- Teaching Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century French Women Writers ed. by Faith E. Beasley
Coordinated by Faith Beasley, whose work on La Princesse de Clèves is well known, Teaching Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century French Women Writers sounds like an exciting and hugely overdue volume. Thirty-three scholars, all but one employed by American educational institutions, have contributed to this set of essays. On the cover, an elegant portrait by Pierre Mignard shows “L’illustre Madame de La Sablière” pointing into the middle distance as she looks out at the spectator. Paradoxically, this choice of image can be read as indicating at once what is successful and what is disappointing about this collection. If your aim is to set out the idea that “the works of French women writers are crucial to courses on the early modern period and enliven many others” (publisher’s description), surely it would be ideal to showcase the work of some of these women writers, rather than give centre stage to someone who, as a “salonnière,” was characterized by a form of self-effacement (as Beasley writes) in which she promoted the writings of others and was not herself an author. The essay in which she is mentioned is included in the first part, which intends to “provide necessary background and help instructors identify places in their courses that could be enriched by taking women’s participation into account” (publisher’s description). This is a laudable ambition, and much of the scholarship in the individual chapters is solid and reliable (I particularly enjoyed Thomas M. Carr Jr’s piece on the nuns whose voices can be heard in reality as in fiction), but was it necessary to take up half the volume with such considerations—some of which have [End Page 760] no dealings with questions of female authorship? Would not one or two overarching background essays have been a better way to proceed, particularly as the second and third parts are really concerned with doing what it says on the tin or at least on the title page: teaching specific texts and specific courses?
In these second and third sections, one might hope to have at once references to well-known texts and more cutting-edge ideas of how to deal with (or where to find) others that are less often called upon or are not yet considered to be canonical. The authors who are dealt with in part 2 show that—as the choice of cover portrait and the coordinator’s own field of expertise might have led one to imagine—the seventeenth century is dealt with more thoroughly (and much more convincingly) than the century that follows. On the one hand, we have Scudéry, Sévigné, Lafayette, d’Aulnoy, Villedieu, Deshoulières (Volker Schroder’s reassessment is excellent). On the other, the selection is briefer and more controversial: Du Noyer, Graffigny, Monbart, Gouges (to a large extent an excerpt from a 2009 book by Lisa Beckstrand). Add to this that there are two essays on Villedieu in this section (by Roxanne Decker Lalande and Donna Kuizenga) and four involve teaching Lafayette (including one, by Katharine Ann Jensen, which, curiously, is in section 1, although it is called “Daughters as Maternal Masterpieces: Teaching Mother-Daughter Relations in Lafayette and Vigée Lebrun,” and another by Harriet Stone that pairs Lafayette with Graffigny). Clearly, eighteenth-century women have been dealt a poor hand in this particular part of the book, whereas their seventeenth-century counterparts are well served by the contributors. This means that, while the earlier women are taken out of the ghetto of gender studies and their participation in society is reassessed, this is not true of the later ones—the exceptions being Anne-Marguerite Du Noyer (in Henriette Goldwyn’s ground-breaking short piece) and Marie-Josèphe de Monbart (whom Laure Marcellesi proposes, in a stimulating essay, to study alongside Diderot and Rousseau for their respective visions of Tahiti).
The third section, which deals with panoramic...