Marilyn French

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Marilyn French and Barbara A. Bannon (interview date 7 March 1980)

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SOURCE: French, Marilyn, and Barbara A. Bannon. “Marilyn French.” Publishers Weekly 217, no. 9 (7 March 1980): 6-7.

[In the following interview, French discusses the role of feminism in literature and society as well as her novel The Bleeding Heart.]

Seated in the lounge of New York's Algonquin Hotel, sipping a Bloody Mary and smoking a thin, brown More cigarette, Marilyn French looks like a well-to-do suburban housewife relaxing before catching a train home. She has just been listening sympathetically to another woman's wry account of how “the children will leave you alone in the kitchen for hours when you're making grilled cheese sandwiches, but if you sit down to practice the piano, they feel free to interrupt you constantly.”

It is this genuine sympathy for other women caught in life situations, trivial or deadly serious, for which they were never prepared that made Marilyn French's first novel, The Women's Room, such a breakthrough best-seller in hardcover and paperback.

In her new novel, The Bleeding Heart, she writes movingly, convincingly and powerfully of a love affair between an American woman and man sojourning in Oxford, England, of how they help and sustain each other for a time, and of why they can never really achieve a lasting relationship together (PW Forecasts, Jan. 18).

While French told an earlier interviewer that her reading of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex in 1958 “blew my mind,” she is quick to add now: “I've never been a political activist in any way, although I've always had a feminist perspective. I've gone on peace marches, but I don't enjoy the tedious stuff necessary to get any movement started.”

Instead, French's writing and the considerable public speaking she has done since publication of The Women's Room have been directed to helping women (and men) understand “the difference between philosophical feminism and political feminism.

“It's astonishing to go places here and abroad,” she says, “and find that the most subtle and sophisticated women still have arrived at a feminist way of seeing things that justifies their feeling they have a kind of sisterhood. This was not there 10 years ago. Feminism has come a long way. There is a lot of interesting work being done in psychology today from a feminist viewpoint, a new approach to people, their needs and handicaps.

“Even women who are the most traditional, who are actively fighting the ERA, are women who have changed. They won't be content to go back to the kitchen again. Women are moving on either side of the issue. In this sense they have more in common than they may realize.”

French's own life, widely publicized when The Women's Room was published, began in a poor family of Polish descent. It included marriage before she finished college; a son and daughter, now adults; and a determination to go back on her own and finish her education—involving B.A. and M.A. degrees from Hofstra and a Ph.D. from Harvard. The marriage was a disaster and desperately hard to break out of. Now she says of her ex-husband, “I saw him at my daughter's wedding, and that was enough to last for 10 years. When I think of living with a man again I have the same nightmare of being back living with my husband, and I think, ‘O God, I've married him again.’”

French has taught English at Hofstra, Harvard and Holy Cross, quite enjoyed it, “but not the academic politics involved.” Since the success of The Women's Room, she has given up teaching to live in Florida, “with a little place in New York,” and...

(This entire section contains 1162 words.)

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to concentrate on her writing. “I'd had the usual feminine brainwashing,” she says of her best-seller achievement. “I hoped for a succés d'estime, but never expected any money. When I began to perceive there would be some, I panicked and had dreams of ‘Scott—Zelda—Europe’ and having to end up doing Hollywood hack work.” Now French is very much in control of her life and what she wants to do with it.

One of the lines from The Women's Room, “All men are rapists,” has often been picked up and attributed to French personally. “No, that came from the novel,” she says firmly, then thinks a minute and adds, not without humor, “It is a view I have sometimes had, however.”

Asked if she sees much hope for improvement, French says, “Relations between men and women cannot improve.” Instantly she wants to clarify this.

“In our century the greatest value is power. We are all taught to control, to manipulate. We turn play into ‘games’ and make everything competitive. We have separated ‘power’ and ‘love,’ ‘justice’ and ‘mercy’ and yet women have to combine the qualities all the time as mothers.”

In both of French's novels women's commitment to raising children as one of the most important elements in their lives is clearly recognized and accepted as fact, and it is her understanding of this, her refusal to look down on such a traditional woman's role, that makes her novels accessible to many women who might not relate to a more formalized “feminist” position.

“It is our society's problem that men have to choose as they do between being tender and powerful,” she says. “Women are very effective at combining both qualities. The big problem with men is that by the time they are adults it is too late to do this. It is easier for them to go out in the world and handle power than to learn to express their feelings. When men do try to express their feelings they almost always sound 15 years old. That's because something has atrophied and their feelings have been frozen there. Men are content to leave the ‘feelings’ to women, who are supposed to be the helpers. Lots of women, the majority, think it is their exclusive duty to bring compassion and tenderness to a situation. They feel entrusted with such a mission. In a sense I respect what they respect, but I know we have to try and break down such a difference between the sexes”—even, she seems to be adding, if it is well-nigh impossible to do so on a long-term basis.

Ahead for Marilyn French in her writing lie a collection of her essays that will probably be called Marilyn French on Women and what she refers to as “the Shakespeare book.” This will trace the way in which Shakespeare tried to synthesize “the moral qualities we have separated,” such as power and love, the way in which he dealt with “masculine” and “feminine” categories and tried to get beyond them, “but could not.” French's first book, The Book as World: James Joyce's “Ulysses,” was published in 1976, and it is important to realize that she is, first and foremost, a wordsmith. Parting company with a PW interviewer, she suddenly said: “I have a question for you. Did you like the way in which The Bleeding Heart was written? Did you think it had beauty?”


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Marilyn French 1929-

(Born Marilyn Edwards; has also written under the pseudonym Mara Solwoska) American novelist, critic, essayist, memoirist, historian, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of French's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 10, 18, and 60.

Best known for her first novel, the highly popular The Women's Room (1977), French is an author of controversial works that provoke both enthusiastic and antagonistic responses from critical audiences. A former homemaker whose academic aspirations led her to Harvard University during the politically turbulent 1960s, French draws upon her experiences with motherhood, divorce, academia, and political activism to evoke the concerns of women who rebel against domesticity, sexual submission, and discrimination in the workplace. While some critics denounce French's ideological fiction and nonfiction as polemical, her works are widely read and often examined in women's studies courses.

Biographical Information

French was born on November 21, 1929, in New York City to a poor family of Polish descent. She received a bachelor's degree from Hofstra College (now Hofstra University) in Long Island in 1951. Instead of pursuing a graduate degree, French married Robert M. French Jr., with whom she has two children. French returned to Hofstra to earn her master's degree in 1964, while also teaching English at the college from 1964 to 1968. In 1967 French divorced her husband and enrolled in the English graduate program at Harvard University, receiving her Ph.D. in 1972. French used her personal experiences as the basis for the central character of Mira in The Women's Room, who also divorced her husband and enrolled at Harvard in the same year. From 1972 to 1976 French taught English at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. She also served as the Mellon fellow in English at Harvard from 1976 to 1977 and as artist in residence at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Study in 1972. The critical and commercial success of The Women's Room allowed French to pursue writing full-time. Aside from her novels and nonfiction works, French has contributed essays and articles to such journals as Soundings and Ohio Review, often under the pseudonym Mara Solwoska. In 1992 French was diagnosed with metastasized esophageal cancer. She recovered from the illness and the experience later became the basis for A Season in Hell: A Memoir (1998).

Major Works

One year after French published her first work—The Book as World: James Joyce's “Ulysses” (1976), a critical reexamination of Joyce's novel—she published The Women's Room, which is generally considered one of the most influential novels of the modern feminist movement. The novel follows the evolution of Mira, a repressed and submissive woman, who is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage. Mira eventually divorces her neglectful husband, returns to college, and joins a group of feminist activists. Ranging from the stultifying suburban milieu of the 1950s to the male-dominated counter-culture of the 1960s, The Women's Room depicts sexism in America as a pervasive and pernicious social force that acts to advance the oppression and exploitation of women. Through the various female characters in Mira's group, French illustrates the psychological and physical abuses frequently inflicted on women and recreates the consciousness-raising dialogues of the era that inspired many women to take up political activism. Extending French's discussion of moderate feminism is a more radical orientation represented by Val, an eloquent member of the group who becomes militant after her daughter is sexually assaulted. When the rape trial becomes more of an indictment of the young woman than of the rapist, Val joins a women's separatist colony that advocates the violent overthrow of patriarchal American society.

French continues her commentary on gender relations in her second novel, The Bleeding Heart (1980), a chronicle of a love affair between Dolores, a divorced feminist writer seeking an egalitarian relationship, and Victor, a married executive with traditional values. To cultivate a healthy relationship, each confronts past tragedies and failures in their marriages and parenthood, and Dolores persuades Victor to reassess his assumptions about gender roles. French examines the origins of societal male dominance in Shakespeare's Division of Experience (1981), a collection of broadly theoretical essays. The work asserts that the woman's capacity to bear children has historically aligned her with nature and, consequently, left her vulnerable to man's compulsion to exercise power over it. French again combines her interest in political doctrine and scholarly pursuits in Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals (1985), which reinterprets world history through a feminist perspective. Often compared to the metahistorical essays of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Michel Foucault, Beyond Power surveys such diverse disciplines as anthropology, medicine, political science, philosophy, astronomy, zoology, and law into its argument against patriarchal domination. According to French, early egalitarian, mother-centered societies were overthrown by a conspiracy of men obsessed with a desire for control over women and nature. With the pursuit of power as its impetus, patriarchal culture enslaved women and devised social structures emphasizing male-centered religion, property rights, and the division of labor. As a result, French argues, women have suffered in every human society from ancient Greece to modern China.

In Her Mother's Daughter (1987), French examines emotional and familial bonds among four generations of American women, beginning in the early 1900s. Frances, a widowed Polish immigrant who is forced by poverty to send three of her four children to orphanages, consigns her bitterness to her only remaining child, Isabelle. In turn, Isabelle's overprotective nurturing prompts her rebellious daughter to achieve success in a competitive male world, while ultimately neglecting her own children. French invests her narrative with myriad domestic details to demonstrate the sobering effects of unwanted pregnancies, abusive husbands, and tedious household responsibilities. French's The War against Women (1992) surveys the oppression of women on a global scale. Considering such activities as ritualized female genital mutilation in Africa and the burning of brides in India, along with economic disparities between women and men, French argues that women have become disempowered and overwhelmed by patriarchal societies. The novel Our Father (1994) depicts a troubled family reunion that occurs after a wealthy man, Stephen Upton, suffers a stroke, inspiring a visit from his four estranged daughters—all of whom have different mothers. Each hoping to gain either money or acknowledgment from her father, the women initially compete and argue among themselves. The daughters' discovery that they have all been the victims of incest during their childhood, however, becomes a source of bonding and mutual support. My Summer with George (1996) follows Hermione Beldame, a successful, sixty-year-old romance novelist, who meets a handsome newspaper editor named George Johnson one summer at Columbia University. Hermione spends the next few months creating a romanticized vision of her relationship and future with George, only to become disappointed after she realizes that George is not the man she imagined him to be.

A Season in Hell: A Memoir recounts French's personal battle with and eventual triumph over metastasized esophageal cancer. A smoker for four decades before her diagnosis, French discusses her various medical treatments and the resulting effects of her aggressive chemotherapy, including brittle bones, kidney problems, and diabetes. The work focuses on the experience of being a patient, with French asserting that many doctors, regardless of gender, are insensitive and aloof to the pain experienced by the people under their care. In 2002 French released the first of a three-volume series under the title From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women. Bringing together a wealth of scholarly and academic information, the series offers a careful critical examination of issues pertaining to the history of women throughout the world since the dawn of time. The first volume, Origins (2002), examines the roles of women from the advent of recorded history to the Middle Ages. The second volume, The Masculine Mystique (2002), follows women's history from the feudal era to the French Revolution. The final volume, Paradises and Infernos (2003), covers the nineteenth century to the modern era.

Critical Reception

Critical assessment of French's oeuvre has been sharply divided, inspiring numerous debates over the validity of her fiction and nonfiction. Although many feminist critics have praised French as a groundbreaking pioneer in the field of women's studies, other critics have charged that French's works are belligerent, artless, and ideologically clumsy. Detractors of The Women's Room have criticized French for her sympathetic portrayal of the violently militant Val and have argued that the novel is virulently anti-male and grim. However, several scholars have noted that the novel's immense popularity confirms its integrity, and they have continued to regard the novel as one of the most important works in the feminist canon. Many reviewers have praised French's candid illustrations of mid-life anxiety and her examination of sexual stereotypes in The Bleeding Heart, though some have argued that the novel is overly rhetorical and unconvincing. Critical reaction to the essays in Beyond Power has been diverse and emphatic, with a number of commentators faulting French's arguments as fallacious and inane, while others have defended the collection as innovative and erudite. Despite some assertions that her work holds a militant and uncompromising bias, French has remained a major figure in modern feminist studies.

Peter B. Erickson (review date 1982)

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SOURCE: Erickson, Peter B. Review of Shakespeare's Division of Experience, by Marilyn French. Women's Studies 9 (1982): 189-201.

[In the following review, Erickson criticizes French's flawed examination of gender divisions in the works of William Shakespeare in Shakespeare's Division of Experience.]

Of the host of critics cited by Marilyn French, her deepest affinity is with Leslie Fiedler. Like its precursor The Stranger in Shakespeare, French's book [Shakespeare's Division of Experience] begins by analyzing men's perturbed relations with women in the Henry VI plays and ends by noting the evacuation from The Tempest of the dangerous sexuality represented by Venus and Cupid (IV, i, 86-101). French, like Fiedler, concentrates on the twin themes of male “sex nausea” and denigration of women. The two motifs connect because the male point of view identifies women with the physical and holds them accountable for its depredations: displaced from the male body and projected exclusively onto the female, sexuality is female sexuality. The site—“the dark and vicious place”—where heterosexual intercourse—“the act of darkness”—is performed becomes “the sulphurous pit” that arouses a palpable, defensive revulsion: “Fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!” Again like Fiedler, French calls attention to the urgency and vividness of those passages in which male characters launch into outraged diatribes against women, as if it were possible to expectorate one's tribulation and be free of it:

A new kind of language appears in Much Ado, in Claudio's attack on Hero. (It is not entirely new; there are fragments of it in the first tetralogy and in Titus Andronicus.) It is brilliant, intense, and shattering to hear, or even to read. In every play in which such language appears, it is the strongest in the piece.

(p. 332)

The powerful antifeminist rhetoric in the plays cannot be ignored or passed over, but demands explanation: it is one of French's central purposes to account for this particular rhetoric.

In two respects, her approach to this problem implies a reformulation and extension of The Stranger in Shakespeare. First, French generally avoids Fiedler's tendency to assume a fixed, one-to-one correspondence between a male character's misogyny and Shakespeare's. She offers instead a more sophisticated view of Shakespeare's authorial presence that allows for his potential critical perspective. French is thus less likely than Fiedler to underestimate Shakespeare's capacity for probing rather than simply reflecting the misogynist aspects of his culture. Second, whereas Fiedler's main concern is psychological, French has a more systematic and fully developed argument about the status of gender in the plays, an argument whose feminist-inspired edge enables her to be more attuned to the political and social ramifications of gender arrangements.

In spite of these advances over The Stranger in Shakespeare,Shakespeare's Division of Experience disappoints. I think the most important elements of the book are French's general discussion of gender and her portrait of Shakespeare as an artist. I shall return to these key elements, but it is necessary first to assess the book's flaws. Having sifted these flaws, we can then more easily recover what is useful.

The formal structure of French's argument causes difficulty. The book is organized as a survey of the Shakespearean canon. (The coverage is not complete in that there are no sections on Titus Andronicus,Romeo and Juliet,King John, the second tetralogy, Julius Caesar or Henry VIII; but these omissions are not significant since I do not see that French would have any trouble including them.) In making the decision to be comprehensive rather than to focus intensively on selected, representative plays, French has set her sights on the woods rather than the trees. However, the overview she achieves is impoverished by the schematic, often cursory treatment of individual plays. The reader is whisked along on a guided tour which lurches too abruptly from place to place.

Though a number of plays are dispatched in four of five pages, the problem seems more basic than limited space. The brusquely declarative approach results in a disturbingly high ratio of assertion to evidence. Even within the constraints of space, gestures toward proof are too frequently perfunctory or entirely lacking. No play is treated with sufficient thoroughness and care to earn our trust in French as a reader. The cumulative effect is an account of Shakespeare that, though occasionally suggestive, is too terse, elliptical, fragmentary, scattered. Adding to this effect is French's style of quotation from the plays; though there is textual reference by way of brief illustration, French does not engage in rigorous, extended analysis. She holds back from total immersion in the particular language of a play; she neither inhabits the language nor puzzles over it. Instead she is drawn into abstract formulations about language, as when we are told that “language functions as action” in tragedy, whereas “the early comedies concentrate on language as a theme, language as the subject of language” (p. 35). Or dominion “is echoed in the very structure of Western languages, in the relation of subject-verb-object” (p. 14). Overall, French opts for flat assertion; she tells rather than demonstrates or enacts meaning; she forgoes wrestling with the textual angel.

Because we are never allowed in this book to experience the full power and complexity of Shakespeare's language in a specific play, a disproportionate emphasis is given to French's own terminology, which she derives ex nihilo in the introduction and first two chapters. French says at the outset that: “I did not bring my theory to the work; rather, the work of Shakespeare … brought me to see as I do” (p. 17). But she does not compellingly realize this claim in her actual practice. Despite her initial statement, the book's mode of presentation is almost wholly deductive rather than inductive. The theoretical framework precedes the discussion of individual plays and is generated largely in detachment from them. Given this undue prominence, the theory imposes itself on the plays in a circular and self-validating manner, instead of being delicately elicited from them. French's critical terminology—especially her repeated use of “masculine” and “feminine”—becomes reified, formulaic, at times opaque; it thus closes off access to the richness of Shakespeare's text and promotes a premature neatness of interpretation with which French seems too easily satisfied. If she used Shakespeare's language as the starting-point and worked outwards, gradually and sensitively generating the critical terms by grappling with specific moments in the play, permitting Shakespeare's language forcefully to inform and modify her own, I think French's theory would be invigorated and enlarged.


French's terminology is cut off from another resource which could sustain and enrich it. The most important context for her argument is missing from the elaborate apparatus of footnotes: there is no acknowledgement of other feminist theorists, nor is there any citation of feminist critics of Shakespeare. To take one example: French begins by examining the distinction between the human and the natural according to which men are assigned human status and women, because of the physical capacity to give birth, are equated with nature. In “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” (Women, Culture, and Society, ed. Rosaldo and Lamphere [Stanford University Press, 1974], pp. 67-87), Sherry B. Orlner has covered the same material with greater incisiveness. While it is unfair to complain about French's missing this one reference, its absence is symptomatic. Her general silence with regard to other feminist writers gives the impression that she is working in a vacuum, which may help to explain the anomalous combination of feminist conviction and conventional literary critical instinct in this book. At moments she insists on her credentials as a law-abiding reader who adheres to accepted norms. She is, for instance, anxious to make it clear that she does not subscribe to the concept of character. She agrees that “Shakespeare wrote out of a world view, not about character” (p. 31)—a spurious mutually exclusive distinction which fails to consider that both may be the case. She believes that “Shakespeare never really wrote drama of character. This seems to have been acknowledged in the last few decades” (pp. 34-35). French's invention of an imaginary consensus here may reassure critics of a staunchly anti-Bradley persuasion, but her opposition to character does not help her argument since it is inconsistent with her earlier point that men in Shakespeare are allowed the status of developing characters while women are restricted to types. In a similar vein, French also makes disparaging, facile remarks against “psychologizing” by appealing to a caricature version of psychological interests—to no good purpose that I can see.

French's traditionalist impulse is most pronounced, and most inhibiting, in her use of genre categories. She links gender and genre by defining tragedy as primarily a masculine form and comedy as primarily a feminine form. But this distinction is too global, arbitrary and vague to be illuminating in detailed analysis. In particular, French's treatment of the comedies suffers from the superficial, misleading generalization that her generic paradigm encourages. She notes in passing that male “power” as well as “love” is an issue in A Midsummer Night's Dream (p. 99), but is unable to develop this perception. In As You Like It, French sees that “to keep Rosalind from offending,” her freedom is circumscribed by “constant references to her femaleness, references located in a belief in ‘natural’ and basic differences in the genders” (p. 113), but again French does not follow through in a sustained, focused way. In both cases, French's insights—if pursued—would call into question the value of her notion of comedy as a “feminine” structure since the happy endings depend on the reinstatement of male control.

Her analysis of The Merchant of Venice can be readily assimilated to the standard view because the predictable labeling of Belmont as “feminine” (p. 101) leads to an uncritical view of Portia; French merely reproduces and participates in the complacent celebration of the heroine. The problem is that French argues from a thesis about comedy rather than from the actual experience of an individual play. Comedy as a genre is supposed to possess a positive mood: if French's interpretation moves sharply counter to the general definition, she adjusts the specific interpretation to the point of sacrificing it. For instance, she maintains that tragedy deals with “irrevocable” action, while comedy presents the “revocable.” Yet her analysis of Much Ado about Nothing rightly shows that Claudio and Don Pedro's misogynist attack on Hero is only technically revocable but is not genuinely cancelled, so that (as I would argue) Shakespeare deliberately makes the ending problematic; they “do not even question their own behavior” (p. 135). French then unconvincingly tries to minimize the explosiveness of the male-female antagonism she has exposed:

… the play is less problematic than it has appeared. Realistic problems … such as the unpleasantness of Claudio and his seeming lack of feeling, and the absence of reproach for Claudio and Don Pedro, diminish.

(p. 156)

The prevailing mood is lightheartedness, even in Much Ado, (This does not appear in my discussion of the play … But much of the play is devoted to the comic machinations …)

(p. 142)

This divided assessment of Much Ado about Nothing, this attempt to have it both ways, exemplifies the muddled stance caused by a fundamental conflict in French's approach. She has a good insight on the one hand and, on the other, attempts to take it back in order to preserve the superficial idea of comedy as handling problems “with a light touch” (p. 142), to preserve the appearance of not overstepping an unnecessarily narrow boundary of comic decorum.

This outcome is especially self-defeating in view of her contention that, relative to tragedy, comedy has been undervalued; “The comedies are held in less esteem than the tragedies by critics of earlier centuries, and some of our own” (p. 34). Despite her intention to raise its status, French does not take comic form seriously enough. Her romanticized portrait of the feminine which she associates with comedy in the chapter on “Formal Equivalents of the Gender Principles” contributes to an oversimplified view of comedy as a genre. Beneath the slight lyric grace, Shakespearean comedy is a much tougher and more problematic form than French allows. Her declension of genre begins by remarking on the continuities between comedy and tragedy, but ends by swerving emphatically toward their differences. I think it is more fruitful to reverse this procedure, to go back to the beginning and stress the ways in which the two forms converge. The tragedies

have been considered, by generations of critics, more serious and more realistic than the comedies. They are neither. They deal with much the same material, the same concerns, and use many of the same techniques and devices.

(p. 203)

French nicely addresses the substantial points of contact between comedy and tragedy, but her approach to comedy does not benefit from her eloquence here.

The single most important episode in the book is her encounter with King Lear, the play which most deeply engages, challenges and finally eludes her. The section on King Lear, the one play that resists French's customary brisk, neat treatment, is by far the longest. It breaks down into three parts whose uneasy coordination suggests three separate efforts to control the material: (1) “In King Lear, Shakespeare momentarily pushes aside the gender principles to examine the original terms of their division, the split between the human and nature” (p. 220); (2) “This is not to say, however, that gender divisions do not exist in the play. They do, and are extremely important on the subsurface of the tragedy” (p. 231); (3) “A few final words about Edgar” (p. 239). After starting out with the comment that the play “risks everything” (p. 219). French's reading of King Lear concludes with an emphasis on “affirmation” that seems to me falsely saccharine. Her failure with this play is, as I see it, the result of insufficient persistence with a feminist inquiry. She uses her concepts of gender half-heartedly, and ultimately abandons rather than refines and deepens them. In the final section on Edgar, which seems tacked on as an afterthought, French falls back on the orthodox notion that Edgar is not a character but an emblem:

But Edgar makes less sense as a character in the play. Although his main action is to preserve his father, his disguises actually prolong the old man's suffering … He does not function as a son to Gloucester in the scenes in which he leads him. He functions rather as a suffering witness.

… He is not so much a character as a composite.

… He personifies the quiet, unrecognized will to decency that exists in every people, every nation.

(pp. 240-241)

Although Stanley Cavell is not mentioned, he ought to be, for French in effect rebuts Cavell's account of the play by magically withdrawing Edgar's status as a character. In so doing, French turns away from her earlier, more apt observations: “Edgar, in a moment of mean-minded moralization, asserts that ‘the dark and vicious place’ where Gloucester conceived Edmund has now justly, in retribution, cost him his eyes” (p. 236); “Edgar is misogynistic when he reads Goneril's letter to Edmund and exclaims. ‘O indistinguish'd space of woman's will!’ … (p. 237). French convinces herself that

The rhetorical line of King Lear is enormously strong, so strong that it prevents any reading of the play other than the direction given by it … It is woven in, line by line, and its import is unmistakable. Except for Lear and Gloucester, who err and suffer and grow, who provide the human level of the play, the remaining characters are divided almost instantly into the utterly good and the utterly evil.

(p. 238)

Therefore Edgar must be one of the utterly good morality-play figures; indications to the contrary can be explained away by believing that he is not a character and hence cannot be held accountable for what he says. But, as Janet Adelman points out in her Introduction to Twentieth-Century Interpretations of King Lear, to acquiesce in such a reductive scheme is to absolve the character and to abdicate critical responsibility at the most crucial and complicated moments in King Lear. More particularly, French has so hedged herself in with conventional restrictions and expectations that she has made it all but impossible to give a thoroughgoing assessment of gender in the play.


I dwell on the deficiencies of Shakespeare's Division of Experience because of the danger that it will be used—incorrectly—to condemn all feminist criticism of Shakespeare on the grounds that any interest in gender will result, a priori, in schematic interpretation. But the problem with French's approach is not her “gender principles,” but rather her haphazard application of them. Now that psychoanalytic criticism has attained a measure of respectability, it has become possible as a matter of course to distinguish between good and bad versions of it. However, these distinctions are not yet widely and calmly made in considering feminist criticism. The New York Review of Books, for example, invites us to participate in indiscriminate, wholesale rejection of the study of gender in Shakespeare when the title of its review of French's book asks: “Was Shakespeare a Chauvinist?” (XXVIII [June 11, 1981], p. 20). We know this is not a genuinely open but a rhetorical question that trivializes and mocks the issue because we have already been alerted (as if a cue were needed!) by the bold print at the top of the front page announcing “Feminist Attack on Shakespeare.” The headline, marshalling a mindless group solidarity, licenses a generalized, all-out defense of Shakespeare as established cultural territory.

Yet—as I hope to show—the “attack” which is presumed to justify a counter-offensive never occurred. The reviewer Anne Barton, who has written perceptively about relations between men and women in her essay on Antony and Cleopatra and in her introductions to the comedies in The Riverside Shakespeare, cannot be blamed for these anonymous headlines. Nevertheless, though I feel her vigorous critique of French is valid, Barton's review emits an animosity out of proportion to the circumstances. For example, in her haste to condemn French, Barton inaccurately asserts that Queen Elizabeth is “never mentioned in this book.” In fact, French says: “Shakespeare's culture was misogynistic, despite being ruled (and well) by a woman” (p. 75). I believe Barton's excessively hostile tone can be explained by her determination to distance herself from feminist criticism in general, not only from its failure in this particular case. Such a repressive approach blocks an appreciation of the positive aspects of French's contribution.

The attack that French is alleged to have carried out against Shakespeare is actually an attack on—or more precisely, a violation of—the intentional fallacy which prohibits our making inferences about the author when analyzing a literary work. In theory, one must strictly suppress the “naive,” “irrelevant” questions: Would Shakespeare agree with my analysis? Is my interpretation consistent with Shakespeare's? But most critics glance discreetly at such questions by tacitly assuming that their analysis of the play's design coincides with Shakespeare's view. French commits the double indiscretion of talking loudly and clearly about Shakespeare as author and of suggesting forthrightly that he is imperfect. As usual, French is not always convincing and scrupulous in demonstrating exactly how, in particular instances, she moves from the text of a play to conclusions about Shakespeare's authorial role. Nonetheless, her general portrait of Shakespeare as an artist seems to me plausible, and I think much can be learned from it.

Perhaps the most significant lesson in French's disregarding the taboo against criticizing Shakespeare is that Western civilization does not come to an end as a consequence. Shakespeare not only survives without the protection of the intentional fallacy, but emerges in surprisingly positive form in French's depiction of him. Her Shakespeare is both heroic and human, as the following excepts suggest:

For Shakespeare, unlike some of his critics, did not unthinkingly adopt the received wisdom of his time. He really probed, dramatically, the subjects of power and legitimacy, his own attitudes toward sex and women; he struggled all his life for a vision of a proper ordering of society.

(p. 18)

Thus, for Shakespeare to plumb the consequences of his own sexual disgust is an act of particular moral courage. He probed, like a surgeon with a metal pick, the raw painful foundations of his own moral being. The agony and strain of this effort are reflected in the plays.

(pp. 144-145)

Thus, the tragedies are among the most radical criticism ever written of the values of Western society.

(p. 202)

Though tinged with melodrama, French's image of Shakespeare as anguished, struggling, and critical is a useful corrective to the Keatsian version of a serene, elusive Shakespeare who is totally “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” and who has “no identity.” (Joyce takes the impersonality of dramatic form to its extreme with his image of the artist as “invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”) Keats marvels that “the camelion Poet” “has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen,” as if such polymorphous creation were entirely random and value-free. Yet, in the context of French's book, we can say that the two characters form a pair, bound by the logic of Shakespeare's exploration of masculine and feminine polarities. French, then, frees up our aesthetic picture of Shakespeare by offering a rough-hewn, workable alternative.

In outline form, the argument which supports French's revised image of Shakespeare is valuable. She summarizes the four central elements in her argument:

the abusiveness and insensitivity of many male power figures; the helplessness and agedness of most benevolent males; the viciousness of females who were sexual and/or wielded some power in the world; the adoring idealization of inlaw feminine—motherly—qualities of compassion nutritriveness, constancy, and givingness, although not in motherly figures.

(p. 324)

These elements come to life, for example, in Hamlet:

And for Hamlet, there is no mean between chastity—pure, cold and holy—and depravity in women. In addition, for Hamlet as for his ghost-father, men are divided into gods, the celestial, falling off into garbage, the ideal and the perversion … There is the superhuman and the subhuman, and his categories apply to both genders.

(pp. 148-149)

Overall, French sees as the basic configuration in Shakespeare's work an internal split within both the masculine and the feminine principles: order depends on “restraining the extremes of each principle” (p. 287). But, according to French, the two splits are not of equal importance. The anxiety attaching to disruptions in the benign operation of the feminine principle is far more threatening and emotionally charged for Shakespeare. Hence, although French is not always precise and consistent in her use of terms like “integration” and “synthesis,” the balance of masculine and feminine toward which Shakespeare moves is skewed in men's favor.

As French delineates Shakespeare's resolution, the reformation of masculinity—“the masculine principle must be feminized” (p. 322)—is accompanied by the continuation of constricted femininity:

First, … what is urged is a degree of synthesis. The “feminine” must submit to masculine control, the “masculine” must accept feminine subordination. This is less a synthesis, perhaps—for synthesis would require a suffusion of the principles by each other—than separate but equal maintenance, a subordination of each principle to the other, a mutual bowing. Second, the rightness of the masculine principle is affirmed …

(p. 322)

But the second point transforms “equal maintenance” into “an equality of a sort” (p. 330), for “the door between the gender principles opens only one way” (p. 29).

The visions of synthesis are invariably visions of male figures. It is never suggested that any female figure should or could absorb the masculine qualities of power, authority, or right …

(p. 30)

Even in those plays that center on a heroine, he was writing mainly for and about men … The woman is a stranger in Shakespeare because she is part of a male's self, a pole in his psyche …

(p. 326)

If feminist criticism of Shakespeare can be defined as reframing Ben Jonson's homage as the question “In what way is Shakespeare ‘for all time’?,” then I think French performs a valuable service by differentiating her views about gender from those she attributes to Shakespeare. French argues that Shakespeare could not solve the problem of gender within the terms he formulated it: “But because he—and his tradition—saw experience in terms of polar opposites, his work has been important in perpetuating the very division he sought to reconcile” (p. 341). By contrast, her own position points to “the way out of the bind” which she feels Shakespeare did not find: “My attitude, beyond this study, is that the identification of moral qualities with gender is itself the root of the problem …” (p. 340). The solution is “to abandon these divisions, to see all of human experience as good and available to all humans” (p. 341). It is only by “going beyond Shakespeare” (p. 310) in this explicit way that French is able, as Adrienne Rich puts it in When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision (1971), to “see with fresh eyes”: “We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.”

The objection usually raised against the kind of criticism of Shakespeare in which French engages is that it automatically entails a shameless, smug tone. But French's book does not, as a general rule, indulge in a sense of superiority. What is missing, however, is a consciousness on French's part that her own proposed solution to the problem of gender sounds blithely utopian. Perhaps it is incumbent on us as feminist critics of Shakespeare to take more responsibility for elaborating our own implied visions of gender reorganization after the model of Nancy Chodorow's discussion of “Future Possibilities” (Signs, 6, 3 [Spring, 1981], pp. 500-514). In Chodorow's case, “even in a nonsexist society, … gender would remain (even if not so rigidly dichotomized) …” What is at issue for literary critics is not ritual gestures of humility, but rather an acknowledgement that there is no ultimate solution in the sense that gender would cease to be problematic.

Marilyn French and Janet Todd (interview date 1983)

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SOURCE: French, Marilyn, and Janet Todd. “Marilyn French.” In Women Writers Talking, edited by Janet Todd, pp. 69-78. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1983.

[In the following interview, French discusses her body of work, the masculinity of language, and the critical reception of her novels.]

The room was elegant, expensive, overlooking Central Park; the interview formal, businesslike. It was my first meeting with Marilyn French and there was no intimacy or memories in our conversation.

I asked her about her first published book—on James Joyce's Ulysses—and why she chose to write on this topic. “It was my doctoral dissertation,” she replied, “and it was a problem. I love Joyce, but if you're going to write a dissertation on something that's been written on a thousand times it's no fun; yet nobody had ever really been able to talk about what lies at the center of Ulysses or even seriously addressed the styles. It was interesting and something that I could get done in a year.” She'd been planning another topic: images in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature, on which she is working now. She has just finished the first volume on Shakespeare. “It's taken me five years,” she laughed, “so I'm very glad I didn't do that for a dissertation.” Joyce, Marilyn French felt, had not influenced her thematically. “I was much too old when I read him seriously,” she explained. “I'd already written five novels, finished two, although nothing was published. I think I learned things about writing from Joyce—about control of tone and so forth.” She paused a moment. “But I think I'd already set out to learn that for myself long before as well. I got more knowledge from Joyce.”

I wondered, however, whether she had not reacted against Joyce in one instance, since he seemed through guides to distance himself more and more from his characters, where she had moved nearer to hers between her two novels The Women's Room and The Bleeding Heart. No, she thought not, and she brought up the subject that intruded more than once into our conversation: the direct expression of emotion. “We live in a culture in which emotion is really looked down on,” she pointed out. “If a work of art deals with human emotion as we feel it—which Ulysses does—it's going to be called sentimental and I think Joyce was extremely sentimental and knew it.” Yet Joyce did not write a sentimental book—he was also very ironic. “If you look at Dubliners, his first book, it's cold eye and cold heart, except maybe a little bit in The Dead; then his next book is all emotion—Stephen Daedalus—really a little bit much and I think he really was split between those things. Because he was so brilliant, he came up with an absolutely unique and brilliant form. But it has nothing to do with me—it's from a different world and a different gender. It's from a different attitude. I have serious respect for emotion.”

Emotion came up again when we spoke of Marilyn French's best-known novel The Women's Room, which repeatedly details the extreme feelings of women. “I do think emotion is more accessible to women than men,” she declared. “They're more aware of it. When men start to feel something, they immediately turn on the TV set and watch a ball game, go out and argue at a political meeting, get rid of their emotions there so they don't have to be aware they have them. I don't think men are less emotional than women. I think they're simply less aware of their emotion, and, when it does come out, it comes out in a very childish way—fourteen-year-old temper tantrums, or five-year-old jealousies.” She waited a moment, then added emphatically, “I think women are terribly emotional. Emotion is as much a part of one's self as mind or body.”

I admitted to being uncomfortable with the amount of feeling presented in The Bleeding Heart, where the main character Dolores manages to remain vulnerable and undeadened after a life of emoting and horrors. Marilyn French grew impatient. “That's just why she's in pain—because she isn't deadened. She wouldn't be a very interesting character if she was.” She went on to note the similarity between The Women's Room and The Bleeding Heart in the progression from the statement of intense emotion to an investigation of its cause. She hadn't, she confessed, been aware of that progression in the first book, but in the second she was perfectly so. “A friend told me that when she first started to read the narrative sections [that took place] on the beach in The Women's Room, she thought that the amount of emotion, the sense of tragedy that this narrative had was way out of whack with what you knew. But by the time you'd finished reading the whole book, you realized that the emotions were nowhere near what they could have been.”

I had read the reviews of Marilyn French's two novels. Most were favorable, but several had made very similar criticisms; that she loaded her books with extraneous detail which buried her themes and characters and, even more frequently, that she was too polemical, and—related to this—that her characters became exemplars, not living people. She seemed a little irritated by these charges. To the first she replied, “I don't think that this has been made as a negative criticism. I don't think the detail is ever extraneous. When that's been mentioned, it's been positive. I think that is how you create the texture of a day, a life, or an event. I don't think you do it by describing it in large historical terms. It seems to me that is the very technique of poetry.”

The second criticism, she admitted, bothered her to the point that she thought about it; yet she felt it unjust. “When you're working against a current, against the very basic assumptions of the culture, if you don't get polemical, if you don't say what you have to say, no one is going to hear you. People can say, ‘But that's damaging to your literature.’ And maybe they're right but maybe they're not right. The one writer who means more to me than any other writer—and always has from the very first time I ever wrote a book a lot of years ago—was Dostoevsky. I recently reread The Brothers Karamazov and found he was writing on the other side of the same question I'm writing about. He's talking about patriarchy, he's talking about what does God mean and if a thing called God exists, why. And that huge district attorney's summing-up of the case against Mitya is essentially a defense of a primal being which is masculine, narrow-minded, insists on certain sexual and moral codes, and so forth. I never thought of that as polemical.”

Perhaps it's English literature, especially the modern novel that has tended to avoid the polemical, I began. I meant this as English-language literature, but in her answer Marilyn French focused on the country. “English literature isn't polemical, especially the present day. The writers most popular in England today, like Drabble and Weldon, Bernice Rubens and Kingsley Amis, John Osborne and so forth …” She dismissed them expressively. “It's all very light. It's hesitant ever to be thought that it takes itself seriously.” Certainly, I interrupted, it values the ironic mode. “Yes, ironic, a little distanced from things, never making large claims. That's not the tradition of English literature. Eliot, Dickens, Shakespeare …” As for her characters being exemplars, she considered that “most people do feel those characters and they live on the page. I think Mira of The Women's Room lives on the page—to the point where everyone thinks it's direct autobiography. What I say to them is ‘Have you ever read an autobiography that was dead all the way through?’ Because God knows there are lots of them. And the reason my books feel autobiographical and alive is that I'm a good writer, not because these things are real. I think the characters are very much alive.”

We turned then to specific topics from Marilyn French's books. I felt she caught wonderfully the sense of loneliness in life, remembering the passage referring to Dolores's past in The Bleeding Heart—how she would “sigh her way to bed alone and be there feeling it, the pain that was with her always, so familiar and accustomed a guest that it could be ignored for long stretches. It shuffled around her house in bedroom slippers, and made its own tea.”

“I don't see how you can really know who you are unless you allow yourself to be alone, which means feeling lonely on occasion. Loneliness is as much a part of life as togetherness … I think that, if you're alone and you've been with people and there's a lot of loneliness going on and they go home and the door shuts, the sense of loneliness at that moment is really overwhelming; but within an hour you're perfectly contented. I think you could have exactly the same sense of loneliness if there was a body in the bed.”

Which brought us to sexuality, so much a male topic in literature. I asked her how she managed to write about sex, since sexual vocabulary is overwhelmingly male. (One critic unkindly said that her sex scenes are copies from old semipornographic models.) “It's difficult to write a sex scene, period,” she replied. “I think there's really only one in The Women's Room and in The Bleeding Heart there aren't many.” She hesitated. “There are, but I use metaphors from other areas rather than bodily terms to describe the sex. I thought about it—I mean I had to think about how to depict female experience itself, which has traditionally been rendered by men as a surrender to, a vanquishing, a giving into, a being taken, and so forth. But I think that's not necessarily how women feel. I try to find the right language when there isn't any other. A lot of things in our experience have no words.”

From sexuality we moved to marriage, which, The Bleeding Heart suggests, is an outdated and hopeless institution. Marilyn French thought it just a word. “You enter a marriage with the expectations of your period. Some people are entering marriage nowadays with a different set of expectations from people of my generation. I think for us, it's finished. I know one or two marriages of people in my generation that don't have the usual power relation underlying them, but I don't know many, and most of the people I know of my age are not married and never will marry again—in fact find it difficult to find men because the men of our age are all so hollow and mechanical, emotional zombies. But I think there are some, a handful of younger men, who are a little bit better.” I mentioned the view of traditional marriage in The Bleeding Heart, emblematized by Edith, wrecked and immobile, with no legs. This, for Marilyn French, was indeed marriage.

I raised the problem of children in an age of separations. In French's books, they appear blighted by their parents' breakings. Marilyn French disagreed with this, feeling that the blight comes not from the breaking of a marriage but from the marriage itself. “It's not the fact of the divorce but all that leads up to it,” she went on, “the quarreling, the hatred that suddenly fills the house that is so bad for the children. But even when parents stay together, people are so terribly crippled by their childhoods, people whose parents didn't get divorced, it didn't make any difference; what was done to them as children was so horrendously cruel and you don't really ever get over it.” There is then nothing traumatic about having only one parent? “No, I think that when you don't have to have these miserable marriages, people might have a little better chance for personal fulfillment and may not be so miserable, and if they're not so miserable, they're not going to be quite so miserable to their children.”

I wanted to go back to her earlier point about the absence of language for women's experiences, and I asked her if she felt prose had a gender, whether there was such a thing as a female style. “There must be because when I get mail—and I get an awful lot of fan mail—I know within two sentences whether a man or a woman wrote it and I'm always right. In fact one time I got a letter which started out in the usual pompous way that male letters begin and I thought, this has to be a man, and I looked at the name and it was a woman's name. I thought, wow, this is unusual and I went back and read the letter and, though he had a woman's name—maybe it was Evelyn or something like that—he said ‘I am a man’ at some point in the letter, so that I knew and, indeed, I was right. But in prose I think it would be hard to tell. The only way you could really say that is if you could get sentences that no one knew and laid them out to test people—which you can't do because people who know literature would know where they came from.”

French women critics never tire of pointing out that up to now women have had to write male writing and that they have had a subservient relationship to language itself. Marilyn French took this point, agreeing that the English sentence, like the French or German, is masculine. “That is, the structure is subject, verb, object—he fucks her. You have a doer and a done-to. I think language will change. For instance in seventeenth-century English prose or twentieth-century poetry, particularly of people like Yeats, you find a lot of verbals. The subject is not necessarily clear and there is no object. There is a doing. I find it in Sir Thomas Browne and even in Bacon. I think that the syntax of sentences will change in time, as women have more influence not only on what gets done in the world, but what gets felt and thought. Meantime, I do not myself choose to experiment with other forms of prose because, frankly, I want to be understood and, if I have to use a male sentence to do it, I will do it.”

If one can see gender cutting through language and syntax, can one, I wondered, see it affecting tradition? Is there a female tradition of the type American feminist critics have tried to isolate? Marilyn French thought not and found it a dangerous idea. “Whenever one isolates a tradition,” she explained, “I start to worry, because a tradition is a hierarchy, a passing on, a continuity of a particular line. So if you're F. R. Leavis and you say ‘This is the Great Tradition in English literature,’ you have to leave out some of the most interesting things that were done in English literature in order to say it. I find that a terrible thing to do—as though Blake or Sterne were somehow extraneous to other things. I don't think they are.

“I think that the woman writer who wants to write about women's experience in some typical way almost has to break with the tradition of the past. The great novelists of the past dealt with women who were unmarried, who were about to make the one choice they were allowed to make in their whole lives: whom to marry. The novel ends with them marrying or perhaps marrying anew as with Dorothea Brooke. A woman must be sexually chaste no matter what she thinks or does. She can rebel, but only so far. Male supremacy is it. And even if you're someone like Charlotte Brontë who, as Virginia Woolf says, breaks into her novel to complain (I've no problems with that in the way Woolf did—it's clearly related to the rest of her novel because what does Jane Eyre do to Rochester at the end in order to be an equal? She has to blind and cripple him), she's writing about male supremacy. I think if you want to write about women now, you have to break forcefully these conventions. You can't just ignore them or go round them—you really have to break with them directly. So you're breaking with the past, period.”

If, then, she felt no community with past writers, did she feel part of a community of contemporary ones? “Not of female writers particularly. I have been part of a female community always—ever since I was an adult. I didn't like girls when I was a girl. I thought they were silly: they talked about nail polish and dresses and I was reading Schopenhauer. There was just no communication. There was only a little communication with boys in those days but there was some. You could at least sing Mozart together. But when I became a woman I had absolutely a community of women and have never been without one—since in fact some of my present friends are the friends I had then. As I've gotten older and met different kinds of women it does happen that a lot of my friends write. They aren't necessarily novelists. Since The Women's Room was published, I've come to know other female writers, whom I like very much, but life is at a different point now and I don't have the time to spend hours and hours—and neither do they—getting to know someone; so they're not as close to me as my other friends are.”

I asked her if she'd always had the urge to write and, if she had, whether this grew out of some childhood loneliness or unhappiness. She thought this a negative way of looking at it. “I was lonely and unhappy but I think most children are and I don't think I read or wrote because I was lonely. I did other things. I played the piano, I drew. I could have spent all my time doing these things and not reading and writing.” I was interested in her childhood unhappiness. “My parents are still married and they're both very sweet people. They didn't abuse me. It was a sad childhood but it wasn't horrible. It was sad because my mother was so moody and she was so unhappy because she hated her life. She didn't take it out on me, but you come home and this woman is there and she's put away the washboard and put the clothes on the line and she's got a mind but she doesn't even know it. She was unhappy, that's all. And that's not good.”

With her independent views, I wondered how Marilyn French had got into the academic routine and come to take a Ph.D. “I'd always wanted to. I started on a master's when I was first married, but then I got pregnant. I stayed home with the children and I wrote novels and short stories and so forth. And after about ten years I was pretty lonely and very unsuccessful and I thought, I've got to get out, I've got to talk to other people with my own interests. And I'm not going to make it as a writer—I don't know what's wrong, but I'm not. So I went back. I'd always been good at academics and one-half of my desire had been to teach—the other half was to write.”

Now that fame had come, did she feel at all unworthy of it? “No, I think I felt very bad at one point—which was, after twenty years of writing and publishing one book and teaching and being very good at what I did, I was out of work. I didn't think The Women's Room was going to get taken and I was feeling pretty despairing. But once it did, everything was all right again.”

How about the jealousy that fame brings? Did she feel any from other women? “Not from my friends. I suppose there might be some, but if there is I don't get friendly with those people. I have a very rich life. I have a lot of good friends. In fact if I meet new people, it's hard to squeeze them into my life. There's so little time. And fame does make new relationships more difficult—you can't credit them.”

You seem a secure person now, I interrupted. “I liked what the French said when I was there—that I was serene, that I have a kind of equanimity because I've been through an awful lot in my life and I know I've survived.”

I questioned her then about her present work. “I have a book on Shakespeare coming out in March. In the following year there will be a book of essays in which my ideas will be laid out. I go about the country giving speeches a lot and women want the ten commandments of feminism. Not only don't I have them but if I had them I wouldn't give them to them. It's horrible—you may as well join the Communist party or the Catholic Church. But it is a thoughtful summary of what I see and I attempt to offer whatever vision I have. And then after that, there'll be another novel.”

Marilyn French is clearly a feminist writer. She judges herself so and reviewers use the phrase to praise or belittle depending on stance. I wanted therefore to ask her about feminism and its meaning to her. I began with the TV film of The Women's Room, which, instead of ending with a rape, a death, and the main character at a community college drinking brandy, sailed out on the high winds of a feminist speech. “I think the people involved in making the film tried very hard to get as much of the truth of the book into it as is permitted on American television. The networks did not want a rape; they did not want a death at the end; they did not want a downbeat ending—in fact they wanted Mira and Ben to marry at the end. What they did present is Eleanor Holmes Norton's words—in my book!”

In The Bleeding Heart, Marilyn French wrote of England, and I asked her about the very different feminist consciousness there. “I find almost no feminist consciousness,” she replied emphatically. “I find a class structure which separates one group of women from others. I find that the group of women who are doing the writing—for magazines, newspapers, and television—are enormously competitive with each other. I find them all deferential to men. I find them very, very threatened by feminism. I think this is largely the class system. I mean if you've got a group of women who are able to get to Oxford and Cambridge and are able to get jobs because they've connections and they know people and because they're in that upper elite, then you're going to have a hard time having them sympathize or identify with the women on the other level.”

When I pointed out that Americans too seem to distinguish between university feminism and activist feminism, she went on, “In the first place, the country's so much huger and there's so much more upward mobility—people from lower classes getting to positions of power. And there isn't the same kind of entrenched power structure. I'm not saying there isn't a tiny little elite class in America because there is, but people slip out of it and in all the time. It's a bigger, less stable country and because of that this situation is less severe. Which is not to say that I don't know any women in England who are feminists but the few I meet are very embattled, very untrusting, likely to be separatist—which is also true in Italy, Spain, and Germany. The most intense feminists are militant, socialist, separatist. If they're socialist they're working with the Marxists or they're separatist because they're dealing with a fascist tradition. And they know they have to raise the same kind of vigor and hatred against what they're encountering. It's a direct response to the entrenched governmental politics. Franco may be dead, but all the people who put him in office and the people who own the money are not. Hitler may be gone but Germany is the same and Italy is the same. So the feminism of a country has far more to do with the immediate situation of that country than it has with worldwide feminism, which is why feminists have such a hard time getting together across international barriers.”

Despite Marilyn French's last statements, I sensed a certainty in belief and purpose. Do you never fear the results of feminism, I asked, never feel that it is cold out there and that it might have been warmer if more suffocating indoors?

“It's very cold out there. It's war out there. When I go round the country I have to fight my way. In England too. Continually. And I get tired of it. I hate it. But I have a kind of certitude. That may be seen as ridiculous. But I don't see it as ridiculous. I think certain values are absolutely right. I think that my philosophy, which doesn't appear as much in the novels as it will in the nonfiction things, is right. There's no deciding to go back to some other way. What other way? I've always been this way—I've been this way since I was a child. To think that you have a handle on truth, to think that you have certitude about something is, of course, ludicrous. But I'm not claiming to have the truth about what human life means or where it began or where it ends up. I do claim to have a truth about how it should be led. It's a limited truth but it's absolute for me.

“To me feminism is not just about women,” Marilyn French went on, “it's about moral values, identified with women, though I don't think women have a gene for them. In this world at this moment, technology and the power people are becoming fewer and fewer and more and more powerful, so that you have essentially three huge centers of power which are capable of wiping out the world. Countries dedicated to profit are less and less concerned with the human life they destroy, about the nature they destroy. I don't see how you can be alive at a time like this and not devote your energies to countering that and it seems that feminism is the most cohesive and comprehensive philosophy opposing it. One could become an ecologist or an antinuclear person, all of which I'm sympathetic with—but feminism embraces all of it.”

And you never doubt. “Oh no, I never doubt.”

Publishers Weekly (review date 3 May 1985)

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SOURCE: Review of Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals, by Marilyn French. Publishers Weekly 227, no. 18 (3 May 1985): 58.

[In the following review, the critic praises French's central argument in Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals but notes that the book is “overlong” and presents “a great deal of repetition.”]

