December 1973 BROADSIDE Page 9
by Mary Ross Rhyne
Although neither of the books I'm reviewing here is specifically "feminist", both are of
special interest to feminists, because they describe how particularly interesting, gifted
women dealt with some of the social pressures which we all feel, as women. To me,
they're bonus books — interesting on their terms, and also from a feminist standpoint.
Buried Alive is how Myra Friedman, a theatrical agent, saw her client Janis Joplin —
buried in the blues all her life. This book has been widely praised, probably because it
is rare to have a serious, thoughtful biography of a pop star. The author was a close and
devoted friend of Janis' who visited Port Arthur and interviewed many people from Janis'
early life to provide material for her book. Natives of the Beaumont/Port Arthur area will
especially enjoy the full treatment Friedman gives Port Arthur. This book is strong and
interesting because it has a thesis: that Janis was compelled to be an extremist, but
basically sought acceptance; and that her audiences and friends exerted almost immoral
pressure on her to perform her self-destructive theatrics. You may disagree with Friedman's
analysis — some friends of mine who knew Janis do -- but it is reasonable and well argued.
As a feminist, I was especially interested in how Janis perceived and reacted to others'
attitudes about her lack of physical beauty and her sexual reputation. It's also fascinating
to muse on the roles that our culture offers for female entertainers. Maybe the best compliment I can pay this book (and it is well deserved) is that it holds one's interest and
moreover builds great tension even though one knows exactly how it ends.
Portrait of a Marriage reveals a very different world from Port Arthur. Vita Sackville-
West and Harold Nicolson (contemporaries of Virginia Woolf) weren't aristocrats by British
standards, but they were close — and were bright and imaginative as well. Their conservative political views and social snobbishness may repel you, but this book documents
their most personal emotional lives, which were enthralling. The central episode is the
torrid love affair between Vita and her girlhood friend Violet Trefusis, which began only
after Vita and Harold were married and had two sons. The relationship lasted seven years,
during which Violet made a very unfortunate marriage. The tensions and drama of the four-
way rivals are described here with great delicacy and feeling, mostly in Vita's own account
of it all, which she wrote at 28 and which her son found after her death only a few years ago.
After the women's affair began, Vita and Harold never made love again. Both found
physical affection with members of their own sex. But they remained wedded by a remarkably strong bond of devotion and loyalty which lasted nearly fifty years, till Vita's death.
Harold Nicolson, the son, writes about his parents' relationship with candor, respect,
and affection. It was a very open marriage — the O'Neills would freak out.
In addition to the feelings and insights explored by the book, one is struck by the
fact that Vita was terribly penalized for not being male. Her family home, Knole, which
may have been the focus of her strongest feeling of devotion throughout her life, could not
be hers because British laws forbade daughters to inherit. Vita was sharply aware of this
discrimination all her life. In reading of the pleasure it gave her to dress as a soldier and
go out at night with Violet, one remembers how Vita longed to own Knole, and suspects that
part of the happiness of playing "Julian" lay in the perhaps unexpressed feeling that in that
role she could have all the things she was denied as Vita — including Knole.
This is a beautifully written book and, moreover, beautifully produced, with photographs, handsome paper, and civilized margins. It would make a beautiful Christmas gift
to someone you care about.