Women artists have fought for centuries to express their creativity in the face of denigration from a patriarchal society. For many, this battle has been intertwined with the need to express taboo sexual
instincts, whether lesbian or androgynous, and it is this double revolt New England painter and writer Mary Meigs chronicles in her autobiography. The Lily Briscoe of the title is a character from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, an unmarried painter who simultaneously attempts to resolve the formal problems of a landscape and her feelings about love. Briscoe is an emblem of Meigs’s own predicament, but to feature her in the title is misleading and promises a more profound interweaving of fiction and fact than is actually the case. This book is definitely, exhaustively, sometimes compellingly and often boringly about Meigs, a woman of 64 who lives in Quebec’s East-
ern Townships with novelist MarieClaire Blais, 20 years her junior.
Meigs’s fate has been to play Alice B. Toklas to two Gertrude Steins, the other being the American political activist and writer Barbara Deming. Although Meigs has become a recognized artist in her own right, she has difficulty accepting the hated housewife role her own nature seems to have dictated for her. She is also never less than scrupulously honest and ruthless in describing the desperately long road, crowded with art schools, drudgery and rejection, she had to travel before blossoming into the artist she always felt herself to be. En route, nature has been her strength and constant guide. Birds especially are her totems, symbols of freedom to the aspiring artist trapped in a prison fashioned by hostile mores and rebellious genes. But Meigs has never come close to starving in a garret and, guiltily, she knows it—her wealthy, upper-class pedigree placed her in a gilded cage, not behind iron bars.
Meigs’s spiritual mentor was the American critic Edmund Wilson, who introduced Blais to her just as he introduced Quebec writing to America at large. The years Meigs spent with Wilson’s circle on Cape Cod infected her with the same virulent strain of New
England (and Eastern Townships) mysticism that flows back through Jacques Ferron, Kerouac and Emily Dickinson to Hawthorne and Thoreau. “Books are a form of witchcraft,” writes Meigs, and hidden beneath the limpid surface of her patrician prose lurk not just her private demons, but the public demons of extremism which have driven Americans to witch-hunts, real and illusory, from Salem to Vietnam.
Lily Briscoe is ultimately unsatisfying despite its sparkling cameos, its occasional hilarity (in a dream, Pierre Trudeau gives her a “quick little French kiss”) and its tormented analyses of lesbian love and friendship. Admiration, respect and perhaps compassion are all
the reader can grant this ascetic observer of life who wonders if some hormone deficiency might be responsible for her disinterest in sex and who is always careful not to throw anything breakable in fits of rage. It’s hard warming up to someone who completes an autobiography, illustrates the dust jacket with a painting of herself and then writes inside, “If I had the obscure wish to torture myself on a certain day, I would start a self-portrait.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.