Unheard Voices: Zelda Fitzgerald

by

Books Editor

Zelda Sayre or Zelda Fitzgerald is a name people are beginning to recognise, but rarely without the much-needed addition of ‘you know, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife?’ Sadly, her primary claim to fame is as the wife of a Great American Novelist, the subject of that dedication page in The Great Gatsby: ‘Once again, to Zelda’.

Her primary claim to fame is as the wife of a Great American Novelist

When she is remembered, it is usually in her capacity as the poster girl of 1920s-themed parties everywhere – she was described as ‘the original American flapper’ by her husband and the moniker stuck. Since then, the now-axed Amazon series Z: The Beginning of Everything has worked her name into popular consciousness, but we still pay very little attention to her capacity as a writer.

Born in Alabama in 1900, in her forty-seven years she pursued careers as a dancer and a painter with significant success, but always came back to writing. She wrote a novel, a short play, eleven short stories and twelve published articles – as well as countless letters to her husband, parts of which found their way into some of his novels and even became famous quotations. The Huffington Post described her as ‘the poster child for women of history overlooked’ – who better to kick off a series on Unheard Voices in literature?

She wrote a novel, a short play, eleven short stories and twelve published articles

Fitzgerald’s novel, Save Me the Waltz (a title she found in a department store catalogue), is an intimate, semi-autobiographical account of Alabama Beggs, a southern belle who marries an artist and attempts to pursue her own career as a professional ballerina, despite her husband’s protestations. It is not an easy book to read, partly because she was never granted a competent proof-reader, so it features several mixed metaphors and overly-dense sentences.

That said, it is a startlingly frank insight into one woman’s determination to have some independence: ‘It seemed to Alabama that, reaching her goal, she would drive the devils that had driven her – that, in proving herself, she would achieve that peace which she imagined went only in surety of one’s self’. Save Me the Waltz functions as an honest account on the life of a woman living in her husband’s shadow, and can be read alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels as an alternative perspective on a famous marriage. It is also an acute social commentary, not only on the role of women but also on what Zelda Fitzgerald perceived as a vacuous, careless American society – a society she both enjoyed and resented.

Beyond the texts published under her own name, many of the most famous lines from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works can actually be attributed to Zelda. Not only did he base some of his female characters like Daisy Buchanan and Nicole Diver on his wife, but he used portions of her diary entries and letters in such novels as The Beautiful and the Damned and This Side of Paradise. Zelda wrote a sarcastic review of The Beautiful and the Damned in 1922 which, frankly, is a work of art in itself just for its cynicism: ‘Mr Fitzgerald – I believe that is how he spells his name – seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home’.

The most famous example of this ‘plagiarism’ is Daisy’s iconic line from The Great Gatsby, ‘that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’. Fitzgerald took the phrase from something very similar Zelda said after the birth of their daughter. Friends of the Fitzgeralds noted that Scott hung on to his wife’s every word, often repeating or writing down what she said to include it in his fiction later. Hers was a spontaneous talent, which manifested itself in off-the-cuff comments, hastily scribbled letters and emotionally honest fiction.

Scott hung on to his wife’s every word, often repeating or writing down what she said

A couple of summers ago, when I first started reading about Zelda Fitzgerald, I was browsing my local Waterstones when I turned to the table of books behind me. To my surprise, there was a copy of Save Me the Waltz, identical to the one I was currently reading, for sale. I like to think someone bought it out of curiosity and maybe discovered a new favourite author. She was not the same master of highly wrought, polished prose like her husband, but Zelda Fitzgerald was a talent who, between her wild youth and infamous marriage, does not get the recognition she deserves as a witty, fiercely independent and naturally gifted writer.

Image by Everett Collection

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