Monday, May 19, 2008

Reading Across the Ocean -- A Rite of Passage -- Isabel Huggan

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter; de Beauvoir, Simone

In the autumn of 1966, just as I was turning 23, I sailed for Britain on the Cunard Franconia. I’d spent the year after university working as a copyeditor for the Macmillan Company in Toronto and, although my pay was only $75 per week, I’d saved enough to cross the Atlantic. In those days the cheapest fare, whether by air or sea, was around $200: I reckoned that seven days of fun was a better deal than ten hours cooped up in a plane, and booked passage from Montreal to Southampton. On the ship there were several Rhodes Scholars on their way to Oxford: the atmosphere, in the bar or on the dance floor, was giddy, exciting and full of promise, for every one of these confident young men seemed on his way to be somebody. By contrast, I didn’t have a clear goal other than leaving my good-girl girlhood behind.

My father had seen me off in Montreal – my mother was recovering from heart surgery and had stayed back with my sister. On my departure, he presented me with a long-stemmed red rose, which I then threw back to him, rather dramatically, just as the ship pulled free of its moorings. In “Knowing People”, the final story of You Never Know (Knopf, 1993), I made use of this moment in fiction:

"My father had given me a carnation corsage to wear, and I threw it down to him as the ship began to move, in what I imagined was a symbolic gesture. I wanted no connection with my parents. I was off to Europe to free myself at last from their embrace. He caught it and waved it at me, and then began pinning it on my mother’s jacket. She was weeping furiously, as if she knew what was going on in my mind."

During that year at Macmillan’s, I had been befriended by an older woman named Billie who was the first – and for that the most memorable – feminist I’d ever met. Divorced, and bringing up her son alone, Billie was smart, tough and utterly unsentimental in her evaluation of people and ideas. Knowing I had aspirations to be a writer, she gave me a photocopy of Tillie Olsen’s essay “Silences” that had appeared in Harper’s, and bid me think deeply about what I intended to do. Later, she lent me her copy of The Second Sex, which we discussed at length with the other copy editors during tea breaks and, before I left, she suggested the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, to read on the voyage.

“You’ll see yourself in these pages,” she said.

Reading while stretched out in a deck chair, sipping hot Bovril delivered by a steward, I soon discerned that similarities between Simone’s life and mine were not immediately obvious – in fact, the details could not have been more different. For a start, she was born Roman Catholic in Paris in 1908 just three years before my mother was born Protestant on a farm near Lake Huron: the crucial distinctions multiplied as the pages turned, but I began to understand why Billie had wanted me to read the book.

Here was a sensibility to admire! Here was a writer unafraid to examine her life with a fierce and meticulous honesty! Indeed, here was a woman I could learn from and emulate: Simone, who as a child had dutifully obeyed her bourgeois parents and conformed to their religious and social practices, eventually found the courage to follow her own heart and mind. During her early twenties, she blossomed into an extraordinary, unconventional individual – and a prolific writer – seeking only to be true to herself.

Could one want anything less for oneself? This was exactly the kind of person – the kind of writer – I wanted to be: fearless, determined, and fastidious about uncovering and expressing the truth, in life and in art.

I read her Memoirs passionately. Her account of adolescence described how she had felt confined in a cage of expectations, from which it was necessary to escape in order to survive. Amusingly, I believed that I too was liberating myself from middle-class constraints – on a luxury ocean liner (albeit in steerage). I grasped the comic irony even then, but it did not distress me, for Simone herself took years to loosen her family ties, and was still living at home – with a younger sister who was a willing accomplice to adventures into the seamier side of Paris – at an age when I’d long been independent. For years she straddled two worlds, but as she matured, her reading of philosophy (as well as contemporary novelists like Gide, Fournier, Cocteau) pushed her over into the realm of self-determination where she was free.

As soon as I settled in London that fall, I acquired Force of Circumstance, the second volume of her autobiography, which traces Simone’s unusual romantic involvement with existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and her own growth as a writer and intellectual. This book was even more compelling and inspiring than the earlier one, and led me to buy two of her novels, She Came to Stay and The Mandarins. I was initially surprised by what I read, for it seemed that events in her fiction exactly matched events in her memoir: she’d clearly absorbed Jean-Paul’s advice to allow her self to invade her art and to use her own experience, barely disguised, as material. Somehow, this discovery was hugely freeing, as if what Simone had done validated and legitimized the act of transforming one’s own life into fiction, and I saw other writers I was reading then – Drabble, Lessing – in this new light.

