We had a lively and at times nostalgic discussion about Simone de Beauvoir's autobiography, Memoirs of a dutiful daughter, published in 1959. It is a dense read and cannot be quickly read.
Three of us had previously read this book whilst in our twenties and reminded the group that it was the first in a series of four written by de Beauvoir during her fifties. Did we enjoy it differently now from when we were younger ? Who can say ? We are such different people. But this time we appreciated her writing on friendships and relationships with close relatives (especially our mothers and fathers). One member studied French literature at university and this book influenced her to read major French authors such as Proust.
Simone’s life from birth to early twenties is ‘given’ to the reader in great detail, lots of incidents, emotions and inner most thoughts are revealed – for instance discussion in great depth of her feelings and thoughts as a very young child. One member thought this was too precocious for a young child but others disagreed and noted that she was an exceptional and observant child. She ‘liked reality’ and she was generally a happy person. She did have some very dark religious times when she was twelve to fourteen though. Was she writing it for herself or for readers ? She let ‘it’ all out we concluded.
Her relationship with her father and mother was discussed in some detail -- her father loved her and she him but as she grew up he had less hold on her especially as he drifted away from the family emotionally. His failed career helped lead to his depression so he was not able to provide for his daughters adequately and he felt they would never marry as they were not beautiful. We all appreciated her description of her inner life during her teenage-hood.
Another interesting facet of de Beauvoir’s character was her love for all things French. Is it a characteristic of being French ? Or was it common in the early part of the twentieth century ?
In discussing Sartre and his role in de Beauvoir’s life we noted her confession of remorse for not having had children. (She is tantalizingly brief about her relationship with him even though she discusses in great depth her other boy friends and lovers.) Her role as a teacher was enjoyed and she was a mentor to her students but that was a still a poor substitute for motherhood she realised later.
One member had thought of writing her own autobiography. She even came up with numerous titles. Another member could relate to de Beauvoir’s Catholic upbringing as she had ‘suffered’ and endured similarly.
The most insightful perception of this autobiography came from our Whispering Gums member who commented that this book reads like a novel with tragic tales for the two people who are most important in the life of the young Simone de Beauvoir. These characters are her childhood sweetheart, Jacques and her school friend Zaza. Zaza’s life is not only a tragedy for being too dutiful to her mother’s wishes, she is also an alternative reality for Simone.
In contrast to being truly dutiful, Simone rejected religion and became an atheist but she also experimented on the edge of danger morally whilst a young teenager. She was very lucky that nothing terrible happened. It was a way of escaping her ‘prison’. She was naïve but was trying to kick free of her childhood. She felt she was invincible as many young people do. As she didn’t have brothers, her parents didn't give her any sense of inferiority. See Hazel Rowley’s biography, Tête-à-tête, for further information on her life.
Other interesting topics this discussion raised were about biographies and their truthfulness and also the date of the first autobiography? The term ‘autobiography’ was coined in 1797 by William Taylor who thought it was rather ‘pedantic’ but the form dates from ancient times according to the Wiki.
De Beauvoir’s biography is very self-reflective and honest and you really get to know her. We also appreciated her descriptions and responses to landscape. Her language is clear and expressive.
This autobiography is magnificent – my comment – one of our best reads. It has also stood the test of time. It is definitely a book to recommend.