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Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a dutiful daughter (Review)

August 28, 2014

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

I have only read one other work by Simone de Beauvoir – and I’m ashamed to say that it wasn’t The second sex (which still sits in my long-in-the-tooth TBR pile). It was, instead, one of her autobiographical novels, She came to stay. I enjoyed it as I recollect, but that was a long time ago. Then this year, my reading group decided to choose one of the books being discussed in ABC Radio National’s European classics series – and we opted for the first of Beauvoir’s autobiographies, Memoirs of a dutiful daughter.

Now, the things is, it’s a pretty dense book that can be looked at from multiple angles, too many to explore in one review. Consequently, my plan is to focus here on a few that interest me, and to later post a Delicious Descriptions containing examples of her gorgeous descriptive writing.

First though, as always, a brief summary of its content. Published in 1958, the book chronicles her youth from her birth in 1908 to when she turned 21 in 1929. It deals at some depth with her childhood, school and university days; her relationship with family and friends; her youthful thoughts about and experience, such as it was, of love; and, most importantly, the foundations of the ideas that drove her adult life. It shows the inner conflict she experienced as an independent thinker growing up in a conservative Catholic bourgeois family. I’d describe it as the autobiographical equivalent of a bildungsroman, which sounds silly since autobiography is intrinsically about the development of self. But this particular autobiography ends at the moment when she formally leaves childhood behind, and, like a bildungsroman, is primarily the story of her “formation”.

Autobiography

WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION – DOES THAT MATTER IN AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY?

BeauvoirMemoirsHarperPerennialThis leads nicely into the first aspect of the book I’d like to discuss, its form. It is a traditional autobiography in that it starts with her birth and moves in a linear way, with the occasional foreshadowing, to her chosen endpoint which is when she turned 21, finished her schooling and left home. Like an autobiography it contains many characters. (There is a comprehensive index if keeping track becomes difficult, though I didn’t find it that hard).

The book also, though, has some novelistic elements. While at times the style is dry and almost diary-like, at other times it is highly evocative, particularly when she describes her experience of nature. More relevant though to my argument is her use of characters, because while we meet many, there are three that she focuses on – herself, her first cousin and first love, Jacques, and her closest friend Elizabeth “Zaza” Mabille. These two significant people provide coherence to the narrative line and a semblance of a plot. Will she or won’t she marry Jacques? And how will Zaza develop?

Beauvoir doesn’t marry Jacques, but while the book ends when she’s 21 and he’s about 23, she briefly describes what happens to him in the rest of his life, which ends, sadly, when he’s 46. Zaza, on the other hand, could be seen as her alter ego. As we read the book, focussing on Simone as “the dutiful daughter”, we become aware that Zaza is also one. The difference between them is that while Simone is dutiful in an obey-the-parents sense, she is an independent thinker and learns to distance herself intellectually from her parents. Zaza, on the other hand, exemplifies the tragedy that can happen to “dutiful daughters” who don’t achieve this. She, in other words, rounds out the theme implied in Beauvoir’s title.

This sense of Jacques being her potential future and Zaza being her alter ego gives this autobiography some of the sensibility of a novel.

Gender

I couldn’t of course write on this book without discussing gender. But first, it’s important to remember when she was born – 1908 – and the community into which she was born – conservative, Catholic, bourgeois. It was intriguing to see how her ideas developed in this early part of her life.

Early in her childhood she saw that mothers had a life of “servitude”, and were “overburdened with a thousand tiresome tasks”. Her response was to decide not to have children but be a teacher. In her teens, she states that “I believed in the absolute equality of human beings” but doesn’t engage with  the idea of universal suffrage. A few pages later, she is a little fuzzy on this idea of equality when she considers her future husband:

I should be in love the day a man came along whose intelligence, culture, and authority could bring me into subjection.

Why, she says, did she think this? She continues

I never thought of myself as a man’s female companion; we would be two comrades [but, she goes on] My education, my culture, and the present state of society all conspired to convince me that women belong to an inferior caste.

She goes on to explain that the man she loved would be “the model of all I wished to become; he would therefore be superior to me”.

Overall then, her thinking was a little confused. Theoretically she believed in equality and demanded independence for herself, resulting in much conflict with her parents in her later teens, and yet she saw her ideal partner as being “superior”. Part of her belief in equality was an absolute rejection of the double standard. She ascribed to the Christian morality of her times but felt “that men should be subject to the same laws as women [...] I saw no reason why my future partner in life should permit himself liberties which I wouldn’t allow myself”.

By the end of the book, that is, by the time she turned 21, her thinking hadn’t developed much beyond this. She believed in equality, she didn’t want to be constrained as she saw married women with children were, but she had not developed the ideas that she presented in The second sex, which she wrote around the age of 40Tellingly, Beauvoir-Sartre biographer Hazel Rowley writes in my edition that it was Sartre who told Beauvoir that if she were to write her memoirs she would need to look into “what it had meant to be a woman”. Beauvoir was apparently dismissive, believing that being a woman had never really affected her but, she decided to do some research. What she discovered was “a revelation” and resulted in her putting her memoirs aside to write The second sex.

Literature and truth

The other issue that spoke strongly to me as I read the book was the importance of literature, of books and reading, to her – and, related to this, her search for truth. Reading was, she writes, “the great passion of my life”. If you are well-versed in French literature, as I am not, you could track her intellectual development through her reading. She discusses the books she read as a young school girl, her reaction as a young teenager to Jo in Little women and Maggie in Mill on the floss (both English books, I know!). She talks of engaging in her late teens with contemporary literature of “the disquiet” through writers like Gide (whom I have reviewed here), and of then moving on from them.

She learns much through reading, not only intellectually and morally, but practically. Books, for example, provided her with much of her sex education, so that when her mother finally decided it was time to tell her the facts she could say “I know all about that” – though what she knew about sex and what she understood about the world were two different things!

She learns that literature and reality are not the same thing, saying at one point that

Literature takes its revenge on reality by making it the slave of fiction.

At times she argues that literature is the truth, while at other times she feels its connections with truth are dubious, but this is all part of a portrait of the writer as a young girl. “Real” truths are not found easily, and she, we see, worked hard for hers.

Finally – and how long we readers had to wait for it – it’s her meeting with Sartre, “the dream-companion I had longed for”, that grounds her, as she reaches the end of her formal childhood. He is, she says, her intellectual superior, and she is, she knows, still naive, but

I no longer asked myself: what shall I do? There was everything to be done, everything I had formerly longed to do: to combat error, to find the truth, to tell it and expound it to the world, perhaps to help to change the world.

And so she did.

Simone de Beauvoir
Memoirs of a dutiful daughter
Translated by James Kirkup
New York: Harper Perennial, 2005
(First pub. 1958; Translated 1959)
364pp.
ISBN: 9780060825195

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. August 28, 2014 3:13 am

    I grew up reading and savouring everything that Simone de Beauvoir wrote but I must say that some of this was modified after reading Hazel Rowley’s biography last year. I learned that the great lady suffered as much as all of us with regard to love! And was very surprised to learn how The Second Sex project came about. De Beauvoir was very much a product of her upbringing and time and yet it was still a delight to read Rowley’s wonderful unravelling of their passionate lives.

    • August 28, 2014 7:55 am

      Thanks Catherine. Yes she clearly was and she makes that clear herself. For most of this book as she says she’s more focused on metaphysical questions rather than social or political. I’d like to read the Rowley book one day …

  2. August 28, 2014 6:39 am

    Beautifully written yourself WG. I was interested to note that the translator was the poet/writer James KIRKUP. I recall reading his own autobiography of growing up some years before I went to Japan – then finding that my boss/mentor/friend at the university where I taught had had James KIRKUP as a teacher – and he was a friend of her father. It seemed a fairly small world at that point! Later I found quite a number of his books in a book shop at Hay-on-Wye during a visit to the UK.

    • August 28, 2014 7:57 am

      Thanks for that Jim. I had never heard of him. There were a few places where I had questions about the translation but overall it seemed fine. Now you’ve got me wanting to look him up.

  3. Lithe lianas permalink
    August 28, 2014 1:44 pm

    She does sound a rather confused feminist when she was still only 21. I think, though, for a woman to fall in love with someone she feels is superior is only dangerous when that person doesn’t feel she is superior.

    • August 28, 2014 3:55 pm

      Fair point, LL. The answer in this situation is not clear from this book though it does seem that Sartre sought her out because of her intellect. I wonder if Hazel Rowley covers this in her biography?

      • ian darling permalink
        August 28, 2014 10:00 pm

        The Second Sex is on my TBR pile too in the truncated first English translation. I wonder if Memoirs is a good way in before tackling her most famous work?

        • August 28, 2014 10:26 pm

          Of course I can’t really answer that question, bit from what I’ve read of her it could be. I wonder if there is anyone reading this here who has read them both and would be happy to comment more authoritatively?

  4. August 29, 2014 12:25 am

    “Literature takes its revenge on reality by making it the slave of fiction” I like that! Quite the nugget of truth and a definite danger of enjoying fiction so much. A wonderful review. I really got sense of Beauvoir and her memoir from you. Makes me want to read her more than ever!

    • August 29, 2014 7:49 am

      Thanks Stefanie. That quote is intriguing to thing about, isn’t it? Anyhow, I’m so glad to have read this book … Finally.

  5. Carol S permalink
    August 29, 2014 2:06 am

    Definitely read the Memoir before The Second Sex which is even more of its time and seemed to me very French in its sensibility. In fact having read many of her works (this memoir and her novels in sequence during the sixties) I was shocked at her description of what being a woman meant. I also wondered if it was the difference between British working class (me) and expected to earn a living, and being French ‘bourgeois’ when a comfortably off ‘bourgeois’ husband would come along to give financial support despite any further education and professional qualification. I loved the novels and they informed my education and ideas of how to live but I felt let down by The Second Sex. I haven’t reread it though. I did reread the novels in the 70’s and then caught up with autobiography as it came out in separate books. I read Sartre’s novels at the same time. Importantly I was further fed up with de Beauvoir behaving as so many older wives and female partners of the time did (eg Robert Graves’ wife) valuing their male partners’ work so much that they willingly pandered for them so that younger female lovers were available to inspire and to keep the creative flowing going. While de Beauvoir cared about some of these women I couldn’t recognise feminist principles in these arrangement where Sartre’s sensibility was given priority in these ways. however I’m of my time and I wasn’t aware of much scholarship on these matters then . Maybe there is lots.
    I have French women relatives and they didn’t seem to be care about de Beauvoir’s work as I did.

    • August 29, 2014 7:54 am

      Thanks Carol so much for sharing your perspective and your French contempories’ perspectives too. In the end I guess for all her intelligence, she too was a product of her times. I’m a little younger than you it seems so the feminist work that inspired me was Greer’s The female eunuch .. A product of its times too I guess. I should read it again!

  6. Carol S permalink
    August 29, 2014 10:50 am

    PS James Kirkup is interesting too. A North Easterner (UK) and I think I remember working class, he wrote fairly ordinary but quite good poetry until he eulogised Jesus on the cross rhapsodising on a past Roman soldier lover***. The poem was banned until issued on a separate sheet in either Private Eye or a gay newspaper. I have a copy somewhere and it is a beautiful poem. My mother(!) agreed with me that what came across was pure sheer love but the “blasphemous” and homosexual aspects appeared to be too shocking and disturbing for book publication. He taught in Japanese Universities and another Japan domiciled poet (British) I knew met him there but seemed to have little respect for his work sadly, I read James Kirkup’s memoir of his youth too, interesting to me because I too was brought up in a small northern ship building town.
    ***AH I’ve just checked on wikipedia – It was the Roman centurion who rhapsodised etc, the text of the poem is here http://torturebyroses.gydja.com/tbrkirkup.html.
    Evidence of my dodgy aging memory.

    I loved The Female Eunuch bar very much the part where she fantasises about having children and having them cared for by a Catalan peasant couple so ducking out of the real problems of being both mother and working independent feminist, and exploiting her fantasy.complaisant peasants. Also missing out on the point, the very real joy of bringing up children despite and because of the huge demands. I remember thinking why have children in that case, just enjoy your friends’ (Is my memory tricking me again ? Were they Catalan or country Italian?)
    Sorry for rambling

    • August 29, 2014 11:06 am

      Love the ramble Carol … I don’t remember the bit about children probably because at the time I didn’t want children nyself (I did change my mind!). It was more the politics on body and body image and the implications of that that I remember.

      Thanks Re Kirkup … Must look him up clearly!

  7. August 30, 2014 10:45 am

    Another fascinating discussion, WG. I have read both ‘Memoirs’ and ‘The Second Sex’ and it seems to me they are such different books that I can’t say whether reading ‘Memoirs’ first would help when it comes to the more polemical book. The comment has been made that de Beauvoir was a product of her times, and perhaps it’s true of any ground-breaking work that readers coming to it decades after it was published will focus on the blind spots. But we can’t know what it was like before the ground was broken!

    I think it’s also worth considering the point that French left-wing intellectuals may seem to us much more theoretically than practically oriented. I mean they don’t necessarily see the need to practice what they preach!

    • August 30, 2014 11:33 am

      Yes, good point Dorothy regarding looking at groundbreaking works later … That’s always the way with innovation isn’t it? And if we don’t have historical knowledge we can miss innovation in ideas or style or whatever it is that has been innovated.

      Love your point about French intellectuals. I must say, I’m much happier if people practise what they preach.

  8. August 31, 2014 8:36 am

    I thought I might be putting the cat among the pigeons with that comment, but no one has jumped up and objected. Vive la France…

    • August 31, 2014 10:08 am

      Ha ha, Dorothy … I decided not to engage with the generalisation on the basis of ignorance as I haven’t read them enough – and anyhow your point did seem to have some validity in this context.

  9. Carol S permalink
    August 31, 2014 10:02 am

    I was tickled by it, thought long whether to respond or not but decided it said it all. Succinctly!

    • August 31, 2014 10:09 am

      Well said Carol … Glad you responded now and didn’t leave Dorothy completely high and dry!

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