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Marilyn French Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Marilyn Edwards in New York City, 1929. Education: Hofstra College (now University), Hempstead, Long Island, B.A. 1951, M.A. 1964; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ph.D. 1972. Career: Instructor, Hofstra University, 1964-68; assistant professor of English, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1972-76; artist-in-residence, Aspen Institute for Humanistic Study, 1972; Mellon fellow, Harvard University, 1976. Agent: Sheedy Literary Agency, 41 King Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Women's Room. New York, Summit, 1977; London, Deutsch, 1978.

The Bleeding Heart. New York, Summit, and London, Deutsch, 1980.

Her Mother's Daughter. New York, Summit, and London, Heinemann, 1987.

Our Father. Boston, Little Brown, 1994; New York, Penguin, 1995.

My Summer with George. New York, Knopf, distributed by RandomHouse, 1996.

Other

The Book as World: James Joyce's Ulysses. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1976; London, Abacus, 1982.

Shakespeare's Division of Experience. New York, Summit, and, London, Cape, 1981.

Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals. New York, Summit, and London, Cape, 1985.

The War against Women. New York, Summit, and London, Hamilton, 1992.

A Season in Hell: A Memoir. New York, Knopf, 1998.

* * *

The narrator of Marilyn French's phenomenally best-selling first novel, The Women's Room, leaves the subject of men's pain "to those who know and understand it, to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow and John Updike and poor wombless Norman Mailer." French's own most extensive treatment of male suffering appears not in her three long feminist fictions but in The Book as World: James Joyce's Ulysses, where she describes Stephen Dedalus's emotional paralysis and Leopold Bloom's moral heroism. By accepting his "participation in the human condition," Stephen can accept his own feelings and act in ways that will end his crippling numbness. "Such an end," says French,"is not equivalent to reaching some new Jerusalem where everything will become clear; it offers merely survival, the ability to live and grow." Stephen thus anticipates the shell-shocked female survivors of French's novels, who pass through their own nightmarish versions of Joyce's Nighttown.

French suggests that the endurance of Bloom and Stephen is "an affirmation of the human race;" the endurance of her protagonists—Mira, Dolores, and Anastasia—is a tribute to the "feminine principle" that offers the race's best hope for the future. In Beyond Power, French calls for a new synthesis of traditionally conflicting female and male values: "For women, as for society at large, it is necessary to reach out both to the dishonored body, discredited emotion, to blood and milk; and to self-control, power-to, assertive being in the world. Only by incorporating both can we attain integrity." French attributes much of the world's suffering to an obsession with patriarchal structures of power, a major concern too of her second novel, The Bleeding Heart. Pleasure, in the deep sense of felicity, must replace power as society's highest good. French's fictional women have several experiences of delight. Among the most memorable is the New Year's Eve dance in The Women's Room, where men and women, young and fortyish, join in a circle of "color and motion and love." Mira returns to the image as "a moment of grace vouchsafed them by something divine." Unfortunately, episodes of mutual nurturance are much less common than years of lonely anguish. French's central characters undergo agonies so severe that, as she says of Bloom and Stephen, "survival alone is a triumph."

Even as a girl, Mira Ward realizes that "Women are victims by nature." Almost raped by her boyfriend Lanny, she tearfully marries the gentle and intelligent Norm. Disinterested in sex and horrified at Mira's dreams of someday earning a doctoral degree, Norm makes her feel like "a child who had stumbled, bumbled into the wrong house." Almost two decades later, the divorced Mira still feels out of place even though she is finally working toward her long-deferred goal. French's novel opens in 1968 with Mira uneasily enrolled at Harvard. Supported by a women's group, which includes the outspoken Val, Mira gains a strong sense of woman's value that enables her to survive the rape of Val's daughter, Val's death in a confrontation between radical feminists and police, and even the break-up of her passionate affair with Ben, who asks her to delay her career by accompanying him to Africa and bearing his child. Only in the closing pages does it become clear that the somewhat cynical narrator—who considers her protagonist to be "a little ridiculous"—is actually Mira, now "unbearably alone" as she walks a Maine beach and waits for the fall semester to begin at the community college where she teaches English. Haunted by nightmares of a vacant-eyed man who pursues her with a phallic pipe and penknife, Mira nevertheless feels that it is "time to begin something new, if I can find the energy, if I can find the heart."

French's second novel lacks the narrative complexity, the large groups of characters, and the scope of The Women's Room, which traced Mira's growth from a naïve 1950s housewife to an independent woman of the 1970s against the cultural backdrop of the Eisenhower years, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Kent State, and My Lai. A tenured professor and author of two books, Dolores Durer—the bleeding heart of the title—seems to have achieved even greater success than Mira in recovering from an even worse marriage and divorce. Yet she feels like a "walking robot," and, celibate for years, her body is "dying of thirst." An affair with Victor Morrissey, an American businessman whom Dolores meets in England, relieves the sexual dryness but reconfirms her belief that "Women always end up paying" because the world follows "Men's rules, still, always." Victor does, however, encourage Dolores to share with him her most terrible memory, the suicide of her daughter Elspeth, thus enabling her to feel again. Freed from her repeated identification with Lot's pillar-of-salt wife, Dolores refuses a potentially numbing marriage to Victor (as Mira refused Ben) and prepares to return to her students and good woman friends.

Her Mother's Daughter, French's most experimental novel, incorporates struggles of three generations: Anastasia Stevens, a world-famous photographer; Belle, her often silent mother, who has a symbolically "defective heart;" and her immigrant grandmother, Frances. Striving to avoid the misery of her mother and grandmother, the twice-divorced Anastasia comes closer than French's earlier women to achieving the freedoms more usually associated with a man's life, but in learning a masculine self-control she so thoroughly masters her feelings that she "cannot find them myself." Anastasia's progress toward emotional recovery begins with the women's movement, a lesbian relationship with Clara Traumer, her reconciliation with the son and daughter who have grieved her, and—perhaps most significant—her mother's unprecedented words of praise: "I will never forget how sweet you were to me."

French's novels illuminate a distinction she makes between the "feminine" plots of comedy and the "masculine" plots of tragedy in "Shakespeare's Division of Experience": "We lose, but we replace, we substitute: we go on. This is as profound a truth as that we lose and cannot replace, we die." Less profound are the "truths" explored in My Summer with George, the story of a sixtysomething romance author's infatuation with an overweight and altogether unromantic newspaper editor. The lesson we learn from the frustrating affair of Hermione Beldame (nee Elsa Schutz) and George Johnson is that notions of romantic love so cherished by women are a lie: as their bodies age, the possibility of achieving even a simulacrum—say, an emotionally clumsy dalliance with a man well past his prime—diminish as well.

—Joan Wylie Hall

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Judson Knight

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