Gray, Francine du Plessix 1930–
Gray, Francine du Plessix 1930–
Gray, Francine du Plessix 1930–
PERSONAL: Born September 25, 1930, in Warsaw, Poland (some sources say France); immigrated to U.S., 1941; naturalized U.S. citizen, 1952; daughter of Bertrand Jochaud (a diplomat and pilot for the Resistance) and Tatiana (Iacovleff) du Plessix; married Cleve Gray (a painter), April 23, 1957; children: Thaddeus Ives, Luke Alexander. Education: Attended Bryn Mawr College, 1948–50, and Black Mountain College, summers, 1951–52; Barnard College, B.A., 1952. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Growing vegetables, hiking, cooking Provencal food.
ADDRESSES: Home—102 Melius Road, Cornwall Bridge, CT 06754. Agent—Georges Borchardt, Inc., 136 East 57th St., New York, NY 10022.
CAREER: United Press International, New York City, reporter at night desk, 1952–54; Realites (magazine), Paris, France, editorial assistant for French edition, 1954–55; freelance writer, 1955–; Art in America, New York City, book editor, 1964–66; New Yorker, New York City, staff writer, 1968–. Distinguished visiting professor at City College of the City University of New York, spring, 1975; visiting lecturer at Saybrook College, Yale University, 1981; adjunct professor, School of Fine Arts, Columbia University, 1983–; Ferris Professor, Princeton University, 1986; Annenberg fellow, Brown University, 1997.
MEMBER: International PEN, Authors Guild, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Institute of Humanities at New York University.
AWARDS, HONORS: Putnam Creative Writing Award from Barnard College, 1952; National Catholic Book Award from Catholic Press Association, 1971, for Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism; Front Page Award from Newswomen's Club of New York, 1972, for Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress; LL.D. from City University of New York, 1981, Oberlin College, 1985, University of Santa Clara, 1985, St. Mary's College, and University of Hartford; Guggenheim fellow, 1991–92; National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, 2006, for Them: A Memoir of Parents.
Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism, Knopf (New York, NY), 1970.
Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress, Random House (New York City), 1972.
Lovers and Tyrants (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1976.
World without End (novel), Simon & Schuster, 1981.
October Blood (novel), Simon & Schuster, 1985.
Adam and Eve and the City: Selected Nonfiction, Simon & Schuster, 1987.
Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1990.
Rage & Fire: A Life of Louise Colet—Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert's Muse, Simon & Schuster, 1994.
At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Simone Weil, Viking, 2001.
Them: A Memoir of Parents, Penguin (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor of articles, stories, and reviews to periodicals, including New Yorker, New York Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, and New Republic.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel.
SIDELIGHTS: In 1976 New Yorker columnist Francine du Plessix Gray published Lovers and Tyrants, a book Caryl Rivers describes in Ms. as being "as rich in its texture as the lace tablecloths women of my grandmother's generation used to crochet." The novel, a startling and often touchingly autobiographical bildungsroman, gained the attention of many critics. "Every woman's first novel about her own break-through into adulthood is significant—liberation of any kind is significant—but Francine du Plessix Gray has created, in hers, something memorable," comments Kathleen Cushman in the National Observer. "To the cathartic throes of autobiography she has added a good dose each of humor, irony, and skill; Lovers and Tyrants transcends its limited possibilities as a book about Woman Oppressed and crosses into the realm of art."
The eight parts of this novel of "ascent and liberation," as Joan Peters calls it in the Nation, describe various periods in the life of Stephanie, the heroine. It begins with her childhood in Paris as the daughter of a Russian mother and an aristocratic French father who wanted her to be a boy. She is raised by a hypochondriac governess and her childhood, she writes in the opening lines of the book, was "muted, opaque, and drab, the color of gruel and of woolen gaiters, its noises muted and monotonous as a sleeper's pulse…. My temperature was taken twice a day, my head was perpetually wrapped in some woolen muffler or gauze veiling. I was scrubbed, spruced, buffed, combed, polished, year round, like a first communicant." After her father's death in the Resistance, Stephanie and her mother move to New York where Stephanie attends a fancy boarding school. Later, a young adult, she returns to France to visit her relatives and has an affair with a French prince who describes himself as "style incarnate." Nearing thirty, she marries an architect, bears two sons, and continues her career as a journalist. She feels confined and dissatisfied in her marriage and leaves to tour the Southwest, writing about bizarre religious cults and taking up with a twenty-five-year-old homosexual who longs to be both a bisexual and a photographer and who continuously begs Stephanie to feed him. The theme of the novel, as Stephanie points out, is the tyranny of love: "Every woman's life is a series of exorcisms from the spells of different oppressors: nurses, lovers, husbands, gurus, parents, children, myths of the good life. The most tyrannical despots can be the ones who love us the most."
