Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Marie le Jars de Gournay and the Writing Woman

Marie le Jars de Gournay (born 6 October 1565)


Marie le Jars was the first of six children born to Guillaume le Jars, a minor aristocrat living in Paris, and his wife, Jeanne de Hacqueville, whose family included noted jurists and writers. Her father purchased the estate of Gournay-sur-Aronde; after his death in 1578, the family suffered financial difficulties and relocated to the estate, thus adding "de Gournay" to Marie's name.

A frontispiece from Gournay's
collection of her work.
There were two usual possibilities for young women like Marie de Gournay--a religious profession (one of her sisters did become a nun) or marriage. While her mother planned an advantageous marriage for her daughter, Marie resisted and undertook a rigorous--and largely secret--self-education, focused on the classics and French literature.

For most of the centuries since her death in 1645, Marie le Jars de Gournay was known for her association with the famous essayist Michel de Montaigne.

It was Montaigne himself who referred to the young woman as his "fille d'alliance," his adopted daughter. In her novella, Le Proumenoir de M. de Montaigne, par sa fille d'alliance (The Promenade of Monsieur de Montaigne, by His Adopted Daughter (1588), Gournay addresses Montaigne in her dedicatory epistle as "Father."

As Gournay's editors note, the young scholar found in Montaigne "the reincarnation of the ancient sages" and an "impeccable patriarchal authority to sponsor her own interests against those of her mother--even, pretty clearly, a safely inaccessible substitute for the husband her mother would have chosen for her."

Their correspondence began after Marie read Montaigne's Essays in 1584. In 1588, she visited him in Paris, and he returned the visit, staying in at the Château de Gournay for three months. 

Gournay's mother died in 1591, leaving her in a very difficult financial situation, while Montaigne's death in 1592 left her in a difficult intellectual situation. Along with a younger brother and sister, she first moved into the household of the provincial governor of Cambrai before she relocated to Paris where she lived "in genteel poverty."

Then, in 1593, Montaigne's widow,  Françoise de la Cassaigne, asked Gournay to edit a posthumous edition of Monntaigne's works. Gournay spent more than a year working at Montaigne's estate, producing a new edition, prefaced by her own introduction, published in 1595. Subsequent editions enhanced and promoted Montaigne and his reputation.

But, in addition to her editorial work, Gournay produced verse and translations while she was living in Paris, as well as the significant works that have drawn new attention to her more recently: Égalité des hommes et des femmes (The Equality of Men and Women), first published in 1622, Apologie pour celle qui escrit (Apology for the Woman Writing), first published in 1626, and Grief des dames (Complaint of Women or The Ladies' Complaint), also published in 1626. Gournay continued to revise her work throughout her writing career, with final versions published in Les Advis ou les presens de la Demoiselle de Gournay (The Offerings or Presents of Demoiselle de Gournay,1641).

In The Equality of Men and Women, dedicated to Anne of Austria, queen of France (who would become regent for her son Louis XIV in 1643), Gournay argues that women's subordination is not "natural" but based on prejudice. Women have been denied their rightful place in society by men, who have reduced women by denying them an education. 

In arguing against women’s subservience and for their education, an education "of a kind equal to men’s," Gournay includes a history of women, citing a "vast number of . . . intellects, ancient and modern, of illustrious name" to support her view of women's potential and accomplishments. Her citations to support her arguments--drawn from Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch, Boccaccio, Tasso, and Erasmus--illustrate the depth of her education. (In her history of women, she notes the achievements of Sappho, Hypatia, and Catherine of Siena--but, although she knows the French Roman de la rose, she does not know Christine de Pizan.)

In The Ladies' Complaint, Gournay again addresses misogyny and education. "Blessed are you, Reader," she begins, 
if you are not of the sex to which one forbids all goods, depriving it of freedom. One denies this sex just about everything: all the virtues and all the public offices, titles, and responsibilities. In short, this sex has its own power taken away; with this freedom gone, the possibility of developing virtues through the use of freedom disappears. This sex is left with the sovereign and unique virtues of ignorance, servitude, and the capacity to play the fool, if this game pleases it.
In her Apology for the Woman Writing, Gournay writes to defend herself against the slanders that threaten her--that seek to undermine not only her income but, more importantly, her reputation. It is, her recent editors note, a "profuse autobiographical self-justification."

For an excellent biographical essay from the Encyclopedia of World Biography, click here. For John Conley's careful analysis of Gournay's philosophy, published at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click here.

As the result of an amazing (and amazingly generous) digitization effort, you can "leaf through" a number of original editions of Gournay's works through the Bibliothèque nationale de France website by clicking here. For an excellent English translation of Gournay's works, see Richard Hillman and Colette Quesnel's Apology for the Woman Writing and Other Works.

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