Bookish Birthdays: Simone de Beauvoir
9th Jan 2012
Precociously intelligent from childhood onward (like another For Books’ Sake favourite, Patti Smith, and literature-loving girls the world over, she idolised Jo March from Louisa Alcott’s Little Women), and was soon studying philosophy at legendary Paris institution, the Sorbonne.
While preparing for the postgraduate exam, she started studying with a motley trio of fellow philosophy students who would become her life-long friends; Paul Nizan, René Maheu and Jean-Paul Sartre. Simone de Beauvoir was the youngest ever person to pass the exam, coming in second only to Sartre.
Their lifelong partnership has been much discussed and deconstructed; with debated abounding as to what extent they influenced each other. They were not monogamous and never married, had children, or set up home together (the closest they got being apartments on separate floors of the same hotel).
Their lifelong partnership has been much discussed and deconstructed; with debated abounding as to what extent they influenced each other. Free from the ‘restrictions’ of traditional partnerships, they both had their own independent careers, first as teachers and then as writers, philosophers and political activists. Committed to their own and each other’s work, they became central to the Saint-Germain intellectual scene, spending much of their time at now-renowned bohemian hangouts including Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots.
Prolific and multi-talented, over the course of her life Simone de Beauvoir wrote fiction, essays, travelogues, biography and memoir, as well as keeping in constant postal correspondence with lovers, friends and academics.
Her relationships and those of her immediate circle were chronicled in meticulous detail in the letters Simone and Sartre wrote to each other. Their clique also featured in thinly-fictionalised guises in her published works, such as in She Came to Stay and The Mandarins.
She is perhaps best known for her seminal feminist treatise, The Second Sex, and its central claim that ‘one is not born a woman, but becomes one.’ A comprehensive analysis of the ways women throughout history were oppressed by patriarchy, it was a controversial text, and one that was placed on the Vatican’s list of prohibited books.
Simone de Beauvoir also took on many other uncomfortable topics through her writing, and in her political activism. She wrote about aging in her short story collection The Woman Destroyed, and campaigned for the legalisation of abortion by writing and signing the Manifesto of the 343.
Although for many years Simone de Beauvoir was overshadowed by Sartre, her influence and legacy is now widely recognised. To find out how it all began, read Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the first as-fascinating-as-fiction book in her four-volume autobiography. Or for an in-depth account of her relationship with Sartre, read Deirdre Blair’s brilliant Tête à Tête.