I think it is no accident that within a decade I had begun writing a series of stories about a child who felt herself to be unfairly caged by life in a small Ontario town in the 1950s (The Elizabeth Stories, Oberon Press, 1984). In the Gallimard edition (1991), the title is L’Échappée Belle, “the perfect escape”: the French translator understood the heart of the book. Here are a few lines from “Jack of Hearts”, the third story:

By all odds, I should have been dragged down by the life I led as a child in Garten. I should still be there, or somewhere like it, forced under by my upbringing and all the expectations around me. But luck was with me, and small pockets of defiance multiplied beneath my surface, keeping me afloat, preparing me for that final escape.

Reading her in 1966, I was struck by how scrupulous Simone was in her self-examination, exposing inconsistencies, jealousies and weaknesses as well as describing, without false modesty, her great intelligence and ego. I admired her for that, and for openly admitting personal confusion regarding various matters. For example, in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, she told of how she detested the idea of matrimony but at the same time wanted to marry her cousin Jacques; she could hold two opposing thoughts in her mind at once, as I so often did – wanting to stay single, at the same time as longing to love and be loved. Somehow, by writing so honestly, she allowed readers to forgive their own contradictions.

There must be thousands of women like me who read Simone de Beauvoir at a similarly impressionable age, who came to the same conclusions and made the same commitments: we would free ourselves, we would be ourselves. We would live by our ideals. Unlike some of the influential feminist texts of that period, Memoirs was not intentionally “instructive” but simply a record of a life: still, it stayed in my knapsack as a kind of Bible, as if Simone would show me the path.

In the two decades since her death in 1986, facts have gradually emerged about Simone’s adult life (most recently, in Tête-à-tête, the fine study of Beauvoir and Sartre by Hazel Rowley), giving her old admirers a rude shock: indeed, she may not have been as devoted to the truth as we believed. Her autobiographical works presented a certain “face” by leaving out details that would have altered the picture considerably, and her apparent self-criticism was only a literary ruse. Still, no matter what we learn now, what she wrote then, and how we read it, changed a generation of women in a manner not only benign but beneficial. We admired her because she dared to be herself: why then couldn’t we?

Re-reading Memoirs today, my reactions are overlaid with images of Simone gained through her later work and letters, and through biographies which have cast a harsher light on her life than she did, for all her seeming frankness. But, as Hazel Rowley writes in her introduction to the new paperback edition of the Memoirs, “This is the fifty-year-old author smiling at her youthful dreams, but in fact she never lost them and she was right not to. It is impossible to read about Simone de Beauvoir’s life without thinking about your own.”

Just as wise Billie had said.

My life turned out not at all like Simone’s: by 27, although I’d claimed at 23 I’d never marry, I was married, and by 34 I had a child. I have led a conventional life and it would be difficult to find any similarities, except one: I too have written from my own experience – “using what is given” as Bronwen Wallace said about using her own life as material – in part, I believe, because Simone’s work gave me that early “permission”. My last book, Belonging (Knopf 2003) combining memoir with short stories, aimed to make clear the intimate relationship between experience and fiction, sisters in pursuit of the truth.

I have lived in France for nearly nine years, on the edge of mountains where Simone hiked on holidays as a young woman, and not far from the Limousin region where she spent her childhood summers. It is only three hours by train to Paris, the city where she spent her life and where she died, but it has never occurred to me to make pilgrimages to see where she lived (although one cannot sit in a café with a notebook without thinking of her). Still, she stays with me as a kind of guide, and for more than 25 years, wherever I’ve set up a desk, above it I have hung a present from my husband: a framed enlargement of a quote from an interview in which she was asked for advice for a young writer:

"Je lui dirais de lire, d’étudier, d’apprendre, de réfléchir. Je lui dirais, écrivez : c’est un grand bonheur d’écrire malgré toutes les difficultés. Et puis occupez-vous du monde autour de vous, essayez de vous engager dedans."


Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
Simone de Beauvoir
First published in its English translation in 1959
First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition published in 2005


Isabel Huggan, author of The Elizabeth Stories, You Never Know, and Belonging: Home Away From Home, spent the first 43 years of her life in Ontario, and has lived abroad for the last 20. She crosses the Atlantic twice every year to return “home” to Canada, and then to go back “home” to France. She has been a mentor in the Humber School for Writers Correspondence Program for the past decade, and also gives writing workshops in France and Switzerland.