L’ortografe des dames: Gender and Language in the Old Regime

  • Dena Goodman


What greater pleasure for a researcher than to have in her hands and before her eyes the very manuscripts written by a woman of the past she seeks to understand? What greater frustration than struggling to decipher not just the handwriting, but the spelling! More than two hundred years after the death of the noted salonnière Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, her manuscripts are my only contact with the corporeal woman. But due to her poor spelling, reading her letters makes the same sensory impact on me that I imagine smelling her unwashed body might. Moreover, it is painfully obvious that the men of letters with whom Geoffrin consorted and to whose success she contributed so materially had no such hidden shame: their manuscript letters may reveal the occasional slip, but they are basically sound in the mechanics of spelling and grammar. The letter as body is gendered, and the shameful body is female.


Eighteenth Century Seventeenth Century Sixteenth Century Shameful Body French Language 
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  1. 23.
    Gabriele Beck-Busse, ‘Les “femmes” et les “illitterati”; ou: la question du latin et de la langue vulgaire,’ in La grammaire des dames (special issue), ed. Wendy Ayres-Bennett, Histoire, épistémologie, langage 16 (1994): 77–94.Google Scholar
  2. 33.
    L.-F. Flûtre, ‘Du rôle des femmes dans l’élaboration des Remarques de Vaugelas,’ Neophilologus 38 (1954): 241–48. Flûtre argues that Vaugelas was not the ‘Legislator of Parnassus’ he is painted to be by Molière in Les femmes savantes, but the’ secretary’ of the salons, especially that of Mme de Rambouillet, where for thirty-five years he had registered the least variations of language usage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 76.
    As Biedermann-Pasques points out, though, the accusation of ‘barbarism’ was used by both sides in the seventeenth century (Grand courants, 47). On the eighteenth-century association of women with civilization, see Sylvana Tomaselli, ‘The Enlightenment Debate on Women,’ History Workshop Journal 20 (1985): 101–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 81.
    See Domna C. Stanton, ‘The Fiction of Préciosité and the Fear of Women,’ Yale French Studies 62 (1981): 107–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 100.
    On the responsibility mothers bore in protecting and preparing their daughters for marriage, see Nadine Bérenguier, ‘L’infortune des alliances: Contrat, mariage, et fiction au dixhuitième siècle,’ Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 329 (1995): 271–417.Google Scholar

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© Dena Goodman 2005

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  • Dena Goodman

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