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For a Beauvoir scholar, many details of Ursula Tidd's 2009 contribution to Reaktion Books' Critical Lives series will be redundant; however, for anyone with a passing interest in Beauvoir's fascinating life as "the mother of French feminism," it presents a compelling seduction that encourages further exploration. It hardly seems possible that a life as meticulously recorded and heavily critiqued as Beauvoir's could be condensed into less than two hundred pages, but Tidd more than rises to the challenge. The greatest difficulty for a reader of her Simone de Beauvoir will be to maintain the ever-expanding list of referenced titles that become 'must-reads,' from commentary by others to Beauvoir's own "wonderful story that would become true as (she) told it to herself" (La Force de l'âge).
Tidd paints the image of a precocious young Simone chafing at the restraints presented by her devoutly Catholic mother and her equally devout but atheistic father. Beauvoir's early schooling at the Cours Désir, which according to Tidd was "distinguished by its Christian virtues rather than by the quality of its educational provision," laid the groundwork for a life of intense self-scrutiny and concern for others. This "perpetual questioning of her experience" colors the whole of Beauvoir's writings.
In broad strokes, Tidd outlines Beauvoir's personal relationships in addition to her celebrated "pact" with Jean-Paul Sartre. Beauvoir's experiences with "the other" greatly influenced both her writing and her philosophy, from the bond with her younger sister Hélène to liaisons with numerous students and lovers, including what Tidd terms "the most sexually charged relationship of her life" with the American Nelson Algren. A childhood friend, Elisabeth Lacoin, or "Zaza," offered the "most important friendship of her early life," and whose death at age 21 left a permanent scar on the young Simone's psyche. Beauvoir dissects her mother's life and death in Une Morte très Douce, while Zaza is portrayed in various forms in several novels.
As Tidd notes, Beauvoir's "life has sometimes eclipsed her work;" however, her writing remains the focus of intense study and debate. Beauvoir's observations of women in the United States during visits in 1947-8, and her realization that "the American woman is a myth," are sharply reflected in her landmark feminist treatise Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex). While Beauvoir may be best know in general circles for that 1949 study, Tidd introduces other groundbreaking work including La Vieillesse, which addressed ageism as The Second Sex did feminism.
Beauvoir's multiple volumes of memoir aptly portray her desire of "making sense of her 'lived experience,'" while reflecting a growing understanding of herself over time. Pointed, and often controversial, essays on such figures as Brigitte Bardot and the Marquis de Sade may surprise those unfamiliar with Beauvoir's oeuvre, but in Tidd's account such topics seem perfectly reasonable given Beauvoir's passions and experiences.
Tidd's brief survey of Beauvoir's life ends with a poignant commentary: "She sought to inscribe a path of freedom from which those who came after her could derive their own." Tidd offers her readers a roadmap to that path which is well worth following.
Tidd has authored two previous books on Beauvoir, as well as numerous journal articles and conference presentations, and this new volume is a concise compendium of her extensive knowledge of the subject. She is currently Senior Lecturer in French Studies at the University of Manchester.
© 2010 Cynthia L. Pauwels
Reviewer Cynthia L. Pauwels holds an MA in Creative Writing and a BA in Humanities with a World Classics certification from Antioch University McGregor in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She works as a freelance writer with numerous short fiction, non-fiction and technical writing credits.