Winter Journey, 1967
Konek Landing, 1969
Nelly’s Version, 1977
The Seven Ages, 1986
The Tree of Knowledge, 1990
The Tenancy, 1993
The Knot, 1996
Patriarchal Attitudes: Women in Society, 1970
Tragedy and Social Evolution, 1976
Little Eden: A Child at War, 1978 (autobiography)
Sex and Subterfuge: Women Writers to 1850, 1982
Tales of Innocence and Experience: An Exploration, 2003
Women’s Letters in Wartime, 1450-1945, 1993
The Gadarene Club, 1960 (of Martin Walser’s novel Ehen in Philippsburg)
He and I and the Elephants, 1967 (of Bernhard Grzimek’s novel Wir lebten mit den Baule)
Little Fadette, 1967 (of George Sand’s novel La Petite Fadette)
A Family Failure, 1970 (of Renate Rasp’s novel Ein ungeratener Sohn)
Eva Unger Figes (FI-jeez) was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1932 and emigrated to England with her Jewish family in 1939 in order to avoid persecution. Figes’ period of adjustment, when she learned what it meant to be a German Jew rather than being English, is recorded in her memoir Little Eden: A Child at War and her fictional Konek Landing. From these traumatic and alienated beginnings, Figes has emerged as one of England’s most insightful novelists and most strident feminist Marxist critics.
Figes was educated at Kingsbury Grammar School in London and Queen Mary College of London University. She married in 1954 and had two children while working as a book editor. She was divorced in 1963 and only then began her writing career with her first novel, Equinox, tracing a married couple’s year-long journey toward divorce. Figes splits her personal experiences between the two: Martin, the husband, is a German Jew who came to England as a child to escape the Nazis and still feels like an outsider; Elizabeth, the wife, is a frustrated poet and book editor.
In most of her work, however, Figes shies away from telling fictional versions of her own experiences. Her early novels, including Winter Journey and B, all lead up to her seminal feminist tract, Patriarchal Attitudes. Considered by many to be an important early work in the feminist movement, the book rejects Freudian views of women and their subservient role in society. It instead traces the anthropological history of social customs in various societies in order to show how women have always been controlled by men and their “patriarchal attitudes.”
Figes continued this perspective in her next fictional work, Days, and her next critical work, Tragedy and Social Evolution. In the former, she presents the interior monologue of a bedridden woman as she remembers how she, like all other women, has been mentally and emotionally used throughout her lifetime by the powers of the patriarchy. Ultimately, the woman can find solace only in once again succumbing to patriarchal expectations. Likewise, in the latter work, Figes rejects Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Oedipal complex and instead looks at social and patriarchal taboos that have been used as devices to create dramatic tragedy.
In her next and most interesting work, Figes creatively expands upon her previous critical observations. Figes has called Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights “not only the finest English novel written by a woman, but quite simply the greatest English novel that anyone has produced.” In her novel Nelly’s Version, Figes both retells and expands Brontë’s story. The “Nelly” in Figes’ title refers to Nelly Dean, the housekeeper in Brontë’s book and the main character in Figes’ text–a woman who has lost her memory and can only tell fictional stories in order to recapture her previous life. As Figes’ Nelly Dean moves through her damaged life–which ends with her return to the mental home that she originally checked herself into as the novel opened–Figes reveals how both her Nelly and Brontë’s original housekeeper have both been victimized by the patriarchy. Brontë’s character, the reader now realizes, was never able to tell her entire story freely, lest she be judged a gossip and lose her job. One hundred years later, not much has changed. Figes’ Nelly might freely tell stories, but she can do so only when she is incarcerated in a mental home and labeled insane. In both cases, Figes’ novel shows, patriarchal standards of decency are to blame for the silencing of women.
In her next major work, Sex and Subterfuge, Figes traces the role of early British women writers, including Brontë. In this work, as in all her fiction, Figes takes a strong feminist stance, one that is so strident as to be occasionally uncomfortable. Not only does Figes completely reject Freud’s views, but she also tends to find all men at fault in society, sometimes, it seems, simply for being men. She argues that “women were responsible for defining and refining” the “classical” English novel. She traces the development of the English novel through a social history of women, “a situation where disadvantages turned out to be advantages and the supposedly inferior sex showed itself to be unexpectedly superior.” Figes argues that the rising number of upper-class, educated, single women led to their writing of fiction and that moreover, because they were women, they were forced to create new novelistic forms that eventually became the standard for all British novels.
In her more recent fiction Figes has created an almost formulaic approach to plot that is similar to the framework found in her earlier works. She repeatedly tells the story of a single woman from a limited point of view, tracing that woman’s life and eventual social defeat through her experiences and memories. In The Tree of Knowledge the woman in question is poet John Milton’s daughter, now a schoolteacher after her famous father’s death. Similarly, in The Tenancy, the woman is an unemployed middle-aged caretaker for her elderly mother who watches helplessly as her apartment building crumbles around her.
Although an active and prolific author whose work includes not only fiction and criticism but also children’s books, translations, and edited volumes, Figes is not widely known. The editors of The Feminist Companion to Literature in English (1990) argue that Figes’ “rejection of parochial English realism for the ‘European,’ experimental, modernist structuring of her interior monologues has kept her readership small though appreciative.” Such a readership is explained by Figes’ unrelenting critical stance: As both author and critic, Figes continually questions not only our view of the past through patriarchal and Freudian glasses, but our vision of the future as well.