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Beasley: Gender and the Marketing of Seventeenth-Century France

Article Citation: 
Cahiers du dix-septième: An Interdisciplinary Journal XI, 1 (2006) 137–145.
Faith Beasley
Article Text: 

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For those of us involved in French studies, one of the most useful teaching tools to have appeared in recent years is Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux de Mémoire. Filled with meticulously researched articles on an first glance every component deemed an integral part of French national identity, Les Lieux de Mémoire allows American students to comprehend how France constructs its sense of self, especially with respect to its historical patrimoine. I often turn to this monumental scholarly initiative in which the seventeenth-century occupies an impressive amount of space, attesting to what is arguably the unique place this one century plays in France’s conception of its cultural identity. Articles on Versailles, conversation, gallantry, and the French Academy all illustrate that the memory of this particular historical moment in ingrained in the French national psyche. In some sense, the strong presence of seventeenth-century France endows our courses with legitimacy. It allows us to state to our American students that one doesn’t really know France or the French mentalité if one is ignorant of this essential building block of national identity.

But Les Lieux is not useful in some of the courses I offer, specifically those in which I foreground women’s contributions to the period through the salons and their literary endeavors, contributions, I argue, that during the period were considered to be uniquely French traits that distinguished France from its European counterparts. Interestingly, one finds no article, for example, devoted to a key institution of the period, the salon. The literature from the period that merits inclusion is all the familiar canonical classics, usually isolated from the complex cultural context that produced them. This disconnect between the France presented in Les Lieux and that conveyed to students in many of my courses underscores a fundamental difference in the way we teach this period in the United States and the way it is transmitted in France. In this essay, I would like to offer an explanation of this difference,[138] focusing on how it came about and how indeed it is a necessary part of the survival of our courses in the American university.

In his article on “Les Classiques scolaires” for Les Lieux de mémoire, Daniel Milo analyzes how the French classics, many of which of course emanate from our period, came to be constituted. Echoing many of his compatriots of recent years, Milo laments the transmission of French literary history in the United States. He states “The key word is responsibility: the French educational system is neither the guarantor nor the manager of English cultural patrimony; it thus can be mistaken, or even ridiculous (the French programs in the United States are a perfect example of this irresponsibility.”1 (II, 2113). Because we have often branched out to include other voices from Le Grand Siecle, we have supposedly betrayed the French cultural patrimony and neglected our responsibilities.

But what exactly are our responsibilities to this French cultural patrimony? Do we perhaps have other responsibilities that are equally important as we strive to impart an understanding of this period to our American students? First, it must be recognized that our approach to teaching and researching the seventeenth century, feminist or other, derives in part from the relationship between our research and our teaching, a relationship that is in large measure due to a university context that is specific to the United States. Our research is integrated into our courses, and the survival of our courses, and of our reputations as active and innovative professors, depend in part upon our ability to respond to the desires and to the needs of our students. We must market our courses on seventeenth-century France. The vast majority of our students know nothing. Corneille, Racine, Molière are simply vague names, or are completely unknown. Students are often afraid of taking a course in “old French,” that is a French that supposedly would never prove useful in a business setting, for example, in twenty-first-century France. Students take French to learn the language as much as the literature and culture. Our French colleagues would never have to deal with the following phrase, for example: “Corneille est le plus grand écrivain qui n’a jamais vécu au dix-septième siècle.” Inter-[139]disciplinary approaches, including gender studies, help us to create interest among our students. Such approaches make this period accessible and even interesting and relevant.

The professional context in the United States also differs from its analogue in France in the sense that work on seventeenth-century French literature is not considered in the same way in the United States. Not only do we have to convince our students of the relevance of this study, we must also convince our colleagues. In order to be tenured one must publish books and articles, preferably in English, and no American press will accept a monograph on Pascal or even Molière. As is the case for our teaching, we must market our research, and one of the best ways of doing so is to create ties with other disciplines and other subjects that could interest a greater number of specialists. Interdisciplinary and feminist approaches developed in part as a response to these pedagogical and professional exigencies.

I would argue that one of the biggest differences between the way we teach the classical period in the United States and the way our colleagues do in France is our interest in questions of gender over the past twenty years and our incorporation of these questions into our research and teaching. The change has been rather phenomenal, and has not been echoed in France until very recently, and then only in the realm of research and not in the classroom. Today the incorporation of questions of gender in approaches to history and to literature no longer meet the same resistance as they did twenty years ago. The questions we ask have become more complex. Certain would attribute this to a climate of “political correctness” but this would be too simplistic. The relatively long and developed history of feminist studies in the US across disciplines and its influence have fundamentally changed our approaches to questions and well as the very questions we ask particularly in the disciplines of history and literature. Instead of just resurrecting women’s voices and their influence, work now focuses on analyzing the complex interplay of gender and the entire cultural context.

