- Purchase/rental options available:
Biography 24.4 (2001) 944-945
[Access article in PDF]
This study of six early modern memoirs in French investigates the way five women represented themselves in writing, the strategies they mobilized, and the stakes they perceived as crucial to their acts of self-accounting. In the case of the sixth, it examines the memoirs of a man who cross-dressed from childhood on, and embraced the surface signifiers of "woman" as he constructed an extravagant identity. These are all texts available in modern French language editions, and the author intends the study as a reading companion to the primary texts. Patricia Cholakian's purpose in considering the memoirs together is to study how gender, selfhood, and sexuality were constructed in the past, with an eye to their illustrative potential for contemporary feminist theory.
The book's introduction offers an extensive review of the estate of women in the early modern period, as well as of contemporary theories regarding women and their writing. Cholakian also examines closely the relationship between autobiography and memoir as she sets forth the generic context in which to understand these "women" writings not merely as private expression but as political positioning. Indeed, through her careful readings of these six writers, she demonstrates convincingly how profoundly gender should be understood as a matter of early modern state policy. In her conclusion, she identifies three major themes that characterize all of the memoirs examined. Not altogether surprisingly, these are women's experience of exile and alienation, their silencing and subjugation, and their political disenfranchisement. Unruly women and female impersonators alike are subject to the will of the polis.
To scholars of the French seventeenth century, the memorialists are all well-known personages: Marguerite de Valois, Mlle de Montpensier, Hortense and Marie Mancini, Madame Guyon, and l'Abbé de Choisy. Each of them has a personal story to tell that reflects the way seventeenth-century sexual and gender politics impinged on and shaped their private lives. Marguerite de Valois, the divorced queen of Henri IV, wrote her story in the hopes of putting an end to her exile, and with the aim of countering the vicious rumors of her sexual excesses circulating during her own time. Mlle de Montpensier, wealthy cousin of Louis XIV, invented herself through her writing as a heroic daughter figure, intent on founding her own matrilineal house, as if to compensate for the sad fact that her extreme wealth stood in the way of her marrying, since any such alliance would have been perceived as posing a threat to the king's sole power. Hortense Mancini and her sister Marie, nieces of the minister Mazarin, both led amazingly adventurous lives [End Page 944] as they negotiated the particulars of their marriage matches and sought solutions to their untenable situations. In her writing, Hortense appears to seek primarily to document her husband's injustices against her, while Marie writes to discredit pseudo-memoirs that had already come out under her name, and to reflect on how she came to have such an improbable life story. Madame Guyon, a mystic, wrote memoirs modeled on the confessional genre that testify to the difficulties for any woman living unattached in the world, constantly subject to suspicions of sexual promiscuity, and show her inventing herself through writing as a holy woman. L'Abbé de Choisy wrote two memoirs; one in the conventional masculinist style, focused on historical events and intended for the purpose of edification of future state leaders; and a second, far more curious one, in a more private vein, which explains his predilection for cross-dressing as a consequence of his early companionship, encouraged by his mother, with the king's brother, who was being deliberately feminized in order to ensure that Louis XIV would not be threatened by fraternal competition in his rule. Here gender identity was cultivated for political reasons and was a matter of state policy. Choisy's...