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

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
(Trans. by James Kirkup)
New York: Harper Perennial, 2005
(First pub. 1958; Translated 1959)
364pp.
ISBN: 9780060825195