- The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern
Carla Hesse's The Other Enlightenment challenges the idea of a monolithic "Enlightenment" as created by the great male philosophessuch asVoltaire and Rousseau. Taking as her starting point the contradiction between the notion of an "other Enlightenment" and a traditional definition of "the Enlightenment" as a universal concept, Hesse follows in the footsteps of historians such as Robert Darnton who in the 1980s transformed our understanding of the Enlightenment with his study of "Grub Street" writers. Darnton, along with Roger Chartier and others, presented the Enlightenment in social and cultural, rather than purely intellectual, terms and made us aware that there were many "enlightenments." The story of women, and particularly of the women writers who are the subject of Hesse's book, is surely one of these many enlightenments, one that has been sorely neglected by historians until very recently.
The title of the book is also a reference to Simone de Beauvoir's 1949 feminist manifesto, The Second Sex, which told us that women were viewed as "other" in a male-defined world. Hesse's "other Enlightenment" is an intellectual history that connects women who pursued "the public exercise of female reason" (p. 55) from the Old Regime to Beauvoir. While Hesse focuses on France, her work should inspire historians of other regions to explore the important, though often unacknowledged, contributions women have made to the history of ideas and to the creation of a modern sensibility. [End Page 258]
The first part of the book examines women's relationship to literacy, publishing, and authorship in the Old Regime. Hesse opens with the story of a servant woman, Jeanne-Catherine Clere, who was executed during the French Revolution for seditious speech. Hesse argues that the seriousness with which her drunken royalist rantings were treated is evidence of an oral culture in which women, from fishwives to salonnières, had a privileged relationship to speech. The gradual displacement of the spoken by the written word in public life, finalized during the Revolution, led to a decline in women's influence over language, particularly since many women were illiterate. Still, as Hesse shows in chapter 2, after 1789 the number of women writers grew steadily. As much as revolutionary ideology tended to relegate women to the private sphere and despite increasing restrictions on women's publishing during the nineteenth century (married women in France were not free to publish and profit from their writing independently of their husbands until 1965), a growing literary marketplace led to the increasing participation of women in the public sphere.
Part 2 offers case studies of a number of prominent women writers to show how fiction served as a feminine vehicle for philosophical inquiry. Before the French Revolution, Louise de Kéralio-Robert made her reputation as an historian, most notably as author of a history of Elizabeth I of England. Attacked during the Revolution as a "literary amazon," Kéralio-Robert turned to fiction. Hesse sees this transition as evidence not of the restrictions imposed on literary women after 1789 but as a positive choice of a genre that allowed Kéralio-Robert to rebel against "the masculinist postrevolutionary ideology of separate spheres" (p. 101) and construct a new kind of republican and women's history. Similarly, Hesse reads Isabelle de Charrière's novel Trois Femmes [Three women] as a critique of Kantian moral theory, which denied women moral autonomy. Charrière's very choice of genre, in addition to the content of her novel, challenged the dominant philosophical paradigm and the authoritarian cultural policy of the late revolutionary period.
Hesse concludes that the novel proved to be the ideal form for women to explore issues of moral autonomy and to critique their society. Her final chapter, "Fiction as Philosophy," shows that literature allowed women to construct selves that transcended the definitions of gender imposed by science and law. Thus, while the Revolution did not give women political or legal rights, it did allow them...