Arts & Culture

Mothers in fiction, mothers in fact

5 min read

In 1930, the French author Colette published the novel “Sido” and bound the first copy with swatches of blue fabric cut from her late mother’s favorite dress.

“It may sound like a thoughtful or nostalgic gesture,” says Janet Beizer, professor of Romance languages and literatures, “but a subsequent description of the process — in which Colette recalls tearing up, cutting apart, and destroying the dress — reveals an ambivalent, if not malevolent, intent.”

As the Colette anecdote illustrates, and as every woman knows, the relationship between a daughter and her mother is rarely simple. Maternal love can be opaque, misguided, and at times even maddening. No wonder, then, that Beizer has discovered writing about mothers to be an equally complicated affair.

Beizer is the author of “Thinking through the Mothers: Reimagining Women’s Biographies,” published this month by Cornell University Press. In the book, she analyzes memoirs and fictions about mothers to explore the challenges of retrieving women’s lives. Specifically, Beizer has discovered that biographers often rewrite relationships to their own mothers, creating a genre that she calls “bio-autography.”

“I was led to wonder if, as women, we have any greater access to our own mothers’ lives than to the lives of other women whose stories have been swept away like dust in the debris of the past,” she writes in the prologue.

Beizer’s book is 12 years in the making. While teaching at the University of Virginia, she heard a lecture by an art historian about a fictionalized quest to find the woman who posed for Manet’s painting “Olympia.” Fascinated by the tale, Beizer began thinking about how women writers of the late 20th century sought to give voices to women of previous eras whose stories had been lost or buried. Her work soon developed to focus on the genre of biography, as she became intrigued by the ways in which women biographers of women imposed their own visions of what a “right” mother should look and act like.

“These desperate, impossible attempts by women to invent an idealized life, to reconstitute a biography of a woman who isn’t actually there, and in some instances to even be their own mothers, all speak to a broader cultural problem,” says Beizer. “The writers are mourning for the missing place of women in culture.”

Beizer explores these themes over the course of the book, which is organized into six distinct essays. Her analysis touches on the work of authors as varied as George Sand, Louise Colet, Gustave Flaubert, Vladimir Nabokov, and Colette.

In the first essay, Beizer evaluates a popular French literature series titled “Elle était une fois,” or “Once Upon Her Time.” Each book in the series is a biography of a woman from a bygone era, written by a famous woman in contemporary French society. Beizer evaluates the authors’ efforts to chronicle the lives of the deceased, probing the challenges of re-creating a life from trace fragments and half-formed stories. She finds that in many cases, the writers project a “mirror biography” so that the biographical subject reflects the life and desires of the author.

In another essay, Beizer explores “La Naissance du Jour,” a novel published by Colette in 1928. Colette proclaimed the book was a work of fiction, but the characters have the same names as her family members and they meet with artists who existed in real life. Many critics have therefore evaluated the piece as an autobiography. Beizer, however, believes the novel walks a “thin line” between autobiography and fiction.

“People tend to use Colette’s work to explain her life and vice versa, but I didn’t want to do that,” Beizer says. “I don’t think she writes in a way that fits into a mimetic model. Her writing is about constant change and I think she does this deliberately, to subvert of the idea that women’s writing necessarily has to be autobiographical.”

The maternal memoir of George Sand is the focus of another essay. Beizer looks at Sand’s writing through the lens of Huguette Bouchardeau, a French writer and politician who published a biography of Sand in 1990. Bouchardeau published a biography of her own mother in that same year. Beizer felt the two projects were connected — but when she met with Bouchardeau, the writer suggested otherwise.

“I felt certain of a strong link between Bouchardeau’s literal mother and the figurative role played by George Sand,” said Beizer. “However, when I interviewed Bouchardeau it became clear she didn’t agree with my reading.”

Rather than force a particular perspective, Beizer chose to present the dilemma in its most open form — as a dialogue.

“I went back and re-wrote the commentary as a dialogue with Bouchardeau, to highlight our disagreements,” says Beizer. “This was challenging but important, because I wanted to find a way of writing about women’s lives without plugging in my voice to fill the empty space.”

The desire to find an alternative way of writing about women informs much of Beizer’s work. She seeks to steer away from what she calls “salvation biography,” a nostalgic attempt to fill in the blanks, and is equally uncomfortable with the emphasis on lineage and hierarchy that characterizes much of writing about one’s forebears. Instead, Beizer champions a method of analysis that “respects the silences, celebrates the absences, and stresses genealogical difference over sameness.”

Shortly after she began to write the book, Beizer became an adoptive mother — an experience that strongly influenced her thinking and writing. Admittedly uncomfortable with blending personal and academic interests, she nonetheless found her role as mother to be illuminating.

“I do address my own status as a mother in one essay,” she says, “moving back and forth between theory and personal flashes. This was the first time I had ever written about myself, and although it was quite a challenge I think it allowed me to pose important questions — theoretical as well as personal — about mothering.”