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  • Appropriation and Gender: The Case of Catherine Bernard and Bernard de Fontenelle
  • Nina Ekstein (bio)

In 1757, Bernard de Bovier de Fontenelle, the well-known popularizer of scientific thinking, homme de lettres, and secretary of the Académie des Sciences, died just months shy of his hundredth birthday. In 1758, Volume 10 of Fontenelle’s Oeuvres appeared, edited by Fontenelle’s chosen literary executor, the abbé Trublet. Along with a number of other works, Volume 10 contains a tragedy dating from 1690 entitled Brutus. This play has had a complex and curious history. The year 1758 marks the first time that Brutus appears under Fontenelle’s name, but hardly the last. In 1690, when the play was first performed and published, it appeared under the name of Catherine Bernard. The complicated tale of the fortunes of Brutus, the shift of attribution and the appropriations to which it has been subjected, tell us much about the literary culture of the eighteenth century, about the place of women writers in the ancien régime, and about how women’s works have been arrogated by men.

Brutus deals with the Roman consul who has his sons put to death for their treasonous alliance with the overthrown king, Tarquin. The political plot is doubled by a sentimental one, with both sons in love with Tarquin’s daughter. Staged by the Comédie-Française, Brutus was a great success for its day, with twenty-seven performances from December 18, 1690 to August 12, 1691, and sixteen more in the eight years that followed. 1 Its critical reception was equally positive: Donneau de Visé [End Page 59] marvels at Bernard’s ability to “forcefully advance heroic sentiments and nobly uphold Roman character” and later calls Bernard “a dangerous rival for all those who have a stake in the theater.” 2

Little is known about the author’s life. Catherine Bernard was born in 1662 in Rouen; at some point she moved to Paris and earned her living by her pen. Raised a Protestant, she renounced her faith upon the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. She never married, but was protected by wealthy patronesses who seemingly influenced her to adopt a devout way of life. By the turn of the century her name disappeared from public view, and she is believed to have died in 1712. More is known about Bernard’s literary career, a career marked by diversity and success. She published her first novel, Fédéric de Sicile, in 1680, at the age of eighteen. She wrote three novellas, Eléonor d’Yvrée (1687), Le Comte d’Amboise (1689), and Inès de Cordoue (1696), as well as a short story, Histoire de la rupture d’Abénamar et de Fatime (1696); all four are subsumed under the general title, Les Malheurs de l’amour. Inès de Cordoue contains two fairy tales, “Le Prince Rosier” and “Riquet à la Houppe,” making Bernard one of the earliest contributors to this popular genre. 3 In the field of verse, Bernard won the Académie française prize for poetry on three separate occasions (1691, 1693, and 1697) and the prize given by Jeux Floraux de Toulouse three times as well (1696, 1697, 1698). She wrote only two plays, Laodamie (1689) and Brutus (1690), both tragedies with successful runs at the Comédie-Française. Her works—poetry, prose fiction, and tragedy—were regularly anthologized in the collective volumes that appeared starting at the end of the seventeenth century, a clear sign of the high esteem in which they were held. 4 Barred from the Académie française because of its rule admitting only men, Bernard was accepted into the Académie des Ricovrati de Padua in 1699 and given the name “Calliope the Invincible.” With the exception of her first novel, she signed all of her works; Bernard’s name, and her name alone, appears on the title pages.

In contrast to Bernard’s relatively brief literary career (1680–1696), Fontenelle was a major public figure throughout almost his entire lifetime and was respected as one of the great luminaries of the French Enlightenment. He came to public attention at...

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