14 May 2010

Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation and Jane Austen

I am most of the way through the section devoted to Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation in Natalie Zemon Davis's fascinating book Women on the Margins, Three Seventeenth Century Lives, and am struck by the similarity in the manner in which Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation and Jane Austen were portrayed after their death by their male relatives.

Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation became an Ursuline nun and left France to live in Québec where she worked closely with the Iroquois, Micmacs, Abenaki, Algonquins, Hurons and other Indian tribes who lived in the area where the Ursuline convent was established. This woman risked her life by devoting it to bringing the word of God to the native people she termed "savages". She translated essentially primers on religion and Catholicism in the Indian language, and wrote more than one book about theology. She also wrote a long journal of her life both in France and in Québec, which she sent to her son, Claude Martin, with the instruction that the journal was only for his eyes or those of another relative upon his death.

However, soon after Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation's death, Martin not only published the journal but edited them. As Davis writes, three concerns motivated him:

"to make sure that Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation was always in safe ground in regard to the doctrine and obedience to the Church... that Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation appear a trustworthy mystic... [and] to rid her language of elements offending elements of late seventeenth-century politesse..."

He also made reference more than once that since his mother was a woman and not learned (she did not go to school as he himself did, but was self-taught), allowances must be made for her and her published work.

The manner in which Martin engineered how his mother and her work was portrayed after her death reminded me of similar elements in A Memoir of Jane Austen by Her Nephew. J E Austen-Leigh wrote that Jane Austen was:

"a humble, believing Christian. Her life had been passed in the performance of home duties, and the cultivation of domestic affections, without any self-seeking or craving after applause. She had always sought, as it were by instinct, to promote the happiness of all who came within her influence, and doubtless she had her reward in the peace of mind which was granted her in her last days."

He is also quick to point out that his beloved aunt, of whom he seems to know very little,

"is entirely free from the vulgarity, which is so offensive in some novels, of dwelling on the outward appendages of wealth or rank, as if they were things to which the writer was unaccustomed; and, secondly, that she deals as little with very low as with very high stations in life."

Perhaps he had not taken into account that society frowned upon women speaking openly about sex and the embedded meaning behind the words his aunt used (read Austen's Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Language, Embedded History by Jill Heydt-Stevenson) or not understood the shock value of Mr Woodhouse quoting the first lines of the scandalous poem, "Kitty, a Fair But Frozen Maid" in Emma (for a discussion of that poem see http://addictedtojaneausten.blogspot.com/2008/06/mr-woodhouse-kitty-fair-but-frozen-maid.html).

Why is it that the next generation of men-folk see the need to sanitize the portrayal of two powerful and fascinating women? Is it because of their power and ability? In Claude Martin's case, is the sorrow and possibly, anger at his mother's abandonment of him when he was eleven, part of his motivation?

While both women, Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation and Jane Austen, had some rough edges, that did not make them any less valuable or worthy of respect. I wonder what makes those in their own families unable to accept these women as they were and to value them for themselves without feeling the need to gloss over qualities that might be seen as objectionable. Do the male relatives feel threatened by the women who are entering into their realm and are having some measure of success?

07 May 2010


On May Day, I discovered that I won a grant through Demand Studios to put toward my third historical novel, which is set in 1800 England, and entitled Lord Wellesbourne, AKA The Return of Hope. The company broke new ground by awarding me that grant, for it was the first to have been given to a work of fiction.

As if that were not enough, I also learned that a publisher requested the full manuscript for my second book, The Lobsterman, which is set in past and present Portland, Maine.

What a way to start the month of May!