Known as Madame de Villedieu, Marie-Catherine Desjardins (ca. 1640-83) was a prolific writer who played an important role in the evolution of the early modern French novel. One of the earliest women to write for a living, she defied cultural convention by becoming an innovator and appealing to popular tastes through fiction, drama, and poetry.
Memoirs of the Life of Henriette-Sylvie de Molière, a semi autobiographical novel, portrays an enterprising woman who writes the story of her life, a complex tale that runs counter to social expectations and novelistic conventions. A striking work, the story skillfully mixes real events from the author's life with fictional adventures. At a time when few women published, Villedieu's Memoirs is a significant achievement in creating a voice for the early modern woman writer. Produced while the French novel form was still in its infancy, it should be welcomed by any scholar of women's writing or the early development of the novel.
About the Author
Donna Kuizenga is a professor of Romance languages at the University of Vermont and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She is the author of Narrative Strategies in La Princesse de Clèves.
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Memoirs of the Life of Henriette-Sylvie De Moliere: a Novel
By Donna Kuizenga
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2004 Donna Kuizenga
All right reserved.
MEMOIRS OF THE LIFE OF HENRIETTE-SYLVIE DE MOLIÈRE: A NOVEL
FRAGMENT OF A LETTER
. . . I'm bringing with me a lovely lady whom you know, and who threatens to make me take an even longer journey. She has this strange desire to see Paris again, but I doubt that she will be able to convince me to go there, and not only because my own business calls me back to Toulouse. I have no intention of going to a city where I was so foolish as to allow myself to be put into print. Since you are more prudent than I, I will let you be the judge of what still needs to be cut out. But let's change the subject. Your bookseller's request makes me quite uncomfortable; can't he do without what he asks for? What does he want me to say in a preface? I have nothing more to say to my readers; I have said everything I wanted to in giving them the wonderful story that you are printing. Furthermore, I don't think this book requires much justification. I couldn't avoid talking about some people who are still alive, but I don't think there is one of them who would not forgive me for the liberty I have taken. From this point of view, I will stand by this work in any eventuality.
I am very happy that you think the text needs to be corrected by skillful people; just make sure these skillful people are not too serious minded, otherwise they will find too many flaws. People say that you have to be of a playful temperament in order to read playful things, or at least that you have to read them playfully in order to take pleasure in them. I end here because I am expected back at the table to finish having my luncheon.
Farewell, sir. You are the most obliging man in the world, and if I had more time, I would end this letter with nothing but magnificent compliments on the good things you have done for me.
It is no small comfort to me, Madame, in the midst of all the evil stories by which my reputation is slandered everywhere, to see that Your Highness wishes me to justify myself. I feel all the gratitude that I should, and so as not to be ungrateful, I will willingly obey your command to entertain you with a faithful account of my innocent mistakes.
Not that I have any hope of being able to blot out of most people's minds the unjust images that slander has painted of my conduct. This age does not allow me to flatter myself with such a thought. But, if I may use Your Highness's own terms, a time will come when people will no longer be so liable to judge others to be as criminal as themselves, for their behavior will no longer be so corrupt or so criminal. Then people will perhaps give more credence to what I am going to write about the innocence of my actions than to what my enemies may have said about them.
I will not hide anything, not even the most foolish adventures in which I have had some role, so that Your Highness can laugh at them while at the same time having compassion for me in other regards. Indeed it seems to me that even if you had not given me permission to amuse you, I should not fail to do so because without that, Madame, would I be worth the time you will spend reading a story as boring as that of my life?
I believe I am all the more obliged to do so because surely no one would have suggested to Your Highness that you honor me with your letters if it were not in the hope of a response of this kind; and that is why I beg you to read me with good humor.
In the first place, I have never known with certainty who I am. All I know is that I am not a person who has an ordinary destiny. My birth, my education, and my marriages have been the products of extraordinary adventures, and if I wished to attribute to myself the glory of some fictional heroine, there would be people, as perhaps there are already, who would try to confirm such an account, making my story even more obscure than it already is.
