Sushila Burgess (Sue Elizabeth): letters from Simone de Beauvoir 1983-6

In 1983 I was starting to write a thesis on structure and style in the non-fiction of Simone de Beauvoir, with particular reference to images of crushing repetition and circularity in the lives of women. I wrote to her and asked if I could meet her. Here are the four letters that I eventually had back from her, demonstrating her well-known kindness, warmth and generosity to students.

(A note on names: since 1983, I have been known by three different names. My surname when I first wrote to Simone de Beauvoir was Watkins: result of a short-lived first marriage. I then changed my surname to Elizabeth under the influence of radical feminism. However, my enthusiasm for the surname Elizabeth waned as I decided that radical feminism was too painful a struggle against the tide. I married again, and my surname is now my husband's: Burgess. My original forename was Susan. I later changed this by deed poll to Sushila to reflect my part-Indian heritage.)

Envelope 1983
Letter 1983 page 1 of 2

Chère Susan Watkins,

Le sujet que vous avez choisi de traiter est très intéressant. Mais j'ai été absente tout l'été, c'est pourquoi je ne vous ai pas répondu - maintenant je suis beaucoup trop occupée pour vous recevoir - mais je lirai avec plaisir votre travail et je vous assure de toute ma sympathie.

S. de Beauvoir

My translation: The subject that you have chosen to deal with is very interesting. But I was away all summer, that's why I didn't reply to you - now I am much too busy to see you - but I will be happy to read your work and I assure you of my fellow-feeling.
Letter 1983 page 2 of 2

In 1984 I sent her a draft chapter of my proposed thesis.

Letter 1984 envelope
Letter 1984 page 1 of 2

Chère Susan Watkins,

J'ai été très heureuse de lire votre travail. J'ai tout à fait apprécié votre chapitre sur le 2e Sexe: il y a là une approche de mon texte tout à fait originale et que j'aime beaucoup. Merci de m'avoir consacré votre intelligence et votre temps.

En grande sympathie,

S. de Beauvoir

My translation: I was very happy to read your work. I really appreciated your chapter on the Second Sex: it's a completely original approach to my text and one I like very much. Thank you for devoting your intelligence and your time to me.
Letter 1984 page 2 of 2

In 1985 I asked her some questions about whether she found patriarchal language restrictive when trying to express women's experience. (She didn't.) However, she said she would give me an interview if I was ever in Paris.

Letter 1985 envelope
Letter 1985 page 1 of 3

Chère Elisabeth Sue,

Je vous suis très reconnaissante d'avoir pris la peine de rédiger pour moi en français un résumé de votre thèse. Tout ce que vous dites me semble très juste et intéressant. Le temps me manque pour bien répondre à vos questions. Ceci pourtant: je n'ai eu aucun problème de vocabulaire pour écrire le livre et l'existentialisme a été pour moi non une aide sur ce plan mais une dimension qu'avait pour moi - et qu'a encore - le monde. Les critiques que j'ai faites à Sartre, sauf celles que vous indiquez, étaient des critiques de détail qu'il serait oiseux de [???].

Si jamais vous seriez à Paris, je vous rencontrerais volontiers car j'estime le sérieux de votre travail.

En toute sympathie,

S. de Beauvoir

My translation: I am very grateful to you for taking the trouble to draw up a summary of your thesis in French for me. Everything you say seems very interesting and to the point. I don't have enough time to reply to your questions properly, apart from this: I didn't have any problems with vocabulary for writing the book, and to me, existentialism was not a help in that area but a dimension that the world had and still has. The criticisms that I made to Sartre, except for the ones that you pointed out, were criticisms of detail that it would be pointless to [???].

If you were ever in Paris, I would be happy to meet you, for I respect the seriousness of your work.
Letter 1985 page 2 of 3
Letter 1985 page 3 of 3

In early 1986, when I had scrabbled together a fare to Paris and a grant for some living expenses (I was the typical poor student at the time), I asked her if she could give me an appointment. She said I should get in contact once I was in Paris.

Letter 1986 envelope
Letter 1986 page 1 of 1

Chére Elisabeth Sue,

Je serai à Paris tout le mois de mars. Prévenez moi bien à l'avance de votre arrivée et téléphonez quand vous serez à Paris: 4335 2828.

A bientôt donc.

S. de Beauvoir

My translation: I shall be in Paris for the whole month of March. Give me plenty of advance warning of your arrival and phone when you are in Paris: 4335 2828. See you soon.

I arrived in Paris at the start of March 1986, and phoned Simone de Beauvoir. Her voice on the phone sounded really friendly and happy to hear from me. I will always treasure the fact that I did exchange a few words with someone I admired so much. But she could not give me an appointment until, I think, March 21st.

I hung around for three weeks in the freezing cold, living on a shoestring. I could just about eat, and could afford one coffee a day in addition to the breakfast provided at my ultra-cheap hotel. I walked back and forth, back and forth through the streets of central Paris, following Simone de Beauvoir's footsteps as described in her books.

The great day arrived. My appointment was for 6pm. However, at 9am that morning, I had a phone call from someone who described herself as Simone de Beauvoir's secretary (I think it may actually have been S. de. B.'s adopted daughter), saying that she had gone into hospital with kidney problems.

Just over three weeks later, on April 14th 1986, she died.

The standard of my thesis-writing went right downhill, and I never did get that Ph.D. I was lucky to scrabble an M.Phil.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, and those days seem very distant now. I cannot promise to remember many more details, but all the same, you are welcome to contact me if you have queries on this topic: see the Contact Details section of the home page of this site.

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Page created 7th December 2009.