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REVIEW: Winn, Colette H., ed. Teaching French Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2011. ISBN 978-1-60329-089-0. Pp. viii & 440. $40

Article Citation: 
XVI 1 (2015): 113–116
Author: 
Kathleen Llewellyn
Article Text: 

This collective work is both a critical reappraisal of current thinking on early modern women writers and a guide to studying their works, particu­larly in the classroom. Winn’s introduction explains the political, religious, and sociocultural background essential for understanding the works of French women writers of the sixteenth century. It includes a compre­hensive overview of social and legal perspectives on gender, as well as a description of the public and private lives that women of the era were likely to experience, the education they might receive, and the recep­tion faced by women who wrote and saw their works published. The es­says that follow, divided into four sections, explore a broad range of women writers from myriad interrelated perspectives.

The first part of the volume establishes the cultural, literary, economic, and social context in which early modern French women wrote. Brigitte Roussel examines the representation of marriages and domestic relation­ships in Nicole Estienne’s Misères de la femme mariée. Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier contends that visual art of the era can help students understand women’s roles in early modern society; her approach will bring a much appreciated interdisciplinarity to courses centered on literature. Carrie F. Klaus discusses women’s lives in convents, focusing on their experience of the Protestant Reformation. Diane S. Wood and Laura B. Bergman exam­ine the influence of humanism on the writings of Hélisenne de Crenne, in an essay that encourages student reflection on the importance of humanism in early modern writing across lines of gender and genre. Susan Broomhall considers women’s writing in the context of work, and situates it within the notion of gendered labor. An understanding of this concept is particularly important for today’s students, who often think of early modern women as excluded from economic activity. François Rigolot describes the literary, cultural, and legal transformation that took place in Europe, beginning in the fifteenth century, that fostered the notion of individual intellectual ownership, and thereby encouraged literary produc­tion and publication, including among women authors. Dora E. Polachek illustrates the long literary history of women’s erotic desirability, concentrating on such writers as Marot, Ronsard, Labé, Brantôme, and Marguerite de Navarre. Ann Rosiland Jones discusses Pernette du Guillet and her use of Neoplatonic conventions, establishing textual links between Du Guillet and her literary contemporaries.

Part II treats specific authors, beginning with Zeina Hakim’s study of Louise Labé’s use of imitatio. Danielle Trudeau examines classical influ­ences evident in Pernette Du Guillet’s poetry, as well as the poet’s innova­tions, through a close reading of Du Guillet’s chanson 7. Jane Couchman proposes that students investigate the epistolary genre through an examina­tion of a variety of letters penned by women from a wide range of so­cial classes. Using Georgette de Mornay’s emblem books as an exam­ple, Carla Zecher shows how books serve as both texts and as objects. Both Couchman’s essay and Zecher’s deepen students’ awareness and under­standing of material aspects of the early modern era. Edith Joyce Benkov demonstrates women’s engagement in the world outside home and convent through an exploration of Anne de Marquet’s pasquinades. Jean-Philippe Beaulieu suggests that students read Marie de Gournay’s Discours sur ce livre, not only as an entry into her work and her authorial persona, but also as a way of better understanding the difficulties faced by Renaissance women writers as they sought to establish themselves as recog­nized and respected public figures

Part III proposes specific pedagogical and critical strategies for study of early modern women writers. The approaches suggested here will also serve as an excellent introduction for both undergraduate and graduate stu­dents to the application of literary and cultural theory. Leslie Zarker Morgan locates Louise Labé in the particular cultural, historical, and liter­ary context that was mid-sixteenth-century Lyon. Carla Freccero has cho­sen novella 30 of Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméon – a story that inevita­bly seizes students’ attention – to demonstrate how feminist and queer approaches to reading early modern women’s writings can open new ways to understand their works. Nancy Frelick approaches Hélisenne de Crenne’sLes angoysses douloureuses qui procèdent d’amours through the per­spective of transference as a way to lead students beyond an autobiograph­ical reading of the text, or a view of it as largely derivative. Frelick’s essay also provides an excellent demonstration of the effects of a book’s reception, both among its contemporary audience and over time. Cécile Alduy suggests that students’ learning to decode Petrarchan lyrics is essential, not only for their understanding of Louise Labé’s poetry, but more fundamentally, for grasping the complex cultural construction that is gender. Claude La Charité draws our attention to the masculine “I” that appears in Marie de Romieu’s verse, challenging students’ frequent assump­tion that the poetic “I” is autobiographical. Androgynous writing is also the focus of Leah Chang’s essay, in which she examines a wide range of male poets writing in the voice of a woman. Anne R. Larsen explores female writing communities revealed in the works of Catherine des Roches, from literary salons to networks that spanned centuries and crossed national boundaries. Larson’s essay provides a welcome and in­deed necessary corrective for students who still imagine that early modern women writers were isolated and even alienated. Gary Ferguson argues for the inclusion of the poetry of the Catholic nun Anne de Marquets in a course on women writers. The addition of Marquets’s devotional poetry to courses where students read love-themed poems and stories (which tend to be quite popular and are probably more easily understood) will enable them to explore a wider range of women’s writing. Mary B. McKinley sug­gests that students complement their reading of Marguerite de Na­varre’s Heptaméron with Marie Dentière’s Epistle to Marguerite de Navarreas a way to better understand the significance of the Protestant Reformation in the lives of early modern French women. McKinley also uses Dentière’s Epistle as an opportunity for students to study rhetoric, which is crucial to understanding sixteenth-century literature. Colette H. Winn recommends that students undertake a comparative study of Gabri­elle de Coignard’s spiritual verse and Louise Labé’s love sonnets, which will enhance the students’ understanding of the place of Petrarchism in the work of both poets. Winn’s approach can be applied to a number of compara­tive studies, helping students find connections among texts, creat­ing a veritable literary tapestry. Deborah Lesko Baker addresses the sometimes problematic issue of having students read texts in Middle French. She suggests making Louise Labé’s prose works available to stu­dents both in the original French and in English translation.

Part IV of this collection points the reader to an abundant and diverse col­lection of resources. In one essay Colette H. Winn lists a number of critical editions of women writers’ work; in the following chapter she di­rects the reader to journals, professional associations, conferences, and colloquia for scholars of early modern women writers. A survey of valua­ble online resources is provided by Winn and Graziella Postolache. Karen Simroth James and Mary B. McKinley open the door to the past a bit wider for students by suggesting ways they can access centuries-old texts, both via online resources – digital facsimiles are more and more available – and directly in special collections that house rare books. James and McKin­ley also suggest ways that those resources might be used.

This volume will be a precious resource for teachers and for scholars. The selection of writers, subjects, and approaches is both broad and deep, and will prove invaluable for those who wish to include women writers in survey courses or courses focusing on a particular theme or genre, and for those constructing a course specifically centered on early modern women writers. The authors included in this volume have chosen texts that will fascinate students, drawing them into the literary culture of sixteenth-cen­tury France. At the same time, these texts will certainly challenge students, pushing them to understand the era in new ways, and to see from new perspec­tives not only early modern women’s lives, but the lives of early modern men as well, and even, perhaps especially, human experience across the centuries.

Kathleen M. Llewellyn, Saint Louis University

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