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13.07.15, Findley, Poet Heroines

13.07.15, Findley, Poet Heroines

It is a definite pleasure to review Brook Heidenreich Findley's new book. This generally very well-written and well-argued study examines an intriguing, and seemingly diverse, series of medieval French narratives from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, including Aucassin et Nicolette, Beuve de Hantonne, Perceforest, and Machaut's Voir-Dit, which are convincingly grouped together by Findley through their deployment of the trope of the inscribed woman poet.

The book's second sentence effectively summarizes both Findley's approach and her aims, "Basing its approach on close readings of fictional figures of women poets within a specific corpus of thirteenth- through fifteenth-century French works, it [the book] aims to rethink portrayals of literary creation, as performed by gendered bodies, within a cultural context in which individual authorship remains a problematic concept" (1). Findley elaborates on this succinct statement a few pages later, bringing to the fore the feminist focus of her study, "this book primarily seeks to uncover a set of metaphors linking the feminine with the functions of the poet/writer. It finds that figures of women poets are repeatedly associated with materiality, the body, and sexuality; with cross-dressing and gender bending; with the lyric as opposed to the narrative and singing as opposed to writing; and, ultimately, with a vision of literary creation as feminized and sexualized--a vision that has profound consequences for both male and female writer figures" (11).

Findley's study not only does exactly what she claims it will, but, via its combination of close readings and feminist theory, it also produces important new insights into medieval narrative, its depictions of gender, and its conception of literary creation. Even in those occasional places where the study fails to reach such lofty heights--for example, a close reading needing more development or a theoretical analysis less than effectively integrated into its larger argument--it consistently offers intriguing discussions and an appealing theoretical approach.

After a substantive introduction, the body of the study is divided into three sections, each containing two chapters. In Part I: "From Minstrel Heroine to Poet Heroine: The Thirteenth Century and Beyond," Chapter 1 examines the "minstrel heroines" of the section title in four narratives with heroines who cross-dress to perform their works: Aucassin et Nicolette, Galeran de Bretagne, Beuve de Hantonne, and Perceforest, while Chapter 2 looks Sone de Nansay where the female poet is split into two characters: the primary heroine is the composer while a secondary female figure performs the song in her place. Part II moves on to the fourteenth-century Dit, considering Machaut's Voir-Dit (Chapter 3) and Froissart's Prison Amoureuse, and Part III concludes with a double examination of fifteenth-century prose romances: first, Perceforest (Chapter 6) and then Ysaÿe le Triste (Chapter 6). An interesting and well-conceived conclusion closes the volume.

The Introduction lays out Findley's theoretical foundations, moving from Alistair Minnis to Marjorie Garber via Stephen Nichols, Nancy Miller and Judith Butler, E. Jane Burns and Caroline Walker Bynum (to name only a few), as Findley introduces the issues central to her study: medieval concepts of authorship, the portrayal of women as literary "creators," and how to apply modern theoretical frameworks to medieval texts without abandoning historical specificity. The mix of medievalists and feminist theorists is emblematic of the larger study, which never loses sight of the specificity of medieval texts as it incorporates feminist insights into its analysis.

The second part of the Introduction (along with the initial pages of Chapter 1) focuses on defining the corpus of texts, and on defending the choices made. Findley restricts her study to examples of lyric insertions that, "not only portray female characters as poets but quote, usually extensively, from those characters' works" (8). This definition thus excludes from her corpus a number of well-known texts that portray female jongleurs, such as the Roman de Silence, or those where the female character does not author the songs she sings, as in Jean Renart's Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole. Although at first glance such restrictions might appear regrettable, as Findley's argument develops the wisdom of her choices becomes clear, for the study makes its greatest contributions via its investigation of the sexualized embodiment of inscribed female (lyric) author figures, and it is the presence in the narrative of both features--authorship and performance--that allows the argument to be something greater than a simple panorama of a trope or motif.

The Introduction also includes (along with a concluding section summarizing the rest of the book) a brief excursus on Marie de France, as a "historical" female author, in order to show, "on the one hand, the persistence of the theme of the text's genesis from lost oral sources, and, on the other hand, the danger of the assumption that a woman's signature can tell us anything at all about the ways in which that text might gender literary creation" (17–18). In a neat parallel construction, the Conclusion picks up this thread by examining Christine de Pizan and her rejection of the trope of the poet heroine in order to emphasize her intellect and reason, and to steer away from erotic passion.

The bulk of Chapter 1 looks at what we might call the "prototype" poet heroine: "female characters who disguise themselves as professional entertainers to facilitate escape and travel, and who perform poetic works in public…" (29). Drawing primarily on Maria Coldwell's and Susan Boynton's work, Findley first succinctly presents the evidence for historical women both performing and composing lyrics. The main thrust of the argument is to establish that a noblewoman performing in public represented a "transgressive crossing of class and/or gender lines" (132), a key underlying premise for the remainder of the book's analysis. The ensuing discussions of each of the minstrel heroines focus primarily on their bodies--disguised, in some cases abused, and then revealed--and their relationship to the heroine's act of singing as a performative act. This double focus (on the female body and the female singing--and composing later in the book) introduces the main threads of Findley's argument, which she quite skillfully weaves throughout the book, refocusing and recombining them to elucidate each of the texts she studies.

The remaining chapters each focus on an individual text, although not necessarily on a single heroine, for several of the narratives deploy multiple female poet figures, including the Prison Amoureuse, Perceforest and Ysaÿe le Triste. Each chapter can be read by itself for the light it sheds on a particular text and its heroine or heroines, and, indeed, there is much to be gleaned from Findley's nuanced close readings of, for example, the lyrics produced and circulated by Flos's and Rose's ladies in the Prison Amoureuse, or those of the "minor" female characters in Perceforest: Blanche, Priande and Liriope. (Indeed, the chapters on Froissart and Perceforest are two of the best in the book). However, Findley's argument really shines when the book is read as a whole. Criticisms I noted as I was reading earlier chapters faded as I moved further into the book, in large part because my concerns were addressed by the unfolding of the discussion. (I also think that Findley is more comfortable with the later texts). For example, the lack of significant discussion of the chronological gap between Perceforest and the other narratives studied in Chapter 1, or the parallel lack of a developed consideration of generic differences between verse romance, dit, and prose romance--not to mention Aucassin et Nicolette's genre-bending--are only barely addressed explicitly, and so, in the earlier chapters and particularly Chapter 1, the lack is noticeable. However, they are addressed implicitly throughout the study, and so, by the later chapters, the reader understands where Findley is going with her argument, and how the chronological development plays into her analysis.

Another strength of the book, which becomes increasingly evident as one progresses through the chapters, is the way in which Findley adapts and individualizes her approach for each of the texts. For example, her presentation of Beuve de Hamptone takes into consideration throughout the multiple extant versions of the romance, whereas the discussion of Galeran de Bretagne involves its relationship to previous texts, including but not restricted to, Marie de France's Lai de Fresne. Similarly, the discussion of Sone de Nansay in Chapter 2 connects the narrative's portrayal of "feminine creativity as both foundational and inaccessible" (72) to the text's enigmatically identified patroness, Fane of Beirut. Similar statements could be made for each of the chapters, and texts.

There are a few things that would have made this an even better book than it is. Firstly, in a few places the feminist theory feels "tacked on" to a chapter or section, needing a bit more fleshing out and/or a better integration with the rest of the chapter. This is an area where later chapters are stronger than earlier ones; for example, the discussion of performativity and performative utterances in Chapter 1 leaves the reader wanting more, whereas the use of Judith Butler's work to elucidate Perceforest in Chapter 6 works extremely well. Similarly, while overall Findley does an outstanding job of juggling both feminist theory and medieval historical context, the discussion of the purported dedicatee of Sone de Nansay, Fane of Beirut, could have benefited from being longer and more developed. (Questions of female patronage being one of this reviewer's areas of research, I may of course simply be a particularly desirous reader on this topic!) Secondly, but in the same vein, the vast majority of Findley's close readings are wonderfully insightful and very often original, building on others' work but also uncovering new and important aspects of the text, nonetheless, there are some that would have benefited from more development, and (in some places) more citations from the text(s) to support the readings. This was particularly noticeable for this reviewer in the chapter on Machaut's Voir-Dit and in the small section of the otherwise excellent chapter on Froissart that discusses Deschamps.

My last critique is not really a critique, but rather a cri du coeur from an engaged reader for footnotes, rather than endnotes! The lack of footnotes was particularly deleterious to Findley's argument in the section dealing with Beuve de Hamptone, where she juggles multiple versions of the text and only provides citations, in several cases, in the footnotes.

Finally, while I suspect that almost every scholar who reads this book will wish that something more had been included, whether it be a greater awareness of the manuscripts or a more explicit discussion of generic or chronological developments, etc., those desires will in fact be a sign of the quality of Findley's analysis and the success of her argument, for they will reflect her readers' engagement with the subject and awareness of its significance. In short, this is a volume that deserves to be widely read by medieval literary scholars, and feminist scholars of French literature more broadly as it offers much not only to scholars of the medieval French texts it studies, but also to those concerned with the intersection of women and medieval literary production more broadly. Indeed it can likely be read with much profit by scholars concerned with issues of female literary creation in other periods, for it offers innovative, insightful analysis that has application and implications well beyond the corpus of texts it studies.