That theme, Gray acknowledges, came from experiences in her own life. In an essay for the New York Times Book Review, Gray writes that her late start in writing fiction was partially due to fear of disapproval from her father—even though he had died when she was eleven. Lovers and Tyrants grew out of her frustration as a young wife and mother. "I was married and had two children," Gray stated in a New York Times Book Review "Making of an Author" column, "and since I live deep in the country and in relative solitude, encompassed by domestic duties, the journal [that I kept became increasingly voluminous, angry, introspective. The nomad, denied flight and forced to turn inward, was beginning to explode. One day when I was 33, after I'd cooked and smiled for a bevy of weekend guests whom I never wished to see again, I felt an immense void, a great powerlessness, the deepest loneliness I'd ever known. I wept for some hours, took out a notebook, started rewriting one of the three stories that had won me my Barnard prize. It was the one about my governess…. It was to become, 12 years and two books of nonfiction later, the first chapter for Lovers and Tyrants. The process of finishing that book was as complex and lengthy as it was painful."
"There is something very French—Cartesian—in the orderly, rigid pattern that Francine's novel imposes on the random richness of Stephanie's life," remarks Audrey Foote in Washington Post Book World. "It is convenient, too; Gray herself has compared it to stringing beads. Once the themes are established, Stephanie-Francine is absolved of all problems of plot construction, free to proceed methodically yet meaningfully through the heroine's life, devoting every stage, every chapter to the unmasking of another 'jailer.' Lovers and Tyrants is an apt and total title; the book is a litany of oppressors, a rosary of named identities." It is that process of naming her oppressors that is central to Stephanie's story, for, to her, that is the way to liberation. "We must name the identities of each jailer before we can crawl on toward the next stage of freedom," Stephanie writes in her journal. "To herself, and to me," says Peters, "Stephanie is simply a person trying to acknowledge and accommodate the forces that have acted on her and which remain a part of her."
The process of naming her oppressors and liberating herself from them (and from the strangling memories of past "jailers") forms the crux of Lovers and Tyrants. But it is not only a personal liberation that Stephanie seeks. She views her situation as part of the historical oppression of women. When she leaves her husband and takes to the road, she says that she rebels "for all women, because we are killing each other in our doll's houses." Her ultimate desire, she tells the reader, is "to be free, to be a boy, to be God." Comments Rivers in Ms.: "[Stephanie sees dropping out as the prelude to rebirth. She will be Kerouac, Dean; she will infringe on male territory…. Lovers and Tyrants may be a classic in a new genre of literature—the woman as wanderer, seeker of truth…. To take this journey with her is to confront not only the questions of love and freedom, but those of death and immortality and existence as well." Sara Sanborn considers the novel to be a feminist fable. "The theme of this novel," Sanborn writes in Saturday Review, "[is] the perpetual seduction of women by those who will offer tenderness and authority, the feminine materials of feminine transcendence."
The first three-fourths of the novel—the first-person sections describing her childhood, her return to France, and her marriage—is widely praised for its wit, fine writing, and evocative detail. "The author has no trouble persuading the reader that there was once a small girl in Paris named Stephanie," says Time's Timothy Foote, as he notes the similarities between Stephanie's life and that of her creator's (the French and Russian parentage, the immigration to New York, the private schools, the fling in Paris, the career as a journalist, an artistic husband, two sons, even, notes Foote, the same high cheekbones and large eyes). "Stephanie's remembrance of things past flashes with literary style and wit. Remarkable siblings, and sexual suitors are summoned up, often in hilarious detail, though they are mostly kept frozen at the edge of caricature by Stephanie's satiric perceptions." These early sections of the novel, writes Julian Moynahan in the New York Times Book Review, "are crammed with unforgettably drawn characters, rich emotion and complex social portraiture. In counterpoint they bring out contrasted aspects of French life that are both immemorial and contemporary, and that perhaps only a cultural 'amphibian' like Mrs. du Plessix Gray would clearly see." Joan Peters in the Nation deems "the depiction of Stephanie's relationship with Paul … as complex a portrait of love and marriage as I have seen in recent novels."
