Consanguineous Minds

A blog of endless curiosity

Eve & Zelda. Writing, repression and mental illness.

Mettro Arts on Edward St in Brisbane is running an incredible play at the moment called ‘Eve’. It’s about the final years of loneliness and mental illness of Australian/NZ writer Eve Langley. Her story of illness and creativity, and of struggling to be a female writer in a man’s world was interwoven with Oscar Wilde’s story of The Selfish Giant. In the play Eve was obsessed, and possessed by Oscar Wilde, holding onto him as a stronger self, her snap character changes evoking multiple personality disorder. Indeed, Langley changed her name by deed poll to Oscar Wilde.

This character fascinated me entirely. The close relationship with mental illness and writing is one that has been explored many times, but in the play (and in Langley’s life) there was the additional factor of gender repression. Langley associated writing with masculinity, and often dressed as a man throughout her life. Early in her life she took off around Australia with her sister, dressed as men, picking peas and hops. She wrote a semi-autobiographical book about it called ‘The Pea Pickers’. Her husband committed her when she became psychologically ill.

In her writing, Langley experimented, against the grain of the mores of society at the time to explore ” identity inversions and temporal, spatial, and sexual dislocations that make the gender politics of Orlando seem by comparison about as radical as those of Peter Pan.” (1)

Throughout the play I was reminded of another female writer who was committed, since I’ve just finished reading ‘Tender is the Night’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda Fitzgerald also lived in a man’s world in which she struggled against the traditional confines of marriage and female roles. A dancer and writer, she was clearly compelled to create and express herself. Fitzgerald, by all accounts was unsupportive of her creative talents, and had her committed several times, including at the time he was writing ‘Tender is the Night’. Interestingly both Eve and Zelda were labelled schizophrenics. Both were married to artists, Eve to a painter, Zelda to Fitzgerald, who “appropriated passages from her personal writings for This Side of Paradise” (2) and other works.

Zelda’s written work is critical of the strictures put on women, and of the society she lived in which gave “young women unrealistic, Hollywood-based tastes and expectations, and no options for finanical survival beyond menial jobs or loveless marriages” (2).

Quite frankly, if I’d been living through the early 1900s like these women I’d have been twice as mad, and would probably have only scraps of sentences scrawled on handkerchiefs to show for it. Their creative output under such duress is a testament to the desire to create, to the strength and flexibility of their characters. Both women had tragic ends, Eve died poor and alone in the 1970s, and was dead a number of days before she was found. Zelda burned to death in an asylum in the late 1940s. I can’t help but wonder if they would have been key artists of their time had society, or their husbands been more supportive of women, and their careers. One wonders too if much has changed. Children or career? Mother or writer? Women are still expected to make so many sacrifices of their talents, careers and lives to fulfill the biological function of child bearing, and the social function of child rearing. The standard narrative is still one of marriage and parenthood. Young women are still enticed by advertising and pop culture to have Hollywood tastes and bodies and expectations. They are taught that beauty trumps all else, and that their bodies are commodities – the price of which can be raised by adding powders and colours. Thank fuck a lot of women learn to shut all the bullshit out – and that now we are free to do so without being bundled up into madhouses.
“O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; No more of that” (Shakespeare’s King Lear).

Consanguineous References:

1. Colwill, R. 1994. ‘Eve plays her Wilde card and makes the straight flush’. Hecate 20.1: 10.

2.  Petry, A. 1989: ‘Women’s work: The case of Zelda Fitzgerald’. Literature Interpretation Theory, 1:1-2, 69-83

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