She was the feminist icon made famous by her 1949 seminal treatise, The Second Sex, and her open relationship with fellow writer Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she swapped sexual partners. Now a vast trove of 20,000 letters reveals that Simone de Beauvoir sparked an extraordinary outpouring of emotion from readers in Britain and across the globe.
Far from ordinary fan mail, these are letters filled with an exceptional author-reader intimacy. Both men and women sought her advice on everything from marriage to mistresses, sexual confusion to sex, abortions to affairs.
De Beauvoir’s own life was far from uncomplicated, but readers responded to a radical existential philosopher and writer who challenged the very notion of womanhood, arguing that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”.
They confided their innermost secrets. In 1962 – five years before homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain – a 36-year-old British woman sent her a shockingly frank letter: “I am what is called a pervert, a lesbian. My friend and I have loved each other for years. Could you give me the name of a doctor who could perform a surgical operation on me to change me into a man?”
In 1952, a 39-year-old French teacher confided: “I have never felt either love or voluptuous feeling. I am not really pretty, though my body is attractive enough. No one has given me a moment to quiver with desire.”
Long before abortion had been decriminalised in England in 1967, one woman wrote of “sobbing in despair” after experiencing an illegal operation on a “dirty” table.
The letters span the tumultuous years from the aftermath of the second world war to the early gay liberation and feminist movements, from the publication of The Second Sex to De Beauvoir’s retrospective autobiographical coda, All Said and Done.
The correspondence has been studied for the first time by Judith Coffin, associate professor of history at the University of Texas. She stumbled across its existence in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris while doing some research into The Second Sex.
“Nothing prepared me for the drama I found,” she recalled. “An outpouring of projection, identification, expectation, disappointment and passion.”
She said: “Authors get letters, but they don’t always save them. This was a revelation, how much she cared about her readers, why she saved all these letters.”
She described the archive as “a cultural artefact of the 20th century”.
I found an outpouring of projection, identification, expectation, disappointment and passion
It inspired her to explore the intimate bond between the famed author and her public for a book, titled Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir, which will be published by Cornell University Press on 15 September.
Coffin said that people saw De Beauvoir as both a brilliant intellectual and an agony aunt with “hypersensitivity of the purest kind”, as one letter-writer put it. This was why they were prepared to pour out private thoughts to a stranger, she surmised.
Coffin was particularly struck by the fact that almost a third of the letters came from men: “A reminder about the range of De Beauvoir’s topics and also that personal life, selfhood and women’s search for equality and freedom implicated and interested men.”
As much of the material is so personal, Coffin generally refrained from identifying anyone. She was unnerved in recognising one letter-writer as a close friend’s father. He had written a 10-page letter in 1964 about his “failed” private life, his much younger mistress and his jealousy when the mistress cheated on him.
That friend shared the unpublished three-page reply with Coffin. Dismissing his reference to her relationship with Sartre, she wrote: “I was very much interested in your letter. But – in all sympathy – I find you are acting in very bad faith. Nothing in this story is like my pact with Sartre. First, we were more or less the same age, a little over 20, while you are 20 years older than [your mistress].”
De Beauvoir’s refusal to marry – while devoted to Sartre – inspired numerous letters. One reader wrote: “You are a model for all of us… love without pettiness, without jealousy.”
Coffin notes that several letters reveal struggles with domestic abuse and violence at a time when such issues were virtually taboo. One woman wrote: “I am not happy at all with my husband. He is very sensitive and very violent.”
The letter-writers came from all walks of life, from factory workers to doctors. De Beauvoir died in 1986, but they still write to her, leaving their notes at her grave at the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.