A few months ago, a colleague, tongue-in-cheek, slammed a newspaper article on my desk with these words: “This doesn’t surprise me about the French at all: so misogynist!”. The article was about the French baccalauréat exam and revealed that 2017 was the very first year in which a text by a female author had been included in the official syllabus.
This doesn’t surprise me either. The French female authors I studied at school and university were indeed very thin on the ground. But I’ve always been uneasy at dismissing it as pure sexism. Could it not be that women have simply been less likely to embrace a literary career in France? When I compare with Britain, I am struck by how many female authors seem to have been around in the 18th and 19th centuries: Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë… You can barely find one or two women writers for the same period on the other side on the Channel. Have they all been forgotten? Or did they simply never exist in the first place? And why would that be? My theory is that religion played a part in this. Protestants, more prevalent in England, were encouraged to study the Bible for themselves and taught to read and interpret the text, whether male or female – whereas Catholics, more prevalent in France, were not. Indeed, five of the British authors I’ve just named were clergymen’s daughters. Maybe having a history with a few ruling queens in it wasn’t harmful either, something that could never have happened in France because of the French interpretation of the Salic law. Or maybe there really were as many female authors in France and we just don’t know about them.
I’m not equipped to answer these difficult questions and our extensive holdings on French women authors might tell us a bit more. In any case, it is a bit of an exaggeration on my part to say that you can hardly find a female writer in France; and in order to rehabilitate some of them, let me present here a few of our most famous ones:
Christine de Pisan (1364-1431)
In the introduction to Le livre de la cité des dames, Christine de Pisan told of the deep sadness and displeasure she felt at reading a book written by a male author that criticized and belittled women. Reflecting that no book she had ever read seemed to give a positive picture of the female character, she began the writing of an allegorical narrative that took the side of women. It is startling to think that this text was penned in the Middle Ages, by a woman who, furthermore, was equally at ease writing essays and fiction on politics, literature and even military strategy. Unsurprisingly, Christine de Pisan has often been considered an early feminist.
Louise Labé (1526-1566)
If you have ever wondered what Petrarchist poetry would look like if Petrarch had been a woman and Laura a man, you need to read Louise Labé’s poetry. Little is known about her life; it is assumed she was the wife of a rich merchant, and she only ever published one collection of poems. The fact that she presented herself as a female warrior trained in the art of weapons handling should very probably not be interpreted as autobiographical – taking her inspiration from a literature written by males, she had to use and subvert their codes.
Madame de la Fayette (1634-1693)
In 2006, Nicolas Sarkozy, then candidate for the presidential election, declared that whoever had decided to include questions about La Princesse de Clèves in the exam to become an administrative clerk was either “a sadist or an imbecile”. Immediately, the small 17th century book started enjoying a wave of popularity it had probably never known until then. Its author, Madame de la Fayette, was a woman of high society, friends with another famous femme de lettres of her time, Madame de Sévigné, and with the moralist François de La Rochefoucauld. La Princesse de Clèves, with its concise writing and its very precise observation of the characters’ psychology, is sometimes considered one of the first modern French novels.
Madame de Staël (1766-1817)
The end of the 18th century was a period of great change, both on the literary and the political scene; Madame de Staël took an active part in both fields. Through the literary salons she held in Paris and Switzerland, she gathered around her some of the greatest minds of her time, politicians or artists, and had them meet and exchange ideas. Although her father worked as a minister for Louis XVI, she favoured the ideals of the French Revolution, and later managed to become such a thorn in Napoleon’s side that he banned her from Paris. The strong, independent-minded women that are the main characters of her novels also highlight her taste for freedom (more about this in the British Library’s excellent blogpost). Last but not least, she is credited for introducing Romanticism to France with her literary and philosophical essay De l’Allemagne. Quite a woman.
George Sand (1804-1876)
George Sand was the female French author of the 19th century; if there ever were others, she has eclipsed them all. She not only took a masculine name but also dressed like a man and – scandalously – smoked cigars in public, was an environmentalist before its time, had a string of famous lovers (Chopin among them) and met with about every tortured artist, composer or writer of her age; one of my teachers used to describe her as “an incarnation of European Romanticism”. It is therefore disappointing that a woman with such a rich life, whose early fiction was influenced by the likes of Hoffmann and Byron, is now mostly remembered in France for her pastoral short stories.
Marguerite Duras (1914-1996)
Marguerite Duras spent her childhood in colonial Indochina. A communist and a résistante during the Second World War, married to a concentration camp survivor that she nursed back to health for a whole gruelling year after his return, she still found the energy to be one of the most significant avant-garde writers of the 20th century. For her, writing was not about telling stories. In fact, several of her novels have exactly the same plot – her affair with a Chinese man twice her age during her teenage years – and yet are all very different. This unique approach to art made her so dissatisfied with cinematographic adaptations of her books that she decided to direct her own films, and started a parallel career in cinema. She was the fifth woman to win the Goncourt prize.