While critical opinion of the beginning sections of Lovers and Tyrants is overwhelmingly favorable, reviews of the last chapters tend to be negative. Michael Wood, for example, in his New York Review of Books article, calls the final chapters of Lovers and Tyrants "truly lamentable," citing sloppy writing and a final section that "has expanded too far into fantasy" as his reasons for such harsh criticism. "There is a great deal that goes on in the eighth, last, longest, and presumably climactic chapter of Lovers and Tyrants," Christopher Lehmann-Haupt comments in the New York Times. "There is abundant activity…. There is sex…. But nowhere in that concluding chapter is it possible to find anything to rouse the reader from his intensifying somnolence. Nowhere is there an interesting unanswered question about the plot or the heroine's development. Nowhere is there activity or thought that one hasn't long since been able to predict. Nowhere is there articulation of Stephanie's problem that we haven't heard uttered before. ('God, I hate puritanism, wasp puritanism, all kinds. Do you realize it's puritanism got us into Vietnam?') Nowhere is there surprise. And that is why Lovers and Tyrants, for all the wit and thrust of its prose, is finally so exasperating. The drone of its intelligence ultimately bores."
Village Voice book editor Eliot Fremont-Smith also finds Lovers and Tyrants intelligent but at the same time lacking because of that intelligence. "I think something more basic is wrong," he remarks, referring to the abrupt change in the book's tone in the last sections, "and it has to do with intelligence and class. And tone. And tonyness. Lovers and Tyrants is nothing if not wonderfully intelligent. For much of the novel, the intelligence is presumed and shared; the reader is in really interesting company, and feels there by right of respectful invitation, and is so honored. But toward the end, the intelligence—not so much of Stephanie or her witty companion, but of the book—turns into something else, a sort of shrill IQ-mongering. Intellectual references from the very best places are tossed around like Frisbees; it becomes a contest, and a rather exclusion-ary one, with the reader on the sidelines. This subverts, first, credibility. (Such constant smartness, such unflagging articulation of sensibility, such memories! Don't they ever say Stekel when they mean Ferenczi? Don't they ever get tired?) It subverts, second, a sense of caring. A defensive reaction but that's what happens when one feels snubbed, or made the fool. In the end, Lovers and Tyrants seems more crass than Class; there is an unpleasant aftertaste of having been unexpectedly and for no deserving reason, insulted. This is inelegant."
Credibility is also seen as a problem by other reviewers of Lovers and Tyrants. A major criticism of the novel is that, in the end, the story is not believable. "There is so much in this book to admire that I wish I could believe Stephanie's story. I don't," says Sara Sanborn in Saturday Review. "Stephanie seems twice-born, her sensibility as narrator formed more by other writers, from Henry James to Kate Millet, than by the events recounted, which also have their haunting familiarity. I don't believe for one minute that Stephanie really has two children: in twenty years the chief effect they have on her is to supply her with wise-child sayings. Finally, I don't believe in Stephanie's unvarying superiority. Even in her bad moments, she is more thoughtful, sensitive, and self-perceptive, more humorous, open, and finally free than anyone she encounters. The other characters seem to have their existence only to further her self-exploration." Newsweek reviewer Peter S. Prescott also agrees: "For three-quarters of its route, Lovers and Tyrants is a remarkably convincing, even exhilarating performance. [However, toward the end, in a long section in the third person, I sensed the author striking poses, lecturing us a bit to emphasize points already amply developed, introducing two characters—a radical Jesuit and a homosexual youth—who are not as engaging as I suspect the author means them to be."
Time's Timothy Foote questions Stephanie's credibility as a character and narrator because, he says, "Stephanie's cries rise to heaven like those of De Sade's Justine, a girl one recollects, with far more justification for complaint." At the point Stephanie leaves her husband (who, Foote mentions, is a "fine husband, a kind man, a devoted father") and goes on the road, "Mrs. Gray abruptly switches from the first-person 'I' narrative form that has preserved whatever degree of credibility the story maintains. Stephanie in the third-person, Stephanie as 'she,' makes fairly ludicrous fiction…. This is an age that has learned any grievance must be accepted as both genuine and significant if the public weeping and wailing are long and loud enough. It would therefore be wise to take seriously Mrs. Gray's passionate meditation on the tyranny of love. Not as a novel, though." In the end, Michael Wood in New York Review of Books finds that "this hitherto solid and patient novel has expanded too far into fantasy, and has lost even the truth of seriously entertained wishes."
