Can a woman thrive creatively and intellectually within society’s expectations? Is domesticity a trap? Where is that room, Virginia?
The Center for Fiction and Harper’s Magazine welcome author and editor Joanna Biggs for the launch of her new book, A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again, a feminist tapestry of literary criticism, memoir, and historical biography. Writers Lauren Oyler (Fake Accounts) and Christine Smallwood (The Life of the Mind) joined Biggs to discuss the various ways that female writers—themselves, and their predecessors; from Virginia Woolf to Simone de Beauvoir to Toni Morrison—have navigated an intellectual and cultural landscape that, for centuries, has sought to marginalize them.
Photos by Macy Castañeda Lee
A Life of One's Own
By Joanna Biggs
Published by Ecco / Harper
The day I took my wedding ring off for the last time—a gold band with half a line of “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath etched inside—my thumb at first kept on reaching across my palm for the warm bright circle that had gone. I didn’t fling the ring into the sea, like women do in the movies, but a feeling bubbled up nevertheless, from my stomach to my throat: it could fling my arms out. I was free. . . .
A few years into her marriage and feeling societal pressure to surrender to domesticity, Joanna Biggs found herself longing for a different kind of existence. Was this all there was? She divorced without knowing what would come next.
Newly untethered, Joanna returned to the free-spirited writers of her youth and was soon reading in a fever—desperately searching for evidence of lives that looked more like her own, for the messiness and freedom, for a possible blueprint for intellectual fulfillment.
In A Life of One’s Own, Sylvia Plath, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Toni Morrison, Simone de Beauvoir, Zora Neale Hurston, and Elena Ferrante are all taken down from their pedestals, their work and lives held up to the light. Joanna wanted to learn more about the conditions these women needed to write their best work, and how they addressed the questions she herself was struggling with: Is domesticity a trap? Is life worth living if you have lost faith in the traditional goals of a woman? Why is it so important for women to read one another?
This is a radical and intimate examination of the unconventional paths these women took—their pursuits and achievements but also their disappointments and hardships. And in exploring the things that gave their lives the most meaning, we find fuel for our own singular intellectual paths.
Joanna Biggs is an editor for Harper’s Magazine. Previously an editor at the London Review of Books, she has written for the New Yorker, the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Sunday Times and much more. She lives in New York.
Photo Credit: Sarah Bohn
Lauren Oyler is a critic and novelist based in Berlin. Her writing appears regularly in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Harper’s, the London Review of Books, and other publications. Her novel Fake Accounts was published in 2021, and a collection of her essays, all previously unpublished, is forthcoming next year.
Photo Credit: Pete Voelker
Christine Smallwood is the author of the novel The Life of the Mind.