French, Marilyn 1929- (Mara Solwoska)
French, Marilyn 1929- (Mara Solwoska)
Born November 21, 1929, in New York, NY; daughter of E. Charles and Isabel Edwards; married Robert M. French, Jr. (a lawyer), June 4, 1950 (divorced, 1967); children: Jamie, Robert M. III. Education: Hofstra College (now University), B.A., 1951, M.A., 1964; Harvard University, Ph.D., 1972. Hobbies and other interests: Amateur musician; parties, cooking, travel.
Home—New York, NY. Agent—Charlotte Sheedy, Sheedy Literary Agency, 65 Bleecker St. Fl. 12, New York, NY, 10012-2420.
Writer, educator, and lecturer. Secretarial and clerical work, 1946-53; Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, instructor in English, 1964-68; College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, assistant professor of English, 1972-76; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Mellon Fellow in English, 1976-77. Artist-in-residence at Aspen Institute for Humanistic Study, 1972.
The Book as World: James Joyce's "Ulysses," Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1976, reprinted, Paragon House (New York, NY), 1993.
Shakespeare's Division of Experience, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1981.
Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals (essays), Summit Books (New York, NY), 1985.
The War against Women, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1992.
From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, McArthur (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
The Women's Room, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1977, with an afterword by Susan Faludi, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1993.
The Bleeding Heart, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1980.
Her Mother's Daughter, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1987.
Our Father, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.
My Summer with George, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
In the Name of Friendship, with an afterword and bibliography of Marilyn French by Stephanie Genty, Feminist Press of the City University of New York (New York, NY), 2006.
(Author of introduction) Edith Wharton, Summer, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1987.
(Author of afterword) Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: Now a Major Motion Picture Starring Lily Tomlin, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.
A Season in Hell: A Memoir, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
Also author of two unpublished novels. Contributor of articles and stories, sometimes under pseudonym Mara Solwoska, to journals, including Soundings and Ohio Review.
The Women's Room was made into a television movie, 1980.
Novelist, educator, and literary scholar Marilyn French is perhaps best known for her cogent synthesis of the late-twentieth-century feminist perspective. French, whose own feminism was heightened by her life experiences, was married with children before she read Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, a book thematically concerned with the importance of women not living through men. Considered by many to be the first text of the twentieth-century feminist movement, the book greatly impressed and influenced French, and soon thereafter she began to write short stories that expressed her own feelings and frustrations. Divorced in 1967, she earned a doctorate from Harvard through fellowships, and then launched an impressive academic career marked by the publication of her thesis, The Book as World: James Joyce's "Ulysses." In 1977, the success of French's explosive and provocative first novel The Women's Room, allowed her to pursue writing full-time. The work also became a major novel of the women's movement. Anne Tyler described the novel's characters in the New York Times Book Review: "Expectant in the 40's, submissive in the 50's, enraged in the 60's, they … arrived in the 70's independent but somehow unstrung, not yet fully composed after all they've been through." The novel is about Mira, a submissive and repressed young woman whose conventional childhood prepares her for a traditional marriage that ends in divorce and leaves her liberated but alone. "The tone of the book is rather turgid, but exalted, almost religious," noted Anne Duchene in the Times Literary Supplement, "a huge jeremiad for a new kind of Fall, a whole new experience of pain and loss."
Writing about The Women's Room in the Washington Post Book World, Brigitte Weeks contended that "the novel's basic thesis—that there is little or no foreseeable future for coexistence between men and women—is powerfully stated, but still invokes a lonely chaos repellent to most readers." In her interview with People magazine's Gail Jennes, French stated: "Books, movies, TV teach us false images of ourselves. We learn to expect fairy-tale lives. Ordinary women's daily lives—unlike men's—have not been the stuff of literature. I wanted to legitimate it and I purposely chose the most ordinary lives [for the characters in the novel]—not the worst cases." French went on to note: "I wanted to break the mold of conventional women's novels."
"French wonders not only if male-female love is possible, but whether it's ethical in the contemporary context," wrote Lindsey Van Gelder in a Ms. review of French's second novel, The Bleeding Heart. "How, in other words, does one reconcile one's hard-won feminist insights about the way the System works with one's longing to open one's heart completely to a man who, at the very least, benefits from an oppressive System buttressed, in part, by women's emotional vulnerability?" The Bleeding Heart centers on Dolores, a liberated professor of Renaissance literature, who is on leave and researching a new book at Oxford University when she meets Victor, an unhappily married father of four in England on business. Compromising her feminist principles by engaging in an impassioned but frustratingly combative affair with him, Dolores ultimately realizes that she cannot live with Victor without descending into predictably prescribed roles. Commenting in Newsweek that "French makes her point and touches lots of raw contemporary nerves," Jean Strouse queried: "What happens when nobody wants to be the wife?" According to Rosellen Brown, in the New York Times Book Review, The Bleeding Heart represents "an admirably honest admission of the human complications that arise after a few years of lonely integrity: What now? Must one wait for love until the world of power changes hands? Is there a difference between accommodation and compromise among lovers? Accommodation and surrender? How to spell out the terms of a partial affirmation?"
