Monday, March 26, 2012

On reading and not reading 17th century French female novelists

In a discussion of the word “classics” at Caravana de Recuerdos, grisly details here, Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat championed the works of 17th century French novelist and playwright Catherine Bernard.*  Never having heard of Bernard, I decided to educate myself, by which I mean acquire facts that reinforce my prejudices.**

Grazing in A History of Women’s Writing in France, ed. Sonya Stephens, Cambridge University Press, 2000, I discovered, in the chapter on the 17th century, this surprising information:

Remarkably between  1687 and 1699, at least one third of all novels published in France were by women. (75, Faith E. Beasley wrote this chapter)

One might wonder what the figure might be for other arbitrarily determined 13 year periods, but the authors of survey articles can only cite research that has been done.

Who are these women writers, besides Bernard?  Anne Ferrand, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, the comtesse de Murat, and others of the “many successors” to Mme de Villedieu and Mme de Lafayette.***   The latter is the author of a widely acknowledged masterpiece, The Princess of Clèves (1678).  Much discussion is also given to one more writer I already knew about, Madeleine de Scudéry, author of Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus (1648-53), a strong  candidate for the longest novel ever written.

Who are the men who wrote that other two-thirds of the novels?  I have no idea.

I also do not know how much any of these books, aside from  The Princess of Clèves, which is a standard school text, are read by non-specialized French readers, readers not acquiring a graduate degree.  Only the Lafayette novel has any life in English, although I see that a tiny scrap of Artamène was newly translated in 2003 (for the first time since the 18th century!).

My assumption, when I read a list of names like this in a literary history, is not that they are the authors of bad and justly forgotten books but that they wrote interesting and even good books.  Specialists continue to sift through their heap of books, and for a while now specialists have been more interested in the women’s books they find in the heap.  The books stay the same; their readers change.  What they look for in a book changes.

Readers have lost some of the skills or knowledge needed to read  Scudéry or Lafayette.  Scholars teach themselves those forgotten skills and thus read the old, lost books in two ways – what did the book mean then, and what does it mean now?  The answer to the first question is likely to be the interesting one, unless the text is unusually rich, like The Princess of Clèves, which I can read successfully without training myself to be a 17th century French reader.  I only know how to read the book one way, the way I read other novels.  Strangely, Clèves  is rewarding read like this, a masterpiece on my terms as well as those of its own time.

How can this be true?  Another of the things I do not know.

*  I seem to be continuing on the “classics” track.  I was hoping to write about Fernando Pessoa and The Book of Disquiet this week, but I do believe I will take a little more time for reading and some simulation of thought.  Next week.

**  I have obviously been poisoned by reading Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary.

***  I hope, just because of her name, that scholars discover that Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force has written a neglected masterpiece.


  1. Nicolas Sarkozy famously both mangled the French language and dismissed the widely-beloved La Princesse de Clèves in the same sentence, which is probably reason enough for the French to vote him out of the presidency this May. I have nothing more to add, other than a curiosity about these other "lost" female writers of the period and gratitude that the Pessoa discussion has been postponed a week.

  2. This particular book of literary history is unfortunately weak on what is usually one of the greatest pleasures of literary history, the description of ridiculous and even insane sounding books that I would never possibly read but love to know about. Scudéry must get awfully ridiculous to get to 2 million words.

    If anyone else wants to get writing about Pessoa, please do. That way I can sponge off of your ideas. There must be a better way to put that.

  3. Guess I'm too much of a specialist after all.
    Not sure how widely read Catherine Bernard and the other ladies are, I most certainly didn't read them in school, it's idneed at the university that I discovered them, still, in France a lot of them are available in cheap paperback versions which means there is some interest.
    Since I started blogging 1.5 years ago I had to realize and - I'm sorry if this sounds smug - that the literary world is much smaller if one reads only one language.
    I would review so many, to me interesting books, if only translations were available - but outside of the mainstream, it's hard. So if excellent books of this and the last century do never make it to translation, how much harder would it be to find one of the 17th century authors.
    Btw - I always repeat this - you cannot compare 17th century French or German and English literature. French has been standardized since the 17th and hasn't really changed all that much, it's easy for a reader today to read and understand those books.
    Scott - there is a great book Nouvelles Gallantes du XVIIè - paperback Garnier Flammarion édition- you will find Bernard and Mme de Lafayette's lesser known work (and other ) in it.

