The last virgins, growing up in an increasingly fantastic colonial tribe
Janet van Eeden
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Another biographical work by Gordon, first written and published in 1992, has recently been relaunched by Virago. Called Shared Lives, this biography is unusual in the genre in that it deals with the lives of ordinary people - people who have not made their mark in the world in the way that Gordon's previous subjects have. In fact, Gordon herself is one of the subjects in this biography, which traces the lives of four young girls growing up in Cape Town during the 1950s and '60s.
Gordon quotes from Virginia Woolf's The Art of Biography at the outset of her book:
The question now inevitably asks itself, whether the lives of great men only should be recorded. Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography - the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious? And what is greatness? And what is smallness?Taking these sentiments as her guide, Gordon traces the lives of four white Jewish girls growing up in Apartheid South Africa. She examines not only the restrictions of being Jewish, but also - albeit obliquely - the incongruity of whites living almost unwittingly under the shadow of racial oppression. And finally Gordon examines what being women in the South Africa of that time meant intrinsically. As much as any of the other factors, women in the fifties were oppressed by the limitations of the expectations placed upon them by the society in which they found themselves.
Gordon describes her characters in this biography - which I keep wanting to call a novel, as it is so readable - as being "… the last virgins, growing up in an increasingly fantastic colonial tribe".
The lives of the girls, Flora, Lyndall, Ellie and Rosie, are traced through the first stirrings of rebellion at high school through to their later lives. Three of the women died prematurely, and perhaps it is the untimely death of her friends which prompted Gordon to examine her own life in the context of theirs. She states that it took her until she was forty-six before she had enough perspective to write about the lives of these women. "The time has come, then, to record the end of a way of life and, more elusive, the truncated lives of women who were shaped by a warped society yet who were, all the same, portents of the future."
The reader is taken on an exploratory journey of the lives of the four young women growing up in an unhealthy society but who are still able to sense the possibilities of a life unlike those led by their mothers.
The story is a very moving one. The significance of this joint biography is that these women's lives parallel the growth of the female psyche from accepting the compliant domestic role without question, into the first tangible expressions of the women's liberation movement in the sixties. The author explores her struggle, and the struggle of her friends, to find themselves in a narrative which has a future with a variety of possibilities, and not just an ending which closes in upon them when they marry and are supposed to live happily after.
The story begins when the girls are at school together at the Good Hope Seminary. Flora's, Ellie's and Rosie's parents are immigrants, and Flora's parents are, in fact, refugees from the Holocaust. Gordon states that this fact seemed to make all three girls extremely articulate - as if to compensate for their parents' lack of fluency in the English language. Flora's family lives in Woodstock at first, as her parents struggle to counteract the debilitating effects of recent immigration. It is only after some time that Flora Gevint's family effects the transition to the much more socially acceptable area of Sea Point, where the others live.
Perhaps because of the recent trauma of her family which echoes in every word Mrs Gevint utters, Flora is the most colourful character of all. She wants to be larger than life, it seems. She spends time at school trying to perfect her Brigitte Bardot pout and keeps changing her name throughout her life until she finally settles on "Romy" as a suitably dramatic moniker. It is Flora too, who, along with Ellie, is determined to make herself fit the image of the perfect woman of the fifties. She and Ellie take on the idea of "glamour" with all that entails, nipping in their waists and studying perfect "womanly" responses to situations, especially those in which men are involved.
In contrast, Lyndall embraces her "plainness", as she calls it, which allows her the freedom "from the distorting temptations of conformity". This poses a truly awful dilemma for her family and friends, as the most important thing in any young Jewish girl's life is to find herself a husband. As Gordon asserts, Jane Austen's Mrs Bennett had nothing on the average Jewish mama.
The women grow up and their education is almost a by-product of their social experiences. Men dominate the minds of two of the girls, Flora and Ellie, more than the others.
At the end of her second year at university, Lyndall looks forward to English III and History III and cherishes the prospect of sitting on the steps of "Jammies" at UCT. She is shaken from this casual idyll by her beloved Granny, who tells her that she'd better ensure that her boyfriend Siamon "talks over his plans with her", because if he hasn't …
"… spoken to you, he's going to leave you, and you'll have given him the best years of your life."From that moment, Gordon says, marriage to Siamon was inevitable. It is interesting to note that Gordon stopped writing in the diary she had kept since she was ten years on the day she was married in 1963. As she puts it, "In one sense, the story of growing up had come to the foregone conclusion. In another sense, I was vanishing along with my generation into the rituals of the tribe."
