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  • Fictional Women Travelers in Plays by Women:Victims or Good Role Models?
  • Perry Gethner (bio)

It was hardly the norm for women to travel in French drama of the classical period. To be sure, the adoption of the unities of time and place restricted the types of plots in which travel could occur, limiting the journeying, with only occasional exceptions, to either right before the start of the play's action (the character arrives from somewhere else) or right after (the character is banished or leaves voluntarily at the close of the play). I have chosen to examine the corpus of plays written by French women dramatists between 1650 and 1750 to look for examples and patterns of travel by female characters.1 While these represent some of the common types of situations in which women could travel in real life, the more significant question is that of agency: for what reason does the woman travel, and to what degree is she free to make the decision to do so? I define travel as relocation, either permanent or for a moderate length of time, to a place at a considerable distance from the character's home, and I include cases where a planned trip is ultimately called off. I have divided the relevant plays into two broad categories, based on whether the female characters can choose whether to travel and where to go. In other words, are they victims or are they agents? Curiously, although there has been much recent scholarship dealing with women's travel narratives, focusing on where and why they go and what they learn from their experiences, virtually nothing has been said about fictional women travelers, especially those from the Ancien Régime (and personal enlightenment does not feature as a [End Page 106] theme in the works I am studying).2 Likewise, I have found no existing studies comparing the perspectives of male and female playwrights on the subject of female travel.

Involuntary Travel

In a sizable percentage of cases, the women who travel are victims. They are forced to relocate because of the dictates of a parent or husband, thus denying them any say in where they will live. Some of the most extreme cases occur in the proverb plays of Françoise d'Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon. These forty short pedagogical texts were presumably designed for reading aloud by the students at the school she directed at Saint-Cyr, and they could be classified as proto-drames.3 In Proverb 7, when M. de Mauvieux is appointed governor of a remote province, his wife strenuously objects to leaving Paris. Despite her protests, reinforced by pressure from her mother and her maid, the husband remains firm and drags the women into the carriage by force. In this case one could argue that the wife's conduct is unreasonable, since the family's relocation is dictated by the needs of the state, and the wife will be needed to help with the social functions associated with a governor's position. However, the husband's conduct surely qualifies as unreasonable: he gives the wife only one week's advance notice, does not even bother to inform her himself but instead lets her find out the news from other sources, and brushes off her objections with utter contempt. Indeed, he constantly insists that he is the boss and that her opinion does not count. Following a long series of complaints from the rest of the family, he responds only by repeating his peremptory demand: "Il faut partir dans huit jours" (scene 7). The situation is even more shocking in Proverb 23, where the relocation is purely due to the tyrannical husband's unaccountable caprices and serves no practical purpose. M. Gautier demands of his long-suffering wife, first that she dress in lower-middle-class attire, then that they abandon Paris and move permanently to their country estate, and finally that she not be allowed to receive visits from family and friends. He could conceivably have explained that he is driven to these extreme measures because of financial difficulties, but there is no indication [End Page 107] that such is the case. Indeed, he gives no reasons...


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