Sunday, March 30, 2008

La Bellel Rebelle

In 1555, Lyonnais publisher Jean de Tournes released a small volume of poetry titled, simply enough, OEUVRES (WORKS). The audacity of the author's byline, however, far eclipsed the book's innocuous title: LOUIZE LABE LIONNOIZE. This collection of one dialogue, three elegies and twenty-four sonnets, accompanied by twenty-four poetic "hommages" penned by other authors, was the first of its kind: a volume of poetry written by a middle-class woman and published under her own name during her lifetime. The book caused quite a stir in Lyon and changed the course of French letters forever.

A woman author, especially one from the working classes, was virtually unheard of at the time, for practical as well as moral reasons. Noblewomen composed poetry and collections of tales, but these wealthy women had the luxury of being educated by private tutors and the time to indulge their literary leanings. How did Louise Labé, daughter of a rope maker, attain her admirable command of Latin and classical literature? It is thought she attended a convent school after the death of her mother; even so, how had she convinced the sisters to teach her more than the rudiments of reading and writing, never mind allow her access to the works of the ancients? Somehow, Louise managed to educate herself and find the time to write as she fulfilled her pressing duties as the daughter of, and later wife of another, rope maker.

Receiving an education was one thing, publishing a book quite another. For a sixteenth-century woman, publishing was as scandalous an act as prostitution. The two activities were essentially the same: a female author put her private self on public display, selling her words instead of her body. Noblewomen who published could escape society's disapprobation by having a respected male vouch for their purity; no one argued when King François's sister, Marguerite de Navarre, published her poems, plays and tales. Likewise, some women authors protected themselves by concealing their identities; Marguerite de Briet published several works in the 1530's and '40's under the pseudonym Hélisenne de Crenne. A third way of validating a woman's voice was to publish her works posthumously, after her documented virtue could no longer fall into question. In 1545, the poet Maurice Scève helped publish the Rymes de Gentille et Vertueuse Dame, Pernette du Guillet soon after the death of his friend.

Louise Labé eschewed all of these protections when she published her poems in 1555. She did seek the blessing of a noble patron, but in typical iconoclastic fashion, chose a young noblewoman, fellow Lyonnaise Clémence de Bourges, rather than an established male. Louise published her poems boldly under her own name in her early thirties, while she was most definitely still alive. Unfortunately, she did pay for her audacity: for the rest of her life she was disparaged as a courtesan, especially since she seems to have carried on a long-term liaison with an Italian banker after the death of her husband. Though slandered and disdained by the general public, Louise was well respected in literary circles; she counted many well known male poets among her friends, men who praised her verse and learning. Her contribution to literary history cannot be ignored: she showed French women how to "lift their heads above the spindle" and claim their voices in the public place.

If you read French, François Rigolot published an excellent paperback edition of Louise's poetry in 1986 (Flammarion). An English translation by Annie Finch came out in 2005 (University of Chicago Press). Five of her translations can be found online here.

In a later post, I'll explain how I used Louise Labé as a model for my main character, Jollande Carlet, in The Measure of Silence.


MM said...

You mentioned Margarite of navare. Is that the same as Queen Margot of Alexander Dumas fame? I think she was the daughter of Catherine Medici. I've read a few books with her featured as a minor character. Am I thinking of the same Margot or am I letting a love for historical fiction replace and actual history class?

Julianne Douglas said...

No, they are not the same person. Marguerite d'Angouleme, later Marguerite de Navarre, was Francois I's only sister. Queen Margot was her great-niece, the daughter of Catherine de Medici and Henri II, Francois's son. Margot became Queen of France when she married Henri IV in 1572.

MM said...

Wow! Thanks. And I thought I was so clever. I love history. I need to study it more

Julianne Douglas said...

Don't feel bad! It's hard to keep all the Marguerites and Francois and Henris straight. {s}

Catherine Delors said...

I am rereading, in my ample free time, Madame de Lafayette's Princess de Cleves. She published anonymously, though she was a noblewoman, and wrote one century later than Louise Labbe.

I want to post about it one of these days. To me it is one of the best books ever written about love, in addition of course to a great historical. Just your Renaissance too!

Julianne Douglas said...


I did read La Princesse de Cleves years ago, but don't remember enough to speak intelligently about it! I'll have to reread it and check out the depiction of Henri II's court.

I'd love to read your post about the novel once you've finished rereading it. Do you know how long Madame de Lafayette remained anonymous as its author? I wonder what her reasons were for choosing anonymity and whether it was known at court that she was the book's author, despite the absence of her name on the cover.

Thanks for bringing up a relevant example of the difficult choices women authors continued to face, even years after Louise "broke the ice"!