‘Ambiguous Beings’: Marginality, Melancholy, and the Femme Savante

  • Anne C. Vila


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.


Eighteenth Century Love Life Sexual Distinction Artistic Talent Scholarly Achievement 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 10.
    Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, Rapports du physique et du moral de l’homme (Slatkine, 1980 [1802]); 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
  2. 19.
    See Christine Battersby, Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 71–90.Google Scholar
  3. 20.
    Tissot had already implied that the physiological effect of intense reading and meditation is tantamount to castration; De la santé des gens de lettres, ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+). I discuss the legacy of that idea — for example, Virey’s notion of ‘cerebral-genital antagonism’ — in’ sex, Procreation, and the Scholarly Life from Tissot to Balzac,’ Eighteenth-Century Studies 32:2 (2001), ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+). On the biomedical theory of limited vital energy, see Elizabeth A. Williams, The Physical and the Moral: Anthropology, Physiology and Philosophical Medicine in France, ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 85–105.Google Scholar
  4. 21.
    Julien-Joseph Virey, De l’influence des femmes sur le goût dans la littérature et les beaux-arts, pendant le XVII et le XVIII siècle (Paris: Déterville, 1810), 16. au]22._Madelyn Gutwirth cites the many misogynist comments that Napoleon made about Staël — including his slur about her genitalia — in Madame de Staël, Novelist: The Emergence of the Artist as Woman (University of Illinois Press, 1987), 287. Balzac called Mme de Staël a ‘virago of the nineteenth century’ and repeated Napoleon’s allegation that she had made a ‘vulgar attempt’ to marry the Emperor; Honoré de Balzac, La Physiologie du mariage in La Comédie humaine (Paris: Pléiade, 1980), vol. XI, 1022.Google Scholar
  5. 32.
    Broadly speaking, ‘Idéologie’ meant the science of ideas: its Revolutionary-era adherents viewed themselves as disciples of the eighteenth-century sensationalist philosopher Condillac, who emphasized both the empirical analysis of the mind and the importance of clear language in all philosophical systems. On ‘Idéologie’ in turn-of-the century French medicine, see Fran’s Picavet, Les Idéologues (Paris: Alcan, 1896), Staum, Cabanis: Enlightenment and Medical Philosophy, esp. ([0-9])–([0-9]) and ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+); E. Williams, The Physical and the Moral, ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+); and Sergio Moravia, ‘Philosophie et médecine en France à la fin du XVIIIe siècle,’ Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century LXXXIX (1972) 1089–1151.Google Scholar
  6. 74.
    See Lorraine Daston, ‘The Naturalized Female Intellect,’ Science in Context 5, 2 (1992), 209–35, esp. ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Anne C. Vila 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anne C. Vila

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations