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FROM THE SALONS TO THE BARRICADES: THE RISE OF WOMEN OF LETTERS IN WORLD LITERATURE IN THE 17TH AND 18TH CENTURIES–MADAME DE SCUDERY, DE LA FAYETTE, DE SEVIGNE, DE STAEL, ANNE FINCH, COUNTESS OF WINCHELSEA, APHRA BEHN & MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT—-FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES VIA GOODREADS—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
Individual freedom, male or female, has in reality always been the exception rather than the rule, and in the early days of the modern world it was rather a privilige of a select few of the nobility or the richest bourgeious classes rather than a right or a reality, only later, after the French and American Revolutions broadening to include the middle and lower classes. Women, nonetheless, from the 1600’s were beginning to enjoy some increasing measure of that freedom including the gradual emergence of their voice in the world of letters, starting with the priviliged women of the aristocratic classes who frequented the court “salons” and gradually broadening that voice to include larger and larger elements of the middle-classes.
As in Heian Japan with the writings of Lady Murasaki Shikibu in her “Tale of Genji,” women’s writing flourished in European court circles, especially in France. While the dominant aristocratic codes severely restricted women in their conduct, education and freedom to think, learn and write, yet aristocratic privilege could allow a few individual and talented women the scope for the exercise of their powers of intellect and expression. Thus the Marquise de Rambouillet opened her famous “Blue Room” salon around 1608, which was to develop over forty years into a nexus of intellectual challenge and interchange, allowing women and bourgeious intellectuals to rise to the capacity of intellectual influence and interchange once the exclusive province of aristocratic men, competing even with the royal court. There the emergent values of wit, intelligence and sensitivity came to challenge the traditional official court values of military prowess and power. Such salons continued to exercise social influence over the next two hundred years up to the French Revolution, including such later voices as Madame De Staël of the Napoleonic era. Women writers such as Madeleine de Scudéry, Madame de La Fayette, Madame de Sévigné, often referred to as the “Précieuses” or “Bluestocking” ladies of culture and refinement, became leaders and mediators of the Enlightenment and of progressive social ideas, or influential literary artists.
This movement soon spread to other nations such as England where women such as Katherine Philips, “the Matchless Orinda” and Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea established coteries frequented by such writers as Swift and Pope and began to make their own voices heard. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu joined their ranks with accounts of her travels and experiences as a woman in the Ottoman court of the Grande Porte. Soon such aristocratic female voices were joined by such middle-class women as Aphra Behn, author of the novel “Oroonoko,” perhaps the first professional woman writer in the English language. Thereafter, the bourgeious revolutions brought a flood of male and female writers to prominence, increasingly insisting on individual rights and individual voices, such as Tom Paine, whose “Rights of Man” attacked aristocracy and monarchy, and such female comrades at the barricades as Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley the author of “Frankenstein,” wife of social reformer Richard Godwin, and author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” one of the seminal feminist writings of World Literature.
The influence of the increasing democratizing influence of the middle and lower classes was not, however, always a liberal one in the direction of greater freedom for either men or women. In England the middle-class revolution was often associated with the Puritan movement, which severely condemned and restricted the cultural liberties and libertinage of the aristocratic classes, denouncing their emphasis on beauty, wit, frivolity, art, sexual license and foppery in favor of a new form of repressive religious conformity, and the French Revolution, followed by the Russian and Chinese communist revolutions often imposed a revolutionary austerity and puritanism which limited the sexual freedom and individuality of both sexes.
The salon literature also included a strong element of the pastoral, the idealization of the simple life of shepherds in the countryside, often an escape from or counterbalance to the pressures and hypocrisies of urban life and the enforced conformity of court culture. This pastoral dimension, along with its “sentimental” sensibility, was also emphasized in the informal salons of Englishwomen such as Katherine Phillips, who convened their circles not in the urban capital of London but rather in the aristocratic country estates or rural England. This influence evolved further into the idealization of nature and the uncorrupted natural focus of Romanticism.
MADELINE DE SCUDERY, WRITER AND CONVERSATIONALIST OF THE GRAND SALONS
Madeleine de Scudéry (1607-1701) was part of a movement in the late Renaissance in England and France where women adapted classical rhetorical theory to their own unique conditions. She thus revised discourse to be modeled on salon conversation rather than public speaking, a forum reserved to men. Typically, he speaker in the salon built on the ideas of the speaker before them, opting for consensus rather than oppositional debate and argument. Scudéry’s “Les Femmes Illustres” (1642) addressed itself to women and defends education, rather than the beauty or the cosmetic arts, as a means of social mobility for women. It justified women’s participation in rhetoric and literary culture in the forms most accessible to them: salon conversation and letter writing within intellectual circles. It foregrounds women speakers as models for the speeches, including Cleopatra of Egypt. In it as well as “Conversations Sur Divers Sujets” she adapted classical rhetorical theory from Cicero, Quintilian, Aristotle, and the sophists to a theory of salon conversation and letter writing. Other works of hers such as “Conversation,” “The Art of Speaking,” “Raillery,” “Invention,” and “The Manner of Writing Letters” offered guides and models for women’s intellectual and social formation while forcefully recording instances of salon conversation and social scenarios where women take intellectual control of the conversation.
