Jazz Age January Meets Feminist Sundays

Happy Sunday lovelies! We’ve got something a little special going on over here this weekend. One of my good blogging friends, Elena of Books and Reviews, had the brilliant idea of writing a pair of crossover posts for my Jazz Age January reading challenge and her Feminist Sundays feature. We each wrote a post about feminists and feminism of the 1920s, and I’m thrilled to be hosting her post about Zelda Fitzgerald. You can find my post, about how women’s social roles changed in the ’20s, over on her blog!jaj fs

Here’s Elena’s post!

Hi! I’m Elena from Books and Reviews and today I’m honoured to be mixing up my Feminist Sundays theme with Leah and her Jazz Age January.

Zelda Fitzgerald is one of the most underrated and controversial women in the Jazz Age. She is usually referred to as “Scott Fitzgerald’s wife”, but Zelda was much more than that. In this post, I hope to humanise Zelda and explore her life and talent beyond her image as Fitzgerald’s wife.

zelda fizgerald.jpg-w=600&h=402

Zelda was born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama, in June 1900. She was the younger daughter of a well-known and respected family: her father was a judge and her mother a Southern Belle. Zelda grew up being one of Montgomery’s most beautiful and artistic girls, known for her dancing and her active life. She met Scott Fitzgerald when she was 18 and he, a soldier, had camped in Montgomery. He was 4 years her senior and her family did not approve of the relationship, as they saw it would get Zelda out of the conventional and traditional Southern and Baptist lifestyle they had in mind for her. But Zelda wanted more. They started a relationship that would be interrupted when he was sent north, thinking that he would be sent to fight in France. Eventually, he remained in the United States and the two resumed their relationship, with Scott sending her mother’s ring to Zelda in 1920. Meanwhile, Scott had been working on his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), and when it was finally published he returned to Montgomery to pick the prize he thought Zelda was. These early stages of their relationship show what many think Zelda was: a manipulative, ambitious young girl who would only be with Scott if he were successful. But, taking into account the kind of life Zelda was accustomed to, and her education, she was probably trying to secure a life of herself via the only way women had at that time: marriage.

They both moved north and married and Scott continued writing while they both became superstars. There is a famous episode of Zelda dancing on a fountain in New York and, gossip columns of the time show that she was a young woman enjoying herself in the Big City. However, it was during these first years of their marriage that they set a dynamic it would last for her whole life: Scott was the writer, the great writer, and Zelda was his wife and mother to their daughter. There is also a widespread idea that Zelda’s mental health made it even more difficult to Scott to be successful and she was blamed for a long time for Scott’s lack of “another Gatsby”.

But, a more thoughtful look into Zelda’s life explains a lot. She had grown in a town where everyone knew and respected her family, and she was also the younger of the Sayre children, so she had enjoyed more freedom than customary allowed. She was also an artistic and active woman and when all the partying started to wear her down, she found herself with nothing to do. Scott’s alcoholism did not help either, and their expensive lifestyle soon forced them to take new measures. So, Zelda put her talent to work and she started writing. The problem was, her stories came out under her husband’s name because they would earn twice as much than if they were published under hers. Again, Zelda felt victim to his husband’s success and society’s patriarchal norms. Meanwhile, she had been portrayed during this period of her life as a selfish woman who urged her husband to earn more money she could spend. Take, for example, the famous fur coat she got when they were short of money. Many say she pressured Scott into buying it for her, but recent research into Zelda shows that it may have been the other way round.

Finally, Zelda started to suffer from mental disease derived from the golden jail her life was. She wanted to dance again, so, while in Paris, she attended as many lessons as she could until her body gave up. She was no longer the young, athletic Montgomery teen she had been before giving her life up for Scott and their marriage. So, she became frustrated and started to suffer from anxiety and obsessive behaviour. From this moment on, her mental health deteriorated and this is how Zelda has survived in the collective imaginary. While I am a huge Woody Allen fan and the scene brought tears of laughter to my eyes, Zelda is portrayed in Midnight in Paris (2011) as a crazy young lady who is offered a Valium by the film’s main character after trying to throw herself to the Seine. She mumbles, during the scene, that her husband loves another women and, taking into account Scott’s infidelities, she was probably right.

