gender and sexuality
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la querelle femmes

The querelle des femmes and Women’s Novella Collections: Fiction, Dialogism, and Dialogue in Early Modern Texts
Nora M. Peterson

Novella collections written by early modern women, with their witty stories and sympathetic characters, are often a good place to look for a good laugh.  However, beyond the initial amusement we must realize that they have not by any means been written for pure entertainment.  To the contrary, they come with lots of strings attached and a slew of implications.  Why was this genre so popular and effective for women?  What kind of novella collection works best? And how do we begin to draw implications from this kind of text?  In order to adequately approach these questions it will be wise to begin with the first professional French female writer, Christine de Pisan and then to move on to other women who significantly impacted the shape of early modern women’s writing.

Christine de Pisan (1365-1430)

Not only was Christine the first French woman to write for a living, she also paved the way for later women who would follow in her tradition.  She presented her sharp critique of the tirades against her sex in the Roman de la Rose (c. 1237-1280), an exchange of letters between herself and her literary opponents, Jean de Meung and Guillaume de Lorris, addressed to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria around 1400.  Because of this debate she became known as one of the early defenders of women.  The techniques that Christine adopted and the literary circle within which she moved led to the establishment of what became known as the querelle des femmes: an erudite quarrel surrounding the question of what role women should play within a largely patriarchal society.  Because public writing would not be considered acceptable for women for centuries to come, the querelle had to be carefully crafted.  Christine successfully developed these arguments in such a way that the querelle would thrive and evolve for centuries to come.

The individual threads of the querelle are neatly woven together in The City of Ladies (1403-4).  In this text, Christine takes her critique to the fictional and allegorical level: “Thinking deeply of these matters, I began to examine my character and conduct as a natural woman” (4).  Here, Christine places herself into the book together with the allegorical figures of Justice, Reason, and Rectitude, all of whom serve not only to encourage her project but also to justify her cause.  As a writer, Christine had learned the importance of crafting unshakable arguments, and what better proponents of virtue could she have chosen than three allegorical, almost goddess-like characters?  The host of biblical, saintly, and classical virtuous women that follows (11-30) adds additional weight and credibility to Christine’s argument.  To complicate matters, Christine also must appeal to her readers, both male and female, on an emotional level.  She has to ‘write herself’ out of inferiority by explicitly stating her consciousness of it.  Christine practically guarantees a counter-attack, and this is exactly what she needs to strengthen her argument.  She baits her male readers, provoking them to respond with a counter-attack.  Such dialogism, and the fact that women will intentionally invite refutation from their male readers, will become an essential component of the querelle.  For, as Christine Laennec says, “it becomes clear that attack is essential: without it, the primary justification for the entire work would not exist.  Unless de Pizan can portray herself, and indeed all women, as unfairly attacked, she cannot justify her literary counter-attack” (50).

Indeed, Christine must work carefully and with great imagination, since devising a debate which will be hurtful to women’s dignity and at the same time refutable, is not only the essential challenge but a necessary one.  If she cannot prove that she is a victim, Christine cannot justify her choice to write professionally, let alone in defense of her sex.  Explicitly taking a position of inferiority, finding an error in her opponents’ logic, presenting a catalogue of virtuous women, and appealing to her readers on an emotional level are all qualities pioneered by Christine.  Because of their efficacy, they mark women’s writing, and the querelle, for centuries to come.  As Joan Kelly puts it, female writers following Christine hoped “to counteract the psychological consequences of what they felt was a recent, steady decline in the position of women” (6).

Another important ingredient of the querelle was fiction, often layered into multiple plots or frame stories in which fictitious characters discuss tales presented by the author.  The more complicated the fiction became, the more easily one could forget that the author was a woman and that her act of writing professionally was unacceptable.  And so, while Christine filled the beginnings and endings of her texts with humility formulas about her inferiority as a woman, she planted the more provocative seeds of her arguments, carefully shrouded within a fictional plot, near the center. 
As women’s writing developed, some writers wove the fictional structures and hidden polemics into a new branch of the querelle: the novella collection.  Short tales, often in the form of fabliaux, were embedded in a fictional frame tale in which characters comment and interpret the stories they have just heard.  By properly hiding their querelle arguments in multiple layers of fiction, a woman could create a safe and creative space in which to write, with each author adding the slant of her particular interests, society and literary voice. 

Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549)

Marguerite’s Heptameron (ca. 1553), inspired in its format by Boccaccio’s Decameron (1350), takes up the genre of the novella and pushes it to a new level.  In the frame story, ten storytellers or devisants, five women and five men, become stranded by a flood on their way home from a pilgrimage.  They decide to pass the time, with the permission of their hosts at the Abbey of Serrance, by telling stories and discussing them.  Each will have an equal voice in the process, a determination quite explicitly stated: “where games are concerned everybody is equal” (70).  Important differences between Marguerite’s stories and Boccaccio’s lie both in the dynamics of the discussions and in the insistence that the contes be true.  We are thus thrown into a melee of different opinions and unresolved moral problems.  As we progress through the novella collection, tossed from one discussion to the next, we are often left with little more than the contes themselves and the debates between devisants as the only clues to deciphering them.  Marguerite takes recourse to fiction because, as was the case for Christine, it is the only safe space, and the most creative one, available for her writing.  Marguerite’s devisants, either products of her imagination or the result of a collaboration of coterie writing to which several of her acquaintances might have contributed, also insist that their stories be true.

This additional layer within the fiction functions in a similar manner to the actual querelle: the devisants back their arguments up with references to virtuous women on several occasions, and the opposing viewpoints, expressed through the truly dialogical dialogue in the frame tale, implement the attack and counterattack so aptly perceived by Christine.  We understand the dialogism of the querelle better by reading the Heptameron, where it is immediately present in the dialogue and not dispersed over time as, for example, are the polemics in Christine’s letter exchanges.  The Heptameron, in imitating querelle techniques and adapting the structure of the novella collection, in its male to female ratio of devisants, and in the dialogism that feeds the discussions, could be called a fictional microcosm of the querelle. In order to more fully explore the makeup of this microcosm and to demonstrate the ways in which, as John D. Lyons states, Marguerite has pushed the boundaries of the novella collection to the extreme (151), I would like to delve into the 32nd novella and the discussion that follows it.

The tale is told by Oisille, the group’s oldest and most spiritual group leader.  It opens with a young German gentleman named Bernage, who, in the service of Charles VIII, is requested to take care of some business.  He stays overnight at a castle, and during his time there encounters the master’s wife at dinner.  He calls her “one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen, except that her face was very pale and her expression very sad” (330).  In addition to her sad physique, she drinks out of a skull.  Seeing Bernage’s shock, the master of the house explains that this treatment is his wife’s deserved punishment for having slept with one of the other young men of the house during his absence.  Before his departure, however, Bernage manages to convince the master of the house to forgive his wife because “you are young and you have no children.  It would be a great shame to let so fine a house as yours slip from your hands and permit it to be inherited by people who may be far from being your friends” (332-3).  He then retells the story to the King once he has returned home.

Some of the polemical issues that the story raises include the woman’s culpability, the extent to which one can generalize the behavior of both the cruel husband and sinful wife, and the fact that the need to produce an heir trumps the sins of a cheating wife.  In light of the serious nature of each of these issues, we proceed to the debateof the devisants, knowing that, as in so many cases of the Heptameron, the ensuing discussion can not be taken lightly (Lyons 151).

