In From Mother and Daughter: Poems, Dialogues, and Letters of Les Dames de Roches, Anne R. Larsen has produced a critical and effective edition that serves as a valuable introduction to the mother-daughter writing pair Madeleine and Catherine des Roches from late 16th-century France. Part of the series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe, published by the University of Chicago Press, Larsen's volume provides critical social, political, and religious context through which to understand the poems and other texts she has chosen to include. Larsen is particularly qualified to have edited this volume. She is the editor and translator of a three-volume critical edition of the collected writings of Les Dames de Roches: Les Oeuvres in 1993, Les Secondes oeuvres in 1998, and Les Missives in 1999, all published by Librairie Droz in Geneva.
There is much to like in this book. Like all the volumes in this series, this edition features an introduction to the series by editors Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil, Jr. King and Rabil provide an excellent overview of the social, political, historical, philosophical, religious, and literary environment that gave rise to what they call the emergence of the "other" voice in Early Modern Europe, that of both men and women who questioned the status quo of female subordination and lack of women's opportunity for education, political involvement, and literary and intellectual pursuits (xi). This introduction to the whole series is especially relevant and indispensable if the book were to be used in a women's literature course or an Early Modern literature course that covered the famous querelle des femmes (the "woman question") that featured both men and women addressing the changing ideas of women's place in both general society and intellectual environments. King and Rabil provide a historical review of attitudes toward women dating back to classical times in order to make it clear how the changing social and political environment starting in the later medieval European period made it possible for female authors like Christine de Pizan to openly question the traditional ideas of women. They also provide important contextual information about the tenets of humanism as well as the obsession with witches and witch hunting that set the foundation for women to write and publish in order to defend themselves on the one hand and demand their equality on the other. Finally, this series introduction includes a brief overview of the main issues addressed by many of the writings that the editors group under this "other voice" category. This section explains the delicate and precarious balancing act that female authors had to perform in order to counter misogynistic ideas of women that had prevailed for centuries and still lay claim to a respectable reputation that the very act of writing and publicly displaying intellect tended to deny.
The rest of the book is comprised of Larsen's own introduction to this particular edition and five chapters of selected poems and prose of the Des Roches. Chapters I and II include poems by Madeleine and Catherine respectively from their first publication, Les Oeuvres (1579), featuring the French originals and Larsen's translations on facing pages. Chapter III includes poems of both women from Les Secondes Oeuvres (1583), with the same French and English facing pages. In chapters IV and V, Larsen has included prose selections of the mother and daughter writers, in English only, as including the French originals would have made the book unwieldy. Chapter IV features The Dialogues of daughter Catherine from both the first Oeuvres and Les Secondes Oeuvres, while chapter V includes a selection of letters of both Madeleine and Catherine (to each other as well as to others) from their 1586 publication Les Missives. The book also includes two different bibliographies: Larsen's bibliography for this volume and a bibliography compiled by the series editors King and Rabil. Both bibliographies have an extensive listing of both primary and secondary sources, which makes them quite valuable to other scholars, and especially helpful to students who might be assigned a term paper in a class for which this book is assigned.
Larsen's introduction provides a critical and rich insight into a woman's world in the chaotic period of the French religious civil wars that deeply affected Madeleine des Roches especially, but that had a profound effect on her daughter Catherine as well. She includes relevant biographical details about both women that help to contextualize the texts that follow. She also supplies important historical and political information about the society of Poitiers, where mother and daughter lived, as well as the wider circle of intellectuals and nobility that afforded them the opportunity to publish and disseminate their writings, which included the French king Henri III and his influential mother Catherine de Medicis. Larsen calls the mother-daughter pair "among the best known and most prolific French women writers of the sixteenth century "who distinguished themselves for their bold assertion of women's right to auctoritas (poetic authority) in the realm of belles letters" (1). Although their writings, "suffused with an engaging feminist consciousness" (1), made them exceptional, their importance went beyond their literary activities. They were among the first women in France to host a circle of important elite intellectuals, upper gentry, and legal and royal officials, paving "the way for the flowering of the [literary] salon in the next century" (1-2). Such biographical and sociological information helps to make clear the boldness and impact of their writings, and gives indispensable context to the selections Larsen chose to include. Larsen writes: "they became astute political commentators: they addressed the issues of their day, the ravages of the religious civil wars, the necessity for greater justice and equity before the law, the weak monarchy, women's education, marriage and the family, violence against women, and the status of female intellectuals" (2). The poems and prose selections included in the volume do showcase these themes and provide evidence of just how well they navigated the fine line between accepted female public discourse and censured outspoken social criticism.
