She was a Free Spirit in a Dependent Age
"She Was All That: This Single Chick Broke the Mold"
November 30, 2003
By Kate Bolick
I like to think of Neith Boyce as America’s first bachelor girl — a more serious, though equally independent, 19th-century Carrie Bradshaw. It’s not an entirely unfair notion. In 1898 Boyce wrote a column for Vogue about her life as a single woman in New York with the sort of wit and breezy social acumen taken up by sex columnists a century later (just without the sex). But to reduce her legacy to the nine or so months of her 26th year is to overlook a long and varied career.
Born in 1872, Boyce enjoyed a national reputation as a prolific novelist, journalist, and playwright from 1900 to 1920, gadding about with Mabel Dodge, Mina Loy, and Gertrude Stein, helping to found the Provincetown Players, and generally contributing to the modernist movement. But as early as 1951 her old friend Carl Van Vechten thought to mention her only on the very last page of his memoir as a “literary lady” he’d once known. Her six novels, it goes without saying, fell out of print years ago. It wasn’t until 2000 that she garnered serious space in a general-interest history book — Christine Stansell’s fantastic study of post-Victorian bohemian New York, “American Moderns.” Now, more than 50 years after her death, Boyce’s autobiography is being published for the first time.
Scrupulously — even lovingly — annotated, edited, and introduced by Carol DeBoer-Langworthy of Brown University, “The Modern World of Neith Boyce” assembles 36 years’ worth of Boyce’s autobiographical writings. Boyce wrote the bulk of this material in her late 60s, looking back on her early life — from a tragic childhood (all four of her siblings died in the diphtheria epidemic of 1880), to her late adolescence in Boston and her life as a journalist in Greenwich Village, straight on up to her marriage in 1899 to the radical writer Hutchins Hapgood. The narrative ends on their wedding night. (Unfortunately for the prurient among us; the two forged a famous open marriage.)
Throughout, Boyce refers to herself in the third person as “Iras” (like the name Neith, it is culled from ancient Egypt), a decision that both delights and saddens DeBoer-Langworthy. Boyce’s experimental approach “transformed the diary and autobiography into something truly New,” DeBoer-Langworthy writes. But her omniscient remove also “blotted out . . . the power of romance and sexuality in a life that had been, in many ways, propelled by it” — a disavowal that DeBoer-Langworthy interprets as an expression of Boyce’s disillusionment with her marriage and literary career. Boyce’s open marriage, DeBoer-Langworthy believes, enervated more than it energized her — Hapgood exercised its freedoms more assiduously, leaving Boyce to raise their four children — and by the time she died, a widow, in 1951, she was, as Van Vechten reminds us, essentially forgotten as a writer.
Omissions aside, there is a great deal to be found in this engaging account of one writer’s beginnings. Forced early on to confront her mortality (and survivor’s guilt), Boyce grew up feeling “apart from herself [and] was given to observing herself as she observed other people.” It shows. Recalling her young womanhood in New York, she wryly notes that dinner party talk “like wine was served in little shallow glasses and you had to be careful of them; you mustn’t be excited by an idea or an emotion, or you might spill your wine.”
Among the more interesting results of Boyce’s decision to retreat behind an omniscient voice is how the resulting scrim is dismantled by scholarly intervention. With access to rough drafts, DeBoer-Langworthy was able to ferret out and reveal each concealed name and glossed-over fact. For the reader, it’s a bit like sneaking a peek behind the veil.
More than half a century later, British novelist Hilary Mantel’s memoir, “Giving Up the Ghost,” written in her early middle age, seems to take an opposite and more contemporary tack; indeed, it begins with a transparency we’ve come to associate with postmodernism. “I hardly know how to write about myself,” she confesses a few pages in. “Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done. I will just go for it, I think to myself, I’ll hold out my hands and say, c’est moi, get used to it.”
But Mantel’s self-questioning ends as soon as it starts. In its place is an assuredly wise, lovely, and often amusing story of growing up Catholic in postwar England, and of an adulthood spent not only figuring out how to write, but also enduring a painful and long-misdiagnosed illness. As was the case with Boyce, sickness helped to shape Mantel’s outsider’s sensibility, though she has been the victim, not the saved. (And refreshingly, this is no saccharine “survivor’s” tale — Mantel is not afraid to be acerbic about the cards she was dealt.)
Unlike Boyce, however, Mantel wrote a book that is every inch a “memoir,” insofar as that means taking full advantage of her literary powers; her descriptions are beautiful and surprising to read, and her insights consistently judicious and deep. It is written in the first person, yes, but with the knowing restraint and a novelistic eye. Perhaps this is because she tackled it the same way she did her eight critically acclaimed novels: “I began this writing in an attempt to seize the copyright in myself.”
Kate Bolick is the deputy cultural editor of The New York Sun. Her column will appear every other month.