Concomitant to the lack of credibility that Stephanie suffers is what is perceived by some critics as her inability to reconcile her feminist beliefs with her actions. Writing in the Nation, Joan Peters observes that "one of the problems with Lovers and Tyrants is that not all the contradictions are accounted for or, it seems, planned for. Among the most perplexing of these is the tension between Stephanie's feminist analysis of her life and her persistent identification with men. On the one hand, she is quite strong in her analysis of how confining it is to be a woman, how discrimination operates, how few models women have, etc…. On the other hand, the actual record of Stephanie's life is a Freudian's delight and a feminist's nightmare. Again and again Stephanie realizes that she wants to be a boy." Peters then points out contradictions that belie Stephanie's words: "[her] need to be with men, her desire to be a boy, the absence of female friends, the Henry Milleresque sexual descriptions, her assumption that it is because Mishka couldn't love men that she was so cruel." Moynahan calls Stephanie "the unsatisfactory representation or symbol of modern woman in the throes of an unprecedented process of liberation." Earlier in his article, Moynahan had questioned the value of Stephanie's liberation, noting that despite her access to almost every pleasure desired and freedom from most worries, Stephanie slips "into madness out of a conviction that her freedom is obstructed."
Audrey Foote in Washington Post Book World says, "Gray writes with such passion, grace and wit, and her themes are so fashionable, that the reader is swept along in sympathetic credulity until he begins to scrutinize these tyrants." Stephanie's tyrants—governess, family, husband, lovers, friends—Foote points out, are hardly that, loving and indulging Stephanie in any way they can. Continues Foote: "Surely none of these 'lovers' in the wide sense she intends, can seriously be classified as 'tyrants.'… En fin, there is only one clue that her obsession with tyranny is not pure paranoia: the sex scenes…. They are significant in showing that Stephanie, so heroic if quixotic in defiance of imagined oppression, is, alas, a sexual masochist. 'He ordered,' 'she asked permission,' 'he commanded'—she chooses these dominating lovers, and her compliance, her collaboration explains her conviction: 'Our enslavers segregate us into zoos, with our full consent.' Speak for yourself, Stephanie! Thus finally the provocative title and grand design of this novel turn out to be based on little more than a retrogressive sexual taste, a dreary and dubious cliche…. She is in search of freedom—to do what? What does she want? What do women want? Francine never quite tells us about Stephanie (does she know?)."
Despite reservations about Lovers and Tyrants, most critics have, in the end, judged it favorably. Peters concludes that in spite of the book's limitations, "what Lovers and Tyrants does do, and does beautifully, is exploit the limited strength of the autobiographical genre. Gray presents a fascinating, intelligent woman whose personal contradictions concerning tradition, freedom, sex, culture, and religion shed light on the larger society in a way that is sometimes inadvertant, more often artistically controlled." Michael Wood concedes that Lovers and Tyrants "is an absorbing and intelligent book, if a little too icy to be really likeable." Finally, the Village Voice's Fremont-Smith observes: "Lovers and Tyrants has all sorts of problems and gets tiresomely narcissistic and irritating; still, it is one of the very truly interesting and stimulating—one wants to argue with it and about it—books I've read all year…. If Gray's book burns a bit, and it does, that should suggest fire as well as ice at its core."
World without End, Gray's second novel, is also noted for its sensitivity and intelligence. The story of three lifelong friends who reunite in middle age to tour Russia and, hopefully, to "learn how to live the last third of our lives," World without End is "an ambitious novel about love and friendship, faith and doubt, liberty and license," comments Judith Gies in Saturday Review. D.M. Thomas, writing in the Washington Post Book World, considers World without End to be "clearly the work of a richly talented writer…. The book is struggling with an important subject: the conflict within each of us between the psychological hungers symbolized by America and Russia—individualism and brotherhood, anarchy and order. It is no small achievement to have explored interestingly one of the most crucial dilemmas of our age."
Doris Grumbach in Commonweal calls World without End "a prime entry in the novel of intelligence. It is just that: the lives [Gray tells about ring with authenticity for their times and their place." It is the novel's "intelligence"—its lengthy discourses on a variety of subjects and the articulate growing self-awareness of its characters—that holds the attention of many of its reviewers. The New York Times's John Leonard notes the "lyric excess" of the characters' musings, but believes that Gray "has chosen to satirize the art, the religion and the politics of the last 35 years" through characters Sophie, Claire, and Edmund. "[Gray] has also chosen to forgive the creatures of her satire," says Leonard. "They are more disappointed in themselves than readers will be in them as characters."
