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Review of Woshinsky, Barbara R. Imagining Women’s Conventual Spaces in France, 1600-1800. The Cloister Disclosed. Great Britain: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010. ISBN 978-0-75466754-4. Pp. 344. $119.95.

Article Citation: 
XV, 1 (2013): 105–107
Jennifer R. Perlmutter
Article Text: 

Barbara Woshinsky has authored a thoroughly researched and fasci­nating study of how early-modern conventual spaces figure in contemporary culture and literature. While other scholars have studied the convents themselves or the literature their communities produce, Woshin­sky instead examines works that reference enclosure but were written by those who live outside convent walls. Her objective is “to illuminate the unique place the convent occupies in the early modern imaginary, in the context of space, gender and power” (6), and she fulfills this objective through an analysis of a broad spectrum of both canonical and rare literary works published in France between 1600 and 1800. At the same time, her study is truly intermural in its approach to chronology and geography with references to Michel de Certeau (13, 24), the Shinto religion (33), Sue Monk Kidd (84), Humpty Dumpty (243), Norman Rush (245), Jane Austen (247), Nathalie Sarraute (257), Typhoid Mary (277) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (295), among others.

The metonymic readings that serve as a framework for the book’s organization render the latter somewhat forced in places, but this attests to the complexity of the subject matter and its theoretical underpinnings. In the first chapter, Woshinsky focuses on the allegorical images of the body in Counter-Reformation writings and its imprecise relationships to gender and the soul. (For some reason, this chapter has a decidedly different feel from those that follow, as though it were not part of the same thesis.) In the second, she addresses Jean-Pierre Camus’s conflicted attitude toward the female body and the sensuality associated with it that leads him to ad­vocate for its enclosure in his stories. Following these initial chapters devoted to religious writings that feature metonymic and allegorical read­ings of the female body, Woshinsky guides us ever deeper into the convents themselves, beginning with more secular and feminocentric rep­resentations of thresholds (Chapter 3), parlors (Chapter 4), cells (Chapters 5 and 6) and, finally, tombs (appropriately, Chapter 7). This well-written analysis weaves in and out of convent grilles, gates, corridors, chapels, and cells and demonstrates that the convent of early-modern France, like the female body and its coverings (veils, gowns, bed sheets) that it con­tained, were considered alternately hermetic and penetrable.

Woshinsky deftly guides the reader through this labyrinthine reading with a healthy dose of humor. I would often find myself blindsided by a sly aside (“And what does it mean for a soul to have nipples?” (55)), (“Fi­nally, what is accented by the title is…the fact that the narrator is…Portuguese: hence doomed—or free—to enjoy a degree of southern and female unreason not properly displayed in the country of Descartes, even by women” (247)); dry sarcasm (“However, there is a consistency in the women’s treatment, in that both Deucalie and Nerée are seen most positively once they are dead” (90)); a play on words (“Resurrected for the wedding, he fails to come up to conjugal expectations” (179)); or an hon­est criticism of her subject (“The next morning, he writes a triumphant (and bad) poem” (227)). Woshinsky is obviously having fun with her subject, and her readers cannot help but do the same. When she declares in exasperation that “[t]he vulgarity of the ending [of a poem written by a monk] taxes the translating skill of this scholar” (231), we should not be surprised that her subsequent translation is just as double-edged and naughty as the original.

Another unexpected quality of this book is its bibliography. While Woshinsky engages with seminal works by senior scholars, she does not limit herself to these studies. Instead, she also demonstrates a broad colle­giality infrequent in published academic works. Her bibliography includes conference papers and unpublished dissertations as well as other refer­ences to works by less-established academics. This approach, combined with the intertextual citations throughout, creates an overall impression of a current and well-balanced study.

I have very few criticisms of this work. There are some errors of proofreading: the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes occurred in 1685 and not in 1696 (162); there is no English translation for two quotations on the bottom of page 92; the English translation should precede the French original in the middle of page 270. Content-wise, I was surprised not to find a discussion of Mlle de Scudéry’s “Histoire de Sapho” in the section on feminutopias (124-34) nor a reference to Daniella J. Kostroun’s work on the Port-Royal nuns in Chapter 5. Finally, there is no mention of the Querelle des femmes which deserves at least a clin d’œil from the author. Nevertheless, these minor points do not detract from what is otherwise an excellent analysis and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Jennifer R. Perlmutter, Portland State University

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