Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Marilyn French RIP

Something strange happened.

A little over a week ago, I picked up The Women's Room, a novel by Marilyn French that I'd read maybe three times before. A few days later, while I was deep into the novel, I picked up The Secret History by Donna Tartt to re-read as well. The Secret History is a little more fun and lots shorter, so I almost put down The Women's Room (none of this is unusual for me - I re-read books constantly and regularly switch between two books). I didn't, though. For some reason I can't explain, it felt important to finish this reading of it.

It shouldn't have. I've read The Women's Room before, no doubt I'll read it again. But I didn't let Donna Tartt steal me away, although I was hungry for The Secret History. I brought Marilyn to work, read on the bus there and back (deliberately taking the bus and not the DART so I'd have more time with the book), read at lunchtime. In the evenings, at home, I'd sometimes flick through Donna Tartt, get bored, and return to Marilyn.

I finished The Women's Room again and adored every line of it, although reading it this time felt harder than all the other times. I read The Women's Room the way I read good books for college - no matter how good it was, or how much fun, there was an odd sense of obligation, a feeling that I 'had to' read it. I looked Marilyn French up on Wikipedia a few days ago, when I realised all I knew about her was that she was a Joycean scholar as well as a novelist. For the first time since I first read it a few years ago, I started frantically recommending it to people, even though it makes me want to remove my ovaries with a tin-opener and hide under the stairs.

I even recommended it to my boyfriend, not usually a one for feminist novels, because it's one of the best books I've ever read that makes the point that academia won't save your soul.

I just found out that Marilyn French passed away on Saturday at the age of 79. I have more to say about this, but I'll come back to it. This post is just to say that I spent the last week of Marilyn French's time on earth re-reading her most famous novel for reasons that I can't understand, and all I want to do now is pick it up and start it again to remember her work.

Kate Mosse's tribute to her in the Guardian says it better than I can:

Marilyn French was a great writer - fearless, uncompromising - and a tireless campaigner. Born in Brooklyn in 1929, she went on to study philosophy and English literature, and earned a doctorate from Harvard. She had an impressive academic CV then, but it is for her 1977 classic feminist novel, The Women's Room, that she will be most remembered. Interviewed in the New York Times this week, her friend Gloria Steinem explained why the novel mattered so much. "It was about the lives of women who were supposed to live the lives of their husbands, supposed to marry an identity rather than become one themselves, to live secondary lives. It expressed the experience of a huge number of women and let them know that they were not alone and not crazy."

The reason that The Women's Room continues to be read and enjoyed all these years later is because it is, simply, a wonderful novel. It came partly out of French's own experiences - both an unhappy marriage and divorce, and the rape of her 18-year-old daughter - and this certainly gives a dynamic anger and passion to the story of Mira, a submissive housewife in suburban America who embarks on a radical journey of self discovery. She heads to Harvard to finish her studies, falls in with a dynamic group of female friends, and is awakened. And what is so remarkable for a novel that sold 20m copies worldwide is that there's no happy ending.

For the rest of the article, go here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/may/05/kate-mosse-tribute-marilyn-french-feminism