Publication Date: Oct 23, 2012
List Price US $17.95
List Price US $14.95
This witty autobiography captures the rich and varied life of a renowned French author and pioneering feminist, through the obstacles and movements in twentieth-century France.
Born in 1920 in Paris, Benoite Groult obtained the right to vote only when she was twenty-five years old. She married four times, bore three children, underwent several illegal abortions, became a writer after she turned forty, and a feminist in her fifties. Groult chronicles her experiences and her intellectual developments through successive phases—as an obedient child, an awkward and bookish adolescent, and a submissive wife—until finally becoming a liberated novelist.
Here, she recounts the childhood trips she spent with her family, Paris during the occupation, her marriages, motherhood, and her continuous fight for women’s rights. At ninety-one years old, she concludes that she has been, and still is, a happy woman—lucky to have captured her freedoms, one by one, paying for them, delighting in them, and loving them. Sexy, chatty, and full of shrewd insight, My Escape covers her years of struggle and success—as a daughter, lover, writer, wife, mother, and reluctant socialite—and draws a portrait of the role of French women in the twentieth century.
Excerpt from My Escape
For us girls, there also weren’t any “great authors” of our gender. At no stage of my studies, not even during my bachelor’s degree in literature, was one of our sacred “great authors” a woman!
Erica Jong says that at Barnard, a college founded by American feminists and dedicated to educating young women, female authors, novelists, and poets weren’t studied. At the library, you couldn’t find the novels of Colette (supposedly out of print) or Simone de Beauvoir or Emily Dickinson. In 1960! In the land of feminism! Imagine, then, the desert that was the Sorbonne in 1941. In fact, our pantheon was empty with the exception of one exalted heroine: Joan of Arc. Yet she was also incidentally a virgin, the sole descendant of the mythic Amazons, and the only one who had the audacity to break the chains of her feminine condition and traditions. As everyone knows, she was punished for it and, just like Antigone, Iphigenia, and Jocasta, doomed to a precocious and tragic end.
We can all agree—a rather dissuasive model. In the twentieth century, in order to void the suffragists’ claims, the French press quickly nicknamed them the “Suffragettes,” a name that made them go down in posterity as some sort of gleeful majorettes for the right to vote. In England, meanwhile, women fought heroically by chaining themselves to the gates of Westminster, throwing themselves under the horses’ hooves during the Epsom Derby in front of a dumbfounded crowd, and taking up hunger strikes in order to win the right to vote twenty years before French women.
“Now finally the last first generation feminist book.”—Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics
“Frank, no-nonsense reflections by the French novelist about her gradual road to feminism through World War II, three husbands and the embrace of the writing life…A cleareyed memoir by a writer resolved to claim her ‘place on the battlefield of feminism.'”—Kirkus
“[Groult] endears herself to readers through profound insights and a generous sense of humor; her honest and occasionally bawdy style is a major plus….this book embodies what an autobiography should be: a careful selection of memories, anecdotes, and observations that gives the feeling of having conversed with a wonderful and memorable person.”—Publishers Weekly
“My Escape is written in a way that reveals the author’s voice, the author’s mind. It is written in a style that is intelligent and thoughtful, warm and humorous, both thought provoking and touching…My Escape is utterly accessible and reveals a woman who has lived a life that stretches beyond the world of Academia…a gem of a book, written by a woman who is an example to all of us…she is real, working tirelessly for the cause of Feminism whilst living and loving, doubting and struggling. She is a woman of passion and commitment and a woman I would love to meet.”—Seattle Pi
“Her feminism is the feminism of every woman…She does not approach feminism from a dry academic position, but from the vibrant stance of a woman who has lived life to the full and who has fought for equal rights whilst being a mother, a wife, a grandmother and a professional writer.”—BC Books
1. The author has chosen to tell her life story by way of different writing styles. Some chapters provide biographical vignettes, others are in a question-and-answer format. Why do you think Groult decided not to follow a more standard, linear trajectory? Did you get a different sense of the author in the interview than you did in the other chapters?
2. In Chapter 1, “Rosie Groult,” the author describes her family home as one “where matriarchy happily ruled” (p. 28). What does she mean by this? How was her parents’ marriage unusual for its time?
3. In Chapter 4, “A Wonderful Mother,” Groult discusses desperate her attempt to carry on the family by conceiving a child with her deceased husband’s brother. Did this decision shock you? To what degree was her decision motivated by her dire living situation: the daily scarcities during the Nazi occupation, the growing numbers of war dead, the rumors of deported neighbors and unimaginable atrocities in Germany?
4. Groult devotes pages to describing the different passions she has pursued in life, such as gardening and fishing. How have these activities influenced her as a writer? Do you have any lifelong passions or pursuits that define you or that enrich your profession?
5. Fishing was one hobby that Groult credits with keeping her marriage afloat. “All of these boats had woven between us the links that became the moorings, constituting an outpost of our married life for the rest of our days” (p. 341). Do you agree that having a shared hobby is important for maintaining a healthy marriage? Why?
6. Groult identifies as a feminist. Yet she has made choices that some feminists would disagree with: multiple marriages, plastic surgery for aesthetic reasons, among others. Do you think these choices make her more or less of a feminist? What does being a feminist mean today? Does this definition vary depending on where a person lives (France versus the United States, for instance)?
7. In Chapter 8, “Feminist at last!” Groult discusses her work with the French government to promote feminine versions of career terms. She notes, “[Language]’s not just a simple tool for communicating, but it reflects our prejudices and mirrors our relationships and our unconscious desires. How women talk, how people talk to women, all play an essential role in the image they project and what they make of themselves” (p. 216). Do you agree with this statement? Even though the English language doesn’t have gendered nouns, there are still equivalents to this problem. For instance, when referring to nurses, feminine pronouns are typically used, whereas doctors are referred to most often using masculine pronouns. Are these gendered notions changing or not?
8. In Chapter 9, “Paul’s Fan Club,” Groult describes taking care of her granddaughters while her daughters are away on vacation. At one point, she discusses coming to terms with evolving ideas of parenthood. “I can well remember a time when Flora and I brushed our teeth and put our clothes on a chair, without wearing anyone out! But Dr. Spock put an end to these ways” (p. 259). In light of the popularity of parenting books that praise the French style of child-rearing, what do you make of Groult’s take on contemporary parenting in France? How does it differ from parenting in the U.S.? How is it the same?
9. In Chapter 11, “Dick and Jane, septuagenarians, go fishing,” Groult muses, “Aging…means losing the beauty of your movements” (p. 327). What other meditations on getting older ring true for you?
10. 10) Notions of escape can have both positive and negative associations. In your view, what connotations does this book’s title have? How and where does Groult escape? In your own life, have there been instances of near misses or pleasurable abandon?