After reading this impressive recommendation at Jezebel, I immediately added Heroines to my wish list and my brother promptly purchased it for my birthday. (Go him!) It's a starkly confessional title, boldly written, split into paragraphs that often leap from one biographical subject to another and always, always circles around the subject of creative women and the husbands who dominated and controlled them. Through it all author Kate Zambreno struggles with her own efforts at writing while being an academic wife and following her husband's career to places she does not want live and communities where she does not feel at home.
The primary historic figures in Heroines are Zelda Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Vivienne Eliot, Jane Bowles and Jean Rhys. But there is also Sylvia Plath and Martha Gelhorn and Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Lucia Joyce and, well, I could go on and on. Zambreno writes about researching these women, about how their lives became cornerstones for her own, about her abject frustration and utter despair over how they were treated by their contemporaries and the men who were supposed to love them. There is also, as she makes clear, that appalling manner in which history has dismissed their work, branding them difficult at best or all often crazy. Zambreno is raging against the night in much of Heroines and I found myself compulsively turning the pages and often raging right along with her.
Some choice bits:
A haunting refrain: Mr. Fitzgerald is a novelist, Mrs. Fitzgerald is a novelty.
To be so compelled to save a heroine in a book that it makes you want to throw a book across the room. I feel this for: Breton's Nadja, Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night.
While visiting the library of the Art Institute of Chicago while researching the influence of Mary Reynolds, the mistress of Marcel DuChamp:
The tweedy rare books librarian doesn't want me to touch the more fragile books. He voices his skepticism about how much of the vision behind these extraordinarily bound books are Reynolds', he suggests they are mostly DuChamp's design, which he just told Reynolds what to do. Of course he thinks that. I mean, of course he thinks that. But it's also a case of peddling - the items acquire more value being the brainchild of a great man, as opposed to his mistress.
And this on her struggle to find her way:
During that time I decided someday I wanted to write the Infinite Jest for fellow fucked-up girls, for the slit-your-wrist girls like me. I hadn't even finished Infinite Jest, but I knew it didn't speak to me, just like I knew Kerouac's On the Road didn't speak to me, because he kept writing about jumping into girls and I knew I was one of the girls who were fucked and forgotten.
My copy of Heroines is full of post-its, women I want to learn more about (there is an excellent bibliography as well), points I do not want to forget. I don't agree with everything Zambreno had to say, especially her misery over living in the Midwest due to her husband's job, but I do understand why she felt this way, why her depression became that much greater when she found herself in a place so unfamiliar from what she knew and what she wanted to know and why she wondered if her anger for the women she studies was valid or excessive. (I feel that same anger now.)
But even when disagreeing, I still identified so much with how Zambreno felt about being a struggling writer, about being dismissed so casually, about being so frustrated by so much. And the more I read about Zelda Fitzgerald and the other women she researched the more I want to reach back in time and throttle my teachers and professors. Every single time I learned about one of these great men of letters, I also was taught that the woman in their life was a mess. Always. Zambreno makes clear in Heroines that there was a hell of a lot more to know in their stories, and a hell of a lot more to appreciate.
There is, honestly, part of me that is devastated by reading Heroines. It all hurts so much, to know how casually these women were treated, how all too frequently they were tossed away. I wish I could save them - all of them - fictional and real. I wish you didn't have to take a "Women's Studies" course in college (if you're lucky enough to find one) to know their truth and instead it could just be part of 10th grade English, part of what we all simply know to be true. Damn.
I highly recommend Heroines for the women writers in your life, or any who want to challenge the accepted histories of so many literary lights.