Women and Writing in 17th Century France – by Lyra

Last week I began to truly immerse myself in the research process. Originally, I was concerned about finding sufficient resources, seeing as there has been relatively little research conducted on the women of the French fairytale scene. I am fortunate to have a father who works as a research librarian; I asked him to help me, and before I knew it I had seven books and a foot-tall stack of articles at my disposal. The only problem is that most of the major researchers on this subject are British and American, so all but two of my books are in English. This is not ideal, but I do have a good number of articles in French, and I will or course be reading the original tales in French.  So far my research has proved to be very intellectually satisfying. When I first discovered the salonnières this summer, I was hesitant to select a topic that I knew so little about for a semester-long project, but more I learn about these women, the more I am glad that I chose to study them. I will be sharing some of the exciting things that I have learned in the very near future, but this week I will just provide some important background on gender relations and attitudes towards women’s education in 17th century France.

During the enlightenment period, aristocratic women became more prominent in the intellectual sphere, due to the rise of what fairy tale scholar Louis Seifert refers to as mondain culture among the social elite.  Mondain culture was essentially the intersection of enlightenment thinking and French high society; it was fashionable to be well read and well spoken, and the ultimate mark of wealth was to have nothing to do all day but engage in intellectual discourse with fellow aristocrats. Central to mondain life were salons, where the French elite would meet to discuss philosophy, politics, literature, and art. (Seifert) Prominent upper-class women would host these meetings and moderate discussions. Salon women were sociable, witty, and well educated. Many of them adhered to the Cartesian philosophy that the mind occupies a different area of existence than the body and applied it to feminist thought, asserting that the mind has no gender.

In the response to the rise of women in intellectual circles, the fin du siècle saw a great deal of controversy regarding the education of young girls, the position of women in society, and sexual morals. The prevailing mentality stressed the mutual exclusivity of domestic and scholarly activities and professed that women who fell prey the divertissements of an academic lifestyle and neglected their domestic duties were a threat to the purity of the French nobility. Madame de Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV, was a prominent opponent of women’s involvement in mondain culture. In her Lettres et entretiens sur l’educaiton des jeunes filles , “Il faut même tâcher de faire en sorte [que les filles] s’étudient à parler d’une manière courte et précise. Le bon esprit consiste à retrancher tout discours inutile et à dire beaucoup en peu de paroles au lieu que la plus part des femmes dissent peu en beaucoup de mots” (It is even necessary to make sure that [girls] study how to speak in a terse and precise manner. Good sense entails cutting out all useless discourse and saying a lot in few words whereas most women say very little in a lot of words.) (Qtd. in Marin, 276)

Such attitudes were common among the French elite and shaped the self-perception of French women such as Mme. de Maintenon from a young age. Girls learned early on in their education that their opinions were worth less than those of their male counterparts and therefore should be expressed, “avec un air de doute et de déférence.” (with an air of doubt and deference)  276) Domestic chores were thought to be a suitable pursuit for a woman’s intellectual capacity, while reading and writing were considered dangerous and subversive. For girls wealthy enough to receive schooling, French education taught and normalized their perpetual silence, deeming it necessary for the good of society.

Closely tied to a woman’s silence was her duty to submit to her husband. The ultimate indicator of a well-bred woman was her role as a wife. Madame de Maintenon told the girls under her instruction, “Obéissez donc, soumettez-vous; rien n’est meilleur, c’est le partage de notre sexe, et j’espère que…vous excellerez dans l’art merveilleux de savoir se vaincre soi-même, et de plier a toutes mains, selon la volonté de ceux dont vous dépendez.” (You must then obey, submit yourselves; nothing is better, it is the allotment given to our sex, and I hope that…you excel in the marvelous art of knowing how to conquer yourselves, and submit immediately, according to the will of those on whom you depend.) (282)  Madame de Maintenon embodies the irony of the influential and well-spoken women who does not see herself as such, and her teachings reflect a culture that did not view women as autonomous beings, but rather as subservient and incomplete without the presence of their fathers or husbands.

Thus, living in the shadow of their husbands, women in 17th century France had no reason to write. Critics of mondain women asserted that writing instilled vanity in women and distanced them from the virtues of silence and submission. As Catharine Marin writes in her article, “Silence ou Éloquence: Les Heroïnes des Contes de Fées de l’Epoque Classique,” “Écrire n’était certainement pas vu comme une activité neutre.” (Writing was certainly not seen as a neutral activity) (281)  A woman who wrote was making a political statement regardless of the content of her work by defying, perhaps unconsciously, the paradigm of the well-bred woman who kept her thoughts to herself. Marin speculates that many educators feared the teaching of writing skills to young girls because they recognized the written word’s capacity to remove women from the domestic identity. (282) On the other hand, salon women used their education to forge a public identity as a form of resistance to patriarchal ideals.

This is where fairytales come in to the picture. Throughout Western Europe, storytelling was originally a lowly activity reserved for peasant women and servants. With the rise of mondain culture, salon women transformed storytelling from a matronly, domestic activity into a platform for a subversive feminist agenda. Women who were dissatisfied with simply hosting and facilitating salon discussions without receiving credit for their ideas began gathering in their own living rooms to follow their intellectual pursuits among other women. These women, known as the salonnières, demonstrated their wit, eloquence, and creativity by developing their own fairy tales or reworking traditional tales. Many of these fairy tales celebrated intelligent, outspoken girls and women and experimented with gender roles, featuring spunky female characters who refused marriage or rescued male characters. The stories shared among salonnières were often subversive and contained subtle political messages.

I am currently focusing on the work of the most famous salonnière, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy. She ran a salon the 1690’s in Paris that was frequented by some of the most prestigious nobility of her time. In a time when women writers almost never had their work published, Madame d’Aulnoy published twelve books over a span of thirteen years, her most prominent works being her fairytale collections and her historical novels. Next week, I will be discussing the ways in which Madame d’Aulnoy used the medium of storytelling as a political platform to promote gender equality and criticize the French court. I am already a big fan of her work and I am looking forward to sharing some it with you all.

Works Cited:

Duggan, Anne E. “Naissance Du Conte Feminin: Mots Et Merveilles: Les Contes De Fees De Madame D’Aulnoy (1690-1698) (review).” Merveilles Et Contes 18.1 (2004): 122-24. Print.

Marin, Catherine. “Silence Ou Éloquence: Les Heroïnes Des Contes De Fées De L’Époque Classique.” Merveilles Et Contes 10.2 (1996): 273-84. Jstor. Web.

Seifert, Lewis Carl. Fairy Tales, Sexuality, and Gender in France, 1690-1715: Nostalgic Utopias. Cambridge [England: Cambridge UP, 1996. Prin

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