have always been assured they could not possibly mean or want. Miller has shown us how "the literal failure to read women's writing has other theoretical implications." The same may be said of reading women's lives. Unlike the reading of the classics–or of men's lives, or of women's lives as events in the destinies of men- which always include "the frame of interpretations that have been elaborated over generations of critical activity," reading

j Introduction 19

women's lives needs to be considered in the absence of "a structure of critical" or biographical commonplaces (129). It all needs to be invented, or discovered, or resaid.

My parents' generation grew up with the Rubaiyat ofOmar Khayyam in the Edward FitzGerald version, and so, in time, did I. Its bittersweet flavor ofinevitability and wisdom haunted my early years. A much-quoted verse (LXXI) reads:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all our Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all your Tears wash out a Word ofit.

This used to seem evidently, obviously, true. But, at least insofar as women's lives are concerned, it is wrong. Lines can be canceled and washed out; and what the Moving Finger writ may, all along, have been misread. I suggest that it has indeed been misread, and that women have mistakenly supposed themselves deprived of the Piety and Wit certainly sufficient to lure it back.

Feminist criticism, scholarship, and theory have gone fur- ther in the last two decades than I, even in my most intense time of hope, could have envisioned. Yet I find myself today profoundly worried about the dissemination of these important new ideas to the general body of women, conscious or uncon- scious of the need to retell and reencounter their lives. I brood also on the dissensions that have grown among feminist schol- ars and theoreticians. These divisions, the arguments among scholars about theories, approaches, methodology, are not, of themselves, either dangerous or unexpected. Every new field of knowledge develops these differences. Indeed, they are es- sential to the progress of understanding. I am certainly not blaming female scholars for failing to maintain a unity men

20 Writing a Woman's Life

have never achieved, and which is not, in fact, conducive to the flowering of any discipline or to the reorganization of knowledge.

Yet there is a real danger that in rewriting the patriarchal text, scholars will get lost in the intellectual ramifications of their disciplines and fail to reach out to the women whose lives f!IUSt be rewritten with the aid of the new intellectual con- s_!:ructs. I mean no anti-intellectual complaint here. Without intellectual and theoretical underpinnings, no movement can succeed; the failure of feminism to sustain itself in previous incarnations may well be attributable to its lack of underlying theoretical discourse. But we are in danger of refining the theory and scholarship at the expense of the lives of the women who need to experience the fruits of research.

For this reason, I have chosen to write of women's lives, rather than of the texts I have been trained to analyze and enjoy. I risk a great danger: that I shall bore the theorists and fail to engage the rest, thus losing both audiences. If this does, indeed, occur, I shall at least have failed as the result of a conscious choice, one made in knowledge, insofar as that is ever possible, of the dangers, the challenges, and the vitality whose price is risk.

Safety and closure, which have always been held out to women as the ideals offemale destiny, are not places of adven- ture, or experience, or life. Safety and closure (and enclosure)

#–{ are, rather, the mirror of the Lady ofShalott. They forbid life to be experienced directly. Lord Peter Wimsey once said that nine-tenths of the law of chivalry was a desire to have all the fun. The same might well be said of patriarchy.

"Men can be men only if women are unambiguously women," Deborah Cameron has written. What does it mean to be una- mibiguously a woman? It means to put a man at the center of



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Introduction 21

one's life and to allow to occur only what honors his prime position. Occasionally women have put God or Christ in the place of a man; the results are the same: one's own desires and quests are always secondary. For a short time, during court- ship, the illusion is maintained that women, by withholding themselves, ~re central. Women are allowed this brief period in the limelight-and it is the part of their lives most constantly and vividly enacted in a myriad of representations-to encour- age the acceptance of a lifetime of marginality. And courtship itself is, as often as not, an illusion: that is, the woman must entrap the man to ensure herself a center for her life. The rest is aging and regret.

