Ever hunting for first-person narratives about women’s lives, I snatched up a 1998 autobiography by noted literary critic and mystery author, Carolyn Heilbrun, called The Last Gift of Time. The blurb was compelling. Carolyn, it said, had long planned to commit suicide when she reached 70 to avoid the vicissitudes of aging or “go out while on top.” This book, the blurb implied, celebrated the fact that she didn’t. Her sixties, it said, were so rewarding that she decided to stick around. The book offered an intriguing meditation on Carolyn’s carefully-examined life. She bought a house in the country for her personal retreat. She cultivated new friendships. She read a lot and finally learned to “get along” with her husband of 40 years. I was with her until she got onto the topic of love.
In her earlier work, Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn argued that women have historically been limited (in life and in literature) to romance narratives, which she described as “conventional.” Only recently she suggested, have we been protagonists in “real” quest narratives. This is a compelling and widely-read work.
Her autobiography shed light on the personal attitudes and experiences at the root of her argument. In this later work she expressed contempt for late-life romance, suggesting that women indulge in this sort of thing because they don’t have access to more laudable pursuits – in short, they have nothing better to do!
Those marketing Gift of Time fail to point out that Carolyn did commit suicide. Five short years after its publication she took some pills, put a plastic bag over her head, and lay down in her bed, leaving a note “The journey was over. Love to all.”
Somehow this takes the stuffing out of her well-crafted arguments and leaves many people wondering “Why?” Popular answers allude to eccentricity and fierce independence. Call me naive, but I think Carolyn missed the boat when it came to love.