- Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters by Dena Goodman
In this eloquent and erudite study, Dena Goodman undertakes an ambitious exploration of “writing as a cultural practice” (as opposed to a literary practice) for women of the elite classes of eighteenth-century France (1). In particular, she focuses on how this new desirable epistolary skill became engendered as it was adapted for women, and came to inform their understanding of themselves and of their world. As letter writing shifted from a practice of educated men in the seventeenth century to a heralded female exercise—at which French women were seen to excel, because of their natural ability to express emotion—Goodman shows how, paradoxically, a whole industry emerged to equip and train these supposedly natural letter writers. In this original and wide-ranging study, the author demonstrates the multiple forces and cultural messages shaping women’s relationship to writing. She takes seriously the transformational qualities of the intellectual practice of writing for women, for it was “a crucial step in developing a consciousness of themselves as gendered subjects in the modern world” (4). Informed by Jurgen Habermas’s notion of the public sphere—particularly his idea of audience-oriented subjectivity—Goodman views letter writing as a means for women to cultivate a space that is simultaneously private and addressed outward toward another. This dual move is what Habermas considers the condition necessary for individuals to participate in modern social society. Thus, while focusing on the private practice of women’s letter writing, Goodman elucidates the many ways in which this practice embedded women within social networks of family and friends, the larger modern world at home and abroad, and ultimately the movements of Enlightenment France. Moreover, this handsome work is filled with numerous evocative illustrations of the paintings, letters, writing paraphernalia, and fashionable desks about which she writes.
In part 1, “Images,” the author begins by debunking the artistic representations of women as primarily readers of love letters, as depicted in myriad tableaux from Vermeer to the French genre painters of the eighteenth century. According to Goodman, the beautiful cover image of Labille-Guiard’s Portrait of a Woman is more emblematic of “modern woman, defined by her sensibilité and maternal love and idealized by Enlightenment men of letters such as Rousseau and Diderot” (55). For the first time, the female letter writer becomes associated with motherhood as a “learned social, intellectual, and material practice” (58).
In part 2, “Education,” Goodman trains her analytic lens on the public debates concerning female education and the new industry of writing instruction that began to flourish in the second half of the eighteenth century, providing all manner of pedagogical materials (orthography and penmanship manuals) as well as new schools for young ladies and the services of private writing instructors. The author emphasizes the discipline of the gendered body and mind necessary to master these new skills. Returning to the link between motherhood and letter writing, she shows the important role mothers played in teaching their daughters to write by corresponding with them regularly while the girls were housed and educated in convent schools. This chapter includes a fascinating section on the education of two Creole sisters, Mimi and Mélanie, whose father had brought them from the colonies to Paris for their education. [End Page 546]
Part 3, “The World of Goods,” introduces readers to the burgeoning commercial market supplying the modern Frenchwoman with everything needed to participate in epistolary correspondence: paper, pens, ink, inkstands, seals, and writing desks. These consumer products, adapted to female tastes and social preconceptions of femininity, entered into a “gendered discourse” that “reinforced women’s association with letter writing and contributed to the legitimization of writing in women’s lives” (198). Goodman sees women’s active participation in commercial consumption as an act of empowerment because it honed their taste and judgment while bringing them into a modern world in which “it was crucial to keep abreast of the new and to be able to use one’s own reason, knowledge...