Leduc, Violette (1907–1972)

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Leduc, Violette (1907–1972)

Noted French author whose candid autobiography, La Bâtarde, was a literary sensation in 1964. Name variations: Violette Le Duc. Pronunciation: Vee-o-LET Le-DUKE. Born on April 7, 1907, in Arras, France; died of cancer in Faucon, France, on May 28, 1972; illegitimate daughter of Berthe Leduc (a servant) and Andre Debaralle (the son of Berthe Leduc's employer); attended boarding school, 1923–26; married Gabriel Mercier, in 1939.

Death of grandmother (1916); marriage of her mother (1920); expelled from boarding school (1926); ended love affair with her former teacher, met Maurice Sachs, and began writing for women's magazines (1934); fled to Normandy during World War II and began work in black market (1942); returned to Paris (1944); met Simone de Beauvoir (1945); endured mental breakdown and confinement in psychiatric hospital (1957); published bestseller, La Bâtarde (1964).

Selected works:

L'Asphyxie (In the Prison of Her Skin, 1946); L'Affamée (Ravenous, 1948); Ravages (1955); La Bâtarde (The Bastard, 1964); Thérèse et Isabelle (1966).

Violette Leduc emerged from a catastrophically unhappy childhood and chaotic years as a young adult to become a significant figure on the French literary scene in the years after World War II. Although she only began writing at the age of 35, and although her early works received little popular or critical acclaim, she was recognized early on as a significant talent by Simone de Beauvoir . Her frank autobiography, La Bâtarde, which appeared in 1964, put her at the center of one of France's great literary controversies, as critics split in their assessment of this shocking account of her life.

Leduc stood apart from the most important trends in French literature in the post-World War II years. She had no interest in themes of political engagement that attracted such existentialist literary figures as Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. She was similarly unattached to the rebellion in literary forms known as the "New Novel" and personified by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute . Leduc's obsessive interest in her own life story dominated her writing. As Isabelle de Courtivron notes, "the relentless personal voice remained the organizing principle of all her works." Leduc disturbed many critics and readers with her detailed descriptions of sex between women. In interviews she gave after the publication of La Bâtarde, she declared her belief in the right of women to write candidly about their physical desires and experiences.

My mother never held my hand.

—Violette Leduc

Leduc's themes have become increasingly relevant in recent years in light of feminist criticism. She has been described as an authentic female voice in presenting an autobiography that does not, like most male verities, focus on achievement but rather explores self-consciousness and self-understanding. The digressions and fragments of recollection in her writing have been seen as reflecting the typical experiences of women. Similarly, her focus on female adolescence, her candid description of lesbian lovemaking, and her painful and prolonged dependence on her mother can be seen as genuine aspects of the female experience.

But the richness of Leduc's writing has also invited critical examination from a psychoanalytic approach as well as from students of the elements of gender in literature. And there have been more conventional efforts to tie Leduc to the ongoing development of French literature. Thus, in recent years Bonnie Engdahl has considered the psychological ramifications of Leduc's use of wound images, tying this literary device to the symptoms of autism; and Eileen Boyd Silvert has examined the way in which Leduc constructed a literary world in which women took on the role of male authority figures. Meanwhile, de Courtivron, who leads the field in studying Leduc, has devoted much of her work to a consideration of Leduc's ties to the various strands of France's 19th- and 20th-century literary tradition such as surrealism. She notes that, while numerous French male writers had drawn upon their personal defiance of bourgeois norms as a basis for their writing, Leduc was the first woman to do so.

In 1996, Michele Zackheim approached Violette Leduc's complex life from a new direction by making her the centerpiece of a novel, Violette's Embrace. In this book, a longtime student of the author's work supposedly visits Leduc's haunts in Paris and the French countryside. Zackheim also creates a character named Lilli Jacobs, a friend of Leduc who possesses both a wealth of memories and a set of documents pertaining to the controversial writer.

