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Staging the Impossible Femme Forte in Madame de Maintenon’s Dramatic Conversations

From: Women in French Studies
Special Issue, Volume 5, 2014
pp. 62-75 | 10.1353/wfs.2014.0012

Abstract

Abstract:

Madame de Maintenon, King Louis XIV’s secret wife is an historic figure who remains shrouded in mystery even today largely due to the fact that much of her correspondence with the king was burned after 1713. However, what further distorted her image were the unflattering accounts written by Saint-Simon. As a result of this negative backlash, Maintenon’s contribution to female education has been forgotten. As the director of Saint-Cyr, the boarding school she founded for daughters of impoverished noble families, Maintenon placed a unique emphasis on the art of conversation, a skill that was neglected in traditional female education. Maintenon’s original conversations, morality plays loosely based on Mademoiselle de Scudéry’s conversations, were intended to teach good judgment to the older female pupils as they prepared to leave Saint-Cyr.

This study of Maintenon’s conversations seeks to highlight the complexity and irony of this mysterious morganatic queen whose search for unattainable fulfillment is seen in the model woman she expects her pupils to emulate. Maintenon bases her féminin idéal on the femme forte described in the Biblical proverbs. The latter is described in the conversations as one who should take pride in her domestic duties, reject polite society, and use her knowledge only to better serve her family. Maintenon, however, cannot be seen as the perfect example of domestic bliss. Having led a very public life, her insistence on domesticity and avoidance of society life does not align itself with her own lifestyle. Ironically, she depicts marriage as slavery and men as tyrants, all the while encouraging her pupils to choose marriage as opposed to celibacy or the veil. These inconsistencies suggest that the femme forte modeled in the conversations is the woman Maintenon believed she ought to have been. Thus, through her own regret Maintenon teaches her pupils how to become a femme forte, and yet at the same time, she is as inaccessible as Maintenon herself.



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