- Proverbes Dramatiques by Madame de Maintenon
Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon (1635—1719), has become increasingly well known in the past thirty years, due to the growing interest in women writers of the “Ancien Régime,” as well as in women’s earlier roles in politics and in education. Many biographies and novels about Madame de [End Page 150] Maintenon have been published in both French and English, based on her unusual life as grand-daughter of Huguenot poet Agrippa d’Aubigné, wife of burlesque satirist Paul Scarron, secret wife of Louis XIV after the death of Queen Marie Thérèse, and founder of a girls’ school, Saint Cyr in 1686, for which playwright Jean Racine wrote his two late Biblical tragedies, Esther and Athalie. Her writings are less known, not even mentioned in such earlier reference works as the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.
In fact, Madame de Maintenon wrote voluminous letters, “Conversations” in the style of Mlle. de Scudéry, lectures on girls’ education, and the “Proverbes Dramatiques,” which have recently been re-published by Perry Gethner and Theresa Varney Kennedy. The editors have added an informative introduction on Maintenon’s life, writings, the proverb genre, themes and ideology of these works, and their dramaturgy. It is also useful to read Prof. Kennedy’s recent article in Women in French Studies (2014 Special Issue on Women and Theater), “Staging the Impossible Femme Forte in Madame de Maintenon’s Dramatic Conversations.” This article on the Conversations explains some of the theoretical issues which also will arise in the Proverbes, a second set of dramatic scenes involving decisions confronting young girls from poor noble families, as they leave school at about twenty. These Proverbes were not published until the mid-nineteenth century, and Gethner and Kennedy’s edition is the first since then.
The Proverbes Dramatiques vary in length, but generally present a group of characters faced with a decision: whom to marry? whether to go into the army? whether to move from Paris to the provinces? At the end of each scene, a well-known proverb is enunciated, which states the (usually pessimistic) view of human nature illustrated by the previous scene or scenes. Spectators were expected to guess the proverb, in a typical “salon” game of the seventeenth century. The wit and intelligence required to guess which proverb a scene illustrates is sometimes at odds with the ponderous moral of many of them, as Kennedy has explained in her article. Most characters seem to be presented as “good” or “bad,” but sometimes the “bad” characters are more attractive, and the final proverbs occasionally appear to bear this impression out.
It is hard to give a complete idea of the Proverbes Dramatiques in a short review. In the order chosen by the editors, the scenes increase in length and complexity as we move through the book. Most characters are women, typically mothers and daughters, but male characters such as husbands, brothers, and suitors also appear (and must have been played by girls at Saint Cyr, an intriguing paradox in itself). Many interesting aspects of seventeenth-century life are revealed, such as relationships with servants, the prevalence of lawsuits, distaste for country life, the cost of entering the army, superficiality of court life, etc. Despite the urban setting of most scenes, the proverbs themselves recall the rural context of the oral tradition: “Bon cheval de trompette ne s’effraye point du bruit;” “Il se souvient toujours à Robin de ses flûtes;” “A brebis tondue Dieu mesure le vent;” “Si chacun faisait son métier, les vaches seraient mieux gardées;” “Où la chèvre est liée, il faut qu’elle broute.” [End Page 151]
The Proverbes Dramatiques could be read and performed in intermediate or advanced French classes, since the vocabulary is not difficult, except for some earlier usages explained in notes by Gethner and Kennedy. Students will find shocking the submissive role outlined for women in marriage, but that fact should certainly provide much material for discussion...