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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.3 (2001) 383-401

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The Self-Fashionings of Olympe de Gouges, 1784-1789

Gregory S. Brown

In the 1990s, scholars of eighteenth-century literature investigated topics formerly not associated with the Enlightenment: new authors (particularly women); new concerns (such as gender, race, and personal identity); and new modes of writing (especially life narratives). In this same decade, historians of ancien régime and revolutionary France developed an abiding interest in the construction of social identities, particularly gender, through language. These two tendencies converged, among others, in studies of Olympe de Gouges, whom dix-huitiémistes rediscovered, primarily through her 1791 pamphlet, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, 1 and secondarily through her theater, notably the 1792 edition of her play, L'Esclavage des Noirs (The Slavery of the Blacks). 2 The 1990s generated extensive study of Gouges's published writings, through which we have come to know her as "radical" and "revolutionary," as the "first French feminist," and as a "militant abolitionist." She has been frequently invoked to support two related arguments about gender and political culture--that the Revolution produced women whose "feminism [was] more militant" than that of early-modern women writers and, at the same time, that the Revolution "disdained" and "excluded" these women from political and intellectual life. 3 These depictions, however, are based entirely on Gouges's published works of the early revolutionary years and on the assumption that these works reflect a coherent, feminist world view. Consequently, the tendency has been "to emphasize woman's natural rights in Gouges's view of the world" in all discussions of her life or works. 4 [End Page 383]

In this sense, Gouges scholarship exemplifies the tendency, noted by Carla Hesse, of feminist criticism and historiography to romanticize eighteenth-century women writers as socially marginal heroines struggling at the outskirts of an essentially masculine political culture. Hesse calls instead for more "basic, empirical investigations" into actual "female participation in the cultural and political life of late-Enlightenment and revolutionary France." 5 At the same time, Gouges scholarship has drawn little on recent approaches to life writings, particularly those of early-modern women. These critical approaches emphasize the need to study how writers fashioned public identities by reading personal narratives not, in the words of Felicity Nussbaum, as documents of "lived experience," but as "cultural constructions of the self" by which individual subjects take up "particular discourses available at given historical moments" and then "adopt positions" consistent with those discourses. 6

My interest is to pursue simultaneously an empirical investigation into Gouges's experiences as a woman writer in late-eighteenth-century literary culture and a more nuanced reading of her narration of those experiences, by exploring her self-presentations in her correspondence and in some of her published works. In so doing, I seek to emphasize the centrality of her engagement with--rather than marginality from--ancien régime literary institutions and culture, particularly that of public theater, in her self-fashioning as a "femme de lettres." I therefore propose to approach Gouges neither as a founding theorist of modern feminism nor as a politically marginal woman activist, but as a "self," fashioned through texts in which she narrates her experiences. I am interested in how she deployed available tropes about civility, gender, and personal expression in specific rhetorical contexts during the 1780s to represent and conceive of herself as a writer. I explore how Gouges used, first, personal correspondence and then, print to promote her play, Zamore et Mirza. This play, originally published in August 1788 as Zamore et Mirza, ou l'Heureux naufrage (Zamore and Mirza, or the Fortunate Shipwreck) and reprinted in March 1792 as L'Esclavage des Noirs, ou l'Heureux naufrage, is mostly considered an "antislavery" work, an interpretation based entirely on the 1792 printed edition, rather than earlier versions. 7 As I will show, however, the text, title, and meaning of the play evolved, from its first draft in 1784 to its performance in late 1789 and to its second printing in...


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