Carolyn Heilbrun, author of many books including the classic Writing a Woman’s Life, and the first woman to get tenure in Columbia’s influential English department, was born ninety years ago this week.
Taking as its starting point Virginia Woolf’s remark that “very few women have yet written truthful autobiographies,” Heilbrun moves through the work of writers like Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Eudora Welty, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and others to explore how self-perception, nostalgia and romanticization shape the stories women writers tell in different forms: “she may tell it in what she chooses to call 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 her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.”
Published in 1988, Heilbrun’s book was part of a generation of feminist scholarship that included people like Elaine Showalter, Nancy Miller, and Barbara Smith, who wrote comprehensive, ground-laying work, more measured in tone than the provocations that came in the heat of the feminist moment, like Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics and Michelle Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, but equally ambitious. They helped undo the prejudice that both New Criticism and “theory” had infected into English classes that considering a writer’s life was beneath our consideration: the challenges of being and remaking Heilburn was concerned with had to know that the writing both is and is not the life. These were the books that were something like a new canon when I was a lit. major at a woman’s college in the 1990s, and in my view they are still more useful than a million more wised-up, qualified, “updated” versions in more recent years.
For me, though, the most interesting part of Writing a Woman’s Life comes when she takes herself as an example, describing her reasons for doing what so many other women writers have done: write under a pseudonym. In 1964 she created Amanda Cross, the author of a series of highly successful novels featuring Kate Fansler, detective among the lit-crits, with such titles as A Death in the Faculty, Death in a Tenured Position, and The James Joyce Murder. Here Heilbrun notes that while she had her practical reasons for creating Amanda Cross (the snobbery of English faculty at this time who somehow saw writing novels as a disqualification for teaching them is not to be underestimated), she had other reasons: to carve out a different space, a different self, a different life. For example,
“When, safely hidden behind anonymity, I invented Kate Fansler, I gave her parents, already dead, whom she could freely dislike, and create herself against. . . . I suspect taht if I had been told then that my depriving Kate Fansler of parents indicated any ambivalence on my part towards my parents, I would have disputed that conclusion with vigor. All the conscious reasons for writing were good ones; they operated, they were sufficient to explain my actions. Yet the real reasons permitted me, as other women have found ways to permit themselves, to write about my own life on a level far below consciousness, making it possible for me to experience what I would not have had the courage to undertake in full awareness.”
When I was in college, my professors all were in love with these books; I don’t know if people still read them. I never had until this summer, when I took The James Joyce Murders to the beach. It’s delightful, and I couldn’t help but think about all the academics I know who think they secretly will write romance novels, but they won’t and can’t. Heilbrun did, not as diversion but in the same spirit as her academic work: that of discovery.