Lisa Alther and Françoise Gilot’s About Women: A Conversation Between a Writer and a Painter, newly out from Nan. A Talese/Doubleday, is a long conversation in book form. Alther is a writer from the American South, Gilot a painter from Paris. They are women from two different generations, who have formed a 25-year friendship.
Throughout the book, they discuss making art as women and balancing the creative drive with the demands of life: children, careers, style, feminism, and even living through wartime. In the following excerpt, they compare stories of being young and having suddenly rebellious reactions towards ultra-feminine outfits they were required to wear — Sarah Seltzer
Françoise Gilot: When I was eleven, the Catholic Church proclaimed 1933 a Holy Year, since Christ had died when he was thirty-three. My maternal grandmother, my mother, a first cousin of my grandmother’s who was a deacon, is nephew who was a priest, and I went to Italy on a kind of pilgrimage by train, stopping in Florence and Assisi.
After that, we went to Rome, where we were supposed to be received, along with twenty other French people, by Pius XI, a very nice man, unlike his successor, Pius XII. Pius XI was very democratic and had difficulty dealing with Mussolini, so he was okay.
For an audience with the pope, women are supposed to wear black with black mantillas, and girls are supposed to wear white silk and white lace mantillas. As you know by now, I hate lace. There’s a limit to femininity, and lace is it. I like linen, silk, cotton, wool, even embroidery, but lace _ no! Lace is too much.
We were staying in a nice hotel, and I went to my room, and what do I see on my bed? A white dress, with a white lace mantilla next to it. So this was what they had concocted for me for that event.
I thought, “Oh, no, I’ll look too ridiculous.”
Next to the bed was a writing table where I had been writing my memoirs of the trip, so I took the bottle of ink…
Lisa Alther: You little brat!
FG: I made a spot on the beautiful pleated skirt, knowing that if I did it on the lace, they’d know Id done it n purpose.
Then I shouted as if in despair, “Oh, what a terrible thing! I’ve made a spot on my skirt, and now I can’t go to the audience with the pope.” Meeting the pope didn’t mean much to me at eleven.
My grandmother and my mother arrived from the other room to find me tearing my hair and crying.
They said, “Don’t cry. It’s only fountain pen ink, and we can have it cleaned for tonight.”
By five o’clock, the dress was back in perfect condition. This was a terrible moment for me because I had been taught that the pope was infallible, so I thought he would call me a naughty little girl in front of all those people.
So it wasn’t a very happy little girl who saw the Swiss Guards dressed in their uniforms of red and yellow. We waited in a large room with a throne. In comes the pope, all in white. He blesses us and then sits on his throne. He says in French how pleased he is to see us.
Then he says, “You, little girl, come up here, and I will bless you specially.”
LA: Like Santa Claus.
FG: I walked up to the throne thinking I was about to be exposed. I knelt and kissed his beautiful white and gold slipper, then kissed his ring. He blessed me and said absolutely nothing about my terrible crime. Apparently, he was infallible in matters much more important.
Strangely enough, my remorse was much more afterward because no one had punished me. I knew what I had done was really nasty, yet I had gotten away with it. So you see that ceremonies in white for me are associated with misbehavior on my part for which nothing bad happened.
LA: And always to do with lace.
FG: Yes, I have a very bad relationship with lace.
LA: A southern wedding is indeed like a waking nightmare. Mine started three weeks before the actual day. Richard, my intended, came down from New york. We had seven bridesmaids and seven ushers who arrived from all over the United States. For three weeks, there were breakfasts, luncheons, teas, showers, dinners, cocktail parties, all day every day. It’s mainly because all the adults, friends of my parents, wanted to give parties because my parents had given their children parties, or would in the future.
The way you got through this is you’re the bride is by drinking. I’d been drinking champagne for three weeks by the time my wedding day arrived. I was pickled. It was like my debutante party: it was all so ingrained in me that I didn’t think to question it, even though my bridesmaids from other parts of the country were astonished by this tribal ritual.
On the day of my wedding, we started with champagne at ten in the morning, and the service as at seven that evening. I had my hair done and then went to a buffet in the afternoon, after which we were supposed to get dressed for the service.
All of a sudden I got fed up with the whole thing and dived into the swimming pool with my new hairdo. All the guests gasped with horror because a southern woman can’t get married without a bouffant hairdo. I came out dripping wet, and the women bundled me into a car and took me home for a mass blow-drying session.
I wore my sister-in-law’s dress, which was Brussels lace with a floor-length skirt. Lace again! It was a gorgeous dress. But I was sad because I didn’t get to pick a dress of my own. I’d worn my older brother’s hand-me-down clothes and played with his cast-off toys throughout my childhood, and now I was wearing his wife’s wedding dress. But my parents thought it was ridiculous even to think of spending hundreds of dollars on a new dress when here was this perfectly beautiful one that had been worn only once before.
There was a huge tent in the backyard of my house for the reception, a band, more champagne. Everybody danced, and then Richard and I left for our honeymoon in Portugal.
So I didn’t think to question until it was too late whether or not the role of wife was one I could fulfill. Diving into the pool and wrecking my hairdo must have been my feeble gesture toward escape.
FG: That’s parallel to my gesture of throwing ink on my dress. All those ceremonies are rites of passage, and it’s quite normal that a young person would be reluctant to go from a state already known to a state about which you may have doubts and reservations. Our type of reaction is typical of both you and me as rebellious characters. Most girls are enchanted to put on beautiful dresses and go through those rituals. To the contrary, that’s what they want. They aren’t dubious at all.