A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again

Joanna Biggs
Ecco ($29.99)

by Ellie Eberlee

Evening, 1857. A thirty-eight-year-old Mary Ann Evans, later to achieve fame under her pen name, George Eliot, reads Jane Austen aloud. After decades of migraines, unrequited attachments, and the loss of her parents, Eliot is beginning to write fiction, and she seeks inspiration in Austen’s wry, imaginative prose. She also hopes to entertain George Henry Lewes, her lover and a member of the burgeoning London literati to which Eliot—an anonymous magazine editor—fervently aspires to belong.

A century later in 1964, the thirty-three-year-old divorcée Toni Morrison (née Chloe Anthony Wofford) accepts a job editing textbooks in Syracuse. A single mother supporting her toddler son and newborn after a fleeting marriage to a Jamaican-born architect, Morrison found the position listed among the New York classifieds. Fending off creative depression and loneliness, Morrison writes by night, packing and smoking a tobacco pipe in her poorly heated apartment before resuming work on an old manuscript (published in 1970 as The Bluest Eye).

What links these two women separated by time, an ocean, and circumstance? Eliot and Morrison led unconventional lives, encountering gendered, racial, and socioeconomic hurdles in their careers and relationships. Like many spirited, creative women before and after them, Eliot and Morrison fought fiercely for the right to live out to the limits of their talents and desires, pursuing writing as a conduit for making meaning as they did so.

These and similar battles form the backbone of Joanna Biggs’s joint autobiography and biography A Life of One’s Own. Examining “Nine Women Writers [who] Begin Again,” the book traces the writing lives of Mary Wollstonecraft, George Eliot, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison, and Elena Ferrante. A senior editor at Harper’s Magazine and the author of All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work (Serpent’s Tail, 2015), Biggs casts herself as the unspoken ninth woman, starting anew following the dissolution of her marriage in her early thirties.

Initially, Biggs’s divorce spelled straightforward liberation. “I was free,” the author writes. “At first, I took my freedom as a seventeen-year-old might: hard and fast and negronied and wild.” Soon, though, Biggs yearned for a life she “would be proud of, that [she] could stand behind.” She wondered: how does a feminist reconcile drives toward independence and human connection? Does domesticity preclude a fulfilling writing career or intellectual life? Such questions “felt urgent as well as overwhelming. . . . I needed to remind myself that starting out on my own again halfway through life is possible, has been possible for others.”

Like many recent joint biographies of female creatives—for example, Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women (2018) or Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting (2020)—Biggs splits her exploration of women’s literary and personal re-beginnings into distinct, individually focussed chapters. The book observes a broad chronology, beginning in the eighteenth century with Wollstonecraft, whose landmark political treatises and epistolary travelogues Biggs admired as an undergraduate at Oxford. It ends with Ferrante, whose resilient energies drove Biggs’s brief venture into small press publishing, and whose Neapolitan novels continue to inform many of Biggs’s longstanding female friendships. Each section supplies a thoughtful tessellation of personal memoir, vividly recounted biography, and joyful analysis of the various writers’ major works. A prime example is the chapter titled “Zora,” which relates Biggs’s initial reading of the first professional Black woman author while undergoing a depressive episode; tracks Hurston’s involvement in the Harlem Renaissance, among other national movements; and offers a keenly observed, self-reflexive reading of Janie Crawford from Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Occasionally, the sheer celebrity of many of Biggs’s chosen biographical subjects threatens to detract from the immediacy and inventiveness of her narrative (Woolf and Plath’s extensively speculated-upon struggles with mental illness pluck especially familiar strings). Still, Biggs’s deeply felt connection to each writer revitalizes established literary lore, reframing each woman’s trajectory through personally resonant lenses of resurgence and rebirth. Her literary analyses, too, exhibit tender yet considered admiration. She avoids the detached, properly critical attitudes championed at Oxford while emphasizing the exquisite literary quality of each woman’s labors; it’s from their words, as much their lives, that Biggs draws solidarity and a sense of possibility.

If any lasting complaint might be lodged against A Life of One’s Own, it’s that the author’s considerable wealth of source material often obscures her own engrossing autobiography. At its end, readers may be taken aback to learn that seven years have passed since Biggs’s separation. What happened in the intervening period? Biggs offers glimpses: a brief stint on antidepressants, Ferrante-themed parties, apartment hunts, hot baths reading Hurston, relocation to New York, rediscovery of Woolf’s novels on the train from Brooklyn. But our sense of the author remains patchy at best, a partial sketch in a gallery of otherwise polished, skillful portraiture.

Ultimately, the book’s central thread holds tight. It’s gratifying, albeit slightly unsurprising, to arrive at Biggs’s conclusion that “there are many ways of doing good work and living a happy life, and that is more unusual for that to happen within the conventional set-up than you might imagine.” Of course, her reading of these eight women writers proves fundamental to that takeaway: “I never thought I could be Simone de Beauvoir,” she writes, “but I’ve always known she existed.” Put another way, Biggs finds anchorage in the drift of her literary mothers. Through revisiting their words—the complex, hard-won languages of hope, loss, and love each woman developed and left behind—she locates the confidence to carry her own messy liberation forward. By the book’s end, she lives and writes from a position figuratively analogous to the one Mrs. Ramsay temporarily occupies in Woolf’s masterwork To the Lighthouse—looking out over a sea of female creative inheritance, observing how her chosen women’s lives and literature have “silvered the rough waves a little more brightly,” and feeling, above all, that “It is enough! It is enough!”

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