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French Forum 30.3 (2005) 1-16
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Hélisenne's Purloined Letters
In Edgar Allan Poe's famous short story, The Purloined Letter, the contents of the mysterious epistle are never revealed; rather, it is the place and the successive replacements of the letter and its facsimile that comprise the narrative.1 For Poe, the value of the letter's content appears to be secondary to the itinerary of a signifier whose path the author traces in the story.2 Just as The Purloined Letter traces the migration of the letter within the fictional world of the text, this paper proposes to examine an earlier instance of purloined letters whose mobility sparked by misappropriation stages the transmission of meaning from script to print.3 Not long after the dawn of print culture, the episode of purloined letters in Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (1538) operates, I will argue, as a representation in miniature of the economy and risks of writing.4 The autobiographical tenor of this book, in which the author and main character uncannily bear the same name, Hélisenne de Crenne, underscores the extent to which the stakes of writing, when the author and the subject coincide, take a compelling turn. Especially given that the name, Hélisenne, attributed to both the author and the main character of the novel, is a fiction, a pseudonym that conceals the identity of the actual author of the work, Marguerite Briet.5
Designed as a prescriptive text that follows the Ovidian tradition of a remedy for love, the Angoysses narrates the story of Hélisenne's adulterous love for Guenelic, her subsequent melancholy, and how the story of her "angoysses et douleurs" serves as an example that warns a female readership against the dangers of such a love. Yet the way that the author negotiates her lovesickness is through writing and, to the [End Page 1] extent that her texts to her lover and to her readers become public, the Angoysses breaks radically with its prescriptive framework. For the author devotes as much of her text to describing the deleterious effects of love as she does to the pleasure of writing about her torments and communicating with her lover. Thus, while it warns against love, the Angoysses nonetheless celebrates the experience of female desire.
Dedicated to a female readership of "lisantes," the Angoysses recounts the story of an adulterous love affair between a married noblewoman, Hélisenne, and her neighbor of lower social rank, Guenelic. Composed in three voices, that of the heroine, her beloved, and her lover's companion in arms, Quezinstra, the Angoysses narrates the development of the lovers' attachment and their attempts to be together until the heroine's imprisonment in a tower by her jealous husband. The second part of the novel, composed by Hélisenne in the voice of her absent lover, describes the adventures of Guenelic and Quezinstra as they attempt to find and release Hélisenne from her prison. The third part tells how Guenelic and Quezinstra emancipate Hélisenne, and how she and Guenelic both perish with their virtue intact (for they never fulfill their adulterous desire for one another), and finally, in an epilogue composed in the voice of Quezinstra, the lovers' friend narrates how the manuscript of the Angoysses discovered on the dead body of the heroine came to be printed in Paris to settle a dispute among the Gods.
In part a cautionary tale that warns her readers to resist amorous folly, Hélisenne offers her writings as an example of what ladies should avoid:
je me letifie [prends plaisir] à rediger par escript mon infortune, affin qu'il passe en manifeste exemple à toutes dames et damoyselles, en considerant que de noble et renommée dame je suis devenue pedisque [servante] et subjecte.
Perhaps as a substitute for the lost pleasure of the adulterous desire that will never be fulfilled, the transmission of the narrator's "infortune" into "escript" performs a double task. On the one hand, it negotiates the text's becoming...