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  • Through the Reading Glass: Women, Books, and Sex in the French Enlightenment
  • Bette W. Oliver
Through the Reading Glass: Women, Books, and Sex in the French Enlightenment. By Suellen Diaconoff . Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. vii, 268 pp. $75.00. ISBN 0-7914-6421-0.

As the author points out in the introduction to this informative book, it is important that we neither "undervalue voices from the past" nor confuse their political and social struggles with our own today (8). Dianconoff declares that [End Page 521] reading and writing are "the key processes through which they [women] seek, create, and confirm individual identity, and that, in those processes, issues of sexuality play a central role" (5). This reference to the supposed moral dangers lurking in novel reading, from which proper young eighteenth-century women must be protected, is a reminder that the activity of reading was not always seen as enlightening. (For another recent treatment of this subject see Mary D. Sheriff, Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France [University of Chicago Press, 2004].)

For those women, however, whose choice of reading material focused on philosophy, the sciences and arts, or spiritual matters, the act of reading served as a form of self-education and advancement. Women with intellectual aspirations hoped to use the knowledge gained in reading to participate more fully and equitably in society. Consequently, the French Revolution was seen as a means of opening avenues of discourse and advancement; that it failed to live up to its promise of new opportunities came as a bitter disappointment to many women. A case in point is Manon Roland, known as Mme Roland, a voracious reader of difficult texts from an early age who used reading as a sort of apprenticeship for writing. Her dramatic life is the topic of chapter 2, entitled "Autobiography and Rereading: Manon Roland, 1754–1793."

Today we remember Manon Roland, the brave martyr who perished under the blade of the guillotine in 1793, for her lively memoirs written in prison and for her prophetic last words: "O Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!" As the author points out, the activity of reading had been the "primary intellectual passion of her [Roland's] life," and it would serve to illuminate her last days as she in effect reread her life through the writing of her memoirs. The act of writing provided a sense of order and even pleasure in prison; she felt that she could escape physical confinement and travel mentally and emotionally to happier times and places. Her memoirs are justly renowned for their forthrightness, sensitivity, and idealism, a tribute to a life lived in what she considered a rational manner.

Roland's story is only one of several that Diaconoff treats in her book. Félicité de Genlis (1746–1830) is the subject of chapter 3, "The Romance as Transformative Reading." A prolific writer who produced more than 140 volumes of letters, essays, fairy tales, pedagogical manuals, memoirs, novels, and historical romances, Genlis was noted for her courage and resourcefulness. The author finds that "a Genlisien text does not emphasize repression, but rather the redirection of our emotions into positive energy outlets" (98). Self-discipline can make possible such a desired transformation, an idea with which Manon Roland undoubtedly would have agreed. Other eighteenth-century women whose lives are interpreted in this book include Isabelle de Charrière (1740–1805), Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni (1713–92), Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (1685–1755), and Jeanne Leprince de Beaumont (1711–80).

There is also an informative chapter addressing "The Periodical Print Press for Women: An Enlightenment Forum for Females," which examines both its practitioners and its readers. The author characterizes such periodical literature produced by women as providing a forum to express themselves on matters of interest to other women, their readers. She examines four specific periodicals that have been classified as examples of the eighteenth-century feminine press, including the Journal des Dames (1759–79). [End Page 522]

In the conclusion to Through the Reading Glass the author cites Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, in which he writes that...


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