Tag Archives: women

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir

(1908 – 1986)

simone de beauvoirSimone de Beauvoir is one of the best-known French writers and thinkers of the twentieth century, and among the best-known female writers of all time. Her study of the oppression of women throughout history, The Second Sex (1949), is a founding text of modern feminism. De Beauvoir was prominent in the circle of left-wing Parisian intellectuals associated with the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Interest in her long-term relationship with Sartre and controversies around The Second Sex have often eclipsed recognition of de Beauvoir’s fiction. Yet she was an acclaimed and popular novelist; The Mandarins (1954) received the prestigious Prix Goncourt. De Beauvoir was a perceptive witness to the twentieth century whose works span from her childhood days before World War I to the world of the 1980s.

A Young Diarist

Simone de Beauvoir was born in the fourteenth arrondissement, or district, of Paris in 1908, and lived there most of her life. Her mother was a devout Catholic; her father, a lawyer, was agnostic. Despite a comfortable childhood, she rebelled against her parents’ values at an early age, declaring that she would never become a housewife or mother. She also began to write when young, penning her first story at age eight and keeping a diary that would evolve into four published volumes of memoirs, starting with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958).

In 1925, she began studying philosophy at the Sorbonne. Four years later she met Jean-Paul Sartre, beginning an intimate personal and intellectual relationship that would continue until his death in 1980. They studied together and passed the agre´gation de philosophie in 1929, placing first and second on the exam that provided their teaching credentials. At twenty-one, de Beauvoir was the youngest student ever to receive this prestigious degree. From 1931 to 1943, she taught philosophy at secondary schools in Marseilles, Rouen, and Paris. Sartre and de Beauvoir were lovers and developed an unwavering partnership, but they never lived together. They rejected the institution of marriage, and neither wanted children. Furthermore, they did not exclude what they called ‘‘contingent’’ affairs, some of which became important in their lives. In 1933, the pair attempted a me´nage a` trois with one of Sartre’s students, Olga Kosakiewicz.

She Came to StayThis experiment, and the anguish it caused, became the basis for de Beauvoir’s first novel, She Came to Stay (1943). The novel captures the hothouse atmosphere generated by the trio as the indolent intruder Xavie`re slowly destroys everything that surrounds her. In the 1930s, de Beauvoir’s life was essentially that of a provincial professor with intellectual leanings, a wide circle of friends, and a somewhat bohemian lifestyle. Sartre was drafted to fight in the French army during World War II, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war. When he returned in 1941, he and de Beauvoir determined to become more involved in public life during the German occupation of France. Both abandoned their teaching to devote themselves to writing and often to political activism. De Beauvoir provides one of the most vivid accounts of life in France during the war in her memoir The Prime of Life (1960).

The Second Sex and The Mandarins

When de Beauvoir set out to begin her autobiography, she realized that she first needed to understand the extent to which being born female had influenced her life. She spent hours in the library seeking documentation for each section of the book that was to become the foundation of her international reputation. The Second Sex examines the historical, biological, and sociological origins of the oppression of women. The opening statement of the section on childhood, ‘‘One is not born a woman, one becomes one,’’ has become familiar throughout the world. The book advises women to pursue meaningful careers and to avoid the status of ‘‘relative beings’’ implicit, in de Beauvoir’s view, in marriage and motherhood. Read the rest of this entry

Nell Gwyn

Nell Gwyn


Nell GwynWhen she was just a child, Eleanor Gwyn lost her father, who likely died in a debtor’s prison. The future great actress of the Restoration stage therefore grew up under the care of her mother, who ran a house of prostitution near Covent Garden, then in the western end of the city of London. In her childhood years she was a barmaid in her mother’s establishment before becoming a fruit seller at the nearby Drury Lane Theater. She came to the attention of the theater’s major actor, Charles Hart, and although only fifteen at the time she became his lover. Hart saw to it that she was given roles in productions and she continued in the company until 1669 when she became pregnant by the king. She returned to the theater for one production after the birth, but then soon retired to devote herself to her love, King Charles II. In the years that she had performed at the Drury Lane Theater, Gwyn premiered a number of roles in plays by John Dryden and James Howard.

Although she acted in dramas, it was in comic roles that her talents were most evident. Observers noted that she had a quick and ready wit, and althoug hilliterate, was able to charm even the most educated by the intelligence of her conversation. She was also considered to be an excellent singer and dancer, and she was admired for her abilities to recite the poetic prologues and epilogues that were common in the theater of the day. In her retirement the king granted her a house, where she entertained Charles and members of the aristocracy. She was twice coaxed back onto the stage during the 1670s, the first time to play the female lead in Aphra Behn’s comedy of manners, The Rover (1677) and again in a role in the author’s Sir Patient Fancy a year later. These productions were staged, not at her former establishment the Drury Lane Theater, but at the Dorset Gardens, the house belonging to the troupe known as “The King’s Men.”

In the years after she became the king’s lover, she devoted almost all of her energies to entertaining Charles and members of his court and to tending to her mother and children. Since she had the royal ear, she frequently became involved in intrigues at court, although she seems never to have tried to interfere in politics. Charles richly rewarded her with a generous allowance and a handsome house in the St.James’ section of London so that she could be near the palace. He elevated the two sons she bore him to the nobility. With her newfound wealth, Gwyn provided a house for her mother in fashionable Chelsea, but her mother died in an accident in 1679 brought on by a bout of drunkenness. Despite the king’s great largesse, Gwyn spent prodigiously and when Charles died in 1685, she was in danger of being sent to debtor’s prison. Read the rest of this entry