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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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism