Writing a Woman’s Life or Biography

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Reading about female authors through their biographies or through comments made by them is often more overt than their books. Carolyn Heilbrun in her book Writing a Woman’s Life (more like a dissertation in its early chapters) states that to really know a female author well enough to write her biography, you need to go beyond the dissection of her fictional works and get to know her from her correspondence with friends and companions. This is especially true for women authors before 1970, as Heilbrun considers that year “the beginning of a new period in women’s biography” and 1973 as the turning point for a “modern women’s autobiography”. That of Nancy Milford Zelda is the biography and that of May Sarton Journal of Solitude is the “watershed in a woman’s autobiography.”

The author makes a strong case for famous writers, such as Louisa May Alcott, the sisters Bronte and Jane Austen, having to draw the line of an acceptable society by that time. The success of many of these women (George Sand, George Eliot) was often made possible by using a pseudonym and conforming their female characters to the ruling conventions. Thus, most female writers by 1973 were forced to present their gender as wives and mothers and do it as a matter of course, as there were no other avenues open to them except to push their characters to the brink of madness. By pursuing the author outside of her writings, cinema can trace the chronological details of the author’s developmental emancipation.

The book becomes more interesting in its last forty pages, when the author discusses the marriage relationship and suggests that for a marriage to succeed, the two individuals must have a friendship beyond the initial passion that attracted them. They need to be flexible and respectful of each other’s change and discovery. This discovery of self occurs much later for women who tend to delay their own desires to continue in the role of wife, mother and, as seen in recent decades, also as part-time providers.

The end of Writing a Woman’s Life discusses how women seek their “search” in life. Heilbrun uses himself as an example. She delayed writing her detective series to avoid censorship from the academic community. She was the first permanent female professor in a major league school. If she had written the series under her own name instead of Amanda Cross, she would never have gotten a permanent job. And even with the pseudonym, she chose a female detective who was rich, married and beautiful. Throughout the series she “set out on a quest (the male plot), she became a knight (the male role), she saved a (male) princess.” The secrecy of her mystery series allowed her some control over her fate and allowed her to do things she could not in her professional life. Basically it let her recreate herself.

One of the deepest statements in Writing a Woman’s Life comes at the end of the book. “Most of us women, I think, transform our need to be loved into a need to love, expecting, therefore, of men and of children, more than they, trapped in their own life, can give us.” When women have power (money) and a room of their own, they will create a search story to replace the old marriage plot.

And age is often the motivation that pushes a woman out of fear or hiding to try and do important things. For those who fear the loss of appearance and whose hourglass figure has more and more hourglasses at the bottom, the author states, “For a woman to get fat in middle age is to separate her personality from her feminine appeal.” Isak Dinesen’s character states, “Women, when they are old enough to have done with the business of being women, and can let go of their strength, must be the most powerful beings in the world.” Aging can be liberating and make you think about the possibilities.

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