In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

That Roomful of WordsElizabeth Lowry
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Apology for the Woman Writing 
by Jenny Diski.
Virago, 282 pp., £16.99, November 2008, 978 1 84408 385 5
Show More
Show More

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.

The picture that emerges is of a woman who, like the biblical Leah in Diski’s earlier novel After These Things (2004), is unloved, and perhaps unloveable. The historical de Gournay certainly never had an easy time of it. In Diski’s version, her emotional and material difficulties begin early, with the death of her father when she is 12. Her widowed mother is driven by financial pressures to move the family from Paris to their provincial estate in Picardy, much to her eldest daughter’s disgust. From the outset there is, nevertheless, a strong suggestion that Marie’s dissatisfaction with life is endogenous rather than circumstantial. As a child she is a ‘sullen, angry girl’ with ‘a slow-built rage, beginning she would never remember when, living inside her, an expanding bubble filling slowly with fury, and visible to the world in her pinched, downturned little mouth and protuberant glaring eyes with pupils like tight black knots’. More awkward still, given her lack of a fortune and the concomitant pressure on her to marry advantageously, she is not particularly womanly. Diski ticks off Marie’s failures in the feminine arts with relish:

No domestic skill came naturally to her. Her hands were large and maladroit, not made for the delicate and intricate tasks that women could excel at. She moved with a jerky awkwardness, her eyes flicking away when in danger of making contact with others. Her embroidery and sewing always had to be unpicked . . . She would not sing, and anyway had a thin, tuneless voice that no one would ever enjoy listening to.

To her mother’s dismay, the adolescent de Gournay also has literary leanings. The château library becomes ‘the place of escape from her present and from her preordained future’. She teaches herself Latin and a little Greek, until she has exhausted the collection in the library. Diski is most sympathetic to her subject when she traces her development from virtually illiterate girl to capable translator, and hence to appreciative critic, who understands that ‘behind each individual book was a mind.’ But if books are a place to escape to and even shelter in, they are also part of her problem. ‘What is in that roomful of words that you like so much?’ her exasperated mother asks. The teenage Marie’s answer already suggests the tendency to hero worship that will cause her such difficulties later: ‘Words, no . . . writing . . . no, writers was what she liked so much about that room full of words.’ A love of books is one thing: a love of writers can only end in tears.

The critical event in de Gournay’s life – the one that derails her completely – is her reading of Montaigne’s Essays. The ‘two small volumes’ she receives as a gift from her uncle are the second edition of 1582, ‘nicely bound’. Her first response is ominously visceral:

She opened the book again and lifted it right up against her nostrils to inhale the smell of new leather and freshly produced rag. The sharp scent of paper hit the back of her throat, then deepened and darkened into the complex smell of treated hide, chemical and animal, and finally she caught the special high note of newness.

It’s a powerfully sensuous moment in an otherwise bleak narrative, suggesting both the otherness of literature and the adrenalin-packed charge, ‘the special high note’, that it can carry. And Diski does a very good job of conveying Montaigne’s seductive charm as a writer in the pages that follow. On paper he is by turns playful, serious, self-revealing, erudite and unpompously demotic – utterly beguiling, in fact. He gives the impression that he is speaking directly to the reader; that theirs is an intimate and personal communion of ideas. ‘He had marked them down on paper,’ de Gournay reflects, ‘but they were exactly the words, describing exactly the thoughts which she would have thought and written herself.’ The unsophisticated de Gournay takes this writerly sleight-of-hand at face value. She announces that she has been ‘ravished’, begins to babble madly, and has to be revived with hellebore. From this point on, her course is fixed: she lives only to meet the man whom she now considers to be her second soul.

The irony in all of this is that de Gournay lacks the qualities that attract her to Montaigne. Her narrowness and her crabbed self-importance as she sets out in pursuit of her quarry are unsparingly rendered by Diski, and they lose her almost all our sympathy. At last, when she and Montaigne both happen to be in Paris, she sends him a letter, and he decides on the spur of the moment to call on her. That he later considers this to have been a mistake is clear: Diski leaves no room for the ambiguity that attended Montaigne’s actual association with de Gournay. Diski’s Montaigne responds to de Gournay’s protestations of devotion on a venal impulse – he is flattered by her praise, and hopes that she might be attractive. His disappointment and shock when he discovers that he has walked into a tête-à-tête with an excitable and self-mutilating bluestocking are blackly funny:

As she spoke, she stabbed at the inside of her forearm repeatedly with the pointed end of the hairpin, until, to Montaigne’s horror, rivulets of blood flowed freely down to her wrist and dripped to the floor from the tips of her fingers. ‘I devote my intellect to you . . .’ she cried, now in a trance of classical drama. ‘I dedicate my blood and my life to you. I am your lifelong disciple. Where you go, I will follow . . .’ the drama taking a biblical turn. ‘Teach me, make me your pupil, your disciple . . .’

   As soon as his astonishment allowed him to move, the terrified Montaigne was on his feet trying to snatch the bodkin out of her hand without getting himself stabbed.

Montaigne confers the title of fille d’alliance on de Gournay and hopes this will be the end of the matter – but first he takes advantage of her invitation to him to come and rest at her château. He lingers there for three months, while de Gournay acts as his willing assistant in updating the Essays. She is in ecstasy; he is mildly bored. He knows that he is playing on her sensibilities, toys with the idea of seducing her, but can’t summon up the necessary enthusiasm. At the end of his stay he discourages her from visiting him in Bordeaux, and makes his escape.

The escape is, however, no escape, for de Gournay doggedly proceeds to launch her own literary career on the strength of their special relationship. She assails Montaigne with letters, which he discards unopened. She sends him the manuscript of an overwritten novel, to which he makes no reply. The real de Gournay was ridiculed for her brazen attempt to hitch her star to the great man’s, but Diski presents her transgressions, more perceptively, as rooted in the monomaniac’s inability to acknowledge any boundaries between herself and the object of her desire. When Montaigne dies, it comes almost as a relief: she no longer needs to account to herself for his inconvenient lack of response.

Moreover, her unflagging devotion seems to her to have been vindicated. On his deathbed Montaigne, ‘in spite of berating himself for his use of her’, appoints her the editor of the Essays. Though ashamed of the way he has treated her, he acknowledges to himself that ‘his shame was shamelessly subservient to his desire to last in the world.’ From here on in, the book traces de Gournay’s battle, in the face of an increasingly sceptical public, to consolidate her role both as the keeper of Montaigne’s flame and as a woman of letters. Diski doesn’t disguise the fact that de Gournay’s own attempts at prose and verse are virtually unreadable: even her servant, Nicole Jamyn, finds her mistress’s essays a let-down. Most damaging to her ambitions, de Gournay makes the mistake of introducing her monumental 1595 reissue of the Essays with a florid and self-promoting preface. Diski quotes its most damning piece of self-aggrandisement – ‘I was wholly like my Father, I cannot take a step, whether in writing or speaking, without finding myself in his footsteps; and I believe that I am often supposed to usurp him’ – and gives a lively sense of the outcry that followed: de Gournay was humiliated enough to drop the preface (although she later reinstated it).

That she considered herself to have been widowed by Montaigne’s death – to have been his true widow, in fact – is also clear from her breathtakingly tactless claim that Madame de Montaigne (who gave de Gournay access to Montaigne’s working copy of the Essays) sought ‘to rekindle and rewarm in me the ashes of her husband’. With marvellous arrogance, Diski’s de Gournay gives this nod to the actual widow ‘out of politeness’. The detail is the basis for a painfully comic scene in which de Gournay is confronted by a stony-faced Madame, who means to turf the impertinent editor out of the château. But Madame is unprepared for Marie’s bottomless capacity for hysteria, and ends up, in a hilarious volte-face, administering hellebore and comfort to the usurper.

Literary France was appalled and angered by de Gournay’s presumptuousness, and her intellectual credentials seem to have been irrevocably compromised by her mishandling of the reissue of the Essays. She attracted opprobrium, too, for tampering with Montaigne’s text in order to bulk out his single reference to her. Diski imagines de Gournay labouring to ‘improve’ the relevant passage and subsequently ripping out the note bearing Montaigne’s amendments (de Gournay saw to it that the annotated copy of the book that she had been using was destroyed after her new version was published). The revised passage appears, aptly enough, in an essay called ‘On Presumption’, a title that gives a delicious fillip to de Gournay’s justification of her actions: ‘Almost certainly she only put the words into the text that he would have put there himself if he had thought to do it, or known that he wouldn’t have the time to add them later. Making clear; making things true that were true – that could be done. That was an editor’s task.’ Later she published a ‘new’ version of Ronsard’s poetry, corrected, she claimed, from posthumous proofs left by the poet – improvements that also turned out to have been by her hand. It seems that she was an incorrigible falsifier.

Yet de Gournay ultimately did Montaigne a real service. By the time of her death in 1645 she had overseen 11 reprints of the Essays, and modern scholars acknowledge the value of many of her contributions. For the edition of 1611 she drew up an index of all the subjects and authors referred to, and for the 1617 text she not only traced each of Montaigne’s classical references, but set about translating them into French in an appendix of close to a hundred pages. Did she feel that this total immersion in her ‘Father’s’ work made up for his neglect of her? We can’t know. But Diski provides a counterpoint to her theme of misplaced attachment and rejection in the story of de Gournay’s relationship with her maid, Nicole Jamyn, who is aware, all along, that her clever mistress is a literary failure, which seems to suggest that such unacknowledged service is always sterile and unsatisfying.

For in Diski’s Apology, de Gournay, too, is unreciprocally loved. The second half of the book is often told from Jamyn’s perspective, and it’s soon clear that her passion for de Gournay is not only romantic, but just as consuming as de Gournay’s for Montaigne, and just as unrequited. In spite of a lifetime of anguished attraction to her mistress, she was never treated as more than a servant. As the novel follows de Gournay’s slow decline into old age and poverty, the sense of disappointment and waste becomes overwhelming. Apology for the Woman Writing is a difficult book to categorise. It is a historical novel, to be sure, but also an anti-romance – a relentless examination of the folly and pointlessness of human desires.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.