For other critics, the intellectual discussions in World without End are a hindrance to an appreciation of the novel. "Anyone not conversant with the intellectual and esthetic upheavals in American art and politics over the last 30 years ought not attempt to read this novel," suggests Henrietta Epstein in the Detroit News, "for these concerns, along with those of friendship and love, are at the heart of Francine du Plessix Gray's work." Newsweek reviewer Annalyn Swan concurs with Leonard that "some of this is obviously satire" and says that "when Gray is not trying to be wry, or brilliant, she can be wonderful." Swan concludes that Gray, "like many social critics who cross the line into fiction,… has not yet mastered the difference between show and tell, between writing fiction that lives and using fiction as a forum for ideas. What she aspires to here is a highbrow critique of art and society in the last twenty years. What she has written is a novel that strives too hard to impress. The prose is full of bad breathiness, the characters suffer from terminal solipsism, and the social criticism is often as cliched as the attitudes it attacks."
Esquire columnist James Wolcott also comments on Gray's satiric designs: "Tripping through World without End, I kept telling myself that the book might be a spoofy lark—a Harlequin romance for art majors—but I have a lurking suspicion that Gray is serious. After all, the novel's theme—the pull and persistence of friendship—is butressed by quotations from Catullus and from Roland Barthes, and floating through the text are the sort of flowery phrases only a tremulously sincere epicurean would use." Commentary's Pearl K. Bell is also highly critical of Gray's second novel. "Francine Gray's sententious dialogue about love and death and self-fulfillment does not blind us to the poverty of thought in what seems to have been conceived as a novel of ideas," the critic contends. "World without End is not a novel of ideas, it is an adolescent daydream, an orgy of pseudo-intellectual posturing, a midnight bull session in a college dorm."
Grumbach finds that a distance is placed between the reader and the characters because of the intense intellectualism of the novel. She asserts that "despite the impressive and always accurate documentation of place (Edmund's visit to the Hermitage and the art he looks at there consumes five dense pages) and the character, social movements, parental backgrounds, lovers, husbands, visits with each other, letters and postcards [the three friends exchange for all those years, do we ever feel close to these people? Curiously, not really. They are so detailed and cerebral, their talk is so elevated and informed, we know so many facts about their milieus that, somehow, passion is smothered." But, other critics disagree. Reynolds Price in the New York Times Book Review, for instance, finds that in World without End, Gray "displays the one indispensable gift in a novelist—she generates slowly and authoritatively a mixed set of entirely credible human beings who shunt back and forth through credible time and are altered by the trip. Ample, generous and mature, the book is stocked with the goods a novel best provides."
Leonard also finds the book—and the characters in it—touching. "The reader chooses sides," he writes. "In this novel about Renaissance art and Puritanism, about Anglican convents and academic departments of art, about friendship and that televised soap opera General Hospital—about lust and literature and missing fathers and saints full of greed and pride and envy—in this popcorn-popper of ideas, in which Edmund is the tourist of art, Claire the tourist of suffering and Sophie the tourist of everything, we are blessed with real people in the middle of an important argument about art and religion and sexuality. We are persuaded…. I chose Sophie to root for. It's been a long time in novels since I was a fan. Mrs. Gray tells us that 'Orpheus dismembered will continue to sing, his head floating down our rivers.' A real friend will either scoop up the head or hit it with a stick. Mrs. Gray scoops and sings."
Gray's second father was artist Alexander Liberman, art director of Vogue magazine. Her mother once worked at Saks Fifth Avenue, New York City, in the fashion industry. Drawing from this heritage, October Blood satirizes "the peculiar world of high fashion" and "sets out to tell a serious, even painful, story about three generations of remarkable women," Judith Viorst remarks in the New York Times Book Review. Though October Blood received mixed reviews, Joanne Kaufman of the Washington Post Book World notes that "Gray is successful at showing that the concerns of the fashion world are as lightweight as a Chanel chemise."
Gray's next bestselling nonfiction book looks at another facet of her heritage, the Russian ancestry of her mother and the other emigres who raised her in Paris. Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope records Gray's observations of contemporary Soviet life and women's concerns she gathered on a visit to her mother's homeland. "The distinguished American journalist and novelist Francine du Plessix Gray has now brought us a rich and contradictory selection of Soviet women's opinions," Mary F. Zirin comments in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Reading it, says Zirin, "is like turning a kaleidoscope—a new pattern emerges with every chapter…. Gray uses her novelistic skills to record talks with some women in which psychological pressure and suppressed rage can be sensed under a facade of stoic cheer." The government encourages women to hold jobs and to raise large families; abortion is the most well-known method of birth control, Gray reports. Each woman expects to have between seven and fourteen abortions before menopause; there are between five and eight abortions for every live birth, and one out of five babies is born with a defect. Women form deep commitments to each other but tend to see men as crude liabilities.
