The International Literary Quarterly

February 2008

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. From Apology for the Woman Writing by Jenny Diski  

(scheduled to appear Autumn 2008)

Marie de Gournay was the untutored daughter of a minor aristocrat in the 16th century. She spent her days in her father's library of 200 hundred books and by the time she was a young woman had taught herself Latin, by comparing texts. She also came across the first two volumes of the essays of Montaigne and was so excited by them that she had to be given a soporific to calm her down. She determined to meet him, and to become a professional writer. The novel, Apology For The Woman Writing, traces Marie de Gournay's life from youth and the outrageous ambition to be an independent woman writer, to the lived reality of her daydreams.


For Marie, her father's library in Gournay was an escape from her present and from her preordained future. She slipped through the dark panelled door at every moment of the day and night, whenever she could escape being tutored how to be someone's wife, some house's keeper, some child's mother. Jeanne or one of the servants only had to take their eyes off her for a second, and she was gone. And strangely, although they called out her name in mounting aggravation, and climbed the stairs breathing heavily in search of her, they only ever opened the library door, called out her name once again, paused for the briefest moment before crashing the door behind them, and giving up the search. Marie was invariably there. She sat half-curled or flat out on the floor behind the table with a book or manuscript in front of her, unsighted from the door. They entered, called out her name, and then left. And yet they surely knew she was there; that the library was her home in the world, her particular place, where she spent her free time. Certainly they knew: 'What is in that roomful of words that you like so much?' her mother often demanded, without waiting for her daughter to formulate an answer. It was her mother's question, to which she required no answer, that first made Marie wonder what actually it was that she liked so much. For the first few years, she could barely read, but she manhandled the volumes she could reach down to the floor and turned their pages, heard the creak and crackle, smelt the papery, cottony smell, almost like her newly laundered chemise but more acrid, and the warm, spiced scent of leather, like a wild horse tamed. She ran her fingertips over the calf bindings and the embossing, catching the ridges and smoothness. Turned the pages, stiff woven paper heavy with inked markings that gradually became separated and recognisable as words, then sentences, until eventually the full existence and meaning of a book came clear to her. So at first it wasn't a roomful of words as her mother had delightfully suggested, it was a roomful of objects that had no other place in the world. Two hundred, once she could count that far. The bindings were pored over, the pictures gazed at, the pages turned. First they were objects that gave pleasure to her all her senses. Toys. And then more. Objects with a function. A room full of words, a room full of sentences, a room full of meaning if she could only interpret them. The library became the world she chose to explore. Gradually, as she associated the books with more than sensual pleasure. She pulled down books and when she found one written in the French she had by now been taught, she began to read them, at first in a scattered way as a bee dances over a flowering bush, and then reading on in a single book, getting the idea of each being a discrete entity devoted to an interest of its own. And finally, coming to understand that behind each entity was a mind. That a book was an object filled with the thinking of a mind which belonged to a single person, alive or once alive. Thoughts bound between leather and kept forever ready for another mind to explore. Her thoughts came and passed and went she could never know where. But a book held a person's thoughts so that someone else could entertain them, borrow them, enjoy them and then come back another day, month, year and consider them all over again. Books were boxes of thoughts, held fast by writing, made by a new breed of beings called writers. Eventually, the answer to her mother's question was so detailed that it was impossible to articulate. Simplified, she would have said: writing…no, writers was what she liked so much about that room full of words. But by the time she got the answer Marie also knew that her mother did not want to know it and would have been profoundly unimpressed with the one her daughter had devised.

Many of the books were incomprehensible, even once she had learned to read. Opening volume after volume, she found the letters danced as meaninglessly as they had when she was an illiterate baby. Her shock was physical, and her anger at discovering that there were still secrets the library withheld from her was sharp. She did not know Latin. No one thought it a necessary skill for a female child. She spelled out a title: Aeneid. One day, on another shelf she discovered a second copy called Aeniad and wondered why there were two. When she got it down, she saw that only the title was in Latin and that the text was in French. She read it, and instead of leaving it at that and allowing the Latin version to rest on its shelf, she had another thought. Translation was a unknown idea to her, but if it was possible to take a book and turn its words into another language then each word must have its counterpart in that language, in every language. She imagined Latin as a code, like the codes she and her siblings sometimes devised for keeping things from the adults. Latin was a secret writing to which she believed she may have found the key. If the two books were the same, apart from their language, then if she read them side by side, word by word, sentence by sentence, she might learn Latin all by herself. She scoured the shelves and discovered several books in both languages. The child may not have had domestic skills or god-given good looks, but she possessed tenacity, and a dogged desire to understand everything that was written or printed between covers. She had no idea of the difficulty of the solitary task she set herself so she simply got on with it, and on and on until very slowly and after years of work she was quite fluent in reading and even writing Latin. It was a game, an assignment, a marvellous never-ending puzzle to be solved, as producing succulent meals, intricate embroidery, and a perfectly run household might be to another girl. Marie lived in her father's library in every possible way. It was her breath, her heartbeat, and, when she moved permanently to Gournay, it became her Paris, with all its hopes and dreams.

The stolen library hours of Marie's youth in Gournay were a preparation, though it was fifteen years before she knew for what. Apart from her bookish explorations in her father's study, nothing of any moment had happened to her by the time she was eighteen. It looked very much as though nothing was going to happen to her – so her mother feared. Neither marriage nor piety appeared to hold any interest for her and she remained practically useless at the only possibility left for a useful life: to be domestically competent enough to take over the household duties from Jeanne as she got older. So far as Jeanne was concerned, at eighteen her eldest child might as well still have been eleven for all the progress she had made toward a functioning worldly existence. She had become a woman in the sense that her body was ready for its duties: she bled regularly each month and her awkward, angular childish limbs and torso had softened and rounded somewhat. The narrow, pointed chin and fleshier cheeks gave her a heart-shaped face which just avoided the sharpness of her childhood severity, and looked in some lights if not pretty, then striking at least. But her beady black eyes were too prominent, her nose too emphatic and her mouth too small and tight for most lights. She was far from beautiful, though her plainness was alleviated by the momentary succulence of her perfect youth. She looked tense, always. Even when she smiled there was a tightness around her eyes, and an ambiguity in the curve of her lips that could easily be read as anxiety. When she wasn't smiling, which was most often, her features contracted into a clouded concern that hovered on the verge of crossness. Jeanne had no illusions that Marie would find a husband without an enormous and continuous effort at style and manners, or at least a greatly improved interest in household matters, neither of which seemed to be her daughter's inclination. Preparations were already in hand for Madeleine's betrothal to the Lord of Bouvray, a more than satisfactory alliance, though it was a test to find the dowry, and Marthe, two years younger than Marie, but far more personable and accomplished, would not be looking for a husband for long. So for her oldest daughter, as for her youngest, Léonore, it would have to be the convent.

Few of her father's book were left unread now, not even those in Latin. Marie's progress with Greek was slower (her Uncle Louis had helped her understand the unfathomable characters), but there seemed to be very little hurry. The more books she read and the more Latin she learned, the more it seemed to Marie that a good life might be spent in the company of books. Everything else would be an interruption to her reading. To become a nun would be a continual interruption. Nuns were, she knew, less free than children to secrete themselves in a corner and read whatever took their fancy. Marriage would be an interruption. What time did her mother have to read, even when her father was alive, even if she had thought it a decent use of time? Taking care of a household and children took up all the hours in a day, and a living husband might interrupt a wife even more. She resolved to be neither a nun or a wife. She could see nothing wrong with just reading books. But could a grown woman, by definition with no formal education, have a life that was devoted to reading? That is, did such a life exist in the world to be lived? According to her mother, even reading in one's spare moments was a waste, and she had never heard of anyone who could live only by reading books. If such a one existed – she could barely imagine it – it was certain it would not be a woman. Yet, the more she thought, the less reason there seemed to be why she shouldn't. Except for the matter of money. Only a too limited income might prevent such a life. Money was very short these days, with the preparations for her sister's marriage and the dowry. Marthe would need one also. Charles was already costing a good deal in his military career in Italy, and Augustin was still a baby whose future would have to be paid for. After upkeep for the chateau, there would be very little left over from their dwindling resources to keep a single woman in a life of reading. But what would she require? Food, clothes, a roof over her head. She had no interest in elaborate garments or fine food; she could forgo any unnecessary travel if she was in the right place to start with. Why should she not live a frugal life, reading books, translating them, thinking about them? Of course, she was not, and if she remained in Gournay without marrying she never would be, grand enough to have a salon of her own, nor even to attend one like those in Paris she had heard tell of, where the thinkers of the day came to discuss and share their thoughts. Uncle Louis spoke to her about the learning of Catherine de' Medici and Marguerite de Valois, and the salons they kept where everybody went. Mary Stuart had composed a Latin prayer and recited it to the entire court when she was just fourteen. Women could be learned and spend time in their libraries. They were great queens and princesses, of course, with retinues and vast wealth, but surely, if she determined to want very little and was content to read and think, rather than discuss ideas with the elite of Paris, there would be enough money left over from her sisters' dowries and the cost of supporting her brothers for her to lead a modest, quiet life, her only expenditure books, in some small corner of Paris, uninterrupted by domestic or religious duties. Why shouldn't she? Because it was just a dream of a life. There was no precedent that she could think of in any corner of the social world into which she had been born. She knew not to mention the idea to her mother, who would have reiterated – horrified – Marie's fears that such a life was not available to be lived, and doubtless made immediate arrangements with the local convent.