  4. Who said anything about "too much"? Specialization is good. But the "how widely read" issue is crucial. Specialists are supposed to read marginal books.

    I browsed around on and found a few cheap paperbacks of the writers I mentioned, including the most interesting Nouvelles Gallantes book. An imperfect method, though.

    Literary history is the tool that breaks the language barrier. When I read the history of a literary tradition, it no longer seems small. But of course the same is true in my own language - neither I nor anyone will read everything, so we need literary history to provide a detailed map of the possibilities.

    You are actually making one of my anti-review arguments. I do not need a review to learn useful things about a book. Don't hold out on us - if you have something to say, please write about all of those interesting books!

    Of course I can compare 17th century French, German, and English literature. I can compare anything. I always repeat this. Are you responding to the point about training myself to be a 17th century reader? The language is only part of that training, and anyway this particular reader now finds it easy to read and understand 17th century English etc.

  5. Of course you can compare, I rather meant the difficulties to read them are not the same.
    A German text from the 17th is difficult for a modern reader while a French text from the 17th is quite easy to understand. I'm not sure how much English changed though. My reading doesn't go farther back than the 19th... So you tell me.
    I'm totally for specialization. And branching out. If only I had more time, I would write another blog, dedicated to not translated books only. Did you know that last Czech writer who wrote in German died in 2008 and despite the fact she won prizes was never translated (Lenka Reinerová)? Things like that.
    True enough - about the reviews. I wanted to write far less this year and write much more posts like the one on Virginia Woolf without even having finished the book.
    Your blog is a fine example of how informative and inspiring the non-review approach can be. It's an argument in itself.
    I also like the snippets approach that some use. Just provide something small but thought-provoking for the readers. I'll think about that and then dig out my notes on 250 years of Haitian literature. Not sure anoyne wnats to read that... We will see.

  6. The 17th century is also the great period of standardization of English (e.g., the King James Bible, the first dictionaries), although compared to French linguistic history it must seem like chaos. The changes are so fast. The century begins with Shakespeare and ends with Swift.

    The main problem for a dedicated modern reader is the shift in vocabulary - the meaning of a lot of words has narrowed since then.

    Spelling would be a problem, too, but modern editors fix that up for me. English spelling is always a problem.

    Ah, I love 17th century English. It was a thrilling literary period. In the 18th century it becomes so thick and Latinate and sticky, although in the hands of Gibbon and Johnson, I have no complaints. It is always a question of the hands, of the writer.

  7. Thanks. i thought it might be similar to French but not as strict maybe.

  8. As Obooki recently posted about, at some point in the future only a few writers per millennium will still be read, instead of the few writers per Century we currently know.

    Under those conditions what most likely will survive the passage of time is mostly books read by children (Chuang Tzu, Kafka, Arabian Nights, Don Quixote, Perrault, Alice) and sentimental treacle (I got this insight from an introduction to the Chinese classic 300 Poems of the Tang), poems like this little thing by Martial:

    I commend to your care this slave girl,
    Manes of my father Fronto and my mother Flacilla,
    as she was my delight and the object of my kisses.
    May little Erotion not fear the dark shades nor
    the huge mouths of the Tartarean dog.
    She would have completed her sixth cold winter
    if she'd not lived as many days too few.
    Now, let her play amid old friends,
    let her chatter and lisp my name.
    May the soft turf cover her brittle bones:
    earth, lie lightly on her, as she was not heavy on you.

    Hanc tibi, Fronto pater, genetrix Flaccilla, puellam
    oscula commendo deliciasque meas,
    paruola ne nigras horrescat Erotion umbras
    oraque Tartarei prodigiosa canis.
    Impletura fuit sextae modo frigora brumae,
    uixisset totidem ni minus illa dies.
    Inter tam ueteres ludat lasciua patronos
    et nomen blaeso garriat ore meum.
    Mollia non rigidus caespes tegat ossa nec illi,
    terra, grauis fueris: non fuit illa tibi.