I was named Henriette-Sylvie by order of my mother herself, according to what I have been told: Henriette, undoubtedly for some reason known to my mother alone, and Sylvie, apparently because I was born at the edge of a wood that was called Sylves. I got the name of Molière, which I have kept out of habit, from the people who raised me and whose name it was.
Beyond this, I am tall and of good appearance; I have brilliant dark eyes, wide and well shaped, a sign of a good deal of wit. People can judge whether I have any. My mouth is large when I laugh, but quite small when I do not; unfortunately for my poor mouth, I laugh all the time. I have pretty teeth and a good nose; my breast is like my complexion, which is to say admirable. I would add, Madame, at the risk of seeming presumptuous, that one sees few women such as I. But I will spend no more time painting my portrait; it's easy to imagine that from head to foot I am a complete beauty. Those who have seen as much of me as I allow to be seen will testify that I do not use makeup. Those who have not seen me may believe that I am merely joking with them; they will nonetheless be more pleased with the idea of a beautiful person than an ugly one, or they are people who have no taste. I always tell Your Highness the truth.
I hope I may be excused for not naming the family from which I come, after what I have said. Perhaps after reading the story of my life and finding me worthy of them, my parents will add to the good that charitable persons have already done me and will one day reveal the full story of my birth, which may then be added to the number of my adventures. Should that happen, I promise something illustrious because I know my own heart, and I cannot believe that an ordinary man would be the father of a woman such as me.
Whatever the case may be, people assure me that I was born in a little village on the seacoast, situated two or three leagues from Montpellier. Four men and two women brought the woman who gave birth to me to this spot in July 1647. They landed in a launch, which they burned on the beach after landing. Why they did this I do not know. They headed for the first house they saw. It was the home of a poor woman who was nursing her child. My mother, whoever she is, was there for hardly more than an hour before she gave birth. The peasant woman's baby was sent to a wet nurse, and I was left to the peasant woman, along with a sum of money. When night fell, the visitors all departed. The peasant woman, who had spent the night elsewhere, returned the next day to find that they had carried my mother off in the shadow of night. If you ask where they went, I do not know at all. I wish I did for my own satisfaction more than anyone else's, although I should take Your Highness's satisfaction into consideration first and foremost.
For the first five years of my life, I was raised in this village, and no one claimed me. Around this time the Duke of Candale decided to go hunting in this area. He came into my nurse's cottage to get out of a storm. My little mannerisms pleased him, and he thought he saw in me qualities that were not those of a peasant. He asked who I was, and was told my story. He turned with a smile to a gentleman who was with him and said, "What a cruel thing to abandon a child like that. One day, nonetheless, this little girl will be perfectly beautiful, and I want to take charge of having her raised, to see if I am right about this." And in fact, from that moment on until his death, he never let me lack for anything necessary for my upbringing. Indeed he did so much that when people found out about it, some started saying that I owed him my life, and some of them meant this maliciously. Nonetheless, I have been fully assured that he is not my father and that it was a hunting expedition that by chance brought him to the little village, where the storm made him seek out my nurse's house from among all the others, although this house was not the closest, given the direction from which he came. I will not claim otherwise, and I will not say that I am a relative of his heirs if they do not wish it. But enough on this subject.
The first thing this generous duke did was to take me from the peasant woman and give me to someone who could raise me with more care. At Pézenas there was a financier whose wife was one of the duke's friends, and this man owed the duke all his good fortune. This couple had a daughter my age, who was being cared for at one of their tenant farms. This child was so sick that the doctors had given up on her, and every day news of her death was expected. It was not difficult to substitute me for her when she died and to make people believe that, by having her cared for by someone else, good remedies had cured her. (Consider, Madame, how Fortune pushed me toward adventures.) The exchange was skillfully made, and the financier did everything very well. In this way, I became the younger sister of his son, and the considerable sum that the duke gave the financier at that time inspired in him all the tenderness required to pretend a fatherly affection for me.
