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 23 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.