The storyteller, in this case Oisille, addresses the audience specifically as female (this is always the case) and with a heavy dose of irony: “Ladies, if all the women who behaved like this one were to drink from cups like hers, I fear that many a golden goblet would be replaced by a skull!” (333).  Marguerite thus draws the discussion onto her readership just as she transfers it to the devisants.  We catch a whiff of the possibility that she might be favoring a female readership and yet, by ignoring the potential presence of male readers, she automatically catches their attention as well.  But this is a speculation for another time and place, because in the actual discussion of the frame tale, no one voice rises above another.  It is as if Marguerite has removed herself from the influence of  personal opinions and convictions, perfecting the dialogical form in her novella collection and at the same, because of the diversity of the voices that speak, inviting her readers to participate and, ultimately, to come to their own conclusions.  We hear from women who support the punishment administered by the husband: “‘I find the punishment extremely reasonable,’ said Parlamente.  ‘For just as the crime was worse than death, so the punishment was worse than death’” (333).  We hear men issuing the very generalizations that the querelle seeks to disprove: “‘What, Dagoucin,’ said Simontaut, ‘do you still have to learn that women possess neither love nor regrets?’” (334).  And yet there is no conclusion, no resolution of the political and social issues brought here to the table.

The strength in Marguerite’s writing lies in her ability to disguise such issues in the fiction of her characters, and, further, to shroud her characters in the oblique ambiguity of dialogism.  As Joan Kelly asserts in her discussion of the querelle:

The great achievement of the early feminist theorists was to set [that] dialectic in motion.  Their struggle was not embodied in a political movement.  It was limited to a battle of pens . . . but in that battle they exposed the male bias of learning and its misogynist intent to keep women subject to men.  (28)

Marguerite thus shifts around the polemics of the Decameron while she simultaneously continues in the tradition of the novella collection.  And, as we will see imminently, she directly inspires the work of subsequent Tenth Muses.

María de Zayas y Sotomayor (1590?-1647?)

María de Zayas, a child of the Spanish literary Golden Age, faced with the challenge of writing in conditions unfavorable for women, also found her voice in the structure of the novella collection. She wrote two texts on love, separated into the Enchantments of Love (1637) and the Disenchantments (1647) of love.  Already in the literal separation of the two collections, we find evidence that dialogism will operate differently in Zayas than in MargueriteThe characters of the Disenchantments, like those of the Heptameron, develop unique personalities and adopt steadfast opinions on the issues up for discussion.  And yet, while their statements may come across as provocations compared to the always polite, always noble tone of the devisants’ debate, the significance of their words is less charged, less abrasive.  The characters in the Disenchantments do not intermingle and push against the boundaries of permitted speech, as do the devisants.  In fact, in the Disenchantments,1 only the women have a voice to begin with, even if they each have a chance to develop a stance of their own in the stories.  The men are allowed to tell no tales, and this seemingly empowering move detracts from the dialogism that so depends on the male rebuttal in order to be effective.  Josephine Donovan sees this development as a strength, even as the culmination of the novella collection.  She argues that while the devisants in the Heptameron show signs of psychological development and motivation, they do not, as do the women in the frame story of the Disenchantments, change their lives as a result of the stories they have heard and discussed (964).

I do not entirely agree with this reading for a few reasons.  First of all, while the lives of the women in the frame of the Disenchantments do change, and by the end they form a community of sisterhood at the convent, they do not open their decision up to the readers.  They celebrate their triumph by living this independent life, free from any potential “disenchantments,” but they do not leave much room for disagreement or refutation.  The dialogism, although coming down on the side of women, comes to an end.  In the Heptameron, the frame story skids to an abrupt end, leaving the devisants “stuck” in fiction.  But the living dialogism in the text, as we saw in the last section, entices readers to make their own judgments and to engage in a dialogue that reaches far beyond the text.  Zayas does not leave her readers this option.  She makes her feminist statement, shuts the system down by ‘liberating’ her frame characters and closes the text: “this end is not tragic but rather the happiest one you can imagine for, although courted and desired by many, she did not subject herself to anyone” (405).  Zayas’ novellas are prickly and emphatic, but also sealed and relatively unambiguous. 

Even if Zayas does not take advantage of dialogism to its fullest, she does exploit other aspects of the novella tradition in her own unique way.  Instead of presenting multiple, relatively equal viewpoints on querelle issues, she exhausts the capacity of the feminist argument by “systematically insisting on the novellas as instruments of disenchantment for women” (Grieve 87).  To further exemplify some of Zayas’ strategies, I will briefly discuss “Too Late Undeceived,” the plot of which has a great deal in common with the 32nd conte of the Heptameron.  Today, we know almost certainly that Zayas was directly influenced by her French predecessor; thus, the close connection between the two tales comes as no real surprise. 

