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A Reactionary Feminist Novelist: Gabrielle de Villeneuve Judd D. Hubert I N DISCUSSING THE QUESTION OF FEMINISM in XVIIth and especially XVIIIth century literature, scholars tend for obvious reasons to privilege daring, avant-garde, works, and in particular novels that not only proclaim the equality of the sexes, but go so far as to suggest, if not advocate, the practice of free love among other types of non-conformist behavior. In 1665, at a time when preciosity still pre­ vailed and when women of the nobility could still remember the heroics of the “frondeuses” and the arrogant displays of “la Grande Mademoi­ selle,” a devout and militantly virtuous member of the Third Estate, Jaquette Guillaume, published a treatise briefly entitled: Les Dames illustres oùpar bonnes etfortes raisons, ilseprouve, que le SexeFéminin surpasse en toutes sortes de genres te Sexe Masculin.1The otherworldly triumphs of women reached a climax toward the end of the Sun King’s reign in the far more disturbing and in many ways subversive mystical writings of Madame de Guyon.2For obvious reasons, devout women rarely if ever wrote novels, a worldly and in some respects a subversive genre suitable for free spirits such as Madeleine de Scudéry, the Marquise de Lafayette and Catherine Desjardins. During the reign of Louis XV, when religion played a far less promi­ nent role, at least in literature, than during the previous reign, few if any pious women found their way into print, perhaps because publishers had to cater to the demands of wealthy middle-class consumers who pre­ ferred flattering fictional accounts of their elevated but clearly secular souls to devotional and moralizing works, and who wished to escape an unheroic past as well as the taint of lucre. Marivaux, in both his comedies and his novels, satisfied, though not without a touch of irony, the taste­ ful and discriminating interests of such readers. But while financiers and merchants increased in wealth and power, more and more aristocrats fell into circumstances so reduced that they could no longer provide a mili­ tary or even a religious career for their sons and raise acceptable dowries for their daughters. We might expect an impecunious woman novelist with an impeccable pedigree to show nostalgia for past glories and dedi­ cation to the epic values of her ancestors. Madame de Villeneuve does Vol. XXIX, No. 3 65 L ’Esprit Créateur much more than dwell on past glories, for while her stories do express the visions of a shelved rather than sheltered aristocracy, they manifest, at least implicitly, an aggressively feminist attitude in describing the tribula­ tions of this marginalized class. Unlike such contemporary feminists as Claudine-Alexandrine de Tencin and Françoise de Grafigny, she refrains from providing contagious displays of sentiment on the part of female victims. Madame de Villeneuve, born Gabrielle-Susanne Barbot—or perhaps de Barbot, for she belonged to the nobility—married Monsieur de Gaellon or Gallon, seigneur de Villeneuve, a lieutenant colonel. With such a name he could hardly fail to attain high military rank. Nor could he escape a glorious end au champ d’honneur. As have so many war heroes before and after him, he failed to provide for his widow, perhaps because under the ancien régime it cost a fortune to lead a company, let alone a regiment. Luckily, the well-known dramatist Crébillon, père, provided her with living quarters; and no doubt her novels helped her eke out a living.3 Le Cabinet desfées, which credits her with some nine works of fic­ tion, praises her for the content of her tales and the cleverness of her plots, but criticizes her rather unfairly for “l’incorrection et la foiblesse du style” (loc. cit.). Actually, she favors a conversational style suitable to fiction, as did many other contemporary novelists, notably Robert Chasles, one of the major writers of the period. Everyone knows La Belle et la bête, to which she owes whatever fame she may still enjoy, but which very few fairy tale fans have actually had a chance to read except in Madame Le Prince de Beaumont’s abridged and properly bowdlerized pedagogical version, on which...


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