Carroll Bogert of Newsweek relates that Soviet Women offers some surprises: "Gray turns a predictable tale of oppression upside down…. Traditions have ensured a peculiar female dominance in a society where tremendous male chauvinism persists…. Ninety-two percent of Soviet women work, and they do nearly all domestic chores. One woman admits many women have 'a need to control that verges on the tyrannical, the sadistic.'" Furthermore, though the reforms of glasnost are viewed by outsiders as a move toward greater personal liberty for Soviet citizens, "the Bolshevik ideal of sexual equality is being trampled in the retreat from socialism," Bogert points out. Bogert concludes, "For Westerners who think Gorbachev's reforms will make Them more like Us, this fine writer has a valuable lesson to teach."
Gray's biography Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet, Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert's Muse, portrays the life of nineteenth-century novelist Gustave Flaubert's mistress from 1846 to 1855. Reviewers noted that the passionate nature of Colet's life, in addition to her affiliation with several major figures, including Flaubert, constitutes fascinating material for biography. Born in Provence, Colet moved to Paris at a young age and employed what Gray calls "her great gift for self-promotion" to establish her own literary salon. Gray's biography recounts Colet's series of distinguished lovers, her ongoing struggle to assert herself as a successful writer, and her loneliness and decline during her later years. Throughout the biography, Gray refutes Colet's trivialized historical reputation (largely based on negative comments written by Flaubert's friends) as merely a beautiful and volatile woman with whom Flaubert had an affair, emphasizing the fact that some of Flaubert's most important insights concerning the writing process were articulated in letters to Colet, as well as the fact of Colet's literary fame during her lifetime.
While critics acknowledged the often slanderous nature of earlier commentary on Colet, opinions diverged on the subject of Colet's status as a writer and feminist. Most noted that while her life and career were impressive, her writings evidence a modest and uneven level of skill. "The difficult truth is that a rereading of Colet's considerable creative legacy does not prove her testiest critics wrong," observes Barbara Meister in Belles Lettres. Gabriele Annan of the Times Literary Supplement also expresses skepticism concerning Gray's attempt to rehabilitate Colet as a writer: "Unfortunately, Colet doesn't emerge as a better feminist than she was a writer." Rage and Fire is nevertheless regarded as an important and successful biography in its depiction of an outstanding woman's life and for the historical insights Gray provides. "Ms. Gray gives rich background material on the mores of the times and has interesting things to say about the repression of female militancy in the wake of the [French Revolution," observes Victor Brombert in New York Times Book Review.
Gray attempts to expand understanding of the notorious eighteenth-century sexual deviant and pornographer known as the Marquis de Sade by highlighting his married life in her biography At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life. Sade was married to Renee-Pelagie de Montreuil, a religious-minded young woman of the bourgeois class who remained devoted to her aristocratic husband for nearly three decades, despite his arrests for violent sex crimes, before she finally divorced him.
The response to Gray's biography was somewhat mixed. D. Keith Mano claims in a piece in the National Review that Gray's deemphasis of her subject's sexual escapades shows her lack of "courage," and the import she places on his domestic life fails to elicit his interest: "Occasion for this new biographical effort was given by the discovery of further correspondence between Sade and his long-suffering but loyal wife, Renee-Pelagie—hence Gray's folksy title. But this segment of her narrative drags: correspondence with a cranky prisoner seldom scintillates." Others praised Gray's focus on the context that produced Sade: "This biography is not some titillating list of transgressions but rather a complicated, contradictory life portrayed in full cultural, political and psychological context," contended a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. That context includes significantly the high incidence of what is now termed "sado-masochism" in the French culture at large during those times, heavily influenced as it was by the Jesuits, whose favorite educational tool was intricately staged public whippings, Gray notes. Indeed, gaining pleasure from the infliction of pain was common at all levels of French society during this century. Gray recounts that Louis XV received tantalizing daily reports on Sade's sexual escapades for more than a decade. Mano notes the sadomasochism inherent in the public executions that attended the Terror at the turn of the eighteenth century. A reviewer for the Economist was less convinced, however, by Gray's attempt to locate the source of Sade's psychological malady in "the marquis's emotionally deprived childhood," adding that "few 18th-century aristocrats could have expected the caring ministrations of a nuclear family."
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