Philosopher, translator, fiction writer, and editor: it is virtually impossible to pin down one authorial or scholarly identity for Marie de Gournay (b. 1565–d. 1645). Over the course of an extraordinary career that spanned over forty years, the autodidact Gournay created an extensive body of work, remarkable both for its range of genre and subject and for the painstaking care with which she returned repeatedly to her texts, reworking them and recasting them in different editorial contexts for different publics. Gournay is increasingly studied and valued by scholars for the writings of her late career, particularly for her work on gender and equality, on moral philosophy, on language and poetry, and for her monumental editions of her collected works. But for most of the 350 years since her death, she was known principally as the editor of Michel de Montaigne’s Essais. Gournay did much to foreground her identity as Montaigne’s fille d’alliance (or “covenant daughter”), which is a term meant to capture a friendship between the two writers —the older, male essayist, and the younger female one—that appears to have been as historically founded as it was textually cultivated. Until the late 20th century, popular and scholarly opinion has generally been unkind to Gournay. Although during her career she had her supporters and correspondents (Montaigne himself, it appears, and, notably, scholars such as Justus Lipsius and Anna Maria Von Schurman), during her lifetime Gournay was also mocked as a bluestocking, made the butt of various pranks, and ridiculed in print. Scholarly disdain for Gournay continued into the 19th and early 20th centuries. With the rediscovery of the “Bordeaux Copy” of Montaigne’s Essais in the early 19th century—with additions and comments in Montaigne’s hand that differed from those that appeared in Gournay’s 1595 edition—Gournay’s reputation as a “faithful” editor was called into question. Critics also cast doubt on the mutuality of the friendship with Montaigne and suggested that Gournay was little better than an obsessive fan. This disdainful attitude toward Gournay has altered radically in the last thirty years. Gournay’s essays and treatises, in addition to her work on the Essais, have become the subject of several volumes of essays and monographs as scholars have increasingly made Gournay-as-author the subject of critical inquiry; in addition, scholars have sought greater purchase on the mutually informative relation between her editorial work and her writing. Gournay’s complete works have also been reproduced carefully in excellent critical editions. Strikingly, the debate over her work on Montaigne’s Essais has also come full circle, as the 1595 text has been re-adopted as the definitive version of the Essais for the recent Pléiade edition. The quickened scholarly interest in Gournay over the past twenty years—much of which defends her as editor and author—no doubt played a role in that editorial decision.
Gournay’s Copie de la vie de la Damoiselle de Gournay, written later in her life, provided an initial biographical source text from which most early scholarly biographies derived. Early-21st-century work has looked to correspondence and notarial documents to enrich the biographical portrait we have of Gournay. Schiff 1910 is representative of a tension in early biographical sketches between appreciation for Gournay’s oeuvre and patronizing condescension toward her relation to Montaigne. The pithy sketch of Gournay’s biography and texts in Noiset 2007 is an excellent starting point for readers new to Gournay’s work. Ilsley 1963 offers the only full-length study in English and marks an important 20th-century turning point in recovering Gournay’s identity as an exceptionally learned woman and foregrounding her work as an author as well as an editor. Arnould 1996 offers a landmark collection of essays that recovered Gournay’s essential role in the 1595 Essais and pointed scholars toward the importance of her independently authored philosophical, linguistic, and political writings. Recent treatments of Gournay, such as Devincenzo 2002 and Fogel 2004, emphasize her later works and are highly attuned to Gournay’s own efforts to construct her literary persona.
Arnould, Jean-Claude, ed. Marie de Gournay et L’Edition de 1595 des Essais de Montaigne: Actes du colloque organisé par la Société Internationale des Amis de Montaigne. Paris: Champion, 1996.
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A collection of essays first presented at a colloquium celebrating the centenary of the 1595 Essais, revealing a renewed interest in Gournay as author and editor. Although most of the volume discusses Gournay’s editorial role, a third part of the book presents studies of Gournay’s fiction and collected works.
Devincenzo, Giovanna. Marie de Gournay: Un cas littéraire. Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2002.
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Lively and extensive study with detailed attention to both Gournay’s biography and her entire literary corpus. Leans toward a defensive portrait of Gournay in response to a largely negative scholarly reception of Gournay’s work since the 17th century. Includes an exhaustive bibliography of scholarly work.
Fogel, Michèle. Marie de Gournay, Itinéraires d’une femme savante. Paris: Fayard, 2004.
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Biography of Gournay that strives to put the author in her historical and social context by reading notarial records and correspondence alongside Gournay’s publications. Emphasizes the ways in which Gournay actively constructed her public persona as an author.
Ilsley, Margaret. A Daughter of the Renaissance: Marie le Jars de Gournay, Her Life and Works. The Hague: Mouton, 1963.
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The only full-length study of Gournay’s life and works available in English. An important attempt to understand Gournay’s work both in relation to and beyond Montaigne. Still considered one of the definitive works on Gournay.
Noiset, Marie-Thérèse. “Gournay, Marie de (1565–1645).” In Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England. Edited by Diane Robin, Anne Larsen, and Carole Levin, 170–173. Oxford: ABC-Clio, 2007.
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Concise entry in English on Gournay’s biography and notable thematics by Gournay scholar Noiset. Inclusion in important collection of biographical notices places Gournay in the context of other early modern European women writers.
Schiff, Mario. La Fille d’alliance de Montaigne, Marie de Gournay. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1910.
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Although outdated, Schiff’s works are some of the few devoted to Gournay. Example of a negative scholarly treatment of Gournay’s relationship to Montaigne in the 19th and 20th centuries. Especially interesting given the concurrent preparation of the municipal edition of the Essais based on the Bordeaux Copy.
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The Essays: A Brief History
The whole of the text presented in modern editions of the Essays was actually published in several different editions, a fact that has led to controversy within Montaigne scholarship. Within his lifetime, Montaigne published two editions of his work, in 1580 (at which point only the first two books were written) and 1588 (which included a third book and significant additions to the first two). A third edition, published in 1595 under the supervision of Montaigne’s adoptive daughter Marie de Gournay, remained the authoritative model for publishing the Essays until the early 20th century, when a copy of the 1588 edition, containing hundreds of annotations and additions in Montaigne’s handwriting and known as the “Bordeaux copy”, became the basis for modern critical editions of his work. This trend, started by a desire to adhere to a version of the text with an unequivocal link to its author, has seen some reversal during the first decade of the 21st century, as several French editions of the Essays have reverted to the 1595 model (some going as far as removing paragraphs from the text, which did not exist in Montaigne’s time). This change can partly be attributed to efforts made in rehabilitating Marie de Gournay, long accused of tampering with the Essays but now often acknowledged for her own writing career, including many proto-feminist treatises such as The Equality of Men and Women, first published in 1622.
Writing the Self in Troubled Times
Montaigne’s writings make it clear that they will take their author as their subject by demonstrating the strength (and weaknesses) of his judgment and opinions through repeated “attempts” (“Essay”, in the French of the time, signified a try or attempt, and the modern English use of the term to mean a form of non-fiction writing was coined by Montaigne). Despite their introspective focus, the loosely structured reflections that make up the Essays often deal with the social and political events of Montaigne’s time, if only to illustrate a point or provide an example. In particular, Montaigne uses contemporary history as a counterpoint to analogous situations or phenomena drawn from antiquity.
The historical period that encompassed the majority of Montaigne’s adult life was one of the most tumultuous in France’s history, as decades of civil war ravaged the country. The wars of religion (1562-1598) unleashed brutal fighting and destruction as they pitted Catholics, for the most part supported by the king, and Huguenots, an often tenuous confederation of French noblemen and followers of the Reformation, against one another. The conflict between these two camps, which quickly fractured into several different groups, often forced Montaigne to act as an intermediary, and he eventually became associated with a group of moderate Catholics known as the Politiques, who favored peace with the Protestants over unconditional victory.
Montaigne was quite active in this capacity in the years after 1570, which he often describes as the time of his retreat from the world’s affairs. Apart from his tenure as mayor of Bordeaux, Montaigne was also asked to act as official mediator between a group of extremist Catholics known as the Holy League and his Protestant friend Henri de Navarre (later Henry IV of France) during the 1570s, and was instrumental in keeping the citizens of Bordeaux loyal after Henry’s accession to the throne in 1589. He was also active in the courts of Henry’s predecessors Charles IX and Henry III (to whom Montaigne was even sent as a secret envoy from the future king in 1588). Just as the turbulent historical period surrounding the Essays contrasts with the leisurely life that represents Montaigne’s personal ideal, so, too, have scholars often noted the disparity between the image he gives of himself as idle and isolated and the heightened political activity of his later years.
The importance of these circumstances for Montaigne’s writing is obvious: apart from taking political and religious questions of his time as premises for his reflections, Montaigne partly constructed his portrayal of the human condition from the events unfolding around him. Living in uncertain times, he presented a portrait of himself and humanity which focused on the inability of the mind to arrive at absolute truths beyond those divinely revealed. This uncertainty applied to the political and social as well as the personal, and led him to advocate a skepticism that remains one of the Essays’ most significant contributions. In the face of truth’s inaccessibility, Montaigne offers the suspension of judgment as a means of achieving stability and peace of mind. The Essays’ mistrust of human reason and avoidance of dogmatism when observing the self and its capacities proved to be greatly influential on the philosophers that would follow Montaigne, thinkers such as Blaise Pascal, René Descartes, and Francis Bacon.
Composed by: Paul Wimmer, Graduate Student in the Columbia University Department of French.
Texts consulted: Marie Le Jars de Gournay, Apology for the Woman Writing and Other Works. Trans. and Eds. Richard Hillman and Colette Quesnel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Ullrich Langer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. "Montaigne, Michel de 1533-1592." Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. London: Routledge, 2001. Credo Reference. Web. 28 December 2010. Albert Thibaudet, Montaigne. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1963.
For more information, see: Foglia, Marc, "Michel de Montaigne", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL= http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/montaigne/