[140]Today many American researchers are attracted to seventeenth-century France precisely because of the role women played in the cultural arena. Questions of gender are particularly interesting for this period and there are many areas left to explore. We now have a critical mass of scholars who work on these questions. And interdisciplinary work, especially between historians and literary specialists, has become commonplace. A good example of such ventures is Dena Goodman’s and Elizabeth Goldsmith’s Going Public: Women and Publishing in Early Modern France(1995). And such perspectives have been integrated into works designed to present France as a whole. Denis Hollier’s A New History of French Literature(1989), for example, provides a fascinating counterpoint to Nora’s Les Lieux de mémoire, especially when one turns to its depiction of classical France.

I am not saying that such work is never done in France, but until very recently, the vast majority of the work dedicated to women’s and gender studies in the seventeenth century, with the exception of biographies, have come from outside the hexagon, notably England and the United States. In the United States there are now many series that publish women’s texts, which makes them accessible to researchers but also to students, as well as collections that teach how to teach such texts. Notable examples include Chicago’s Other voices series, which has published Villedieu’s Henriette-Sylvie de Molière, Marie de Gournay, Montpensier’s and Motteville’s correspondence on marriage, Jacqueline Pascal, Poullain de la Barre, Scudery’s Histoire de Sapho, the dialogues and addresses of Maintenon and soon Lafayette’s Zaide, from the French seventeenth century alone. The MLA’s Options and Approaches series encourage scholars across disciplines to incorporate women writers into their teaching. With the translation of many of these texts, seventeenth-century France becomes an object of research outside French departments, increasing our own opportunities to teach, as well as enrollments in our own classes, and we all know how important enrollments are these days.

The effects of these moves are multiple. The classical period we teach in the United States often includes these other voices. It [141]is usually combined with interdisciplinary work drawn from history and cultural studies. And the way we teach and interpret the texts themselves that make up the classical canon differs from that of our French colleagues in France. Even when both sides of the Atlantic concur that a certain text merits a place in the classroom, our ways of examining that text diverge in significant ways. A particularly striking example can be found in our ways of approaching La Princesse de Clèves. In the Approaches to Teaching volume that I edited with Kate Jensen, contributors discussed the quarrel, the economy in the text, masculinity, the relationship between mothers and daughters, and geography, to cite only a few examples. Most authors considered the princess to be a strong women who is capable of forging a new life for herself and who offers an alternative model for women to her contemporaries. According to this positive interpretation of the princess, she does not flee from love and society, but rather rejects what she views as the inevitable unhappiness associated with marrying a duke who would be incapable of fidelity. She doesn’t die immediately and she doesn’t join a convent. She isn’t weak, nor does she feel guilty. In contrast, it is interesting to remark that in France, one of the passages that is most frequently chosen for anthologies is the end of the novel. Her final conversation with Nemours is offered as an example of the triumph of duty over love. The princess is a model of marital fidelity: she remains faithful to the memory of her husband because she feels guilty of his death. These two divergent interpretations of Lafayette’s classic heroine illustrate the extent to which American and French perspectives diverge. When female influence is restored to the seventeenth-century literary scene, new, provocative interpretations are possible. For example, it becomes possible to argue that Lafayette uses the novel as a social tool in order to advance an alternative notion of vraisemblance. As scholars have delved into the works of Lafayette’s friends and contemporaries, such as Villedieu and Scudéry, many have argued that women writers often actively chose the novel and used it to engage in the debates of the day, from what was history, to questions of marriage and women’s education. This use of the genre would make little sense in the framework traditionally presented in France and to French students, whose sense of women, the salons, [142] and female authorship during Le Grand Siècle are often derived largely from Moliere’s satires and from anthologies with little female presence.

