There is nothing like life in a dank chateau to promote, in a growing girl, a taste for literature. ….
We grieve for many; not least we grieve for unhappy, solitary maidens so intelligent as to be misfits in ordinary life. We grieve for the superior among inferiors. We grieve for Marie le Jars de Gournay, the “adoptive daughter” of Michel de Montaigne, perhaps the first female literary nerd.
Marie le Jars was born in Paris in 1565, the eldest child of a noble gentleman and officeholder. He bought, out of pride, the moated, towered and turreted manor of Gournay, fifty miles northeast of Paris, and he died in 1577. His widow, left with little money as well as six children, abandoned Paris for the economical gloom of Gournay; from it Marie took her name.
There is nothing like life in a dank chateau, to promote in a growing girl a taste for literature. Without instruction, Marie taught herself Latin by comparing the original texts with the French translations. She read whatever she could find, defiant of her mother, who regarded such occupations as perverse. She was an alarming girl, who chilled the parents of eligible young gentlemen. Somehow it was determined that two of her sisters were to married off, one consigned to a convent, while Marie must rub along as best she could.
She was of acceptable appearance, of average height for the time, with a decent figure, chestnut hair, a round face neither beautiful or ugly, at least according to her. But, she was brusque in manner, subject to fits of violent anger, and given to unlady- like outrightness of speech. She could see no promise of happiness and little meaning in life.
Fortunately, some lives are shaped by the discovery of a book. Into Marie’s ken came, somehow, a copy of Montaigne’s essays of 1580. The reading of the book was a lightning shock, a portent, a mystical experience. Montaigne, that kindly, skeptical, middle-aged man in his book lined tower near Bordeaux would seem no soulmate for a volatile adolescent girl; but he taught that each of us is a worthy subject for study. Examining himself, he revealed Marie. His book was to her sacred, inerrant, its author only little less than a god.
The form that Montaigne invented, which was modestly named “Essais” was a total break with literary tradition. It summarized Montaigne’s
“attempts” to weld a narrative together out of personal opinions, conjecture, analysis in a manner that was removed from the great philosophers’ weight of certainty and authority, as he poses in the preface to his work: “I myself am the subject of my book”. It was the confessional literary form. Like Marie, Vriginia Woolf also also discovered with fascination Montaigne’s joys of digression and freedom from an imposed order: “I like … my formless way of speaking, free from rules and in the popular idiom, proceeding without definitions, subdivisions
…the ethics of subversion which underpin Woolf’s critical practice through her conception of the literary essay, as well as the aesthetics which its form presents as promulgated by its ‘modern’ inventor Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne was perfectly aware of a fact already lost to Woolf’s contemporary critics, that logic and linear progress are the artificial constructs of male education: “There is nothing fluent or polished about my language; it is rough and disdainful, with rhetorical arrangements which are free and undisciplined. And I like it that way … striving to avoid artificiality and affectation” Montaigne’s ambivalence towards the masculine culture implicit in this period is further enhanced by his rejection of certainties, his judgements being provisional, inconsistent and fluctuating as the very self he wishes to portray:
The world is but a perennial see-saw. Everything in it … all waver with a more languid rocking to and fro. I am unable to stabilize my subject: it staggers confusedly along with natural drunk
ss. I grasp it as it is now, at this moment when I am lingering over it. I am not portraying being but becoming: not the passage from one age to another … but from day to day, minute to minute.
Montaigne came to Paris in 1588 on a confidential mission for King Henry of Navarre and also to see a second edition of his “Essays” through the press. This coincided with a visit by Marie and her mother on family business. When Marie learned that Montaigne was in Paris she wrote him a fan letter that must have been a triumph of the genre. She gave evidence of her total immersion in Montaigne’s thought and style; she offered discipleship and adoration. No author, however cynical about human behavior, is proof against such appreciation.
Immediately, Montaigne called on Marie, and if we are to believe her, on that very day he termed her his “fille d’alliance,” his daughter by adoption. No doubt he uttered the words humorously, but Marie was never responsive to humor, and least of all at that sacred moment. Thenceforth, she called him “mon pere” and demanded, in all her writings, recognition of her daughtership.
Montaigne was now fifty-five and in poor health. His book was doing well, but it had never evoked such passionate enthusiasm as from Marie. He was touched considering his chilly relationship with his daughter. He was readily persuaded to pay long visits to the chateau. There he could talk at ease and of the new edition, of which he had the proofs. Some important additions to the manuscript are in her handwriting; they must have been written to her adoptive father’s dictation. It was an affectionate collaboration. But Montaigne essayed no union of the flesh;that would have been incestuous…… to be continued
The young Woolf reads Montaigne from an urgent need to communicate the sense of a self similarly at odds with its own time and culture. She may have felt that Montaigne’s elliptic writing was essentially feminine in his implicit rejection of the traditionally male modes of discourse. Furthermore, Montaigne’s choice of the vernacular as the vehicle to express himself drew him close to the realm of the female, where the vernacular articulated itself in opposition to male classical training, as Woolf would imply in “On Not Knowing Greek”—also included in The Common Reader—by pointing out a “tremendous breach of tradition” . Read More:http://www.publicacions.ub.edu/revistes/bells13/PDF/articles_06.pdf