by Felicia Londré
Book Review: "In telling their remarkable story, Professor Backer reveals why these very ladies who sighed over shallow literature, spoke in contrived metaphors, and ultimately became the target of Moliere's satire, were nevertheless the first women anywhere to band together in consciousness of their womanly plight."
Scarcely a generation before Molière, Paris theatre was not at all geared to polite ladies. The plays performed in converted indoor tennis courts were full of rough-and-tumble action, fight scenes, and even indelicate language. Those tragi-comedies might have evolved into something like the barbaric works of Shakespeare if it had not been for a woman whose influence helped change the course of French drama and pave the way for Molière's genius.
Cathérine de Vivonne (1588-1665) was married at age twelve to a man nearly twice her age, Charles d'Angennes (1577-1652), who later acceded to the title of Marquis de Rambouillet. Appalled at the vulgarity of swaggering male aristocrats even at the court of Henri IV, she renounced going out in society. After dutifully bearing a few children, she acquired a convenient illness that kept her bed-ridden and free from becoming further inconvenienced by pregnancy. She remodeled the Rambouillet mansion to feature a suite of rooms leading to her chambre bleue (blue room), where she could recline on her bed to receive friends and literary celebrities who met her standards of polite manners and good conversation.
From the 1610s on, the Marquise de Rambouillet led a quiet revolution in taste. Regulars at her salon often adopted pastoral names; hers was Arthénice, an anagram of her name Cathérine. Admission to Arthénice's chambre bleue Tuesdays became so prestigious that a widening circle actively upgraded the norms of civilized social interaction. The theatrical turning point came in 1636 when Pierre Corneille wrote Le Cid, still inevitably bearing some traces of the old tragi-comic swashbuckle, but ultimately winning the day for the disciplined restraint of neoclassicism.
By the 1650s, under Louis XIV, many women were imitating Arthénice, each woman attracting her own coterie of poets or philosophers or clever pretenders to intellect. Notable among these was Madeleine de Scudéry (1608-1701), whose Saturdays are best remembered for having produced the Carte du Tendre (Map of Tenderness), a map of the human heart with such locations as the Lake of Indifference, the Dangerous Sea, the Town of Lukewarmness, and the Inclination River flowing through the center. This was a great resource for conversation on subjects like the four varieties of love, the twenty kinds of esteem, or the forty types of smiles.
Clearly the second generation of salons was fostering a more preening, self-conscious atmosphere of high-toned artifice. Fashions in dress evolved alongside flowery euphemisms in speech; men and women alike sported ribbons, ruffles, laces, and flounces. Disdaining to pronounce lowly words like "chair" or "teeth," they found substitutes like "apparatus for conversation" or "furniture of the mouth." The women began to be called précieuses and took pride in it. The "preciousness" of the 1650s-60s might be defined as excessive display of virtue and refinement. It was such excess that gave rise to Molière's 1659 one-act Les Précieuses ridicules (The Laughably Precious Young Ladies) and his 1672 five-act comedy Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies).
It is one of the many paradoxes of France's Grand Siècle (Great Century, the 17th), like its accommodation of both the Baroque and the neoclassical, that Molière flourished as a playwright for a theatre scene that had become polite enough for women, yet he went on to find fun in portraying women who practiced too much politesse.
Pictured: Les Femmes Savantes (The Learned Ladies) is a comedy by Molière in five acts, written in verse. A satire on academic pretension, female education, and préciosité (French for preciousness), it was one of his most popular comedies. It premiered at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal on 11 March 1672.
By Rebecca Smith
This will sound familiar: “a very serious contagious infectious disease caused by a virus. It takes 10 - 12 days after exposure for the symptoms to show and then 7 – 10 days for the whole thing to vanish – if one survives it.” One who almost didn't survive it was Louis XIV in 1663.
We are speaking of “la rougeole”, which sounds and looks like it could refer to a gourmet dish, a flower or a famous aria but is actually the measles (which, on second thought, makes sense with the “rouge” as the word’s base). And it was deadly in France in the 17th century.
Louis’ brother, Philippe, first came down with the illness, and was in very critical condition. The queen mother took Louis away to Fontainebleau to safeguard him. By the time they returned, Philippe had survived but barely and was unrecognizably thin and pale.
The queen, Marie-Therese d’Autriche was infected next and it was from her that Louis caught the disease. On Monday May 28 he was beset with a terrible headache, fever and sweating, exhaustion and an inability to sleep. The king’s doctor of over 10 years, the premier médecin du Roi, Antoine Vallot, immediately feared la rougeole and began treatment.
From the Journal de La Santé du Roi we have a record of the medical crisis. The primary elements of the “cure” were those, common in the time, of bloodletting and enemas, or, “clysters”. A daily cycle of the two was begun.
Louis pushed through with his plan to relocate, with the queen, to Versailles, against the doctor’s wishes. The first day there Louis seemed improved and walked through the gardens but by night was once more tormented by symptoms and this time they were even more serious. The next few days the king was in grave danger and Vallon wasn’t sure he would survive. He reported, “All these worrying symptoms, with a fiery fever, relentless sweating, continual vomiting, a belly full of seros-matter, convulsive movements, inattentiveness and drowsiness, alarmed the whole court.” And Louis himself was panicked; Vallon claims to have had to calm down the king’s requests for a confessor and assure him he would live. Which, of course, he did. Friday morning Louis announced he felt much better and by Saturday morning felt back to his normal strength. On Sunday he received official visitors. He and the queen returned to Paris on June 9. They had conquered the illness.
Le Rougeole, however, was not finished with the royal family. In December of 1697, Louis XIV celebrated the marriage of his eldest grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne, 15, in line for the throne, and Marie-Adélaïde, daughter of the Duke of Savoy, 12. The couple eventually bore three sons. The first died in 1707. In 1712 the Duke and Duchess and their second son all died of measles. Only their youngest son, born in 1710, lived. He became King Louis XV at age 5. He died of smallpox in 1774. It is often considered that the weak leadership of Louis XV paved the way for the French Revolution in 1789.
Intellectual History Review 27, 2017
By Chantal Roberts
Many people know Kansas City, Missouri was a fashion hub for a large part of the 20th century. Kansas City’s Garment District encompassed 6th to 11th Streets and Washington to Wyandotte. Not so many people know about the communal, silk plantation began by French nobleman and philanthropist, Ernest Valeton de Boissière, in the 1870s.
De Boissière was born on 9 June 1810, and after Louis-Napoléon’s 1851 coup d’état, he came to the United States based on the understanding he should “go abroad for his health…” although he was not, in the strictest of terms, banished from France.
De Boissière settled in New Orleans and invested in a transatlantic shipping line until the Civil War naval blockade caused the venture to fail. It was his benevolent character which forced him to uproot a second time. After the war, several Methodist ladies approached de Boissière for a donation to build an orphanage and school for black children. De Boissière wrote a check for $10,000. His donation, while it surprised the ladies, did not please the other white citizens who asked De Boissière to leave.
From 1868-1870, de Boissière bought approximately 4000 acres of land in Kansas, about 65 miles southwest of Kansas City, in Franklin County. De Boissière wanted to create a self-sufficient commune based on the social theorist, Charles Fourier. Mulberry trees were planted on 70 acres, and de Boissière went back to France to convince 40 families who were skilled in silk production to immigrate to his town, called Silkville.
Despite being a socialist campaign, destitute people were not admitted into the commune. Each worker had to pay $100, to provide for their own needs, and to pay rent for their apartments two months in advance. In 1874, a three-story, sixty-room limestone house was completed to house the workers and their families. Local Kansans thought the 36’ by 95’ house was so grand that they called it the ‘château.’ It had 2,500 books which was the largest collection at the time in Kansas. The library consisted of works by Voltaire, Rousseau, the New Testament in Greek, Charles Dickens, and Balzac. At the north corner of the property, de Boissière built a school for the children of Silkville.
Silkville was very successful in the 1870s producing 260-300 yards of silk per day. It won first place at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and third place in 1886 Exposition in Paris. Unfortunately, de Boissière’s labor for the silk was high because the American dyes would not keep their color and silk from Asia began to be imported at a cheaper price. Worse still, the laborers discovered for $100 they could purchase their own acreage from the US government and obtain higher wages elsewhere. The women who tended to the silkworms married Kansan farmers and left Silkville.
By 1886, the silk production at Silkville was abandoned. Silkville limped along for a few more years based on its cheese and creamery productions, but finally, that, too, ceased. De Boissière went back to France to live out his few remaining years. He is better remembered in his home village than here in Kanas. The public school in Audenge, France is named École Ernest Valeton de Boissière. Every year there is a festival called Sainte-Saucisse for the endowment de Boissière left the village which includes noon meals of haricot blancs (white beans) and sausages.
Nothing is left of Silkville except the schoolhouse and ghost town de Boissière built.
By Rebecca Smith
Charles Perrault was appointed to L’Académie Française in 1671. Jean de La Fontaine was elected to the French Academy of Sciences in 1684. Both awards from the Royal Court were for literary contributions to France, but neither was for poetry or novels, history or philosophy, as one might expect. Perrault won for his fairy tales (as detailed in an earlier blog on this site). La Fontaine won for fables.
Until moving into the realm of the fable, La Fontaine was known for his Contes, stories in verse sometimes considered mischievous or naughty in relation to the prevailing moral code. For his fables, he adhered more to recognized standards.
It is accepted that he was not the creator of the tales. A poet himself, he simply collected them and converted them into French free verse (in much the same way as Perrault reshaped his fairy tales). Besides metered structure, he inserted fresh new narrative devices, a clever wit and his singular insight into human nature. His later works even include veiled democratic sensibilities and social comment, some which may have been seen as threatening to the king. But above all, the fables were entertaining – lively stories artfully presented with subtle comments on life and morality. Madame de Sévigné wrote, “La Fontaine’s Fables are like a basket of strawberries. You begin by selecting the largest and best, but, little by little, you eat first one, then another, till at last the basket is empty.”
