Both of their lives overlapped with mine. After reading their memoirs, I was struck by their unconventional romantic lives. You could say “wild,” “immoral,” “creative,” and “reckless.” I’ll use the neutral word “non-conforming.”
I told a friend: “I wish I’d known a woman could have a life like that. It would have lifted a lot of guilt, confusion, and tortured decisions. I wanted to be Bohemian, and secretly was, but didn’t realize it was allowed.” My friend said: “Most of that behavior was secret at the time. That’s why you didn’t know. And it wasn’t allowed.”
In retrospect, I did know about wild women during my college days, the impressionable years. In reading about existentialism, I encountered Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), a French intellectual and the author of a feminist classic, The Second Sex. She and her partner Jean Paul Sartre were together for more than fifty years, but lived separately and had an open relationship.
Anais Nin (1903-1977), a French-Cuban writer and student of psychoanalysis, wrote more than fifteen volumes between 1914 through 1955, and is known for her frankness about sex. One of her lovers was Henry Miller. A few volumes of her diaries were part of my erotic education.
They were both Bohemians in Paris. Bohemians are by definition unconventional, artistic, adventurous, and even intentionally poor. They were into free love.
Diana Athill became engaged very young and waited for her fiancé through World War II, but he chose not to come back to her. She became lovers with someone with whom she founded a publishing house, and worked with him for 50 years. She had a love affair with an Egyptian writer. She had a long relationship with an African American writer. She spent four decades living with a Jamaican playwriter, during which a younger woman moved in and shared him. She had a miscarriage at 43 that nearly killed her, otherwise no children.
When Nuala O’Faolain arrived in Ireland in the 1940s, she says “It was a tomb for women.” Her mother fell in love with a peer in journalism school, and then went on to have nine children, while her husband worked far away and took lovers after the first three children. Catholic Ireland discouraged education for women, suppressed all sex education, and outlawed and punished abortion and illegitimacy. Nuala grew up as a “nobody.” Her mother and siblings became “ferocious” alcoholics.
She escaped the “wasteland” of her childhood with the support of an older male mentor who paid her way to a boarding school. She never married but had long relationships, some with married men. She was “in trouble” all her life, promiscuous and drunk. Life was rough as she came out of naivete and poverty to enter upper class and cosmopolitan social circles. She smoked and drank too much all her life; she was known to be angry and sarcastic. Nevertheless, she became a renowned journalist for the BBC, an academic, and a successful author.
One woman was born to privilege, and after feeling abandoned and foiled in her “proper path,” gave up on a traditional romantic life. The other was born in extreme poverty, and feeling her life was hopeless, broke all the rules of “decency” that had never served her and went out and made the best of it.
In my generation, women with unconventional relationships were in forbidden territory, morally.
Times have changed, though. The hook-up culture, single parenthood and other trends have taken some of the stigma out of being non-conforming. Single parenthood is at about 35% of households. The overall percentage of women who have no children has doubled in a generation from nine percent to eighteen percent (data from 2017). The percentage of childless goes up for professional women—from 45% to even 80% (a statistic I remember for my generation, for whom delegated childcare was controversial).
Non-conforming life styles, it turns out, have always been around, even outside Paris, and now they’re decent enough.