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  • Des mots et des femmes à l’origine de la langue française: xvie–xviie siècles par Giovanna Devincenzo
  • Valerie Worth-Stylianou
Des mots et des femmes à l’origine de la langue française: xviexviie siècles. Par Giovanna Devincenzo. (Vertige de la langue.) Paris: Hermann, 2018. 146 pp.

The conclusion of Giovanna Devincenzo’s concise but thought-provoking study, of women’s contribution to linguistic debates in early modern France, might surprise us: she finds significant common ground between Marie de Gournay and the later seventeenth-century précieuses, despite Gournay’s vehement rejections of ‘[les] donzelles à bouche sucrée’ (p. 81). Although the title suggests an equal focus on both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the author concentrates primarily on writers from the 1590s to the 1670s, that is to say from Gournay’s earliest publications to the heyday of préciosité. Chapter 1 provides an efficient summary of well-known sixteenth-century linguistic debates and developments, but draws on remarkably few women writers. This is a shame when one considers the stylistic range offered by such as Marguerite de Navarre, Hélisenne de Crenne, Pernette Du Guillet, and the Dames des Roches, as well as extensive recent critical work on Renaissance auteures (see, for example, Jean-Philippe Beaulieu’s and Diane Desrosiers-Bonin’s état présent on ‘Les Études sur les femmes écrivains du xvie siècle français’, FS, 65 (2011), 370–75). However, the book soon moves on to its real terrain, inviting us to consider first (in Chapters 2 and 3) what was exceptional about Gournay’s views on the French language and her own style. While her writings have already received considerable attention, as Devincenzo records in her detailed footnotes, this study adds fresh insights through the dialogue it sets up between her critics (or satirists) and her own statements. Devincenzo identifies Gournay’s emphasis on female erudition as a critical pivot, complemented by her increasingly unfashionable adherence to the linguistic principles of the Pléiade and Montaigne. In contrast, women’s language from the 1630s to the 1670s (the subject of Chapters 4 and 5) is associated with the natural and the spontaneous. Devincenzo shares the critical viewpoint that ‘le bon usage’ — at least of the court and salons — looked primarily to elite women’s spoken language, especially in conversation, rather than to men’s learned written style, the latter being tainted by association with the pedantic. One might wish to nuance Devincenzo’s rather bald binary opposition between male writers devoted to rules and women free to follow their natural instincts, but she selects a convincing range of lesser- and better-known seventeenth-century women of letters to amplify her thesis. The inclusion of Marguerite Buffet, whose Nouvelles Observations sur la langue françoise of 1668 wanted to teach women to write and speak well, is particularly illuminating, and it is this association between speech and writing which allows Devincenzo to bring Gournay and the later précieuses together. She suggests that Gournay’s writings, such as Le Proumenoir de Monsieur de Montaigne, are often close to conversations in both their conception and style (notably in her extravagant use of digressions). From the ‘roman discourant’ (p. 152), it is but a short step to the ‘roman héröıque’ of Mlle de Scudéry and her peers, in which conversations play such a major role.

Valerie Worth-Stylianou
Trinity College, Oxford


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