Roxane's Reviews > Mémoire De La Vie D'henriette Sylvie De Molière

Mémoire De La Vie D'henriette Sylvie De Molière by Madame de Villedieu
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's review
Nov 07, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: french-female-writers-reading-chall, french, gender, history
Read from September 25 to October 23, 2011

This read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 17th century novel.

It's always with great pleasure that I take these reading journeys in the past and meet these women writers that were then perceived as eccentric, mad and severely lacking virtue when all they were trying to do was live with the freedom that was only bestowed upon men.

It reminded me of my work on the fascinatingly enigmatic Margaret Cavendish and of how much I admire these women and the way they fought against the establishment no matter the cost. I certainly envy them their strength and how they were fearless in the face of alienation.

Marie-Catherine de Villedieu, born Marie-Catherine Desjardins (1640-1683), was a professional writer, one of the first French female writers to claim so. She wrote novels, plays and letters and was a pioneer in more than one aspect as Mémoires was the first fictional autobiography of its kind.

Villedieu is a pen name taken from a lover who promised to marry her before withdrawing his promise. Although, their relationship later resumed, no marriage ever took place. In fact, the young man ended up marrying someone else before dying in battle. Marie-Catherine took his name after his death. While this was quite a bold decision, what is even more surprising is that the young man's family accepted that she did so based on the multiple promises the young man had made when he was alive.

Madame de Villedieu as she is now referred to, was not notably beautiful but she seems to have benefited from a lot of freedom from a very young age. This probably encouraged her fiery temper. She was lucky enough to have a lot of connections with the world of literature and arts and became quite famous for a poem entitled Jouissance (which can be translated as "climax" or "orgasm") when she was just 18. The poem was destined to the lover who never married her and the existence of the poem was not so shocking as the fact that it had been written by a woman. As it was often the case, it seems that her bad reputation had more to do with her free spirit and her liberty of speech than anything else.

Mémoires was published between 1671 and 1674 anonymously. I'm not quite sure why given her reputation and the fact that the book contains nothing particularly scandalous, Madame de Villedieu bothered with trying to hide the fact that she had written it. The book's success was immediate and durable though it was eventually forgotten. Like so many women writers, Madame de Villedieu greatly influenced the evolution of the novel but as she didn't follow the regular norm of conduct, her legacy was unfortunately set aside.

As previously mentioned, Mémoires is a fictional autobiography, a "roman-mémoires", the first of its kind in French literature (as far as I'm aware of anyway... which should probably not count for much...). Mémoires can be easily dated as Madame de Villedieu quotes battles, cultural and many historical events. A lot of historical figures and famous people of the time also make appearances in her tales. Yet, I wouldn't regard Mémoires as a piece of historical fiction per say. It's more an account of what life was at the time: clandestine weddings, cross-dressing, life in convents, duals and trials.As far as I know, this mix of history and fiction is quite unusual for the times. Even more unusual is the idea of a memoir for an ordinary woman and not someone famous, well at least not famous for the right reasons.

Mémoires is by no means meant to be serious but entertaining and light. The main protagonist, Henriette-Sylvie de Molière, is writing her story to a female noble person she addresses as "Your Highness". From the first sentence, it appears that Henriette-Sylvie's name has been wrongly associated with certain scandals and that she is attempting to clear her name, explaining the "innocent mistakes" of her youth. Nevertheless, the aim is to please and entertain and Henriette-Sylvie has a lot of stories to tell and she is not at all as innocent as she could be... and the wonderful thing is that she makes no apologies for it, despite the novel's initial aim.

It all begins with Henriette-Sylvie's birth which is shrouded in mystery: birth on a beach, a mother's disappearance, childhood among farmers and here comes in a duke who sees something different in this child and knows she's destined for more than this. The duke places her with wealthy friends of his who have children of their own. Henriette-Sylvie grows up to be a young woman of breathtaking beauty. The one she then believes to be her father attempts to rape her when she is thirteen during a hunt. Henriette-Sylvie accidentally shots him trying to defend herself. She is then rescued by her "mother"'s lover who also falls in love with her and that is only the beginning of her adventures...

Henriette-Sylvie is not afraid of enjoying life and its multiple pleasures. Her tale is in drastic opposition to the literary inheritance of the classical age. And yet, I'm not quite sure why Madame de Villedieu chose anonymity to write this. It's been said that those who knew her and her story could easily recognize her style and aspects of her life. Mémoires is not an autobiography (well, only a fictional one) but some elements and places frequently visited do echo ones from Madame de Villedieu's life. Henriette-Sylvie is meant to be a sort of role model for women who have been accused of not being virtuous enough for their times. Though one must admit that it is hard to believe that Henriette-Sylvie is completely innocent; she does put herself in the strangest situations, and yes, she does admit to having had lovers. If there really needs to be something scandalous about the whole novel, it's probably it's total lack of guilt, but even that is drowned by the humorous aspect. Though the novel is meant to be a clarification, Henriette-Sylvie does not make any apologies for her behavior as she often depicts what courtship and what takes place around and after passion.

I really enjoyed reading this. I'm sure I didn't get all of the humor, not knowing enough of the times' lifestyle and famous figures, but I got enough to make it worth while. And so, even if you're reading this novel on a superficial level and don't really care in what ways it relates to the life of the person who wrote it, you'll enjoy it. But if you read it bearing in mind the reputation of Madame de Villedieu's, you'll enjoy it even more. Highly recommended for entertainment but also for the historical and feminist perspectives.

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