Joanna Biggs: A Life of One’s Own. Nine Women Writers Begin Again, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2023.
It is reassuring to see that other readers examine the lives and works of certain favourite authors as a sort of guide or inspiration for their own lives – or perhaps as a constant conversation with their own lives. Perhaps there is also solace to be found that in this day and age we have more opportunities as a woman than many of our forebears did, and also anger and sadness on their behalf – and perhaps a little for our own sake, that things have not progressed more since.
I was not surprised to see a blurb on the cover of this book from Francesca Wade, whose Square Haunting treads similar ground, exploring women’s aspiration to be financially and creatively independent. However, while that one was linked to a particular place (Mecklenburgh Square in London), this one is linked by Biggs’ own life. When her mother started suffering from early-onset dementia and her marriage fell apart, Biggs reassessed her life and revisited some of the most influential women writers as she was growing up. This was always going to be a personal, idiosyncratic selection; while I share some of her favourites (Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir and Sylvia Plath), I can’t help wishing she’d included some less widely-known authors, although I suppose Mary Wollstonecraft is nowadays mostly known as Mary Shelley’s mother. The other chapters include George Eliot, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Elena Ferrante, so there’s an attempt to introduce some diversity in terms of language, race and class.
Having said that I too mine other women writers’ works and lives for comparisons with my own life, I don’t think I’d have written a book about it. You’ll notice that the book only has eight chapters featuring eight women writers, but the subtitle mentions nine: the ninth being of course Biggs herself. She weaves her personal story throughout each chapter, which can sometimes be quite repetitive. It requires a certain amount of ego to draw parallels between herself and these women writers many of us have idolised. To be fair, I’m not sure that Biggs has that tremendous ego, but was probably advised by agents or publishers that this was a more unusual and interesting angle to approach what would otherwise be simply short biographies. Or add a hook to a memoir that might otherwise feel quite banal.
It is certainly a trend at the moment in literature: the auto-fiction of Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk, memoirs that feel like essays and link up with the author’s other interests (nature – Amy Liptrot, languages – Polly Barton and Mireille Gansel, travelling and property – Deborah Levy, health and community building – Tanya Shadrick and Polly Atkin), fiction that feels like memoirs (Jenny Offill). And on and on the list goes and I have to admit I like reading most of them. I wonder if blogging and appearing on social media has made the ‘I’ so much more interesting in narration. Instead of the long-vaunted (and perhaps mourned) ‘death of the author’, we have the author front, back and centre of any work.
Does it work? Well, a couple of times I felt the comparisons were a little forced and would have liked to see less of the author’s own tribulations. (Perhaps I’d have liked it more as a separate memoir, although the author chooses to remain relatively discreet about the details of the breakdown of her marriage.) Her personal reactions to these women, what they meant to her, and a more in-depth reading of some of their work (Maggie Tulliver as a heroine, or Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, for example) are the most successful sections, to my mind. I resonated most with Biggs when she expresses her own relief at regaining her heroine Simone, freed from her concrete block as an icon, allowing her to be a flawed, real woman rather than an example to others. When she leaves enough room for the readers of her book to place themselves in that landscape, it is quite a powerful and enjoyable read, but does not add much that is new to our knowledge of those writers.
P.S. Thank you for Rohan Maitzen’s comment below, which reminded me of one book that combined the personal with the biographical and sensitive analysis in a way that really moved me and did bring a lot of new knowledge: Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, which I reviewed for Shiny New Books.