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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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses