That Roomful of Words

Elizabeth Lowry

  • Apology for the Woman Writing by Jenny Diski
    Virago, 282 pp, £16.99, November 2008, ISBN 978 1 84408 385 5

Montaigne had his own literary stalker. Eight years after the Essays first appeared in 1580, he received a breathless letter from a young woman called Marie le Jars de Gournay, who declared herself an ardent admirer of his work. Intrigued, he arranged to meet her. We don’t know what the Demoiselle de Gournay said to Montaigne, and in her new novel about their vexed relationship, Jenny Diski imagines the worst:

Oh, Sir, from the moment I opened the first volume of the Essays I knew, just knew that I was in the presence of greatness. It was essential that we meet, such was the sympathy between our natures. We belong, twin minds, twin hearts. It was immediately clear to me. My mind was fashioned in order to read your work as it should be read. Your words were written so that they could waken my heart to its soul’s companion.

In short, de Gournay just knew that she was his number one fan. And then, to prove her point, she stabbed herself repeatedly in the arm with her hairpin.

It is a fair guess that Montaigne might have been both alarmed and astonished at finding himself thoroughly annexed by this most proprietary of readers, for he agreed to make de Gournay his fille d’alliance, an uneasy compromise that acknowledged their intellectual connection without carrying the weight of a legal adoption. And so began a four-year period of pursuit by her and evasion by him that ended – on his side, at least – only with his death in 1592.

From these supercharged ingredients, Diski has made a novel that is both coolly executed and as sceptical of human desires as one of Montaigne’s own essays. Indeed, if it sometimes reads like an essay, this is partly a function of Diski’s detached prose and the deliberate froideur with which she weighs up the historical evidence at her disposal. What was Marie de Gournay really like? Writing historical fiction about her is a challenge, since the sources are ambiguous. Though she became an insistent presence on the French literary scene after that fateful meeting with Montaigne, both as his champion and as a translator and writer in her own right, she remains elusive. None of the letters she exchanged with Montaigne survives. She was in the habit of revising everything she committed to paper, so her own works have come down to us in multiple versions. She appears to have been both an arch conservative and a champion of women’s education and women’s rights; an acolyte of established male writers who was nevertheless pugnaciously independent; a self-supporting woman of letters, but hopelessly derivative in her own writing. Some of the contemporary views of her are scathing, and she appears to have died a laughing stock of literary Paris. Her greatest achievement – of which she was justifiably proud – was her editorship in successive editions after his death of Montaigne’s Essays: it is no exaggeration to say that de Gournay was responsible for keeping Montaigne’s name alive in the minds of a whole generation. She may have been obsessive and in many respects quite limited, but in this case at least her critical instinct was undeniably sharp. What to make of her?

As it turns out, Diski makes a great deal of de Gournay’s idiosyncrasies. Apology for the Woman Writing borrows its title from one of de Gournay’s own pieces: a defence, composed as her career was already declining, of her decision to earn her living by her pen. The original Apology of 1626 is a restless, angry meditation on what it is to be a woman and ambitious in an age hostile to unconventional female intellectual aims, and in it de Gournay painfully negotiates her own identity between the twin forces of family and society, without ever arriving at a convincing resolution. Diski covers this ground and more, encompassing all the self-righteousness and desperation of her source, and her conclusions are unsettling.

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