Luckily, there has been a growing and more serious interest in Zelda during the last years and she has been explored as the complex individual she really was, rather than merely “Fitzgerald’s wife”. Therese Ann Fowler, author of Z, a historical first account of Zelda’s life said of her:

“I had come to the project with the idea that she was just F Scott Fitzgerald’s crazy, disruptive wife. I didn’t really know anything about her. And very quickly I recognised that she was very badly misrepresented in popular culture. The more I learned, the more compelled I was to set the record straight – it became kind of a mission.”

Also, feminism has taken the label “crazy” and explored it from a gender perspective. Ever since Betty Friedan talked about “the nameless problem” in The Feminine Mystique, female mental healthy has become key to understand the struggles and restraints suffered by past women. As Heather Laine Talley and Vali Forrister put it:

“Crazy” is a gendered trope. Arguably, calling women “crazy” is the most commonly-used strategy for stereotyping and devaluing us.”

So, taking into account Zelda’s artistic ambitions, her real talent and the fact that both her husband and society did not expect her to fulfil herself artistically, it is no wonder she started to suffer from mental problems. Who wouldn’t? As Esther in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) suffers when she is torn between what she wants and what society expects from her, Zelda was torn between her artistic drive and what the rest of the world thought she should do: be a content wife and a mother. She was not crazy and she was not a burden to her husband, she was just a human being with no liberty or freedom to define herself and lead a significant life. She actually wrote a novel, Save Me the Waltz (1932), a semi auto-biographical account of her life with Scott and a controversial novel due to the similarities with her husband’s Tender is the Night (1934). However, Zelda’s has been usually disregarded and known as plagiarised version of Scott’s. But, taking into account both works are based on their life together, it is no wonder there are similarities.

With this post, I hoped to clear things a little bit about Zelda and her image in popular culture. One of the goals of feminism is to recover previous authors and break away with the myths surrounding them. In Zelda’s case, it means breaking away with her crazy-lady image and stop blaming her for any of Scott’s downfalls in his career. Meanwhile, strategies such as including her family name “Sayre” and exploring Scott’s stories in search for their real authorship have helped to recover the real Zelda. But if you want to know more about her, here is some suggested reading that I loved:

“Call me Zelda” (The Guardian)

“Zelda wasn’t crazy” (The Huffington Post) by Heather Laine Talley and Vali Forrister.

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald

The Iceberg: A Story by Zelda Fitzgerald

Z: A Novel by Therese Ann Fowler

Huge thanks to Leah for letting me a guest on her wonderful blog! Isn’t she amazing?

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16 thoughts on “Jazz Age January Meets Feminist Sundays

  1. This is awesome. Thank you!
    The reading on Zelda reminds me of what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, ““Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. ”

    It needn’t be so two dimensional whereby our options are limited to crazy and angelic. We are of course only human beings, capable of both.

    I am so glad to know there is more to her than her ‘crazy’.

  2. I heard Erika Robuck, who wrote Call Me Zelda, talk at my local bookstore earlier this year and she spent a good amount of time talking about the research she found behind Zelda just really being misunderstood in her time. So glad to see this shared here!

  3. Elena, brilliant look at Zelda Fitzgerald, a strong woman eons ahead of her time and completely misunderstood. Hopefully, women of today can shed more light on Zelda and other women like her. Just read Fowler’s novel, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I believe she captured Zelda in a realistic way.

    Thanks, Elena and Leah, for a great way to crossover and bring your two topics together. I love it!

  4. Oh my, what a great post! I have found the Fitzgerald’s fascinating for years, but also had the same stereotypical opinion of Zelda. I am going to dig out my copies of Z: A Novel and Zelda’s book Save the Last Dance and give them both a gander. I hate it when someone is misremembered by history. The audacity of history!

    • It’s so sad to think of how Zelda was perceived; she was ahead of her time but also suffering from mental illness that wasn’t understood during her life.

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