In the Village Voice, Laurie Stone observed the political thesis of The Bleeding Heart: "Although a feminist may love a man, she will ultimately have to reject him, since men axiomatically live by values inimical to women." According to R.Z. Sheppard in Time, French softened her militancy in the work: "Her soul on ice, Marilyn French sounded like a feminist Eldridge Cleaver [in The Women's Room]. The Bleeding Heart suggests a slight thaw. Its core is a seemingly endless and inconclusive dialogue—SALT talks in the gender wars." Nation contributor Andrea Freud Loewenstein suggested that although The Bleeding Heart is "a depressed and depressing book," it is "not a destructive one."
French's novel Our Father depicts the troubled "family reunion" that occurs after a wealthy man, Stephen Upton, suffers a stroke, sparking a visit from his four estranged daughters—all of whom have different mothers. Each hoping to gain either money or acknowledgment from their father, the women initially compete and bicker. The daughters' discovery that they have all been the victims of incest during their childhood, however, becomes a source of bonding and mutual support. Maude McDaniel, reviewing the book for Chicago's Tribune Books, commented that Our Father "should strike a chord with every woman who is willing to think honestly about the place of femaleness in the world." While noting that the novel lacks realism in terms of character and environmental detail, Meg Wolitzer of the New York Times Book Review also found the book fascinating: "Our Father is a big novel that is fueled by anger, revenge, and the possibilities of recovery," Wolitzer noted. "It is overly long and often wildly melodramatic, but somehow these failings also give it an odd power."
In Her Mother's Daughter, a forgiving look at motherhood, French writes about the maternal legacy bequeathed to daughters by examining four generations of an immigrant family through the experiences of its women. Anastasia, the narrator, attempts to overcome several generations of wrongs by living like a man, sexually free and artistically and commercially successful. Her success, however, is juxtaposed with the hardships and sufferings endured by the women before her, and her emancipation, according to Anne Summers in the Times Literary Supplement, "is shown to be more illusory than real; despite every conceivable change in outward forms, it is the older women's experience which imprints itself on her inner life." Reviewing the novel in Chicago's Tribune Books, Beverly Fields indicated that Her Mother's Daughter focuses on "the ways in which female submission to male society, with its accompanying suppression of rage, is passed like contagion from mother to daughter." Marie Olesen Urbanski observed in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that "the more educated or liberated the mother is, the more pervasive is her sense of a guilt from which there is no absolution." Urbanski went on to note: "Her Mother's Daughter celebrates mothers. It depicts the high price mothers pay for children who say they do not want, but who must have their sacrifices."
In other nonfiction works French seeks the origins of male dominance in society. In Shakespeare's Division of Experience, for example, she posits that the female's capacity to bear children has historically aligned her with nature and, consequently, under man's compulsion to exercise power over it. In the New York Times Book Review, Geoffrey H. Hartman described the subject of the book as "the relationship between political power and the ‘division’ of experience according to gender principles. It is a division that has proved disastrous for both sexes, she writes: To the male is attributed the ability to kill; to the female the ability to give birth; and around these extremes there cluster ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities, embodied in types or roles that reinforce a schizoid culture and produce all sorts of fatal contradictions." Calling Shakespeare's Division of Experience "the finest piece of feminist criticism we have yet had," Laurence Lerner noted in the Times Literary Supplement that the author's "concern is not merely with Shakespeare." Recognizing that French "believes the identification of moral qualities with genders impoverishes and endangers our society," Lerner added that she thinks "every human experience should be reintegrated." Lerner added that "whereas for Shakespeare the greatest threat may have lain in nature, it now lies in control; she therefore confesses an animus against ‘the almost total dedication to masculine values that characterizes our culture.’"
Remarking that "French is intelligent, nothing if not ingenious, and obviously sincere," Anne Barton suggested in the New York Review of Books regarding Shakespeare's Division of Experience that "there is something very limiting … about the assumption upon which all her arguments are based." For example, Barton continued: "Although she does grudgingly admit from time to time that rationality, self-control, individualism, and ‘permanencies’ may have some little value, she is distrustful of ‘civilization,’ and of the life of the mind. She also leaves a major contradiction in her position unexplored. On the one hand, she indignantly denies that women are any ‘closer to nature’ than men." Barton added: "On the other hand, it is not clear that the qualities she values, and according to which she would like to see life lived by both sexes, are all—in her terms—feminine." According to S. Schoenbaum in the Washington Post Book World, French "accepts what is after all common knowledge: that the gender principles aren't gender-specific—biological males can accommodate feminine values, and females aren't exempt from masculine power struggles. And, along with overlap, there exists the possibility for synthesis."
Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals, wrote Lawrence Stone in the New York Times Book Review, "is a passionate polemic about the way men have treated women over the past several millenniums." According to Paul Robinson in the Washington Post Book World: "Nothing in her previous books … prepares one for the intellectual range and scholarly energy" of the work, "which is nothing less than a history of the world (from the cavewomen to the Sandinistas) seen through the critical prism of contemporary feminism." Agreeing with French's thesis, Stone stated of Beyond Power: "The history of the treatment of women by men in the last 2,500 years of Western civilization is truly awful. One therefore has to sympathize with her passionate indignation and admire the single-minded zeal with which she has pursued her theory through the millenniums." Stone called it "a brilliant study of power and control showing how those two related systems have affected the lives of men and women throughout human history,"
French's The War against Women surveys the oppression of women on a global scale. Considering such activities as ritualized female genital mutilation in Africa and bride burning in India, along with economic disparities between women and men, French argues that women have become "increasingly disempowered, degraded, and subjugated" by patriarchal societies. Isabelle de Courtivron, writing in the New York Times Book Review, praised "French's chilling and well-documented research," noting the disturbing validity of many of her observations.
From Eve to Dawn traces the history of women in three volumes. As Marian Botsford Fraser explained in a review for the Toronto Globe and Mail, the book revisits Beyond Power: "Before there were patriarchal states, there were matrilineal societies; something equivalent to the Big Bang happened to the human race about 10,000 years ago; states and patriarchy resulted and changed profoundly the nature of all societies; understanding this history will enable the world to move beyond patriarchy, but not to matriarchy, which would also be a bad thing. Matriarchy, in which women have power over men, has never existed, according to French." Fraser went on to note: "It is a fascinating cornucopia of historical tidbits and arcane detail," citing "a half-page on the Tlingit of Alaska, a page on the Kung of the Kalahari Desert, an ‘overview’ of ancient Mesopotamia," and short examinations of the world's three major religions among the book's focus. "If you are satisfied with just a superficial graze … or can use the book as introductory … it has served [its] purpose," Fraser wrote.
French returned to fiction with her novel My Summer with George. The story revolves around Hermione Beldame, a successful romance novelist in her sixties who lives in New York and Sag Harbor. Although Hermione writes about heroines and their encounters with virile heroes and lovers, she is in a mostly unfulfilling relationship with an overweight newspaper editor named George Johnson. A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that "there is a certain poignancy in the dilemma of a worldly woman still yearning for her Prince Charming."
In her next book, A Season in Hell: A Memoir, the author writes of her battle with and ultimate victory over esophageal cancer. The book's title comes from Arthur Rimbaud's book about various states of consciousness. In her memoir, French recounts how her battle with the disease, which is almost always fatal, included aggressive and debilitating chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She also assails those who showed little compassion or caring for her plight, especially physicians and medical organizations, and writes of her hunt for non-medical "new age" therapies. Referring to A Season in Hell as "a story both of personal anguish and triumph," a contributor to the Oral Cancer Foundation Web site, went on to note that "French conquers cancer with her dignity, courage, and fighting spirit intact."
In a review in Family Systems & Health, Thelma Jean Goodrich commented on the book's educational value to health professionals, noting that the "the story carries the imprint of raw experience and draws near to having the impact of raw experience." Goodrich added: "This is an important contribution for physicians and those who teach them—to add to their understanding of what it is like to be really ill." Kathleen Woodward, writing in the Women's Review of Books, commented: "It is hell and it is lasting much longer than a season. The relentless force of A Season in Hell lies in French's coming to accept that grim truth, which we as readers must acknowledge as well."
In her novel In the Name of Friendship, French returns to writing about the many injustices women have had to endure and continue to battle. The novel focuses on four women: Emily, 70; Maddy, 76; Alicia, 50; and Jenny, 30. The women live in the affluent Berkshires and, unlike the characters from A Women's Room, have either established successful marriages or careers. Although the four women are different in many ways, they form an intimate bond with each other as they work through their problems, grow stronger, and discuss the travails of women throughout history. "This teacher has a lot she still wants to say about the injustices heaped upon women the world over, and loyal followers who devoured The Women's Room (I count myself among them) are likely to agree with much of it," wrote Alison McCullogh in the New York Times Book Review. Numerous critics commented that the book's strong point is the author's perspective on women in society. Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, noted that the author "offers striking observations about how and why women's lives have improved." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that French "brings a novelist's eye, a scholar's sense of detail and a feminist's worldview to this didactic examination."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 10, 1979, Volume 18, 1981, Volume 60, 1990.
