With the advent of technology, email, and texts, few writers continue to rely on the art of writing letters. For many, writing letters to one another—for love, for friendship, for keeping in touch—has become a lost art. And it is with this sense of euphoria that I have immersed myself in Simone De Beauvoir’s Letters to Sartre (Arcade Publishing, 2012). Known for her feminist examination of women’s subjugation, their place in society and in men’s lives reduced to the inessential “other” in The Second Sex, De Beauvoir’s work is the preface to every Women’s Studies degree offered nationwide. She is an iconic feminist, and yet, her letters reveal to us a more intimate portrait of this beautifully unique philosopher and memoirist.
Translated from French by Quintin Hoare, De Beauvoir’s letters to the renowned existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre were published in 1990 by her adoptive daughter, Sylvie Le Bon De Beauvoir four years after De Beauvoir’s death. Interestingly, De Beauvoir herself published Sartre’s letters to her in 1983, but swore that her letters had been missing. Her daughter found them and through their publication, we are exposed to the framework of this great woman’s life and her unique relationship to Sartre between the years of 1930-1963.
The relationship between De Beauvoir and Sartre was as progressive as their political and philosophical ideas. Neither believed in marriage or conservative relationships, and theirs was anything but. Their relationship, which began in 1929 and lasted until his death in 1980, was consensually open and constant. At the beginning of their relationship, they agreed to maintain a relationship that allowed them equal freedom to pursue other lovers—many of whom they shared—as long as they discussed every detail of these relationships. De Beauvoir’s letters not only demonstrate the depth of her love for Sartre, for he was her only partner, her only constant star, and the main lover that held within his grasp her heart, but they also expose sexual encounters that De Beauvoir had with both men and women, quite a few of the girls being her students.
Having read her dissertation and philosophies on women and the limitations that have been placed upon them in all areas of their lives in which they are expected to curtail their own potential for the pursuit of men, family, and children, it is interesting to gain an intimate understanding of this woman’s thoughts and heart, which she exposes with unadulterated candor and openness. De Beauvoir leads by example, as is evident in her letters to her life’s partner and lover. In these intimate recollections, these shared ideas, experiences, lifestyles, vacations, money, and yes, even lovers. And although they both acted reproachfully with many of their lovers, they held one another in high regard, their relationship, their friendship securely fastened at the core of their existence.
In these beautifully crafted and heartfelt letters form one of the most public and brilliant feminists to a lover who was her equal in intellect, we are shown the power of letter writing that our technology has removed from our hold. We are allowed to travel with De Beauvoir from Paris to Indiana to Venice and see the sights as she describes them to Sartre; we are given leave to act as non-apologetic peeping toms as she discloses the intimate seductions and surrendering to love-making with both men and women she desired; and more significantly, we are offered a rare and breath-taking moment of reprieve as we read the words of love and affection that De Beauvoir held for only one man in her lifetime—Jean-Paul Sartre—her devotion and unfiltered passion following him from country to country, lover to lover, through the war, and even while he was a prisoner of war in Germany. These letters are timeless, as was their lifelong union in which he was her “little man” and she was his “charming Beaver.”