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  • Changing the Conversation:Re-positioning the French Seventeenth-Century Salon
  • Faith E. Beasley

Since the 1970S, scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have devoted considerable critical ink to illuminating the role of women writers in early modern France, and to examining the cultural institution they inhabited, the ruelle or salon. In 1983, L'Esprit Créateur, often at the forefront of scholarly trends, published its first issue devoted entirely to women writers. "Women's Writing in 17th-century France," edited by Joan DeJean, was a seminal and influential collection of articles that was the first of its kind on either side of the Atlantic.1 Each article was devoted to an individual woman writer with the primary purpose of resurrecting these female literary voices from the shadows of France's canonical Grand Siècle. This volume was a revelation and an inspiration to a host of early modern scholars who subsequently joined in these efforts to rediscover women writers and analyze their literary contributions. The following years witnessed the development of conferences and panels devoted to Villedieu, Lafayette, d'Aulnoy, and Scudéry, among others, the emergence of dissertations and myriad historical and literary studies, and the creation of book series, teaching manuals, and courses devoted to women writers. The French classical literary landscape was permanently altered by this resurrection of female-authored works. Today the early modern women writers who appeared in that first L'Esprit Créateur issue are accepted as artists whose works can be taught alongside Corneille, Racine, and Molière. In the space of a generation, survey courses of seventeenth-century French literature have been transformed. One can hardly imagine a colleague offering a course on France's Grand Siècle devoted exclusively to the male-authored canon, a course that was a centerpiece of the French literature curriculum in the not-so-distant past.

The publication of this current issue of L'Esprit Créateur almost forty years later seems an appropriate moment to reflect on how scholarship on women in the early modern period has changed in the intervening years and the effect that this scholarship has had on early modern literary studies. Perhaps the most far-reaching development has been the integration of women writers into 'mainstream' survey courses and scholarship of this canonical period. Scholars and teachers have moved from a focus on individual women [End Page 34] writers and courses dedicated solely to female-authored texts to reinserting these works into their literary and cultural contexts and exploring women writers' influence on the cultural sphere. Others have gone a step further and have focused on the engagements between women writers and their celebrated male contemporaries. In Teaching Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century French Women Writers, for example, each contributor creates a conversation between a woman writer and their contemporaries, usually male, from the traditional French pantheon of 'great writers' to illustrate how women's voices and texts were an integral component of literary culture.2 Such work restores women to the position that, in the opinion of many scholars, they occupied in early modern literary culture: women were not separate, distinct voices, nor were their works simply admired as interesting curiosities. Rather, women were considered valued interlocutors on a par with the writers today judged to be among the most revered in French literary history. This reinsertion of women into the very fabric of literary culture has led scholars to reexamine the Corneilles, Racines, and Molières of France's literary past, and to advance a perspective that would have been dismissed as preposterous not too long ago: in order to understand the well-known male canon of French literary history one must read their works in a complex context that was created by both genders.

This re-insertion of seventeenth-century women writers into the French classical literary canon has necessitated a re-evaluation of the location of literary creativity most identified with women, the ruelle or salon. The study of the transformation in the conception and depiction of salon culture illustrates the trajectory of feminist scholarship since the 1980s and the profound changes that new interpretive strategies have brought to our understanding of France's Grand Si...


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