Around the time I realised I didn’t want to be married any more, I started visiting Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave,” begins this unusual blend of memoir, criticism and literary biography by the journalist Joanna Biggs. Finding herself newly single, and her mother fading from Alzheimer’s, Biggs might have turned to friends, or drink, or late-night posts on social media.
Instead, she looked for comfort in the lives and works of Wollstonecraft, George Eliot, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison and Elena Ferrante. She yearned for freedom, but didn’t know what it should look like. “Who do you tell,” she writes, “when you start to feel these things?” As she learns from her literary heroines, Wollstonecraft’s grave is not the worst place to turn when life is in a spin.
One of Biggs’s reasons for writing the book, as its subtitle implies, is to convince herself that the false start of her marriage doesn’t mean it’s the end. “I needed to remind myself that starting out on my own again halfway through life is possible, has been possible for others – and that this sort of life can have beauty in it,” she writes.
It may seem strange to look to Plath, who took her own life at the age of 30, or Hurston, who died unappreciated and poor. But what Biggs is really seeking is a template for a different kind of living; evidence that women can break the domestic mould and tell the tale – even if they might not always live.
At first, she seems disappointed – in “Eliot’s reluctance to speak up”; in Hurston, for not writing about race. Discovering De Beauvoir’s casual cruelty to some of her lovers, she declares, “I wanted my heroine back.”
And it’s hard not to be shocked by the chasm between some of these women and contemporary feminist values. De Beauvoir said there had been “one undoubted success” in her life: her relationship with Sartre. Plath commented that one of Hughes’s female characters “should delight to be raped on the floor”. Several of the writers went to pieces and turned to drugs when their men left them. One is inclined to agree with Angela Carter, who reportedly asked: “Why is a nice girl like Simone wasting her time sucking up to a boring old fart like J-P?”
Biggs seems to take a more jaded view of marriage, hardly crediting that any woman might survive it with her independence and spirit intact. Writing about Woolf, she reveals, “I am interested in marriages that are set up in a way that supports … the happiness of both people in it.” (Shouldn’t that be all of them?) Of De Beauvoir and Sartre, she ponders “that delicate, perhaps utopian balance – togetherness not encroaching on independence”. (De Beauvoir didn’t see a contradiction.) Her own divorce enables her to “spend Sunday morning in bed with a novel or eat cereal for dinner or walk around naked”. What, one wonders, was stopping her?
In this collection of writers, Biggs has chosen women who put their own lives into their writing – as has she. It has been unfashionable to read the life as part of the work but Biggs sees that, for these women, they were inextricable. They lived in ways that enabled them to write, were often punished for it, and kept going.
She also celebrates the way in which those who come after can thrive “when our lives don’t fit conventional shapes” – as Wollstonecraft did for Eliot, Eliot did for Woolf, Woolf for Plath, and so on. I don’t respond in precisely the same way as Biggs does to these writers, and perhaps that is what makes them great. “I never thought I could be Simone de Beauvoir, but I’ve always known she existed,” she writes, “and at times when I’ve been utterly lost, clinging desperately to the crumbling fragments of my life, that knowledge has been enough.”
• A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs is published by Orion (£18.99) in the UK and by W&N in Australia in September. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.