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Book Review A R e n a i s s a n c e W o m a n . H e l i s e n n e 's P e r s o n a l L e t t e r s a n d I n v e c t i v e L e t t e r s . Trans. & eds. Marianna M. Mustacchi and Paul J. Archambault. Syracuse: Syracuse Univer­ sity Press, 1986. Pp. 140. Illus. To have translated Helisenne de Crenne’s 18 letters which tell of her painfully un­ pleasant marriage and doomed love for a young man—and to be the first to do so in any language—as Mustacchi and Archambault have accomplished with such felicity, is a con­ tribution to literature in general and to Renaissance scholarship in particular. As is the case with other women poets of the period, namely Louise Labé, Pernette du Guillet, Christine de Pisan, we know little about Helisenne’s life. The valuable introduction to this excellent translation, serves to situate the writer, her works, times, and the epistolary genre. Helisenne de Crenne, who chose her nom de plume after the heroine of a popular romance, was born Marguerite de Briet, between 1510 and 1520, in Abbeville (Picardy). One child, as far as is known, was born to Helisenne and her husband, Philippe Fournel, seigneur de Crenne. So unpleasant was their relationship, that the couple was legally separated in 1552. Helisenne’s Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procèdent d ’amours (1538), if auto­ biographical, relates the fearsome details of her marriage, arranged when she was but eleven, to a jealous and sadistic husband who, when he discovered her passionate love for a young man, first locked her up in her room, then in one of his castles. Modern readers, interested in this work as an aesthetic evaluation of the novel of chivalry, may also approach it as a psychological study as well as an early example of one woman’s struggle against traditional Judeo-Christian antifeminism. Les Epitres familières et invectives (1539), translated in this volume, is a factual recrea­ tion of the details of her marriage, her painful illicit love, and her husband’s antagonism to the publication of her work. “ Helisenne attempts,” writes Mustacchi and Archambault, “ what had perhaps never been attempted before in French literature, the progressive con­ struction of a story through letters, without the use of connective materials.” Two groups of letters are offered the reader: thirteen personal and five invective missives. The first group gives advice and comfort to those disillusioned in marriage, only to alter in tone, suggesting that struggle is necessary if some semblance of happiness is to be found—even in illicit love. The latter epistles focussing on denials of her husband’s accusa­ tions, present interesting arguments: Helisenne’s rejection of her husband’s use of Les Angoysses as proof of his wife’s “ indecent and lascivious love.” Countering such an absurd view, she states most categorically that literary renditions of events do not prove their veracity. So, too, does she vociferate against her husband’s conventional arguments concerning women’s deceitful machinations in general and his wife’s infidelities in par­ ticular. They are not betrayers of a secret trust, as Socrates had stated. Were they all as ignominious as he makes them out to be, no one would ever enter into marriage. Courage and forthrightness are evident in Helisenne’s argument in favor of women’s rights and their pursuit of a literary career. Although the epistolary genre, made famous by Cicero, Pisan, Petrarch, Boccaccio, among others, is replete with the conventional consolations, complaints, and exhortations, Helisenne’s approach to this type of writing is innovative. Her letters take the reader into an inner world, with its anger, pain, defenses, need for retribution, and searing struggle 96 Su m m e r 1988 B o o k R e v ie w s between morality and the dictates of her heart. After experiencing a bout with depression, Helisenne knows a renovatio-, her life takes on new luster when accepting her love as a joy and blessing, and this, despite the dictates of her...


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