When biographers come to write the life of a woman-and this phenomenon has, of course, occurred with much greater frequency since the advent of contemporary feminism, let us say since the late 1g6os-they have had to struggle with the inevitable conflict between the destiny of being unambigu- ously a woman and the woman subject's palpable desire, or fate, to be something else. Except when writing about queens, biographers of women have not, therefore, been at ease with their subjects-and even with queens, like Elizabeth I of En- gland, there has been a tendency to see them as somewhat abnormal, monstrous. It is no wonder that biographers have largely ignored women as subjects, and that critics of biogra- phy have written as though men were the only possible sub- jects.

If we consider James Clifford's 1962 collection, Biography as an Art, we discover there are but six essays out of more than forty that are by women biographers, and that these women wrote about men, or about royal women or women celebrated as events in the lives offamous men. Female biographers, that is, if they wrote about women, chose comfortable subjects whose fame was thrust upon them. Such subjects posed no threaten-

22 Writing a Woman's Life

ing questions; their atypical lives provided no disturbing model for the possible destinies of other women. Catherine Drinker Bowen, the famous biographer of six men, explains how, when asked why she had never written about a woman, she did not dare to respond honestly, l''I have, six times." She feared, rightly, that she would not be understood. Had she been required to give an explanation, her answer might have been that she wished to write of daring, extraordinary accomplishment, l_egal bril- liance, and professional fidelity, and what woman subject would enable her to do that? Moreover, had she found somewhere an extraordinary woman, how much effort would have been spent justifying female ambition and describing the landscape of this unique achievement? Elizabeth Gaskell, until recently the most salient of female biographers, did not celebrate Charlotte Bronte's genius, but rescued her from the stigma of being a famous female writer, an eccentric. Carefully, Gaskell restored Bronte to the safety of womanliness.

Women writing of their own lives have found it no easier to detach themselves from the bonds of womanly attitudes. In the words of Patricia Spacks, writing of eighteenth-century wom- en's autobiographies, a fantasy of feminine strength, even if it were achieved, "transformed itself mysteriously into one more confession of inadequacy. . . . The nature of public and private selves . . . is for women, in some ways, the reverse of what it is for men. The face a man turns to the world … typically embodies his strength," while the only acceptable models for women "involve self-deception and yielding" (1976, 59).

By the time Spacks came, four years later, to publish her essay entitled "Selves in Hiding," she had extended her obser- vation of women's autobiographical disabilities to our own cen- tury. The women whose autobiographies she discusses are Emmeline Pankhurst, Dorothy Day, Emma Goldman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Golda Meir, each a profoundly radical individ-

Introduction 23

ual, responsible for revolutionary acts and concepts, and pos- sessing a degree of personal power unusual in men or women. But, Spacks notes, "although each author has significant, sometimes dazzling accomplishments to her credit, the theme of accomplishment rarely dominates the narrative …. Indeed to a striking degree they fail directly to emphasize their own importance, though writing in a genre which implies self- * assertion and ~·These women accept full blame for any failure~ their lives, but shrink from claiming that they either sought the responsibilities they ultimately bore or were in any way ambitious. Day, for example, has what Spacks calls "a clear sense of seU:-but struggles constantly to lose it." All of these autobiographies "exploit a rhetoric of uncertainty" (1g8o, I13-14). And in all pf them the pain of the lives is, like" the successes, muted, as though the women were certain of nothing but the necessity of denying both accomplishment and suffering.

All of these modem autobiographies, Spacks observes, "represent a female variant of the high tradition of spiritual autobiography" (1g81, 48). One must be called by God or Christ to service in spiritual causes higher than one's own poor self might envision, and authorized by that spiritual call to an achievement and accomplishment in no other way excusable in a female self. So Florence Nightingale, in her desperate desire for an occupation worthy ofher talents and desires, four times heard God calling her to his service. But if, for men, spiritual autobiographies tell of personal satisfaction deriving from their spiritual achievement, this is not the case for women. As Mary Mason writes, "Nowhere in women's autobiographies . do we find the patterns ~stablished by the two prototypical male autobiographers, Augustine and Rousseau; and con- versely male writers never take up the archetypal models of Julian, Margery Kemp, Margaret Cavendish, and Anne Brad-



24 Writing a Woman's Life

street." On the contrary, Mason writes, "the self-discovery of female identity seems to acknowledge the real presence and recognition of another consciousness, and the disclosure of female self is linked to the identification of some 'other' " (207- 8, 210). Identity is grounded through relation to the chosen other. Without such relation, women do not feel able to write openly about themselves; even with it, they do not feel entitled to credit for their own accomplishment, spiritual or n<J.!.

Well into the twentieth century, it continued to be impos- sible for women to admit into their autobiographical narratives the claim of achievement, the admission of ambition, the rec- -og~ii·i~;;–th~t'-;~~o~plishment was neither luck nor the result of the efforts or generosity of others. Jill Conway, in a study of the accomplished women of the Progressive Era in the United States (women born between 1855 and 1865), has remarked upon the narrative flatness with which, in their autobiogra- phies, they have described their exciting lives. Their letters and diaries are usually different, reflecting ambitions and struggles in the public sphere; in their published autobiogra- phies, however, they portray themselves as intuitive, nurtur- ing, passive, but never-in spite of the contrary evidence of their acComplishments-managerial.

The autobiography of Jane Addams, Conway points out, is sentimental and passive: her cause finds her, rather than the other way around. Not so in her letters, where she takes over the family business and fights for her due. The money for Hull House, in the autobiography, fell in off the street; her letters reveal the truth. This same pattern, Conway demonstrates, is found in the autobiographies oflda Tarbell and Charlotte Per- kins Gilman. There is a wholly different voice in the letters on the one hand and the autobiographical narratives on the other. All of the autobiographies begin confessionally and, except for Gilman's, report the encounters with what would be the life's

Introduction 25

work as having occurred by chance. This was, in every case, quite untrue. Each women set out to find her life's work, but the only script insisted that work discover and pursue her, like the conventional romantic lover. As Conway points out, there is no model for the female who is recounting a political narra- tive. There are no recognizable career stages in such a life, as there would be for a man. Nor do women have a tone of voice in which to speak with authority. As Natalie Davis has said, women up to the eighteenth centurY could speak with author-

'·· ity only of the family and religion. These women had no models on which to form their lives, nor could they themselves be- come mentors since they did not tell the truth about their lives.

Ida Tarbell, for example, one of the most famous of the muckrakers, author of the history of the Standard Oil Com- pany, reports that the subject just "happened to be there" and, as Conway shows, credits the idea of her work to others. This is wholly belied by her letters. Where anger is expressed in these autobiographies, it is-not, Conway believes, used cre- atively, as by black male authors. The expression of anger has always been a terrible hurdle in ~~~~~~ "P·~-;:-s~~~TP'~~g;~ss. Aoove -arr,tiiitplibliC~m<fp'rfvafe'Ifves~cannot Ee linl(ed', • iS1ii male narratives. We hardly expect the career of an accom- plished man to be presented as being in fundamental conflict with the demands of his marriage and children; he can allow his public life to expand occasionally into the private sphere without guilt or disorder.[Jhese women are therefore unable to write exemplary lives: they do not dare to offer themselves·+' as models, but only as exceptions chosen by destiny or chance.

Much of this has changed since 1970. Many new biogra- phies of women have uncovered new facts or, as Spacks has suggested, sometimes found no significant new facts but only new stories. Some women have always, I believe, looked for new stories, and failed to find them told of women. Now, since


26 Writing a Woman's Life

about 1970, we have had accounts of lesser lives, great lives, thwarted lives, lives cut short, lives miraculous in their unap- plauded achievement. Diane Johnson's The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives was one of the first, followed by biographies of black women, revolutionary women, pioneers, like Margaret Bourke-White, in formerly male professions, and numerous others, some famous, some not. They are all new stories. Only the female life~ of prime devotion to male destiny had been told before; for the young girl who wanted more from a female biography, there were, before 1970, few or no exemplars.

