In the course of this year of devoting my time to reading and writing about neglected books by women, one genre that has particularly captivated me is the autobiography. Like many men, I find women a subject of endless fascination and every piece of autobiographical writing by a woman seems to be an opportunity to understand just a little better these extraordinary creatures who share my habitat. In my search for lost books, I’ve come across a rich trove of autobiographies and memoirs written by women over the last 150 years, assembling a list of titles that could easily keep me going for another couple of years.
A few women have found autobiography an especially fruitful form and carried on from a first volume for three, four, or even more. I’ve discussed Ethel Mannin’s six volumes of memoirs here earlier this year, and will have to find time soon to mention G. B. Stern’s equal number of … well, let’s call them logo-psycho-philosophic-autobiographical rambles for the lack of a precise label. Marie Belloc Lowndes, best remembered for the novel that was the basis of Hitchcock first great silent film, The Lodger, wrote four volumes of autobiography in the last years of her life, while Anthony Powell’s wife, Lady Violet Powell, wrote her four volumes over the span of more than fifty years. But here I want to mention two trilogies of memoirs, both out of print, and both well worth rediscovering.
- • Janet Frame
- It’s a little astonishing to see that New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s autobiographies are out of print. Frame’s life is a testament to the challenges and rewards of not fitting in. Her behavior as an adolescent was considered eccentric at the time, but in hindsight seems more understandable given what was going on around her (two sisters died of drowning, two brothers regularly suffered epileptic seizures). After a difficult time while attending college, she attempted suicide, and, not long after that, was committed to the psychiatric ward of her local hospital for observation. She spent much of the next eight years in mental hospitals, receiving 200 electroshock treatments. But she also began writing and publishing, starting with short stories, and was saved from a schedule lobotomy when it was announced that her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories (1951), had been selected for the Hubert Church Memorial Award.
Frame left New Zealand in 1956 and lived in England and Europe before returning home in 1963. She published numerous novels and short story collections and her reputation as one of the leading figures in contemporary fiction grew, particularly as she was able to grapple with issues about madness, loneliness, and the destruction of language and meaning. In the late 1970s, she began writing her autobiography, which was published in three volumes between 1982 and 1985: To the Is-Land (1982), Angel at My Table (1984), and Envoy from Mirror City (1985). Australian Nobel Prize winner Patrick White said the books ranked “amongst the wonders of the world.” When the trilogy was published in a single volumen in 1990, English biographer Michael Holroyd called them “One of the greatest autobiographies written this century.” In his Sunday Times review, Holroyd described the books as, “A journey from luminous childhood, through the dark experiences of supposed madness, to the renewal of her life through writing fiction. It is a heroic story, and told with such engaging tone, humorous perspective and imaginative power.” In the same year, Jane Campion directed a wonderful film, An Angel at My Table, and the two events brought Frame worldwide acclaim.
- • Kate Simon
- Simon was born Kaila Grobsmith in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw ghetto, came to the U. S. with her family in steerage at the age of 4, and grew up in the Tremont section of the Bronx. After graduating from Hunter College, she went to work as a journalist, and, beginning in the 1950s, as a travel writer. Her first memoir, which recalls in a vivid but utterly unnostalgic manner her experiences growing up, was titled Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood. It was selected as one of the twelve best books of 1982 by The New York Times Book Review and one of the five best of the year by Time. A Wider World: Portraits in an Adolescence, was published in 1986, and dealt frankly with her early sexual experiences, which included brushes with lesbian faculty members and living with a man outside of marriage–both of which were generally considered shocking and rarely discussed at the time. The last volume, Etchings in an Hourglass (1990), was written as she was suffering from the cancer that took her life, and described her travels and adventures–cultural and sexual–in places such as Mexico, India, Italy, and France. It also dealt with death of her first husband, her sister, her daughter (at the age of 19)–all of brain tumors–and her own, which she referred to as “The Bone Man.” Throughout all three books, Simon is candid, open-minded, self-deprecating, cosmopolitan, and a thoroughly engaging narrator.