The disenchantment begins with a prologue by Filis, who takes up the previous disenchantment and presents key querelle issues at some length:

I can’t persuade myself that all men are alike, and so I believe that just as not all men are at fault, neither are all women.  Men are born with all the freedoms men enjoy, and women with all the modesty proper to women.  Leaving aside the fact that women are more unfortunate and they’re seen as more blameworthy because they have the most to lose, that makes their faults stand out.  That’s why, since men take offense so readily, they complain and condemn women for everything.  (140)

This statement, which could have been uttered by Christine or Marguerite, leads into a list of contemporary women who have proven their virtue, thus following the structure we saw in Christine’s City of Women.  However, we see no acknowledgement, neither implicit nor explicit, of a male reply to Filis’ prologue.

“Too Late Undeceived” begins with the same plot as Marguerite’s 32nd tale.  Two gentlemen come to a castle and find a beautiful woman drinking out of a skull.  This time, however, there is another woman involved.  The master of the house, upon seeing his guests’ confusion, tells them his story, which includes a loving relationship with his wife until, upon his return from a voyage, a female servant informs him of his wife’s infidelity in his absence.  As a result, he kills his wife’s alleged lover, subjects his wife to this cruel punishment, and grants his servant the riches and status formerly enjoyed by his wife.  At the end of the story the wife is revealed to be innocent, but too late.  She dies, and the husband descends into insanity. 

The impact of storytelling as an educational tool in the Disenchantments underscores both the lack of education that Filis bemoans in the beginning of the story (141) and the power of imagination in the novellas.  Over the course of the text, the women become further convinced of the “disenchanting” and negative force of love.  In the end, they withdraw from society due to it.  Such an attitude toward     love is not present in Marguerite’s equivocal Heptameron.  Because the collection is not shut down by any withdrawal from society and remains open, we intuitively sense that the Heptameron favors love.  In sixteenth-century French society, a renewed image of marriage as a Platonic and spiritual relationship was developing.  Although the dialogism in the frame stories prevent us from making any kind of definitive judgment call, it is Oisille, the spiritual leader of the group, who tells the 32nd tale, a story which is resolved in forgiveness and a return to familial order.  The fusion of the spiritual and the amorous is further amplified in the discussion following the 37th tale, when it is once again Oisille who states: “provided one does not abuse it, marriage is, I believe, the finest and surest state in this world; and I am sure that all of us here, no matter whatever impression they may wish to give, are of the same opinion” (361).

Madame de Lafayette (1634-1693)

At first glance, one would not necessarily classify La Princesse de Clèves (1678) as a novella collection.  However, if we investigate further, we encounter influences not only of this genre, but also of the education, frame story, internal narratives, and withdrawal from society that we find, to various extents, in the three other women under study here.

Although many critics call the Princesse de Clèves the first modern French novel, one should not forget the historical threads that influence virtually all literary genres and texts.  One indication of such influences in the Princesse de Clèves is the explicit reference to the Heptameron; in fact, this is the only direct literary reference in the entire text.  Much as the Heptameron inscribes itself in the tradition of Boccaccio’s Decameron, Lafayette subtly but successfully inserts her own text into the tradition of storytelling (Lyons 158).  For storytelling, as exemplified in the “digressions” or internal narratives of the text, forms the basis for Mme de Clève’s sentimental education.

Just as the women in the Disenchantments listen to each story and eventually change their lives based on what they have heard, the Princesse rather obsessively reflects each of the internal narratives onto her own life.  She interprets what she has heard in the stories about the relationship between the King and Mme de Valentinois (as told by her mother), the story of King Henry VIII’s jealousy (as told by the Dauphine), the King’s bizarre horoscope, and the story about the Vidame de Chartres (as told by M de Clèves).  And after she interprets the words of each story, she attempts to understand more about herself based on the events of each narrative.  For example, after her husband offers his perspective on the affair of the Vidame, the Princesse blushes, then enters a state of introspective reflection: “At these words Madame de Clèves blushed, finding a certain likeness to her own condition which surprised her and distressed her for some time” (32). All of these assimilated reflections, internalized and re-processed by the Princesse, become her life.

