Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation

By Helen M. Cooper; Adrienne Auslander Munich et al. | Go to book overview
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Patricia Francis Cholakian


Rewriting History:
Madame de Villedieu and the Wars of Religion

It has been a commonplace of literature since Homer to blame women for causing wars. Such fictional histories appropriate women as pretexts, jealously guarding the text itself for the exploits of the hero. However, they contain the subversive idea that women's power shapes events. We may regard historical fiction, therefore, as the genre through which women take their place in history.

Les Désordres de l'amour, published in 1675 by the French novelist Madame de Villedieu, inscribes women into one of the most turbulent periods of history, the Wars of Religion, which devastated France in the second half of the sixteenth century. 1 It consists of three novellas, all of which deal with amorous intrigues in the court of Henri III. 2 Madame de Villedieu, 3 believed to be the first French woman to support herself by writing fiction, composed more than thirty works, of which Les Désordres de l'amour was the last. One of the most popular and widely read writers of her time, Villedieu addressed herself primarily to a female audience. As Micheline Cuénin writes in her critical edition, "[t]he novel's public is first of all women, whose natural curiosity, sentimental ups and downs, or lack of occupation led them naturally towards works of imagination and amusement." 4

By recounting the romantic adventures of the beautiful and famous during her great-grandmothers' day, Villedieu offered to her women readers, often unhappily married and perpetually pregnant, a type of fictional distraction that was just beginning to be popular in France. To women living under Louis XIV, the Wars of Religion must have appeared much as the American Civil War appears to American women today. The divisions and bitterness it had engendered, although largely laid to rest, would have been vaguely understood, and its causes, events, and leaders would have been at once legendary and familiar. In the earlier part of the century the need

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