Jill Forbes on Simone de Beauvoir's Mémoires d'une Jeune Fille Rangée .
I first came across Memoires d'une Jeune Fille Rangee in the Penguin translation published in 1963. I had just returned from a school exchange in Paris: three blissful weeks in the Lycee Victor Hugo where even the canteen food was delicious. My friend Catherine and I took to smoking Gauloises and reading anything which might recapture the exquisite atmosphere of St-Germain-des-Pres.
As well as feeding my newly acquired francophilia, Beauvoir's autobiography spoke to me as an adolescent. Here was a girl who, in spite of social conventions and the limitations of her class and education, decided to be a writer. But thanks to the almost miraculous encounter with Mr Right, positioned as the dramatic climax of the book, Beauvoir did not have to choose, in Helne Cixous's phrase, between "le sexe ou la tete" in order to achieve her ambition. Honey magazine, my regular vademecum in affairs of the heart, advised extreme caution in the matter of intellectual relations with boys, but Beauvoir showed that it was possible to seduce a man with philosophical brilliance. This was heady stuff for girls of my generation!
By the time I was capable of reading Memoires in French, May 1968 had come and gone, the women's movement had been born, and, as the author of Le Deuxi me Sexe, Beauvoir had become compulsory reading for anyone who called herself a feminist. This had the effect of throwing the novelistic qualities of her autobiography into sharper relief.
Memoires draws strongly on the French tradition of literary introspection, echoing, though not following, Rousseau's promise in the Confessions to "tell the whole truth". But in content and structure it has more in common with women's writing in English. Louisa May Alcott and George Eliot were described as the youthful Simone's bedside companions, while she herself resembled an Eliot heroine, something like Dorothea but with a more sexually appealing partner than Casaubon.
The compelling difference, and the great originality of Beauvoir's text, was that instead of transposing fact into fiction, in the manner of her literary mistresses, she made her fictions come true. Memoires is for real and its "truth" provides the answer to Angela Carter's celebrated question "What's a nice girl like Simone doing with a boring old fart like Sartre?" Beauvoir's Sartre is the reality she created, the one she "made a wish for" at the age of 15. Memoires is, no doubt, the ultimate triumph of the text over experience and unlike Le Deuxieme Sexe, which is often criticised for its old-fashioned problematic, the autobiography has proved consistently liberating for feminists who, from Kate Millett onwards, have followed Beauvoir's example in writing the lives they have chosen to lead.
Circumstances have brought me back to Memoires. I wondered why Beauvoir wrote her autobiography when she did, but was unconvinced by Philippe Lejeune's frankly outrageous suggestion that it was because she had seen Sartre's Les Mots in draft and wanted her version of "his" (sic) life in print first. Perhaps because I am roughly the same age as Beauvoir when Memoires was composed I am more sensitive to the elegiac thread running through it - and more moved by it as well.
Her decision to remain unmarried and childless is inscribed in the book as a choice, but time is now rendering this choice definitive. The privacy she desperately sought as a teenager has turned into the fear of solitude and old age, which (incredibly) she first experienced in her late twenties. The evocation of a Catholic girlhood in the interwar years has lost none of its charm, but now I read it not only as a testament of youth but as a farewell to arms, a renunciation brought about by age, a recognition that what is left in life, now, is literature.
Jill Forbes is Ashley Watkins professor of French, University of Bristol.