In her bold, imaginative attempt to change the way we view our culture, the author of The Women's Room synthesizes an enormous amount of material from such diverse fields as anthropology, history, sociology, linguistics and science [in Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals]. The philosophical basis of all contemporary societies, French argues, is a patriarchal world view whose highest value is power: the domination of nature, which includes the subjection of women, nonwhites and the poorer classes as “inferior”; the belief in a permanent, unchanging, perfect order that somehow transcends the physical world. These values, she maintains, create the loneliness, alienation and anxiety characteristic of modern life and will almost inevitably lead to world destruction.

In her search for an alternative morality. French goes back to the far reaches of history. The first human societies, she contends, were matri-focal communities centered around the mother-child unit; they prized sharing, nurturing and survival rather than competition and killing. It was only as human beings began to alter their environment with tools, agriculture and hunting, to feel separate from and superior to nature, that the worship of control characteristic of patriarchal society made its appearance. Women, inextricably linked with nature through childbearing, became the focus of male fear and suspicion and were banished from communal and political life. French examines the consequences of this public-male/private-female split throughout history, concluding that “women have been imprisoned in the core, men on the fringe; and the two areas have been renamed.” In order to create a more humane, livable world, she states, we must assert the worth of long despised “feminine” values and replace the idea of power with that of pleasure—not self-indulgence, but belief in the value of happiness for all.

French's argument is provocative and generally convincing, but there are flaws in her presentation. The book is overlong; there is more exemplification than is necessary, and a great deal of repetition. French occasionally manipulates her material: she quotes other people's analyses of historical events as though they were facts; and several footnotes reveal that material documenting the terrible state of modern society is based on studies done more than a decade ago of conditions that have since improved.

These faults mar Beyond Power but don't negate its essential worth. French's clarion call to find an alternative morality or suffer the consequences of patriarchal thinking is impassioned and compelling. And readers emerge with a new understanding of the dangerous values that underlie modern society.

Further Reading

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Dunlap, Lauren Glen. Review of The War against Women, by Marilyn French. Belles Lettres 8, no. 1 (fall 1992): 20-1.

Dunlap praises French's focus on the injustices suffered by women in The War against Women.

McDaniel, Maude. “Sisters and Other Strangers.” Chicago Tribune Books (2 January 1994): section 14, p. 5.

McDaniel compliments French's prose in Our Father, commenting that the work is the most balanced of French's novels.

Peat, Irene M. Review of A Season in Hell, by Marilyn French. British Medical Journal 318, no. 7179 (30 January 1999): 336.

Peat lauds French's insightful and meticulously detailed account of her battle with cancer in A Season in Hell.

Selway, Jennifer. “Dad's the Word.” Observer (1 May 1994): 23.

Selway offers a mixed assessment of Our Father, noting that the novel's central themes remain “elusive.”

Additional coverage of French's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 3, 31; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 10, 18, 60; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; DISCovering Author Modules: Dramatists, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2.

Mary Rose Sullivan (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Sullivan, Mary Rose. “Breaking the Silence: Marilyn French's Her Mother's Daughter.” In Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman, pp. 41-7. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Sullivan examines how French portrays strained family relationships in Her Mother's Daughter.]

The title of Marilyn French's novel signals her view of the complex and mysterious tie that binds mothers and daughters. For French, a woman is, for better or worse, eternally her mother's daughter and, as the proverbial phrase itself seems wryly to suggest, the resemblance is likely to be for worse, not better. But French's novel—part fiction, part social history—holds out, in its unsparing examination of mother-daughter conflicts through several generations in one typical American family, the possibility that the apparently irresistible impulse that drives a daughter to repeat her mother's mistakes is not, in fact, irresistible—the cycle of repetition can be arrested, if only a woman will face up to, and speak out about, the conflicting emotions motherhood engenders in her. It is the conspiracy of silence, the refusal to acknowledge the frustration and even anger that women experience in the face of overwhelming demands on them, that locks them into the negative cycle of repetition. What Her Mother's Daughter demonstrates is that even the woman whose mother is lodged painfully in her heart like a splinter “that cannot be extracted”1 can—by breaking the silence about her feelings—at least keep from becoming a splinter in her own daughter's heart.

The difficulty in breaking the silence, as French's protagonist Anastasia Stevens finds, is that silence is not always easy to recognize for what it is. Her grandmother Frances, for example, seems to Anastasia and her sister Joy the essence of the warmly loving “babushka,” the Polish Grandma, but to their mother Belle, the daughter on whom Frances depended most in their early years of struggle, she seems remote and uncaring. Watching Frances with Belle, Anastasia says, “I know she loved her. … But Bella never knew it” (70). And Belle, hungry for her silent mother's words of affection, grew into a woman incapable of expressing affection, even to the adoring husband and children who tried to break through her wall of silence. Comparing herself with Frances and Belle, Anastasia prides herself on being able to communicate, as they could not. She may not be dutifully domestic as they were, but at least she's emotionally there for her children—or, as she puts it in one of her imagined dialogues with Belle: “I know you would have managed somehow to cook a good meal for them, but you wouldn't have talked to them!” (437). And, after all, didn't even Belle, after witnessing a particularly furious argument between Anastasia and her teen-aged daughter, Arden, admit to a kind of envy of their openness with each other? “Oh, I wish I could have talked to my mother like that!” (18) she had said tearfully. How is it then, Anastasia wonders, that she now finds herself—middle-aged, at the height of professional success—feeling miserably lonely, distanced from those children with whom she had communicated so well, and sinking into the same kind of chronic depression in which her mother has lived her life.

For her mother and grandmother both, battered by their struggle to survive, there was some excuse for their distrust of emotional engagement. But Anastasia has no such excuse: unlike the immigrant Frances, bewildered by a social system that could take her children from her, and the young Bella, deprived of childhood by the need to help her mother, she's had economic security and the freedom to choose the life she wants. What she finally comes to see, however—after a painful process of introspection—is that she does indeed have an excuse for feeling battered, too; because security and freedom don't inure a woman against the insatiable emotional demands of motherhood, that job so thankless and impossible and irresistible. That ineluctable need to sacrifice oneself for one's child would always—regardless of a woman's economic or social situation—clash with the instinctive urge to preserve her sense of self. Refusing to acknowledge the power of these contrary impulses in herself—refusing to break the silence—is what has brought Anastasia to her “black hole” (660) of depression.

Trying to puzzle it all out, she looks to her early years with Belle, who lives in silence. On the surface, at least, “silence” hardly seems to describe Belle's mode of suffering. She's like those “midge mothers,” insects who “sacrifice themselves entirely for their young” (4) but, as Anastasia ruefully notes, the midge young are luckier than she herself was, because they at least “never have to hear about it” (4). Anastasia had to hear about it, over and over. Belle's memories of a solitary childhood and the overwork and neglect that have left their marks on her still—her hearing dimmed, her heart “flawed” (12). “Listening over and over” (20), eagerly at first (“Tell me about when you were little, Mommy” [16]) and then guiltily—for adding to her mother's burdens—to those heard rending tales that all began the same way (“My father died when I was nine years old” [48]) Anastasia fell into the role—like Belle with Frances—of the “chosen one,” appointed to “become a midge mother in return” (20), to mother her own mother. Brooding over their shared knowledge—Belle “would never tell these things to anyone else” (20)—Anastasia looked desperately into the memories for “something buried, something hidden, something I could discover if I persisted that would make all the difference” (16). But the unspoken message in them is not Help me to live again, but simply a bleak warning: “Nothing, nothing you can do can console me for the loss of my life” (14). And, Anastasia admits, “I heard it … I understood” (14).

For Belle, language is untrustworthy and, to communicate her feelings, really unnecessary. Even in pouring out her woes, Anastasia notices, Belle skirts some incidents, breaks off—whenever the subject turns to those years of relative independence, before marriage and children thrust her back into servitude again. Reading “the silences and pauses” (27), Anastasia grasps “what the omissions in conversation meant” (27), that her mother is, quite simply, “furious” (27)—furious not only at the fate that marred her childhood but also at herself for having “surrendered to the ordinary” (159), instead of using her talents and drive to achieve something. And silence is a way to express her anger. The power of language was Anastasia's earliest discovery—to get what you wanted, “you spoke!” (172) and everyone responded—but her mother got what she wanted, it seems, by not speaking. “Silence. No one spoke … Mommy was silent” (181); “Mommy wasn't speaking to us. She often stopped speaking …” (92); we lived “for months, perhaps, in a silent house in which no one ever raised their voice and no one ever smiled” (282)—the memories of Belle refusing to speak are more vivid, and painful, for Anastasia than all Belle's tales of woe. When she pictures the family—herself, her sister Joy, their father—“sitting there in silence, all I want to do is cry” (231), she says, to “let out” all their grief, to break that silence. But Belle will never change; she would rather live out her life “locked into silence” (684) than risk being hurt again; for her, “language is part of silence, and breaks it only to deceive” (684). And so she will end her days—by choice—marooned on her porch as on a desert island, idly watching the birds whose songs she cannot hear (“Her hearing aid is turned off” [684]).

Grieved as she is by her mother's choice of silence, as shield and weapon against the world, Anastasia can understand only too well why the choice seemed natural to Belle. She had learned it as a child from her own mother. Frances expressed pain and anger by withholding herself, her love, her words. “Momma had fallen into a deep silence. She never spoke to Bella except to send her on errands. … They never spoke, the mother and the daughter” (57-58), but colluded in their silence. Bella “does not tell Momma she has been left back. Nor will Momma ever ask” (64). Later, a discreet silence became a way for Belle to protect her new-found independence; given a raise at work, she simply “did not tell Momma” (114) but pocketed the money for herself. And no wonder that Belle can so brusquely reject the childish offering of a handmade gift (“What do I want this junk for?” [93]) when that was the way her own love-offering of wildflowers had been received by Frances (“Oh, what do I want with a bunch of weeds!” [88]). Here is the cycle of generations in full force, every woman being her mother's daughter, in the worst way. As Anastasia bitterly concludes: “It doesn't matter what you do or how you try: the same things happen, over and over and over and over. There is no escape” (232).

Once, she had mistakenly thought it possible, by sheer will, to cut the “bloody cord” (322) connecting her to Belle. “I would not, would not, would not have a life like hers!” she promised herself grimly, “I would be happy!” (149). But even though she changes her name, from her mother's choice to the more dashing “Stacey,” and her life-style, from middle-class respectability to bohemian free spirit, she's soon trapped—just as Belle had been—by an unplanned pregnancy, into surrendering to the ordinary, in the form of pinched suburban domesticity. All that's left of her revolt is to cover up her frustration with a relentless cheerfulness, to be “her mother's opposite” in manner if not in essence. If Belle wept for months after Anastasia's birth, then Anastasia will weep not at all (“I didn't cry, I didn't utter a sound” [164]); if Belle rehearsed her injuries over and over, then Anastasia will bury her disappointments and confusion under a facade of nonchalance—easy enough to do, she thinks, because “I had no one to talk to” (163) and because no one, mother or husband or sister, cared to look beyond the facade. So natural is this withdrawal into silence that she never notices how it encompasses even that one part of her life where she enjoys some sense of control over fate—her burgeoning career as a photographer. Holding back the pictures she's taken of mothers with babies because they show “inappropriate” maternal images of anger or dismay, concealing from her editor the fact that she has children for fear of losing a choice assignment, she finds, without ever quite thinking about it, an infinite variety of ways to practice the “tight, silent withdrawal” (258) of a Frances or a Belle.

Occasionally a faint echo penetrates the wall of silence she's erected, as when she catches herself cutting off Arden's latest literary enthusiasm; her impatient dismissal (“sentimental slop!” [92]) sounds, to her own ears, a little too close for comfort to the style of Frances and Bella. But it takes a truly major shock wave—the breakup of her second marriage—to bring the wall tumbling down. This marriage, so different from her first, was all openness and freedom, its rules allowing her to pursue her by-now high-powered career and even the occasional extramarital fling, with no questions asked, in return for supporting Toni in his writing career. But the neat arrangement founders, unexpectedly, on the rock of Anastasia's silence. He would have accepted as her right, Toni complains, the separate bank account, “if only you'd told me about it” (555). Caution and concealment, however, are such ingrained habits in Anastasia that she never gave a thought to Toni's right to know. His response to the discovery is to go off on his own; hers is—as Belle's had been when feeling betrayed—to settle into “a permanent state of woundedness” (596). Terrible as is this black hole of depression, even more terrible for Anastasia is to see how thoroughly, despite all her determination to do otherwise, she has followed in her mother's footsteps. “I am just like her,” she realizes, “I am being transformed into her, clutching my pearl of inconsolability” (660).

That the one person who takes on the task of consoling her is her daughter only underscores for Anastasia how completely she is herself her mother's daughter. Franny, her youngest and most vulnerable child, assumes the role Anastasia had played to Bella, and Bella to Frances, of “the chosen one,” sharer of her mother's burdens. This ironical turn of the cycle crystallizes for Anastasia all the complexities of the mother-daughter connection. For Franny was to have been not her child, but Toni's; it had been his idea that they have a child and he, not Anastasia, was to take responsibility for raising her. But the mere possibility that Toni might now try to take Franny away with him is devastating: “This late child, this burden, this baby I had not raised completely as I had the others, this almost unwanted young life in the house: I could not have borne losing her” (592). Almost as devastating is the realization of what she has been doing to Franny, the good listener, whose hearing is as acute as her own in picking up a mother's unspoken messages. For Franny has clearly heard what she did not even know she was transmitting: that she is “angry … tense … all coiled up inside ready to explode … like Gramma” (634). The only consolation is that for Franny there was, what she never had, someone else to turn to with her worry. To Franny's account of confiding in friends, Anastasia says, “I wish kids had done that when I was a kid,” and hears the echo of Belle's wistful words: “I wish I could have talked to my mother like that” (636).

Being able to talk about her feelings—to break the silence—can help Franny avert the black hole of depression that threatened to swallow her mother as it had her grandmother, and the simple act of speaking out, finally, about what has been consuming her is the first step in Anastasia's healing process as well. Sparing Franny her lamentations, she finds a sounding board in Clara, her clear-sighted friend (as her name suggests) who is a feminist scornful of the notion that a woman should feel guilty for being unhappy: “everyone,” she insists, “has the right to feel bad about the things that happen to them, the right to complain and even cry about them” (437). The alternative is to stay “imprisoned in repetition” (661), endlessly repeating, from one generation to the next, the pattern of internalizing anger to the point of despair. To survive, Clara preaches and Anastasia agrees, a woman has to “unchoose” (660) the sadness she inherits, by breaking the silence about it.

One thing this means is learning to recognize all the guises that silence can take: rationalization, evasion, role-playing, lying. The well-intentioned deception, like inventing stories for her mother about her popularity (“this was a lie I frequently used because it seemed to make her happy” [25]) can too easily turn into self-deception, Anastasia acknowledges, like her denial of her mother's disappointment in her; she could not let herself know how Belle felt because “it would have destroyed me. I wasn't lying to anyone but myself” (149). Even her hiding of the mother-baby photographs that violated the sentimental images of serene motherhood was a kind of lie; no longer will she censor her photographs of women in all their variety of honest emotions, however unwelcome they may be in some quarters. To do so would be telling a lie “just like men's lies” about what women feel (624). Particularly insidious are the temptations to lie out of kindness, to keep the silence for the sake of keeping peace—concealing her friendship with Clara, for example, just to avoid offending Arden, or yielding to Clara's demands for emotional intimacy just out of gratitude. And she has to learn to put aside her flattering self-image as “cheerful Nellie, Pollyanna, laughing, cracking jokes” (273), always there for her children (”You weren't there … you were somewhere else!” Arden remembers [273]), always the good listener (hadn't Belle said, enviously, “You always had wonderful hearing, Anastasia” [15])—and yet here is her son denying it: “You never listen when I talk” (650). The most difficult act of honesty of all is to accept the bleak truth that, though she may yet be able to cease to be a splinter in her children's hearts, Belle will never cease to be a splinter in her heart. Her mother, locked in silence, has nothing left to give Anastasia, beyond the occasional flicker of pride in some achievement, and this, inadequate as it is, simply “has to be enough” (686).

In her own case, this arduous process of “unchoosing” silence disproves at least, the even bleaker theory that “there was no escape” from the inherited pattern of behavior. And, had she but heeded them, there were signs all along that behavior repeated in succeeding generations need not always be imprisoning. Anastasia's childish fantasies of punishing the teacher who had humiliated her mother reappear, unexpectedly, when Arden—even in the full bloom of adolescent rebelliousness—fiercely answers a critic who failed to appreciate her mother's work. The daughter's protective impulse is, it seems, something that doesn't need to be taught. And how is it, Anastasia wonders, as she plays at shaping soap lather figures for her children, that Belle had thought of doing that with her and Joy: “For surely no one had ever played it with her” (259). And then too there is Joy, also very much her mother's daughter, who has nevertheless managed to give the kind of loving mothering to her children that Belle never gave to her; where did that gift come from? Even Belle's envious reaction to the fight between Anastasia and Arden—”Oh, how I wish I could have talked to my mother like that!”—reflected a dim apprehension, however unrealized in action, that being able to express passionate feelings is better than being “locked into silence.”

Breaking the silence. In a sense this is what Marilyn French is doing in this unsentimental but ultimately optimistic novel. She is breaking the silence, for women in general, about the deep ambivalence they have to feel when taking on what is, as French says, “the hardest job in the world”—motherhood. And she is also breaking the silence for one particular woman who could not, or would not, articulate her own anger and pain. Essentially, this novel is, though spanning four generations, Belle's story: Frances remains, in her “foreignness” (9) and helplessness, a background figure; Arden is still an unfinished identity; Anastasia takes on, in the variety and intensity of her personal and professional options, an almost allegorical quality, as if she stands for all the strains in contemporary feminism. But Belle seems drawn from real life, firmly anchored in a recognizable time and place, and rendered with such sharp particularly that she dominates our imagination, as she does Anastasia's, from first page to last. Certainly, French encourages us to note parallels between the fictional Belle and her own mother in such touches as the novel's dedication (“For my mother Isabelle, 1904-1986”), which points to the similarity in name and dates, and in the inclusion of photographs from French's own family album. And, even though other photographs taken from public collections, and the titles of the first two sections of the novel (“The Children in the Mill” and “The Children in the Garden”) suggest that the book's characters represent types, from struggling immigrant to assimilated professional, of twentieth-century American historical currents, still, the personal and autobiographical dimensions loom large. The third and concluding section of the novel is entitled “Arrangement in Grey and Black” and accompanied by a reproduction of Whistler's portrait of similar title—“Arrangement in Black and Gray: The Artist's Mother.” This is surely an invitation to consider Belle as a portrait of the author's mother. At any rate, Whistler's painting, which was to an earlier age the icon of serene motherhood, takes on a radically different meaning in the context of Belle's story. Here the woman appears solitary, unreachable, both awesome and pathetic in her self-absorption, turned away resolutely from the viewer—“locked in silence,” it seems.

In French's portrait, we feel the weight—and the terrible waste—of that withdrawal into silence, but we also feel that French has succeeded in doing what Anastasia wanted to do: to live her mother's life over again with such imaginative sympathy that she gives Belle the voice she lacked, so that we do know her in the round and, like her daughter, can understand and accept her, “flawed heart” (12) and all. She does it by recording Belle's thoughts with a kind of high-fidelity clarity, just as Anastasia—with her “wonderful hearing”—listens to music. Unlike her father, who never heard the music on his phonograph, but only the sound—every distortion, scratch, imperfection, was a cry for his attention”—Anastasia “heard only the music, and filled in or ignored distortions” (129). The novel's authority comes ultimately from this sense of its getting beneath surface facts of a woman's life, beyond the distortions of personality and habit, to the felt experience—the pure music—of what it is to be, in her time and place, a daughter and a mother. If the novel never answers the question about motherhood—indeed declares it unanswerable—(“Why do we go on doing it?” [608]), it does point the way to understanding how we can, each of us, insure that being our mother's daughter can be for the better and not the worse.


  1. Marilyn French, Her Mother's Daughter (New York: Summit, 1987), 646. Page numbers for subsequent quotations from this novel are cited in parentheses in the text.

Julie Wheelwright (review date 3 April 1992)

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SOURCE: Wheelwright, Julie. “The New Avengers.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 196 (3 April 1992): 44-5.

[In the following review, Wheelwright compares The War against Women with Susan Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women.]

To university students across North America, Marilyn French's novel The Women's Room was the feminist bible for the 1970s. French's portrait of a housewife who trades a claustrophobic marriage for graduate school was confirmation that our mothers were suffering from a similar malaise. The mad/angry wife, the tortured female intellectual stuck with “shit and string beans” and the parade of selfish males became symbols of what women were fighting against. The personal had, with a vengeance, become political.

Since its publication in 1977, French's novel has sold more than a million copies, and her reputation as a feminist scholar rests largely on this success. Ironically, in the same week that French hits the hustings to promote her latest non-fiction offering, The War against Women, it is overshadowed by Susan Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women. While both address the campaign waged to discredit feminism in the past decade, nothing could better illustrate the generation gap that divides them.

Faludi, whose book is already a bestseller in North America, last month received the media's ultimate accolade when she and Gloria Steinem shared the cover of Time magazine, “sound[ing] the call to arms”. Yet Faludi has jettisoned conspiracy theories in order to examine how conservative politicians, academics and the media worked to peddle an anti-feminist backlash in the 1980s. She tracks down the pundits responsible for such media-created myths as the “infertility epidemic”, the “man shortage” and working women's “great emotional depression”. The evidence for these crises, she discovered, was “distorted, faulty or plain inaccurate”.

In unravelling the media “feedback loop” that perpetuated these manufactured problems, Faludi unmasks glib punditry and exposes an agenda to send working women back home. Since statistics became “prescriptions for expected female behaviour”, she employs the US Census Bureau and other accredited sources to counter the new backlash orthodoxy. The Yale/Harvard study that claimed single women aged 35 had only a 5 per cent chance of marrying was, for example, based on an untried method for predicting behaviour and was contradicted by several statistical surveys. Yet the story circulated round the globe.

Faludi, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal, is at her best in interviews, where she demonstrates a sharp eye for detail and a talent for coaxing subjects into divulging their contradictions. New Right “pro-family” campaigners such as Barbara Lahaye and Connie Marshner, who built high-powered political careers while advocating women's return to domesticity, sent their kids to crèches and relied on their husbands to keep house. And anti-feminist guru Michael Levin, who believes men are innately superior at maths, is married to a mathematical philosopher with whom he shares a strict child-minding rota. The man who claims women are genetically programmed for housework waved Faludi goodbye from his home, wearing an apron.

While she expertly documents a reaction against feminism, Faludi provides few explanations for it beyond the perception that such social change spelled men's “own masculine doom”. The tantalising insight that a “New Traditional Woman” like Marshner offers in rationalising her high-profile career as “exceptional” also goes no deeper.

In opposition to this neo-conservatism, Faludi suggests the existence of an almost monolithic feminist movement, rather than diverse and often warring factions. Equally, differences are overlooked when British examples of the backlash are grafted onto a largely American text. An analysis of Margaret Thatcher's impact is noticeably absent.

But Faludi's work deserves the attention it has received, and the tremendous breadth of her research soars far beyond the simplistic answers offered elsewhere in the media. In comparison, Marilyn French's The War against Women seems nothing more than a return to comforting and dangerously distorted paeans to an antiquated feminism.

Drawing on history and anthropology, French argues that “after millennia of male war against them, women are fighting back on every front.” But the focus is on injustice and, to illustrate her point, she embarks on a global survey that strips away complex differences. Without a coherent thesis or solid research, she falls back on clichés; that women hold the moral high ground as victims, and that their oppression is universal.

“Men imbued with patriarchal values are mustering all their forces to defeat this challenge,” she warns, as conspiracy theories abound. Women still have virtually no voice in politics, but face a concerted campaign of control through violence which is supported by the state, the church and the military, worldwide.

In demonstrating this cabal's existence, French ignores contemporary feminist debates that show how complicated and mediated cultural exchange between western and third-world women has become. Her main source on female genital mutilation in Africa, for example, is the controversial research by Fran Hosken, who, French claims, aroused the hostility of “traditional Africans and Muslims by heroically insisting on pursuing her investigations and publishing her findings”. Yet French ignores the dialogue African women have had with western feminists on this issue, and the differing views on how and why such practices continue.

Elsewhere, French—who relies heavily on the New York Times clippings file—makes broad generalisations without providing supporting evidence. She claims, among other things, that the Catholic Church drummed Geraldine Ferraro out of the vice-presidential race in 1988 and “present-day Muslims” (the country isn't specified) use female police to regulate women's behaviour. While both of these statements might be true, we are given nothing other than French's word for them.

Along the way, the reader is constantly reminded of women's moral superiority, which forces French to make ludicrous alliances with a host of anti-feminists. The havoc that Nancy Reagan wreaked is over-looked as French defends the First Lady against press criticism of her White House excesses. Nancy was clearly “hated for her influence on her husband”. And the problem that Thatcher presented for feminists is again sidestepped in favour of excusing her for rolling back women's rights, because “only male leaders dare to eliminate laws constricting women”.

Many of those university students who once clutched French's novel have moved on from the raw outrage of the 1970s to produce a more sophisticated understanding of women's oppression, mitigated by a host of factors. French's global overview, however, contributes little to current feminist debates, while insisting that women resume the posture of victim. Faludi offers more hope and, despite the limits of her analysis, her greatest accomplishment may be in forcing the media to put feminism back on the agenda. For those of us who believe that it never went away, it seems about time.

Vara Neverow-Turk (review date 1993)

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SOURCE: Neverow-Turk, Vara. “Global War against Women.” ELT: English Literature in Translation, 1880-1920 36, no. 1 (1993): 127-31.

[In the following review, Neverow-Turk argues that although the subject material of The War against Women is familiar, “the impact of the book is still intense and disturbing.”]

Marilyn French's The War against Women is a succinct, up-to-date, readable and compelling reiteration of the claims, advanced in 1979 by Kathleen Barry in Female Sexual Slavery, that there is an actual global conspiracy against women and that the conspiracy is actively sponsored, defended, funded and enforced by the patriarchy that dominates virtually every society and government in the world. Like Susan Faludi's controversial study, Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, French's book invokes warfare as the most accurate way to describe the degree of violence and hatred directed against women. And it is no exaggeration, as she reminds readers, for at every level of every culture females of all ages are continually at risk.

Femicide is a global practice of literally genocidal proportions. French cites research that indicates that over 100 million women “would have existed if female fetuses were not selectively aborted and female babies given the same food and medical care as males in their countries.” In China, “one village in Hupei province had 503 boys to 100 girls under the age of one.” In the United Arab Emirates, the ratio is “48.3 women to 100 men!”

Women are not safe in either the private or the public sphere. The buzz words “family values” conceal the site of family violence and the hideous truth of incest, marital rape, and battery while in the political, legal and economic arenas, women are steadily losing ground. The lack of response to women's plight suggests that women have somehow been both silenced and rendered invisible. The conspiracy extends even into the scholarly language used to describe their abuse, for as French points out researchers routinely describe these acts of brutality as if there were no male agency involved. Further, women's rights evidently are not recognized as human rights; the international watchdog organizations simply do not acknowledge the war against women as a political issue of any relevance.

As French documents, women are at the mercy of a catch-22 syndrome in which every move is the wrong move. The degree to which women are perpetually found guilty is borne out not only by such evidence as the criminal justice system's failure to convict rapists and child molesters, but also by the same system's tendency to give disproportionately harsh sentences to women who, like Thelma and Louise, step out of line. (A single example: “A woman convicted of aiding and abetting [not committing] a bank robbery in Georgia in 1981 was sentenced to fifty years in prison. Men's average sentence for murder is six years.”) French, in fact, discusses the response of male critics to Thelma and Louise, a film which she notes “breaks two major taboos: it shows men at war on women, and women retaliating against men … [and] retaliating turns women into outlaws—women's real identity in a male supremacist world.” One male reviewer actually remarked that the film “justifies armed robbery, manslaughter and chronic drunken driving.” As French points out, “considering the acts male movies ‘justify,’ one can only laugh.” Far more frightening than armed robbery is the combined womb-envy and machismo of nuke-speak which reveals that the men who design nuclear weapons systems view their deadly toys as their male-gestated offspring and use the terminology relating to male sexual organs to describe the effects of these weapons on their targets.

In her introduction to The War against Women, French sketches a cultural feminist version of the history of the world prior to patriarchy, a topic she will examine in much greater detail in her forthcoming From Eve to Dawn: A Woman's History of the World. According to French, strong evidence exists that women did at one point hold and wield power in both hunter/gatherer and early agricultural societies—until, that is, male sexual anxiety over women's reproductive capabilities resulted in a desire for domination that led to the destruction of communal sex-equal societies. Although she acknowledges that females have a capacity for violent behavior, French clearly regards women as the life-affirming half of humanity, the care-givers who are able to save not only the human race but the planet from the depredations of the male. The four subsequent sections of the book deal with the interrelated aspects of women's plight in terms of systemic discrimination, institutionalized oppression, cultural violence, and the one-on-one of personal male warfare against individual women.

The section on systemic discrimination against women begins with a vignette that exemplifies the sexual division of labor on a global scale: “Two women gather seaweed. … When they have as much as they can carry, they lug the pile … to a wagon … and return for more. They continue this for hours, until the wagon is full. All the while, a man sits on the wagon, head nodding in the sun, holding the reins of his horse. He does nothing.” Women's work is never done. Since women's labor is not restricted to wage-earning outside the home, women globally work much harder than men. Not only do women produce 45 percent of all food, they are almost universally responsible for the menial, essential, unpaid and unacknowledged labor of housework, food gathering, food preparation, and childcare, tasks that males rarely choose to share and that economists somehow fail to include in the GNP. Despite their crucial role in producing and preparing food, however, women and girls go hungry, often being expected to survive in an economy of scarcity on what little their menfolks leave after eating their fill.

French's analysis of the patriarchal obsession with controlling women's behavior is chilling. She argues that the rise of fundamentalist religious groups and their attempts to legislate or intimidate women into total subordination is a reaction against women's advances during the twentieth century. Further she examines the mechanisms patriarchy has developed to monitor women's sexuality and reproduction. French provides a vivid and grisly account of female genital mutilation, its life-threatening after-effects, and the rationales used to justify this cruel practice. Policies and laws exist for supervising all aspects of women's reproduction, whether by manipulating access to contraception, or exploiting women biologically and economically through reproductive technologies, or policing women's personal behavior through fetal protection legislation and fathers' rights lobbies, or sentencing women to mandatory birth control as a judicial degree.

Despite the factual and ideological familiarity of much of French's material (after all, she is explicitly continuing a tradition of feminist outrage epitomized by activists such as Barry, Andrea Dworkin, Fran Hosken, Catharine MacKinnon, and Adrienne Rich), the impact of the book is still intense and disturbing. Things have definitely gotten much worse for women in the last two decades and French openly blames “men-as-a-group” for the situation. It is worth noting, however, that French speaks from an apparent position of privilege, an ideological position that should at least be acknowledged since it will affect the way the text is read by different audiences. She says at one point that “we turn our backs … when we move our families to the suburbs, snatch our children out of public schools, refuse to hire people of color, or simply see them as inferior beings.” She also observes that lesbians have had to found their own presses (but her book is published by Simon and Schuster). French spends most of her energy documenting the almost mind-boggling array of abuses perpetrated against women by patriarchal culture but she notes at the end of the book that “[w]hile men strut and fret their hour upon the state … women keep the world going” and devotes the last nine pages to instances of resistance including women-founded organizations like GABRIELA in the Philippines (which helps women forced into prostitution), Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) which “connects Third World women activists, researchers and policymakers to develop a global perspective on women's economic and political situation,” the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers, the Manuela Ramos Movement Women's Center in Lima, Peru, and the Women's Strike for Peace. So there is a flicker of hope in an ever bleaker, ever more hostile world—if women organize.

Georgia Jones-Davis (review date 27 February 1994)

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SOURCE: Jones-Davis, Georgia. “Soup's On.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 February 1994): 12.

[In the following review, Jones-Davis criticizes French's prose in Our Father, arguing that the novel is “too preachy and badly written to count as literature.”]

Imagine if King Lear deserved the scorn of Goneril and Regan, and even that of kindly young Cordelia; if he had committed incest with them; and had fathered a fourth child with his humble servant (good sport at her making?); if the four sisters hated each other as much as they loathed their sire and found themselves locked in his castle together, there to watch the old man die, wondering who would inherit the throne.

The Lear of Marilyn French's new novel, [Our Father,] Stephen Upton, while never a president himself, is close to the seat of power, having been a presidential adviser and the intimate of people like the Reagans, Bush and Kissinger. He has three daughters—Elizabeth, Mary and Alexandra—by three wives. He also has a daughter, Ronnie, by his Mexican housekeeper (named by the mother after the pediatrician, not the Gipper).

Upton has suffered a stroke on the day he buried his housekeeper-lover. His daughters, all four, smell blood like sharks, and come looking for some sign that their daddy, who sexually abused them as children, might have loved them? And perhaps might have set aside a few million for each of them?

Marilyn French has written a polemic, not a novel. Her points: Men have sexually and economically abused women since Day One. High government circle (read Republican) or Fortune 500 males are the most guilty of all. They still believe their women, as well as people of different faiths and color, regardless of sex, are members of various human subspecies.

Upton is merely a symbol of everything Adolf Hitler loved and Marilyn French hates. In fact, he's not even granted a single line in this book. Mostly he's in a coma, and when he wakes up, he scowls, drools, glares and writes nasty notes.

The Upton offspring aren't fleshed-out characters, either. Each daughter is but an archetype of the kind of creature that a woman can develop into in our sexually repressed world.

Elizabeth, a terribly thin 53-year-old redhead, works as a government economist. She is a frigid woman who only measures success and excellence by male standards. Her conservative politics reflects just how out of touch she is with her female soul. She judges other women harshly. If a woman relies on her charms, rather than brains, to make her way in the world, Elizabeth brands her a prostitute.

That's how Elizabeth views Mary, her 48-year-old half sister, a svelte, dark-haired beauty who has been married to some of the world's richest men and whose idea of a good time is a villa in Capri and life made easy by well-trained, discreet servants.

Elizabeth and Mary call blond, baby sister Alex the spiritual type because she likes to spend time in churches. She also represents the classic bleeding-heart liberal. What will she do with her millions? Open a clinic with a group of nuns in war-torn El Salvador, of course (the story takes place in the early 1980s). Meanwhile she's bored to tears in her marriage to a Jewish man who won't let her celebrate Christmas. She doesn't mind being away from her own two children for weeks on end but fantasizes about feeding soup made out of wholesome, all-natural ingredients to the starving kids in war-torn Central America.

Then there's the lovechild Ronnie, the youngest, a brown-skinned lesbian who is working on her dissertation on mosses and lichen and believes in the possibilities of Sisterhood. She's been so poor all her life that she only owns ratty jeans and feels out of place when half sister Mary insists everyone dress for dinner, as if they were weekend guests at Brideshead.

Packaged in a smart, colorful dust jacket, Our Father is too preachy and badly written to count as literature and too static to be good mind candy. French lectures us endlessly about sexual inequality, breaking one of fiction's cardinal rules: Dramatize it, don't tell it. There are no steamy sex scenes (repetitive, clinical descriptions of incest don't count); no romantic interests; no Cartier, yachts or casinos—nobody spends those millions, they only talk about it. (The Uptons never throw out food; the cook makes soup everyday for lunch. Nobody in a Judith Krantz or Sidney Sheldon novel eats soup made out of leftovers.)

Well, somebody does die, but the situation feels utterly manufactured; French has the four daughters try their father in a kangaroo court for his crimes against them. They sentence him to death, but he dies during the proceedings, probably more out of boredom than terror.

The four sisters finally find mutual respect and love when they give the servants a day off and cook a Thanksgiving dinner together. (We're treated to a lot of Upton household menus.) End of story.

Reread French's The Women's Room, one of the most remarkable, engaging, vital and yes, idea-stuffed, novels of the late '70s. French had a feminist message to send and send it she did. But she didn't forget she was writing a novel with finely drawn, multidimensional characters; she brought an era to life through poetic moments and memorable, touching details.

What's happened, Marilyn? Hillary and Bill are in the White House; the Stephen Uptons are out of jobs, at least for a little while.

Reading this stifling new novel is like being stuck in an elevator with the oxygen running out.

Take the stairs.

Marilyn French and Maureen Freely (interview date 22 October 1998)

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SOURCE: French, Marilyn, and Maureen Freely. “Woman: Mother Courage: Maureen Freely Talks to Marilyn French.” Guardian (22 October 1998): 4.

[In the following interview, French discusses American conservatism, the record of her battle with cancer in A Season in Hell, and modern feminist literature.]

I first met Marilyn French about 10 years ago, when she came to London to promote a novel called Her Mother's Daughter. I was working for a feminist magazine that was to go out of business a few weeks later. I was going through my black phase, although due to lack of funds the blacks were fast fading into grey. This was in sharp contrast to everyone else in the dining room at Claridge's, and in sharpest contrast to the elegant, bejewelled, supremely urbane feminist icon sitting opposite who was buying me lunch.

I had never interviewed anyone before, and Marilyn could tell. She mothered me expertly through one near-disaster after another. Whenever I got stage fright, she'd suppress a sigh, replace it with a bright smile, and say: ‘Another thing you might be interested to know is how I became involved with the women's movement,’ or ‘You'd probably like to ask me something about my first novel, The Woman's Room,’ or ‘As for my second novel, which as you know, is The Bleeding Heart …’ Halfway through the hors d'oeuvres, she directed my attention to my tape recorder, and suggested that it might not be picking up her voice, as it was underneath a napkin. Her temper did fray a bit during the main course, when I challenged something sweeping she said about men. She gave me a look I had not seen since I got that disappointing grade on a history test, aged 16, and said: ‘I can tell you haven't read my book on women and power.’ She was right! How had she known? After I had spluttered a string of abject apologies, she took pity on me and tried to calm me down by offering me her salad.

Then she asked me to tell her a bit about myself, a mistake, because I was in the middle of a divorce. But she was the perfect listener as I rambled on and on and on. She gave me lots of advice I now know to be good, largely because I didn't follow any of it.

She kept her calm during this endless session by dragging on an endless succession of long, brown cigarettes. As she recounts in her new book, A Season in Hell, these were almost to be the death of her. Five and a half years ago, she was found to have cancer of the oesophagus.

This sort of cancer is almost always fatal. Because it had already metastasised, her doctors expected her to be dead within the year, if not before. When they put her through a severe regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, they went out of their way to convince her that nothing was likely to come of it. But she refused to believe them. She finds this puzzling, she says in her book, because she had always been the sort of person who took great stock in facing facts. What puzzles her and her doctors most, though, is her complete recovery.

Recovery from cancer, that is. She will never recover from the cure, which ravaged her throat, her kidneys and her urinary tract, killed half her heart, gave her diabetes, damaged the part of her brain that governs motor skills, and made her bones so porous that a masseuse giving her a spot of shiatsu actually broke her back. Another thing that will never recover is her bank balance: her medical bills came to more than half a million dollars.

She still takes at least 14 prescription medications, and sometimes as many as 19, every day. No one can say how many years she has left. The only certainty is that she's going to be an invalid for the duration. But the strangest thing about A Season in Hell is that, even though it is a meticulous catalogue of her descent into this other, diminished, way of life, even though it assures you every step of the way that all your worst fears about cancer and its cures are true, it ends up being immensely cheering.

This is partly due to heroic rallying on the part of her children and her friends (Gloria Steinem is one of them). Their efforts seem to have taken even Marilyn by surprise. She lives alone, and until she had cancer, she thought that meant she could not call on others for help. It has been a great comfort to know that others will care for her simply because she has cared for them. But the best thing cancer did, she says, is rob her of her future. ‘Stuck in the present, I can devote myself to it: to daily pleasure, pleasure in the moment, pleasure in everything (or almost everything) I do … I move through the day from pleasure to pleasure like a woman walking through the halls of a great art gallery.’ In the book, she only refers obliquely to the effect this has had on her interest in politics, and the feminist cause that consumed so much of her life, but when we met last weekend, this time at the Connaught, she was happy to spell it out.

The fight had gone out of her, she told me in her new soft rasp of a voice. Between racking but elegant coughs, she assured me it was all a great relief. She had spent too much of her life mothering people, she explained. The habit dated back, she thought, to her childhood realisation that her immigrant parents were ‘shaky in the world and couldn't protect me from it or within it’. Her response was to feel responsible for them: ‘I ended up being their parent. But none of this was I aware of. It's only maybe in the last 10 years or so that I saw that this was my attitude, period. I took this responsibility for my husband, for my children, for my friends …’ And strangers! I almost said. But it was at this point that I chickened out and decided not to remind her that I was that sobbing creature in greying black leggings who had taken so much of her time all those years ago at Claridge's.

‘I stretched this responsibility to the movement,’ she continued. ‘I have a vision of how human life could be more felicitous for everyone, not just women. I felt responsible for this, for convincing people, for making sure that this vision got realised in the world, and well, in this political climate nothing could be further from possibility, and so I was really getting frustrated … I don't have any of that now, mainly because I feel so shaky myself I don't feel as if I can. It's just fallen away. It's like a shell, it just opened and dropped.’

Did that mean she had given up on her vision? ‘No. I absolutely believe in it, but it's not only someone else's job, it's another generation's. Nothing is going to happen in this climate, nothing good. It's not as if you can even speak about a conspiracy; it's just that the reactionary men like Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch who own the media all agree that the way to deal with women and leftists is just not to print them, or to deprive them of a voice.

‘I can't remember the last time we had a feminist on the op ed page. You'll never find a feminist talking about her long-term vision of change in society. You did in the seventies, but no one would publish it now. Gloria Steinem is the closest and that is because she is charming, and she doesn't say radical things, either. They've closed all the doors to us.’

This was not to say that important things weren't happening at the grassroots level. This had always been where female culture operated: ‘The real feminism isn't located in any group or organisation and this confuses the male world, which always stabilises and concentrates power within an institution. Feminism doesn't do that. It is not like being a Republican. It's way of seeing. It's believing women are as important as men. It's really that simple. So the real feminism is women in groups of one or two or five, doing what needs doing in their neighbourhoods. And they're out there, all across the country, doing local work. But what is going on globally is so terrible and so insidious and we don't have the voice to fight it.’

Nationally, things looked just as hopeless to her. Americans were in for a long and very bumpy ride with the Republican right and its many opportunistic followers.

‘They're so organised. They have such good PR! The rest of us are sitting there floundering.’ It wasn't just feminism that was being corporatised. Now that the American right had successfully fended off socialised medicine, they were working hard to dismantle social security and even public education. ‘It's unbelievable! It's disgusting! They seem to want us to be the last … big … fascist state.’

The fire in her voice as she said this, did not quite fit the frail, elegant body it came out of, and it made you wonder if she really had opted out of her old passions to the degree that she claimed, but as our conversation continued, she threw out more and more sparks. First it was born again piety, in particular the fundamentalists in Congress: ‘They know what God says, which I find really astounding. Do they have a communicative line that I don't have? I've never heard God speak. Have you?’

Then it was masculinist writers dominating the American literary scene. Many of them she admired. Mamet was wonderful, Sam Shepherd was good sometimes, and Mailer could be ‘very talented’ when he wasn't ‘playing the fool’. But Updike and Roth? Puleeze. ‘They've spent the last 10 or 15 years writing books about themselves under an alter-ego. Their self-involvement is really terrible.’ She gave up on Updike, she told me, when she got to that part in Roger's Version ‘when he started stroking his penis and writing a paean to its beauty and its purple-pink colour, and I thought, have they no shame?’

But don't call her a man-basher. Hypocrisy was just as destestable when it was female. Updike got off lightly compared with Simone de Beauvoir. When I asked her about a throwaway remark she had made about this other icon in her book, she sighed and said: ‘We can't really afford to throw stones at our heroines. We're equally limited by our time and our vision. The time will come when they read our feminist stuff and say, God, they were narrow-minded.

‘I never believed all that stuff Simone de Beauvoir said about transcendence, but I'll tell you what I can't forgive—quite apart from the pimping for Sartre and her servility to him, making him look so important when it appears now that at least half the ideas came from her … What I cannot forgive is her behaviour during the German occupation of Paris. I was just flabbergasted when I read about that. This is a moral guide? I've never been able to get over it. I have such a distaste for her. I'm sure she was dirty. I'm sure she smelled.’

She accompanied this statement with a very fierce look, and an emphatic: ‘Anyway. That's how I feel about her.’ At which she caved into another cough. By now her dinner guest had joined us, so I decided to make my apologies for wearing her out, and leave.

As I made my way home, I tried to puzzle out the difference between the old, tactful, forward-planning Marilyn who had once so terrified me, and the new Marilyn, who was so much more cheerful, and so much more entertaining, even when she was explaining why life was hopeless. It seemed to me that the overwhelming sense of responsibility she had described the old Marilyn as feeling, had not just weighed her down in life, but also given a heavy-heartedness to her writing.

Even when she was writing about fictional characters whose lives were far from exemplary, her voice remained maternal—it was as if she thought of her readers as shaky daughters who needed to be handled, and guided, with care. But now she has given up that tiring and exasperating job, and she can speak her own mind. It is a very unusual mind, and far more interesting than even she realises. I hope she has lots of years left to her, and I hope she continues to take pleasure in writing, because she has so much more to say.

Mary Margaret McCabe (review date 6 November 1998)

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SOURCE: McCabe, Mary Margaret. “Laughing in Its Face.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4988 (6 November 1998): 28.

[In the following review, McCabe considers several titles which offer personal perspectives on cancer, including French's A Season in Hell.]

Death may be common to us all, but it is irredeemably solitary. Can others' experience of the imminence of death ever help us to escape that private view? In these books, four people describe—in quite different modes—their experiences with cancer. In 1997, Ruth Picardie, a former Guardian journalist, died as a consequence of breast cancer. Before I Say Goodbye contains the columns she wrote as the cancer progressed; a series of e-mails and letters between Picardie and her friends, and some editorial comment by her partner, Matt Seaton. Liz Tilberis is the Editor of Harpers Bazaar in the United States; in No Time to Die, she describes how she coped with ovarian cancer in the midst of a career in the fashion industry. A Season in Hell by Marilyn French gives an account of how her oesophageal cancer did not kill her, although its cure nearly did. John Diamond's column in The Times has, for some time, told its readers the history of his cancer of the tongue, and C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too is the book of the column. In each case, we are invited to pity and fear, and perhaps thence to some better understanding of the solitariness itself.

The formal similarity between the four accounts is striking. The symptoms of Picardie's breast cancer were at first ignored or misunderstood; French's cancer was eventually discovered only because she herself insisted that it was there; Diamond's illness was originally diagnosed as glandular fever; and Tilberis was thought to have pelvic inflammatory disease. In each case, of course, we know before we read it that the optimistic diagnosis is wrong; we know before we come to it that Picardie will die; and we know, before we are told, that neither Tilberis nor Diamond will get away with the first aggressive therapies—the disease will recur. And in each case the cure seems to be worse than the disease, and worse still because the cure seems—again within the drama of these accounts—to be ineffectual. These dramatic ironies are exactly what create the pity and the fear; and the irony is not diminished where the story is incomplete—Tilberis speaks of “managing” the persistent cancer; Diamond has recently been in hospital for radical surgery; and French describes a life thoroughly transformed and curtailed by the sequence of illness which was caused, not by her cancer, but by the invasiveness of its cure. The question then remains whether these accounts give us any more than a description of human catastrophe. Is the pity they provoke transformed into something more substantial or more positive? But perhaps that is the wrong question; perhaps it is only pity that transcends the grim banalities of these struggles with cancer.

The narrative of Tilberis's cancer is offset against the comings and goings of fashionable high life. There is here an account of courage and determination, of a woman insisting on carrying on with her life despite what her body is doing to her, and of her grudging capitulation to the exigencies of disease. But this humanity is entirely eclipsed by the glitter of fashionable society at play, which equally casts into shadow some—potentially more interesting—anecdotes about the politics of fashion magazines. It is not, I think, Tilberis's intention to suggest that her courage was the greater because her life was the more glamorous; but the glamour element, which includes the inevitable courtesies in the direction of Princess Diana, trivializes the story of the cancer. As if the artifice of the fashion photograph were applied to the character of the author, her reader is left detached and dispirited, conscious only of dismal evanescence.

French, by contrast, has written a more vigorous book, almost entirely in a tone of passionate anger. The progress of her illness is a catalogue of disaster: the cancer is cured, but its therapy causes severe osteoporosis, kidney and heart failure, and coma. French describes all this with some irritation—she clearly feels that the division of medical labour was in some way responsible for failing both to oversee treatment of her illness as a whole, and to anticipate or even to diagnose the disasters which happened on the side. And she crossly describes the impossibility of carrying on a normal professional or social life (some of her descriptions of the latter are, I think unintentionally, hilarious: she is a member of a group of feminists calling itself, facetiously, “the coven”—there are daft passages describing the coven's attempts to help French by incantations and charms). It comes, then, as a surprise to find the last chapter arguing, with some acuity, that by robbing her of expectations the disease gave her, at last, both peace of mind and some sense of limited control over the outrageous fortune with which her body is beset.

Indeed, some measure of self-determination may be all that is left after such a diagnosis; and perhaps, as French sometimes hints, it is the irritation she feels which constitutes her control. Irritation is, however, an unedifying spectacle. Quite different is the agonizing story of the death of Ruth Picardie. Everything here is vivid, sometimes funny and ultimately grievous—most of all, perhaps, when, in the afterword, Seaton admits to the anger and the distance which the progress of the cancer caused between them, and acknowledges that the publication of the book provides him with the therapy he needs after her death. The very vigour of Picardie's words invites both admiration and tears; as a memorial it may be exact—but do we read it with more than an unhealthy curiosity? Part of my hesitation is provoked by French; she admits that her own book is in large part a kind of “writing out”, an ancient-mariner exercise which itself enabled her to recover from the trauma of illness and the devastating effects of the cure. That sort of therapy seems to me to be a private matter, and not in itself a reason to publish a book, nor yet a reason to read one. And yet in Picardie's case (and Seaton's) there remains something left over for the reader after the writing out—and that is humour. It is black humour, no doubt; and it was produced as a means of warding off what could not be faced, to be sure. But it is fiercely human; it rejects the self-absorption of a merely factual writing out of the history of a disease and a death, and it turns away from self-pity.

The same humour characterizes Diamond's more concentrated book. This may, of course, be a matter of genre; the newspaper column is inhospitable to self-pity. So the writing of both Picardie and Diamond is marked by bitter wit, by the sense of relieved complicity with which the reader recognizes in the author her own bad habits, and by a slight embarrassment at admitting to passions of any sort. Thus Diamond's book opens by undercutting itself: “hypochondria has always seemed to me to be the only rational position to take on life”, and marking a theme of the rest of the book: “… they've found some cancer cells. Well of course they had.” None the less, he admits that this ironical stance is itself a deceptive one: his attempt to “make cancer chic” was deluded by his own conviction that he was not actually going to die of it. That admission feels familiar: it is all very well to be stoical about something which you are quite certain will never actually happen to you (however close catastrophe may come), and to invite the sympathy and amazement of others for your near escape. It is quite another matter to face the reality of death—and admirable to be able to do so with irony intact. Of course, the self-deception may only have retreated to a deeper level; if Diamond can still be funny about what is happening (he has, for example, a delightful disquisition on how to arrange a consultation with “the Head and Neck Man Whose Name Is Spoken with Awe”), then he still has not come to terms with the fact that he may be dying. But this cynical view seems wrong; so far from self-deceiving, Diamond's book is both plausible and illuminating, where Marilyn French's angry discourse simply recedes into solipsism.

Perhaps this answers to a more intractable difficulty. Viewed from here, from the life we are living, death is inscrutable. The very incommensurability of life and death generates a sense of the absurd and invites irony, just because mere description will not suffice. But irony has its own cognitive mode. Just as dramatic irony makes its audience reflect on the dissonance between its own knowledge and the protagonists' ignorance, so this ironical reflection on death is self-conscious—both of its own ignorance and its helplessness in the face of what is altogether unknown. And it is here alone, perhaps, that the human spirit exerts some control over the impending disaster: by laughing in its face. This is the great strength of John Diamond's book—even though it seems to begin with the limited purview of a newspaper column, it develops a rich and moving reflection on what it is to face the absurdity of death. And this looks beyond catastrophe to something we may all understand.

Kathleen Woodward (review date January 1999)

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SOURCE: Woodward, Kathleen. “In Sickness and Health.” Women's Review of Books 16, no. 4 (January 1999): 2-4.

[In the following review, Woodward compares A Season in Hell with Jane Lazarre's Wet Earth and Dreams, commenting that “[t]heir stories are radically different, but neither one sentimentalizes the experience of suffering.”]

The risk of breast cancer for women in the United States is one in ten by the age of eighty; one out of every 55 women will get ovarian or primary peritoneal cancer; 85 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease … We live in a culture saturated with statistics that forecast our risk for diseases and deficiencies of all kinds. For many of us, these ever-proliferating numbers—especially those that predict the incidence of cancer—have come to haunt our sense of the future. After a routine pap smear, for example, who would not respond with alarm when the doctor says she would like to make an appointment to talk about the test results?

This pervasive sense of being at risk helps us understand in part why Marilyn French and Jane Lazarre both reacted to their diagnoses of cancer with a conviction of virtual inevitability. Even before she was diagnosed, even before she was consciously fearful of having cancer, Marilyn French, at 61, found herself beginning to tell a friend of hers with lung cancer that she too had cancer. Even as she prevented herself from speaking these words, dread filled French's own chest, she tells us in A Season in Hell, a chronicle of her experience with esophageal cancer and its aftermath over a period of six years. Over the next weeks her dread grew more insistent if unspoken, a sign of the secret certainty that she had cancer. Four months later a physician pronounced the diagnosis.

For Jane Lazarre, her decades-long fear that disaster would surely befall her and those she loved was confirmed when she learned at fifty that she had breast cancer. “In the spring of 1995,” she writes in Wet Earth and Dreams, “the condition I seem to have been waiting for all my life finally struck me.” Her mother had died of breast cancer at 38; Jane was seven at the time.

How a writer begins her story of having cancer is linked to a long personal history. It is also an important artistic decision. The dramatic medical moment of diagnosis can be used to jump-start a narrative. How does Marilyn French, a novelist celebrated in particular for her 1977 book The Women's Room, begin her story? Frightening intuitions of having the disease precede her diagnosis with squamous cell cancer in 1992. The verdict leaves her in a dazed stupor that permeates the whirlwind European promotional tour for her latest book, The War against Women, that she embarks on only a few days later. She goes through the motions of her busy life stunned by anxiety and struck into confusion. She wonders if this tour will be the last time that she “would be an apparently healthy person in public.” And horribly, from the sobering perspective of six years later, she is forced to recognize that indeed that was the last time she presented herself to the world as a robust and independent individual—and that she never would again.

For a person as convivial as French, for whom a public platform and international travel are as necessary to life as writing, this is a devastating and unthinkable change. It would be for anyone. She will combat her cancer. She will fight to restore her former way of life. But her illness, and the debilitating treatments for it, teach her otherwise. Against all the odds she survives the cancer of her esophagus that has metastasized. But chemotherapy has resulted in brain damage that affects her balance, and the effects of the radiation strike unexpected parts of her body (her heart, her kidneys, her bones, the peripheral nerves in her feet). They will continue, she learns, for as long as she lives.

A Season in Hell too often devolves into a recording of the pedestrian details of everyday life (the hospital food is bad, the Berkshires are lovely). For some readers, an important and playful dimension of French's life may seem just plain weird: she belongs to a coven and her fellow witches appear from time to time with their eagle feathers and candles, incantations and wands. The disease is, however, always powerful. Hideously so. It keeps on going, even after it has been destroyed. Six months after French has been diagnosed with cancer she falls into a coma. It lasts two weeks. She loses the ability to stand up. To read. Things get better and then they get worse. She is given a new prescription for glasses and can return to her life of newspapers and books. Her heart has an attack (it is, it turns out, half gone). A therapist giving French a massage literally breaks her back, her bones are so weakened.

French, so strong in fighting spirit and blessed with a passion for life and a clarity of purpose, is aged by this illness in multiple ways. Overnight she is plagued by arthritis. She finds herself needing a walker. She develops diabetes. In her sixties, she says she feels as if she is ninety. (I know what she means, but we should remember that many ninety-year-old women are vigorous, not frail.)

It is hell and it is lasting much longer than a season. The relentless force of A Season in Hell lies in French's coming to accept that grim truth, which we as readers must acknowledge as well. For her there will be no ultimate recovery, only, hopefully, “small gains and getting through.” If the beginnings of cancer are difficult to discern, in French's case there is also no definitive end in sight. As she acknowledges, “mild impairment” is the best that she can hope for. One telling measure of this is that she finds herself six years later taking fourteen prescription medications a day (she has no insurance for this expense, which is over one thousand dollars a month). Her story will continue beyond the covers of her book.

How did she get through these first six years? Her children are devoted and so are her unfailing friends. She has a tenacious will and writing keeps her anchored to the world of meaningful work. As she tells her readers, asking for our indulgence, writing this book has also served her as a form of therapy. Perhaps most of all, she has found a way to transform her suffering, which has diminished significantly by book's end, into a state of serenity. Coming at the close of this long chronicle, this is surprising. But her words ring true. When she tells us that she is happier than she has ever been, I believe her. And I marvel at her and wish her well.

“I cannot say I am happy I was sick,” French concludes, “but I am happy that sickness, if it had to happen, brought me to where I am now. It is a better place than I have been before.” Jane Lazarre, whose last book, Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memories of a White Mother of Black Sons, was published to critical acclaim, echoes these sentiments in Wet Earth and Dreams. “I would never say I am glad I had cancer,” she writes, “yet it was cancer and my stories about it that cured me of an even more obscure and enigmatic affliction.”

Lazarre begins her narrative, which takes its title from a poem by Adrienne Rich, in the recovery room after surgery for a tumor in her right breast, a room that is only one of many rooms important to her story. There is her own room, her bedroom, the room where she feels safe, the room she shares with her husband Douglas. There is the magical ordinary room that materializes in her dreams, “an unused, dusty but spacious room behind a door in my apartment, a room I had forgotten was there.” What a perfect wish-come-true for a writer—another room of one's own. And there is the cave near the beach that appears in another recurrent and disturbing dream, the wild room in which she buries her heart under wet sand, a crypt that contains memories of her mother.

Lazarre had recently been afflicted with a deepening depression, one threatening to paralyze her. For her, the recovery room takes on a meaning that is much larger than regaining strength after surgery. She requires psychic space in which to reclaim the mother she lost to cancer more than forty years before. She needs room in which to rescue the image of her mother's body as healthy and beautiful and whole so that she can repossess her own sense of the future.

Wet Earth and Dreams is more than a cancer journal, and so it seems right that Lazarre elaborates on the moment of diagnosis well toward the end of the book—after surgery, after the burning radiation treatments. There is a hardness in her right breast and, confident that it is nothing to worry about, she gets a sonogram. The radiologist decides to do a biopsy then and there, and the diagnosis is made immediately: cancer. Lazarre's reaction? She is a woman out of the ordinary, and her response reminds us of how amazingly different our stories can be. “And in that moment, standing on the street with Douglas, both of us in a kind of shock,” she writes, “my depression lifts. … I am terrified, but also energized by a kind of gathering determination I can only call hope.” The acute pressure of her illness serves her as a catalyst for seeing the distant past in a new pattern as well as for coming to terms with more recent events—the death of her brother-in-law from AIDS, the totally unexpected rejection of one of her books by a once-trusted editor, the death of her beloved therapist Gloria, also from cancer.

Lazarre is a gifted writer whose intense feelings both run deep and, like canyon rapids, shift constantly. Her account is not chronological but circles back in on itself and then spirals out again, moving by the logic of a chain of associations. The hard work of writing, of giving shape to her harrowing experience with cancer, releases the memories that were buried in the cave and readies her to accept her losses. Lazarre had remembered her mother sick with cancer and confined to her bed; now she has an earlier memory of her mother, graceful and calm, rising from the bathtub, putting on her pink bathrobe, bending down to caress her young daughter's face. It is a healing vision.

Lazarre understands the power objects can have to confer a sense of connection with those whom we have lost to death. She also understands that these objects only have that talismanic power if we are ready to accept the uncanny sense of intimacy they grant. She slips on her mother's pearls and in that simple act she draws her mother back to her again. After her therapist dies, Lazarre visits her now empty office. She sits in Gloria's chair and, finding her reading glasses nearby, puts them on, seeing herself again through Gloria's eyes. It is as if she inhabits the bodies of these two women, or as if her body echoes theirs. She is protected. She grows stronger.

Vulnerable and extremely private, Lazarre has entrusted her story to us. Wet Earth and Dreams is a moving bock, crafted with exquisite care. I feel privileged to have read Lazarre's words. And I found myself doing something out of the ordinary. Lazarre describes how a piece of music, Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in A, comes to provide a space for her in which to imagine a complex psychic harmony. She listens to it over and over. I didn't recognize that piece by name, and I'm not a person who seeks out music. But I found myself ordering it, and then listening to it as I wrote, thinking of this remarkable woman whom I have never met. (It turns out that it was a familiar piece of music after all.)

Lazarre is cured of cancer, although she will remain attentive to the statistics that may shape her future. French is cured, but in cancer's place comes chronic and unpredictable bodily weakness. Both of their lives are threatened and forever changed. Their stories are radically different, but neither one sentimentalizes the experience of suffering. In the end, both memoirs impart a deep knowledge about the course of a disease—which is a social and cultural epidemic as well as an individual catastrophe—that threatened and forever changed their lives.

Carolyn Dever (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Dever, Carolyn. “The Feminist Abject: Death and the Constitution of Theory.” Studies in the Novel 32, no. 2 (summer 2000): 185-206.

[In the following essay, Dever examines the works of several modern feminist authors—particularly focusing on The Women's Room and Carolyn Heilbrun's Death in a Tenured Position—and notes how they all portray feminism within their own unique personal and social contexts.]

The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance.

—Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror1

When Ginny Babcock, the wealthy, white, Southern protagonist of Lisa Alther's Kinflicks (1976), moves from Cambridge to Vermont to live in a women's collective with her lesbian lover Eddie, she soon grows impatient with the pieties of her liberationist friends. That impatience swiftly yields poetic justice, however, as Ginny's irritants are hoisted, jointly and severally, by their own petards. First falls Laverne, best known for her close relationship with an enormous vibrator; Ginny writes, “Just then there was a scream and a sizzling sound from upstairs, and all the lights went out.”2 Putting out the electrical fire, Ginny and her friends find Laverne, charred and apparently dead, lying under a sleeping bag. They resuscitate her, and when the ambulance arrives, the driver inspects Laverne's prostrate body: “Folding down the sleeping bag another turn, he rolled out one of her knees and discovered raw burned patches on the insides of her thighs. With a frown, he noticed an electrical cord. As he pulled on it, Laverne's vibrator popped out of her … The doctor held the phallus-shaped vibrator, turned it over, sniffed it, scratched his head. It had a big crack all the way up it. Laverne had apparently achieved her goal of the Ultimate Orgasm” (p. 332).

Laverne survives the trauma but leaves the commune to take up life in a convent; this is either a retirement or a retreat, depending on one's perspective on her pursuit of the Ultimate Orgasm. The next victim is not so lucky, however. Ginny's lover Eddie seeks revenge on freewheeling snowmobilers who trespass on the commune's property. In defense of that property, and hoping to entrap the trespassers, she erects a thin, nearly invisible piece of wire along the property line. But in a hysterical rage against Ginny, Eddie herself steals one of those snowmobiles and shoots across the snowy meadow:

But just before Eddie reached the pond, Ira's Sno Cat appeared to hesitate slightly. The next instant, Eddie's head flew off her shoulders and bounced and spun across the ice like a crazed basketball. I watched with utter appalled disbelief: What I had just seen couldn't possibly have happened! Ira's Sno Cat coasted to a stop, and Eddie's headless body rolled off the seat and onto the ice with a dull plunk.

(P. 335)

Most shocking for Ginny about this death is its very cleanness: there was no blood spilled as Eddie's head and body were severed far more precisely than even the adjective “surgical” might suggest. And if Eddie's decapitation underscores the flimsy logic of her feminist commitment, dying as she does in defense of private property, Laverne's self-inflicted injury suggests the dangers inherent in appropriating the phallus, especially when that phallus comes equipped with an electrical cord.

Soon thereafter Ginny leaves the commune to marry Ira Bliss, the owner of the snowmobile on which Eddie met her demise. Thus ends Ginny's radical feminist phase, and with the death of Eddie and the claustration of Laverne, thus ends the novel's engagement with non-heterosexual eroticism of any sort. Eddie's wire boundary would in the end prove brutally efficient as the commune becomes its own structure of feminist containment, securely detached from the world at large.

My purpose in this essay is to suggest that such episodes of violent death serve a profoundly constitutive, boundary-establishing function within feminist novels produced in the U.S. during the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Death acts as the invisible wire that kills Eddie, marking a distinction between feminist survivors and feminist scapegoats, marking a distinction, too, as it does here in the most graphic of terms, between the feminist mind and the feminist body. Indeed, as Eddie's death most gruesomely suggests, the mind-body divide is a core concern for feminist fictions of this period, and in the novels on which I will focus, Marilyn French's The Women's Room (1977) and Amanda Cross's Death in a Tenured Position (1981), it is thematized through the negotiation of protagonists' academic careers and their complex, often contradictory, personal lives. Indebted to The Group, Mary McCarthy's 1963 novel that follows a group of Vassar undergraduates into the world, feminist novels of the late 1970s exploit a university context in an attempt to fathom the intersection of the feminist mind and the feminist body, and, in the process, to develop a critique of the misogyny endemic within institutions. Among the many novels featuring university settings are Kinflicks,The Women's Room,Death in a Tenured Position, Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle (1972), Marge Piercy's Small Changes (1972), Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (1974), and Alice Walker's Meridian (1976). My particular interest in The Women's Room and Death in a Tenured Position involves their setting in English Departments, and thus their engagement with overlapping concerns, specifically, the intersection of aesthetic practices and feminist social action. Characters' intellectual concern with literature, with instabilities of meaning, the construction of women's literary ancestry, and the far reaches of aesthetic sublimity, exists in marked contrast with the “here and now” of their own fictional lives and the bodies which they inhabit, encounter, and for which they clean.

The contrast of mind and body, of academy and “real life,” represents a standoff between feminism, in theory—that is, feminism as an idealized, abstracted, oftentimes academic pursuit—and feminism in practice, which involves difficult demands of the body, of dirt, of pleasure, of the daily degradations and humiliations that put theory to the test, find it wanting, and work to fine-tune its generalizing assumptions. In the early 1980s, feminism “became secure and prospered in the academy while feminism as a social movement was encountering major setbacks in a climate of new conservatism,” writes Jane Gallop in Around 1981.3 Among other factors involved in the increasing academicization of U.S. feminism in the early 1980s were recent translations, and thus the new availability, of texts by French poststructuralists including Derrida, Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva, and Lacan. This critical context contributed to the acceleration of a shift in U.S. feminist theories from a primarily Marxist critical paradigm to one that depended increasingly on a psychoanalytic model. Thus intervening at an extremely sensitive moment in feminist history, novels of this period locate themselves at the intersection of academic and more generally social concerns; from that juncture, they present theories of their own about the means by which feminist ideals might operate in the context of material praxis.4

In 1981, Carolyn Heilbrun, then a professor of English at Columbia University who writes detective novels under the name Amanda Cross, published Death in a Tenured Position. This novel is part of a series that features the protagonist Kate Fansler, an independently wealthy, WASP-ish, feminist English professor at a major university in New York City, who happens to solve murder mysteries in her spare time. I want to emphasize the categories of identity that Cross rather aggressively attaches to her detective, not simply to suggest that Fansler is a surrogate for Cross/Heilbrun, but rather to emphasize the fact that Fansler, by virtue of her identity, symbolizes a series of mainstream, bourgeois feminist values: like many of her counterparts, including Isadora Wing of Jong's Fear of Flying, Fansler is a New Yorker, financially invulnerable due to her possession of a trust fund, heterosexual, white, well-educated, and because of her own personal experiences, concerned with sexual chauvinism. Kate Fansler's feminist politics run deep but not radical; early in Death in a Tenured Position, she encounters the lesbian separatist Joan Theresa and becomes painfully conscious of the legibility of her appearance: “The raincoat Kate had hung up was a fashionable raincoat. Her shoes, though flat, were fashionable shoes. Her panty hose covered shaved legs. Her suit, ultra-suede, was worn over a turtleneck knit, and on her jacket was a pin: a gold pin. Kate was dressed for the patriarchy.”5 “‘My clothes,’” says Kate to Joan Theresa, “‘make my life easier, as yours make your life easier’” (p. 10). Upper-class, educated, and a feminist, Kate Fansler's very liminality enables her to achieve the symbolic translations necessary to accommodate both feminist and “patriarchal” agendas. She is intelligent, attractive, and desirable, and in fictional worlds, the material and especially sartorial tokens of middle-class respectability are a central mechanism through which feminist agendas are transmitted to a mass-market readership. Later in the novel, Kate jokingly accuses her friend Sylvia of becoming “‘one of those awful women's libbers’” (p. 26). Sylvia's response: “‘You betcha. I eat bras; my favorite is 34B, pink, lightly sizzled. I will eat one soon if the waiter doesn't come. Shall we have it with white wine or red?’”

This novel's lightly satirical detachment from radical politics belies the fact that it contains the spectrum of feminist possibilities in characters that range from commune-dwelling lesbian separatists, to the gentler feminism of Kate and Sylvia, to the brutal misogyny of its villains and of its victim. And indeed, as both a detective and, suggestively, as an academic, Kate will need the protective coloring of her wealth and conventional style, for the novel's mystery goes right to questions of institutional authority: Death in a Tenured Position concerns first the career crisis, then the death of Janet Mandelbaum, the first female professor of English at Harvard University.

If Columbia University's English Department was symbolically central to the women's movement because of the scandal surrounding Kate Millett's publication of Sexual Politics in 1970,6 Harvard's English Department emerges even more powerfully as the emblem of patriarchal privilege paradoxically surrounded by Cambridge, the heart of youth culture and a center of the antiwar movement. The juxtaposition of Harvard's backwardness and the progressive enclave of Cambridge is fruitful within popular literatures of the women's movement, a dichotomy deployed not only by Cross, but also by Alther, Piercy in Small Changes, and most famously, by French in The Women's Room. Cross and French alike frame their fictions through the observation that there is almost literally no place for women at Harvard, an architectural critique that symbolizes implicit institutional misogyny. Both novels focus on what Lacan calls “urinary segregation,” borrowing on bathroom politics in order to make a point about gendered ideologies that follow from entrenched social conventions of sexual difference.7

French's novel opens with Mira peering into the mirror in an obscure Harvard “ladies' room”—“She called it that, even though someone had scratched out the world ladies' in the sign on the door, and written women's underneath”8—while Cross's Janet Mandelbaum is found dead in the English Department men's room. True to the larger lavatorial motif, the professional politics of misogyny represented through these women's encounters with the university focuses on bodily implications; the insistence in an academic context on women's bodies suggests that the body is profoundly inescapable, untranscendable even in the loftiest of contexts. In Cross's novel, a young Harvard English professor writes to a friend of his department's mandate to hire a woman, implicitly equating the male-separatist enclave of the academy with the politics of the old-boys' room: “Of course, they are all worried about menopause—it is absolutely all they can think of when a woman threatens to penetrate their masculine precincts—how revealing language is” (p. 1). And when Kate Fansler first considers coming to Janet Mandelbaum's assistance at Harvard, she recalls Henry James, who “wrote a novel in the 1890s in which a young woman shows an admirer around Harvard, pointing out each of the buildings and remarking that there is no place for women in them; Harvard hasn't changed much since. Little more than ten years ago, women could not use many of the libraries” (p. 14).

For French, too, the architectural exclusion of women from Harvard only underscores a more widespread pattern of exclusion justified by the putative uncontainability of the female body. Linking the scatological implications of bathrooms with libraries, Val, the most radical of Mira's graduate student friends (and the one who is ultimately—predictably—punished for her radicalism with death) argues similarly that Harvard discriminates against women for “sanitary” considerations: “‘You let women through the front doors and what will they do? Splat splat, a big clot of menstrual blood right on the threshold. Every place women go they do it: splat splat. There are little piles of clotty blood all over Lamont Library now. There are special crews hired just to keep the place decently mopped down’” (p. 304). Val's fantasy of the library's contamination caricatures misogynistic fears about the uncontainability of women's bodies, even as it suggests that patriarchal institutions—the library, the university—are insufficiently fortified to effect that containment at all.

Emily Martin argues that women have used sex-segregated bathrooms as “backstage areas” and spaces in which they could constitute their own “solidarity and resistance” to the containment of their bodies in the public sphere of the workplace.9The Women's Room, from its title to its conclusion, is intensely aware of the possibilities and the dangers of such resistance. Although bathrooms themselves in this novel tend to be spaces of women's isolation, anxiety, and panic, the collegial community that the women in Mira's circle succeed in constructing serves as the kind of “women's room” Virginia Woolf imagines in A Room of One's Own, its own site of subversion from within. But for some the inescapable, inevitably visceral embodiedness of women is the stuff of the most treacherous anxiety dreams, presenting a conundrum that is as frightening as it is liberatory. Reflecting Val's imagery, the graduate student Kyla has the following dream prior to her oral exam:

She dreamt she was in the room where orals were held, a wood-paneled room with small paned windows and a broad shining table. The three men who were to examine her were sitting at one end of the table quarreling as she walked in. She had just stepped inside the door when she spied the pile in the corner. Instantly she knew what it was, but she was incredulous, she was so ashamed, she moved nearer to check it out. It was what she thought. She was horrified. Those stained sanitary napkins, those bloody underpants were hers, she knew they were hers, and she knew the men would know it too. She tried to stand in front of them, but there was no way she could conceal them. The men had stopped quarreling, they had turned to face her, they were peering at her …

(P. 410, ellipses in original)

In a startling moment of unconscious identification, Kyla aligns herself, and her fears for and about herself, with the misogynistic establishment: she, like her examiners, fears the uncontainable bloody excesses of the female body, and for Kyla such a fear of bodily betrayal is at once embarrassing and professionally disabling. Her body's secrets refuse to remain contained in the other space of the women's room; in Kyla's deepest anxiety, her body refuses to collude with “the men” over the open secret of its femaleness, and simply reiterates the fear that her examiners will fail to perceive Kyla's mind within the insistent context of her uncontrollable body.

“Menstrual blood,” writes Julia Kristeva, “stands for the danger issuing from within identity (social or sexual); it threatens the relationship between the sexes within a social aggregate and, through internalization, the identity of each sex in the face of sexual difference.”10 For Val, for Kyla, for Janet Mandelbaum, their bodies signify sexual difference even as their vocational ambitions lay claim to a pretense of gender neutrality; the well-trained mind should, in theory anyway, neutralize the ideological effects of a binary-sex model. Like Cross, French deploys the ostensibly abstract intellectual politics of the university in order to undercut the ascetic assumptions of disembodiedness implicit within the life of the mind, foregrounding instead the painful struggle feminists faced in the effort to reconcile the body politics of academic labor with more abstract claims of aesthetics and the intellectual sphere. By forcing the reconciliation of the abstract and the material, such bodily degradations help to constitute the borderlines of the feminist subject, even as they expose the very vulnerability of that subject-position by modeling the most spectacular, even mortal, implications of its failure.

Kristeva suggests that the degradations of the abject help to serve a constitute function: mediating within the binary pair “subject” and “object,” the abject becomes recognizable through the act of expulsion, through the putting-out that, in one stroke, constitutes and maps the boundary line between in and out. The constitutive function of the body, and especially of the abjectified corpse, in novels of the women's liberation movement expresses “feminist subjectivity” as a singular and a collective enterprise by modeling the serious implications of its failure. Bodily humiliation signifies the risks feminist subjects undertake: “as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live,” writes Kristeva.

These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything.11

Within Kristeva's theoretical model, produced in 1980 at the very transitional moment negotiated within these novels, the category crisis staged in the expulsion of the abject involves the psychic processes through which not only subjectivity but subjectivity as a gendered category is constituted: “The abject confronts us … with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before existing outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language. It is a violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling.”12 As Kristeva suggests, the power politics of boundary-formation are delicate: the nascent subject, shuttling between the predicament of maternal claustration and its patriarchal obverse, autonomy, finds herself called upon to reconcile the irreconcilable, in a context in which her very survival is on the line. The double bind that characterizes Kristeva's emerging subject recapitulates the predicament of the mature but would-be feminist subjects of Cross's and French's novels, and in all three cases, the subject-formation at stake involves the conundrum of femininity: how might female, and indeed, feminist, subjectivity come into being, caught as it is between the annihilating codes of maternity on one side and the equally dangerous patriarchal sphere on the other? The corpses of Janet Mandelbaum and, later in The Women's Room, of Val, Mira's heartiest, most joyously embodied feminist friend, exist in these novels as abjectified objects against which a feminist subject expresses the extremes of her own enterprise. In one sense, and paradoxically perhaps, such feminist corpses act the role of good mother: they play dead, and accordingly constitute themselves as unresistant objects to be inscribed with meaning from the outside by those who profit from their loss. But more disturbingly, they also serve the function of the scapegoat: because the abject have been punished so brutally for their failings, the feminist subjects constituted in their wake are damaged goods, made timid and conciliatory by their awareness of the thin line they walk, by the mortal dangers implicit within the apparently paradoxical construct “autonomous woman.”13

The result is a form of bodily self-loathing inflicted by the academy, a misogynistic institution which stands in the way of women's access to the life of the mind, to aesthetic worlds, and to the professional prestige and livelihood that are presumed to follow upon academic success. Hence Death in a Tenured Position, a novel that presents its own ambivalence about the first woman to achieve the professional success that universities—and the culture for which they stand—would deny to the general population of women. Janet Mandelbaum was selected strategically to join the Harvard faculty, more perhaps because of her antipathy toward feminism than for the excellence of her scholarship. Janet rails against the expectation that she, as the token woman, will lobby for the greater good of women: “all the women—students, assistant professors, administrators—seem to think I should rally to some woman's cause: women's studies, the problems of women at Harvard, welcoming women to the graduate program, to Radcliffe—as though there were only one sex in the universe. Why should I be more interested in the women than the men? I'm interested in good seventeenth-century scholars; the sex is irrelevant” (p. 45). She continues later, “‘I honestly do think that if women have the ability and are willing to pay the price they can make it. I did’” (p. 46). Along those lines, Joan Theresa, lesbian separatist and radical feminist, argues that not only was Janet never a feminist, “‘She was never a woman, professionally speaking’” (p. 12), and Kate Fansler agrees: “‘I assumed that was why Harvard had taken her. She had also had a hysterectomy, when young, and therefore could be guaranteed not to have a menopause, during which all women go mad, as everyone knows.’”

Stripped of her “woman” credentials because she does not identify with woman-centered political causes and implicitly because she lacks that fundamental equipment for hysteria, the womb, Janet Mandelbaum is nonetheless punished—by misogynists, by feminists, by herself—because she is a professional woman. The first instance of this punishment occurs in the context of a rather improbable crisis, in which a graduate student slipped Janet a drugged cocktail; when she passed out, he placed her limp body in the ornamental bathtub located in the Harvard English Department men's bathroom. He then telephoned Joan Theresa's commune and warned them that one of the “sisters” was in trouble. The idea, apparently, was to suggest that Janet, who would appear to know the lesbian separatists who came to her rescue, would be tarred with the same brush, would be taken for a lesbian herself; this produces crisis not only for Janet, but for the rescuing lesbian, Luellen, who is in a custody battle for her children. Sylvia muses on the illogic of this plot: “‘The point however, is that they thought they could discredit Janet by getting her involved with that all-women commune in Cambridge. Perhaps add another suspicion to her deteriorating reputation. But they were fools. They united two groups who would never, otherwise, have anything to do with each other: the woman-identified and the male-identified’” (p. 30, italics in original).

Kate Fansler was initially called to Harvard to intervene informally on Janet's behalf, and the women's commune, too, has something at stake in her presence in Cambridge: Luellen hopes Kate will testify in her custody battle, and Kate realizes that “‘a judge would take my word about whom to give the children to because of the way I dress’” (p. 87). As Sylvia suggests, the commune women are the polar opposite of antifeminist Janet Mandelbaum, but as the novel's plot suggests, they remain united in several concerns common to them as women: they both need the help of mainstream feminist Kate Fansler; they are similarly degraded and publicly humiliated in an intellectual (and homophobic and misogynistic) context because of their bodies and what their bodies suggest about their sexuality. But while Kate suspects the entire Harvard faculty is capable of murdering its first tenured woman professor in order to “scotch the whole scheme” of female faculty (p. 106), in the end, quite chillingly, it is not one of the suspects but rather Mandelbaum herself who acted in violence.

Kate Fansler's investigation into Mandelbaum's murder represents an attempt to locate violent hatred of Mandelbaum either in the radical feminist fringe or in the misogynist Harvard faculty, each of which has something to gain by her death. But it is ultimately revealed that Mandelbaum died by her own hand, and in the course of this investigation, that everyone is guilty—the Harvard English Department for its closed-minded loathing of her, her friends Kate and Sylvia for isolating her, for giving her “no community” (p. 187); her lesbian feminist “sisters” for turning their back on a woman in need: “‘She belonged nowhere, poor Janet’” (p. 181). Mandelbaum's chosen symbolic gesture was to commit suicide in the office of the English Department chairman; her colleague Clarkville, discovering the body, moves it from the office to the men's room (where it has already been discovered once) in a misguided attempt at concealment. Because Mandelbaum's body “‘was in a position with the legs drawn up,’” putting it “‘on the toilet in the stall may have seemed, under the circumstances, the logical thing’” (p. 166). and Clarkville, chivalrous to the end, chooses the men's room in order to spare the English Department's secretaries the shock of discovering Mandelbaum dead.

The circumstances of Mandelbaum's death, the ensuing cover-up, and its discovery, decisively reiterate the scatological motif. But this time, Mandelbaum herself, although a prominent scholar, was responsible for placing her own body in a suggestive position. The novel ultimately punishes Mandelbaum, exchanging her embrace of scholarly asceticism for a conclusive gesture toward her body's status as material and as grotesque. Why, though, despite its indictment of everyone from radical feminists to vicious misogynists for failing to accept Mandelbaum's person and politics, must this novel conclude with a revelation of her suicide? This text turns on the death of a woman. And despite the belated regrets of most of its characters, there is enormous hostility directed toward Janet Mandelbaum, whether because she is female or because she is not feminist. The message implicit in a novel whose protagonist speaks for the feminist mainstream is that while there might be no room for women at Harvard now, there will be eventually—but there is no room for women such as Janet Mandelbaum, whether by her own choice or the choice of feminists, within the women's movement. Kate Fansler represents a new feminist orthodoxy here, a middle ground available to women who fall somewhere between the radical feminism of Joan Theresa and the borderline misogyny of Janet Mandelbaum; vaguely skeptical of both, Kate looks on more in sorrow than in anger as both are punished for their occupation of the fringes.

Death in a Tenured Position is set in an English Department, and it exploits its setting in order to foreground not only questions of professionalism, politics, and sexuality relevant to the women's movement, but also questions of aesthetics. In this it is paradigmatic of popular feminist fictions from this period, which consistently emphasize the importance of beauty, creativity, and in that vein, education, as fundamental to feminist social action. These texts suggest that the desire for aesthetic and erotic pleasure, as well as the liberal feminist egalitarian impulse, can be addressed through the cultivation of the analytical tools found in the university, while the cultivation of the mind, as Cross's novel suggests, represents the possibility of circumventing the gross bodily implications of femininity. As fictional texts, these novels clearly have much at stake in underscoring the importance of fictional and literary works to a larger feminist project. But the consistent representation of aesthetic concerns within the aggressively professional context of the academy—Janet Mandelbaum's investment in George Herbert, for instance, concerns career more than pleasure—equates the cultural valuation of the sublime with a kind of bourgeois careerism. An academic career is potentially feminist and also quite democratically accessible to smart women with the proper training. The university, paradoxically, symbolizes both the most rigidly entrenched of patriarchal institutions and a context in which feminist political interventions might take hold. In this it stands somewhat optimistically for the potential of bourgeois feminism to transform the world.

Feminist fictions emphasize the profound importance of class issues to the women's movement through their concern not only with the class status of women, but also with the fluid class boundaries available through education. The sense in which they remain conventional narratives, then, underscores the nature of the fictional intervention into feminist practice, addressing central questions of the women's movement while putting a premium on the human cost of the difficult decisions these central questions require. These are novels in which female characters agonize over the double binds that characterize their lives, and in which every decision, one way or the other, has negative implications. Just as Kate Fansler serves a crucial mediating function between the extremes of radical lesbian feminism and rigid misogyny, these narratives, too, operate in terms of mediation. They construct an implicit readerly identification for white, middle-class, heterosexual women, and through the trials of their white, middle-class, usually heterosexual protagonists, they model strategies for the accommodation of feminist principles of equality within essentially conventional lives.14 In the context of such narratives of identification, the topos of violent death persists as a sign of abjection that, through the purifying, almost excretory function, exposes the outermost limits—and the frightening risks—of the feminist project.

Marilyn French's The Women's Room is the most fully realized of various attempts to work through the conflicts created by cultural expectations for women, and as in most feminist novels, feminism is a positive possibility within otherwise annihilating choices. French follows her protagonist Mira through girlhood, adolescence, marriage, life as a suburban housewife and mother, divorce, graduate school, and ultimately—and not optimistically—to a lonely existence as a junior-college instructor of English literature in a town isolated on the coast of Maine. This is not a happy ending, but Mira is introspective and intact at the novel's conclusion, no mean feat considering the extent to which her ostensibly “normal” and certainly conventional life experiences are represented in terms of their ability to inflict psychic and even physical damage, despite Mira's reasonably protected status as an open-minded, intelligent, middle-class, well-educated white woman. She is not a woman living in poverty like the lesbians in Death in a Tenured Position and Piercy's Small Changes who must fight the system that would take away their children; nor does she experience overt misogyny and certainly nothing like racial discrimination or hatred. Rather, Mira is a woman who suffers because she is a member of the cultural mainstream, even the cultural ideal, an intelligent, thinking, sensitive woman living in the postwar U.S.; her suffering is acute and its damage genuine.

Mira's predicament leaves her split, more knowingly than Janet Mandelbaum, between body and mind, between the grotesque implications of her material existence and the possibilities held forth in the act of intellection. It is not possible for Mira to reconcile these claims. Accordingly, her feminism, however abstract it gets, never fully escapes the most degraded bodily implications of patriarchy in terms ranging from the cleaning of toilets to rape at knifepoint. The Women's Room is a novel set largely in a university context, but it opens in the bathroom of that university, and French is meticulous in situation the more abstract ideological concerns of the women's movement within the material context of women's lived experience: university, bathroom.

Mira, an acutely intelligent child, first found that intelligence disrupted by menstruation: “The problem was sex … At the end of her fourteenth year, Mira began to menstruate and was finally let in on the secret of sanitary napkins. Soon afterward, she began to experience strange fluidities in her body, and her mind, she was convinced, had begun to rot. She could feel the increasing corruption, but couldn't seem to do anything to counter it” (p. 14). With menstruation comes the beginning of sexual desire, and Mira's introduction to the entire consumer economy of womanhood. Suddenly the intellectual emphases of her private life give way to ideas of romantic love, but as a teenager, she swiftly learns that her participation in romance means that she must forsake not only physical but also mental independence: left alone one night in a bar, she drinks too much, dances with a number of teenage boys, and comes dangerously close to being gang-raped by them.

Other girls went to bars, other girls danced. The difference was she had appeared to be alone. That a woman was not marked as the property of some man made her a bitch in heat to be attacked by any male, or even by all of them at once. She was a woman and that alone was enough to deprive her of freedom no matter how much the history books pretended that women's suffrage had ended inequality, or that women's feet had been bound only in an ancient and outmoded and foreign place like China. She was constitutionally unfree.

(P. 35)

Having been introduced to the consumer culture of womanhood, Mira soon learns, violently, that she is its chattel. And significantly, as this quote should demonstrate, the feminist praxis modeled by The Women's Room, with its title's allusion to Woolf's peroration for women's intellectual freedom in A Room of One's Own, is more concerned with the subtle sexism of white, middle-class heterosexual culture than with interventions at the level of formal law.

Like the women of Woolf's text, Mira's intelligence, her private life of the mind, is her only path of escape from the insidious degradations of middle-class femininity. But mind is inextricable from body, and Mira's body, as she so rapidly learns, represents a problem in a culture that would see it only in terms of a man's ownership: “Mira understood—what young woman does not?—that to choose a husband is to choose a life. She had not needed Jane Austen to teach her than. It is, in a sense, a woman's first, last, and only choice. Marriage and a child make her totally dependent on the man, on whether he is rich or poor, responsible or not, where he chooses to live, what work he chooses to do” (p. 26). As Virginia Woolf suggests and French reiterates repeatedly, women are a social class, and as a class, they are generally poor. This point is represented particularly acutely given the novel's normative middle-class context and its version of heterosexual marital convention, for Mira's perception that her future physical well-being depends on her choice of husband presupposes certain assumptions about that husband's earning power; in contrast, in Rubyfruit Jungle (1972), Rita Mae Brown's lesbian protagonist Molly Bolt, working outside the presumption that her life is coextensive with her marriage, tells a story of economic self-sufficiency that originates in a childhood of constant poverty.

For the women of Mira's suburban adult lifestyle, on the other hand, “work” is tied to the body and detached from the monetary economy of wages; they are in a secondary relationship to earning power, and the power relations of their marriages reflect the equation of money and control. “Women see men as oppressors, as tyrants, as an enemy with superior strength to be outwitted. Men see women as underminers, slaves who rattle their chains threateningly, constantly reminding the men that if they wanted to, they could poison his food: just watch out” (p. 68). Women's work involves the bearing of and caring for children, tasks that further alienate them from “ownership” of their bodies and that impose a form of exhaustion that drains their intelligent minds; when Mira first gets pregnant, “She saw the situation as the end of her personal life. Her life, from pregnancy on, was owned by another creature” (p. 48). The narrator interposes here with a commentary on Mira's “unnatural” response to her predicament: “What is wrong with this woman? you ask. It is Nature, there is no recourse, she must submit and make the best of what she cannot change. But the mind is not easily subdued. Resentment and rebellion grow in it—resentment and rebellion against Nature itself. Some wills are crushed, but those that are not contain within them, for the rest of their days, seeds of hate. All of the women I know feel a little like outlaws.” Feminism for Mira represents the fomenting of rebellion in her mind against the captivity and ownership registered on her body. Because of the differences between male and female bodies, “Women and men. They played by different rules because the rules applied to them were different. It was very simple. It was the women who got pregnant and the women who ended up with the kids” (p. 216). The material implications of women's lack of access to money and men's access to freedom are dire for women and children; after Mira's divorce and the mid-life divorces of several of her friends, the narrator writes, “If you want to find out who all the welfare mothers are, ask your divorced male friends. It sounds easy, you know, going on welfare. But apart from the humiliation and resentment, you don't really live very well. In case you didn't know. Which is unpleasant for a woman, but sends her into fits when she looks at her kids” (p. 230).

The indignities, petty humiliations, and injustices represented in The Women's Room are the by-product of “normal” American life, and in her exposé of the quotidian, French locates “women's liberation” at and as the heart of middle-class concerns. French's critique of marriage represents a logical progression from material degradation to larger epistemological questions, and the novel's more esoteric academic analyses of inequality suggest that experience and epistemology are inextricable. Feminist praxis begins, for French, for Mira, at home: “But for women especially, the new washing machine or dryer or freezer really was a little release from slavery. Without them, and without the pill, there would not be a woman's revolution now” (p. 72). Indeed, the liberatory implications of labor-saving devices have been central to bourgeois feminism, from Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), with its analysis of affluent women's boredom, through more contemporary debates about day care.15 In The Women's Room, labor-saving devices represent an avenue out of the endlessly self-replicating implications of dirt generated by human bodies. “All my life,” the narrator comments, “I've read that the life of the mind is preeminent, and that it can transcend all bodily degradation. But that's just not my experience. When your body has to deal all day with shit and string beans, your mind does too” (p. 46). From this point on, the phrase “shit and string beans” is the novel's refrain, representing the physical and mental captivity entailed in housewifery, and particularly in the raising of small children and the maintenance of the affluent suburban household. Mira, living the “American Dream” and trying to “get her mask on straight” (p. 151), is explicit about the most hideous aspects of middle-class womanhood: “Down on her hands and knees in one of the endless bathrooms, she would tell herself that in a way she was fortunate. Washing the toilet used by three males, and the floor and walls around it, is, Mira thought, coming face to face with necessity. And that was why women were saner than men, did not come up with the mad, absurd schemes men developed: they were in touch with necessity, they had to wash the toilet bowl and floor” (p. 150).

For Mira and women like her, the “necessity” of dealing with “shit and string beans” is a universal among women, and this novel suggests a related universality of female oppression, even if the presence of options in this context, such as cleaning help, appliances, and even access to birth control, locates this form of protest firmly in the middle of the middle class. “Everybody should clean up their own vomit,” Mira thinks. “Everybody should clean up the toilet they use” (p. 227). But in Mira's world, everybody doesn't—women do. And even in the most openly feminist contexts, behavioral expectations based on gender roles are stubborn; theory and practice remain at odds with one another. To the suggestion of universal “selflessness,” to men and women equally bearing the expectations of the other, the narrator replies:

It was a rhetorical solution. Because the fact is that everyone doesn't act in both roles and probably can't and not everyone would be willing to accept that and so the whole thing seemed to me as if we'd been talking about the street plan and architecture of heaven. In fact, it didn't make much sense even for us to insist that men and women both should be selfless, because although we were all in graduate school, all of us took the female role at home … And we were supposed to be “liberated” … I mentioned this, and Isolde sighed. “I hate discussions of feminism that end up with who does the dishes,” she said. So do I. But at the end, there are always the damned dishes.

(P. 60)

Someone is always stuck doing the dishes, and the question of cleaning up afterwards is allegorized outward in this novel to suggest its centrality for both feminist practice and theory, “Women always have to clean up their own messes,” thinks Mira (p. 246), and the rage provoked by such debasement is the fire behind feminist theoretical passions. After a theoretical argument, Kyla, Mira's graduate school colleague, bursts out: “‘Oh, Mira!’ … ‘Why do you always have to bring us down to the level of the mundane, the ordinary, the stinking, fucking refrigerator? I was talking about ideals, nobility, principles … ‘And she leaped up and charged across the room and threw herself on Mira and hugged her, kept hugging her, saying, ‘Thank you, oh, thank you, Mira, for being so wonderful, so awful, for always remembering the stinking, filthy refrigerator!’” (p. 241).

As Kyla's outburst indicates, the “evidence of experience” proves a powerful polemical tool within The Women's Room: pragmatism emerges as the inescapable groundwork to more esoteric flights of feminist fancy.16 “For here, underneath all the intellect, the abstraction, the disconnection, were the same old salt tears and sperm, the same sweet blood and sweat she'd wiped up for years. More shit and string beans” (p. 304). Mira's return to school following her divorce occurs as an attempt to transcend the “real” implications of everyday existence: “It was a new life, it was supposed to revitalize you, to send you radiant to new planes of experience where you would get tight with Beatrice Portinari and be led to an earthly paradise. In literature, new lives, second chances, lead to visions of the City of God” (p. 147). But typically within the genre of feminist realism, Mira quickly realizes that the formal conventions of representation fail to accommodate her own lived experience, with the result that “shit and string beans” continue to preoccupy her daily life. The narrator writes:

The problem with the great literature of the past is that it doesn't tell you how to live with real endings. In the great literature of the past you either get married and live happily ever after, or you die. But the fact is, neither is what actually happens. Oh, you do die, but never at the right time, never with great language floating all around you, and a whole theater full of witnesses to your agony. What actually happens is that you do get married or you don't, and you don't live happily ever after, but you do live. And that's the problem.

(Pp. 148-49)

Marriage in French's novel rarely guarantees happiness, and life without happiness is in effect a living death. And this novel, consistent with its dark aesthetic vision, is pragmatic about the implications of Mira's feminist struggle. She gets her Ph.D., true, from the same Harvard English Department that effectively kills Janet Mandelbaum, but she does not turn into Mandelbaum, much less Kate Fansler, reaping the material and intellectual benefits of a scholarly life. Mira, an older graduate, settles into a job at a very isolated small college in Maine. So despite the fact that she opts out of marriage and more children with her lover Ben in favor of her intellectual freedom, she winds up a solitary eccentric wandering the rocky shores of Maine all winter long.

But employed, and living on her own terms, Mira is alive. She is friends with her adolescent sons and occasionally even enjoys her life as a teacher. If Mira represents the feminist mainstream, French paints a bleak picture of the implications of acting on a commitment to personal freedom; typically pragmatic, she underscores the sense in which every decision carries its price, and Mira's integrity costs her human relationships. On the other hand, however, this novel, like so many others of this historical moment, articulates a feminist mainstream through the sharp contrast with the feminist radical fringe. And occupation of that radical fringe is, as is so often the case, lethal.

In French's novel, Mira's most radical friend is Val, who with her daughter Chris constitute a family unit that is presented as idyllic: it is open, fluid, accepting, political, welcoming, a household of women who practice an utopic, user-friendly version of the feminism with which the novel's more conventional women struggle. Chris, however, goes off to college and is raped, and their ensuing trip through the justice system brings Chris and Val down to the level of degradation, humiliation, and debasement that is the more common experience of women in patriarchal culture. This radicalizes Val to a degree that the novel represents as understandable but untenable; Chris and Val conclude that any male attention is rape, that the legal system is complicit with the rapist, and that Chris is fighting for her right to exist in a world of men. Representing an extreme version of the separatist rhetoric of anti-porn and other radical feminist groups, Val declares, “‘Whatever they may be in public life, whatever their relations with men, in their relations with women, all men are rapists, and that's all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, and their codes’” (p. 462).

The novel rejects this position implicitly.17 Mira is the mother of two sons and thus typically represents the feminist struggle for equality without separatism, and at this moment, she feels “liberated” through her pursuit of her scholarly work: scholarship, she believes, “did not seem slavery to her but freedom. For the first time, she understood what graduate school had been all about: it was designed to free her for this. She did not have to worry over every detail; she had enough knowledge to make certain statements, and enough awareness of how to get knowledge to find out how to make others. That was liberating. She was free to be as methodical as she chose, in a work that seemed significant. What more could she ask?” (p. 475). If knowledge is Mira's ticket to liberation, then political action is Val's, for Val becomes a political activist, indeed, an extremely radical feminist, as a result of her daughter's rape.18 And for this decision she pays the price of death, no mere poisoning as in Janet Mandelbaum's case, but a brutally graphic and public destruction of her body and all that it stands for: as Val participates in a protest, police shoot so many bullets into her body that it explodes.

“‘There are no words,’” someone says at her funeral (p. 496), and unlike Mira, whose choice in the mind-body binary places her on the side of the mind, Val surpasses the contingencies of materiality; because she exploded, she is containable neither in body nor in words:

No words to wrap her body in like a shroud, like clean white sanitized bandages, around and around and around until she was all clean and white and sanitized and pure, her blood dried, her mass of exploded flesh covered, her stink deodorized, and she sanitary, polite, acceptable for public notice, a mummy propped on a table for public ceremony, its very presence a promise, a guarantee that she will not rise up in rage with hair wild on her head, a knife in her hand, screaming, “No! No! Kill before you accept!”

The novel does not deal with Val's death with any real explicitness, nor does it pursue the implications of the cause in which she died: Val and her group were trying to rescue a young black woman, Anita Morrow, who had been raped, and who stabbed her rapist in self-defense. The rapist, “from a respectable white family,” died, and Anita Morrow was charged with murder. The prosecution claimed she was a prostitute, but like most of the female characters in this novel, she was a university student who “wanted to be an English teacher” (p. 492), although the media represented her as uneducable. Eventually “Anita Morrow was found guilty of murder on grounds of illiteracy” (p. 493)—as if illiteracy were a crime.

This murder case introduces an important new tension late in the novel: the suggestion that education and the upward mobility that it purchases are the prerogative of middle-class white women alone underscores a certain complacency within Mira's analysis of the class politics of gender difference. Anita Morrow, Val, and Chris are punished for declarations of rage and selfhood that are significantly more extreme than the world, including the world of the protagonist Mira, is willing to handle. And in the context of the novel's dark representation of feminist life choices, the injustice of these concluding events is clear, even as their overarching message is still more clear: there is an ineradicable danger to life as a radical feminist, and in the bourgeois worlds of mainstream feminism, radical life-choices are conventionally punished either by humiliating ridicule or by death. Radical life-choices, in other words, put the body on the line, and by underscoring its material vulnerabilities, they realize the danger ever present within female resistance. The protections afforded within this equation are various, for some lives—Anita Morrow's, for example—are always already in danger; the concept of “choice” for Anita Morrow involves only the degree to which she might dare to resist a system which is implicitly constructed to resist her. Mira's place on the scale of privilege is quite high, but even her choices, reasonably moderate though they are, strand her on the rugged coast of Marine. And Val was forced by circumstance and by violence to choose a life for which there is no place at all in the world. This caused her body to be shattered to bits all over the street, in the name of legal justice.

The fictional texts of the mainstream women's movement are decidedly anxious about feminist rage and feminist activism, and they represent an ideal of bourgeois feminism as a decidedly cerebral endeavor. Characters such as Alther's Ginny or Jong's Isadora Wing, whose trust funds enable them to try on roles, jobs, and sexualities without material consequences, enable a parody of the double bind Marilyn French represents as agonizing and inextricable: more abstract theoretical approaches to sexual discrimination emerge subtly as the property of the “straight,” of the white, heterosexual middle classes. Amanda Cross's series detective Kate Fansler is certainly represented as a feminist, but short of coming to the rescue of a colleague in crisis at Harvard, her more conventional mode of feminist action is her eternal presence as “‘The Token Woman’” (p. 5) on any number of university committees. The ubiquitousness with which feminist novelists in the late 1970s situate their characters' political activities within universities is symptomatic of a larger set of agendas pertaining to the brand of feminist action they represent: feminism is an individual concern, is a movement connected with the achievement of personal career and intellectual goals facilitated by education, and relies on a logic of metonymy, suggesting that what is good for one woman will be good for women more generally. In this context, radical individualism becomes its own form of activist intervention; Ginny Babcock leaves the commune to marry Ira Bliss, and later still, she leaves Ira, rolling her “Sisterhood is Powerful” T-shirt into a knapsack and striking out after new adventures.

Serving the practical aims of consolidation in death, the feminist abject is occasionally recapitulated in further service to the feminist subject. At the end of Jong's Fear of Flying, in a moment of crisis, the protagonist and first-person narrator Isadora Wing reads a notebook she kept in the early days of her present marriage: “I sat very quietly looking at the pages I had written. I knew I did not want to be trapped in my own book.”19 What follows is an anxiety dream that is at once liberatory and anomalous, that ruptures the terminologies of psychological, intellectual, narrative, and sexual entrapment that constitute Isadora's “own book”—her diary as well as the novel Fear of Flying. Isadora dreams of walking up the steps of Columbia's Low Library to receive her college diploma, her three “husbands” watching from the audience, and encountering lesbian novelist Colette at the lectern, “only she was a black woman with frizzy reddish hair glinting around her head like a halo.” Colette says:

“There is only one way to graduate … and it has nothing to do with the number of husbands.”

“What do I have to do?” I asked desperately, feeling I'd do anything.

She handed me a book with my name on the cover. “That was only a very shaky beginning,” she said, “but at least you made a beginning.”

I took this to mean I still had years to go.

“Wait,” she said, undoing her blouse. Suddenly I understood that making love to her in public was the real graduation, and at that moment it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Very aroused, I moved toward her. Then the dream faded.

(P. 290)

Jong's novel continues for two more chapters of denouement in which Isadora considers a reunion with her husband. But despite the structural centrality and psychological importance accorded this dream, the novel never refers back to it, nor attempts to elucidate its implications.

Why does Fear of Flying reach its climax in and through these terms? Somehow “Colette,” racial and erotic exotic, is a profoundly useful, if alien, object of desire to the rampantly heterosexual, white, New Yorker Isadora Wing.20 The novel that begins with the notorious fantasy of the “Zipless Fuck” (p. 11) concludes with a commencement that reestablishes the boundaries of sexual transgression: “Very aroused, I moved toward her. Then the dream faded.” Interracial, transnational, exhibitionist lesbian sex is tied up here with the goal of successful authorship, both registering in the realm of “academic” achievement: Isadora's book represents a form of ongoing coursework, whereas “making love to [Colette] in public was the real graduation.” But, again, “the dream faded,” the erotic encounter between Isadora and Colette relegated, again, to the realm of the unsaid.

The love that dare not speak its name speaks volumes for Isadora Wing, whose Colette-fantasy consolidates a number of crucial—and troublesome—identity categories within the women's movement. Colette is a white Frenchwoman turned into a red-haired African-American; she is a lesbian and an academic; she is a literary figure, access to whose fictions, in practical terms, presupposes a certain achievement of literacy. And “making love to her in public was the real graduation,” for Isadora Wing the key to escaping the conventional Bildung of her life thus far, the “graduation ceremony” that leads Isadora to the brink of an independent, self-determined identity.

In her deployment of Colette, Jong, like other feminist novelists of this period, forges a strategic connection between pleasure and knowledge, linking women's unleashed eroticism both to the concept of their intellectual freedom and also to formal institutional structures of the academy—Columbia's Low Library; a graduation ceremony. Knowledge is not only power; it is power rooted in pleasure; the realization of the creative and the beautiful; the construction of a feminist counterculture utopia right in the belly of the patriarchal beast itself. But perhaps the most common critique of the women's liberation movement in the late 1970s and the early 1980s focuses on what feminism leaves out. The argument that feminists, and feminist theories, construct white, middle-class, heterosexual women's experiences as normative recapitulates the politics of abjectification modeled by fictional deaths. In both cases, the mainstream constitutes itself through an act of violent expulsion, through a philosophical decapitation symbolically rendered, like Eddie's, through self-contradiction, through the failure to perceive the invisible boundaries that feminists have established and, however unconsciously, that they continue to patrol.

“Here it is not only a question,” writes Judith Butler, “of how discourse injures bodies, but how certain injuries establish certain bodies at the limits of available ontologies, available schemes of intelligibility … [H]ow is it that the abjected come to make their claim through and against the discourses that have sought their repudiation?”21 How, in other words, do the dead reawaken? Or, more appropriately perhaps, how do they expose themselves as the always already there, as the ghosts on whose very animating alterity feminist theories of animation, and of alterity, rely? In this context, Isadora Wing's transformative dream is as efficient as it is revealing of the profoundly constitutive role of the un-dead feminist. Colette, ghost, is the token black woman; lesbian; feminist literary ancestor; import from the prestigious context of French high culture. This leads to a new form of liberation: Isadora Wing, intensely aroused, responds sexually to Colette. And then she and her novel together walk away from this encounter; in the last scene Isadora is contemplating reunion with her husband. By reawakening the dead Colette, and by apostrophizing her in the name of categories of identity under erasure in this novel, Jong reveals the contingencies to which Isadora Wing's ultimate liberation, her release from entrapment within the generic confines of the fictional real, are indebted. Literally, figuratively, politically, Colette's outrageously overdetermined alterity serves an authorizing, even constitutive function for Isadora, for this novel, and for the witty, urbane feminist subject canonized in its graduation ceremony. Isadora forgets, but the novel reminds us, that it is Colette who confers the degree. And then she is gone.


  1. Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia Univ Press, 1982), p. 3.

  2. Lisa Alther, Kinflicks (New York: Plume, 1996), p. 331. All quotations refer to this edition, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  3. Jane Gallop, Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Theory (New York Routledge, 1992), p. 10.

  4. For an argument concerning “une fiction théoretique,” or Nicole Brossard's notion of “fiction/theory” as it occurs in formally experimental feminist and lesbian novels, see Teresa de Lauretis, “Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation,” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M Halperin (New York Routledge, 1993), pp. 141-58.

  5. Amanda Cross, Death in a Tenured Position (New York: Ballantine Books, 1981), p. 10. All quotations refer to this edition, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  6. Time, August 31, 1970 and December 14, 1970. I discuss this episode, and its implications, at length in the introduction to my current book project, Feminism: In Theory: The Practice of Abstraction.

  7. Jacques Lacan, “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious,” in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York Norton, 1977), p. 151.

  8. Marilyn French, The Women's Room (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), p. 1. All quotations refer to this edition, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  9. Emily Martin, The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction (Boston Beacon Press, 1987), p. 97.

  10. Kristeva. The Powers of Horror. p. 71.

  11. Ibid., p. 3, italics in original See Martin. The Woman in the Body, pp. 45-50, for an analysis of the cultural and economic construction of menstrual blood as a form of waste.

  12. Ibid., p. 13, italics in original. Kristeva argues later that women's use of the abject involves not mastery but the reiteration of an external patriarchal authority “When a woman ventures out in those regions it is usually to gratify, in very maternal fashion, the desire for the abject that insures the life (that is, the sexual life) of the man whose symbolic authority she accepts” (p. 54).

  13. On the constitutive function of the scapegoat, see René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977). On the gendered politics of abjection, see Judith Butler, “Bodies That Matter,” in Bodies That Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993).

  14. For a feminist theory of readerly response and identification, see Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: Univ of North Carolina Press, 1984).

  15. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W. W. Norton Co., 1963). Of the many critiques of Friedan's class- and race-blind theory of gender, bell hooks's is perhaps the most influential; she writes: “[Friedan] did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute, than to be a leisure class housewife … She made her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women. In so doing, she deflected attention away from her classism, her racism, her sexist attitudes towards the masses of American women” (Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center [Boston: South End Press, 1984], pp. 1-2).

  16. Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” in Abelove, et al., pp. 397-415. Scott's post-poststructuralist critique of the experiential as an authoritative epistemological form provides an interesting theoretical foil to the very serious authority granted experience in theoretical and fictional works of the late 1970s.

  17. For an analysis of critical responses to the question of men in The Women's Room. see Lisa Marie Hogeland, Feminism and Its Fictions: The Consciousness-Raising Novel and the Women's Liberation Movement (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), pp. 90-93.

  18. On the cost of Val's “failed activism,” and on the surprising infrequency of feminist fictional representations of activism, see Hogeland, Feminism and Its Fictions, p. 107.

  19. Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (New York: Signet, 1995), p. 288. All quotations refer to this edition, and page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  20. On Colette's mixed-race heritage, see Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (New York: Knopf, 1999).

  21. Butler, Bodies That Matter, p. 224.

Roberta Rubenstein (essay date June 2001)

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SOURCE: Rubenstein, Roberta. “Feminism, Eros and Coming of Age.” Frontiers 22, no. 2 (June 2001): 1-19.

[In the following essay, Rubenstein explores how feminist authors have portrayed female aging and maturity in their works, particularly in Doris Lessing's Love, Again and French's My Summer with George.]

Nearly a half century ago, Simone de Beauvoir observed that the interval between “maturity” and “old age” is an especially problematic time for women. In her view, women who have outgrown their once clearly delimited social and biological functions as mates and mothers find no clear cultural scripts to guide them during the years and decades that succeed procreation and maternity. As she phrased it:

From the day a woman consents to growing old, her situation changes. Up to that time she was still a young woman, intent on struggling against a misfortune that was mysteriously disfiguring and deforming her; now she becomes a different being, unsexed but complete: an old woman. It may be considered that the crisis of her “dangerous age” has been passed. But it should not be supposed that henceforth her life will be an easy one. When she has given up the struggle against the fatality of time, another combat begins: she must maintain a place on earth.1

Although one would like to declare de Beauvoir's statement “dated” by citing the many advances women have achieved in the decades since she published her groundbreaking analysis of the “second sex” (and, later, of “the coming of age”2), the fact is that midlife and the years that follow it still remain problematic for many women and disproportionately so for those who are not white, educated, or middle class.3 Despite the profound social transformation generated (if not secured) by feminist activism over the past three decades, one may legitimately ask: Has the women's movement that empowered an entire generation remained a movement for young(er) women? Have the changes that feminism catalyzed in the public sphere, notably matters of economic and social equity, bypassed more intimate personal matters, notably aging, sexuality, and what might be termed erotic equity, particularly in the years of midlife and beyond?

As the cohort of feminists whose political activism catalyzed the women's movement of the 1970s reaches midlife and beyond at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and as the focused energy of “second-wave” feminism has given way to the less-focused goals of “third-wave” feminism, these questions remain far from closed.4 The definition of midlife (the term that has replaced middle age) has itself advanced chronologically in tandem with gains in life expectancy during the past several decades. However, it seems to have expanded in the other direction as well. One scholar of aging states that in contemporary American and European cultures the designation encompasses “roughly ages 30-70.”5 According to another scholar on the subject of aging, the answer to the question, “When do the middle years begin?” is “When the culture gets you to say they do.6

Certain elements of that impossibly broad category of midlife have recently been subjected to special scrutiny by feminists. Now that the cohort of women whose pioneering work defined the second wave of the women's movement has reached the life-stage of the women they once regarded as invisible or irrelevant, they have begun to address the challenges of aging from the perspective of their own experience as older women. Among others, Betty Friedan has bemoaned the outworn script underscored by de Beauvoir's assumptions about women and aging. Upon entering her sixties, Friedan began research for the book eventually published in 1993 as The Fountain of Age. Acknowledging her peers’—and her own—resistance to the subject, she wrote, “Why did we all seem to feel the need to distance ourselves from age, the closer we got to it?” Proposing the idea of an “age mystique” comparable to the paradigm-shifting “feminine mystique” she named and diagnosed in the sixties, she asserted, “If age itself is defined as ‘problem,’ then those over sixty-five who can no longer ‘pass’ as young are its carriers and must be quarantined lest they contaminate, in mind or body, the rest of society.”7

A number of other feminist activists and novelists who came of age politically during the second wave have in recent years turned from the larger subject of feminism to their private histories, feminist and otherwise. For example, several novelists whose “mad housewife” fiction defined critical issues for women during the 1970s shifted to nonfiction in the form of personal memoir during the 1990s. Alix Kates Shulman, author of one of the classic novels of the second wave, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), recently published A Good Enough Daughter: A Memoir (1999). During the same year, Anne Richardson Roiphe, author of Up the Sandbox! (1970), another early and influential second-wave novel, published 1185 Park Avenue: A Memoir (1999). Two decades after writing the exuberant and taboo-shattering Fear of Flying (1973), Erica Jong articulated anxieties of another kind in the Fear of Fifty (1994), while in Getting Over Getting Older: An Intimate Journey (1996), activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author of How to Make It in a Man's World (1970), wrote a different kind of guide, using her own aging as the map. Similarly, academic feminist Carolyn Heilbrun, author of Reinventing Womanhood (1979), recently published The Last Gift of Time: Life beyond Sixty (1997).8

Female aging in patriarchy may be understood as a time-advanced version of what Friedan termed “the problem that has no name.” It is not yet clear whether contemporary feminist authors of fiction and theory have “named” the problem in ways that might enable women to imagine alternatives to culturally embedded negative scripts and to redirect our lives affirmatively during and beyond midlife. Pogrebin admits her wish that the words “older woman” might “evoke an image of a strong, wise, self-confident female, not a hag or a nobody. … It may not yet be possible in this society for a woman to have an ideal old age, but it is possible to imagine one.”9 Recognizing the difficulty in that very act of imagination, Heilbrun laments the paucity of emotional scripts available to independent women beyond midlife:

If we could discover a word that meant “adventure” and did not mean “romance,” we in our late decades would be able to free ourselves from the compulsion always to connect yearning and sex. If an ancient (by American standards) woman finds herself longing for something new, something as yet not found, must that something always be sex or till-death-do-us-part romance? The reason for the predominance of sexual aspiration, I have decided, is that no other adventure has quite the symbolic force, not to mention the force of the entire culture, behind it.10

The ideas of “adventure” and “romance” come to us through a variety of cultural expressions, including imaginative literature. There is a tradition of literature by and about women and aging that predates and overlaps with the period on which I focus here, including novels by (among others who might be mentioned) Margaret Laurence, May Sarton, Paule Marshall, Doris Lessing, and Anne Tyler.11 If it is through the imaginative vision that many (then-younger) female readers discovered some of the issues concerning women's personal and political circumstances during the second wave, I would like to consider here two post-second-wave fictional “case studies” that extend comparable insights to women's later years. Both Doris Lessing and Marilyn French address in fictional form some of the questions that circulate between notions of eros and aging for women. Like many of the second-wave writers I have mentioned, Lessing and French reached ideological maturity in the shadow of de Beauvoir's pioneering words and moved beyond midlife as the century turned (Lessing and French were born in 1919 and 1929, respectively). I focus on two of their recent narratives not only because of the considerable influence of their fiction during the second wave but because, as they themselves have grown older, they have continued to write about matters of concern to women in later life-stages. From their positions as authors of galvanizing, era-defining narratives of young women's politically and erotically complex lives—Lessing's The Golden Notebook (1962) and French's The Women's Room (1977)—both Lessing and French have turned to matters of aging and loss but have maintained their attention to eros.12

In a rather remarkable coincidence of timing, two novels published the same year in the United States—Lessing's Love, Again: A Novel (1996) and French's My Summer with George: A Novel of Love at a Certain Age (1996)—revisit the subject of eros, this time focusing on mature, self-realized women who unexpectedly find themselves struggling to reconcile their self-sufficiency with the long-forgotten, overpowering pull of emotional intimacy and sexual desire.13 Both authors focus on female characters who wrestle with the disturbing disjunctions between hard-won positions of autonomy in the public arena and the more intimate and problematic realm of eros for older women; both authors dare to imagine their female protagonists as independent, older, desiring women as they anatomize the longings and losses that accompany even highly successful women's later years. Through the prism of aging, both authors propose that matters of the heart—what might be called struggles with erotic equity—continue to challenge even emotionally self-sufficient women well beyond midlife.

Despite their compelling resemblances, however, Lessing's and French's novels map different trajectories of late-midlife female self-discovery, demonstrating and drawing different conclusions from the powerful socially constructed script of the female life span. As Margaret Gullette observes in her analysis of the ideology of aging, contemporary culture offers two sharply contrasting cultural scripts of midlife development: “progress” and “decline.” Literary narratives that focus on midlife protagonists—usually female—typically reflect one or the other of these cultural scripts. In narratives of progress, “Recalling being younger is a way of expressing gratitude for having moved on in the life course. … The ‘progress’ such novels convincingly model is that it feels better to be older than younger.” Among the functions of such narratives of progress is that of “redefin[ing] heroism at midlife to include self-rescue.”14

However, not all novels about midlife articulate an affirmative process of “ripening” into age.15 Rather, narratives of decline focus on a trajectory of renunciation, loss, and a kind of “identity-stripping” that “requires the self to reject or consider inconsequential all the counternarratives that emphasize aging into wisdom or maturity or any valued progress.”16 Of the two cultural scripts, the default narrative—the one that is far more pervasive and influential in its pessimistic charting of physical and mental deterioration over time—is the latter: “Our culture provides subjects with a master narrative of aging—something like the master narrative of gender or race: popularly disseminated, semiconscious, so familiar and acceptable that it can be told automatically. The plot of this one is peak, entry, and decline, with acceleration on the downslope.”17 Moreover, although other cultural labels and sites of interpretation such as ethnicity or class may influence the cultural scripting of the body's progress or decline, gender is “probably the most important determinant of the details that give plausibility to the master narrative.”18

Lessing's and French's novels may be instructively read in light of this “master narrative” of aging as they expose assumptions about the female body, erotic desire, and the enduring traces of earlier experiences that continue to influence inner growth beyond maturity. In fact, Lessing explicitly introduces a version of the master narrative early in Love, Again, as Sarah Durham is drawn to the memoir of an unnamed “society woman once known for her beauty” (4), published when its author was nearly a hundred years old. This extended cited passage encodes the script of aging as decline:

Growing old gracefully … the way has been signposted. One might say the instructions are in an invisible script which becomes slowly legible as life exposes it. Then the appropriate words only have to be spoken. … The young do not know—it is hidden from them—that the flesh withers around an unchanged core. The old share with each other ironies appropriate to ghosts at a feast, seen by each other but not by the guests whose antics and posturings they watch, smiling, remembering.

(Lessing 3-4)

Over the course of both Lessing's and French's novels, the central characters—women in late midlife—confront the dark underside of the erotic yearnings that enmesh them: the realities of “longing and loss and the terrible knowledge of the impossibility of satisfaction” (French 242). While the reawakening of desire catalyzes for each woman a serious reflection on her past and obliges her (and the reader) to consider the relationships among aging, gender, desire, and loss, Lessing's narrative traces a darker and more convoluted path than French's. My Summer with George is, according to the author, “a satirical novel about an aging woman's ludicrous love affair,” written as an antidote to her experience of nearly fatal illness.19

The protagonists of both novels are attractive, successful women in their mid-sixties: Lessing's Sarah Durham, a scriptwriter and partner in a small London theatrical agency, and French's Hermione Beldame, “Queen of Hearts,” the prolific best-selling author of romance novels. Each has been married and widowed at least once; both have grown children who are absent from the narratives, although Sarah is occasionally sought out by an emotionally troubled niece for whom she has for years been the “effective parent” (Lessing 13). Though Sarah has not been in the arms of a man since her husband's death twenty years earlier, she finds herself suddenly catapulted into a state that mimics adolescent longing for such an experience. French's Hermione finds herself in a similar state, attracted to a man who makes her feel desirable for the first time since her fourth husband died ten years before. As she phrases it, “I missed feeling desirable, but even more, I missed feeling desire” (French 66).

In the process of charting the vagaries of eros, Lessing invokes the “great cartographers” (Lessing, frontispiece) of the territory of love, ranging from Shakespeare and Stendhal to D. H. Lawrence and T. S. Eliot. Ironically, Eliot, a poet known more for his evocations of loss than of love, is one of the novel's presiding literary spirits. Whatever Sarah may think she is asserting about the progress of love, shadows of The Waste Land and of the loveless, emotionally stranded J. Alfred Prufrock insinuate a narrative of physical deterioration and decline. Through Sarah, Lessing laments the emotional sterility, the “desert of deprivation” (Lessing 141), that looms as unattached women (in particular) advance in age. Glossing from The Waste Land, Lessing transposes Eliot's image of Phlebas, the drowned sailor, into a woman who reprises “the stages of her age and youth, entering the whirlpool” (Lessing 164).20 Similarly, French's Hermione Beldame is characterized as struggling against an undertow, “like a drowning person trying to keep her head above the waterline” (French 198). In both Lessing's and French's narratives, images of whirlpool and undertow come to stand for the contrary—and uncontrollable—pulls of desire and aging.

Further, Sarah, pondering her close friend Stephen Ellington-Smith's pathological romantic attachment to a long-dead woman, cites Eliot's Prufrock, whose acute emotional isolation is voiced in his lament, “‘I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me’” (Lessing 154).21 Interestingly, the ghost of J. Alfred appears in French's narrative as well. At the party where Hermione first meets George, she finds herself recalling—in a phrase whose irony is only later understood—“‘Time for you and time for me, / And time yet for a hundred indecisions …’” (French 21). Much later in the novel, after she has acknowledged the insubstantiality of her relationship with George, Hermione admits, in language that invokes another modernist poet's—Yeats's—famous words on the subject of aging:

I do not know how to think about the fact that I may reach some great age, my face skeletal beneath the wrinkled folds of flesh pulled away from the bone, my eyes sunken into dark pockets of pain, my walk tottery and unsure, my body a tattered coat upon a stick, and still be on the lookout, have an eye out for, be seeking always and ever, a certain voice and eye, a certain look, a hand reached out, breath swiftly drawn, a catch in the voice, an invitation to the waltz. … It is humiliating. … My spirit is still a girl's, trapped inside a deteriorating container.

(French 242-43)

One can legitimately wonder why, for both Lessing and French, the cultural reference points of aging are still framed in terms of images drawn from iconic male modernists who wrote during an era when women lacked even the right to vote.22 These allusions may reflect an ironic form of gender equity: Although it may be perceived differently according to cultural attitudes toward the two sexes in senescence, in absolute terms the “deteriorating container” of the body does not discriminate on the basis of gender.

Through their female protagonists' efforts to reach beyond culturally mandated scripts of youth and romance, Lessing and French explore elements that exist in a different realm from the material one: the indelible emotional traces that endure, like a fossil record in the strata of the psyche, in the history of one's affectionate relationships. Lessing pointedly situates her inquiry within a theatrical setting, a location that exemplifies an underlying psychological premise of the narrative: Over time, the roles one plays, the masks one assumes, drive the authentic self into ever deeper and more hidden regions, until the task of recovering that self becomes so urgent that it ultimately displaces all others. Images of the ancient paired theatrical masks of tragedy and comedy recur throughout Love, Again, underscoring the contradictory nature of love as “sweet poison” and “cold fever” (Lessing 116). Indeed, depending on the reader's predilection, the novel may be read through the comic or the tragic mask.23 However, as the master narrative of decline would have it, what lies beneath Eros's youth's comic grin is Thanatos's grimace.

The catalyst for Lessing's anatomy of the collision between Eros and Thanatos is her central character's involvement as scriptwriter in the production of an opera. The story, based on the tragic life of a beautiful, talented woman who suffers—and loses—three lovers of different social ranks and ultimately ends her life by suicide, offers a perfect subject for operatic treatment. Virtually every participant in the production of the opera Julie Vairon is affected by the romantic story on which they collaborate. The melodramatic narrative of hearts broken and loves lost thus provides a text for Lessing's exploration of other kinds of scripts, namely the competing narratives of romance and aging. As the heightened intimacy and unreality of the production situation spill directly over into the group's personal lives and associations, Sarah Durham finds herself erotically reawakened and uncontrollably attracted to several men in the company, virtually all of whom are young enough to be her sons. In turn, several men, though not the same ones, are attracted to her. At times the story suggests the dreamy ambience as well as the irrational, mismatched lovers of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in this instance rescripted to highlight the more problematic misalignments between age and youth.

At other times, the narrative suggests a kind of ghost story, for each character in Love, Again brings to the experience of love a whole cast of phantoms of earlier attachments. Initially, Sarah observes these phantoms in other members of the company; soon, however, she is prompted by the seductive power of the collective theatrical experience to confront her own phantoms. Drawn involuntarily into the whirlpool, she struggles against the cultural master narrative of decline, which judges harshly an older woman's denial of bodily disintegration. Concurrently, she engages in a struggle with love as a primitive and entirely irrational force: an elixir closer to poison, infection, affliction, and madness than the scripts of romance would have us believe.

For French's Hermione, the season of romance is initiated by an encounter with a man a decade younger than she, a journalist to whom she is drawn at a friend's party. Infatuated with George, she fantasizes about a long-term relationship based on a comically minimal amount of time actually spent with him. To each of her friends, she repeats the magical mantra-like phrase, “I've met a man.” Their respective responses provide a cross section of women's tenacious romantic expectations—feminist politics notwithstanding—regarding intimate relationships and the potentiality for genuine mutuality at various phases of the life cycle. As Hermione expresses it to her friends, “I though I had a happy life until I met him. … Meeting him triggered something. You know—the happily-ever-after button? And what is so upsetting is discovering how powerful it is” (French 77).

What gives particular poignancy to both of these narratives of erotic intoxication and romantic fantasy is the authors' unsentimental attention to their characters' postmenopausal circumstances, registered in the women's “reading” of their bodies and physical appearance through—or against—the cultural script of aging. As Gullette characterizes this influential cultural narrative:

Even our feelings [about aging] are learned, starting with anticipatory fear of midlife aging, including envy of or anger at the currently young, nostalgic reminiscence that amounts to envying oneself when young, sorrow or even shame about “losses,” and premature fear of dying. Middle-ageism is a set of stereotypical meanings pumped out over the age class. Hyping special clothes, foods, interests, exercises, attitudes to sex, children, and death, in thousands of ways both superficially and deeply it governs the “experience” of approaching the mid-life or living it. The ideology wizens the middle years.24

French's Hermione agonizes far less about her physical aging than does Lessing's Sarah; indeed, she claims that her body is “still firm and fit, despite [her] years” (French 132). Moreover, while she is drawn to a man only moderately younger than herself, Sarah is attracted to far younger men, as Lessing acerbically illuminates the reality of a double standard that obtains far beyond youth: While it is easy and socially acceptable for older men to form relationships with young women, the reverse remains both unconventional and suspect.25

During the course of Lessing's narrative, Sarah frequently examines her “double”—her reflection in the mirror—attempting to reconcile her still-youthful inner image with her outward appearance. Interestingly, de Beauvoir anticipated this preoccupation of aging women with the discrepancies between inner self-image and mirror reflection:

When one feels oneself a conscious, active, free being, the passive object on which the fatality [of aging or death] is operating seems necessarily as if it were another … this cannot be I, this old woman reflected in the mirror! … The woman puts her trust in what is clear to her inner eye rather than in that strange world where time flows backward, where her double no longer resembles her, where the outcome has betrayed her.26

More recently, Pogrebin echoes this process of reflection (in both senses) regarding the aging female body, nothing:

I am standing now in front of a full-length mirror ready to document my deterioration item by item from the top down. I don't love what I see; the discrepancy between my inner spirit (still thirty-six) and this outer body is hard to reconcile, but … the exercise of cataloguing my own physical collapse is the best way I know to redefine the ‘flaws’ of aging as the norm of aging.27

Pertinently, Kathleen M. Woodward has theorized a “mirror stage” of old age, “the inverse of the mirror stage of infancy” proposed by Lacan, wherein “what is whole is felt to reside within, not without, the subject. The image in the mirror is understood as uncannily prefiguring the disintegration and nursling dependence of advanced age.”28 In other words, the mirror image of the fully realized self of midlife (or even before and certainly thereafter), far from providing an “accurate” reflection of the self, mocks the achieved spirit with cruel reminders of the visibly deteriorating flesh. The discrepancy between inner and outer realities is what Thomas R. Cole calls the fundamental paradox of aging—“the tragic and ineradicable conflict between spirit and body.”29

It is precisely those absolute and irreducible discrepancies—between outward appearance and inward self, between negating cultural script and inner self-regard, between corporeal and spiritual dimensions of being—that animate Lessing's and French's narrative explorations of the problematic negotiation, for self-realized women in particular, between eros and aging. Lessing's Sarah “makes herself return to the glass, again, again, because the person who is doing the looking feels herself to be exactly the same … as she was at twenty, thirty, forty” (Lessing 245). In a variant of the truism that youth is wasted on the young, Sarah acknowledges that youth is a “privileged class sexually” that one takes for granted at the time, only to relinquish it involuntarily as the peak of eroticism and physical attractiveness give way, inevitably and regretfully, to a “desert of deprivation” (Lessing 141). Or, as French's Hermione phrases it, “It wasn't that twenty-odd-year-old boys no longer appealed to me (although, in truth, they no longer did). But mainly I dreaded being perceived as acting flirtatious or seductive toward anyone who might find my no longer young person repulsive” (French 65). The observation is a telling reiteration of the power of the cultural narrative of diminished expectations.

Lessing's and French's protagonists lament not so much the physical changes that their mirrors unsparingly register as the social and psychological consequences. Despite the inner strength, self-esteem, and worldly success that a mature woman may have acquired, she may still find herself vulnerable to the culturally inflected negative meanings that affix themselves, with her unwilling collaboration, to her aging body. Gullette uses the term “masochistic nostalgia” to describe the psychic residue of the influential cultural narrative of aging: “Every woman I know goes through some version of this age-graded dissatisfaction, learning the life-weariness of nostalgia as she goes. Accepting the formulas of nostalgia means learning that you are not beautiful or not sexy or not something, any more.”30

In these fictional representations of the trajectory of aging, each woman's reading of her body's decline is also powerfully influenced by the unfinished business of past attachments. Phantoms of emotional history dating back to core experiences of childhood and even infancy increasingly break through both women's previously “solid and equable” positions as emotionally self-sufficient women (Lessing 113). Sarah, prompted by the gap the mocking mirror exposes between her chronological age and her attraction to young men, concludes that old age is “a secret hell populated with the ghosts of lost loves, former personalities” (Lessing 177). During her state of infatuation with first one and then another younger man, she is haunted by “apparitions” (Lessing 265); one night, “ghostly lips kissed hers. A ghost's arms held her” (Lessing 253). Again, de Beauvoir presciently describes the specters that haunt Sarah, observing that the aging woman's dreams are “peopled with erotic phantoms. … she falls secretly in love with one young man after another.”31

With amusement, Lessing's Sarah recalls her “first love,” when she was only six and the object of her affections was a year younger. Although the scene that she had “put into a frame long ago” (Lessing 109) bears comic qualities, what she retrieves from the memory this time is its darker emotional residue, that of loss. At various points, she fleetingly connects the image of the “plump little boy” who first broke her heart with that of her younger brother, Hal, now a corpulent, insensitive doctor for whom she feels more contempt than affection. Yet that plump child was once loved—“God, how I did love you, my little brother, how I did love you” (Lessing 285)—a feeling Sarah recovers, in astonishment, through her attraction to one of the company members, Henry, whose name even echoes her younger brother's.32 As a child, she had also hated that baby with equal intensity, an emotional truth that she recuperates through a recalled image of herself as a child “stabbing [a] doll” (Lessing 208).

Although Sarah concludes that her destructive behavior was an expression of sibling rivalry, a deeper psychoanalytic explanation is that she was acting out rage not toward her baby brother but toward her mother—anger that, as a young child, she could neither acknowledge nor express. From birth, her brother was “her mother's favourite. … He was the much wanted and loved boy, and she had taken second place from the moment he was born” (Lessing 86-87).33 To acknowledge her younger brother's preeminence in her mother's affections and to recall so distinctly her own sense of inadequacy is to confront the profound effect that such emotional deprivations and losses may impose on later relationships. The narcissistic wound, experienced so early and so damagingly, may never entirely heal but may continue to bleed into and sabotage subsequent attachments, unless it is confronted and integrated into conscious awareness.34

Eventually Sarah reaches back to “that region where the baby in her lived” (Lessing 16). Once, she awakens from a dream in which she has occupied a “phantom body,” a baby body filled with “a longing so violent the pain of it fed back into her own body” (Lessing 163). Beneath the masks of her adult life she discerns

the faces she had had as a young woman, as a girl, and as a baby. …

She was dissolved in longing. She could not remember ever feeling the rage of want that possessed her now. Surely never in her times of being in love had she felt this absolute, this peremptory need, an emptiness that hollowed out her body, as if life itself was being withheld from her.

Who is it that feels this degree of need, of dependence, and who has to lie helpless waiting for the warm arms and the moment of being lifted up into love?

(Lessing 164-65)

On another occasion, she yearns to hold a baby against the “hollow of her left shoulder,” only to admit that she longs to occupy that space herself: “an infinite vulnerability lay there: Sarah herself, who was both infant and what sheltered the infant” (Lessing 307).

French's Hermione also reflects, though less deeply, on the formative circumstances of her life. She reviews her personal history in an effort to recover her bearings and to reconcile her current life of success, wealth, and independence with an unhappy childhood, an unfortunate early marriage, and a legacy of emotional needs that illuminates her vulnerability to the myth of romantic love. The youngest of five children of a mother widowed when Hermione was only two, she has no memory of her father and recalls her mother as a self-sacrificing martyr. Family life was “bleak with depression, which hung over us all like black umbrella” (French 33). Hermione's optimism at breaking away from her dreary family life to attend college was quickly crushed when her sole adolescent sexual experience led to pregnancy, quickly followed by marriage to a boy she didn't love, because, at the age of twenty in the 1950s, she could not envision either seeking an illegal abortion or bearing an illegitimate child. Several decades and several marriages later her attraction to George catalyzes the feeling of being “sexually reborn” (French 66), although it also leads her to feel literally sick with longing for intimacy.

Though both French's and Lessing's female protagonists regard their condition as a kind of illness, Lessing goes further to establish links between what are ostensibly two different kinds of sensual longing. In Love, Again, the “again” is significant: the affections of adulthood are inevitably mapped onto submerged but still influential emotional patterns of attachment and affection (or their absence) experienced literally from the cradle. Sarah, aroused at one point by a young male company member's physical presence, feels her body reacting sensually, “alive and vibrant, but also painful. Her breasts burned, and the lower part of her abdomen ached. Her mouth threatened to seek kisses—like a baby's mouth turning and turning to find the nipple” (Lessing 186). Reflecting a similar but developmentally later phase of arousal, Hermione, stimulated by her fantasies of George, feels like “a horny adolescent”: “My skin throbbed and my breasts ached” (French 98). Even the vocabulary of passion reflects the ambivalence of such erotic feelings: the expression “raging with desire” (Lessing 120) captures the sense that a reserve of (infantile) rage may lie just beneath Eros's mask.

Sarah's further descent into the vortex is analogous to a kind of psychological regression: “Forgotten selves kept appearing like bubbles in boiling liquid. … She was obviously dissolving into some kind of boiling soup, but presumably would reshape at some point” (Lessing 212).35 Through feelings and sensations awakened from a long dormancy, she experiences nostalgia for the idealized bliss of infancy, colored by the inevitability of loss: “Perhaps the paradise we dream of when in love is the one we were ejected from, where all embraces are innocent” (Lessing 187). French's Hermione similarly recognizes the ever-beckoning fantasy of Eden, in the form of a person whose intimate presence might finally fill “that hurt empty spot that never goes away, that has been hurting since you were born, it seems. It would be wonderful. Paradise. I'd be happy for the rest of my life” (French 150). Hermione acknowledges that her unexpected yearning for emotional and erotic intimacy is beyond her control precisely because she has so successfully insulated herself from such feelings, only to discover that “maybe the punishment for that is being thrust back into adolescence, forced into the humiliating experience of love and longing, here on the edge of the grave” (French 236). While French traces the sources of Hermione's intoxicated longings only as far back as adolescence, Lessing locates Sarah's in the very earliest stage of emotional attachment, approaching the “desolation of being excluded from happiness” (Lessing 197) that dates from her earliest years of childhood.

Significantly, virtually all of what occurs in the passionate dramas of the narratives takes place only within the women's own imaginations: Scarcely a single embrace or kiss is actually exchanged between Sarah and the young men whom she privately desires, apart from a single fraternal kiss on the cheek from Henry. Acutely aware of the age gap between herself and the objects of her longing, she feels prohibited from acting on her desires, a fact that only intensifies her emotional distress as she retreats from impossible erotic liaisons. Similarly, Hermione kisses George once on the lips in an unreciprocated gesture that she promptly realizes is “a terrible, maybe fatal mistake” (French 200). Lessing engages more pessimistically than does French with the narrative of decline, interrogating the relations among desire, aging, and loss that, while initially seeming unrelated, are ultimately revealed to be inextricably entangled. First, Sarah questions Nature's obscure purpose in drawing an older person of either sex into intoxicated longing for a younger one. Later, the question assumes another form as she is consumed by grief not only for her friend Stephen, a casualty of unrequited (and unrequiteable) love, but for all of her own past loves and past selves. She wonders, “Why grief at all? What is it for?” (Lessing 327).

The relationship between grief and growth is central to understanding both Lessing's and French's narratives of late midlife erotic reawakening. The process of emotional review that both protagonists undertake parallels the “life review” that many psychologists and gerontologists, such as Robert N. Butler, regard as a fundamental task of aging:

a naturally occurring universal mental process characterized by the progressive return to consciousness of past experiences and, particularly, the resurgence of unresolved conflicts; simultaneously, and normally, these experiences and conflicts can be surveyed and reintegrated. Presumably the process is prompted by the realization of approaching dissolution and death, and the inability to maintain one's sense of personal invulnerability. It is further shaped by contemporaneous experiences and its nature and outcome are affected by the life-long unfolding of character.36

However, the resolution of this life review is not inevitably positive, according to Peter G. Coleman: “The individual may remain obsessed with events and actions he [sic] regrets, find no solution and no peace, and develop chronic feelings of guilt and depression.”37

Accordingly, following an interval of several months after the conclusion of her involvement with the production of Julie Vairon, Lessing's Sarah examines her image in a mirror again. She appears to have “aged by ten years. … Her hair, which for so long remained like a smooth dulled metal, now has grey bands across the front. She has acquired that slow cautious look of the elderly, as if afraid of what they will see around the next corner” (Lessing 349).38 Indeed, she has surrendered, although not altogether willingly, to the narrative of decline: Relinquishing Eros, she acquiesces to old age. By contrast, French's My Summer with George concludes somewhat more sanguinely. Hermione, relinquishing her imaginary “relationship” with George, concedes that she has projected onto an unsuitable man amorous fantasies not too far removed from those that constitute her own formulaic romance fictions. Painfully wrenching herself away from those scripts, she likens herself to “an animal caught in a trap I could escape from only by tearing off my leg or arm” (French 215).

Ultimately, French permits her protagonist a somewhat more affirmative resolution than Lessing does hers. As French has acknowledged, the novel intentionally foregrounds “not intellectual argument but mocking glances at serious ideas; not profound emotional conflict but absurd emotions couched in everyday language.”39 Accordingly, Hermione finds in her disillusionment the inspiration for a new novel based on her extravagant erotic fantasies, wherein “the heroine and her lover are drunk with desire” and make passionate love in a number of romantic settings: “What would make it unusual is that at the very end, the reader discovers that the entire affair has taken place only in the heroine's imagination, that nothing actually happened with the man, that he rejected her early on, and that throughout the virtual time of the novel, she is wandering listlessly around, helpless with desire, dreaming it all up …” (French 219). However, Hermione acknowledges that, even as an author, she (like French herself) cannot invent a “happy ending” for her story without trivializing the experiences that constituted it. Nonetheless, the first-person narrator voices an affirmative female identity even in late midlife. Hermione, having struggled in the seductive vortex of romantic fantasy that disguises a destructive undertow, validates what she has discovered in that experience: “the sorry fact, or is it triumphant?” that “the unending drive, the geyser spurt of desire that is life, goes on and on, will not be stilled, in body or spirit. Till death do us part” (French 243).

For a female/feminist reader, the degree of ideological (if not aesthetic) satisfaction with Love, Again and My Summer with George may be equivocal. Given the novels' quite different conclusions, one may legitimately ask: As feminism settles in to the new millennium, and as the American population increasingly faces “the coming of age,” which text provides a more honest imaginative map for guidance at the crossroads of female aging and desire? While the resolution of French's narrative, inflected by romantic fantasy, may be more comforting to readers wrestling with the disjunctions between eros and aging, Lessing's novel exposes the darker subtext in which these matters are embedded. My Summer with George, with its lighter—even self-mocking—tone, is defiant in its accommodations with aging. By contrast, the cost of Sarah's descent into the whirlpool is the defeat of her resistance to the master narrative of decline. In place of the self-renewing energy of eros is a much more muted process: the resolution of mourning for her lost younger selves, marked by her acceptance of the older woman she has become.

Just behind Sarah Durham and Hermione Beldame stand Doris Lessing and Marilyn French, wrestling equally—along with other women of their generation—with the unappeased phantoms of early life and the not-entirely-appeasable demons of advancing age.40 Intrepid pathfinders in the less willingly traversed terrains of what Lessing terms “love's country,” both authors dare to chart the hazards they discover in the landscape—or what Colette V. Browne terms the “agescape.”41 Through their imaginative explorations of deeply imbedded, and conflicting, cultural scripts associated with desire and decline, both authors enable us to imagine women's capacity for emotional renewal and growth during and beyond midlife. In illuminating the midlife version of “the problem that has no name,” they demonstrate the power of forces, both internal and external, that hinder women's progress towards true erotic equity.


  1. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (1952; reprint, New York: Knopf, 1993), 649.

  2. See Simone de Beauvoir, The Coming of Age, trans. Patrick O'Brian (New York: Putnam, 1972).

  3. As did feminism, the study of age and aging has begun to evolve from generalizations based on white, middle-class experience to an acknowledgement of differences based on race, class, ethnicity, and nationality. See, for example, essays in Welcome to Middle Age! (and Other Cultural Fictions), ed. Richard A. Shweder (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

  4. Naomi Wolf, a “third-wave” feminist, observes that “even as more and more of feminism's ideals cross over into mainstream culture, more and more women distance themselves from the word ‘feminist’” (Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century [New York: Random House, 1993], 57). A number of books published in the last decade illustrate the preoccupation within feminism with “generations.” Devoney Looser and E. Ann Kaplan, coeditors of a collection of essays titled Generations: Academic Feminists in Dialogue (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), observe that “divisions among feminist ‘waves’ or generations are named only to be broken down. … Despite all of the difficulties involved in defining the beliefs (or even the members) of any given generation, we need more conversations about how we have come to perceive each other as feminists according to ‘age’” (35). They conclude that “most feminists use third wave to refer to the ‘new’ feminisms and feminists emerging in the late 1980s and 1990s, many of whom purport to interrogate race, nation, and sexuality more thoroughly than did the second wave, and many of whom are skeptical about the unity of the category ‘women’” (38).

  5. Shweder, Welcome to Middle Age!, vii.

  6. Margaret Morganroth Gullette, Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 159, emphasis in the original. Gullette also notes that the significant changes in life expectancy during the twentieth century have occurred not during the later years but in the first five years of life (Declining to Decline, 254 n. 1).

  7. Historian Lois W. Banner speculates that because feminist scholars of the second wave were, like herself, typically “young women, working out the dynamics of their own lives in their studies” that “aging remained obscure to us partly because we were in rebellion against older generations perceived as antifeminist. Moreover, reflecting traditional attitudes, we chose to look on old women as invisible and on our own youth as the real reality” (In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality [New York: Knopf, 1992], 6). Betty Friedan, The Fountain of Age (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 21, 60, 50. Despite Friedan's sustained and impassioned analysis of the subject of aging, her book did not catalyze a cultural paradigm shift, as did The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 1963). That may be in part because social activist groups had already staked out some of the same terrain that Friedan addresses in her argument for positive constructions of aging. Organizations such as Gray Panthers and, of course, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) actively lobby politically on behalf of various “age classes” as they pass through and beyond midlife. Margaret Gullette uses the term “age class” to identify “a culturally constructed unit” based solely on age: “Discourse about an age class takes for granted, as well as often explicitly asserting, a commonality that is supposed to override gender, class, race, sexual orientation, national origin, personal psychology, politics, and so on” (“Midlife Discourses in the Twentieth-Century United States: An Essay on the Sexuality, Ideology, and Politics of ‘Middle-Ageism,’” in Shweder, Welcome to Middle Age!, 3). However, within an “age class,” there are indeed differences among people of different genders, races, and other aspects of socially labeled identity.

  8. Alix Kates Shulman, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (New York: Knopf, 1972), and A Good Enough Daughter: A Memoir (New York: Schocken, 1999); Anne Richardson Roiphe, Up the Sandbox! (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), and 1185 Park Avenue: A Memoir (New York: The Free Press, 1999); Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), and Fear of Fifty (New York: HarperCollins, 1994); Letty Cottin Pogrebin, How to Make It in a Man's World (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), and Getting Over Getting Older: An Intimate Journey (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996); and Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Reinventing Womanhood (New York: Norton, 1979), and The Last Gift of Time: Life beyond Sixty (New York: Dial, 1997).

  9. Pogrebin, Getting Over Getting Older, 308, 310.

  10. Heilbrun, The Last Gift of Time, 103.

  11. See Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel (New York: Knopf, 1964); May Sarton, As We Are Now (New York: Norton, 1973); Paule Marshall, Praisesong for the Widow (New York: Putnam's, 1983); Doris Lessing, The Summer before the Dark (New York: Knopf, 1973); and Anne Tyler, Breathing Lessons (New York: Knopf, 1988).

  12. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962). Three of Lessing's earlier novels—The Summer before the Dark, The Diaries of Jane Somers (New York: Knopf, 1983-84), and If the Old Could … (reprinted in The Diaries of Jane Somers, 1984), the latter two under the pseudonym Jane Somers—also reflect the author's interest in the female experience of aging. French's three novels published between The Women's Room (New York: Summit Books, 1977) and My Summer with George: A Novel of Love at a Certain Age (New York: Knopf, 1996) include The Bleeding Heart (New York: Summit Books, 1980), Her Mother's Daughter: A Novel (New York: Summit Books, 1987), and Our Father: A Novel (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994). Though the first focuses on romantic matters and the latter two involve family relationships, none of them focus on matters of female aging.

  13. Doris Lessing, Love, Again: A Novel (New York: HarperCollins, 1996); and French, My Summer with George. (Further references to these works are cited in the text parenthetically).

  14. Gullette, Declining to Decline, 86, 82.

  15. Barbara Frey Waxman has coined the term Reifungsroman, the novel of ripening, to describe literary narratives that complement the traditional Bildungsroman in which a character matures from adolescence into adulthood (From the Hearth to the Open Road: A Feminist Study of Aging in Contemporary Literature [New York: Greenwood Press, 1990]).

  16. Gullette, Declining to Decline, 197.

  17. Gullette, Declining to Decline, 161.

  18. Gullette, Declining to Decline, 161.

  19. Marilyn French, A Season in Hell: A Memoir (New York: Knopf, 1998), 186.

  20. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems (New York: Hartcourt, Brace, 1934), 41.

  21. The allusion invites recall of the preceding lines in the ironically titled “Love Song,” in which Prufrock frets, “I grow old … I grow old / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” Arnold H. Modell suggests that Eliot, who wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when he was in his late twenties, was “preternaturally middle-aged” (“Object Relations Theory: Psychic Aliveness in the Middle Years,” in The Middle Years: New Psychoanalytic Perspectives, ed. John M. Oldham and Robert S. Liebert [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989], 17).

  22. Interestingly, Eliot's importance for Lessing dates back to the beginning of her career: The title of her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (London: M. Joseph, 1950), echoes another phrase from The Waste Land.

  23. In a reading of Love, Again that emphasizes the narrative's comic and satiric dimensions, Veronica Geng draws conclusions opposite from those I develop in this essay. She regards Lessing as a “comic dramatist” who develops various scenes as a “revue of psychological satires” with connections to popular love songs (“There's No People Like Show People,” review of Love, Again, in The New York Times Book Review, 21 [April 1996], 13).

  24. Gullette, Declining to Decline, 6, emphasis in original.

  25. Lois Banner challenges this negative view of “age-disparate” relationships between older women and younger men, arguing that myth and history provide notable examples of independent older women—from Greek goddesses to Chaucer's Alison of Bath—whose relationships with younger men are regarded as socially acceptable. Although “the European tradition did not accord women high regard in their waning years, once they had become postmenopausal … there was an alternative point of view, one under which they could be, like Alison's crone, people of wisdom, spirit, and, ultimately, desire.” However, “the emergency of romantic love as a major factor in marital choice … played a part in the decline in cross-age relationships between aging women and younger men” since the “youthful ideal” of physical and sexual attractiveness gained primacy as the essential matrix of romantic passion (In Full Flower, 185, 244).

  26. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 645.

  27. Pogrebin, Getting Over Getting Older, 127.

  28. Kathleen M. Woodward, Aging and Its Discontents: Freud and Other Fictions (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 67, emphasis in the original.

  29. Thomas R. Cole, The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 239.

  30. Gullette, Declining to Decline, 58.

  31. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 644.

  32. The names of both Henry and Hal—Sarah's younger brother's name—echo the name of Lessing's actual younger brother, Harry.

  33. The emotional pattern closely parallels events in Lessing's own childhood, as she has revealed in more than one autobiographical account. Describing her early relationship with her mother, she reveals that her mother wished for a son when Doris was born and felt no compunction about letting her daughter know

    that I was not wanted in the first place; that to have a girl was a disappointment that nearly did her in altogether … ; that she had no milk for me and I had to be bottle-fed from the start and I was half-starved for the first year … ; that I was an impossibly difficult baby and then a tiresome child, quite unlike my little brother Harry who was always so good. … My memories of her are all of antagonism, and fighting, and feeling shut out; of pain because the baby born two-and-a-half years after me was so much loved when I was not.

    (Doris Lessing, “Impertinent Daughters,” Granta 14 (1984): 52-68)

  34. Milton H. Horowitz describes a psychoanalytic case study that bears startling parallels with Lessing's narrative: A woman in midlife,

    fearful of her loss of sexual attractiveness, agitated by her scanty menstrual periods and approaching menopause, frightened of death[,] had a passionate interest in much younger men. She gave the highly plausible explanation that younger men were more sexually vigorous, had better bodies, made her feel more youthful, and put her in touch with younger people. … Behind the seemingly realistic story was a lifelong fantasy of being a boy like her adored younger brother who had always claimed her mother's love. This fantasy had been expressed in a variety of vastly different forms throughout life. A wishful self-image had been transformed into an object-choice.

    (“The Developmental and Structural Viewpoints: On the Fate of Unconscious Fantasies in Middle Life,” in Oldham and Liebert, The Middle Years, 14-15)

  35. Sarah's “descent” into the whirlpool, during which she confronts painful and long-forgotten emotional experiences, recalls several of Lessing's earlier novels, including The Golden Notebook, which records Anna Wulf's disintegration into several different “selves.” The opening passage of Briefing for a Descent into Hell (New York: Knopf, 1971) describes the lost Charles Watkins going “around and around and around” in the whirlpool-like currents of the Sargasso Sea (26).

  36. Robert N. Butler, “The Life Review: An Interpretation of Reminiscence in the Aged,” Psychiatry 26 (February 1963): 66, quoted in Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia, Fred Davis (New York: The Free Press, 1979), 69.

  37. Peter G. Coleman, Aging and Reminiscence Processes (New York: John Wiley, 1986), 12.

  38. The image recalls Kate Brown of Lessing's The Summer before the Dark, who, after having an affair of the heart with a younger man, returns home to declare her acceptance of middle age by permitting her dyed hair to grow back in its natural gray.

  39. French, A Season in Hell, 219.

  40. The observation acquires additional poignancy in the light of French's agonizing struggle against esophageal cancer, diagnosed in 1992. She began to write My Summer with George during her recovery from multiple and nearly fatal complications precipitated by aggressive treatment for the disease (A Season in Hell, especially 187, 218-19).

  41. Collette V. Browne, Women, Feminism, and Aging (New York: Springer, 1998), 258.

Clara Thomas (review date September 2002)

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SOURCE: Thomas, Clara. “Journeys across Time and Water.” Books in Canada 31, no. 6 (September 2002): 29.

[In the following excerpt, Thomas praises the wealth of information presented in From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, Volume I: Origins but predicts that the series will be controversial among historians.]

Marilyn French is a well-known feminist scholar, teacher and novelist. A History of Women, her work-in-progress, is obviously designed to be a comprehensive and authoritative work, a bedrock standby for all enquiring women and especially for those who teach and take Women's Studies courses. Accordingly, this first volume, From Eve to Dawn, bears a heavy weight of expectation. The Foreword and Bibliography alone provide a solid foundation of scholarship, as French has worked for 10 years in conjunction with a troupe of numerous fellow-scholars and research assistants to produce this first volume. The book's argument, “thesis” if you like, is, as she points out, her own: “Although only I bear responsibility for the statements and points of view of this book, as well as the errors it must contain, I have not written it alone.”

From the beginning it is quite obvious that the book will become a battleground, not only for forces for and against Women's Studies students and scholars, but for various attitudes and loyalties within the ranks of feminists themselves. I consider myself both scholar and feminist of long standing, but from sentence three of Part I, “Parents”, I begin to react against the dogmatism of an unadorned statement such as this one: “At some point in the distant past, but probably not much further back than twelve or ten thousand years, men rose in rebellion against women.” No source, no footnote. The following few paragraphs of its brief introduction enlarge upon this one bald statement. If you can accept this beginning, you will be informed by the vast array of information that follows, by the “story” that French wrote, as she says, “to make sense of what I knew of the past and what I saw in the present.” If you balk at the dogmatism that marks the book throughout, you may as well avoid it all.

That considerable quibble expressed, I can recommend the book for its many qualities. Nowhere have I ever seen assembled such a quantity and diversity of material about women. Nowhere have I seen such material forged into a consistently readable, entertaining whole, unashamedly slanted in its sympathies towards women and definitely designed to instruct women of this and future generations. French is too practised a polemicist to indulge in crude and overt male bashing, but there is no doubt that from start to finish she is judge and jury and the outcome for the male is “found guilty.” She covers a remarkably broad range of material. Part I, “Parents” consists of two chapters, “The Mothers” and “The Fathers”. Part II, “The Rise of the State”, deals with Peru, Egypt, Sumeria, India, China and Mexico. Part III, “God, Glory, and Delusions of Grandeur”, considers Greece and Rome as well as the world's major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All of this is simply and readably written, designed primarily, I would say, for undergraduates, the numerous subdivisions within chapters providing easy access. The endpapers are maps of the world, and there are also two informative maps within the text, showing the expansions of Rome and of Islam.

The simplicity of the text will be welcomed by students, though its confidently authoritarian tone is sure to stir negative reactions among French's own peers. From Eve to Dawn will provide a useful, though controversial, text for years to come. That, undoubtedly, is exactly what French intended.


French, Marilyn (Vol. 10)


French, Marilyn (Vol. 18)