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Lettres de femmes: Textes inedits et oublies du XVIe au XVIIIe siecle.

Elizabeth C. Goldsmith and Colette H. Winn, eds. Lettres de femmes: Textes inedits et oublies du XVIe au XVIIIe siecle.

Textes de la Renaissance 89. Paris: Honore Champion Editeur, 2005. xlii + 448 pp. index. illus. gloss. bibl. [euro]83. ISBN: 2-7453-1123-9.

In early modern Europe, letters by women were alternately hailed as pinnacles of the genre and vilified for presumed scandalous or sentimental content. In this new book, Elizabeth C. Goldsmith, Colette H. Winn, and nine contributing editors bring together a rich selection of correspondence written in French by women who lived in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, so that we may more accurately assess their contributions to epistolary traditions.

Goldsmith and Winn open the collection with an informative survey of the nature of letters in the period. Their point of departure is Helisenne de Crenne, whose fictional Epistres familieres et invectives, the first collection of familiar letters published in French, appeared in 1539. Like many of the women whose letters are included in this volume, Crenne makes use of established rhetorical models, drawing upon Cicero and Erasmus, even as she innovates, writing in French rather than Latin and expanding the subject matter of the familiar letter. Goldsmith and Winn trace the development of the letter across three centuries, from familiar letters containing information on customs, values, and day-to-day life, to more formal letters influenced by epistolary manuals and l'art de plaire, and to letters that disseminated scientific and political ideas to an expanding intellectual community. They discuss women's shifting status in this development, noting that women's letters came to be seen as a category distinct from men's and that praise of women's "natural" style carried with it the implicit judgment that women were intellectually inferior to men.

The letters included in the volume differ considerably, but shared themes emerge. Many letters speak to early modern notions of the body. For example, Marguerite de Navarre tells her brother Francois I about her apprehensions before giving birth to her first child; she also alludes to possible miscarriages and a false pregnancy, provides details of family members' illnesses, and reports sadly on Louise de Savoie's failing health. Newlyweds Louise de Bourges and Gaspard de Saillans refer to the pleasures of sexual intimacy, and the young wife shares news of her pregnancy. The Nassau sisters, Louise-Julienne, Elisabeth, Amelie, and Charlotte-Brabantine, discuss pregnancy and childbearing as well. Francoise d'Aubigne, Marquise de Maintenon, gives the Marquis de Montchevreuil, who is charged with raising the Duc de Maine (the illegitimate son of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan), instructions on taking the duke to thermal baths, feeding him, and how long he should sleep. In the Epistre d'une damoiselle francoise a une sienne amie dame estrangere, a lady-in-waiting of Eleonore de Roye writes of the exemplary death of the twenty-eight-year-old Eleonore, including vivid physical details of her last moments.

Other letters' main interest is religious, such as the correspondence of Jeanne des Anges and Madame du Houx in which the authenticity of visions is at stake. Still others have marked literary value, particularly the letters of Madame de Scudery (wife of Georges and sister-in-law of Madeleine) who writes in the precieuse mode and condemns women misled by love, and of Suzanne Necker (mother of the future Baronne de Stael), who is concerned above all with her own melancholy. All illustrate women's use of letters to maintain networks of influence, from the high-ranking Louise de Coligny, who writes to family members among the French and Dutch nobility, to the upper-bourgeois Parisian Madame de Meinieres, who cultivates a friendship with a marquise in Lorraine, Madame de Lenoncourt. Many letters also show women's involvement in financial dealings and the difficulties they sometimes faced, such as when matters of succession went unresolved.

The volume includes only letters that have never been published, never republished, or only partially reproduced, or are otherwise difficult to find. All letters appear in their entirety. The diversity of texts chosen conveys a sense of the multiplicity of women's epistolary contributions and makes the volume useful to a wide range of scholars in fields as varied as anthropology, economics, history, literature, political science, religion, sociology, and women's studies. Individual editors provide extensive background to each set of letters: biographical details, textual analysis, and a full set of notes. The volume also features a selective bibliography. Lettres de femmes is a serious critical edition that brings important new information to the history of letters.


DePauw University
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Author:Klaus, Carrie F.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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