Marie le Jars de Gournay (1565-1645) was one of Renaissance France's most active literary figures. She served as the posthumous editor for the works of famed essayist Michel de Montaigne, and in her own writings espoused a strongly feminist point of view that made her a woman far ahead of her time. A generation after her death, de Gournay was honored as one of the seventy most famous women of all time by Jean de la Forge in the 1663 volume Circle of Learned Women.
Barred from School
De Gournay was born on October 6, 1565, in Paris, where her father Guillaume enjoyed royal patronage as an officeholder during the reigns of Charles IX and Henry III. She was the first of six children in her family, and when she was three years old, her father acquired an estate in Picardy, a region in northern France. The property, Gournay-sur-Aronde, also gave him a minor nobility title, but the family did not live there until after his death in 1577. De Gournay's mother decided to relocate the family there in order to live more cheaply than in Paris; the death of Guillaume de Gournay had caused some financial difficulties, which were exacerbated by general economic troubles in France at the time during its contentious Wars of Religion.
De Gournay's brothers were sent away to school, but she was not. Had they received an education at home with tutors, she might have enjoyed some access to learning; thus she took it upon herself to learn by reading avidly and teaching herself Latin. She became proficient enough to translate works from Virgil, the classical Roman poet, and then moved on to the study of Greek. At the time, French Humanist thought stressed that a familiarity with the classics would breed a virtuous intellect. De Gournay still retained a respect for the teachings and tenets of the Roman Catholic church, however, and also read the works of church fathers such as St. Jerome.
Around 1584, de Gournay came across the new second edition of Montaigne's Essais, published just a few years earlier to widespread public debate. A renowned scholar, Montaigne hailed from a landowning family and had served as the mayor of Bordeaux. His essays discussed a range of topics, from friendship to intellectual curiosity to human fallibility and were written in a lively style that greatly influenced other writers of the era and beyond. As editors Richard Hillman and Colette Quesnel wrote in a preface to one of de Gournay's works in translation, Apology for the Woman Writing and Other Works, "the Essays were a radically innovative work in their time, not least for their author's complex self-portrayal, which makes him a fascinating presence within his own work; they also apply abundant classical learning to a wide variety of moral, political, and philosophical questions of contemporary concern, which are often treated in a manner at once iconoclastic and profound."
Deeply intrigued by Montaigne's ideas and literary style, de Gournay traveled to Paris in 1588 to meet him. At the time, she was 23 years old, and Montaigne 32 years her senior; afterward, he journeyed to Picardy, where she was still living with her family and spent three months there. He termed her his fille d'alliance or "adoptive daughter," which was a common mentor-student relationship at the time among intellectuals. In Picardy, she later asserted, Montaigne recounted to her a tragic love story that she drew upon to craft the plot of her first and only novel, Le Proumenoir de M. de Montaigne, par sa fille d'alliance ("The Promenade of Monsieur de Montaigne, by his adoptive daughter"). She sent the manuscript on to him after he returned to his home in Gascony.
Settled Family Finances
De Gournay's literary ambitions were both stalled and set free by family matters. Orphaned with the death of her mother in 1591, she was forced to undertake the education of two more brothers—while her own formal schooling never materialized—and find a husband for her sister, each of which were costly enterprises that depleted the family's already diminished assets. Yet her mother, scholars believe, likely viewed de Gournay's goal to live independently— both free of marriage and free to write—with more than some disdain, and the death of her parent allowed de Gournay to pursue her ambitions once she had provided for her younger siblings' futures. During this period, Montaigne died, and the news did not reach de Gournay until the following year. She was crushed but did visit his widow, who treated her kindly and gave her the notes for a new edition of the Essais slated for publication. By this time de Gournay's novel Le Proumenoir had been published, and though it was not a commercial or critical success at the time, it is considered one of the first modern psychological novels by a male or female author. Its plot centers on a princess in ancient Persia, Alinda, who balks at the prospect of an arranged marriage and instead elopes. The vessel carrying the newlyweds is shipwrecked in Thrace, and the ruler there involves her in an intrigue; eventually her husband Leontin betrays her, and Alinda commits suicide.
Returning to Picardy, de Gournay diligently went to work on revising the new edition according to Montaigne's notes and wrote "Preface…, sa fille d'alliance" for the 1595 edition of Essais. In this preface, she answered critical remarks made by Montaigne's detractors and drew criticism herself in part for her strident tone, wrote Hillman and Quesnel. "She was widely viewed as having impertinently mingled her own interests with those of Montaigne—a veritable usurpation of the 'father' by the 'daughter.' "
Led Literary Life
Eventually de Gournay's family business matters were settled, and she was left with a small income that enabled her to travel on occasion and live independently. She went to Brussels and Antwerp in 1597, where she met well-known authors and was surprised to find herself somewhat feted. After 1599 she lived in Paris with one servant, who remained with her until her death and devoted her energies to writing essays, verse, and literary criticism. She revised Proumenoir and frequented the famed salon of the former French queen, Margot, who wrote as Marguerite de Valois. Margot's husband, Henry IV, had demanded an annulment so that he could be free to marry his mistress, and de Gournay was also active in Henry's court. When this Protestant king was assassinated in 1610, the death was blamed on a faction loyal to the Jesuits, the Roman Catholic religious order, and de Gournay involved herself in the controversy by defending the Jesuit cause in her published writings. Characteristically, her arguments on such topical matters were "tightly focused, highly articulate, and dauntingly indignant," wrote Hillman and Quesnel in Apology for the Woman Writing.
