Heroines by Kate Zambreno *****

Reading dates: 19 November – 31 December 2013

When reviewing The Bat, I urged you to stick to your reading list, lest you should encounter novels like this and waste your time. With Heroines, I am going to contradict myself. It is everything one would hope from venturing outside of the confines of a reading list created at a time removed from the reading experience. In November, I joined a reading group called ‘Sick, Sick, Sick: The Books of Ornery Women‘ and this was the first text to discuss. What a find too. it is energetic, sensitive, angry and its topic is hysteric women. It is a sad book. Zambreno discusses the wives of famous writers: T.S. Eliot – eerily named Thomas Eliot, the man, rather than the poet – Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Bowles and others. The wives who give themselves up as writers to take on their caring, companion roles, the support. Yet, the writing struggles within them as it often does. It comes out as something [hysterical] recognised as an illness. They are interned in sanatoriums; they die. Meanwhile, the husbands get to own the papers and diaries of their wives and convert them into characters (see ‘Tender is the Night’). Hamlet the Existentialist versus Ophelia the Hysteric. Yes, they both die, but in what different ways. What is also interesting is Zambreno’s own writing, her involvement in the stories of these wives. She is obsessed – all the signs are there, including the breakdowns – and there is nothing wrong with it.

This is an important book to read, re-read and to remember. Even to study. Important because it is a coming into consciousness book for a woman and a writer. Hysterics, Kate Zambreno tells us, were photographed but could not photograph. This is her as Francesca Woodman, able to tell her own story. The Freud Museum has a show with works from these wives, these writers that were denied their work: Zelda Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Anna Kavan. I have just expanded by reading list for 2014.


© Jane Fradgley with kind permission of Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity (and the Freud Museum website)