There were few visitors to Gournay, but from time to time her uncle, Louis le Jars, visited from Paris and brought with him the scent of the sophisticated literary world Marie increasingly ached for. He was a secretary at the court of Henri III, but also a playwright, one of those, it gradually dawned on Marie, who was recognised and even justified in the world for the words he put down on paper. His plays were performed. People paid for tickets to watch them. There were, she came to understand, people who not only lived a life reading, but who also wrote what others read, for a living. It dawned on her over time that some of the books she read were written by actual, living, breathing persons, and that these persons were what might be called writers, as other were called wives or nuns, some of whom, she supposed, must be paid for their efforts. Books cost money to buy – she knew that only too well – so were those who wrote them in receipt of payment? Aristotle and Ronsard, Plutarch and Erasmus wrote, were writers, just like Uncle Louis. Writers by profession. They had spent, and did spend their time poring over manuscripts and writing down their ideas. What they wrote was published. People bought their books and discussed what they read in them, waited even, from the living ones, for the next volume to come out. Behind the words between the covers of the books she read, people actually existed. And one of them, Christine de Pisan, writing over a hundred years ago, was neither a man nor a nun.

Louis liked his niece and her oddness. He always brought her a book of poetry or the newest romance when he came to visit, to Jeanne's disgust. 'A household manual would be more useful,' she would snap at him. Uncle Louis took some pleasure in telling Marie stories of his life in Paris; she responded to them with a rare excitement. He was actually a friend of Ronsard and other members of the Pléiade and brought her the latest volumes of their poetry. And quietly, when his sister-in-law wasn't nearby to scold them both, he would tell her who was saying what, in which salons they were saying it, and what they were wearing when they said it. Marie listened and took in every nuance she could grasp, like a young animal learning the scents on the air, but there was also an anguish in knowing that she could not be there among them, in the streets and salons of Paris, nodding to d'Aubigné and passing the visiting Giordano Bruno on the street, attending Garnier's latest play, buying the new collection of de Baïf's verse. Aged eighteen, and as removed from nodding, attending and buying as it was possible to be, she hated Gournay, in spite of the life-enhancing library. It was her prison, her tower, where no prince would ever come to her rescue. Often at night she lay in bed and imagined returning to Paris with Uncle Louis, but for all her uselessness at home, it was out of the question that she would be allowed to leave, or that, in truth, he would want to take responsibility for an unmarriageable niece who was not even able to make his life more comfortable.

In the spring of 1584 Louis came to stay for a few weeks and brought Marie two volumes of a work which he told her had been gathering momentum among the most discerning sections of society for the past two years. Louis explained that the books contained what were called by their author 'essays': attempts, tryouts, testings – it was hard to define this word in its new literary coining. The writings that made up the two volumes were not poetry, not polemic nor rhetoric, but whatever they might be, they were really remarkably interesting, and not quite like anything else – not to say in parts, Louis whispered with a collusive smile, quite unsuitable for the delicate mind of a young unmarried girl. Marie thanked him with her awkward smile which though genuine she knew failed to convey her pleasure and gratitude. There seemed to be an unbridgeable gap between her feelings and what her face managed to express. In the presence of another human being, even Uncle Louis, her body tightened, her shoulders rose and her eyes glared and slid away from contact even when she meant them to express warmth. She could feel the inaccuracy of her body as it took instruction from her intentions and then continued on its own jerky, withdrawn way. Yet behind her clumsily polite acceptance of the gift, the fact that Uncle Louis, the playwright from Paris, the bosom companion of the great Ronsard, considered her someone who would want to read what everyone with discernment was reading made her heart thunder with pride.

Marie rushed the two small volumes to the library to wait for her, before her mother could take them and tell her that she might read them when she had unpicked the mess of her last embroidery effort and satisfactorily completed another attempt. She would save up Uncle Louis's gift for when he had left and there were no more stories of Parisian life to divert her. Who knew when he would come again with more books and tales? Lately, Marie had begin to imagine, though she tried not to, a moment arriving when all the books in her father's library had been read, twice, three times. Could a time come when, after who knows how many readings, the idea of beginning all over again filled her with the same deadly tedium as the need to organise the following evening's dinner? At present it seemed impossible that she would ever have enough of her books, but it seemed a little less impossible with every volume she finished and returned to the shelf. A new book extended the possibility of her reading life so that she could avoid the idea of using up her library. Of course, new books could be ordered from Paris, but the cost was immense and her mother would never permit it, though Marie would have been happy to spend her wedding or convent dowry on books rather than a husband or that other secure place in the world. She worked hard at suppressing panicky thoughts about a time when she would no longer want to re-read the books she had, and persuaded herself that she could not help but be content so long as she had her place in the library (she still curled up on the floor behind the table, for all her eighteen years) and there were pages to turn. A new book was the greatest of treasures.

In the world beyond Paris and the chateau in Gournay, the wars between the believers in the old and new religions had reignited after a lull. Towns were laid to siege, battles devastated the countryside, impoverishing and killing citizens of both, but miraculously, at least for now, Picardie was calm in the midst of the troubles. It was unlikely to be immune, however, to a season of plague which was beginning to sweep through Southern France and work its way north. All the more reason for staying where one was, living inside the protective, provincial walls of the chateau and keeping oneself to oneself. Marie had started to make translations of Virgil. Jeanne, harried and getting older, fretted about Madeleine's forthcoming marriage arrangements, encouraged Marthe to refine her domestic and social skills before her presentation in Paris once the danger of plague had died away, and permitted Léonore to spend all the time she wanted with the nuns of the local convent even if it did mean a certain risk in breathing the air of the outside world. There was little she could do about Marie except insist on her practising household duties enough to prevent an actual deterioration in her limited abilities. Louis returned to Paris, the court, the salons, the theatres, the writers, rested but enthused to be back in the real world in spite of its dangers. It was time for Marie to attend to the books on the library table and find out what the discerning Parisians were finding so interesting. It was time, also, to discover what all the years of her reading and devotion to the library had been preparing her for.

The two small volumes waited for Marie on the library table, side by side. Louis had had them nicely bound. Nothing elaborate, no tooling, just plain tanned calfskin, quite smooth to the eye, soft to the touch, though with a light stroke her fingertips could discern the natural undulations of the leather. Marie picked up one of the books and held it in her hand. It was thick and quite weighty, but no more than the height and width of her prayer book and lay comfortably, barely overlapping her palm. Closing her hand around the bulky volume, solid in her grasp, she brought it up close to her face and with both hands she opened it and snapped it closed several times, causing puffs of air, as if from the life's breath inside the covers, to blow coolly on to her skin. She opened it and lifted it to her nose to inhale the smell of new leather and freshly produced rag. The sharp scent of paper hit the back of her throat, then deepened and darkened into the complex smell of treated hide, both animal and chemical, and finally she caught the special high note of newness. None of the books in the library smelled quite like this any more. The perfume of a new book was like nothing else. After she had read these volumes and they lived on the shelves beside or beneath the other books, they would take on their smell. Old library. A much more intricate scent than newness which included the indefinable odour of having been read. These days, being herself an integral part of the library, a hint of Marie mingled with leather and rag, wood, dust and time. She hoped too that the aroma of books had merged permanently with her own personal smell so that she carried it with her everywhere. She never opened the windows of the library, fearing that its perfume would escape, or that the scent of bright spring or autumn, icy winter or torrid summer would enter and be incorporated, detracting from the precious aroma of stale bookishness. The library had become a living, developing entity to Marie. It had a creatureness into which she hoped to become inextricably merged. It breathed and brooded, waited, and once when she was younger, had expressed itself to her directly. One stiflingly hot, dry day, as she crouched on the floor behind the table leafing through a hefty book of maps, there was a sudden commotion on the other side of the room that made her jump up in fright. A snap like a whip being cracked and then a loud slap of an object landing heavily. When she got the courage to go across the room and investigate, she saw an octavo edition of Plutarch's Lives in French lying open, face down on the wooden floorboards, several feet away from where it had been shelved. Unless there were ghostly others in the room (an idea she considered and set aside to think about later), it had leapt out and away from its place of its own accord. Made a bid for freedom. Had it wanted to be read? A book that jumped from its shelf, a wilful book that desired to make itself known to her. An army of ghostly others could not have excited her imagination more. She let the ghosts out of her mind to go their way, picked up the book, and acceding to its wishes, took it back with her to her place on the floor behind the table, marvelling at the life it contained, even before she discovered the life of the words she read between the yellowish vellum binding.