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Reviewed by:
  • Simone de Beauvoir
  • Susan Bainbrigge
Simone de Beauvoir. By Ursula Tidd. (Critical Lives). London: Reaktion Books, 2009. 188 pp., ill. Pb £10.95.

This is the latest addition to the 'Critical Lives' series, which includes Sartre, Foucault, Bataille, and Cocteau, amongst others, and the first, according to the list, to be devoted to a woman. Ursula Tidd distils some of her earlier groundbreaking analysis on Beauvoir's understanding of self and other, and resituates it in a more general appraisal of the author's life and works. The study is enriched by references to recent posthumous publications such as the Cahiers de jeunesse. Beauvoir's often neglected essay on old age, La Vieillesse, is also given good coverage. The chapter headings delineate key phases in Beauvoir's life. There is an impressive breadth and depth to this book, given that it is a sleek volume amounting to less than two hundred pages. For basic fact-checking, it looks to be a handy and reliable resource. However, there is more to the study than this. The text and photographs provide a detailed picture of the 'jeune fille rangée' who would become one of France's foremost intellectuals of the twentieth century. Tidd describes the milieu in which Beauvoir was born, and links some of the early episodes in her life to broader concerns that would resurface in her subsequent writings. Key encounters with Sartre, Nelson Algren, Claude Lanzman, [End Page 505] and Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir, are interspersed with commentaries on publications, trips, political involvement, and philosophical development. Tidd does not shy away from dealing with controversial episodes highlighted in a number of recent publications. These include, for example, the nature of the Sartre-Beauvoir 'pact'; her involvement with young women, and the circumstances surrounding her dismissal from teaching in 1943; her activities during the Occupation, such as working for Radio Nationale; or even the fact that there seem to be few positive portraits of 'independent' female characters in Beauvoir's œuvre. The responses here are measured, rather than moralizing; she agrees, for instance, with the scrutiny of the wartime records of intellectuals such as Beauvoir, and argues that this has clarified a number of issues as well as 'underscoring the ambiguities of action and ease of post facto judgement' (p. 78). References are kept to a minimum, which is understandable in a general guide such as this (perhaps an index and short section on the diverse paths taken by Beauvoir scholars over the last fifty years or so could have been included, since the latter would give a snapshot of ideological shifts in the critical analysis). Commentaries on the novels, essays, and other works are integrated into the biographical narrative with appropriate contextualization of the philosophical influences on those texts. These will be particularly helpful for students, or indeed anyone looking for a way into Beauvoir's œuvre. The author is to be applauded for managing to pack in so much detail: we find out, for example, why Beauvoir was called 'le Castor', what she thought of the 'New Novel', where she went in China, why she fell out with Sartre's assistant Benny Lévy, and more. Overall, a wide-ranging and informative study.

Susan Bainbrigge
University of Edinburgh


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pp. 505-506
Launched on MUSE
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