- Thinking Through the Mothers: Reimagining Women’s Biographies
Taking its point of departure in Virginia Woolf’s famous claim, in a Room of One’s Own, that “we think back through our mothers if we are women,” Janet Beizer’s Thinking Through the Mothers looks at contemporary women’s biography through the lens of the maternal and in the light of its engagement with mothers, foremothers, and motherhood. The aim of the book is, according to the book cover’s front flap, to “reinvent the means to represent the lives of precursors without appropriating traditional models of genealogy.” Seeking alternatives to what Beizer terms “salvation biography,” that is, the project of retrieving a precursor woman’s life in the image of one’s own desires and disappointments, the book examines what is at stake—on the life line—in women’s writing of women’s lives and explores new metaphors to write women’s lives by: especially, fostering, adopting, and unowning.
Crucial to Beizer’s book is its identification of the feminist narrative project of writing precursor women’s lives into literary history as [End Page 596] “salvation biography.” Conjoining the story of one’s own life with that of another, “salvation biography” mirrors the one life in the other and reconstructs it in its own image. A kind of bio-autography that speaks of the writing subject’s desire for the lost (fore)mother and of her emotional investment, it attempts to retrieve, salvage, or resurrect what is, in fact, always already irretrievably lost. Typically representing the quest that led to the (fore)mother, salvation biography is a melancholic genre that is hopelessly belated in its inability to get over the loss of women in culture.
Beizer gives as examples of such “salvation biography” the art historian Eunice Lipton’s “biography manqué” Alias Olympia (1992), tellingly subtitled A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire, as well as the French series of self-consciously reflexive late twentieth-century women’s biographies “Elle était une fois” (“Once upon Her Time”). The title of the series is emblematic of the problem at hand. As Beizer explains, “A collection that calls itself ‘Elle était une fois’ clearly aims to put the heroine back into the text by way of inserting her into the formulaic fairy-tale opening” (29). Reading Louise Colet’s quest for Kuchuk Hanem, “Flaubert’s courtesan” (as she has come to be known), as an allegory of what is wrong with contemporary women’s biography, Beizer shows its twin motivation of loss and recovery to inscribe a fetishistic logic and to be caught in mirror thinking.
If the project of contemporary women’s biography is doomed to fail as biography, how, then, is one to write a precursor woman’s life? Beizer proposes we abandon attempts to reconstruct what is irretrievably lost and instead confront “the story of a woman’s life as always already lost, and forever irretrievable within conventional frameworks” (36). To this end, she explores alternative methodologies, rereading George Sand’s Histoire de ma vie laterally through the lens of her correspondence with Flaubert, listening to the biographer’s voice, and developing new metaphors for the writing of the (fore)mother’s life. Thus, she develops the conceit of adoption to counter more genealogical models of relations across time and reads Colette’s La naissance du jour in tandem with La maison de Claudine and Sido to sketch the contours of a new critical aesthetic that she identifies, following Christopher Bollas’s object relations theory, as “transformational.” Locating the retrospective re-vision she critiques within a cultural context that is obsessed with the past as source of identity, Beizer closes her book by reasserting the need to devise alternative ways of dealing with it: “fostering the hollows and the holes while resisting the temptation to fill them; taking on absence, opacity, and lack, refusing silence our voice, but giving it our beating heart, and our ear” (251). [End Page 597]
These, then, are the...