- Proverbes dramatiques by Madame de Maintenon
The daughters of impoverished noble families educated at Madame de Maintenon’s Saint-Cyr school in late seventeenth-century France faced uncertain futures, as their expectations for elevated, aristocratic lives met a lack of financial resources. Throughout these forty short dramatic proverbs, Maintenon (Françoise d’Aubigny, mistress and then wife of Louis XIV) conveys the fundamental importance of one’s condition, établissement, or état in this period, a concern she shows touching all ranks of society, from the nobility to their servants. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of this collection is the respect that Maintenon demonstrates for servants, whose worries about their situations are just as real and pressing as those of nobles (and whose weaknesses are equally real). In several cases, a single text illustrates parallel problems of masters and servants, as in the first proverb, an amplification of Tel maître, tel valet.
For the noble girls at Saint-Cyr, an établissement generally meant marriage, and Maintenon stresses repeatedly in these proverbs her conviction that women should have some say in the decision of whom (and whether) to marry, that they should reflect seriously before committing to a marriage and take advice when offered (though not unquestioningly), and that parents should not arrange marriages for their children without consulting them. An établissement of some sort was, in the end, necessary, and Maintenon suggests that one must ultimately be satisfied with one’s state. In proverb 16, an admirable nobleman declares, “Je sais accommoder mon goût à mon état,” and his equally admirable wife observes, “Mon abondance est proportionnée à mes besoins.” In proverb 21, Maintenon suggests that women should not meddle with science or war, just as lawyers should not write poetry. Despite her conservatism, however, Maintenon is consistent in her advocacy for women to have some degree of control over their lives, both prior to, and within, marriage. [End Page 152]
As Gethner and Kennedy note in their introduction, Maintenon’s chief originality lies in her transformation of the dramatic proverb, a literary guessing game that emerged in the salon, into a pedagogical tool. Some three centuries later, many of the proverbs in this collection remain familiar; we find dramatizations, among others, of bon chat, bon rat; les bons comptes font les bons amis; dis-moi qui tu hantes, je te dirai qui tu es; and en forgeant on devient forgeron. From a literary perspective, these brief texts provide modern readers with a glimpse of other modes of drama present in the France of Louis XIV even as a classical aesthetic came to dominate through the influence of playwrights like Jean Racine (who himself composed two Biblical tragedies, Esther and Athalie, for the girls at Saint-Cyr). The analysis of Maintenon’s dramatic style, which reaches back to medieval forms and may even anticipate cinematic techniques, is a particularly fascinating piece of the editors’ introduction to this volume. As Gethner and Kennedy point out, Maintenon makes no attempt to observe the rules of classical drama; the action of a single proverb may take place over several days or a week, its setting may shift, and there is often a multiplicity of plots. Moreover, Maintenon pays little attention to vraisemblance and bienséance, and she portrays ordinary, daily activities and concerns even for high-ranking nobles. Her proverbs remind us that French drama could have evolved differently, and that aesthetic diversity was present even at the apogée of classical French theater.
Maintenon’s Proverbes dramatiques provides a unique and welcome vantage point for examining life in late seventeenth-century France, focusing on family and household affairs rather than on matters at court. In addition to their obvious appeal for scholars, the proverbs will be useful in the undergraduate classroom. Short and accessible, they will interest students who also find themselves at transitional moments and preparing to make important choices about the future. They offer guidance that remains relevant, such as how to manage debts and expenses, the...