Going Public: Women and Publishing in Early Modern France

By Dena Goodman; Elizabeth C. Goldsmith | Go to book overview
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The Voices of Shadows:
Lafayette's Zaide


In France, the power to make people talk about what one wants is very much related to the power to make it happen.

Sophie Gay, Salons célèbres, 1837

When Marguerite Yourcenar was admitted as the first woman member of the French Academy, she faced a challenge that none of her predecessors of the previous 350 years had had to confront: to compose an acceptance speech that would acknowledge the monumental departure from historical precedent that her election signified. Yourcenar chose to evoke all her female counterparts who had not been so legitimized, surrounding herself as she entered that venerable male bastion with their supportive "shadows." She said to her fellow academicians: "You have welcomed me ... this me, unsure and vacillating ... here it is such as it is, surrounded, accompanied by an invisible troop of women who, maybe, should have received this honor much earlier, so that I am tempted to step back to let their shadows pass." Yourcenar goes on to explain this omission by constructing a brief literary history that her listeners could endorse, for it surprisingly justifies women's exclusion from the academy. Yourcenar describes a literary scene in the seventeenth century, at the founding of the academy, in which women were active in other roles and other spheres: "The women of the Old Regime, queens of the salons, didn't dream of crossing your threshold.... Maybe they believed they would be reducing ... their feminine sovereignty. They inspired writers, sometimes ruled over them, and often succeeded in having one of their protégés accepted into your company.... They cared very little about being candidates themselves." 1 Yourcenar posits another literary institution, the salon, as the female equivalent of the academy, and as the realm dominated and chosen by women to exercise their "female sovereignty." In complete con

I thank Elizabeth J. MacArthur and Lawrence D. Kritzman for their valuable readings of earlier versions of this essay.
Marguerite Yourcenar, Discours de réception à l'Académie Française ( Paris: Gallimard, 1981), pp. 11-12.

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