Benoîte Groult in April 1993.
Christopher Long in Normandy kindly alerted me to an obituary in The Times of London for French journalist, writer and feminist activist Benoîte Groult, who died in Hyères a week ago, aged 96.
Born in Paris on January 31, 1920, Groult co-wrote three books with her younger sister Flora (see photos below, sharing a Hermes 3000 portable typewriter) before branching out on her own as an author in 1972.
Benoîte published 20 novels and many essays on feminism.
The New York Times also ran an obituary, written by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura. Here is an edited version:
Benoîte Groult became a leading French feminist and writer in the second half of her life, drawing wide attention with a sexually daring novel that explored an unlikely love affair between a Parisian intellectual and an uneducated Breton fisherman. Groult’s novel Les Vaisseaux du Cœur (Salt on Our Skin), published in 1988, was branded pornographic in some literary circles because of its vivid depictions of an extramarital affair and female sexuality. The book, set in France in the 1960s, examines the complex emotional dynamics of the couple’s relationship in which their raw desire for each other cannot overcome the wide social divide between them. They each end up marrying someone from a similar background yet they continue their affair for four decades. In 1992 the novel was made into a film, directed by Andrew Birkin and starring Greta Scacchi and Vincent D’Onofrio. It was released in the United States as Desire.
Some feminists criticised the novel, but many readers viewed the protagonist’s sexual escapades as an expression of a liberated modern woman. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide and was translated into 27 languages. “It’s unacceptable to tell yourself that during 50 years - half a lifetime or longer - you won’t begin a love affair, you won’t live out the first minutes of desire or deny yourself an exciting sexual encounter in a train or on a plane,” Groult said in an interview that was included as a chapter in her 2008 autobiography, My Escape. (The title, she said, was a nod to her emancipation from the constraints of marriage and social conventions driven by men.)
Michel Piccoli as Pierre Bérard and Romy Schneider as Hélène Haltig in a scene from The Things of Life, a 1970 French film directed by Claude Sautet and based on Paul Guimard's 1967 novel. Guimard was Groult's fourth and last husband.
By her own account Groult was a late bloomer, as both an author and a feminist. Having taught Latin and worked in radio while raising children, she was in her 40s when she began a writing career and in her 50s when she embraced feminism. But once she took up those pursuits, she went all out, proving to be a prolific writer and an ardent activist, campaigning against female genital mutilation and other abuses. She was 55 when her book Ainsi Soit-Elle (loosely translated as As She Is) was published in 1975. It became an instant best seller in France (it was never published in English) and sealed Groult’s reputation as a leading feminist. The book explored the history of women’s rights as well as misogyny and violence against women, including sexual mutilation, which she wrote about after encountering it on a visit to Burkina Faso, then called Upper Volta. She went on to write Salt on Our Skin when she was 65; her last book, Ainsi Soit Olympe de Gouges, was published when she was 93. That last book explored women’s rights during the French Revolution, centring on the early French feminist Olympe de Gouges, who was guillotined in 1793 for challenging male authority. In 1791 de Gouges had published, as a pamphlet, a declaration of women’s rights (Déclaration Des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne).
Groult published more than 20 novels as well as many essays on feminism. She also helped found a short-lived feminist monthly, F magazine. She was made an officer of the French Légion d’Honneur, the highest French order for military and civil excellence, this year.
Groult attributed her belated awakening to feminism to her “bluestocking” Roman Catholic upbringing, which she said had given her few female role models. “I discovered that freedom isn’t just picked up naturally,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It’s something you have to learn, day after day, and very often painfully.” For that “apprenticeship,” she added, “I needed other women, those models who had been carefully hidden from me during the course of my education.”
Married women, Groult wrote, were in a particularly poor position to lead an effective fight for equality. “When the ‘oppressor’ is your lover and the father of your children and often the principal purveyor of the funds, freedom becomes a complex and risky undertaking,” she wrote in her autobiography. “So much so that many women prefer security, even under supervision, to the hazards of freedom.” In a interview with the newspaper Ouest-France, Groult reflected on her novel about Olympe de Gouges. She was asked what advice that feminist would have for women today. “She would have said: ‘Don’t get married, it’s not worth divorcing. Stay free and write what you want, in words that are yours,’” she replied. But many women, she added, would find that advice difficult to follow, even today. Olympe de Gouges could have avoided the guillotine and chosen a safer but oppressed life, Groult said. Yet she “braved all the conventions, and God knows that was hard.”
The Times of London obituary: