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.

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.