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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The Lure of Greatness: Anthony Barnettt's punk polemic grasps the magnitude of Brexit and Trump

Despite its idiosyncrasies we need more books like it.

If the early hours of 24 June and 9 November 2016 sit in your memory as times of racing thoughts and lurching anxiety, you will probably agree with the basic thesis of this book as a matter of instinct. “Something irreversible has happened, which people feel in their bones,” writes Anthony Barnett. “It is the end of an era, a truly historic moment.”

Britain is embroiled in the fiasco of its exit from the EU; the US is in the midst of a comparably chaotic reinvention, authored by an overgrown child who happens to be the president. But thus far, beyond a mountain of electoral analysis and the kind of books that focus exclusively on high politics and court intrigue, it often feels like the deep significance of what has happened has yet to sink in. Barnett, by contrast, is in no doubt: 2016 was a year of revolution, as replete with importance as 1968, and its events were expressions of a set of seismic crises – of the state, the economy and politics on both the left and the right.

As its response to the Brexit vote showed, British political commentary is never terribly comfortable with this kind of stuff. A year on from the referendum, the pre-eminent work of non-fiction about the saga remains All Out War, by the Westminster-centric Sunday Times journalist Tim Shipman, while bigger thoughts about the national condition have seemingly been left to writers of novels (witness Ali Smith’s brilliant Autumn, or Anthony Cartwright’s Brexit story The Cut).

In that context, there is no little symbolism in how the writing of The Lure of Greatness was enabled not by a mainstream publisher but by the crowd-funding platform Unbound, and financed by a great array of benefactors listed at the back. From its amateurish graphics (the title is written on the cover as “The Lure of Great Ness”, which rather suggests a tribute to an obscure Scottish village) to the sense of a text written at a furious pace with precious little editing, the whole thing feels like a kind of punk polemic, much less concerned with the standard rules of political writing than the need to respond to momentous events with deep and passionate arguments.

This is mostly a good thing. A one-time director of the constitutional reform campaign Charter 88 and the co-founder of the online platform openDemocracy, Barnett is a veteran of the kind of maverick politics that exists to push beyond useless orthodoxies and is usually built on a profound sense of history. One of his topics is the lack of those qualities in a caste of politicians he calls the “CBCs” – it stands for Clinton (Bill), Blair, Bush, Brown, Cameron and Clinton (Hillary) – and the dire style of politics that Trump and Brexit have probably rendered extinct. Here, his paradigmatic story is of the 84 slogans invented by people working for Hillary Clinton – “Rise up”, “Move up”, “Family first”, “A new bargain we can count on”, the flatly weird “Next begins with you” – before they settled on “Stronger together”, a close relative of the Remain campaign’s equally awful “Stronger in”. Such, he says, was an approach that “regarded sincerity, independence, principle… and believing what you say as positively dangerous”.

All of this comes into even sharper focus in his treatment of David Cameron, an elegant exercise in damnation that has echoes of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s searing 2007 monograph Yo, Blair!. One of the two chapters in question is titled “Words Pop Out of His Mouth”. Cameron, Barnett writes, was “one of those politicians who enjoy unlimited personal ambition untroubled by the burden of larger purpose”.

Worse still, he “took the capacity for self-interested adaptation for which the English ruling class is famous to a new pitch of rootlessness, and distilled the era’s deceitful spirit of government to perfection”. He said he had “no plans” to get rid of the Education Maintenance Allowance or raise VAT and then did both; he pledged not to means-test child benefit and then made precisely that change; and though his form of words was conveniently vague, he even said he would not allow any building on the green belt. In that sense, the referendum and its outcome were Cameron’s doing not just in the sense that he was daft enough to call the vote but that his casual deceptions were part of what people were rebelling against.

Most of the book is focused on Britain and, under the heading “Brexitannia”, the text moves beyond the rituals and personalities of politics into deeper themes: “the market-driven form taken by globalisation whose name is neoliberalism”, the serial failures of the EU (about which Barnett is bracingly honest) and hard questions about the supposedly United Kingdom. Clearly, the identities of Wales and Scotland have been renewed by devolution – and, in the latter case, by a party of the centre left that confidently speaks to people’s sense of belonging. Meanwhile, England has continued to be subsumed under the decaying idea of Britain and bossed around by the UK’s essentially 19th-century institutions, leaving it in dysfunctional limbo.

“English people… are losing their belief in Westminster and its self-important debates,” writes Barnett. “It is no longer funny that MPs fiddle their expenses. The Lords is ridiculous… Hideous over-centralisation makes local government pitiful. The result is a displacement of English exasperation with the whole damn lot of them… on to Brussels.” He rightly locates Brexit in what he calls “England-without-London” and bemoans the reluctance of people on the left – of all persuasions – to channel its feelings of powerlessness and resentment.

This leads on to a closing section written before this year’s general election, in which Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party are largely presumed to be locked into decline. Some of the arguments ring true (he calls Corbyn a merchant of “regressive radicalism”, which is spot on), but Barnett’s trenchant tone inevitably sounds a dissonant note. Elsewhere, the uneven pace and sheer range of subjects can be a bit much, and he makes the odd mistake, as with the claim that Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, is a “village”, when it’s actually the county town – the kind of metropolitan slip-up that one might associate with his loathed CBCs. But for his verve, range and insatiable urge to take on vast themes, Barnett deserves loud applause. Precisely because of its idiosyncrasies, this is a very good book, and in times like these, we need more like it.

The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump
Anthony Barnett
Unbound, 416pp, £8.99

John Harris writes for the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear