Heroines: From Zelda Fitzgerald to Jean Rhys

An innovative "memoir" reassesses the place of women in modern literature.

Kate Zambreno’s Heroines is about ‘The mad wives of modernism who died in the asylum. Locked away, rendered safe. Forgotten, erased or rewritten.’ The emblematic experience of these women, prevented from writing by their literary husbands and the patriarchal ‘sciences’ of psychoanalysis and psychiatry, was that of Zelda Fitzgerald, ‘the tarnished golden girl of her husband’s legend, who burned to death in an asylum fire in Asheville, North Carolina. All that remained to identify her: a single charred slipper.’

A combination of criticism and memoir, biography and autobiography, Heroines asks its reader to consider how women write, are written, written about and read. Its stars are Zelda, Vivienne Eliot (T. S. Eliot’s first wife), Sylvia Plath, Anaïs Nin and a host of other authors, many romantically linked to the male stars of modern American literature, and Zambreno herself. A lecturer, novelist and blogger, Zambreno taught undergraduates at a point when challenges to the canonical "Dead White Men" had ensured greater recognition for minorities of colour, gender and sexuality, but had not sufficiently changed how they were perceived or critiqued.

Zambreno traces a long history of women in literature being pathologised, citing T. S. Eliot’s essay on Hamlet, in which he labelled Hamlet’s grief as ‘excessive’, not stopping to consider Ophelia’s ‘melancholic swoons’, despite referencing her final speech in The Waste Land. One of the main factors contributing to the horrendous treatment of women within modernist literary culture, however, was the emergence of psychoanalysis, and inter-war writers and intellectuals’ embrace of the conclusions from Freud’s investigations into ‘hysterical’ women: Hélène Cixous treated these as fictions, as does Zambreno, but their male predecessors did not.

Freud’s work did not overturn the 19th century conviction that women suffering from mental health problems needed to put into physical and mental rest—a conceit savaged by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in The Yellow Wallpaper, published in 1892, but which remained catastrophically pervasive. Zelda Fitzgerald and Vivienne Eliot’s ambitions were suppressed by their husbands, and then institutionalised when boredom and frustration overwhelmed them.

Their best route out was to prove themselves as great authors—Janet Frame spent eight years in an institution after a mistaken schizophrenia diagnosis, undergoing 200 electroshock treatments before being released after a hospital official read that her poetry had won an award. Zelda, like 19th century French asylum resident Hersilie Rouy, could not convince the authorities of her sanity, partly because she had been characterised as a ‘novelty’ to her ‘novelist’ partner, who barred her from publishing her experiences of psychiatry, claiming them to be his material. Elsewhere, Zambreno states, it was only ‘once [Vivienne] was finally certified’ that T. S. Eliot’s drama The Family Reunion, thought to draw heavily on their relationship, could be performed. Decades after Vivienne’s death, Zambreno’s requests to access her papers from the Eliot estate were systematically denied, and Vivienne remains stuck as a footnote to her more celebrated ex-husband.

This appropriation and marginalisation was not limited to Anglophone literary culture: it had a history in France, from Flaubert’s declaration that "Madame Bovary, c’est moi" to the inter-war period. The Surrealists, aiming to fuse Freud’s ideas with Marx’s, held interminable seminars on sexual behaviour such as the legitimacy of rape or homosexuality, mostly without Surrealist affiliates such as gender-variant Claude Cahun or bisexual René Crevel. Surrealist ringleader André Breton’s Nadja (1928) closed, famously, with the declaration that "beauty will be convulsive or it will not be at all" but once it was published, Breton did not visit the woman mythologised as Nadja, who died in an asylum in 1940, her full name still a mystery, "almost as if her narrative ends when HE is done with her".

Literary authors, particularly modernist ones (many of whom made lamentable ideological choices under pressure in the Thirties), are forgiven plenty by posterity—few more so than counter-cultural icon William S. Burroughs, who killed his wife Joan and later advised an aspiring novelist to "shoot the bitch and write a book". Outsiders themselves, these authors got away with stifling women within their circles, even when they did not consciously set out to: only a minority, notably Mina Loy, successfully asserted their independence whilst remaining in heterosexual relationships with other writers. One of Heroines’ best passages challenges the assertion of Elizabeth Hardwick that "the struggle is pretty much the same" for male and female authors. Post-war husbands may have been more supportive of their wives’ creativity than the generation before, on the whole, but Zambreno sketches the expectation that they remain good wives and mothers with beautifully judged brevity and restraint.

Leading onto women writers’ relationships with each other, Zambreno writes insightfully on how the men of Zelda’s generation characterised autobiographical writing as insufficiently literary and inherently ‘feminine’, and how post-war feminists, particularly within the Second Wave, internalised this criticism. Angela Carter went so far as to read Jean Rhys as a "female impersonator", says Zambreno, "mostly because [Rhys] writes her characters as wounded and scarred".

Writing before the controversy around Faber’s notorious jacket for the 50th anniversary edition of Plath’s The Bell Jar, Zambreno shows how the dismissal of female coming-of-age writing as "chick lit" by male and female critics continues to manifest itself in a heart-breaking passage about a young student who felt that she didn’t have enough life experience to write – despite "an obliterating love affair", a breakdown, treatment for anxiety and a grandmother diagnosed with schizophrenia. It is in her "counterattack against this censorship" that Zambreno is at her most exhilarating and eviscerating: rightfully unashamed to acknowledge that it began from a position of anger, Heroines is rigorous and confident, fiercely intelligent in its demand for a fairer way of reading, writing and writing about women—past, present and future.

The Fitzgeralds dance in front of a Christmas tree. Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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How a dramatized account of Mark Duggan's death found a prime-time audience

I usually have an aversion to actors pretending to be police officers in this kind of scenario, but Lawful Killing: Mark Duggan was done with surprising care and nuance.

The BBC grows ever more lily-livered in the matter of current affairs. It would, you feel, rather devote an hour to yet another historian in a silly costume than to a piece of investigative journalism – the problem being that while the latter often has serious consequences, the wives of Henry VIII, being dead, cannot be libelled, and thus shows about them are consequence-free.

But what’s this? When I saw it, I had to rub my eyes. Lawful Killing: Mark Duggan, a 90-minute film at 8.30pm on BBC1 (5 December) about the shooting of the 29-year-old Londoner by the police in 2011? Who commissioned this extravaganza of inquiry, and by what strange magic did they secure for it such a whopping great slot in the pre-Christmas schedule? I would love to know. If you have the answers, do please drop me a postcard.

What made it even more amazing was that this documentary contained no hint of a scoop. It was revelatory, but its disclosures were achieved cumulatively, through the careful pulling together of every possible version of the events of that August day: wildly conflicting stories that its director, Jaimie D’Cruz, told through a combination of interviews and reconstructions.

I usually have an aversion to actors pretending to be police officers in this kind of scenario; they often come over like The Sweeney gone wrong. But the dramatisations in Lawful Killing had a terrible veracity, being based almost entirely on transcripts of the real thing (inquest accounts, witnesses’ interviews, and so on). Every voice seemed to reveal something, however unwittingly. In these accounts, the attentive viewer heard uncertainty and exaggeration, ambivalence and self-aggrandisement, misunderstanding and back-covering – all those human things that make the so-called truth so elusive and so damnably difficult to pin to the page.

A lot of the supposed intelligence that caused the police to follow Duggan that day remains secret, and I can’t see this changing any time soon. For this reason, I am not qualified, even after seeing the film, to say whether or not he was holding a gun as he emerged from a minicab on that warm afternoon. (The inquest jury decided that Duggan threw a weapon on to a nearby patch of grass before he was – lawfully – shot by an armed officer, while the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which had access to the secret intelligence, decided he was killed while holding one.) However, other things do seem to me to be crystal clear, and chief among them is the strange, cowardly and stupidly inept behaviour of the police immediately after his death.

In those hours, rumours swirled. At Duggan’s mother’s house, the family gathered, expecting a knock on the door at any time. How, they wondered, can a person be dead when the police have not yet informed their closest relatives? But no one came. The next day, the extended clan went to Tottenham Police Station where, again, they waited, for several hours. “Someone will be with you shortly,” they were told. Still, no one came. It was, incidentally, as they finally made their way back home that Duggan’s sister Kay Harrison saw a burning car. It was the first sign of the nationwide riots that – speaking of consequences – ultimately resulted in the deaths of five people.

Meanwhile on Channel 4 is a show for people for whom the Netflix Gilmore Girls reboot isn’t sugary enough (I can’t imagine who they are, these addicts with rotting black stumps for teeth). I was secretly hopeful that This Is Us (Tuesdays, 9pm), which is made by NBC, would be a bit like Thirtysomething, the touchy-feely series about a bunch of baby-boomer friends that I watched obsessively as a sixth former.

But, no. This is the kind of show in which a guy finds his long-lost parent, only to discover that the noble, adorable daddy is – boo hoo – dying of cancer. Its principal characters, three siblings, don’t talk to each other, or to anyone else. Rather, they make speeches, most of which come in two basic formats: mushy and super-mushy. This is schmaltz on toast with a mighty vat of syrup on the side.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump