Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The French Historian Louise-Félicité Guynement de Kéralio

Louise-Félicité Guynement de Kéralio (19 January 1757-31 December 1821)


I've been reading Carolyn Harris's recent book on Henrietta Maria, queen of England, and Marie Antoinette, queen of France. In her discussion of Marie Antoinette's woefully poor education, Harris notes that, nevertheless, she acquired many books for her personal library. 

In addition to popular novels and dramatic works, Marie Antoinette also subscribed to Louise de Kéralio's five-volume Histoire d'Élisabeth, reine d’Angleterre, published between 1786 and 1788. 

As Harris observes, "Karalio was one of the first recognized French female historians, and Marie Antoinette's purchase of the book suggests that she was interested in promoting female writers, just as her patronage of Elisabeth Vigée LeBrun encouraged the acceptance of women artists."

But, while Marie Antoinette may have subscribed to Kéralio's publication of her history of Elizabeth Tudor's reign in order to support a woman writer, Kéralio was not a supporter of the French queen. Rather, she wrote and published a scathing denunciation of  Marie Antoinette.

Louise de Kéralio was the daughter of the Breton nobleman Louis-Félix Guynement de Kéralio, a soldier, writer, and translator; her mother, Françoise Abeille, the daughter of the engineer and architect Joseph Abeille, was also a writer and translator. 

Kéralio began her literary career early; her first translation, Les nouveaux extraits des mémoires de l’Académie de Siennes, was completed when she was sixteen, her first novel, Adelaide, by the time she was seventeen. Kéralio was also a resident of the court at Versailles between October 1777 and April 1782.

A 1777 visit to Paris by the noted English historian Catharine Macaulay may have inspired the young Louise Kéralio to turn her attention to the writing of history--when publication of her history of Elizabeth Tudor began, she noted that the project was the result of ten years' of work. 

Between 1786 and 1789, Kéralio published fourteen volumes* (of a projected forty) of edited works by French women writers, Collection des meilleurs ouvrages françois, composés par des femmes, dédiée aux femmes françoises--including a sizable number of extracts from the work of Christine de Pizan, who is one of the founding mothers of this blog. And today is also Christine's birthday: she was born on 11 September in 1364. (Kéralio thought that Pizan, "as superior as she may have been to women in her century," was nevertheless "very inferior to Heloise.")

In August 1789 she founded the Journal d’État et du Citoyen, becoming the first French woman to edit a political journal. The following year she married the political revolutionary Pierre-François-Joseph Robert.

In 1791,  Kéralio published a scathing five-hundred-page attack on the French queen: Les crimes des reines de France, depuis le commencement de la monarchie jusqu'à Marie-Antoinette (Crimes of the Queens of France, from the Beginning of the Monarchy to Marie-Antoinette. Kéralio depicted Marie Antoinette as a monster. She calls her a "political tarantula" that weaves a web to catch her prey and a tiger that, having tasted blood, can never be satisfied.

Frontispiece to The Crimes of the
Queens of France
A frontispiece to the volume is notable: at the center of the scene is a monstrous, fish-tailed woman wearing only a crown. In her left hand, she stabs a male ruler, lifeless on the throne; in her right, she offers a cup of hemlock to three wise men. A leering satyr hovers over the scene. 

Underneath the image, the frontispiece caption reads: "A people is without honor and merits its chains when it lowers itself beneath the scepter of queens."

Well, there you have another view of the "monstrous regiment of women"!

You can view the entire 1791 Crimes of the Queens of France online, via the Bibliothèque nationale de France, by clicking here.

An excellent analysis of Kéralio's life and work during the French Revolution, by Annie Geffroy, "Louise de Keralio-Robert, pionnière du républicanisme sexiste," is available here

*Numerous sources give the number of volumes as twelve rather than fourteen, but the entry for Kéralio at the Bibliothèque nationale de France indicates that fourteen volumes were published.