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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Time for put-upon Sicily to put out its wines

The high-altitude vineyards of Italy’s largest island produce nectar for the gods, Greek or Roman.

It was Diodorus of Sicily, a Greek historian in the 1st century BC, who wrote of the Gauls’ passionate attachment to wine that they “partake of this drink without moderation . . . and when drunk fall into a stupor or a state of madness”. There was, as yet, virtually no wine made in what would become France, and Italian merchants were making a fortune: in exchange for a jar of wine they received a slave, thus “exchanging the cupbearer for the cup”.

An irritated Gaul – and they were not people to irritate – might have responded that the Sicilians were no slouches on the drinking front, either. They had been making wine for several centuries by the time Diodorus was born, and although some of their grapes had been transplanted successfully to the mainland, a fair bit of what they produced was being consumed by the producers. And who, when drunk, does not approach either catatonia or insanity?

Perhaps the accusations rankle because the Gauls, with their lack of home-grown grapes, their thirst and consequent misbehaviour, were clearly the Brits of the Roman era. Plus ça change, as their descendants might say, although, given that France now has far healthier attitudes to wine than we do, perhaps there’s hope for us yet: just keep expanding the English vineyards, wait a couple of thousand years and – voilà!

Arguably the Sicilians have as many reasons to flee consciousness as we do. Their island may be breath-catchingly beautiful, from the Mediterranean beaches to the slopes of Mount Etna, past Greek temples, Roman ruins and Baroque churches, and their weather so wonderfully warm and dry that they can grow almost anything (a facility that led in the 20th century to a flood of boring wine that almost drowned the island’s vinous reputation for good). But Italy’s slender length is characterised by economic top-heaviness: the north is rich and industrialised, the south poor and rural, and Sicily is as far south as you can get.

The antique feel that tourists find so charming – Tinkers! Fishmongers! Absolutely nothing open between noon and 4pm! – is an indication of a region whose glories lie in the distant past, 2,500 years ago, when Syracuse was a powerful city state at least as large as Athens, praised by Cicero as “the greatest of the Greek cities, and the most beautiful of all”.

Such vicissitudes will make you flexible. Sicily has the adaptability of an island that has seen volcanic eruptions and armed invasions, has been powerful and poor, and been diddled out of its patrimony by cousins from the north as well as criminal-minded brothers from the village next door. Its range of indigenous grapes reflects this. There is spicy, rich Nero d’Avola; light, cherryish Frappato; and Nerello Mascalese, perhaps the most adaptable of all. The best whites are almondy Grillo and the tart, lemonish Carricante, grown on volcanic Etna’s high slopes.

As befits a place so frequently invaded, there are international grapes, too: one of the island’s finest wines, Tasca d’Almerita’s Contea di Sclafani Rosso del Conte, blends Nero d’Avola with Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. Some top producers, such as Feudo Montoni, stick to indigenous grapes; the formidable Planeta tries practically everything.

The best winemakers have a wilful individuality that those befuddled Gauls would surely have recognised. In the case of COS, a fine triumvirate based in the south of the island, this mental agility has inspired Pithos, wine aged in the ancient clay jars called amphorae. Maybe this is the past catching up with Sicily – or, given the new trendiness of amphorae, just Sicily catching up. Does it matter? The wines are excellent, and entirely distinctive. Surely it is time for Sicily, or at least its finest products, to do a little invading of their own.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror