montaigne’s soul daughters

Michel de Montaigne invented what can be termed the “personal essay” at the dawn of the seventeenth-century. It was seen quickly by Marie de Gournay that Montaigne’s disdain for logic and linear progression was part of a larger attack on the artificial constructions of male education. His ambivalence towards masculinity was interpreted through his objection of certainties, all judgements being provisional, inconsistent and unstable. …

Until the end at the age of eighty, she fought for worthy causes: beautiful letters, the intellectual liberation of women, the fame of her adopted father Montaigne

Authorship is contagious, the literary itch is allayed by pen-scratching. One day, on a country walk, Marie de Gournay told an endless romantic tale of parted lovers, a borrowed tale in fact. Splendid, you must write it down!” said Michel de Montaigne, though with how much conviction it is hard to say. She wrote it down, entitled it A Walk with Montaigne, and in time sent it to him at his southern house. He did not reply. Perhaps he was too ill; perhaps he could not think what to say. Those few indomitable scholars who have read it are said to have found it woefully dull, it singular merit being a plea for women’s education to save themselves from sentimental disaster.

…On a 1588 visit to Paris the 23-year-old Gournay met the 55-year-old Montaigne; later that year he came to Picardy for about two months, and Gournay was able to spend some time with him. Both apparently came to consider her a kind of daughter by adoption, his “fille d’alliance.” When Montaigne returned to Gascony, Gournay sent him a short novel that she had written after his departure.

Gournay. To defray the costs of her literary life, she made unrewarding experiments with alchemy. She was hailed as the French Minerva, the tenth Muse, the siren of France. She accepted the tribtes and ignored the covert snigger.

Gournay continued her studies and began to correspond with scholars abroad. In 1591, however, her mother died, leaving her eldest daughter with the responsibility for the education of her two brothers and the marriage of one sister. Over the next few years, Gournay spent much of her time and almost all of her family’s wealth fulfilling these obligations. In 1594, Gournay heard of Montaigne’s death over a year before,… Read More:

Inevitably, she was prostrated with grief. Montaigne, who was an incessant reviser of his own work and patcher-in of afterthoughts, left a mass of marginal notes in view of a new edition. She edited the text and supervised the printing of the new edition with some competence; albeit experts have ascribed to her own pen certain passages in which the master praises the disciple with exaggerated  and unlikely fulsomeness.

After a year’s visit with Montaigne’s widow and daughter, Gournay settled down to lead the literary life in Paris, however, it was a barren period for literature and her income could barely support her with any sense of decency. She frequented the salon of the king’s divorced wife, Marguerite de Valois and from her received a small pension. But, she aimed higher, at the king himself, though it was reported he had never read a book in his life.

She was indeed absurd in the eyes of her contemporaries. And now her contemporar

have themselves a look of absurdity....


Gournay addressed to him an essay on the education of princes, and an ecstatic poem , a bloated piece of fan mail in which she alleged that she would gladly drown in his bathwater. Hence, she was presented to the gallant monarch in 1610, and a month later he was assassinated. The knife that did him in also severed all of Marie’s hopes.

Before long, effective power over France was wielded by Cardinal Richelieu, who piqued himself on his literary taste and enjoyed distributing scholarly patronage. He received Marie jocosely, greeting her with a string of archaisms in the style of Montaigne. He was surprised and little abashed by the dignity of her response….

Three hundred years later, another aspiring writer, Virginia Woolf also fell under the spell of Montaigne’s literary form.Woolf read Montaigne from an equal need to communicate the sense of a self similarly at odds with its own time and culture. She may have felt that Montaigne’s elliptic writing was essentially feminine in his implicit rejection of the
traditionally male modes of discourse:

Woolf’s efforts to subvert male critical standards made necessary to find an alternative critical tradition with which she should feel at ease, a “common place” which should be far removed from the settled ideologies of early twentieth-century England. The Renaissance represented for Woolf not only her personal revolt against the male culture in which she had been brought up, but also—as its very name suggests—the possibility of her own rebirth to a new critical tradition of writing against the grain. In 1903 Virginia Woolf was given by her brother Thoby a copy of Michel de Montaigne’s Essais: while immersed in his writing, Woolf perceived the fluid boundaries between the amateur and the professional and the different values he associated to them: “I marvel at the assurance and confidence everyone has about himself, whereas there is virtually nothing that I know that I know and which I would dare to guarantee to be able to perform” .

Even the form that Montaigne invented—the modestly named Essais— summarised the Frenchman’s “attempts”  to try out his personal opinions, removed from the great philosophers’ weight of certainty and authority, as he poses in the preface to his work: “I myself am the subject of my book” . As her reading of the essays progressed, Woolf also discovered with fascination Montaigne’s joys of digression and freedom from an imposed order: “I like … my formless way of speaking, free from rules and in the popular idiom, proceeding without definitions, subdivisions and conclusions” Read More: aa aaa aaa

---She lives in you and me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences…” (Woolf 59) Unlike many others who only find the symptoms, she gives also the cure in her book; “A woman must have money and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.”---Read More:


The most important women writers in history couldn’t have the opportunity to publish their works; they needed to use male pseudonyms like George Sand and Brontë Sisters, or have to open their own printing press like Virginia Woolf. As 17th century writer Marie de Gournay brings up:
“Freedom is the phenomenon of being taken seriously, of having the opportunity for intellectual and artistic fulfillment and success- aspirations not very different from recent efforts by women scholars to establish a policy of anonymous submissions for publications”
Marie de Gournay’s discussion is perhaps the root of all problems that women faced since the biblical times. The patriarchic society is based upon men’s needs and views; therefore women should stay at the house nurturing the child and taking care of the domestic environment. This understanding of the female role in society takes its roots from basic distinctions of genders. Female is always physically weaker than male, because of that, women should stay at home gardening and taking care of the household while the strong male go hunting. This was a fair division of labor; because the outside work of the era is dangerous and physical. In time, this simple understanding turns into norms of society; into something almost invisible, yet powerful and hard to change. Read More:
Jonathan Patterson:Marie de Gournay’s poetic treatises and epic translations highlight her disgust at seeing the stylistic concept of douceur overly feminized in the verse of her Malherbian contemporaries. For Gournay this had rendered French poetry incapable of cognitive complexity. Gournay developed a new understanding of douceur through the notions of esprit and vigueur: a poetic style influenced by the Pléiade and by Montaigne. Gournay attempted to foreground douceur in complex metaphor rather than in euphony and rationalized clarity; she privileged forceful, oratorical vehemence rather than purely conciliatory discourse. Gournay dismissed her contemporaries’ conception of douceur as mollesse, a pejorative vice commonly associated with women in her day. Conversely, douceur rendered through esprit and vigueur appears at first to privilege qualities more readily associated with men. However, in her search for ‘vraye douceur’ through the medium of Virgilian epic, Gournay shows that esprit and vigueur may be associated with ideals of masculinity and femininity — indeed, classical decorum should lead us to expect no less. Inspired by Virgil, yet also anticipating the femme forte of the 1640s, Gournay depicts a Venus who is douce yet vigorous, suggesting the possibility of a gender-neutral style for French verse. Read More:

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