Larsen prefaces each chapter of the writings with critical analysis of the selections, including relevant discussion of writings by contemporary authors, both male and female, to highlight how the des Roches women both fit into and often surpassed the prevalent themes and concerns of the period. These short prefaces provide rich character analyses that extend the biographical material in Larsen's introduction, so that mother and daughter emerge as well-rounded individuals. Through these prefaces, readers can appreciate just how intimately the writings are tied to their philosophical, political, religious, and emotional perspectives and principles.
here are, however, a few small problems to be pointed out. While Larsen's general introduction does provide a wealth of biographical and socio-political information critical to understanding the texts, a few elements are given without much explanation. For instance, when explaining the composition of their publications, Larsen states that Catherine's contributions were much greater than her mother's in all three of the publications, but does not offer an explanation of why this might be the case. Other issues that do not have sufficient explanation are the contemporary reaction, if any, to Madeleine's taking charge of her daughter's education and encouragement to pursue intellectual activities instead of traditional marriage and domestic roles, contemporary criticism or censure of Catherine's refusal to marry, and clearer details about how they developed the intellectual and political/legal connections that led to their status as intellectual leaders and published authors. Some of these questions are answered in the prefaces to the chapters of the writings, especially the answers to Catherine's greater output and the reactions to Madeleine's unconventional molding of her daughter and Catherine's lifelong single status. Stronger clarity and continuity would have been achieved, however, with the inclusion of a brief reference indicating further analysis of those issues in the chapter prefaces. Although Larsen does explain that Madeleine des Roches' second husband was a member of the municipal council that afforded her entry into an elite society (3), this fact by itself does not fully explain how Madeleine and her daughter were able to develop the high respect and fame among that elite, especially at a time when women were not full participants in either the literary or political arena. One fact that is presented in the introduction as almost an off-hand remark is the circumstances of their deaths; they fell victim to the plague that swept through their region in the summer of 1587, and Larsen then reveals: "They were buried in an unmarked common grave" (15). She goes on to state that the women were subsequently eulogized, and, during their lives, they were praised and written about frequently by equally famous and celebrated authors. This common grave fact is never referred to again nor is it explained. One can only surmise that, because of the plague, bodies were buried quickly and without ceremony or headstones, but this is a point that should have been explained; these two women, with such powerful and important political, social, literary, and royal friends and admirers surely would have merited a less unceremonious burial. From an editing standpoint, the decision to shift between footnotes and endnotes in several chapters is annoying. The series introduction, Larsen's introduction, and the prose selection chapters (IV-V) use footnotes, while the poetry chapters (I-III) use end notes. No explanation for the shift in note style is provided and is potentially confusing. If there was a logical reason to use end notes with the poetry chapters (for length considerations perhaps), it would have been less confusing to have the end notes placed as chapter end notes, rather than as a separate note section after chapter V. In addition, in the poetry chapters that used end notes, I noticed a few places where note markers were absent in the text for end notes that appeared in the note section, which caused some confusion in trying to figure out what those notes referred to in the text. However, on the whole, these issues of unanswered questions and note style shifts do not detract from the overall excellence and usefulness of Larsen's volume. It is a worthy addition to a women's study course, a women's literature course, or a course in European Early Modern literature. Because Larsen provides translations of not only the des Roches texts but also of any foreign language quoted reference material (primarily French), this collection is suitable to use at the undergraduate or graduate level. Its text selections and reference material, including the excellent bibliographies, serve as a wonderful introductory volume to any scholar with an interest in gaining some insight into French Early Modern women's literature. Larsen has provided a critical and rich insight into a woman's world, the world of emerging women writers revealing their feminist consciousness, and the chaotic period of the French religious civil wars, all of which can provide insight into the social environment of other European Early Modern societies (England, Italy, Germany, Spain) that were also producing women writers (some of whom are included in the Other Voice series) who were defying and redefining cultural and social traditions.