- Female Intimacies in Seventeenth-Century French Literature by Marianne Legault
This is a sustained piece of academic writing, written with a strong sense of purpose. If its premises are accepted, the rest follows well enough, although it must be said that its premises will not be straightforwardly acceptable to many historians of sexuality. The author’s own disciplinary allegiance is primarily to literary studies (8). She supposes that analysis of the seventeenth-century French texts she examines will give access to “the relationships that exist between women,” whether those relationships occurred in early modern France or are formed today in the modern English-speaking world (9). In other words, the particular kind of “feminist perspective and lesbian reading” promised at the outset does not entertain the hypothesis that significant changes might have occurred in practices of representation and self-formation such that the “relationships” described might not be quite the same thing (9).
Legault’s essay is thus historical in a broad, rather sweeping sense without being historicist. She deplores the limits imposed on women by “society” without considering whether “society” deserves to be considered a stable notion (11). She supposes that the issues in early modern France are essentially the same as those in the modern world: androcentrism in this account [End Page 534] is largely unvarying. Those who consider that the point of writing history is to identify perennial problems will doubtless be satisfied with that. Within the discipline of literary studies, there are nonetheless different models available for writing a history of female intimacies, and some readers will regret that Legault does not distinguish more carefully among them. She refers to the work of Valerie Traub as exemplary, but Traub does make it quite clear in her own work on early modern English texts that her aim is not to “historicize contemporary lesbianism,” as Legault is presumably seeking to do (5).1 By that Traub means that she is not searching the past for antecedents of contemporary issues but endeavoring to give an account of the issues that arose in the period under study. That makes Traub’s work rich and complicated from a historical point of view precisely because of the ongoing conceptual strain between the investments of contemporary feminism and the requirements of a Foucauldian-style historicist analysis. And that is why Traub’s essay speaks persuasively to literary and historical scholars alike. In Legault’s work there is no such complication, and no such richness. She simply aligns herself with Catherine MacKinnon and others who see Foucault as failing to take any account of female homoeroticism in his own work and consequently having nothing to contribute to the historical study of lesbianism (37–39).
The essay is divided into two well-defined parts. At the caesura that marks the passage from the first to the second, the author looks back to the preceding section, which has shown “the damage done to the image of female intimacies” by male writers, then looks forward to the next section, which will show women writers at work producing a “counter-discourse” that will “allow them to reinstate the validity of their female affections” (118). The first section is undoubtedly the less convincing of the two if only because the object of its analysis is identified as absence or silence. When early modern England is compared with France, says Legault, it is clear that the themes studied by Traub were not present in the same way (6). Talk of female intimacies in France was silenced or oppressed, ignored or denied (7). “France did not experience the same cultural dissemination, nor did it share the same interest in the female friend than [sic] its English counterpart.” There was a “lack of interest in representations of female-female intimacy” (53n2), compounded since by the failure of French literary scholars to match the efforts of Anglo-American scholars in establishing a genealogy of homoerotic texts (139).
As an object of literary interpretation, Legault posits an androcentric psychology in the male writers under examination, finding signs of “anxiety,” “unease...