Marie le Jars De Gournay Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Marie le Jars de Gournay 1565-1645

French prose writer, essayist, poet, and literary critic.

De Gournay was a French social essayist and literary critic who flourished in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. She is remembered chiefly as the editor of Michel de Montaigne's 1595 posthumous edition of the Essais, a publication which has evoked intense critical debate over its authenticity. To this day, literary scholars remain divided in their opinion of the nature and extent of de Gournay's revisions of Montaigne's philosophical ideas. De Gournay is also recognized as a visionary champion of women's rights, advocating the education of women and their acceptance as equals within the patriarchal society. These concepts are articulated in such works as Le Proumenoiur de Monsieur de Montaigne par sa fille d'alliance (1594), Égalité des homes et des femmes (Of the Equality of Men and Women, 1622) and Le Grief des dames (The Complaint of The Ladies, 1626). Reviled in her own time by misogynist critics who opposed her radical ideas, de Gournay is now celebrated as one of the founding mothers of the modern feminist movement.

Biographical Information

De Gournay was born in Paris on September 6, 1565, the eldest child of Guillaume de Jars, a minor nobleman and governor of the castles at Remy, Gournay, and Moyenneville. Given the dearth of opportunities for women to attend school in the sixteenth century, de Gournay educated herself, teaching herself how to read Latin and Greek by comparing original works to their French translations. When de Gournay was fifteen, her father purchased the feudal rights to Gournay and moved the family to the estate at Gournay-sur-Aronde. Not long after the move, de Gournay's father died, leaving her mother to raise six children on her own. Around 1585, de Gournay read an advance copy of Montaigne's Essais and became spellbound by the philosopher's revolutionary ideas. Three years later when de Gournay was visiting in Paris, she learned that Montaigne was also in the city and arranged to meet him. The two became fast friends, forming a close mentor and protégé relationship. Indeed, Montaigne honored de Gournay by proclaiming her to be his “fille d'alliance,” or covenant daughter. Their friendship inspired de Gournay to embark on a writing career of her own and she began work on Le Proumenoiur. With Montaigne's death in 1592, de Gournay assumed responsibility for collecting and editing the essays which he had revised since the 1588 publication of his Essais. Released in 1595, critics immediately questioned the work's authenticity, claiming that de Gournay had embellished Montaigne's ideas with many of her own. As a result, de Gournay felt compelled to retract her long preface to the Essais because some critics considered it to be an exercise in opportunistic self-promotion. Despite this controversy, de Gournay succeeded in establishing herself as a writer. Perhaps because she was a independent woman attempting to make her mark in a masculine world or because of her brash advocacy of women's rights, she became the object of scorn and mockery within French literary circles. Undeterred by these attacks, de Gournay made a living writing essays on such topics as the plight of women, the importance of education, and the significance of the French language in poetry. As her reputation grew, she attracted a small group of admirers to her literary coterie, the most notable patron being Cardinal Richelieu. Although de Gournay was never able to overcome fully the aspersions cast upon her character, she secured a comfortable living through income from the publication of her essays and through a series of patronages. She died in Paris on July 13, 1645.

Major Works

Inspired by her early encounters with Montaigne, de Gournay wrote Le Proumeniour, a prose fiction narrative which analyzes the relationship between a daughter and her father. The work contains several incipient themes upon which de Gournay would elaborate throughout her career, including the role of women as objects within a patriarchal system, the tensions that arise when women attempt to gain equal footing with men, and the psychological ramifications of these gender conflicts. Having gained Montaigne's trust, de Gournay served as his secretary and editor as he dictated revisions to his 1588 edition of the Essais. After Montaigne's death, de Gournay continued editing the essays at his family's insistence. The resulting publication ignited a fierce critical debate which has raged to the modern day about the extent to which de Gournay incorporated her own ideas into Montaigne's philosophy. De Gournay herself was partly to blame for the controversy in that she wrote a long preface to the 1595 edition which underscored her close relationship with the philosopher and her crucial involvement in the revision of the essays. Whether it was her intention or not, the controversy boosted her career as a writer and she went on to publish several memorable essays and treatises on women's rights, the most notable being Of the Equality of Men and Women and The Complaint of The Ladies. De Gournay also wrote several autobiographical essays which shed light on her convictions with regard to social issues, her practical concept of friendship, and her evolution as an essayist, theorist, and literary critic. These works include Copie de la vie de la demoiselle de Gournay (1616), Apologie puir celle qui escrit (1626?), and Peincture de moeurs (1626).

Critical Reception

During her lifetime, de Gournay endured the derisive critical attacks by French pamphleteers who trivialized her work and mocked her with demeaning caricatures. Nevertheless, she maintained her reputation as Montaigne's editor; indeed, her revised editions of the Essais generally withstood critical scrutiny to become standard texts. By the twentieth century, literary scholars came to recognize that many of de Gournay's literary and social theories were in fact ideas well ahead of their time. Among the first English-language analyses of de Gournay's writings was Peggy P. Holmes's survey of the essays collected in L'ombre de la demoiselle de Gournay (1626). According to Holmes, de Gournay's study of the imagery and metaphors of the baroque poets illustrates the author's belief that language should be used to exhibit “the supreme expression of poetical originality” regardless of its archiasm. In recent decades, literary scholars have championed de Gournay as a visionary advocate of feminism and women's rights. Domna C. Stanton has analyzed De Gournay's sophisticated treatment of gender conflicts in Le Proumenoiur, especially focusing on the author's investigation of the psychological dynamics of manipulation in which men treat women as objects of exchange and women allow themselves to be “subjects of exchange.” In addition, Tilda A. Sankovitch has examined de Gournay's autobiographical works, concluding that the author invents a mythical “autoportrait” in which she projects an image of herself as an androgynous hero who conquers gender barriers and narrow-minded misogynistic critics. Other modern commentators have shown how de Gournay valued and wrote about friendship as a means by which women could advance within the patriarchal system. Maryanne Cline Horowitz has demonstrated how the mentor/protégé relationship between Montaigne and de Gournay was crucial to her evolving concept of the nature of friendship. Further, Patricia Francis Cholakian contrasts de Gournay's practical view of friendship—tempered by the necessities and stresses of everyday life—with the more idealized perspectives found in the essays of Montaigne and Cicero. Ultimately, modern day critics—unlike her contemporary detractors—have come to recognize de Gournay for her visionary insights, her literary achievements, and her dogged defense of her beliefs and rights.