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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Harry Potter didn’t cure my depression – but for an hour a day, it helped

These books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But at my lowest moments, Harry Potter was the only thing I enjoyed.

Just over a year ago, I was on a plane to Japan being violently sick. I had filled exactly two-and-a-quarter sick bags with my half-digested ginger-chicken-and-bread-roll before I decided to think about Neville Longbottom. As the plane rocked from side to side with turbulence, I sat completely stiff in my seat, clutching my armrests, and thinking of Neville. I told my boyfriend to shut up. In an effort to abate my nausea, I distracted myself for the remaining hour of the flight by picturing the peaceful plant-lover over and over again, like a visual mantra. I wasn’t sick again.

I’m telling you this anecdote because this was the only time in my life that Harry Potter acted as some strange and magical cure (even then, the fact there was no inflight meal left in my stomach to throw up had more to do with it). And yet, a few years before this, Harry Potter did help me through my depression. When we talk of Harry Potter and depression – which we do, a lot – we imagine that the lessons of the book can teach us, in a Don’t let the Dementors get you down! way, to not be depressed anymore. What do you mean you want to kill yourself? Banish that beast to Azkaban with your silvery kitty cat Patronus!! For me, it wasn’t like that at all.

In 2013 I was depressed. And Harry Potter helped me through. But it wasn’t magical, and it wasn’t wonderful, and there was no lie-back-and-think-of-Neville instant fix. When I closed the cracked spine of the last book, my depression didn’t go away.

Here’s some context, as plain and painlessly as I can put it. I had just graduated from university and ended my four year long relationship. I was living at home and working three jobs a day to be able to save up to do a six-month journalism course in London (the course was free, but eating is a thing).

Early in the morning, my mum would drive me to the local hospital where I would print out sticky labels and put them on patients' folders, in between sobbing in the disabled toilets. Around lunch, I’d go to work in a catering department, where I printed yet more labels and made sure to order the correct amount of gravy granules and beef. At five, my mum would pick me up and drive me home (thanks mum), and I’d have an hour or so to eat something before going to work in the local steak restaurant for the rest of the night. (On weekends, I had a fourth job - I would wake up early to scrub the restaraunt's toilets. Yay!) 

It sucked – even though there was, at least, a woman in the hospital who liked to do an impression of a Big Mouth Billy Bass fish.

“You’re not just depressed, you’re depressing to be around,” said the boy I was not-dating, two weeks after I said we should stop not-dating and a week after I begged him to start not-dating me again. If I was being dramatic and poetic, I’d say he was the kind of boy who stopped at nothing to make you feel unloved, but if I was being honest I’d say: he was really bad at texting back. Still, tip for anyone wondering what to say to someone who is depressed: Not This.

This wasn’t, exactly, the moment I realised I was depressed. (For a little extra context, note that it was Christmas Eve eve!) For a few months, my tongue had felt constantly burnt. Every moment of every day, my mouth felt like I had just bitten into the chewiest, gooiest molten pizza and burned off all my taste buds. Except I hadn’t. Eventually, Google told me this was a little-known symptom of depression called “burning mouth syndrome”. After ignoring clues such as constant crying, and knowing-the-exact-number-of-storeys-you-have-to-jump-from-to-ensure-you-die, I realised what I was. You know, depressed.

And round about here was when Harry came in. I’d always been obsessed with Potty Wee Potter, from the lilac HP branded M&S fleece I wore as a child, to making my brand new uni mates don pillowcases and bin bags to dress up for a screening of Deathly Hallows, Part 1. But by 2013, I hadn’t read the books for a while. So I started again.

I can’t emphasise enough that these books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But one of the worst parts of my depression was my anhedonia – which is the inability to feel pleasure in things you previously found enjoyable. I would spend (literally) all day at work, dreaming of the moment I could crawl into bed with a cheese sandwich and watch my favourite show. But the first bite of the sandwich tasted like dust, and I couldn’t concentrate on watching anything for more than thirty seconds. I lost a lot of weight incredibly fast, and there was no respite from any of my thoughts.

Except: Goblet of Fire. Harry needs a date! And Hermione wants a House Elf revolution! Wait, does Ron fancy her? Harry can’t manage Accio and THERE’S AN ACTUAL DRAGON ON THE WAY. The fourth Harry Potter book is now my favourite, because its episodic and addictive structure meant I couldn’t put it down even when I knew what happened next. I couldn’t enjoy anything in my life at that time, and I’m not even sure I “enjoyed” Harry. But the books were a total and complete distraction, like slipping into a Pensieve and floating down into another world where you could lose track of the time before being yanked, painfully, up and out.

I didn’t learn any lessons from the Dementors. I didn’t learn that love would get me through. As valuable as these messages in Harry Potter are, none of them helped me with my depression. What helped me was – and I can say it and you can say it, because 450 million sold copies have said it – insanely good writing. Addictive, un-put-downable writing. All-consuming, time-consuming, just-a-second-mum-put-mine-back-in-the-oven writing. Writing that allows you to lose yourself in the moments you most want to be lost.

That’s not to say, of course, that the messages of Harry Potter can’t help people through dark times – they have and will continue to do so for many years. There is no right way to be depressed, and there’s no right way to stop. But for me, Potter helped me through my anhedonia when nothing else at all could. It wasn’t magic. It was something ordinary in a world where everything had changed.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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