Women on Love

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Women on Love has its genesis in a traumatic childhood experience, author Evelyne Sullerot’s first—and only—reading of the tale of Griselda, the all-suffering patient wife who was persecuted unspeakably by her husband and yet never ceased to love and obey him. The story so horrified the ten-year-old girl that she fainted on the spot. Her sympathetic mother assured her that not all love was like that, that men made up such stories for each other to compensate for their fear of being unloved, and she told her young daughter another story, this one by a woman, the Comtesse d’Aulnoy, about a prince who was transformed into a bluebird and paid nightly visits to the windowsill of his beloved to converse with her.

Thus, even as a child Sullerot was convinced that men and women experienced love in quite different ways, and as she studied treatises on the subject later in her life, she became increasingly disturbed at the one-sided view being given. She notes that Denis de Rougemont’s well-known Love in the Western World, which she discusses at some length in her opening chapter, might more accurately be entitled Masculine Love in the Western World, for in it woman figures as object, as guide or obstacle on man’s path to salvation, but never as a separate being with a quest of her own. Women on Love is Sullerot’s attempt to redress the balance by allowing women to speak in their own voice of the joys and the pains they have experienced through love during the eight hundred years from the Middle Ages to the present. The writers quoted are all French, but the sentiments expressed are, Sullerot feels, representative.

The book is composed of four separate but integrally linked elements: a series of essays exploring the historical, sociological, philosophical, and literary aspects of love in each period; an anthology of writings by women, consisting of selections from a few words to a page or two in length; drawings, etchings, and engravings contemporary with the writings; and short biographical sketches of all the writers represented except those living in the twentieth century. While the introductory essays are in some ways of the greatest interest, the selections from the writings are clearly intended by the author to be the center of the book. The passages were chosen, she explains, for their intrinsic beauty, the sincerity of feeling displayed, and their representativeness of the styles and attitudes of each era.

To encourage readers to respond spontaneously and open-mindedly to each piece, she has identified her excerpts only by number, in the hope that a poignant letter from an unknown will receive the same attention and appreciation as a passage from George Sand or Simone de Beauvoir. The numbers refer the reader to the biographical sketches at the end of the book, or, in the case of twentieth century writers, simply to a name. There is, therefore, no way to tell except from the context whether one is reading from a work of fiction, a letter, a journal, or a poem. Perhaps genre and even the question of whether sentiments are “real” or fictitious are irrelevant in a work in which the intent of the author is to convey the variety of ways in which women have reacted to love. It would have been useful, however, to have a brief appendix giving the source of each passage to enable readers to pursue in more detail selections of special interest to them.

Sullerot freely acknowledges that the subject of love does not lend itself to neat chronological surveys of changing trends and progressive steps toward an ideal. What she tries to do in both her introductions to each chapter and in the passages quoted is to bring out the major characteristics of each era, while taking into account countervailing forces and individuals whose experiences are atypical. She begins her analysis with a description of the fin amor of the Middle Ages—what English-speaking scholars have generally referred to as courtly love. In the writing of the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries, woman is most often spoken of as queen or master meting out rewards to her adoring, deserving knight. It is the woman who sets the terms and tone of a relationship from the earliest stages of courtship into a sexual liaison; the man’s role is to please her in every way possible.

In the Renaissance, sentiments of this kind linger in literary imagery, but there is a greater diversity in the experiences of women, with men exercising greater dominance and even, at times, brutality. The sixteenth century also saw the beginnings of a tension between sensuality and chastity, a conflict that would continue to be significant in succeeding eras. In the next century, women were again striving for control...

(The entire section is 1945 words.)