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The Nerve to Become an Old Woman

A friend sent me Carolyn Heilbrun’s 1986 classic, Writing a Woman’s Life. I read it when it was new, listened to Heilbrun talk about it at Smith. In reading it again now, I see that I owe Heilbrun and her cronies enormous gratitude. She/they shaped my habits of mind more than I credited, till now. Her analysis of literature and culture is as comfortable to me as old slippers. But that’s the point of my gratitude. I made her ideas part of my way of looking at the world, part of the way I have given voice to other women and created my living autobiography.

For example, Heilbrun talks about the nerve it takes for a woman to fashion a vibrant, adventurous life (or to undertake a quest) after fifty; she says that narrative is so rare that it’s almost unthinkable. It was almost unthinkable in 1986. I’ve been taking it for granted for a long time. Heilbrun quotes an Isak Dinesen character saying “Women, when they are old enough to have done with the business of being women, and can let loose their strength, must be the most powerful creatures in the world” (128). Maybe. I do see great freedom in being done with the business of being a woman as women are expected to be: hair, makeup, a need to be pleasing and unthreatening to others. Inauthentic.

I love Heilbrun’s conclusion. “In the end,” she writes, “the changed life for women will be marked, I feel certain, by laughter. It is the unfailing key to a new kind of life. In films, novels, plays, stories, it is the laughter of women together that is the revealing sign, the spontaneous recognition of insight and love and freedom” (129). She goes on to celebrate “the end of the dream of closure” (130), by which she means the end of happy endings. If we dream toward “…and she lived happily ever after,” we might as well invite death into our dreams. Closure is stasis. All questions answered, all possibilities resolved.

Adventure, nerve, courage lies in stepping forward into the not-knowing. The danger. The possibility of joy and the possibility of disaster. As old women (or as old men), we can do that laughing–at our fool selves, at the crisis or the roller coaster we once thought life was made of, at our habits of mind (increasingly familiar to us as we meditate and see the same gerbil-wheels again and again). I love Joko Beck’s observation, “We never resolve anything. We just wear it out.” And then we laugh.

I have a quibble with Heilbrun. This goes back to my doctoral dissertation on women playwrights of the Queen Anne era, those nervy single women who took London by storm from 1695 till 1714 and wrote play after play in which female friendship was the main plot mechanism. Heilbrun quotes Toni Morrison as declaring, “Friendship between women is special, different, and has never been depicted as the major focus of a novel before Sula.” Heilbrun picks up there and writes, “[Friendship between women] had not been depicted in an autobiographical work as a major focus of a woman’s life before the work of Audre Lorde and her generation” (75). Well, OK, maybe that’s true of novels and autobiographies, but it isn’t true of plays. I loved Audre, and I love Morrison’s books (especially Sula and Beloved), but the main point Heilbrun makes is that women have been marginalized, made invisible, written out of history: and these women in Queen Anne’s time–poor women, desperate to survive and feed themselves and their children–their names were Catharine Trotter, Mary Pix, Susannah Centlivre, Delariviere Manley, Jane Wiseman, and Mary Davys: these women risked disaster, but they laughed, and made London laugh, and framed narratives on the possibility that women’s friendships could be dramatic and could matter more than anything else. They did that, and then they got written out of history till Nancy Cotton, Connie Clark, Fidelis Morgan, and I dug them up again in the late 80s.

With or without a body of feminist theory, there have always been women adventurers crafting narratives (mostly unwritten ones) that the world couldn’t see–since most of the world only sees what it expects to see. Feminist theory, if it isn’t written in such opaque language that it is useless except to those who trade in jargon, can en-courage wild women. But it doesn’t create them. They create themselves out of raw nerve and drive, and the risks are great. Sometimes they end in debtors’ prison or a work house, or dying alone and in pain because of poverty. But they don’t end in that wasteland of deadliness that comes to those who behave themselves and do what is expected of them. Before whatever their end is, most of the ones I know about do, as Heilbrun says, spend some time laughing. As Yeats put it (speaking of aged Chinese men, in his poem “Lapis Lazuli”) “their eyes, their ancient, glittering eyes, were gay.” Meaning joyful. Those are the models for me–wild women, wild men, people with nerve, laughing.

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-8 responses to “The Nerve to Become an Old Woman”

  1. Christopher says:

    Kendall, I’m delighted to find this entry tonight, a day late but just in time, “tarde pero a tiempo.” This afternoon my class and I were reading “Telling Women’s Lives” by Linda Wagner-Martin (one of Plath’s biographers) who writes of the limited number of “narratives” — life plots– available to women writing autobiography or being written about. The “narrative form reifies social codes” and, I would guess, vice versa. So many women, she says, are seen and judged in biographies by their roles as wives, daughters, mothers…

    “A primary reason women’s roles as daughters, wives, and mothers remained important to readers is that most fiction followed the ‘marriage novel’ pattern. The woman character was slated to move from her father’s house to her husband’s, so readers were experienced in reading about such protagonists and saw such conventional novel structure as the proper shape for storytelling. It has been said that narrative form reifies social codes. The marriage novel came into being during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the only desirable fate for women was marriage. Within traditional narratives, there was no pattern for a woman as quest hero (Odysseus traveled, but Penelope stayed home). Neither was there–except in science fiction or fantasy–a pattern for the woman’s hero novel. What has happened during the past twenty years of women writing fiction is that authors have been forced to change traditional narrative shapes to tell what they see as necessary and accurate stories. As women’s lives have changed, the stories about their lives must also change.”

  2. admin says:

    I love it when we’re on the same beam! Wagner-Martin sounds like pure Heilbrun, with the addition of the past 20 years of new narrative shapes. One of my missions with Agnes Anderson was to help her see that her life was her life, not the life of the artist’s wife, not the life of the artist’s sister, not the life of the artists’ mother. I think she really did see that, but the marketing of her book took the old route. I’ve been dreaming for 30 years of retelling Hesse’s Narcissus & Goldmund as the story of a contemplative nun and a woman adventurer (with children). Even if I never write it, I certainly am living it. Wonderful to hear from you again.

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