In another famous work which became the basis of a popular kind of multi-party social role-playing game, “Clélie,” Scudéry invented the famous “Carte de Tendre,” a map of an Arcadia where the geography is all based around the theme of love: the “River of Inclination” flows past the villages of “Billet Doux” (Love Letter), “Petits Soins” (Little Trinkets) and so forth, forming a sort of board-game of love’s escapades. Scudéry was a skilled conversationalist and several volumes purporting to report her conversations upon various topics were published during her lifetime.
De Scudery is also credited with establishing the genre of the “roman à clef” or “novel with a key” in which the fictional story is based on and reveals the lives of true persons in a coded fictional disguise, which the reader enjoys discovering. Most of her novels exhibited this characteristic and provided readers with great enjoyment in searching for and discovering “the key” to the hidden lives of their contemporaries. The roman à clef has since been used by writers as diverse as Victor Hugo, Phillip K. Dick, and Bret Easton Ellis.
MADAME DE LA FAYETTE, PIONEER OF THE HISTORICAL NOVEL
Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, comtesse de La Fayette (1634-1693), better known as Madame de La Fayette, was a French writer, the author of “La Princesse de Clèves,” France’s first historical novel and one of the earliest novels in World Literature. At 16, she became the maid of honor to Queen Anne of Austria and began also to acquire a literary education from the scholar Gilles Ménage, who gave her lessons in Italian and Latin. Ménage also introduced her to the fashionable salons of Madame de Rambouillet and Madeleine de Scudéry. There she formed a close intellectual friendship with François de La Rochefoucauld, the renown author of the sardonic “Maxims.” La Fayette’s most famous novel “La Princesse de Clèves,” first published anonymously in March 1678 was an immense success, and is often taken to be the first true French novel and a prototype not only of the French historical novel but also of the genre of the psychological novel.The novel’s action takes place between October 1558 and November 1559 at the royal court of Henry II of France. The novel recreates that era with remarkable precision. Nearly every character – except the heroine – is a true historical figure. Events and intrigues unfold with great faithfulness to documentary records. The Princess marries but falls in love with a dashing noble the Duke de Nemours, and a chain of intrigues follow giving a moving panorama of life and love at the royal court. Her life, however leads not to her lover’s bed but rather to a convent.
MADAME DE SEVIGNE, ICON OF BELLE LETTRES AND EPISTOLARY PROSE
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné (1626-1696) was a French aristocrat, remembered especially for her exquisite prose style in letter-writing. Most of her letters, celebrated for their wit and vividness, were addressed to her daughter and gained wide circulation in literary circles. She is revered in France as one of the great icons of French literature.
Mme de Sévigné corresponded with her daughter for nearly thirty years. A clandestine edition, containing twenty-eight letters or portions of letters, was published in 1725, followed by two others the next year. Pauline de Simiane, Mme de Sévigné’s granddaughter, decided to officially publish her grandmother’s correspondence and working with the editor Denis-Marius Perrin of Aix-en-Provence, she published 614 letters from 1734-1737, then 772 letters in 1754. The letters were selected according to Mme de Simiane’s instructions: she rejected those that dealt too closely with family matters, or those that seemed poorly written. Mme de Sévigné’s letters play an important role in the novel “À la recherche du temps perdu” In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust where they figure as the favorite reading of the narrator’s grandmother, and, following her death, his mother.
ANNE FINCH, COUNTESS OF WINCHELSEA & KATHERINE PHILLIPS, “THE MATCHLESS ORINDA”—LEADERS OF THE ENGLISH LITERARY SALONS
Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720), was an English poetess who became known as one of the leading leaders of English literary salons, along with Katherine Phillips, known by her nom de plume, as “The Matchless Orinda.” Finch was well-educated as her family believed in good education for girls as well as for boys. She became one of six maids of honour to Mary of Modena, who was the wife of James, Duke of York, who would later become King James II. In addition to her writing, Finch was renown for introducing and adapting the French institution of the literary salon to the English environment, often focused on an aristocratic lady’s country home rather than city residence.
Finch’s range as a writer was vast and she experimented with the poetic traditions of her day, often straying from the fold through her use of rhyme, meter and content, which ranged from the simplistic to the metaphysical. Additionally, Finch wrote several satiric vignettes modelled after the short tales of French fable writer Jean de La Fontaine. Her poetry is often considered to fall in the category of Augustan, reflecting upon nature and finding both an emotional and religious relationship to it in her verse.
