‘Ambiguous Beings’: Marginality, Melancholy, and the Femme Savante
Few personae seemed to vex the French Enlightenment quite so deeply as that of the overtly cerebral woman: although learned women enjoyed a prominent role both at court and in the Parisian salon, they were nonetheless vulnerable to the biting ridicule made popular years earlier by Molière’s satire of pretentiously intellectual précieuses, Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies; 1672).1 Despite efforts made by Madame de Lambert, Mercier, Thomas, and others to refute the notion that learning was nothing more than a vainglorious fad among women, Molière’s comedy still cast a long shadow in eighteenth-century France: it inspired numerous stage spin-offs, permeated biomedical discussions of sexual difference, and tainted the public image of women like Émilie du Châtelet, who was viciously attacked after her death for having appeared too ‘singular’ in both her scholarly aspirations and her love life.2 The double bind that confronted learned women is evident in Voltaire’s ‘Eloge historique de Madame du Châtelet,’ where he simultaneously lauded his late mistress’s quest for intellectual glory and praised her lady-like ability to hide her erudition from everyone except her fellow geometers and Newton specialists. In a comment that shows how firmly social demands circumscribed the exercise of the reasoning female mind in Enlightenment France, Voltaire declared: ‘never was a woman more scholarly than she, and never did anyone deserve less that one say of her: “she’s a femme savante” … amidst a mass of projects that the most laborious scholar would scarcely have undertaken, who would have believed that she found time not just to fulfill all the duties of society but avidly seek out all of its amusements? She devoted herself to high society as she did to study.’3 In other words, a woman like Châtelet might be just as adept as a man in cultivating knowledge, but her scholarly achievements had to be counterbalanced by an equal degree of success in the elite social realm.
KeywordsEighteenth Century Love Life Sexual Distinction Artistic Talent Scholarly Achievement
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- 10.Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, Rapports du physique et du moral de l’homme (Slatkine, 1980 ); On the Relations between the Physical and Moral Aspects of Man, ed. George Mora, trans. Margaret Duggan Mora (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), vol. I: 225. On Cabanis’s preoccupation with virility and reproduction, see Daniel Teyssière, ‘Lien social et ordre politique chez Cabanis,’ Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 267 (1989), 353–400.Google Scholar
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