Is this really a journey to fulfilment?

Recent publishing history suggests that there is good money to be made from telling women how to change their lives. In the 1980s, Shirley Conran surfed a great wave of female dissatisfaction with her bestseller Superwoman. It was no longer necessary for women to choose between family and work, Shirley told the world. With a bit of organisation and a positive attitude, they could, in the words of another life-guide of the time, “have it all”.

Today’s guru of fulfilment, Elizabeth Gilbert, presents a very different range of options in her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, the basis of a film starring Julia Roberts shortly to be released in the UK. Living in comfortable circumstances with a husband who wanted to start a family, Gilbert was profoundly unhappy. Armed with little more than a publishing contract, she embarked on a journey “in search of everything” (that is, herself). She nourished her body in Italy, her soul in India and found love in Bali. It is, in its way, an answer to Superwoman. Having it all is old-fashioned, the message goes: it brings expectations, pressure, a neglect of the important things in life. Today’s woman has a choice. She can get in touch with her essential eating, praying, loving self.

The perfect guide for our self-obsessed times, it has worked a treat. One journalist has written that, among her friends, the book had assumed “Bible-like status”. An enterprising travel agent in Kensington is offering Eat, Pray, Love world tours. For a mere £6,638, you can “get to eat in Italy, reflect in India and bonk in Bali” (sorry, mistranscription there – that should be “find balance in Bali”).

It is at this point that alarm bells begin to ring. The idea that travel is a way to self-discovery is a tired old myth, particularly when the journey for spiritual meaning takes rich Americans and Europeans to poorer – and therefore, the cliché goes, wiser – cultures. The truth is that there is the finest of lines between a bold pilgrim in search of the inner self and a lazy slob on the run from responsibility.

It is not difficult to see why Elizabeth Gilbert is such a perfect embodiment of this longing for spiritual depth. Just as Shirley Conran was an ideal of 1980s womanhood – attractive, competent, dynamic – so Gilbert is a dream woman for the moment. She is pretty in a mellow, unthreatening way. She writes and speaks winningly. She has achieved her own version of having it all: she has not only found wisdom but has made millions in the process.

Her message appeals to the inner whinger, to the woman who believes that she deserves more from life than she has been getting. “I have always fallen in love fast and without measuring risks,” Gilbert confesses. “I have a tendency not only to see the best in everyone, but to assume that everyone is emotionally capable of reaching his highest potential. I have fallen in love more times than I care to count with the highest potential of a man, rather than with the man himself, and I have hung on to the relationship for a long time (sometimes far too long) waiting for the man to ascend to his own greatness. Many times in romance I have been a victim of my own optimism.”

It is a convenient way of looking at a relationship – she generously recognises the best in him, he inadequately fails to live up to his potential – but it involves an emotional sleight of hand. The assumption is that her own greatness is unquestioned, that she is simply too kind, too optimistic for her own good.

In our private lives, we tell ourselves these weaselly little lies all the time, but when they are presented as part of what many women are treating as a Bible of behaviour, they become destructive.

Shirley Conran’s superwoman idea now looks over-simplistic. Life, we later discovered, was a little bit more complicated than that. Similarly, Elizabeth Gilbert’s guide to female fulfilment may one day seem little more than a product of its times, providing the perfect, high-minded excuse for self-indulgence.

Independent, Tuesday, 7 September 2010