Flora, by contrast, finds herself the object of many men's desires, but cannot decide on what she really wants from men or from life. It is interesting to read about women to whom virginity is a non-negotiable factor of their relationships with men. Sleeping with a man before marriage is not an option. Flora becomes deeply entwined in many relationships, a number of them very serious (especially in the eyes of the men), but she can't decide on what she really wants. Finally, she is well into her late twenties before she finally sleeps with a stranger in a fit of pique after the man she really loves becomes unavailable to her. It goes without saying that theirs was a very different world from the one we know today.
Flora embodies, more than the others, a sense of limitless possibilities for women for the first time. It is she who finds joy and friendship in intellectual relationships in Israel and who urges Lyndall to foster close friendships and not marry young. It is she who waits and waits for the perfect relationship with a man. It is almost a pity, then, that she marries the man to whom she loses her virginity almost by default. Eventually, though, when she and her husband move to Paris to further his career prospects, Flora - who has become definitively Romy at this time - is happier than she has ever been before and is looking forward to having her first child. After a brief visit to South Africa in 1976, she returns to Paris via a short stay in Mauritius and suddenly sickens and dies. She was sick for just three days. Gordon believes that Legionnaire's Disease - which was identified when it killed 34 Legionnaires later that same year at a hotel in America - could very well explain the suddenness of Romy's death.
Rosie's life follows a more traditional pattern. She marries and has children and plays out the role of the perfect wife and becomes a very proficient public relations officer. She loves acting, and when she was the first of the friends to die of the romantically charged disease leukaemia - thanks to the legacy of Rosie's much loved film Love Story - she was in full, perfect make-up. Gordon states that "Rose's death was her achievement. She died with her mask in place, calm - and invisible to the end."
Ellie becomes a clinical psychologist, a detached observer of the world around her, which perfectly suits her sense of being an observer. She resists marriage but always has a man around. She comes to see Lyndall in 1984, when Lyndall is living in London, to ask her to help her endure a last resort treatment for the cancer which is consuming her. She is still as beautiful and apparently detached as ever, but has an unsuitable and needy man in the background. Gordon can't help drawing the conclusion that the parasitic nature of the man has caused the cancer in her friend. When Ellie returns to die at home in South Africa, the man is nowhere to be found.
Gordon's own life is the most interesting to me in the biography. Her husband Siamon's own academic career takes off and the young couple move to New York. Siamon has a post at Rockefeller University and Lyndall is pregnant. Siamon encourages Lyndall to pursue her education beyond that of her undergraduate degree, but his male colleagues strongly discourage her needs to study as mere "selfishness".
A turning point is reached when the homesick Lyndall finally gives birth in the cold and disinterested New York hospital. She is horrified by how little birth resembles the slight discomfort her aunt assured her it would be. "Hit with pain that seemed unendurable, I wondered where I had gone wrong. Almost with disbelief I heard myself scream in the midst of a late contraction, as busy orderlies dumped me, like a sack of potatoes, onto the delivery table … I came out of that labour a changed person. Nature, Wordsworth said, was the nurse, the guide, the guardian, but nature, I now knew, was not benign; it was a relentless force for regeneration that would not stop," Gordon writes.
As Lyndall is stuck at home with a young baby daughter, she finds herself deep in a depression through which "I lay inert through all the hours and minutes of the day, hardly able to speak." Time spent in hospital does no good. Neither does the standard treatment of shock therapy. It takes a course in Latin and the exploration of Virgil to give Lyndall hope to "press on in the face of hopelessness" as Virgil expressed it. This breakthrough is followed by Flora's visit to New York which gives Lyndall back the person she had been before marriage.
Flora leaves and Lyndall realises life still has possibilities open to her. She is able to create a narrative for herself which doesn't have to end with her as only a wife and mother. Lyndall begins to pursue her dream of postgraduate studies. And it is this path which becomes her salvation.
I identified with Gordon's experiences as a young mother intensely. As much as one loves one's children, it is hard to see a future beyond nappies and meals when the children are completely dependent on one for their very survival. This reality is completely limiting for women who had envisaged a more independent future for themselves. Lyndall's battle with her depression is one of the most moving parts of the book.
Gordon's sensitive descriptions of the deaths of her three friends Rosie, Romy and finally Ellie, make one realise that death bestows a kind of sanctity to a life not lived to its full potential. And this sanctity is in contrast to the lives of those of us who live on, maturing and withering into an old age which is not particularly mourned when we pass on.
Gordon's personal biography has significance beyond the mere details of four young women's lives. Its significance lies in the fact that it outlines alternatives to women, then and now. And the experiences of the real women, the author no less than the others, in trying to live lives which are socially acceptable, at the cost of their own personal journeys, is what makes this biography such a compelling read.
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