Let me put my cards on the table. On many occasions, both in France and in England, I have heard or read women of my own generation, the generation of the daughters that Simone de Beauvoir did not have, say what an important book her Le Deuxième Sexe was to them in youth, how it shaped their thinking. I listen uncomprehendingly. To me, this, Beauvoir’s most famous work, is a baggy, old-fashioned French academic thesis, groaning under the weight of piled-up examples of all kinds and dates. Many of its assertions were already out-of-date in even mildly liberal circles long before it was written. Yet in spite of its over-copiousness it has huge gaps in coverage and central areas of obtuseness. To believe, as Beauvoir apparently did all her life, that ‘a woman is not born but made’ is already a substantial handicap. A worse one, however, was her complete inability, remarked upon even by her most sympathetic contemporaries, to understand maternity as anything but a stultifying trap.
So why do I bother with her – and what business have I reviewing this new and deeply subversive biography? Surely I am already a hostile witness? Well, no. For Les Mandarins, with which she won the Prix Goncourt in 1954, was one of the first novels I read in