female troubles

(8 may 2006)

biography is the national enquirer of literature. when done badly, it’s artificially revealing; when done well, it’s intrusive. the lynchpin of the genre is that each work is just as much about the biographer as the subject- if not more so. because there are always gaps and the author fills them.

this becomes particularly problematic in biographies of women. i recently read the sisters: the saga of the mitford family, then went on to reread one of the misses mitford’s madam de pompador and was struck by a line that took it for granted that madam de pomp’s happiness stemmed from her total deferment to the king and his wishes. nancy mitford surmised that this was “as it is in any happy union”- a statement that makes perfect sense when aligned with nancy’s own deferment to gaston palewsi, with whom she was madly in love and whose great love she was not.

this set me off on an email tangent with a friend about whether, as a woman, happiness is really based on complete sublimation of oneself, which naturally led to a favorite dead horse of mine- how difficult it is to approach a famous/historical female figure outside the convenient context of husbands.

believe me. i’ve tried. it’s tough.

so much of a woman’s public identity is based on the man she’s with or the drama that stems from that, a disconnect that is evident at the most superficial level of biography. check out titles the next time you’re at powell’s. for the men- a twilight struggle: the life of john f. kennedy; winchell: gossip, power, and the culture of celebrity; long live the king: a biography of clark gable; the survivor: bill clinton in the white house; the last czar: the life and death of nicholas II; andy warhol: the life of an artist; capote: a biography.

and now for the ladies- mistress to an age: a life of madame de stael; vera: mrs. vladimir nabokov; the silent woman: sylvia plath and ted hughes; the most beautiful woman in the world: the obsessions, passions, and courage of elizabeth taylor; the truth about hillary: what she knew, when she knew it, and how far she’ll go to become president; and two of my personal favorites- painted shadow: the life of vivienne eliot, first wife of t.s. eliot, and the long supressed truth about her influence on his genius, and jacqueline kennedy: the warmly human life story of the woman all americans have taken to their hearts, including the latest events in the life of this magnificent woman.

titles devoted to male subjects are largely defined by chilly detachment, while those pertaining to women are overheated and clunky. it’s indicative of a difference in the way books about men are marketed and sold versus those about women. incidentally- five of the seven books listed in the paragraph above were penned by men, so this isn’t a simple matter of feminine effusiveness.

currently, the starting point with any female biographical subject is as wife or lover. madam de stael is considered a key figure in the development of the novel and one of the leading french philosophes. her work is set on par with that of rousseau and voltaire. yes, she was sexually liberated, but the title mistress to an age suggests she methodically bedded the emperor’s entire army, an exaggeration that undercuts the significance of her work.

at both the historic and iconic levels, jackie onassis’ was arguably the most significant female life of the past century. and yet, how lazily biographers have wrestled with her. again, titles say it all: mrs. kennedy: the missing history of the white house; jack & jackie; jackie after jack; just jackie; jackie; jacqueline bouvier; a tour of the white house with mrs. john f. kennedy; jacqueline kennedy onassis; jackie and ari; the onassis women; and the ever-popular, jacqueline bouvier kennedy onassis (for apparent lack of anything more descriptive, it has been deployed on three separate occasions).

in biographies, JFK is summarized by his war experiences, one night stands, politics, or unfulfilled possibility. jackie is reduced to fashion, decorating and husbands. what are the odds that if JFK had outlived jackie, there would have been a book entitled jack after jackie? i’m thinking slim to none.

an argument grounded in book titles may seem superficial. particularly titles regarding jackie onassis, who has become more of a visual image than an idea or an actual person who once lived. but it says something about the genre and the culture that one of our greatest icons is almost exclusively approached through her names, one of which, ironically, is a feminized derivative.

admittedly, in the case of most of the women discussed here (plath, jackie, vera, hillary), marriage was their conduit to fame. but it isn’t hard to imagine that hillary would have eventually become hillary with or without bill’s help. that plath would have found her poetic voice with or without ted hughes.

jackie’s is a different, more nuanced story. i think she would have married someone who wasn’t JFK and perhaps not have been tremendously happy. but outside the apex of east coast society, she might have also had the freedom to write and paint and sculpt as she wanted, instead of simply being friends with those who did. the jackie i just described- the witty writer whose friends warned that she would be diminished by JFK; the frustrated artist who told photographer peter beard that she wished she could do what he did but she didn’t have the guts- only surfaces in two biographies. and it is a fleeting appearance at that. though the jackie icon is a veritable mine of possibilities, the biographical subject has been cruelly fenced in by wifely nomenclature.

my beloved wayne koestenbaum wrote, “‘mrs.’ seemed in jackie’s case, always to be concealing half-truth.” this then is the fundamental “female” trouble of biography. society/media/biographers/readers (us) are so hung up on the “mrs”- metaphorical or otherwise- that all the fascinating, characterizing concealed truths are flattened. thus, within the written record, our women truly are little more than beautiful, silent shadows. and that’s not nearly enough.

2 thoughts on “female troubles

  1. This is a very thought-provoking essay on women’s biographies. I had not considered the comparisions of the biographers’ choice of descriptions for men and women. Interesting observations and well-written.

  2. i would be curious to know if this is conscious or unconscious. if it’s assumed that women will read the biographies about women and men will read the books about men and that’s why they are titled the way they are and why the women are put in context of marriage, which presumably is a context from which other women could easily relate to them. or if it’s simply a matter of how books about women have always been written and that’s the context we need to break free from. who knows.

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