APHRA BEHN, THE FIRST WOMAN PROFESSIONAL WRITER IN ENGLISH LITERATURE
Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was a prolific dramatist of the English Restoration, the first English professional female literary writer, and author of the novel “Oroonoko” depicting the tragedy of an African prince shipped to South America as a black slave. It is notable for its exploration of slavery, race, and gender early in history. Her writing also contributed to the amatory fiction genre of British literature and along with Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood, she was sometimes referred to as part of “The fair triumvirate of wit.” She was of modest middle-class origin and traveled in South America and Europe. She is reported to have served as a spy for the Stuart King Charles II. Her political sympathies were conservative, Catholic-sympathetic, Stuart royalist and Tory. Monetary necessity compelled her to write, and her success at it in both plays and prose enabled her to become the first example of a professional woman writer in England and a model and hero for future women such as Virginia Woolf who wrote in “A Room of One’s Own:”
“All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds… Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.”
MADAME DE STAEL, ICON OF EUROPEAN ROMANTICISM
Madame de Staël, was a French woman of letters of Swiss origin whose lifetime overlapped with the events of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. She was one of Napoleon’s principal opponents. Celebrated for her conversational eloquence, she participated actively in the political and intellectual life of her times. Her works, both critical and fictional, made their mark on the history of European Romanticism. Her father was the prominent Swiss banker and statesman Jacques Necker, who was the Director of Finance under King Louis XVI of France. Her mother was Suzanne Curchod, hostess of one of the most popular salons of Paris, where figures such as Buffon, Marmontel, Grimm, Edward Gibbon, the Abbé Raynal, and Jean-François de la Harpe were frequent guests. Her mother habitually brought her as a young child to sit at her feet in her famous salon, where the sober intellectuals took pleasure in stimulating the brilliant child. This exposure occasioned, as in the case of another child prodigy, John Stuart Mill, a breakdown in adolescence, but the seeds of a literary vocation had been sown irrevocably. She married the Swedish ambassador to the French royal court, a fact which gave her both a high status in French society as well as valuable diplomatic immunity during the excesses of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars.
At the time of the French Revolution she was enthusiastic for a mixture of Rousseauism and constitutionalism in politics, favoring an American-style constitutional republic or limited constitutional monarchy and democracy like England. Her novels were bestsellers and her literary criticism was highly influential. When she was allowed to live in Paris she greatly encouraged any political dissident from Louis’s regime. She exulted in the meeting of the
Estates General at the beginning of the Revolution. In the early days of the revolutionary period she was in Paris taking an interest in, and attending the Assembly, and holding a salon on the Rue du Bac, attended by Talleyrand, Abbé Delille, Clermont-Tonnerre, and Gouverneur Morris. Napoleon said about her, that she “teaches people to think who never thought before, or who had forgotten how to think.” Nonetheless she became a bitter opponent of Napoleon, leading him to order her exile from Paris, commanding she not come within 40 leagues of the city, causing her to seek exile in Germany and across Europe.
Auguste Comte included Madame de Staël in his Calendar of Great Men. In a book with the same name, Comte’s disciple Frederic Harrison wrote about Staël and her works: “In Delphine a woman, for the first time since the Revolution, reopened the romance of the heart which was in vogue in the century preceding. Comte would daily recite the sentence from Delphine, “There is nothing real in the world but love.” “Our thoughts and our acts,” she said, “can only give us happiness through results: and results are not often in our own control. Feeling is entirely within our power; and it gives us a direct source of happiness, which nothing outside can take away.” The famous quote, “Tout comprendre rend très-indulgent”, commonly translated as “To know all is to forgive all”, is found in her most famous novel “Corinne.” Her works, Harrison wrote, “precede the works of Scott, Byron, Shelley, and partly of Chateaubriand, their historical importance is great in the development of modern Romanticism, of the romance of the heart, the delight in nature, and in the art, antiquities, and history of Europe.”
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT, ADVOCATE OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN AND MOTHER OF MARY SHELLEY, AUTHOR OF “FRANKENSTEIN”
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was an eighteenth-century British writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. During her brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children’s book. Wollstonecraft is best known for “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason.
She, like Tom Paine travelled to France at the beginning of the Revolution and took part in its events. She published numerous books including “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters” (1787) and her children’s book “Original Stories from Real Life” (1788). Later she married the philosopher and pioneer of modern anarchist thought Richard Godwin, with whom she had a daughter who would become a famous author, Mary Shelley, author of the novel “Frankenstein” and wife of Percy Shelley, the renown Romantic poet and revolutionary thinker. She died from complications of childbirth resulting from the birth of Mary, whom Godwin raised and educated. Her reputation suffered discrediting during the conservative Victorian period, but her life and works were re-evaluated upwards with the growth of the modern feminist movement in the 20th Century.
SPIRITUS MUNDI AND WOMEN OF LETTERS
My own work, “Spiritus Mundi” draws on the models of many women writers, including George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and many others. One of its main characters is Eva Strong, who is a writer, lover of the protagonist Sartorius, and an activist in the global campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, a new organ of the United Nations modeled on the European Parliament for global democracy.
World Literature Forum invites you to check out the great Women of Letters in World Literature, and also the contemporary epic novel Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard. For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:
For Discussions on World Literature and n Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…
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Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CIGJFGO
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGM8BZG
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