- Purchase/rental options available:
Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.2 (2001) 313-317
[Access article in PDF]
Perplexities of Female Personhood
Elise Goodman. The Portraits of Madame de Pompadour: Celebrating the Femme Savante (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). Pp. xix + 188. $45.00 cloth.
Lori Jo Marso. (Un)Manly Citizens: Jean-Jacques Rousseau's and Germaine de Staël's Subversive Women (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). Pp. xiv + 172. $38.00 cloth.
Christine Roulston. Virtue, Gender, and the Authentic Self in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Richardson, Rousseau, and Laclos (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998.) Pp. xx + 211. $49.95 cloth.
Mary Seidman Trouille. Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment: Women Writers Read Rousseau (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997). Pp. viii + 411. $65.00 cloth, $21.95 paper.
The above selection of works confirms that scholarship on women in eighteenth-century art, life, and literature remains as vibrant and insightful as ever. A disparate group, they deploy an impressive range of critical approaches: Goodman's art-historical and iconographic, but drawing upon social and literary [End Page 313] history; Roulston showing what a focus on structural-textual analysis can accomplish even when virtually unaided by reference to anything extraneous to her texts; Trouille ransacking virtually a whole arsenal of critical tools--textual analysis, reader-response theory, political thought, biography, social and feminist theory; while Marso combines textual skills and political and feminist theory with dollops of literary criticism and flat-out history. These admixtures of disciplinary methods, so characteristic of feminist scholarship, allow for an invigorating aeration of received ideas concerning the significance of figurations of gender in the Age of Light. All, I would claim, even Roulston's self-enclosed literary study, plunge us back into the midst of the Querelle des femmes. For each probes the problematics of female selfhood, so that the subtitle of one of them emerges as the not-so-occult ground tying them together. This redefinition of women's selfhood, situated in the woman but with distinctly universal implications, points to a convergence of factors underlying Enlightenment thought that had important political and familial repercussions for the Revolution and beyond. Each introduction promises to illuminate how the Enlightenment's obsession with authenticity and calculation, natural innocence and cultural corruption, seen as dialectically linked though not necessarily opposed categories, played out in the arenas surveyed. While Goodman proposes to show us how "La Pompadour" sought to control her image as an Enlightenment exemplar, Roulston strives to illustrate how in the novels of Richardson, Rousseau, and Laclos, the Enlightenment conflated its sympathy with the dispossessed with the notion of authenticity, thus turning its works into a laboratory for the history of epistemology. Trouille's scrutiny of the responses of women readers to Rousseau promises to uncover their struggles to achieve self-awareness in spite of opinion's strictures; while Marso, in a sort of dialogue with Trouille, determines to dig out pro-women fault lines within Rousseau's bait and switch policies toward women which Germaine de Staël would adapt in challenging the pervasive models of both male and female selfhood. Elise Goodman's elegantly produced volume in the Discovery Series, dedicated to the illumination of a single work of art, begins with Pompadour's birth in 1721 and recalls her apprenticeship for an exceptional destiny. None of the arts of music, drama, and later, engraving, would lie beyond the cultivation of this well-to-do bourgeois daughter. Confident in her talents, Jeanne Poisson developed that extraordinarily composed, yet artfully spontaneous-seeming personality that allowed her to wield such power as royal mistress. It was in an act of brazen self-display worthy of Laclos' Liaisons dangereuses that, in order to capture the king's eye, seated splendidly arrayed in her carriage, she posted herself in his path as he hunted in the Forêt de Sénart. This combination of daring, wit, and social acumen enabled her to survive their sexual liaison for over a decade, until her death at 42, in 1763. Friend to the Encyclopedists, herself a committed lover of learning and practitioner of the arts as well as confidante...