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Jenny Diski: Apology for the Woman Writing

In 1588, Michel de Montaigne was fifty-five years old. He was in poor health – suffering in particular from a kidney stone – and retired from public life (he had been Mayor of Bordeaux). Despite his health, he became involved in the difficult and protracted negotiations between King Henry III and Duke of Guise. While travelling to Paris from Bordeaux, he was set upon by robbers, robbed, stripped of all his clothes and was about to be put to death, when his calm demeanour so impressed the bandit chief, that he was spared. He was also working on a new edition of his Essais which had some success in France, though not as much he had hoped for, despite the fact that they were, essentially, a new literary form. It was, at this time, that he received what we would now call a fan letter, from a young woman from Picardy.

This novel is the story of Marie le Jars de Gournay, the woman who wrote the fan letter. She was one of six children, two boys and four girls. Her father was well-off and the family lived in Paris, though they had the Gournay estate in Picardy. Girls of well-off families in France in those days had two career options – wife or nun. Marie liked neither option. She hated domestic work and was no good at it. She was poor at sewing and embroidery. She could not sing or dance. And she was a plain young woman. In short, she was not really suitable for the role of wife and had no desire to play that role. Similarly, she had no desire to be a nun. She enjoyed life in Paris. However, when she was twelve, her father died. Her mother tried to continue living in Paris but, because of the uncertain political situation, the family finances were stretched so she moved the family to Gournay, where living would be cheaper. Marie revolted but had to accept it. At Gournay, she discovered, in an attic, her father’s library and started reading his books though, like most girls of her time, she had had little education. However, she managed to master the difficult texts. When she found books in Latin, she taught herself Latin from bilingual editions. She even managed, with the help of her Uncle Louis, a man of letters and playwright, to learn Greek by the same method. Her mother was furious, as Marie offered little help in running the household and it also seemed that she would neither marry or become a nun. However, Marie loved her books, which were occasionally supplemented by her uncle, who was impressed that his niece should show such intellectual curiosity. However, when her uncle gave her a set of Montaigne’s Essais, she knew that she had found what she was looking for. To the disgust of her mother, she read them over and over and quoted them continually at the family and the staff. When her uncle visited and told her that Montaigne was dead (the incident involving the robbers) she was so devastated that she became ill for weeks, only recovering when her uncle told her the good news that Montaigne had returned to Paris alive.

The family planned to go to Paris for a while and Marie wrote to Montaigne, the fan letter mentioned above. Montaigne was so impressed that he immediately came to visit her. However, her behaviour was so unusual – she was excessively effusive and even stabbed herself with a pin to show how devoted she was to him – that he unwisely promised her that she could become his intellectual daughter (he was already married, with a daughter of his own), before making his escape. She continued writing to him but he was tied up with political negotiations and did not respond. However, his health took a turn for the worse and when Marie offered to look after him at Gournay, he accepted. These were the happiest days of her life. She helped him with his work, talked to him and looked after him. She was broken-hearted when he left. She recovered and wrote to him regularly. She wrote poems and a novel (called Promenade de Monsieur de Montaigne, the name she had given to a walk at Gournay, though the book, a romance, had nothing to do with the walk or Montaigne). She sent them to Montaigne and asked him for his opinion. He did not reply. However, her mother died, the estate was riddled with debts and she had to go and live with relatives, looking after her younger siblings, before moving to Paris to take up a writing career. The latter part of the novel is taken up with Marie’s not very successful career as a writer, translator and editor. She lived with her servant, Nicole Jamyn, and the two women struggled financially. There are indications of a lesbian relationship but this is Diski, not historical.

Diski certainly does not pretend, either in the novel or in the author’s note at the end that Marie de Gournay was the first independent intellectual woman. De Gournay herself makes reference to Christine de Pizan and in later years will gain support from Marguerite de Valois. She will also attend other salons held by women. But there is no question that she struggled mightily to be an independent woman intellectual at a time when, unless you were very rich and/or very powerful (like Marguerite de Valois, who was sister of the King), it was very much an uphill struggle. Apart from Montaigne, men play only a peripheral role in this book. However, the women we do see conform more or less to the norm that society expected of them. Marie’s mother sole concern is providing for her family, till she gets older, when she is concerned in providing for her old age. Marie’s sisters want marriage (in two cases) and a convent life, in the case of Léonor. Montaigne’s wife and daughter have little interest in his worldly fame. His wife is more impressed that he was Mayor of Bordeaux than with his Essays and, in later life, is far more concerned with her spiritual salvation than her late husband’s fame. Montaigne’s daughter sells off his library (including his own, annotated works), after the death of her parents. There is one exception to this and that is Nicole Jamyn. As Diski admits, we know little of her, so Diski invents her character. She is young when she comes to Marie and stays with her for the rest of her long life (Marie dies a day before her eightieth birthday). She is devoted to Marie and it is she that starts the lesbian relationship. Marie tries to teach her to read, unaware that she can already read and read she does. She is, she insists, Marie’s companion, though Marie refers to her only as her servant. But, in the last third of the book, she becomes a separate, independent, thinking character.

Diski could easily have done one of two things. She could have written a feminist tract, showing that a woman, even in 16th/17th century France, was just as capable of educating herself and having a full intellectual life as any man. Or she could have shown Marie as the victim of sexism, male oppression and the conventions of the time and place concerning the very limited role of women. Both aspects do play some role in this novel but Diski avoids getting carried away on either side. Instead she shows Marie as an intellectual but, as she says in the afterword, not a very good writer and someone prone to fury. In short, she shows Marie de Gournay as the woman she probably was and not as some idealised stereotype. And the result is a very fine novel. The title, by the way, comes from one of Marie’s own writings, Apologie pour celle qui escrit, in French.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Virago