Novelist, essayist, and self-proclaimed misanthrope Florence King died recently, on January 6, at age 80. When I read the news on Facebook, I was surprised by the potency of my reaction. King’s wickedly funny 1985 memoir Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady is one of my favorite books, yet many of the most voracious readers I know have never heard of it. They are missing out on something special.
Confessions is a blunt, Southern-inflected coming of age story that recounts King’s early learning about the peculiar cultural contradictions that influence traditional white Southern female identity. King makes peace with these contradictions as her world widens over time, but it’s a queer peace, so to speak.
King was born into what she calls the “shabby genteel class” in Washington, DC, on the northern border of the American South, in 1936. In Confessions, she tells the story of her childhood through her mid-1950s early adulthood. A line on the back cover of my copy—a pink paperback with a spine that broke years ago and pages falling out from frequent re-reading—sums up King’s “failure” as a Southern lady with a straightforward admission: “No matter what sex I went to bed with, I never smoked on the street.”
Confessions is a coming-out story from a time and place in which coming out as gay or lesbian was dangerous. Yet, when King falls in love with a fellow graduate student, the “bonelessly Southern” Brès, she confronts the reality of her sexual attraction to other women in surprisingly undramatic fashion. Even though she and Brès must work to keep their affair hidden, neither of them found it unsettling or painful to come out to themselves. “Our reactions were not unusual,” King claims:
“Southern women tend to go completely to pieces after a homosexual experience and have to be ‘put away,’ or else we take it eerily in stride. The middle ground, as in so many other Southern reactions, simply does not exist. In both extremes the joker in the deck is the South’s worship of femininity. Viewed through this lens, Lesbianism can emerge as conventional behavior. I doubt there is any other place in the world where [having sex with another woman] makes a woman feel like just plain folks.”
King attained a level of notoriety during her lifetime as an outspoken political conservative. She was an independent woman who opposed feminism, and an out lesbian who opposed the gay rights movement. There was nothing advanced about her racial politics. However, Confessions is not a political memoir. Instead, it focuses on the drama of being raised by an endlessly quirky cast of characters: Herb, King’s retiring, bookish, English father, a musician who is “technically unemployed”; Louise, her bawdy, chain-smoking, baseball- and war-obsessed mother, whose gruff affections King manages to survive; her maternal grandmother, “Granny,” the opinionated dowager and Daughters of the American Revolution member who moves in soon after King is born and directs her upbringing thereafter; and Jensy, an African-American woman who works for and eventually lives with the family, playing strong second fiddle to Granny’s lead in trying to define the parameters of Florence’s life.
King was not interested in the real goals behind unimpeachable femininity: maintaining a likeable persona and “catching a man.”
Most of all, Confessions is the tale of Granny’s work as a “frustrated ladysmith”: her tireless, decades-long, often comical attempts to raise King (or, in Southern parlance, to “rear” her) to be a great Southern lady. Having lost this battle with her own daughter, the aggressively tomboyish Louise, Granny devotes the bulk of her attention thereafter to rearing young Florence. Teaching King to revere and manifest “true femininity”—apparent weakness marbled with strength, carefully orchestrated allure made to seem effortless—was at the core of Granny’s efforts.
However, King was not interested in the real goals behind unimpeachable femininity: maintaining a likeable persona and “catching a man.” Rather than fight this out with Granny, King quietly explores the options she manages to make for herself, becoming a freelance writer and, she hints, eventually finding entré into a community of lesbians. That she finds these women while visiting her beloved Granny on her deathbed always makes me smile.
King’s “years on Granny’s anvil” are most trenchant and sure-footed when she describes the women in her family choosing between different culturally sanctioned ways to manifest their femininity:
“One of the joys of growing up Southern is listening to women argue about whether nervous breakdowns are more feminine than female trouble, or vice versa. They never put it quite that bluntly, yet that is precisely what they are arguing about.”
Granny opts for “female trouble”; she believes, with pride, that this tendency “runs in the family.” Florence is, of course, expected to follow suit.
Even as a child, however, King appears to have taken these views of femininity as a conundrum to puzzle through and understand rather than a goal for which to aim. She is aided in this exploration by her father, who encourages her quirks and love of books, helping her maintain analytical distance from, rather than mimic, the exaggerated versions of femininity all around her. In contrast to Granny, Herb counsels young Florence to chart her own course. “You decide what runs in you”, he tells her—and, as the book reaches its crescendo, she does.
While some have claimed that Confessions should be read as a fictionalized memoir rather than a straightforward account of King’s life, I find that I don’t care. “Be that as it may,” I hear King’s Granny say in my head, an expression she called upon when she didn’t want to concede any ground, but didn’t want to fight, either. I may not have wanted to meet King for lunch—indeed, her New York Times obituary emphasizes King’s anti-social tendencies and apparent antipathy for others—but her memoir moves me, again and still.