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Louise Labe: Une creature de papier.

Mireille Huchon. Louise Labe: Une creature de papier.

Titre courant 34. Geneva: Librairie Droz S. A., 2006. 484 pp. index. append. illus. [euro]22. ISBN: 2-600-00534-X.

Mireille Huchon, a serious specialist in sixteenth-century French literature, has just published her very intriguing and well-researched Louise Labe: Une creature de papier. This book, whose subtitle immediately arouses the curiosity of Labe's critics, casts doubt on the very existence of Louise Labe as a writer. By comparing texts and illustrations of that period, Huchon quite convincingly demonstrates that Labe's works amount to a literary hoax perpetrated by a group of male poets based in Lyon.

After a short introduction in which Labe is called "a mystery," mid-sixteenth-century Lyon is amply depicted, with all its magnificence, proclivity for festivities, and "poetic frenzy." Huchon describes the remarkable literary explosion which took place there in the 1540s. She also deals with three women, Louise Labe, Pernette Du Guillet, and Jeanne de Flore--whose name, it is suggested, could be a feminine pseudonym of Jehan de Flores. To the author, it remains obscure what relationship these women, considered the most important lyonnaises women writers, had with other poets. These "pseudo-writers" are cited as examples to query the "authenticity of a lyonnaise feminine writing" (69), with Maurice Sceve as a central figure. Based on these premises, the assumption of a literary hoax is quite plausible to Huchon.

The second part of the book focuses on the many facets of Louise Labe. It is well known that autobiographic details on Labe are slim. The CEuvres, printed in 1555, then reprinted in 1556, were effectively ignored for two centuries until they were reprinted again in 1762 in Lyon. This, of course, adds to Labe's mystery. To Huchon, she is a "wax doll" molded by the imagination of critics and poets who wrote about her throughout the centuries. During the Renaissance, poets were fascinated by the works of the Greek poetess Sappho, and the ode in Greek which opens the Escriz de divers Poetes in the CEuvres likens Louise Labe to a "new Sappho." Moreover, among Pierre Woeiriot's portraits of Louise Labe reprinted in this edition, the second portrait depicts Louise as a Lais Lyonnaise: a Lyonnaise courtesan, equated with Medusa. Louise remains a legend and a paradox: is la Belle Cordiere simply a beautiful courtesan who was fabricated as an author? Why this mystification?

As suggested by Clement Marot in 1542, was there a project to louer Louise (praise Louise)? Was this a scheme, in the eyes of the participants, to rival Petrarch's laudare Laure? Huchon's well-researched arguments are insightful. She analyzes and compares literary texts and demonstrates how they were manipulated, imitated, and plagiarized. They were also filled with mythological travesty, paradox, and ambiguity--all favorite literary devices used by writers of the times.

Huchon brings her book to a close with a convincing conclusion: a group of male poets contributed their writings to create the CEuvres de Louize Labe Lionnoize, under the orchestration of Maurice Sceve. Two critics, Verdun Louis Saulnier in 1948 and Keith Cameron in 1990, had earlier put into question the authenticity of the CEuvres. The Debat de Folie et d'Amour, in particular, was most likely written by Sceve with the contribution of Claude de Taillemont. As early as 1584, Pierre de Saint-Julien wrote that in the Debat can be detected the "erudite bawdiness of Maurice Sceve." As for the Escriz de divers Poetes, a la louange de Louise Labe Lionnoize, they comprise twenty-four poems, principally by anonymous writers who appear to have disguised their real identities behind masks made of anagrams, plays on words, or simple initials. Poets such as Jean-Antoine de Baif, Olivier de Magny, Guillaume Aubert, and Charles Fontaine, among others, played a significant role in the composition of the CEuvres, which were edited by Jean de Tournes, then the most important editor in Lyon. Therefore, according to Huchon, the whole volume amounts to a "bright fancy work of imagination" of a circle of poets from Lyon, reworking the various facets of Petrarchan or Platonic Love, by means of feminine pseudo-writing and the many literary devices already mentioned, elements of which were then all the rage in sixteenth-century Lyon.

The last part of the book is composed of facsimiles of Louise Labe's complete works, the CEuvres de Louize Labe Lionnoize: Debat de Folie et d'Amour, three Elegies, twenty-four Sonnets as well as the Escriz de divers Poetes, a la louange de Louize Labe Lionnoize. Finally, also included is a piece by Jacques Peletier du Mans, who eschewed anonymity: "A Louise Labe, Lionnoese, ODE," printed in his Art Poetique in 1555.

Literary mysteries are not new: there is, of course, the case of Shakespeare, the most famous among those whose authorship has been put into question. Did Louise exist? If so, was she a courtesan, a gifted writer among a pleiad of brilliant poets, or possibly both? Did she in fact write this thin volume, which has fascinated readers and critics alike? Indeed, her production is slim but its resonances have crossed centuries, and have moved many by their passionate notes of sincerity. They have stirred and inspired others by their call to women to be creative and take an essential and intellectual role in society. Even if Louise is "a creature of paper," and the CEuvres de Louize Labe Lionnoize are but a wonderful literary hoax composed by a group of famous and "facetious authors" in sixteenth-century Lyon, her/their writings endure for our benefit, enjoyment, and inspiration.


Queensborough Community College, The City University of New York
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Author:Bourbon, Anne-Marie
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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