Writing A Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

‘How’s your autobiography coming along?’ my friend asked. I was puzzled. Why did he imagine that I was writing an autobiography? He meant the one in my head, continuously revised, revisited, renewed. It’s the story of my life that I tell myself and sometimes, some parts I relate to others, especially to women, to my daughter and to my friends. In Carolyn Heilbrun’s terms my friend was asking me about the first way a woman can write her life.

There are four ways to write a woman’s life; the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write the woman’s life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognising or naming the process. (p11)

Of course I am interested in all these ways to write a woman’s life, but it is the fourth method, the unconscious writing, without recognising or naming the process that influences us all. It is the script we are given as little girls that she is referring to here. The script is reinforced throughout life so that it’s hard to write a good autobiography, to live a good life as a woman, without being aware of it. Indeed, the task of a feminist is to explore the script and replace it with her own story.

There will be narratives of female lives only when women no longer live their lives isolated in the houses and the stories of men. (p47)

Now there’s a challenge.

84 carolynHeilbrunCarolyn Heilbrun was a professor of literature at Columbia University in New York, specialising in British fiction of the twentieth century. She wrote scholarly examinations of feminist theory and is especially remembered for her work on the cultural narratives of women’s lives.

Writing a Woman’s Life was published in 1988 and is a short book – only 131 pages. Her themes include ‘”unwomanly” ambition, marriage, friendship with women and love for women, aging, female childhood’. She has chosen to explore these areas because in them women are especially subject to control by others. She suggests new ways that women can write their own lives, as a feminist undertaking.

“Men can be men only if women are unambiguously women,” Deborah Cameron had written. What does it mean to be unambiguously a woman? It means to put a man at the center of one’s life and to allow to occur only what honors his prime position. Occasionally women have put God or Christ in the place of a man; the results are the same: one’s own ideas and quests are always secondary. For a short time, during courtship, the illusion is maintained that women, by withholding themselves, are central. Women are allowed this brief period in the limelight – and it is the part of their lives most constantly and vividly enacted in a myriad of representations – to encourage the acceptance of a lifetime of marginality. And courtship itself is, as often as not, an illusion: that is, the woman must entrap the man to ensure herself a center for her life. The rest is aging and regret. (p21)

The story for men to follow is of the quest, while women’s plot, she suggests, is marriage, support, erotic service. Two expressions jump out at me in that paragraph: the acceptance of a lifetime of marginality and The rest is aging and regret. The disappointment implied by these phrases are behind my search for strong older fictional female characters, those who have not accepted marginality, those who do not see ageing as an afterlife.

Despite the brevity of the book and phrases such as those picked out here, it is not an easy read. Because it is the work of a scholar it is intense and dense, with many references to other scholars – for it is also a celebration of women’s scholarship.

84 Writing cover

Her final chapter on ageing is fascinating, especially in the light of her own death. She committed suicide (having told the world that she intended to do so at some point), leaving a note that read The journey is over. Love to all. She was 77. The book’s concluding paragraph suggests that in old age a woman finds a time to escape the biographies ascribed to her, and can stop being a ‘female impersonator’.

Biographers often find little overtly triumphant in the late years of a subject’s life, once she has moved beyond the categories our available narratives have provided for women. Neither rocking on a porch, nor automatically offering her services as cook and housekeeper and child watcher, nor awaiting another chapter in the heterosexual plot, the old woman must be glimpsed through all her disguises which seem to preclude her right to be called women. She may for the first time be woman herself. (p131)

Carolyn Heilbrun also wrote successful detective fiction under the pseudonym Amanda Cross, whose heroine, Kate Fansler, investigated crimes in university settings. In hiding behind her pseudonym Carolyn Heilbrun also gave me insight into the uses of secrecy. It’s a phrase I have adopted as the title of my novel. The friend who asked about my autobiography also gave me a gift. It was the word ‘effulgent’. I think I should try to use the word in my novel very soon.

How’s your autobiography going? Is your narrative breaking free of ‘the houses and the stories of men’?


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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction

5 Responses to Writing A Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

  1. Brilliant thought-provoking post, Caroline. Although you say the book is a heavy read, I think I’ll have to add it to my list. Breaking free of the stereotypes that narrate our lives is indeed a challenge, and something that is difficult to do. Like other female friends, I feel the obligations of my many varied roles, where many men would make choices for themselves. When we discuss these obligations with each other, we all feel similarly trapped: these are the roles that have been written for us.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for feedback Anne and Norah. I was a little unsure about posting something on Writing A Woman’s Life, in fact had been thinking about what I might say about it since June last year! But the title makes it compelling for me: writing and women’s lives. And being told and feeling obliged are things I really resist in my life. Do read it Norah and tell us what you think. There are some great chapters.
      And people can parody consciousness raising all they like, Anne, – it works for me!

  2. Great post, Caroline, and so much here to think about. So many women are pushed into acting out the role of female impersonator, despite having so many other talents. Living your own life is hard enough without being told what you can and can’t like (I love bright pink and hate shopping, for example). women’s consciousness raising is often parodied, but I’m glad I grew up at a time when these things were more questioned.

  3. Lovely, lovely post, really thought-provoking. I am writing about some diaries which span a life time (from age 12 to 84). This has given me so much to think about, not least my own feelings when I see the life and vivacity in my teenage diarist and reflect on how she looked back on those years as an older woman. I’ve ordered the book. Thank you.

    • Caroline

      Hi Alison,
      thanks for visiting the blog and responding to the post on Writing a Woman’s Life. It’s such a good feeling when you put someone on to a good book, isn’t it?
      Come back and tell us what you thought of it when you have read it.
      Interesting to make the connection with your own teenage diaries and lookig back as an older woman.
      Enjoy your reading and visit again.

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