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The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty.

Not to change one's life is not to keep living," wrote Virginia Woolf. To open with a quote from Woolf is appropriate for a review of Carolyn Heilbrun's moving memoir-reflection. It is obviously appropriate for those who know this feminist's writing on Virginia Woolf, who shattered the "appropriate" for women with her life and art. It is appropriate because Heilbrun's direct but supple prose is sp(l)iced with quotations from other authors, mostly women, offering what critic Laura Levitt has called "textual embraces."

But this Woolfian aphorism is necessary as well as appropriate, because, in spite of what the book's title seems to suggest, this collection of essays is not the smooth continuing saga of the life and thought of a pioneer feminist mover during her seventh decade; it reflects the changing, the "re-imagining" once more of a woman's life that until 1992 looked like the fulfillment of Heilbrun's own directives as set down in her 1979 book Reinventing Womanhood.

By her 66th year, Heilbrun had been a professor for more than thirty years in Columbia University's English Department, where few women and certainly no Jewish woman had been appointed before. She had written several books of feminist criticism and literary history (all still in print and still read by a wide audience) and she was enjoying a "long, extended, mostly satisfying marriage" that had produced three children. And (where she fit it in is hard to fathom) she was the creator, under the name of Amanda Cross, often mystery novels, and promising more.

Having checkerboarded time and place successfully in all those roles, admittedly with struggle and anxiety (especially about being a mother, as she reveals in this book), Heilbrun had no intention of changing her life. Believing, as she had written in Reinventing Womanhood, that "[w]omen must continue to invade the domains of power in order to change institutions as we know them, in order to offer places to other women...and to do justice to themselves," she had not planned on leaving her position. But she also did not plan to meet the depth of resistance toward feminism in her own department. Though she chooses not to give details of the final frustrating months, she epitomizes the situation in the words of an eminent male colleague, who declared in the student newspaper that one of the ten worst books he had ever read was by Adrienne Rich.

In the spring of 1992, as an act of protest (dramatic enough to be covered in the New York Times), Heilbrun resigned her tenured, and by now endowed, professorship. Having always feared the loss of her university affiliations and structures, she was "shocked" at how immediately relieved she was never to have to enter that "poisonous atmosphere" again. Understanding suddenly "how privileged Victorian women must have felt when they took off the stays and dresses that inhibited motion and flexed their bodies and moved their muscles," she finds that she "had entered a life unimagined previously, of happiness, impossible to youth or to the years of constantly being needed at home and at work."

The achievement of that transition, the reinvention of a woman's life after a long professional career, was not easy. How Heilbrun reached her present balance of "activity and serenity" outside the academy is the plot of this memoir. She begins by admitting that this transition was easier than her climb up "the slippery academic ladder, "where no stories, even oral ones, from the rare women faculty, were there to guide her. She acknowledges she now enjoys (I would say has earned) many advantages: a long-time partner, an ample pension, and city and country homes. But the greatest difference from her academic past is, she writes, the chamber of women's voices she now surrounds herself with - newly-made women friends and colleagues, daughters, long-lost cousins and, most of all, the many contemporary women writers, especially American poets, she reads and writes.

When Heilbrun finds the bitter and disillusioned memoirs of the well-known journalist and novelist, Doris Grumbach, who only mentions male colleagues, she confirms that "the intimacy [of women's voices] helped make [my] sixties my happiest decade." In her essay-portrait of the now seventy-year-old poet Maxine Kurain, she expands: "We women read about women who have braved the terrors and hopes we share, at least to some degree. Courage in women always catches me up, moves me to compassion, and the desire [to offer other women] succor, sustenance, if possible?'

Not by any means a self-help book, The Last Girl of Time is filled with gentle (sometimes not so gentle) proddings, disarmingly frank insights and lessons learned as Heilbrun re-maps what may be the last part of an achieving woman's life. Untethered from unsupportive colleagues, she finds the first of her "few but insistent desires" - total solitude. What she thinks she wants is that "room," in this case a house, of her own. "To be alone," she discovers, "if one has not been doomed to aloneness is a temptation so beguiling that it carries with it the guilt of adultery, and the promise of consummation." And her first essay in this book, "The Small House," tells of her search for that space, and a surprising discovery once she inhabits it. She wittily recreates her wrangles with realtors who refuse to believe that she wants no swimming pool, large grounds, or old trees. But having found a spare barn-like structure and spent half a day there alone, she welcomes back her (luckily not very loquacious) husband, gives him a study downstairs (hers is up), and concludes that what she truly wanted was "a house where the only noise was mine and his."

With space chosen and time taken, Heilbrun faces in "Time" her greatest challenge - how to fill them. Even this productive scholar "for whom work is the essence of life" has to decide how to make her new life satisfying. As she listens to two "muses," one an erotically charged male, the other a female English writer, she makes her most serious wrong turn. Hearing in one ear Sylvia Townsend Warner urging "the aging" to undertake something difficult and new and "re-root" themselves, and in the other Andrew Marvell, warning his coy mistress of too little "world enough and time," Heilbrun seduces herself into spending the first years of her retirement writing the biography of activist feminist Gloria Steinem. Yet with the publication of The Education of a Woman in 1995, to respectable, if mixed, reviews, she confesses she has wasted (her) time and spent her world with a non-introspective woman whom she still respects, but who, she acknowledges, provided no "sub-texts" for her literary soul.

The remaining twelve essays reflect the more careful use of her time and world. They are the richest part of the book both in substance and craft. Two of the best, "A Unique Person" and "An Unmet Friend," are evocative portraits of May Sarton and Maxine Kumin, the first of whom Heilbrun actually befriended for many years before her death, the second very much alive, but one of those "unmet friends" she wants to preserve that way. Heilbrun has analyzed and praised their writings else where; here she highlights the courageous changes each woman writer made at crucial points in her career, moves both inspiring and cautionary for Heilbrun herself.

Sarton is admired for leaving the literary social circles of New York for desolate country houses, there to write of the joys and ravages of solitude. But after drawing Sarton with her wounds and woundings, her never-forgotten bad reviews and her inconsiderateness to those who did love her, Heilbrun concludes that, ironically, she with "husband, children, parents, and work" has been able "to bask" more fully in the solitude she carefully planned than this poet of solitary life who was always beckoning and berating lovers and friends. She cites Kumin for surrendering the security of a suburban Boston life, taking a reluctant husband and children to live on a horse farm so that she could write more deftly her "women's poetry" of animals, love and loss. Although this is the only writer she calls her "alter ego," Heilbrun also knows that, unlike Kumin, she could never be the constant attendant of animals and domesticity.

Fortified by inscribing these "exemplary" women, Heilbrun moves into high gear herself, pronouncing on a wide range of subjects. Annoyed in "Sex and Romance" that middle-aged writers like Marilyn French and Doris Lessing still have heroines who yearn for sexual passion, she asks whether "if we could discover a word that meant 'adventure' and did not mean 'romance,' we in our last decades [would not connect] yearning and sex." Resigned, though quite affectionately, to her own less than romantic, essentially intractable husband, she wonders in "Living with Men" why women bother with them at all.

Grounding some of these more jaunty pieces are intimations of mortality and some unfinished business. Perhaps the most poignant excursion is the unexpected return in "The Family Lost and Found" to that part of her self which has been problematic in many of her writings - that of being a Jew. Having identified closely with a women's tradition, first in Writing a Woman's Life (1988) and now in this latest book, Heilbrun is challenged to confront her other "outsider" position when cousins of her father's sisters (whom she claims not to have known about) read about her resignation from Columbia in the newspaper and arrange to meet her. Her immigrant father had severed himself from his family and religion once he became socially and financially successful; now she ponders her willed forgetfulness: "Which was stranger, that I never knew my father's family, or that I never wondered why?" The reunion leads to new recoveries, but Heilbrun still leaves much unresolved.

But it is the irresolutions and the points of contention (and agreement) I have as I read Heilbrun that remind me of what has always made reading her so bracing and pleasurable. For all her polished prose, the tone is always conversational, the "we" used frequently. Heilbrun is always challenging (women) readers to make more sense of their lives, "to catch courage" from reading other women's writings. Coming upon this book as I was myself trying to decide whether to continue as chair of a contentious English department, I caught that courage and made my decisions. For those inoculated by present contentment, reading this long-time feminist's charting of her last years will be no less than inspiring. For others, more exposed and conflicted, The Last Girl of Time may be that saving dose of courage.
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Author:Zilversmit, Annette
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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