Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun kept showing up in my other books either cited in “for further reading” or directly quoted. After a certain number of times, the urge to read a book becomes irresistible. And even when Holly ate the copy I borrowed from the public library, I had no choice but to actually read the book. Of course, truth be told, I was enthusiastic to do so because the book sounded interesting. The blurb suggests that writers conform to societal expectations and the ways in which some women writers worked to break out of the expected norms. Sounds great, right?
Early in the book, Heilbrun explains she will be “omitting, for the most part, an analysis of the fictions in which many women have written their lives” (11). This is precisely what I had hoped to read. Unfortunately, and for some reason I cannot explain, this is not at all what the author does. When writing about Woolf, she refers to the novels rather than the essays. The same is true of Dorothy Sayers. In the confessional poetry of Sexton we come close to an exploration of something other than poetry but, in the end, most of the literature explored by these women is their fiction. This was off-putting for me; having my expectations unmet is one thing but when an author explicitly states that she will not analyze the fiction and then spends the bulk of the book focusing on the fiction, I find it hard to get behind the book.
Setting aside my expectations and the “contract” the author set up with the reader, this is an interesting book that does look at how women are limited by societal expectations. Even within literature that is trying to break the mold, there is evidence of a sublimated conformity, a caution that presumably is not as confining for men as it is for women. Published in 1988, it sometimes feel a little dated or, at least, not as provocative or confrontational as it could. It may be that the author was an older woman and writing from a more polite place, trying to be academically precise sacrificing brutal truth. Women have been limited throughout history in every facet of society and, in holding back as the author does because she’s being academically polite or whatever, she herself is a testament to just how women restrict themselves so as not to seem caustic, or angry, or shrewish, something women have been accused of being when they try to shine a harsh light on the cold truth.
This is a good book but it didn’t live up to the author’s own intention and that was reason enough for me to like but not love this book. And I truly wanted to love it.