Four ways to write a woman’s life… and the delusion of a passive life


I’m just going through my grandmother’s books and this caught my eye. It seems there are much newer editions – and who knows what changes will have been made to a feminist work from the 80s – but I was interested in Heilbrun’s introduction to this edition (The Women’s Press 1989 edition) … Heilbrun writes that:

There are four ways to write a woman’s life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process. In this book, I shall discuss three of these four ways, omitting, for the most part, an analysis of the fictions in which many women have written their lives. For these stories in women’s fiction, both the conventional and the subversive, have been examined in recent years with great brilliance and sophistication by a new generation of literary critics, and the work of these feminist critics has been so penetrating and persuasive that learning to read fictional representations of gender arrangements in our culture, whether of difference, oppression, or possibility, is an opportunity now available to anyone who will take the time to explore this vast and compelling body of criticism.” (p.11)

Women and aging

“Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.”
~ Dorothy L. Sayers (quoted p.125 in Heilbrun)

Heilbrun also makes mention of the issue of aging (which is something that really interests me!). In chapter 7, she writes: “For women who have awakened to new possibilities in middle age, or who were born into the current women’s movement and have escaped the usual rhythms of the once traditional female existence, the last third of life is likely to require new attitudes and new courage. Virginia Woolf is an example of a woman who found a new and remarkable kind of courage when she was fifty. This is, I believe, an achievement uniquely female. At fifty Virginia Woolf began work on The Years and Three Guineas, both of which to this day affront the sensibilities of almost all her male critics. To allow oneself at fifty the expression of one’s feminism is an experience for which there is no male counterpart, at least for white men in the Western world. If a man is to break into revolt against the system he has, perhaps for his parents’ sake, pretended to honor, he will do so at a much younger age. The patterns of men’s lives suggests that at fifty they are likelier to reveal their egoism than their hidden ideals or revolutionary hopes.” (p.124)

“…few women think of old age and power as compatible ideas for them.” (pp.128-129)

We women have lived too much with closure: ‘If he notices me, if I marry him, if I get into college, if I get this work accepted, if I get that job’ – there always seems to loom the possibility of something being over, settled, sweeping clear the way for contentment. This is the delusion of a passive life. When the hope for closure is abandoned, when there is an end to fantasy, adventure for women will begin. Endings …are for romance or for day-dreams, but not for life.” (p.130)

“I do not believe that death should be allowed to find us seated comfortably in our tenured positions. Virginia Woolf described this condition in Mrs. Dalloway: ‘Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alond upholds the human frame. Where there is nothing’ (55). Instead, we should make use of our security, our seniority, to take risks, to make noise, to be courageous, to become unpopular.

Biographers often find little overtly triumphant in the late years of a subject’s life, once she has moved beyond the categories our available narratives have provided for women. Neither rocking on a porch, nor automatically offering her services as cook and housekeeper and child watcher, nor awaiting another chapter in the heterosexual plot, the old woman must be glimpsed through all her disguises which seem to preclude her right to be called woman. She may well for the first time be woman herself.” (p.131)

Ref: Carolyn G. Heilbrun (1989) Writing a Woman’s Life. The Women’s Press: London.