Risky Business

Elaine Showalter

  • Telling Women’s Lives: The New Biography by Linda Wagner-Martin
    Rutgers, 201 pp, $22.95, July 1994, ISBN 0 8135 2092 4

Linda Wagner-Martin, a highly respected scholar of American literature who teaches at the University of North Carolina, was bewildered by the hostile reception in Britain of her biography of Sylvia Plath, published in 1987. Not only had she run into major conflicts with the Plath estate, she explains in her preface to Telling Women’s Lives, but some critics saw her as both an ‘unethical commercial writer’ and a radical feminist. ‘Who was this woman who was under siege by the British critics? I asked my husband and children, students and friends: was I the same Linda Wagner-Martin they had always known?’ Despite their predictably reassuring replies, Wagner-Martin felt that her life if not her personality had been changed in the process of writing Plath’s life. ‘Telling a woman’s life,’ she writes, ‘had become a dangerous cultural and literary project.’

From that thrilling – if overheated – generalisation has come a disappointingly sedate historical overview of biographies and autobiographies of women. Dangerous or not, telling a woman’s life has become a significant literary industry in the past twenty-five years, and studies of the ways in which that life is told now constitute a substantial critical genre in their own right. Wagner-Martin’s book joins such stimulating American precursors as Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life (1988) and Phyllis Rose’s Norton Anthology of Women’s Lives (1990). The writers of these books, along with the historians who contributed to The Challenge of Feminist Biography (1992), did indeed tackle dangerous issues, particularly in relation to the political and intellectual demands of feminist scholarship and the intense transferential relation of women biographers to their female subjects.

The ethics of contemporary literary biography have come in for some harsh recent criticism from women writers, especially when the subject is a woman. In a review of a book about Jean Stafford in 1988, Joyce Carol Oates declared her disgust with ‘pathography’, a narrative focused on dysfunction, breakdown, addiction and disaster, rather than on the mysterious process whereby artists spin their dirty straw into gold. Writing about the Sylvia Plath industry in The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm compared the biographer at work to ‘the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewellery and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away’. The scholarly apparatus of biography, Malcolm charges, is a false façade of ‘banklike blandness and solidity’ that obscures its readers’ real motives: ‘voyeurism and busybodyism’.

Wagner-Martin takes polite issue with Oates, arguing that ‘particularly for biography of women, whose private lives have often been marked with such events as abuse, rape and psychological manipulation, allowing discussion of painful subjects has been useful – even crucial.’ Her sense of the dangers and difficulties of the biographer’s task, however, is far more concerned with marketing, reader response and sexist critical reception than with unconscious motives or conflicting values. A ‘continuing problem with women’s writing biography of women’, she maintains, ‘is that gender stereotypes block the reader’s recognition of both the character portrayed and the biographer’s method of portrayal’. Such stereotypes might involve conventional expectations of female behaviour, or assumptions about biography following a traditional chronological structure and telling the story of a successful or exemplary life. Although women are the majority of buyers of biographies and autobiographies, Wagner-Martin worries that ‘choosing to write about a woman may not be the way to literary success: women usually lead lives that seem less interesting to readers.’

Such sweeping claims may have held true for an older generation. Carolyn Heilbrun recalls in the late Thirties and early Forties finding ‘almost no biographies of women at all’; a decade later, Phyllis Rose recalls only books on Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Duchess of Windsor. Rose credits Anne Frank’s diary, published in English in 1952, with the transformation of women’s autobiography; Heilbrun and Wagner-Martin agree that Nancy Milford’s study of Zelda Fitzgerald in 1970, coinciding with the early years of the women’s movement, established a new openness and frankness in the writing of biography, as well as illuminating a paradigmatic life – the Wife of the Poet. ‘There was a sense, in the late Sixties and early Seventies,’ Rose observes, ‘that we were finding out things about women’s actual experience we hadn’t known before.’

Indeed, Wagner-Martin’s overview makes it clear that women’s lives are passionately interesting to modern readers, and that narratives of women’s lives have achieved every kind of literary success. Beginning with a brief history of American women’s biography, she discusses a wide range of important Anglo-American books and draws attention to innovative work by scores of writers. Enabled by feminist scholarship as well as the psychoanalytic revolution in modern biography, the new biography of women has found a variety of ways in which to represent the public-private divide in female experience, and in doing so has changed awareness of sexual identity in biographies of men.

To stress bias and censorship in the Nineties seems misplaced, and can easily backfire since Wagner-Martin freely displays her own gender values and literary prejudices. She explains, for example, that ‘writing the life of Sylvia Plath was in some ways easy because I, too, had grown up in those American Fifties. As one of the “lucky” college women, I married at 20, while still an undergraduate, and so was spared Plath’s desperation at ever finding a husband.’ Labelling Plath’s pre-marital sexual activity ‘promiscuity’, she explains that while she was able to view such behaviour with ‘sympathy and understanding’ as ‘a rebellion against the edicts’ of Plath’s mother, she feared that ‘readers would respond negatively’ and that ‘the men who had been her sexual partners would be identified’. But contemporary women readers may be less likely to pathologise eroticism as rebellion, while Plath’s male sexual partners were so eager to share explicit details and to prove that they had been the first that Wagner-Martin finally sent ‘Lover A’s letter to Lover B ... so they could carry on their argument in person’.

Wagner-Martin also sounds prissy when she talks about popular biography, a genre she disdains for its ‘vapid simplicity’, celebrity subjects, slanginess and emphasis on sex and shopping. Her criticism of Lawrence Quirk’s biography of Cher for ignoring her ‘learning disabilities’, and her disapproval of the ‘downright cynicism’ in Brenda Maddox’s witty comparison of Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth II (‘they are growing older in the same way, taking on the sexless look of Oriental potentates, with their geological gems and turbans’) sent me fleeing to the news-stand in search of the latest on Lisa-Marie. Surely biography needn’t get its feminist credentials through learning disabilities and solemnity. Come back to the raft, Camille Paglia, all is forgiven.

Most problematically, Wagner-Martin believes that writing women’s lives is primarily the work of women, and that only a rare male biographer can succeed at the task. Although she grudgingly admits that the Norwegian Per Seyersted, who rescued Kate Chopin from nearly a century’s neglect, ‘did some good’, and acknowledges that R.W.B. Lewis’s extraordinary biography of Edith Wharton, the first to take her seriously as a major writer, ‘remains a good book’, her readings of male biographers and critics are generally harsh. She minimises the impact of discreditable information in biographies of men, arguing that ‘only recently have some disclosures in biographies of male subjects been as troublesome as those in biographies of women, and these have often been disclosures of sexual practices’ – as if revelations of Scott Fitzgerald’s alcoholic excesses, Robert Frost’s nastiness and pettiness, Philip Larkin’s racism, or Roald Dahl’s arrogance had not tempered readers’ adulation. While she herself has written a biography of John Dos Passos as well as books on Ellen Glasgow, Plath and Stein, Wagner-Martin does not discuss any differences in her own approach to male and female writers, or consider the possibility of sexual blind spots in the work of women writing about men.

Clearly women biographers bring specific psychic freight to their work on female subjects. Carolyn Heilbrun describes it as ambivalence about power and control: ‘Because this has been declared unwomanly, and because many women would prefer (or think they would prefer) a world without evident power or control, women have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots or examples, by which they might assume power over – take control of – their own lives.’ For Heilbrun, the special task of feminist biography is thus ‘to make clear, evident, out in the open’, the events and decisions that have enabled women to control their lives.

For Bell Gale Chevigny, the biographer of Margaret Fuller, women biographers of women are surrogate daughters. ‘It is nearly inevitable,’ she notes in Daughters Writing: Towards a Theory of Women’s Biography (1984), ‘that women writing about women will symbolically reflect their internalised relations with their mothers and in some measure re-create them.’ But the fantasy of the surrogate mother is one of reciprocity; authorising or retrieving the mother is a form of authorising the autonomous self. Feminist academic biographers have written with honesty and humour about their strong identification with their female subjects, and their need to separate, evaluate and detach. For some, the process is even marked by guilty dreams. Charlotte Goodman dreamed that Jean Stafford, with ‘ghostly chalk-white face and crimson lips’, declared, ‘I never gave you permission to enter my house,’ and then jumped from an open window to the black lake below. Sara Alpern dreamed that Frieda Kirchwey approached her, carrying a black shoulder-strap briefcase with many zippered compartments. ‘I’ve been mugged,’ she said. ‘But I don’t have to worry about that anymore because I keep my valuables here.’

For women biographers and women readers both, the attraction of women’s life stories, whether the subject is Catherine Cookson or Marianne Faithfull, Margaret Thatcher or Sylvia Plath, is possibility. As Phyllis Rose rightly states, the urgent question in telling – or reading – women’s lives, is: ‘How fully could a woman live?’ Asking the question is risky because it unsettles our assumptions of the possible, but Wagner-Martin has given us too many cautions against the danger, and too few reminders of the pleasure.