After obtaining a small pension from Henry IV's son, Louis XIII, de Gournay enjoyed a prolific period during the 1620s. She published a series of important tracts, later cited as prime examples of feminist reasoning, during this time. They began with Egalite des hommes et des femmes ("The Equality of Men and Women") in 1622, which traced the history of misogyny in Western European civilization back to the apostle Paul and his first epistle to the Corinthians, which set forth the reasons that women were to be barred from ministry in the early Christian church. De Gournay also espoused equal access to education for men and women alike. She mused about the backhanded praise often leveled at women like herself who had achieved some merit in the arts, noting that the highest compliment of the day was in itself damning praise—"the supreme excellence women may achieve is to resemble ordinary men," she asserted. In the same essay, she noted that "If, therefore, women attain less often than men to the heights of excellence, it is a marvel that the lack of good education— indeed, the abundance of outright and blatantly bad education—does not do worse and prevent them from doing so entirely."
Espoused Provocative Ideas
Her two major next work, Grief des dames ("Complaint of Women" or, alternately, "The Ladies' Grievance") appeared in 1626 in a volume of her collected works, L'Ombre de la Demoiselle de Gournay ("The Shadow of Miss Gournay"). L'Ombre also contained two other essays, Apologie pour celle qui escrit ("Apology for the Woman Writing") and Peincture de moeurs ("Character Portrait"). De Gournay also wrote poetry, and much of her verse had a strong feminist strain, focusing on themes of marital love or the French heroine Joan of Arc and the legendary Amazon women. "The writer's ultimate figurations of female triumph … are women who excelled in the ultimate masculine sphere, epitomizing the fulfillment of her aspiration to beat men at their own game," noted Hillman and Quesnel.
In her literary criticism, De Gournay often resisted prevailing trends. In a 1624 essay, she defended the works of Pierre de Ronsard, the leader of the so-called Pléiade poets who took their name from an Alexandrian group of the classical era. Ronsard, who died in 1585, had fallen out of favor by de Gournay's time, but she attempted to revive his reputation, wrote Hillman and Quesnel, "by pretending to have discovered a more 'modern' authorial revision of one of his pieces, which she proceeded to publish with a dedication to the king. In fact, the 'revision' was her own work (and not particularly distinguished at that)." For such acts de Gournay was often mocked and derided in print for her views and was victimized by the occasional practical joke; in one notorious example, she was told that King James I of England desired a profile of her work for a planned compilation of the lives of famous men and women of the time, and she duly wrote an autobiographical sketch and sent it in. "Copie de la vie de la Demoiselle de Gournay" (Representation of the life of Miss de Gournay) appeared in print later in one of the last works published during her lifetime, the 1641 collection Les Advis ou les Presens de la Demoiselle de Gournay. The tome contained revisions of her feminist tracts as well.
Mocked, Then Forgotten
In her later years, De Gournay continued to be the occasional target of ridicule. "Her taste and talent for controversy seems to have been particularly provocative," wrote Hillman and Quesnel, particularly in the twilight of her career, they noted, when "it became easier not only to stamp her as a holdover from a remote era but to make fun of her eccentricities. These were real enough, running the gamut from rashness—of tongue, temper, and judgment— to a shameless thirst for praise and a fascination with alchemy. Humorous stories were recounted at her expense; she was the object of practical jokes, the target of satire in print, even of caricature on the stage." Despite such scorn, de Gournay had attained enough of a reputation to earn another pension, this one from King Louis XIII's influential chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, in 1634; she was also involved in the founding of the prestigious Académie Française that same year, created to further and protect the French language.
De Gournay was read by some in the generation of women scholars who immediately followed her, such as Anna Maria van Schurman and Marguerite Buffet. She continued to work on several subsequent new editions of Montaigne's Essais before her death in Paris on July 13, 1645. Her reputation languished until the early nineteenth century, which coincided with revival of interest in Montaigne's works. Much of her work did not appear in English translation until the late 1980s.
De Gournay, Marie le Jars, Apology for the Woman Writing and Other Works, edited and translated by Richard Hillman and Colette Quesnel, University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 1997.
"Marie le Jars de Gournay (1565-1645)," Other Women's Voices, http://home.infionline.net/~ddisse/gournay.html (May 16, 2003).