I can here offer myself as a not atypical example. In the late 1930s and early 1940s I read biographies at the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library. In Tom Stoppard's play Tra- vesties, one of the characters describes the tastes in poetry of a librarian named Cecily. "Cecily is well bred,'' _he says, "but her views on poetry are very old-fashioned and her knowledge of the poets, as indeed of everything else, is eccentric, being based on alphabetical precedence. She is working her way along the shelves. She has read Allingham, Arnold, Belloc, Blake, both Brownings, Bryon, and so on up to, I believe, B." Thus did I read biography. In my dreams to this day, I stand before the biography shelves at St. Agnes, denying myself an attractive book in R because I had reached only G. I remember still the opening of the second paragraph of The Education of Henry AdamY, the volume of my biographical initiation: "Had he been born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen, he would scarcely have been more distinctly branded, and not much more heavily handi- capped in the races of the coming century, in running for such stakes as the century was to offer," and my bewilderment be- fore the first of many mysterious allusions based on knowledge


Introduction 27

and experience I neither had nor seemed likely to acquire. What could possibly be the connection between my ten-year- old self and Henry Adams, born in Boston, compared to an Israel Cohen born in Jerusalem? I was profoundly caught up in biography because it allowed me, as a young girl, to enter the world of daring and achievement. But I had to make myself a boy to enter that world; I could find no comparable biographies of women, indeed, almost no biographies of women at all.

Despite the wonderful biographies we have had in recent years, there still exists little organized sense of what a woman's biography or autobiography should look like. Where should it begin? With her birth, and the disappointment, or reason for no disappointment, that she was not a boy? Do we then slide her into the Freudian family romance, the Oedipal configura- tion; if not, how do we view the childhood? And now that interest in the. pre-Oedipal period has been so vigorously re- vived by French and American feminists, how closely do we look at that period? What, in short, is the subject's relation- inevitably complex-with her mother? The relation with the father will be less complex, clearer in its emotions and desires, partaking less of either terrible pity or binding love. How does the process of becoming, or failing to become, a sex object operate in the woman's life; how does she cope with the fact that her value is determined by how attractive men find her? If she marries, why does the marriage fail, or succeed? These questions must be answered, not because either the woman or her husband fail or succeed in the familiar roles of wife or husband, but because they have evolved, or failed to evolve, a narrative of marriage that will make possible their develop- ment, as individuals and as a couple. What does a "successful" marriage really look like? We have remarkable little evidence of the "story," as opposed to the convention, behind long mar- riages between women and men who both have established


28 Writing a Woman's Life

places in the public sphere. Even less has been told of the life of the unmarried woman who, consciously or not, has avoided marriage with an assiduousness little remarked but no less powerful for being, often, unknown to the woman hersel£ What of women friends, of middle age, or of active old age (the years from sixty to seventy-five)? None of these questions has been probed within the context of women's as yet unnarrated lives, lives precisely not those that convention, romance, literature, and drama have, for the most part, given us. –

In recent years biography as a genre has come under a good deal of close scrutiny. Roland Barthes has called biography "a novel that dare not speak its name," and the understanding that biographies are fictions, constructions by the biographer of the story she or he had to tell, has become clear. In all disciplines, particularly history, scholars have lately written about how much of what passes as history is in fact evidence from the prevailing or established opinion of the age under consideration or, as likely, of the age in which the author of the history lives. David Bromwich, in an essay on biography, has observed that "the successful biographies of an age have as much in common as their biographers rather than as little as their heroes." In discussing the canonized biographies of Keats, by Walter Jackson Bate, and of Joyce, by Richard EHmann, Bromwich considers why no alternate version of these two subjects has gained currency~ "A modern critic who found Keats and Joyce interesting because they transmit something other than the best qualities of the mind would not be expelled from professional societies. He would simply be seen as entering a discussion that does not exist. Of this situation the immediate cause is that criticism has established a certain way of thinking. But a more remote and more powerful cause is that biography has made certain facts unthinkable" (167). As Bromwich ex- plains it: "Biographies, after all, define the range of plausible

• Intro!Jf!:ct!Q!1: ___ 291.i~~60 ~l-i)

interpretations of an author." There are three ways, Bromwich ~ continues, in which this definition has worked: "by establish- ing a consensus about an author's relation to his work, so com- plete that we are hardly aware of it; by radically altering our picture of an author, and confirming the reputation ofhis work on a different basis; and by construing an author's work as a transparent apology for his life, with the result that our esteem for the work is diminished and our interest in the life sharp- ened" (162).

Thus biographies of women had made certain facts unthink- able, and those who wished to expand upon those facts would enter a discussion that, in the academy and the media, did not exist. But what has begun to happen in women's biography 1 since 1970 is that the consensus about the author's relation to her work (if she is a writer) has changed, or is changing; the picture of the author is being altered radically; and often, be- cause of the newness of our experience with the new narratives of women's lives, our interest in the life has sharpened.

Few studies of the last twenty years, and, of course, even fewer in earlier years, have concerned themselves with wom- en's biographies or autobiographies. Where such studies or collections of articles on biography have considered women, they have been the same women: almost always Gertrude Stein, occasionally Margaret Mead. Both of these women might in- deed be the subjects of radical new considerations of female biography and autobiography, but in fact they have not been so treated. And in the past, biographies of women were what Phyllis Rose has called "partial biographies":

What I hold against Standard Biographies is not that they are unread- able-the best of them are highly readable-but that they are not, as they pretend to be, impartial. Let me give two examples which are among the most elegant and most readable literary biographies of the recent past: Quentin Bell's Virginia Woolf and Gordon Haight's George


30 Writing a Woman's Life

Eliot. These are good books by any standards. Both are filled with invaluable information. Yet, full as they are, both inevitably leave things out. That is why this kind of biography, which purports to be so fair and objective, is more deceptive than the most flagrantly partisan biography. Quentin Bell leaves out a treatment of Woolfs writing, which is to say he omits much of her inner life apart from her madness, leaving us with the impression of a sick woman who de- pended extravagantly on a supportive husband. Gordon Haight does not omit accounts of George Eliot's writing to the extent Bell does, but he rarely speculates about her inner life, favoring t@ done, the said, the written. This gives all the more emphasis to the one theme he allows himself, his one speculation about George Eliot's emotional life, that she needed someone to lean on, that she was not fitted to stand alone. [76-77]

Obviously, Rose admits, she has not picked these examples at random.

Both Bel]' s biography of Woolf and Haight's of George Eliot are books about women writers by men whose assumptions about women are so deeply assimilated as to have for them the force of truth, self- evident truth. That George Eliot needed someone to lean on is sup- posed to be a neutral observation. But there is no neutrality. There

· is only greater or less awareness of one's bias. And if you do not · appreciate the force of what you're leaving out, you are not fully in

command of what you're doing. [77] –

As both Bromwich and Rose perceive, though only Rose considers the particular application to women, biographies of women, if they have been written at all, have been written under the constraints of acceptable discussion, of agreement about what can be left out. And while Bell and Haight (like Bate and EHmann) have left out a good deal, it must not be assumed that men rather than women, before 1970, necessar- ily wrote the more constricted biographies of women. On the contrary, if men before 1970 felt the dearth of female subjects, at least they were not personally made anxious by the contem-

Introduction 31

plation of an "outrageous" female destiny. Like Bowen writing about male subjects, men much as Joseph Barry on George Sand and Vincent Sheean on Dorothy Thompson permitted their female adventurers a "quest" plot which, as men, they found familiar. They did not, as female biographers tended to do, feel unbearable discomfort in the face of "unwomanly" lives. The concept of biography itself has changed profoundly in the last two decades, biographies of women especially so. But while biographers of men have been challenged on the "objectivity" of their interpretation, biographers of women have had not only to choose one interpretation over another but, far more difficult, actually to reinvent the lives their subjects led, discovering from what evidence they could find the processes and decisions, the choices and unique pain, that lay beyond the life stories of these women. The choices and pain of the women who did not make a man the center of their lives seemed unique, because there were no models of the lives they wanted to live, no exemplars, no stories. These choices, this pain, those stories, and how they may be more systematically faced, how, in short, one rna)' find the courage to be an "ambiguous woman," are what I want to examine in this book.

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