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I once had the honour of knowing a professor, who had an amazing ability - that to get 19 year old students, myself amongst them, to arrive on time to a 9am Friday lecture. This took place the morning after the night before, which was cheap drink night at the local night club, and yet we all turned up every week to study 16th century French language and literature of all things. With copious supplies of toast and a real passion for his subject he brought it alive and interested and inspired even the most hungover.
The reason for me remembering this teacher fondly is that, like him, this author similarly manages to render the 16th Century French literary world fascinating and relevant, against the odds.
The story, which is based on real events, is about one Marie de Gournay, a woman out of her time and with, as it turns out, pretensions beyond her ability and the restrictions of society of that time. Like my young self Marie finds discovering the Essays of one Montaigne, a philosopher, totally life changing.
Montaigne invented the word "essay", which in French literally means an attempt or a trial. He examined man, including himself, in his great works which were published in 1580 and changed literature for ever as he wrote and examined issues. At the time this was radical stuff.
I wasn't as affected as Marie was by my first encounter with Montaigne, lucky really as I doubt my teacher had a ready supply of Hellabore at hand. As detailed in this book she is so overawed by the first reading the Essais, which were given to her by her Uncle Louis, that she enters a kind of trance, has to be sedated, and declares herself, a young woman "ravished by Montaigne". She becomes convinced that only she can understand him and be his perfect reader. In this conviction she is shown to be completely deluded, though her conviction that everyone should understand Montaigne's genius as she does is all encompassing. It sees her refusing to be tied down by the expectations of society on her to marry or become a nun, and becoming a woman who lives alone and devouts herself to Montaigne and his works.
The book opens with Marie on her death bed, with only her trusty servant Jamyn for company, but then follows her life from being a young girl who hides away in her dead father's library and teaches herself to read and study in Latin, to her discovery of the Essais and her engineering of a meeting with Montaigne in Paris.
On meeting her hero, she is overcome by emotion and stabs herself with a hairpin to show the depth of her feeling - Montaigne is rather understandably a little scared by this, perhaps from her letters he had been imagining someone more attractive and less hysterical. She was 23, he was 55 when they met and he was married with a daughter. Montaigne tells her she can be his "fille d'alliance" - her intellectual daughter, for reasons the book and history are not necessarily clear on, and and so Marie's lifelong obsession, but ultimately her tragedy begins.
The author doesn't really judge Marie as she shows how Marie does get closer to Montaigne who needs a house to convalesce, but then before his death distances himself from her, and ignores the manuscript of her romantic novel. The author shows every painful step of Marie's disappointment as she attempts to become a woman of letters and earn a living as an author in her own right. This she is never to fully achieve, though a twist of fate sees Montaigne's widow on his death, entrusting the re-publication of Montaigne's essays to her, and perhaps unfortunately giving Marie full rein to make her own written observations and additions to the text.
Marie builds up a semi career on writing about Montaigne and hosting gatherings to talk about him, becoming a parody of herself and mocked in society, and making mistakes along the way, which will be revealed in the novel and also be the subject of the "Apology for the Woman Writing", a catalogue of the errors she made, which was one of De Gournay's actual published works in the late part of her career.
I enjoyed reading about Marie's life as portrayed here - I had heard about her, and she is mentioned briefly in one of Montaigne's essays, but I had no idea to what lengths she had taken her obsession and this novel was well researched and really was interesting to read.
I didn't find that I had any huge sympathy with the Marie as portrayed in the novel, but I did find her journey absolutely compelling and I enjoyed reading this book. As a woman, it raised questions of what women's role was in that time, and that of women today. It also makes you wonder whether one can be too touched by a book.
I found the relationship, as imagined by the author, between Jamyn the servant and Marie to be very real - if rather uncomfortable in one way or another at times - the author does make it clear at the end which parts of the book were real and which were imagined and this is fascinating reading in itself.
This book is not particularly a light read, as you might imagine from the topic, but even if you have no previous knowedge of Montaigne, it is an interesting one - if you have read any Montaigne before you might find yourself, as I did, rumaging through very old books in the loft trying to find his work that you hadn't read for 20 years or so. This novel is written in an engaging and witty way.
Where Marie did, in reality, succeed in making Montaigne be remembered to this day, in this book the author of this book has, in my opinion managed to make a little known literary figure real, with all her flaws and quirks. This is an inspiring and educational read.
Book details as per amazon where this is priced at £6.39 at time of writing:
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd (6 Aug 2009)