Biography 25.3 (2002) 522-526
[Access article in PDF]
In her most recent book, Publishing Women's Life Stories in France, 1647- 1720, which consists of six case studies, Elizabeth Goldsmith continues to explore the fascinating arena of women's publishing during the Ancien Régime. Three of the women whose lives and works are examined—Jeanne des Anges, Marie de l'Incarnation, and Jeanne Guyon—were prominent religious figures of their time. The others—the sisters Hortense and Marie Mancini, and Madame de Villedieu—were notorious worldly women, whose lives, like those of their spiritual counterparts, were subject to public examination. At a time when public self-exposure in the form of autobiographical writing was considered unsuitable female behavior and a potential threat to a woman's reputation, these women actively invited publicity in order to satisfy a compelling need to communicate with the world. In this painstakinglydocumented work, Goldsmith investigates the specific circumstances surrounding these women's respective decisions to publish, and the way in which their life stories were circulated and brought to press.
Most of the women who came to the decision to publish their autobiographies were already quite conscious of their status as public figures. This was certainly the case of Marie de l'Incarnation, who had left her family and her young son as the result of a religious conversion brought about by a series of mystical revelations. She was the first female member of a religious order to become a missionary in Canada, and a well-known spiritual leader of her time. Her memoir is in part a conversion narrative, and was published by her son, Claude Martin, immediately after her death in 1672, as the Vie de la vénérable mère Marie de l'Incarnation. Goldsmith contends that the act of writing allowed Marie to reconcile competing desires to separate from the world and to interact with it. Her voyage inward to self-discovery through a written examen de conscience, mandated by her spiritual director, was paralleled by the practical need to write to wealthy French patrons in order to keep the religious community in the New World financially solvent. When her son urged her to write her life story, she consented to do so, but only on condition that it be kept private. Shortly after her death, Claude broke his promise of secrecy and made himself the self-appointed co-author of her work by editing it and explaining it with excerpts from her other writings. In this autobiographical account, he insists on Marie's own claim to subservience to another, higher authority in writing, namely the Divine Spirit. He portrays himself as his mother's echo, thus establishing a chain of command in which the woman is the passive, self-effacing receptacle for the word of God, and the [End Page 522] man collects, composes, and edits her text. Goldsmith argues that this became the model for women's publishing during the seventeenth century, as it allowed one to gain knowledge of the intimate woman writer's self, while sustaining belief in her modesty or reserve.
Like Marie de l'Incarnation, Jeanne des Anges was an Ursuline nun, but her story and her style of self-presentation are in stark contrast to those of her predecessor. In the 1630s she was involved in the highly publicized witchcraft trial at Loudon, and the focus of a dramatic public exorcism. Following her cure she toured the country, satisfying curiosity seekers who wished to see her repossessed body. Her 1644 autobiography is the testimonial of her own physical torment, which she wrote to satisfy her spiritual advisors Saint-Jure and Surin. Convinced by the latter that her possession was at least in part the effect of personal culpability rather than diabolical intervention, she focuses on her psychological conversion and awakening rather than on the outward manifestations of possession. In this first...