Christine De Pizan
Often described as the first professional female writer, Christine de Pizan was born in Venice in 1365. She became France’s first woman of letters. Her father, Thomas de Pizan, moved from Venice to France in 1368 to serve as an astrologer at the court of Charles V. Christine’s father encouraged her intellectual interests, but her mother insisted that she concentrate on spinning rather than reading. After a conventional childhood and early arranged marriage, her life abruptly changed when first her father died and then her husband, leaving Christine in 1390 to serve as the head of the household and sole provider of her mother and three young children. The funds set aside to establish her sons and supply a dowry for her daughter were invested with a dishonest merchant; her attempts to collect these funds and other debts to her husband’s estate were met with lawsuits.
Christine survived these catastrophes, turning to writing to earn a living. Between 1390 and 1429, she wrote poetry, a biography of Charles V, and even a military essay, The Book of Fayttes of Arms and of Chivalry (written 1410, published 1488), which was highly respected. She defended women in response to the widespread misogyny that derived from the medieval clerical tradition and in response to Jean de Meun’s antifeminist attacks in The Romance of the Rose (thirteenth century). Christine supplies readers with the only contemporary account of Joan of Arc, whose triumphs she enthusiastically describes.
Charity Cannon Willard’s biography draws upon a close reading of Christine’s works, particularly those with autobiographical references, to present a description of her personal and professional position. The appearance of this biography is well-timed because of a recent translation of Christine’s Le Livre de la cité des dames (written 1404-1405, published 1982; The Book of the City of Ladies, 1521). Christine’s works were first printed in England by William Caxton. In spite of this early evidence of English interest in Christine’s verse and prose, most of her works have not yet been translated into English, and the first biography of Christine written in English appeared only in the mid-1970’s. If it is approached from the perspective of an introduction to Christine’s life and works, Willard’s biography will make a substantial contribution to French studies and to women’s studies. Her study of Christine draws attention to a female writer who has merited far more attention than she has received.
As Willard indicates in her preface, the purpose of her biography is “to make Christine de Pizan better known to a wider readership.” Willard’s intention, however, seems not to have been to produce a popularized account of Christine’s life in the usual sense of a lively tale with a minimum of documentation. This biography includes twenty-two black-and-white illustrations, which help to document Christine’s involvement with important illustrators of her day, notes, as well as a bibliography and an index. It would have been helpful had certain stylistic principles been explained. Some names and titles are translated, but others are not. Names and titles also seem to be anglicized inconsistently. The debate over female honor is described as the “querelle des femmes,” but the title of the principal literary work in the debate is consistently translated as The Romance of the Rose. Likewise, on page 89, Marguerite de Navarre’s narrative is identified as the Heptameron, while Castiglione’s courtesy book is consistently Book of the Courtier.
One of the strengths of the biography is that many passages from Christine’s works are quoted; some of these passages are taken from works not available in English translation. Although Willard’s translations seem graceful, the original French text is cited neither in the text nor in the footnotes. Once the decision was made to aim at an educated general audience and to include notes and bibliography, it would have...
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