Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters

The epistolary art was a rite of passage for women in 18th-century France, says Isobel Grundy

October 29, 2009

The cover of this beautifully produced book features Adelaide Labille-Guiard's portrait of an unknown lady, shortly before the French Revolution, resplendent in dove-grey satin and lace, writing to her children. The portrait hints at several of Dena Goodman's topics: consumerism, depictions of female letter-writers, the furniture produced for them, the mother-daughter bond, the education of girls, the drive for didacticism, and the way that some young women formed their autonomous selves through correspondence. Quotations from these earnest, highly intelligent young women (one of them the future Madame Roland) are one of the book's great pleasures.

Letters themselves - the marvellous output of enlightened women such as Francoise de Graffigny (whose letters are already available in selection, pending the completion of a great scholarly edition) - are not the point here. Such women, Goodman reminds us, were a tiny, exceptional minority. She begins with visual images very unlike her cover picture: depictions by (male) artists of Frenchwomen as concerned exclusively with love letters, whether dreamy and virginal, or flirtatious, or erotically arousing, or downright deceptive. These paintings are fiction, but perfectly fitted to the actual, tiny, dainty women's desks and inkstands in later illustrations.

Painters saw things this way because of ingrained beliefs about the nature of women. A woman in ancien regime France was a sexual creature made for masculine pleasure, whether for wayward love or the sedate satisfactions of the patriarchal family. Most women, even upper-class women, were barely literate. Even after literacy almost doubled over the century before the Revolution, only one in four Frenchwomen could sign her name, as against one in two men. Those who wrote were far fewer again than those who signed. In novels or poetry (which, like paintings, were by men), women wrote letters only when consumed by love, albeit a love rendered deeper and more complex than in paint. Women like Graffigny were apparently all but invisible to their contemporaries.

Women's education, inadequate in England, was much worse in France. No Frenchwoman published on grammar and spelling, as did Ann Fisher of Newcastle. A French governess (who ate with the other servants while the boys' tutor ate with the family) was often a pensioned-off lady's maid.

The class marker of letter-writing put the seal on women's education. Letters to pass around in polite company were an accomplishment as attractive as singing or embroidering. Anxiety lest teaching a jeune fille might produce a scholar (although Rousseau maintained that little girls had a "natural repugnance" to holding a pen as opposed to a needle) was assuaged by her writing sweet, vapid letters of piety and filial duty, not forgetting to send her compliments to every neighbour and second cousin to whom her letters might be shown.

Practice in letter-writing therefore dominated the year or two spent by upper-class girls at a convent (or, later, a boarding school). They wrote to their mothers, of course, and the highly prescriptive environment in which they did so produced saccharine exchanges represented here as a rite of passage. The mother-daughter bond was expected to be extremely close. Mme de Sevigne proved her maternal excellence by intense possessiveness. Mme Roland once tried but failed to abstain from writing to her daughter as a penance for Lent.

Although letters were seen as a natural, spontaneous genre, and therefore women's special forte, they were also seen, paradoxically, as demanding some knowledge of grammar and spelling rules deemed almost beyond female capacity. Controversy over French spelling reform (phonetic versus etymological) led briefly to some respect being accorded "ladies' spelling" as more modern and rational than that of the savants. But very soon (male) professionals succeeded to the savants' claims of authority over spelling.

Goodman deploys her material skilfully, if with occasional repetition. She has done most of her own translating, although confidence in her grasp of idiom is shaken by some details, such as using the word "spiritual" where the French surely intended "witty". The pictures of letter-writers and their consumer goods are a joy. Women reading this book may feel that climate change is not too high a price to pay for living in the 21st century.

Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters

By Dena Goodman

Cornell University Press

408pp, £54.50 and £20.50

ISBN 9780801447617 and 75450

Published 7 May 2009

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