Thursday, April 3, 2008

An Historico-Fictional Hybrid

My last post introduced you to Louise Labé, the first middle-class woman to publish under her own name in sixteenth-century France. Captivated by Louise's courage and accomplishments yet hesitant to write a fictionalized biography of her, I decided to use her as a model for Jollande Carlet, the main character of my novel The Measure of Silence.

From the early days of my graduate studies, I knew I wanted to write a tribute to the talented women who were reduced to silence by the conventions and mores of the sixteenth century. I considered presenting Louise's story as a novel, but two things gave me pause: my own uneasiness with using an historical figure as a main character and the fact that little is known with certainty about Louise's life, other than a few names and dates and some minor details gleaned from her last will and testament. Since by necessity I would find myself imagining large portions of her story, I decided to abandon the constraints of biography and create an entirely fictional character based upon her.

Many points of overlap connect the real and fictional women. For one, they share a similar economic status: Jollande, the daughter of a draper (fabric merchant), marries the son of a felt manufacturer; Louise hailed from a family of rope makers and married into another. As girls, both Jollande and Louise received an extensive classical education, extraordinary for women of their time and status. No one is certain how Louise came by her education; I explain Jollande's as the gift of her rich godfather, who allows her to share the tutors he hires for his own daughter. Jollande displays the courage, feistiness and determination I imagine characterized Louise, for like Louise, her literary pursuits brand her as a loose woman and she constantly has to deflect, diffuse or ignore the scornful judgments of strangers.

I chose to set Jollande's story in Lyon, the city with which Louise identified so strongly, because sixteenth-century Lyon was a center of print culture and home to a renowned group of poets. Other details of Louise's life come out in the novel, subtly transformed: the Italian banker with whom Louise spent the last years of her life becomes Marsilio, the Genoan business partner of Jollande's father; Clément Marot, the court poet some sources claim was young Louise's lover (and whose poetry appears in the novel) becomes Gabriel Orland, the published poet who infiltrates the printing shop as a spy for the queen. Finally, like Louise, who saw many of her family members convert to Protestantism yet remained Catholic herself, Jollande must decide whether or not to follow her own loved ones into the Calvinist fold.

Creating a character who shares some biographical traits with the historical Louise yet is not tied to her particular personality and chronology allowed me the artistic freedom necessary to tell what I hope is an engaging and aesthetically satisfying story. Grounded in reality yet free to pick and choose and embellish, I constructed a triad of tightly interwoven subplots that investigate important literary, religious and social issues of the time, some of which affected the historical Louise in only the most general of terms. Broadening the milieu beyond Louise's shop and study allowed me to incorporate a wider range of period detail and historical happenstance (for example, no evidence links Louise to a printing establishment, yet I was able to place Jollande in one and thereby introduce the printing subculture to the reader). The creative freedom this approach to character provided was both exhilarating and intellectually challenging--and okay, I'll admit it--much more fun than striving to color within the lines of Louise's official literary portrait.

Finally, modeling my character after an historical person offers me, as an author, a certain measure of protection. If any future critic complains that Jollande attempts things no sixteenth-century woman would dare contemplate, I can point to Louise and say, "Not true! Here is a woman who did just that, and succeeded most excellently!" {s}

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