Female Relationships

Stephen Bann

  • When things of the spirit come first by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Patrick O’Brian
    Deutsch, 212 pp, £6.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 233 97462 8
  • Union Street by Pat Barker
    Virago, 266 pp, £6.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 86068 282 X
  • Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood
    Virago, 346 pp, £3.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 86068 303 6
  • Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood
    Cape, 302 pp, £7.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 224 02016 1
  • Hearts: A Novel by Hilma Wolitzer
    Harvester, 324 pp, £6.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 7108 0475 X
  • Pzyche by Amanda Hemingway
    Faber, 236 pp, £7.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 571 11875 5
  • December Flower by Judy Allen
    Duckworth, 176 pp, £7.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 7156 1644 7

Simone de Beauvoir had to change her original title for When things of the spirit come first, because it had been unexpectedly pre-empted by the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. The new title which she picked (Quand prime le spirituel) was a simple variant of the other (Primauté du Spirituel), and the difference has in any case become insignificant in the English translation. But the episode remains both revealing and amusing. Written nearly forty years ago, and rejected for publication at the time, this group of linked stories conveys an implicit faith in the power of fiction to act as a prophylaxis against false philosophy and perverted dogma. The irony of the title is expected to act as a solvent upon such artificial and old-fashioned constraints.

Five women, each of whom has an individual predicament though her destiny occasionally touches that of the others, take their turn at the centre of Mme de Beauvoir’s stage. Some succeed and some fail in outgrowing the effects of a Catholic upbringing and a religiously-tinged education. For Anne, who fails, the consequence is a wasting disease reminiscent of what used to happen to 19th-century heroines. For Marcelle and Marguerite, who succeed, the end of the story is also the threshold of a new life. Marcelle decides for herself (and without giving much warning to the reader): ‘I am a woman of genius.’ Marguerite, whose role it is to carry the special burden of the author’s adolescence, also achieves a ‘kind of revelation’ – but she is quick to dismiss any spiritual overtones that may occur in connection with that experience: ‘all I have wished to do was to show how I was brought to try to look things straight in the face, without accepting oracles or ready-made values.’

Heroines thus programmed to fail or to succeed invite a rather schematic narrative treatment, however tense their temporary engagements with such figures as Denis, the layabout disciple of Rimbaud, Pascal, the uncommitted archaeologist, and Marie-Ange, the crypto-lesbian theosophist. Only in ‘Chantal’ does the technical range expand, allowing a rich and piquant contrast to emerge between the flowery journal entries of the newly-arrived teacher in a French provincial town, and the sordid reality of the human experience which is taking place there. Chantal, anxious to persuade herself that life away from Paris can be worthwhile, weaves a chivalric fantasy around an affair between two pupils which ends in the forced marriage and effective immurement of the reluctant girl. But in sedulously exposing the ‘bad faith’ of Chantal as she reacts to this situation, Mme de Beauvoir also commits a technical fault which mars her conclusion. The Chantal who reacts harshly and conventionally to the unwanted pregnancy is shown from the outside, her journal having been inexplicably terminated, and the point of view migrates to another schoolgirl – a friend of the victim – who is an evident surrogate for the author.

There is enough charm and vitality in Mme de Beauvoir’s writing to outweigh such faults. But the satirical and polemical edge of the stories remains somewhat blunted. ‘Lisa’ introduces us to a ‘boarder at the Institution Saint-Ange’, and to that establishment’s star teacher, Mlle Lambert, who devotes her mornings to ‘her thesis on Duns Scotus’. Half a century ago, such a detail would have passed muster as a symptom of the ludicrous benightedness of religious schools. Can it do so today, when Scotus seems to be the focus of a minor cult in Paris – the subject of a recent symposium on France-Culture? ‘Chantal’ stops short at the prospect of the victim of a forced marriage living a loveless life on a small country property: Marthe, a recently published historical memoir, gives us the enthralling correspondence deriving from a similar case among provincial notables less than a century ago. It is difficult not to feel, when reading Mme de Beauvoir’s stories, that she has been tempted to use loaded dice. The existential commitment is too heavily dependent upon a rhetoric which mistakes its own short cuts for satisfactory solutions.

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