Female Autobiographers?
September 29, 2011 1:20 PM   Subscribe

Awesome autobiographies by European women.

A friend of mine pitched a class on the history of European Autobiography. Now that they're drawing up the syllabus they're realizing that there are very few women on it--right now all we have is Heloise, of Abelard & fame. Are there any autobiographies by European women you just love?
posted by besonders to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The Diary of Anne Frank. Her helper, Miep Gies, wrote an autobiography in the 1980s, which was also very powerful.
posted by Melismata at 1:22 PM on September 29, 2011

I love The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir.
It is a very readable and enjoyable book - and it offers a decent biography on six extra-ordinary, yet very different woman. It is really a great book.
posted by Flood at 1:26 PM on September 29, 2011

The Prime of Life: The Autobiography of Simone De Beauvoir.

Childhood by Nathalie Sarraute.
posted by alms at 1:28 PM on September 29, 2011

The memoirs of Glickl bas Judah Leib (also known as Gl├╝ckl of Hameln) and of Sister Marie de l'Incarnation might be worth looking at for early modern material. Natalie Zemon Davis provides an engaging overview of their writings and lives in her 1995 book Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives.
posted by brianogilvie at 1:34 PM on September 29, 2011

I cannot say that its very good, having never read it, but Isabel Burton (wife of Sir Richard Burton) was quite a remarkable woman in her own right, and she has an unfinished autobiography, The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton. It's available online.
posted by elendil71 at 1:34 PM on September 29, 2011

Best answer: Margery Kempe.

Not the normal kind of autobiography, but its early date (1430s) makes for a fascinating insight.
posted by Jehan at 1:36 PM on September 29, 2011

A Russian Childhood by Sofya Kovalevskaya (1850-1891).

She was a brilliant mathematician but her autobiography talked surprisingly little about math and more about how she wanted to be writing plays but people kept getting after her to do math. It was also interesting to learn the lengths she had to go to to study math. Bonus, she and her sister had some complicated love triangle with Dostoevsky.
posted by carolr at 1:54 PM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Schopenhauer's mother, Johanna Schopenhauer. Here is the text (German only).
posted by miorita at 2:02 PM on September 29, 2011

Not necessarily an autobiography, but Naomi Mitchison kept a diary of her life during WW2 called Among You Taking Notes. Well worth a read, especially because she was very politically active and has great insights into the war and being a woman during that time.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 2:03 PM on September 29, 2011

A good 18th-century list.

The subgenre of actress memoirs is especially worth a look: A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke and An Apology for the Life of George Anne Bellamy, in particular. The latter is on archive.org and scanned by Google Books.
posted by holgate at 2:04 PM on September 29, 2011

A more recent one, a favourite of mine: Lorna Sage, Bad Blood
posted by miorita at 2:06 PM on September 29, 2011

Lou Andreas Salome
George Sand
Alma Mahler
posted by ouke at 2:17 PM on September 29, 2011

Diana Athill (b.1917), a noted literary editor, has written several memoirs. I'm particularly keen on Stet.
posted by HandfulOfDust at 2:20 PM on September 29, 2011

Vera Brittain wrote several volumes of memoir about her experiences as a nurse in WWI and her later years.
posted by telophase at 2:31 PM on September 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Teresa of Avila's spiritual memoir The Interior Castle?

She also did write her own autobiography, but The Interior Castle is far more famous (and interesting).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:57 PM on September 29, 2011

Best answer: Nina Berberova. The Italics are Mine. About a Russian writer who fled Russia during the revolution, lived in exile mainly in Paris, survived the Second World War there, in occupied France, and then moved to America.

Especially her war diary in that book is very good.
posted by ijsbrand at 3:06 PM on September 29, 2011

Not an entire autobiography, but a snippet:
If you read Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer The Farm in the Green Mountains against her husband Carl Zuckmayer's A Part of Myself, that's quite a treat.

I was going to add Tilla Durieux My first ninety years but that's apparently only available in German.
posted by Namlit at 3:39 PM on September 29, 2011

Colette's My Mother's House and Sido.
posted by brujita at 4:53 PM on September 29, 2011

A Partisan's Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust by Faye Shulman is an excellent read. She seriously kicks butt
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 7:07 PM on September 29, 2011

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford, one of the Mitford sisters.

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), if it's OK for the events of the memoir to take place on another continent, as long as the author is European.
posted by clair-de-lune at 10:27 PM on September 29, 2011

A Woman in Berlin.

I've heard that Giving up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel is brilliant, but I haven't read it yet. Same for Janice Galloway, This is not about me. Both of these are much more recent, though.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 12:36 AM on September 30, 2011

This is a huge question - are you able to narrow it down by time period or are you really looking for anything autobiographical by European women? I feel unless you can narrow it down you will get a kind of scattergun of suggestions - especially as autobiography / memoir has been such a growth thing recently, so much came out of the women's movement, and feminist theorists have looked at the problematic relationships between women and autobiography. Do you want literal autobiography only or stuff that pushes at the boundaries between fiction and autobiog? What about autobiographical writings that are more diary-like or weren't published at the time? Oral reminiscences?

If you haven't already read The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings ed Shari Benstock (can't find a good link) that gives European examples as well as US.

Some random ones that haven't been mentioned (sticking to literal autobiog):

Notes from an Island by Tove Jansson;

Her Own Life: Autobiographical writings by seventeenth-century Englishwomen (texts by 12 women, from a shipwright's daughter to a duchess), eds Elspeth Graham et al;

Margaret Oliphant's Autobiography and Letters.

Annie Besant's Autobiographical Sketches.

Annie S Swan's My Life.

You can see my own focus is 19thc British so not sure how useful that is - I have lots more if you're interested.
posted by paduasoy at 3:24 AM on September 30, 2011

Nuala O'Faolain, the Irish journalist, wrote a brilliant memoir.
I think she even followed it with a novel covering some of the same territory.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 8:30 AM on September 30, 2011

Novelist Margery Allingham's extraordinary wartime memoir The Oaken Heart has been out of print for years and years, and was just re-published with additional documentary material.
posted by dizziest at 9:02 AM on September 30, 2011

I don't think Hildegard of Bingen wrote an actual autobiography, but she did talk about her life in many of her writings.
posted by kristi at 11:39 AM on October 1, 2011

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