French, Marilyn, A Season in Hell: A Memoir, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
Booklist, September 1, 1998, Whitney Scott, review of A Season in Hell, p. 56; May 1, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of In the Name of Friendship, p. 5.
British Medical Journal, January 30, 1999, Irene M. Peat, review of A Season in Hell, p. 336.
Family Systems & Health, spring, 2000, Thelma Jean Goodrich, review of A Season in Hell, p. 130.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), July 6, 2002, Marian Botsford Fraser, review of From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women.
Guardian (London, England), June 16, 2006, "‘I Do Still Believe that Men Are to Blame …,’" interview with author.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2006, review of In the Name of Friendship, p. 534.
Library Journal, September 15, 1998, Sherry Feintuch, review of A Season in Hell, p. 102; June 15, 2006, Joanna M. Burkhardt, review of In the Name of Friendship, p. 55.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 25, 1985, Elizabeth Wheeler, review of Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals, p. B2; October 18, 1987, Marie Olesen Urbanski, review of Her Mother's Daughter, p. 11; February 27, 1994, review of Our Father, p. 12.
Ms., January, 1978, review of The Women's Room, p. 30; April, 1979, review of The Women's Room, p. 42; May, 1980, Lindsey Van Gelder, review of The Bleeding Heart, p. 28.
Nation, January 30, 1988, Andrea Freud Loewenstein, review of The Bleeding Heart, p. 134.
New Statesman, April 3, 1992, Julie Wheelwright, review of The War against Women, p. 44.
Newsweek, March 17, 1980, Jean Strouse, review of The Bleeding Heart, p. 90B.
New York Review of Books, June 11, 1981, Anne Barton, review of Shakespeare's Division of Experience, p. 20.
New York Times, October 27, 1977, review of The Women's Room, p. 50; March 10, 1980, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Bleeding Heart, p. C17.
New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1977, Anne Tyler, review of The Women's Room, p. 7; March 16, 1980, Rosellen Brown, review of The Bleeding Heart, p. 9; March 22, 1981, Geoffrey H. Hartman, review of Shakespeare's Division of Experience, p. 11; June 23, 1985, Lawrence Stone, review of Beyond Power, p. 3; October 25, 1987, Alice Hoffman, review of Her Mother's Daughter, p. 7; July 5, 1992, Isabelle de Courtivron, review of The War against Women, p. 8; January 16, 1994, Meg Wolitzer, review of Our Father, p. 12; September 3, 2006, Alison McCulloch, review of In the Name of Friendship.
People, February 20, 1978, Gail Jennes, interview with author; January 24, 1994, Sara Nelson, review of Our Father, p. 30.
Publishers Weekly, June 17, 1996, review of My Summer With George, p. 46; September 7, 1998, review of A Season in Hell, p. 75; May 15, 2006, review of In the Name of Friendship, p. 50.
Time, March 17, 1980, R.Z. Sheppard, review of The Bleeding Heart, p. K8.
Times Literary Supplement, February 18, 1977, review of The Book as World: James Joyce's "Ulysses,", p. 176; April 21, 1978, Anne Duchene, review of The Women's Room, p. 433; May 9, 1980, review of The Bleeding Heart, p. 520; June 4, 1982, Laurence Lerner, review of Shakespeare's Division of Experience, p. 619; October 23, 1987, Anne Summers, review of Her Mother's Daughter, p. 1158; June 19, 1992, Pamela Wells, review of The War against Women, p. 3.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 11, 1987, Beverly Fields, review of Her Mother's Daughter, p. 6; January 2, 1994, Maude McDaniel, review of Our Father, p. 5.
Village Voice, March 24, 1980, Laurie Stone, review of The Bleeding Heart, p. 43.
Washington Post Book World, October 9, 1977, Brigitte Weeks, review of The Women's Room, p. E1; March 9, 1980, review of The Bleeding Heart, p. 1; March 8, 1981, S. Schoenbaum, review of Shakespeare's Division of Experience, p. 1; June 2, 1985, Paul Robinson, review of Beyond Power, p. 1.
Women's Review of Books, January, 1999, Kathleen Woodward, review of A Season in Hell, p. 1.
Oral Cancer Foundation Web site,http://www.oralcancerfoundation.org/ (April 3, 2007), review of A Season in Hell.