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Reviewed by:
  • Reading Olympe de Gouges by Carol Sherman
  • Meili Steele (bio)
Carol Sherman. Reading Olympe de Gouges.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
116 pages. $70.00.

From Rights to Normative Imaginaries: The Other Olympe de Gouges

The status of the eighteenth-century French dramatist and political writer Olympe de Gouges has been a controversial topic in the press recently because of proposals that she be admitted to the Panthéon, the monument that honors important figures in the history of France. Prior to the 1990s, her work was not widely known beyond La Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (1791), which is her response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man, adopted in 1789 by the National Assembly.1 In fact, as Carol Sherman points out in Reading Olympe de Gouges, what attention her work has gotten, from Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais's dismissal to attacks by contemporary thinkers, demonstrates a failure to understand her project. Sherman's book refutes these claims not by polemic but by comprehensive, careful analysis of her texts. This book puts de Gouges's work in the social, political and literary contexts necessary to understand the revision of the institutions of her time that she proposed. Sherman takes the focus off the principles laid out in La Déclaration and turns her attention to the textual articulation of norms in her other writings—writings that have been largely ignored or misread. Sherman's book is required reading for anyone wanting to participate, not just in the debate about de Gouges and the Panthéon, but also in broader discussions about the history of feminism and the French Revolution.

De Gouges's biography is indispensable to understanding her work, both because of the circumstances of her birth in 1748 and because of her active [End Page 147] participation in the political events of her time. She was an illegitimate child who believed her father to be the dramatist and poet Le Franc de Pompignan. He and his heirs refused to recognize her. She was married at seventeen, gave birth at eighteen and was quickly widowed. She came to Paris in 1784, where she added French to her native Occitan, composed plays, some of which were presented in Paris and in the provinces, and began to produce political commentary that she printed and pasted on walls around Paris. Her efforts to stop the violent events leading to the Terror brought about her execution in November 1793. After a review of the varied reception of her work (chapter 1), Sherman divides her discussion of de Gouges's writings into two parts: her nontheatrical political essays and letters (chapter 2 "The Drama of Rhetoric") and her theater (chapter 3 "The Rhetoric of Drama").

Chapter 1 opens with an analysis of one of de Gouges's frequently misunderstood texts, Mémoire de Mme de Valmont, and unpacks its complexity and intertextuality. In the protagonist's plea, she asks for help from the family of her biological father, who has refused to recognize her. The Mémoire is composed of letters by different family members, which serve evidentiary and dramatic purposes. Sherman carefully displays the techniques (both literary and rhetorical) and the thematic complexity of the text. De Gouges plays with the conventions of the epistolary novel and its elaborate relationships between "author" and characters, its claim to truth, its deployment of parody and its use of embedded letters. By bringing together letters from the protagonist's mother, sister, and her half-brother, de Gouges shows the social intricacies of the patriarchy's collective disregard for children's suffering.2

In the second half of this chapter, Sherman examines de Gouges's political letters, in which she speaks as if she were on the public rostrum, to which women had no access.3 The letters were addressed to "the People," the Estates General, national representatives and the Queen, to whom she also sent The Declaration. In these writings, de Gouges takes up the economic and political crises facing the state and imagines the nation assembled before her—"Oh, people, unhappy citizens" etc.—in a manner similar to Rousseau's presentation of The Discourse...


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