Abortion, Identity Formation, and the Expatriate Woman Writer: H.D. and Kay Boyle in the Twenties

By Hollenberg, Donna | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Abortion, Identity Formation, and the Expatriate Woman Writer: H.D. and Kay Boyle in the Twenties


Hollenberg, Donna, Twentieth Century Literature


In memoirs written later in life, when they were self-assured, H.D. and Kay Boyle speak of their respective decisions to leave America for the "freedom" of England and France as if their youthful expatriation were simply liberation from outmoded literary conventions and inhibiting roles as women. H.D. wrote, referring to the anomaly of being a woman writer in the male literary world of America in 1911, "We had no signposts, at that time" ("Compassionate" 12). In fact, in both cases their anxiety over the conflict between conventional femininity and literary ambition increased soon after arrival abroad. For although expatriation was ultimately crucial to each woman's artistic development, Europe during World War I and its aftermath also proved a place of personal suffering.

Both women were seriously ill and emotionally troubled in connection with pregnancies during the early part of their sojourns abroad: H.D. lost her first child, stillborn in 1915, and almost died of pneumonia in England during her second, illegitimate pregnancy in 1918-1919 (during which her brother and father died). Although she and her daughter survived, a continuing conflict about creativity and procreativity may have contributed to a third pregnancy and her decision to have an abortion in 1928, a year after her mother's death, a choice that exacerbated her psychological pain (Guest 194, 195).(1) Kay Boyle, in addition to bearing a daughter out of wedlock in France in 1927, after the death of her lover before their child was born, underwent two abortions in the twenties. The first, in 1921, at the beginning of her first marriage, before she went abroad with her husband, seems to have been relatively benign ("Kay" 17-22).(2) The second, during a period of collapse in 1928-1929, when she was separated from her daughter, coincided with the contraction of spinal meningitis (Being 317).(3)

Expatriated, bereaved, and separated from their families, both women regressed emotionally during these crises. They reverted to an earlier mode of psychological functioning, a state of mind that H.D. later called the "'jelly-fish' experience of double ego" (Tribute 116), referring to an unnerving heightening of perception after her daughter's birth, and that Kay Boyle described as a "total disintegration of whatever I was or was not" (Being 317), referring to the period of depression and promiscuity before her second abortion. However, perhaps because their emotional adaptation had falsified them in the first place, this regression led to a penetrating exploration, in their early fiction, of psychological and social patterns that contributed to the repetition of the very gender roles they chafed against.

Both writers record their painfully acquired maternal subjectivity in psychologically specific ways, and they learn to read their personal circumstances as part of larger cultural power structures. In particular, such bildungsromans as H.D.'s Asphodel, Paint It Today, and Palimpsest and Kay Boyle's Plagued By the Nightingale, Year Before Last, and My Next Bride embody a psychological drama of underlying, problem-ridden mother-daughter attachment that combines with a social drama of exile, with conflicting longings for freedom, and with yearnings for a maternal home. In addition, H.D. in her short story "Two Americans," written shortly after her abortion, uses geographical and racial metaphors to recast her anxiety about motherhood and authorship in cultural terms. Because of their protagonists' position between cultures, the meanings of "home" and "abroad" become overdetermined and ambiguous in these texts. Each is alternatively oppressive and desirable, so that they cancel each other out as areas outside the self, revealing, instead, an inner region that has been repressed (Gilbert).(4)

Such feminist theorists as Jessica Benjamin, Nancy Chodorow, and Luce Irigaray have analyzed the effects of gender polarity on the formation of identity. For these theorists the view of female development prevalent in general psychoanalytic discourse, in which differentiation from an objectified mother is necessary for successful initiation into heterosexual adulthood, does not adequately analyze the effect of maternal subjectivity, or its lack, on the developing child.

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