Francine du Plessix Gray 1930-
French-born American novelist, biographer, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Gray's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 22.
Gray is best known for her compelling biographical portraits of such diverse historical figures as Louis Colet, Simone Weil, and the Marquis de Sade. She has also published several nonfiction works that focus on a variety of social issues, including modern Catholicism and the living conditions of women in the former Soviet Union. Widely regarded as a skilled and objective writer, Gray's work often places a firm emphasis on feminist beliefs and psychoanalytic interpretation. She has also published three novels—Lovers and Tyrants (1976), World without End (1981), and October Blood (1985).
Gray was born on September 25, 1930, in the French Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. At the time, her father was a member of the French diplomatic corps. Her father died as a member of the Free French Forces during World War II, prompting Gray and her Russian-born mother to emigrate to United States in 1941. In 1948 she attended Bryn Mawr College and later earned her B.A. from Barnard College in 1952; she became a naturalized U.S. citizen the same year. She worked as a reporter in New York City at United Press International and was also employed as a writer and editor at several magazines and publishing companies. In 1970 she published her first work, Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism. During this period, Gray served as a visiting professor at the City University of New York. Subsequently, she worked as a visiting lecturer at Yale University in 1981 and as an adjunct professor at Columbia University in 1983. Gray was awarded the National Catholic Book Award in 1971 for Divine Disobedience and received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1991. She holds honorary doctorates from Oberlin College, The City University of New York, and several other universities, and has been decorated by the French government as Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Gray has continued to contribute articles, stories, and reviews to a number of periodicals, including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, New York Review of Books, and New Republic.
Gray's first work, Divine Disobedience, employs a crisp journalistic writing style to explore contemporary radicalism within the Catholic Church. Lovers and Tyrants focuses on the semi-autobiographical story of a young woman named Stephanie. The novel follows Stephanie throughout different stages of her life—from her oppressive childhood in Paris to her experiences in an American boarding school. Stephanie eventually becomes a journalist and spurns traditional romantic relationships, preferring to follow her own ambitions and modes of living. The work centers around Stephanie's maturation and quest for personal liberation. Gray's next novel, World without End, focuses on the relationship of three middle-age friends who reunite to tour Russia together. October Blood is a satire of the world of high fashion that follows three generations of women who work in the clothing industry. In 1990, Gray published Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, a record of her observations of Soviet life and the changing role of women in contemporary Soviet society. Gray explores the lives of a diverse cross-section of Soviet women and discusses the societal pressures placed on these women by the Russian culture and government. In 1994, Gray published Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet—Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert's Muse, a biography of the nineteenth-century French writer, Louise Colet. Colet published several works, including La Jeunesse de Mirabeau, but she is best known in many circles for being the mistress of Gustave Flaubert, the French novelist who wrote Madame Bovary. Gray followed Rage and Fire with a biography of the controversial eighteenth-century French writer, the Marquis de Sade, in At Home with the Marquis de Sade (1998). Sade was a French aristocrat who was jailed for acts of sexual perversion. While in prison, Sade published several graphically erotic novels that were distributed secretly throughout France. Most recently, Gray published Simone Weil (2001), a biography of the twentieth-century writer, political activist, and philosopher.
Gray's novels have been generally well-received for their striking characterization and melodic prose. Lovers and Tyrants met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, although several critics took issue with the concluding chapters of the novel. A number of reviewers felt the ending dragged on incessantly and lapsed into fantasy. Although October Blood received mixed reviews, the novel was applauded by many critics for its precise and biting satire of the fashion world. Soviet Women was embraced by the general public, becoming a best seller, despite sharply divided critical reaction to the book. Several reviewers praised Gray's deft storytelling and cogent observations of Soviet life, but others questioned the work's focus on upper-class bourgeois Soviet women and did not feel the book representative of the full range of Soviet female experience. In Gray's biographical works, critics have noted a recurring emphasis on feminist issues, with some accusing Gray of manipulating historical details for her own political ends. For example, in Rage and Fire, Gray emphasizes Louise Colet's role as muse and confidant to Gustave Flaubert and argues that Colet deserves a more significant critical reputation. This is in direct opposition to many critics who have argued that Colet was a minor literary figure, unworthy of such analysis and attention. Critics have also taken issue with the significance that Gray placed on the Marquis de Sade's wife, Renée Pélagie de Montreuil, in At Home with the Marquis de Sade. Despite such observations, Gray has been commended by numerous reviewers for her skilled use of psychoanalysis in her portrayal of Sade.