Bardot's autobiography has only added to her trials, because those who have responded most strongly are blinded by greed, sententiousness and old man's lust. In fact what she says is a revelation, but not the one you would expect. By Mary Dejevsky
France's animal welfare campaigner and eternal sex symbol, Brigitte Bardot, will be in court today for another round of the public humiliation that the world seems to think she deserves in return for her life of free living and loving.

Her second husband, Jacques Charrier, and her only child, 36-year-old Nicolas, want almost one quarter of her recently published autobiography to be excised, claiming that its graphic details of marital discord and child-rejection constitute a violation of their privacy - a civil offence in France. They have demanded hefty damages and the withdrawal of the book, Initiales BB, from sale.

For Bardot, who is now 62 and - to judge by recent television appearances - as magnetic a figure as ever, the lawsuit is just another twist of the knife that was plunged into her still lithe body by the book's first reviewers. What hostility and resentment they revealed.

The fifty- and sixtysomething men who had drooled over her for decades discovered in place of their goddess a feckless child who never made a decent mistress, let alone a good wife and mother. The few women reviewers, French women of a certain age, are still jealous, and respectful of convention.

But judgement on Bardot's long apologia cannot be left to this mostly male or Gallic establishment. Just wait till a few non-Gallic women get their hands on a copy.

For what she has produced is an excruciatingly honest, doubtless one- sided, account of a woman's place in an age and a society where the position of women was very different from what it is in much of the Western world today. The Sixties and Seventies were a social and biological watershed, but they came too late for Brigitte Bardot.

Bardot, who was born in 1934, offers a sad and salutary reminder of what it meant to be female, even a female of independent means and considerable chutzpah, before the Pill, before legal abortion, before divorce became acceptable, before respectably married women took paid work and before the Catholic Church lost its role as moral arbiter.

For all her extraordinary looks, loves, wealth and celebrity, Bardot was a child of her times and a child of bourgeois, Catholic, France. "To me," said a French friend, born barely 10 years later than Bardot and subject to some of the same constraints, "Brigitte Bardot was a symbol of freedom; a wonderful, disgraceful, symbol."

Unfortunately for her own peace of mind, Bardot was not quite as free a spirit as her behaviour suggested. She had been brought up to respect the conventions, and half of her did, and still does. She says she would like to have found "the right man", "settled down" and had a family. It just never happened.

She recognises that she broke relationships that might have lasted; she regrets painfully the break with Serge Gainsbourg, the singer - "but I never go back". She recalls fateful moments and blames herself without mercy. But there were intense social pressures, too, that even she was never able fully to resist.

Even when she was earning sums that were fabulous by the standards of her compatriots, she was as helpless as they were to avoid becoming pregnant. Like tens of millions of others, she was dependent on the "rhythm method" and was as desperately counting the days from her last period as they were.

When this primitive method failed, there was no legal remedy, in France or elsewhere in Europe. Money helped, but fame was a drawback. What doctor would dare perform an abortion on BB? She admits to two abortions: one in Switzerland, one in France; both were risky, and one almost fatal.

Bardot's marriages (at seven-year intervals) tell of the family expectations invested in wedlock - even into her thirties - and the sudden change in status that a wedding ring brought. When she first fell in love, with Roger Vadim, at the tender age of 15, her instincts were entirely conventional. She wanted to marry, but her parents refused.

They were of a class that had "standards" to keep up (the relics of a social immobility that survives in France today). All the young Brigitte's potential school-friends were vetted: "Who are her parents?" was the first question her mother asked. Roger Vadim, perpetual student, would-be film producer, hardly measured up as husband material.

By the time the marriage took place, three years afterwards, it was almost too late. Her career was taking off; she soon fell - as she was to do so often - for her leading man. Divorce followed, and her "reputation" was lost for ever.

Small wonder that she gradually descended into promiscuity. The greater wonder, perhaps, is that it took so long, and that she persisted in regarding marriage as "for life".

But she hesitated to marry again, all too aware of the limits a Fifties marriage entailed. These dictated not only who she slept with (she recognised that obligation as coming with the ring), but also what films she appeared in, where she lived, whether she had a baby and what she did with her money. "But it was my money, I earned it," she says time and again to rebut a reputation for stinginess.

Brought up in wartime, Bardot valued the freedom that she could buy with her money: her own space - her Paris flat and later country houses; her own car (a Morgan and a sequence of Rolls Royces), private acts of charity (flats and comforts for old family retainers). She wanted to manage her own career. Having discovered this liberty, she was loth to sacrifice it. She is proud to be famous in her maiden name.

Once remarried, Bardot found herself subject to demands that many a working wife today would find unacceptable. When her new husband, the actor Jacques Charrier, stopped her going to the hairdresser and invoked his legal rights, that marked the beginning of the end of her relationship with him.

Yet she had married him. Why? Because she was pregnant, because he wanted the child, because it was hard to get an abortion, but above all because she refused to bear a child who would be "illegitimate" and refused to be an "unmarried mother". The moral censure implied in those now almost obsolete terms was unbearable.

The young woman whose image as the French "sex kitten" was an open challenge to convention wanted her child to be legitimate. The mother whose behaviour already broke all manner of Church teachings, had her son christened. The previous year, she had cared enough to be outraged when she saw an enormous picture of herself as the Vatican's personification of "evil" at the World Exhibition in Brussels. "The pavilion had one hall reserved for `good' ... and another for `evil', depicting suffering, the devil, lewdness and hell. And who symbolised this sin, this state of excommunication? Me!" After much lobbying, the picture was removed.

When French readers embarked on BB's autobiography they were looking for scandal, and they found it: in the fist fights she had with her husbands and lovers, in her brutal admission that she rejected her child, in her pithily dismissive comments on such cinematic luminaries as Alain Delon (as responsive as "my Louis XVI dresser") and Catherine Deneuve ("cold").

In the end, though, she emerges not at all as a licentious, score-settling harpy, but as a spirited and wilful woman caught between what she wanted and what was permitted. The gap between the two would still exist today, but it would be far, far narrower. The impossibility of finding privacy and security in a world not yet equipped to protect a global superstar only compounded her problems.

To Brigitte Bardot, the lawsuit that reaches its conclusion today must seem to be the latest chapter of the same old story: a story of men who feel jilted, of men who betrayed her, of men who want a slice of her cash