- Joining the Conversation: Dialogues by Renaissance Women
Janet Smarr's engaging study of dialogues written by French and Italian women from the mid-fifteenth to the late sixteenth centuries has much to offer, both to readers with a special interest in women's writing and, more generally, to scholars of early modern literature and culture. The argument of Smarr's book — that the dialogue provided Renaissance women with a variety of means and strategies for entering into public speech — seems, in retrospect, almost inevitable. If the burgeoning number of dialogues produced in the period (as Thomas Greene argued many years ago of Castiglione's Cortegiano) attests to the open-ended character of Renaissance culture in contrast to the relative closure of the medieval, certainly the genre might be expected to appeal to women hoping to stage their own interventions in the monologic masculine discourses surrounding them. Smarr elegantly and convincingly demonstrates that this was the case through astute readings of dialogues by Marguerite de Navarre, Catherine des Roches, Helisenne de Crenne, and Louise Labé in France, and Olympia Morata, Chiara Matraini, Tullia d'Aragona, and Moderata Fonte in Italy, among others. A helpful catalogue of "Renaissance Dialogues by Women Mentioned in this Study" (283-86) gives complete information on primary and subsequent editions and translations of the works Smarr discusses, and should go far to ensure their accessibility to a wider readership.
To speak of women's contributions to the Renaissance dialogue, however, is also to consider the genre in male authors' hands; and here, too, Smarr's study is exemplary. She undertakes detailed discussions of male-authored dialogues which feature female interlocutors or address female readers, including classical models, medieval examples, humanist recreations, and, finally, the polyphonic models of Boccaccio and Castiglione (which Smarr handles brilliantly in a remarkable chapter on Marguerite's Heptameron and Fonte's Il merito delle donne). In relating the features of these male-authored works to women's dialogues, Smarr offers a valuable meditation on the genre, its function in the period, and its implicit gendering. She notices its different trajectories and features in Italy and France, and enumerates the aspects of individual texts, and of the genre, that appealed to women writers and prompted their own experiments in the dialogue form.
Given that most research to date on Renaissance women's writing has focused [End Page 142] on lyric poetry, Smarr's study represents a significant addition to this body of research. The many intersections between Smarr's treatment of the dialogue and recent studies of women's writing in other genres predict this book's wide implications for scholarship in the field. As Smarr demonstrates, dialogue, unlike the lyric, "was neither too personal nor too narrowly conventional. Its undefined range of contents allowed women to address the issues that most concerned them, both social and spiritual" (251). To illustrate, she offers four chapters which treat women's diphonic dialogues — as she notes, most Renaissance women's dialogues involve only two speakers, reflecting the difficulties attending women's appearances in public forums in early modern France and Italy — set in relation to similarly dialogic cultural and literary forms: spiritual counsel, social conversation, letter writing, and drama, respectively. A fifth chapter focuses on the polyphonic dialogues of Marguerite and Fonte, and a concluding chapter traces the "cross-threads" (231) running through earlier discussions, and works toward answering some of the larger questions posed by the study. This extraordinary final chapter is so successful in delineating the major concerns attending early modern women's writing, and so intelligent and focused about the kinds of questions researchers ought to be asking, that it should serve as an example for scholars and graduate students in the field.
Among the most resonant of many memorable revelations in the study is Smarr's insistence that the relatively impersonal genre of dialogue enabled some women writers to distance themselves from their interlocutors: "The mere replacement of the author by a female should not . . . cause readers suddenly to read autobiographically...