La Fontaine drew from a wide array of sources for his numerous volumes. His first collections in 1668 were classic in origin – from the Greek Babrius and Roman Phaedrus, both sources of Aesop’s fables.
A second phase saw La Fontaine drawing from the Orient. Tales translated from the Persian had made their way to France. Many can be traced back to the Indian Panchatantra, an ancient Sanskrit set of connected animal fables recorded from traditional oral storytelling. The historic collection by the Indian Bidpai (Pilpay) is most often cited as a main source worldwide and indeed La Fontaine credits him in one of his collections, “I must acknowledge that I owe the greatest part to Pilpay, the Indian sage.”
In later efforts, La Fontaine turned to Horace and Avienus, as well as French authors Rabelais and Marot. Even Italian authors Machiavelli and Boccaccio were sources.
All in all, there are 239 fables making up 12 volumes published between 1668 and 1694. Some are only a few lines long while others are lengthy. Many are beautifully illustrated by Gustav Doré. Trading cards and postcards and even chinaware were produced promoting the fables. There have even been tv series – the 1958 Canadian “Fables of La Fontaine” and the 1989-91 French “Les Fables Géométriques.”
The first set was dedicated to le Grand Dauphin, Louis XIV’s young son with the queen Maria Theresa of Spain. In 1679 the dedication was to the king’s mistress, Madame de Montespan, and in 1694, the last set to Louis, Duke of Burgundy, the grandson of the king.
La Fontaine described his mission, “Je me sers d’animaux pour instruire les hommes” (I’m using animals, to teach people.). Originally the sophisticated tales were directed to adults but eventually they were aimed at children through the education system; French schoolchildren regularly learn to recite a few. The most popular are “La Cigale et la Fourmi” (The Grasshopper and the Ant), “Le Corbeau et le Renard” (The Crow and the Fox), “Le Lièvre et la Tortue” (The Rabbit and the Turtle aka The Hare and the Tortoise), “Le Lion et le Rat” (The Lion and the Rat) and “La Grenouille Qui se Veut Faire Aussi Grosse Que Le Bœuf” (The Frog Who Wants to Make Itself as Big as the Ox). As with Molière, underlying messages/lessons are surprisingly contemporary and meaningful, four centuries later.
Unlike the literary fairy tales, La Fontaine’s fables are a challenge for the French language learner, as they are often written in a difficult, older style of the language. But for anyone confident to try, the website commeunefrancaise.com offers a chapter about La Fontaine accessible under Exercise Your French, as well as a videos about the fables and their important, lasting moral lessons.
A step beyond that would be to tackle a set of fables and for that Dr. Felicia Londré recommends the expertly selected and compiled “Fifty Fables of La Fontaine” translated by Norman R. Shapiro. Exquisitely translated and illustrated, it even has pages with side-by-side French and English for comparison and mastering. And is affordable.
There are many from which to choose. Start with the best, “then another, till at last the basket is empty.”
By Rebecca Smith
KC MOlière: 400 in 2022 teams with Kansas City's Sunday Script Circle and KKFI Community Radio to present a reading of Molière's ever-popular comedy The Miser in a brand-new translation. For free admission to this premiere at 7:00pm on Sunday 26 July, go to
When you register for our event on Eventbrite, prior to the reading you will be sent an email with a Zoom link and info on how to view the event.
Who better to captivate an American audience into Molière than writer, translator and “European-American” at heart, Nick Henke? And why are we so excited to premiere his translation of The Miser?
“This translation was very intentionally conceived of in contemporary language, and I hope audiences are able to take joy in the neurotic wordiness of it all.”
He explains, “The Miser's’ concerns are modern ones. In their best moments, the characters search for truth, in their worst, they intentionally twist it with half-baked schemes worthy of 2020 politics. Yes, it's a play about money, but at its heart, it is a story about what reality the mind creates with the raw material it is given.“
In other words, this play is of utmost relevance right now, as we stand “at the dawn of modern capitalism”, in Henke’s view.
Nick grew up in St. Louis but with long periods spent in Italy, the UK and France with his academic parents. He chose to concentrate on French studies at Northwestern, Washington University and the Sorbonne, finishing with a degree in French Literature. He has most recently been teaching in France (cut short by the pandemic), while writing his own short stories and poems.
“Molière's vision of France is so much of what attracted me to the country in the first place. His is a world of backroom dramas, bourgeois neuroses and conspiracies, money troubles, mental troubles, and sexual troubles. His sons and daughters need solutions to their romantic dramas, their fathers just need some liquid capital. This mental chaos and emotional yearning feels like the work of a 17th-century French Woody Allen.” (It’s notable that Molière has often been compared to Charlie Chaplin, as well.)
Molière vs. Shakespeare? You can predict where Henke falls. He rejects arguments that Molière is less expansive. “Yes, he is particular, but what he does, he does so well.”
Henke will be further contemplating and developing these and other issues in his writings as he heads off for an extended stay in La Réunion, a French island off the coast of Madagascar. Clearly, no shores are too far for him - or Molière.
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