Violette Leduc was born in Arras in northern France on April 7, 1907. Her unhappy childhood, which was to play a key role in her literary work, began with the circumstances of her birth. The illegitimate child of a servant, Berthe Leduc , and the son of the wealthy family for whom Berthe worked, Violette was deprived from birth of any hint of maternal love. Her sense of being an outsider in her own family grew when, in 1920, Berthe married and, three years later, became the mother of a legitimate child, Violette's half-brother.

Violette's childhood was barren in a way that left lasting scars on her personality, and, writes Margaret Crosland , "nothing was ever to destroy her desperate feelings of insecurity and the awareness that she could not grow up." She was physically unattractive, and her mother gave her none of the affection that Violette craved. Berthe also filled her daughter's ears with complaints about men and pregnancy. As Leduc recalled in her autobiography, at the breakfast table "my mother would tell me about the horrors of life," giving me "the gift of mis-trust and suspicion." In Berthe's eyes, as her daughter recalled hearing it repeatedly, "men were swine, all men were heartless."

Two factors helped to some degree to lighten the girl's burdens. First, she had a positive relationship with her grandmother. Second, Berthe's marriage brought a measure of affluence to herself and Violette, permitting the young girl to be sent off to a boarding school with the opportunity for a good education. Both of these forces in Violette's life proved disappointing, however. Her grandmother died when the girl was only nine years old, and Violette's

boarding-school experience came to an early and ugly end when she was expelled after two amorous relationships with women.

One of her lovers was a classmate at school, and their link soon ended. A more lasting tie was the one she developed with one of her teachers. Violette and Hermine remained lovers for more than a decade as the young woman moved to Paris, dropped out of school, and went to work as a secretary. Her future literary career was foreshadowed by her employment with a prominent publisher. This brought her into contact with some of France's most important writers.

An early literary mentor appeared in Leduc's life in 1934, when she had already begun writing for French women's magazines. Maurice Sachs, a shadowy figure who combined links to both France's criminal world and its literary community, intrigued her with his elegant lifestyle and his circle of acquaintances in Parisian literary society. Notes de Courtivron: "She gave Maurice Sachs her adoring friendship and he, flattered by her attention, took her under his disreputable wing." Her tie to Sachs grew stronger after the outbreak of World War II. The onset of the war had led Leduc to a sudden marriage to an old friend, Gabriel Mercier, which quickly collapsed. Mercier was one of a long line of homosexuals to whom the sexually uncertain woman was attracted throughout her adult life.

In 1942, Sachs convinced Leduc to accompany him to a rural hiding place in Normandy, where, in the village of Anceins, the two of them spent most of the remainder of the war. Sachs engaged in a variety of enterprises, including trading on the black market. He also offered aid to Jewish refugees fleeing the German occupation of France. Leduc was drawn into his black marketeering, but, even more significantly, she now began serious work as a writer. Sachs pushed her into this activity, insisting that she record her numerous, painful memories from childhood in durable form. Sachs was arrested, transported to Germany, and apparently murdered by the Nazi authorities by the close of the war, although the exact circumstances of his demise remain uncertain. Leduc received word of his death in 1945. She returned to Paris where a second literary mentor, Simone de Beauvoir, entered her life and directed her activity.

Beauvoir gave the new author's career a major boost by publishing portions of Leduc's L'Asphyxie in Les Temps Modernes. L'Asphyxie was the book that Sachs had pushed Leduc to complete in their wartime hideaway. Les Temps Modernes was the vibrant postwar journal for French intellectuals created by such figures as Jean-Paul Sartre and Beauvoir herself. Beauvoir also encouraged one of France's most prestigious publishing houses, Gallimard, to consider the book. Gallimard accepted L'Asphyxie and soon afterward took Leduc's second book, L'Affamée, as well. When the publisher insisted on cutting a large portion of Leduc's third book, Ravages, due to its sexually explicit nature, Beauvoir took up Leduc's cause in an unsuccessful effort to restore the deleted passages.

