Widowhood, Sexuality, and Gender in Christine De Pizan

Article excerpt

Christine de Pizan's rich and varied oeuvre, as it appears in the major manuscripts whose compilation she herself supervised, involves a set of multiple subject positions, that are both essential and constitutive ("built in," as it were) with regard to the oeuvre as such.(1) There is, however, first of all, Christine's authorial subject, implicitly guaranteeing the overall coherence of each of her major single-author mss., as well as the conceptual literary entity in which all the mss. are presented, both implicitly and explicitly. Then there are the various subject positions utilized by Christine-author to construct her public persona as a professional writer within the specific historical exigencies required by the context of early fifteenth-century Paris.(2) Christine's strategies of self-representation in this public arena involved, over the course of the first fifteen years of her literary career, an innovative combination of different "institutionalized" identities, configured so as to authorize what she presents as her new female-gendered authorial voice by means of suppressing her "conventional" sexuality as a woman. At the heart of this project of historically contingent auto-mimesis is Christine's radical separation of gender from sexuality.(3) That is, she officially establishes her authority as woman author by distancing herself from any possible sexual identity as historically specific woman. Central to this strategy is Christine's "autobiographical" self-representation as widow, in which she presents herself as a "corrected" Dido who is both a mother and an author.(4) It is this provocative combination of three gendered subject positions -- virtuous widow, caring mother and female author -- that Christine uses to establish her authority within the public discursive space of the early fifteenth-century Parisian literary establishment. In this enterprise of public self-definition, the key negative element is that of the female sexual object of desire, and/or the sexually desiring female subject. For during the decade and a half following her husband's death, the period during which her literary career was definitively established (1390-1405), Christine de Pizan carefully and programatically detached her female-gendered authorial persona from the economy of sexual desire, normally associated with courtly discourse.

Thus in the first of her Cent Ballades (ca. 1395-1401) she speaks as a grieving widow, whose first-person subject matter in the collection to follow must necessarily be confined to lamentations, while her impetus to write is presented as originating in the requests of her patrons. This stance functions to distance Christine's subject position as author from the various first-person courtly voices (male as well as female) that she will utilize over the course of the collection. The central ballade (number fifty) carries yet further the detachment of Christine-author from the position of courtly desiring subject: "d'amours je n'ay tourment / joye ne dueil"(5) [I feel no torment, nor joy, nor pain from love]. In the concluding ballade (number one hundred), she speaks as a professional writer successfully completing a commission: "cent balades ay cy escriptes /... si en sont mes promesses quites / a qui m'en pria chierement" [I have written a hundred ballades and I have thus fulfilled my promise to the one who eagerly asked me to do so].(6)

In the Mutacion de Fortune (1402-03), she recounts an autobiographical fable in allegorical terms, which presents the central event of her life (affectively, legally, and literarily) as being her husband's death and her subsequent widowhood. The transformation of Christine-protagonist from wife to widow is presented as an Ovidian metamorphosis involving gender change: widowhood transforms her from a woman into a man. Both the specific Ovidian model evoked (Iphis, from Met. IX) and the actual narration of Christine-protagonist's (metaphoric) gender change are carefully de-eroticized. …