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French Forum 26.3 (2001) 123-124

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Book Review

Gender, Rhetoric, and Print Culture in French Renaissance Writing

Floyd Gray, Gender, Rhetoric, and Print Culture in French Renaissance Writing. Cambridge Studies in French 63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 227 pp.

In this lucidly written book, Floyd Gray studies two interconnecting themes: the rhetorical strategies used in "marginal discourses" (such as misogynist, feminist, autobiographical, homosexual, and medical texts) and the impact of the printing industry with its attendant commercial interests on shaping French vernacular writing of the Renaissance. Gray's thesis is that Renaissance texts were steeped in the traditions of classical rhetoric and that, consequently, modern efforts to elucidate these texts that are not cognizant of such traditions—and that to replace rhetorical training with "ideologically charged" methods such as feminist criticism—fail to interpret them properly. This is particularly pertinent to his first chapter, "Discourses of misogyny," which treats the "Querelle des Femmes." Here, Gray contends that these pieces are essentially rhetorical exercises which may not reflect any social realities and whose meaning is often uncertain. He also examines the role assumed by publishers who, wishing to profit from a money-making enterprise, encouraged the propagation of such texts.

In chapter two, Gray examines in detail how irony informs the work of two women writers, Jeanne Flore and Marguerite de Navarre. He raises the possibility that the former's stories may well have been authored by a man or by several different writers and examines the difficulties inherent in understanding the latter's tales in light of the interplay between the real author, the narrator, and the characters who variously interpret each story.

Chapter three approaches gender-related issues by examining the status of the self-referential lyric "I," first in the works of the "Rhétoriqueurs" poets and then in the poems of Pernette Du Guillet and Louise Labé. He suggests that the perceived "awkwardness" of Du Guillet's poetry is a deliberate rhetorical strategy and that Labé redefines the "Querelle des Femmes" by juxtaposing its conflicting voices in a single text, such as her Débat that pits the male Cupid against the female Folly.

In chapter four, "The Women in Montaigne's Life," Gray once again analyzes the ambivalence of the authorial "I," emphasizing that the Essais [End Page 123] are not genuine biography. Special attention is given to the figure of Marie de Gournay, Montaigne's "fille d'alliance" and editor. Gray meticulously examines her self-presentation in the prefaces to her editions; he also focuses on the vexing passage of the Essais in which Montaigne supposedly celebrates her in a manner reminiscent of his praise for La Boétie, considering whether this passage is authentically Montaigne's.

Gray's last chapter, "Sexual marginality," is no doubt his most provocative. While, he states, the Renaissance gradually provided more opportunities for women's voices to be heard, this is not the case for homosexuals, who are confined to the margins of other texts, including medical treatises and private journals. The first section of this chapter gives a brief history of homosexuality (including its terminology) in the Renaissance, and Montaigne once again figures prominently here. The second section examines cross-dressing, especially its role in theater production; this is followed by a section on the Androgyne myth (with some attention given to Rabelais). The final section of this chapter examines the proliferation of pseudo-medical texts written in the vernacular which, Gray claims, was in part fostered by the publishing industry and its commercial interest in appealing to the sexual curiosity of the masses. These texts, Gray asserts, therefore border on the pornographic.

Because Gray's aim is to show where other critics have failed, he sometimes uses a polemical tone that betrays his impatience with what he believes are invalid—or at least incomplete—critical approaches to Renaissance texts. Even those readers who are inclined to agree with Gray's sensible remarks might bristle at some of his comments. Still, this concise yet far-reaching book serves as a valuable reminder that modern readers are...


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