What Did Simone de Beauvoir Read?

In the installation From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir, visitors can consider the influence and intellect of writer Simone de Beauvoir in an interpretation of her Paris studio alcove. Museum visitors can sit at a desk and read books and magazines that Beauvoir either read, wrote, or inspired. The installation includes a selections of books that Beauvoir read during her youth that helped develop her love of reading and storytelling.

Cover Image of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll showing a young girl crouched in the gras sunder branches while a rabbit in a red coat scurries away from her.

Cover of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, published by Rand McNally & Company, 1916.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, 1868/1869

Beauvoir read Little Women by the time she was ten. She identified deeply with the character of Jo, the creative and independent March sister. In the first volume of her autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), Beauvoir says that when she was developing The Second Sex, she projected the four sisters of Little Women into adulthood and used their personality types to form some of her ideas.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865

Beauvoir was a voracious reader as a child, a habit fed by her father Georges, who supplied her with a constant supply of high-quality books. She stated in an interview, published in the The Paris Review in 1965, that “English children’s literature [is] far more charming than what exists in French.” Though she began learning English around the age of eight, she likely read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in translation.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, 1860

In her Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), Beauvoir recalls reading The Mill on the Floss when she was around 13 years old:

“About this time I read a novel which seemed to me to translate my spiritual exile into words: George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss made an even deeper impression upon me than Little Women. I read it in English, at Meyrignac, lying on the mossy floor of a chestnut plantation. Maggie Tulliver, like myself, was torn between others and herself: I recognized myself in her. She too was dark, loved nature, books and life, was too headstrong to be able to observe the conventions of her respectable surroundings.”

Cover Image of The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, published by Hurst and Company, New York, c. 1911. (left) and cover image of Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, published by Henry Hold and Company, New York, 1927. (right)

Cover of The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, published by Hurst and Company, New York, c. 1911 (left) and cover of Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, published by Henry Hold and Company, New York, 1927 (right)

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, 1927

Published when Beauvoir was 19, the novel Dusty Answer was extremely popular with young women—in order to keep re-reading it, Beauvoir had to return the library’s in-demand copy and buy her own. Beauvoir said that she was fascinated by the description of university life and its associated freedoms. Lehmann was influenced by English novelist George Meredith, whose novels Beauvoir also read intensely and used as models.

Visit the installation and peruse these books along with works Beauvoir wrote or inspired. From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir is on view on the museum’s fourth floor through August 16, 2017.

—Sarah Osborne Bender is the director of the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 

What #BeauvoirSays to NMWA

Visitors ask me why the National Museum of Women in the Arts has a dedicated installation to honor Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir was not an artist, not a patron, and not a noted art collector—though she did collect books, souvenirs, snapshots, and a few works of art from friends, including Alberto Giacometti. As I gathered research for the installation, I found an interview with Beauvoir from 1984, in which she reflects on the work of emboldened women activists in the late 1960s in Paris. Her comments in that interview made the relationship between NMWA and Beauvoir clear to me.

Installation view of From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Installation view of From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Beauvoir wrote, “[Women] realized that they would have to take their fate into their own hands and separate their battles from the larger revolutionary rhetoric of the men. I agreed with them because I understood that women could not expect their emancipation to come from general revolution but would have to create their own. . . . I realized that women would have to take care of their own problems in ways that were personal, direct, and immediate. They could no longer sit waiting patiently for men to change the society for them because it would never happen unless they did it themselves.”

Installation view of From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Installation view of From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

I nodded along to these words and reflected on the motivations of NMWA’s founder, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay. Mrs. Holladay and her husband, Wallace Holladay, could have donated their growing collection of art by women to an established museum. Perhaps Mrs. Holladay’s name would appear on a gallery wall and the collection would find a place with—likely be obscured by—notable works by male artists. But instead, the Holladays chose to create a space, a grand museum only blocks from the White House, and name it the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Mrs. Holladay wanted a dedicated space in which to address art world sexism. She took action and for that we are thankful.

Visit the installation From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir, on view on the museum’s fourth floor through August 16, 2017.

—Sarah Osborne Bender is the director of the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.