The study of women writers and our interdisciplinary approach to the period have changed the way we see the seventeenth century as a whole. In recent studies in the United States, women’s texts are important, but it is above all their influence on and their dialogue with their cultural and literary context that interest us. Women are often considered as an integral part of the cultural and literary life of le grand siecle, as in my own work in which I focus on the salons and their influence on the seventeenth century as a whole. Instead of considering women’s contributions and texts as separate entities, to be included because one “should include a woman,” we are focusing more and more on the dialogue between texts, male and female authored, and on the dialogue between texts and their contexts. Nancy K Miller articulates this approach when she remarks that it is no longer sufficient to resurrect women writers in order to construct a parallel narrative to the dominant history. Such a history is obviously easier to accept because it leaves traditional history and traditional readings of literary texts intact.
2 The cultural and literary history that many American scholars are producing does not leave this history intact. Concepts such as classicism must be studied with the idea of gender in mind, and women’s and men’s texts must be read as they were produced, that is, together. In my own work, I have been tracing how the salons were inscribed into history and into literary history, questions that led me to question how collective memory came to be constituted over the years. I’m currently editing an Options for Teaching Seventeenth and Eighteenth-century French women writers for the MLA, which is not an anthology but rather reflects current research and pedagogical practices in the US, and the philosophy that is developing regarding how to integrate women and their works into traditional scholarly work. Such work, I believe, reflects the evolution of women and gender studies in the United States, the move to an approach that goes beyond chronological and disciplinary boundaries in order to place women writers and [143] women’s participation in general in dialogue with the “mainstream” of their historical and cultural context.
For many of us in the United States, seventeenth-century French women are no longer shadows. We’re most interested in the shadow that they themselves produce on le grand siecle, and on French culture in general. Such developments have been possible in large measure because we’re not in France. We do not have the cultural baggage of our French colleagues. But we also run the risk of not being taken seriously or of being misunderstood or even rejected altogether because what we are offering is often a new concept of a canonical period that is fundamental to any conception of French cultural identity. When one adds women and their influence to the portrait of the seventeenth century, one advances a different vision of France’s cultural heritage, of its patrimoine, of its very identity. In a recent article, Michelle Perrot discusses, in the context of historical studies, both the influence of adding women to the picture, and the fundamental changes this necessitates. She explains that in France “the specter of ‘political correctness’ haunts us, often spiced up by fantastical accounts of some American episode or other. American feminism, frequently in a caricatured form, is too often used as a foil with which to parry the critical reflection taking place within feminist studies. The stakes are all the higher since history…continues to be a prestigious discipline which is linked to the national culture and to politics and which, therefore, is masculine, especially when it comes to contemporary history.”3 I believe that the seventeenth century has been constructed as “masculine” in France, which makes it harder to take feminist approaches to the period seriously. Perrot’s remarks are equally valid for the literary realm, especially given the fact that literature and history are now so integrated, especially in the United States. Perrot explains that to write women’s history requires that one consider the survival and the evolution of societies in new ways. To write the history of women complicates all questions, but also creates new forms of knowledge.

Obviously feminist and interdisciplinary studies lead to a reevaluation of classical France, and consequently to a vision of the [144] period that is often foreign, or worse, irrelevant and threatening to a French public and even to our colleagues. It is interesting, and perhaps frightening to some, that if my students were asked to name the great seventeenth-century French writers, they would put Scudéry (Madeleine of course), Lafayette and Villedieu on the list along with Corneille, Racine, and Molière. In the seventeenth century that I teach, Corneille thought about the literary tastes of the salon de Rambouillet when he wrote Le Cid, and Molière knew Villedieu. Women’s and men’s texts offer new perspectives when they are read in dialogue with each other. Is this irresponsible teaching, to return to Milo? Is this teaching the “wrong” seventeenth century? We’ve all witnessed or read about the resistance that such different visions have encountered in France. But it seems to me that the real fear is not that American professors teach the wrong texts, but that they teach the wrong France, or to be less dramatic, that they create an image of France that differs from that of the French themselves.

It is true that the seventeenth century that is taught in American universities is perhaps not precisely the same as the reigning vision of classical France in the hexagon. It can be argued that this has allowed the very survival of our classes in the United States. Should this alternative view be rejected or combated? Of all the periods of French literary history, the seventeenth century has always been the most “masculine,” which makes feminist and interdisciplinary approaches, --or indeed any approach that changes the conception of this canonical century-- difficult to accept. Little by little, more French researchers are being drawn to women writers, scholars such as Myriam Maitre, Nathalie Grande, and Delphine Denis. Their work has not yet translated into classroom practice, but who knows? Perhaps in another 20 years our two seventeenth centuries will not be so different….

Dartmouth College


1Daniel Milo, “Les Classiques scolaires,” in Les Lieux de mémoire, ed. Pierre Nora, 1984 (Paris: Gallimard, 1997) II, 2113.
2Nancy K. Miller, “Men’s Reading, Women’s Writing: Gender and the Rise of the Novel.” Yale French Studies 75. 1998; Displacements: Women, Tradition, Literatures in French, eds. Joan DeJean and Nancy K. Miller (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).
3Michelle Perrot, “Women and the Silences of History,” in Historians and Social Values, eds. Joep Leerssen et Ann Rigney (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000) 166.

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