The tie between Beauvoir and Leduc continued for decades. The former displayed a complex set of reactions to Leduc, once describing her as "an amiable pest, sometimes a bore … usually too pathetic to criticize." In her voluminous correspondence, Beauvoir never referred to her new acquaintance by name but instead designated her as "the ugly woman." Nonetheless, the established and prestigious existentialist author pushed Leduc to work intensively and consistently, and she even kept Leduc solvent with regular monetary payments each month. According to de Courtivron, "as her principal literary adviser and her most discerning reader," Beauvoir "took Leduc from writing down random childhood associations to creating full-fledged literary works."

The rising author's acquaintance with Beauvoir brought her into a wider circle of French literary figures in the period after World War II. Leduc had a particularly tangled and painful link with Jean Genet. She developed a strong infatuation for this homosexual writer whose early life had been marked by criminal episodes. Genet refused to return Leduc's feelings, and it required Beauvoir's emotional support to keep the devastated woman from sinking into an even deeper depression than the one she normally endured.

Leduc's early works, such as L'Asphyxie and L'Affamée, tapped her life experiences without taking actual autobiographical form. The first was an adult narrator's recollections of her childhood. Consisting of 23 brief chapters, it shifts back and forth from descriptions of her family and her early acquaintances to bits of conversation and assorted anecdotes. Designated by Leduc as a novel, it takes the semi-fictional heroine as far as her initial period in boarding school. It began with a sentence that provides insight into the pain Leduc was to carry all her life: "My mother never held my hand." The second book describes a fevered relationship between the narrator and an older woman designated as "Madame." Beauvoir's biographer Deidre Bair considers it a work "about Leduc's thinly disguised passion" for Beauvoir, Leduc's famous and glamorous mentor. It is filled with savage imagery in which the heroine is sometimes the perpetrator of violent acts, sometimes their victim. The book stated clearly Leduc's lifetime conviction that "my ugliness will set me apart until I die," and it carries this theme forward with violent fantasies in which the heroine destroys mirrors.

Beauvoir kept tight restrictions on the relationship that was so crucial for Leduc. She permitted meetings between the two of them only according to a predetermined biweekly schedule. Leduc found that Beauvoir also avoided any personal interaction by spending every minute of their time together criticizing the former's writing. Beauvoir avoided the most famous literary gathering places in Paris, the Brasserie Lipp and the Flore, if she spotted Leduc sitting inside. Leduc had a history of suicide attempts, and she reportedly made another at this time by trying to leap in front of a truck in reaction to Beauvoir's indifference to her. Meanwhile, Beauvoir tapped what she had learned of Leduc's experiences, as well as her own experiences, for the section on lesbianism she included in her classic book on women, The Second Sex.

Despite the advantage of having a distinguished literary patron, Leduc was disappointed to find that there was no substantial popular response to her books. She continued to write in a small studio in a poor section of eastern Paris. Burdened as well by an unrequited infatuation with a homosexual businessman, Jacques Guérin, Leduc went over the edge into the depths of serious mental illness in 1957. Beauvoir, by now the supervisor of both Leduc's literary production and private life, took her to a psychiatric clinic, but Leduc remained burdened by mental illness for the rest of her life.

The author found herself in the public eye for the first time in 1964 with the publication of La Bâtarde. Encouraged by Beauvoir to write an autobiography, Leduc had been working since the late 1950s on the book, which recounted her life from birth until the close of World War II. It not only sold well, but it became the object of public scandal. Its frank discussions of her lesbian affairs as well as other facets of her life such as her illegitimate birth and her physical ugliness—topics which earlier female authors had avoided—disturbed critics writing for the conservative press. Beauvoir, who thought the book might well win one of France's prestigious literary prizes such as the Prix Goncourt, was willing to enhance its chances for such an honor by writing a preface for La Bâtarde.

The book combines the author's recollections with an account of her present circumstances as Leduc describes for the reader the moments in which she is writing. It also shifts among various viewpoints: the author's narrative, fragments of recalled conversations, and the author's dialogues with herself. In some passages describing her adult years, Leduc moved away from the preoccupation with her own experiences and provided a vivid account of Parisian life in the 1920s and 1930s. Nonetheless, the striking passages that evoked so much controversy were extraordinarily personal. Leduc recounts, for example, how she induced her lesbian lover to engage in sex in front of a wealthy male observer. She also describes her wartime experiences in a manner likely to shock the reader. Her account of the occupation years scarcely mentions the Germans, and she appears to have no concern about the great events of the time or the horrors perpetrated on her fellow citizens.

The nature of this memorable autobiography contrasts sharply with that of other Frenchwomen who wrote accounts of their lives at this time. Both Simone de Beauvoir, Leduc's mentor, and Clara Malraux produced such works, but their books combined their personal stories with elements from the contemporary political and intellectual scene.

The possibility that the book might receive one of France's prestigious annual literary awards for fiction led to an acrimonious dispute over the propriety of granting such an award to Leduc. In the end, possible embarrassment for the prize-giving committees was avoided by an adroit compromise: the book was categorized as autobiography rather than fiction and removed from contention.

The success of La Bâtarde brought Leduc a degree of critical and popular recognition that had escaped her in earlier decades. Henri Peyre, professor of French literature at Yale and a noted literary critic, hailed it as "a courageous confession and a work of art" which was "sumptuous with images worthy of Rimbaud." The critic for London's Sunday Times compared Leduc's book to the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and suggested it would tear down the barriers against candor in women's autobiography. Her new success also brought her a movie role, offers to write for Vogue magazine, and a place on the Parisian social scene.

In her few remaining years, Leduc continued to produce explicitly erotic works of fiction such as Le Taxi, which concerns incest between young teenagers. The passages that had been cut from Ravages were also now publishable in light of her recent literary success. These appeared in a separate volume under the title Thérèse and Isabelle, and the book subsequently became the basis for a film. Leduc also continued the formal story of her life with two more autobiographical volumes—La Folie en tête (1970) and La Chasse à l'Amour (1973)—following La Bâtarde. But these received nothing like the critical and popular response of the earlier work.

Some students of Leduc's life and work believe that she found an unaccustomed degree of happiness—or at least serenity—in her final years. In an interview given in 1970, she continued her longstanding candor about her physical appearance, stating, "I have been ugly. I'm still ugly." But she claimed to have no regrets and to be consoled by old age. "If I had been beautiful, I would have had a lot, but right now I would be forced to give up so much of it."

Violette Leduc spent her final years in an old house that she bought in southern France near Mount Ventoux. It was there that she died of cancer on May 28, 1972. According to Margaret Crosland, Leduc had planned a final volume of memoirs that would describe "a fascinating subject: her reactions to success." But "life had cheated her of so much and now it cheated her of her farewell performance."


de Courtivron, Isabelle. Violette Leduc. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1985.

Engdahl, Bonnie. "Autistic States and Transitional Phenomena: Violette Leduc's La Bâtarde," in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis. Vol. 54. June 1994, pp. 159–171.

Evans, Martha Noel. Masks of Tradition: Women and the Politics of Writing in Twentieth-Century France. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Francis, Claude, and Fernande Gontier. Simone de Beauvoir: A Life … A Love Story. Translated by Lisa Nesselson. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1982.

Sartori, Eva Martin, and Dorothy Wynne Zimmerman, eds. French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Silvert, Eileen Boyd. "Permeable Boundaries and the Mother-Function in L'Asphyxie," in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature. Vol. 11. Fall 1992, pp. 289–307.

suggested reading:

Crosland, Margaret. Women of Iron and Velvet and the Books They Wrote in France. London: Constable, 1976.

Hall, Colette. "L'écriture féminine and the Search for the Mother in the Works of Violette Leduc and Marie Cardinal," in Women in French Literature. Edited by Michel Guggenheim. Saratoga, CA: ANMA Libri, 1988.

Hughes, Alex. Violette Leduc: Mothers, Lovers, and Language. London: W.S. Maney, 1994.

related media:

Therese and Isabelle (118 min. film in French with English subtitles), starring Essy Persson and Anna Gael , produced and directed by Radley H. Metzger, screenplay by Jesse Vogel; Audubon Films, 1968.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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Leduc, Violette (1907–1972)

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