We not only see the Princesse reflecting the narrative onto herself, but the extent to which she is troubled and consumed by it.  Yet at the same time as she struggles with these lessons, they are really all she has to “go on:” as Dalia Judovitz explains: “She . . . has to rely on the images of the world presented to her either by her mother or others.  Her perception only mirrors pre-existing images or narratives” (1040).

We seem simultaneously to hover very far from and uncannily close to Christine de Pisan. Like the Princesse, Christine begins to examine her “character and conduct as a natural woman,” and cannily develops techniques of layering fiction for narrative. However, instead of focusing on internal psychological aspects, Christine stays largely within the realm of allegory and rebuttal. 

One commonality between the Princesse de Clèves and the Disenchantments is their pessimistic and unstable assessment of passionate love (Lyons 163).  For Lafayette’s novel, as for María de Zayas, this has its advantages and disadvantages.  On the one hand, we hear threads of feminist statements that stand out as exemplary moments in early modern writing, although we might miss the multiplicity of the dialogical form that we find to some extent in Christine and, even more so, in Marguerite’s text. 

On the other hand, perhaps the Princesse de Clèves enacts this dialogue in a new and different format that crops up in other aspects of the text.  The author deliberately disowns her book “so that the public may judge freely and fairly” (2).  In the same way that Christine must provoke further attacks in order to win her literary querelle, and that Marguerite endows her novellas with a dialogical and ambiguous frame, Lafayette opens judgment and discussion up to society.  Her decision not only reflects a development in the querelle strategy but also the needs of French society.  With Louis XIV’s dissolution of the literary ‘salons,’ which granted women great freedom to discuss feminist issues, Lafayette had to seek another audience for the debate.  The opening of the book to the public, as we have seen in the Heptameron, widens the dialogical aspect of the novel.  Frustration mounts as we realize that we are unable to decipher any superior reading of the text; true to the spirit of dialogism, any and every interpretation can be made to work.

One of the biggest examples of this obstacle remains the ending.  What do we make of the Princesse’s refusal to accept Nemours’ love?  Does she, like Zayas’ Lisis, opt out of disenchanted love, and instead withdraw from society, deciding, in a sense, to retreat to a position of non-decision?  Or is her resolution one of inner strength, guided by the lessons of the internal narratives and her own personal reflection?

There is, of course, much evidence for both sides of the argument, neither of which I will take up at this point.  Of foremost importance here for our purposes are the subtle ways in which the dialogism of the Princesse de Clèves corresponds to that of the Heptameron.  The dialogue within the text, the issues that arise out of every narrative, and the rich conversations generated about the text itself, signal that the dialogism of the earlier text has been quietly absorbed into the most complex moments of the Princesse.  Already in her conception of the text, Lafayette expected the dialogism to continue outside the framework of the narrative.  In fact, it would seem that the dialogism largely takes place between the text and the reader.  We read the text, and are provoked to argue with it, discuss it, and ponder it.  The oscillation between text and response has continued for centuries.

Like Christine so many centuries before, Lafayette understood the importance of provoking her readers, especially her male readers.  The techniques of layering and protecting sensitive issues in a medley of entertaining tales, humility formulas, and the pretenses of fiction allowed women to continue the debate for centuries, even until today.  Activated in these novella collections, the dialogism that continues to beg for interpretation, and for our responses, becomes all the more effective as readers become more involved.


1 From this point on, largely due to space limitations and for the purposes of comparison, I will only be discussing the Disenchantments.


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Judovitz, Dalia. “The Aesthetics of Implausibility: La Princesse de ClèvesMLN 99
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_____. The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan. Trans. Renate
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Zayas y Sotomayor, Maria de. The Disenchantments of Love. Trans. Patsy H. Boyer.         
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