New Wives’ Tales

Ae651ecc6a7111dd83e80000779fd18c Jackie Wullschlager in the FT reviews new books on Sartre and de Beauvoir, Germaine de Staël & Benjamin Constant, de Maintenon and Louis XIV, and the model wives of Cezanne, Monet & Rodin:

Twenty-one years ago, I reviewed on these pages the first biography of Simone de Beauvoir, by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, published just after her death in 1986. Focusing, inevitably, on her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, it was a work of romantic hagiography: “The two writers hid themselves more deeply in the chestnut groves. The most singular love story of the 20th century had begun.”

But soon after it appeared, a stash of de Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre, which she had claimed lost, revealed the celebrated partnership as a web of lies and manipulation, sustained by de Beauvoir’s role as pimp and procurer, supplying the icy Sartre with young girls to deflower – the only aspect of sex he really enjoyed – and engaging in erotic triangles that led third parties to breakdown or suicide.

Biographers fell on the pickings like vultures: Deirdre Blair in 2001, Hazel Rowley in 2005 and now Carole Seymour-Jones. While this played out, something happened to the study of history that de Beauvoir could only have dreamt of. Women and private life replaced men and public life as its central agenda, and biography – history’s populist arm – entered a feminised golden age. Brenda Maddox’s Nora (1988) shed light on James Joyce through his sexual encounters with Nora Barnacle. Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana (1998), launched by the biographer posing nude in Tatler, ushered in bodice-ripping accounts of 18th-century royal mistresses. Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy, the Time-torn Man (2007) interpreted the novelist through the prism of his two unhappy marriages. Mainstream life-writing had become wife-writing.