Violette Leduc was born in Arras Pas de Calais, France in 1907. Despite being a lesbian feminist she hated being a woman and continually went after gay men. One of them, Maurice Sachs told her to write just to get rid of her. She did. Her book Le Batarde, was the story of her upbringing as an illegitimate child which blamed on the sexuality of her mother. She once told a friend she wanted to wear a tight body stocking to hold in her breasts and then attach a “strap on” dildo in order to bed gay writer Jean Genet.
Predictably, Leduc’s early childhood is peopled entirely by women. Her mother’s angst at her sickliness and illegitimacy is tempered by the unconditional love of her grandmother, Fideline.
Lesbian writer Simone de Beauvoir in 1945, takes Leduc under her wing and encourages her to write. Leduc’s first novel, L’Asphyxie, is published by France’s premier publishing house, Gallimard, thanks to De Beauvoir’s efforts. After De Beauvoir rejects her sexually, Le Duc writes of her devastation: “She has explained that the feeling I have for her is a mirage. I don’t agree.” The word wounds her in its implication that her starved longing for love is somehow less than real – or in De Beauvoir’s terms, less authentic. “My life lies elsewhere,” Beauvoir writes in a letter to Leduc, and Leduc correctly guesses that her lover, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre “is inside that word ‘elsewhere’”
The juxtaposition of De Beauvoir and Leduc is revelatory in terms of who defines feminism and who actually lives it. Here is Leduc, a woman made feminist by experience: a fatherless, poverty-stricken childhood, a youth spent grovelling for affection and sustenance, her wartime hustle smuggling legs of lamb to rich Parisians. Her autobiography painfully and pointedly underscores her constant alienation, her surfeit of emotion. Ever the outsider, she steals, she smuggles; when she reads and learns, it is in bits and pieces. Days spent writing are imbued with worries about eating, surviving. Uninterested in branding and constructing her own myth, she bluntly tells De Beauvoir that she is not an intellectual. This annoys her mentor, to whom Leduc recalls retorting: “You are an intellectual because you write.”
In 1955 Leduc was forced to remove part of her novel Ravages because of sexually explicit passages describing lesbianism. The censored part was eventually published as a separate novel.
After decades of toiling in obscurity, Leduc would go on to publish the lesbian classic Thérèse and Isabelle.
Leduc’s best-known book, the memoir La Bâtarde, was published in 1964. It nearly won the Prix Goncourt and quickly became a bestseller. She went on to write eight more books, including La Folie en tête (Mad in Pursuit), the second part of her literary autobiography.