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Biography 24.1 (2001) 140-151

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Women's Diaries As Life-savings: Who Decides Whose Life Is Saved? The Journals Of Eugénie De Guérin And Elisabeth Leseur

Valerie Raoul

Many early studies of women's autobiography (by Mason, Jelinek, Smith, Stanton) emphasized that women's subjectivity, at least in a traditional Western context, has been perceived by both men and women as relative to a male subject position. The female (non)subject is seen as defining herself in relation to others, rather than as autonomous, and a number of analysts of women's autobiographies have echoed Simone de Beauvoir's insights into the positioning of Woman as Other, as secondary to the male One. Yet many studies also draw attention to a complex pattern of ambiguity within the female self, a conflict between competing "feminine" models, even in nineteenth-century Europe. My reading of a number of posthumously published diaries by women, written in France between 1830 and 1920, confirms the ambivalence of these diarists' sense of self. Some of these journaux intimes, particularly by women with a strong Roman Catholic religious faith, illustrate a particular, paradoxical phenomenon: the diary conveys an apparent identification with a significant male other, and self-sacrifice for him, but ultimately allows the writer to be recognized as superior to him--in fact his savior. The private diary published after the author's death serves as a unique means to effect this transformation. While the male sinner's eternal salvation may remain in doubt, the female savior's life seems to be safely preserved for posterity through the diary. Yet this textual prolongation of her life may prove far from everlasting; repeated resurrections may occur, but they are beyond the control of either the diarist or the first editors of the diary, and potential oblivion always looms on the horizon as the book becomes out-of-print. [End Page 140]

A paper that I gave last year at the Autobiography Conference held in Beijing (June 1999) addressed the question "Whose life is saved?", concentrating on two female diarists, Eugénie de Guérin and Elisabeth Leseur, and especially on their use of financial imagery to convert their life into spiritual currency, and on how their attempt to purchase a male counterpart's soul ensures their own textual survival as a by-product in the process. After my presentation, Philippe Lejeune asked me if I was running the risk of appearing to make fun of these women. Over the last year I have pondered this question. Was I making fun of them? Did I mean to? Does it matter, and if so, why? When dealing with living subjects, researchers go through an ethical review. Do we have, or need, a similar process in dealing with authors who would definitely be dead and gone if their diaries were not available? In rethinking the concept of life-saving and the death of the author in these two diaries, my focus has shifted. Whereas my earlier study was concerned with the transfer of life from female to male protagonists, and from body to text, my focus has shifted to a further, pivotal question: who decides whose life is saved? This reframing will recapitulate some of the relevant points made before, then move on to a consideration of how we form judgments of these diarists through the versions of their texts that we inherit only through considerable mediation. The change of focus is influenced by exposure to the self-reflexive attitude associated with feminist qualitative research in the social sciences. Collaboration in an interdisciplinary research project on narratives of illness is forcing me to probe and acknowledge the ways in which my motivation for reading these people/texts and my reactions to them occur in a very different context from the one in which they were produced or first published, and are influenced by my own life experience.

The editing history of the diaries concerned is relevant, since both the narrator's life and that of her significant...


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