At the risk of boring your Highness, I will begin my story with the things that made my childhood as surprising as the rest of my life. I had an innate charm that made it plausible that this gentleman was my father-I was intelligent, vain, and brave, and my ability with languages was so good that I was able to learn them with great ease from the financier's son's tutors. Even German! I was also a passionate hunter, and from the time I was ten years old, I despised all girlish amusements, to an extent rarely seen, and preferred riding horses, shooting pistols, and other similar activities. It is not impossible that such inclinations were the cause of some rather charming little adventures, if I cared to recall them. However, my plan is to talk only of those matters of which the wider public is aware, and at that time only unimportant people witnessed my doings.
I will only say that I knew no father or mother other than the people to whom I was given, and that I was not enlightened until quite late, by a rather unusual adventure.
The wife of the financier, Madame de Molière, was an attractive woman and had a good deal of wit. The Marquis de Birague was a man of noble lineage, gifted with many good qualities. In a word (though I could not then consider him in the same way because he was a married man), he is such that I would be very happy to be served by such a gentleman, now that he is a widower. This gallant man, I say, often visited Madame de Molière. At a time when the two believed her husband to be away taking care of responsibilities, Monsieur de Molière found them asleep next to each other in a small wood at one of his houses. I don't know how the lady cleared herself, but a few days later I realized that her husband had decided to avenge himself and that, in his heart of hearts, he had decided to make me a part of his vengeance. The details of how he came to make me understand this would be boring. I was playful and full of caresses for those I thought I was related to, although I was the most standoffish of little girls for everyone else. Thus, when Monsieur de Molière showed me affection, I responded in kind. After this had gone on for some time, I ended up pleasing him so much by these caresses, which I gave in all innocence, that, without realizing it, I made him the most amorous of men, and he decided to pursue the matter further.
He took me hunting; that was my passion. Having skillfully separated me from his wife and the Marquis de Birague, who perhaps were also looking for the opportunity to go off on their own, he managed things so well that we found ourselves alone deep in the forest. The spot was inviting, perfect for two people of like mind. The trees formed a sort of bower; a spring gurgled nearby. In a word, Madame, Monsieur de Molière was clever, and the place was not badly chosen for the plan he had in mind. I dismounted at his request and, seeing him stretch out to rest, I did likewise next to him, without any suspicion of what was about to happen to me. My so-called father then came a bit nearer and, embracing me tenderly, began to reveal a secret to me that I would never have imagined. He told me the story of my birth. Then he detailed all that I owed him because of his willingness to continue passing as my father, by which I was assured of inheriting his whole estate (which had been freed up by the recent death of his son). He said many other things to commend his love to me, and his constant refrain was that I should respond to his passion in order to avoid the vice of ingratitude. He said that he would always love me with the greatest secrecy and that our relationship would not prevent him from soon finding me a suitable husband.
Your Highness can judge how surprised and confused I was on learning these things. I was in an even more difficult situation because, after having finished his speech, this man began to go beyond his usual gestures of affection, and my resistance only inflamed him more. He threw himself at my feet and did a thousand extravagant things. Although I told him that only the remnants of respect and tenderness that habit had left in my heart prevented me from avenging his insolent behavior, he did not stop and indeed was on the point of using force. It was then that I became furious. I tore myself from his arms, ran to my horse, took a pistol from the saddle, and threatened to kill him if he did not leave me alone. He did not obey. On the contrary, his advances turned into rage. I saw him coming at me like a satyr, swearing that he would satisfy his desire. I fired the pistol, wounding him with two bullets in the body. Here, Madame, is the first example of my cruelties.
This was, however, a very awkward situation for a girl my age, to find myself alone in the woods, having shot a man down, needing to escape, and not remembering the path we had taken to get there. I was thus so frightened that I almost fell to the ground like that unlucky man. But this agitation did not last, and necessity called back my reason. I got back onto my horse. The wounded man, more touched with my predicament than I was with his, told me to go to the left, and I set my horse running along this path and was soon far away. But I was about to encounter Monsieur de Birague and Madame de Molière, who had been off somewhere else conversing with each other without almost killing each other as the financier and I had done. They were coming to join us, guided by the noise of the shots. Good Lord! How afflicted I was when to my present predicament was added the danger posed by a wild boar fleeing the hunt, which dashed across the path, almost running into my horse. As I recall, despite my surprise, I did not fail to seize the pistol, which I still had, as though to shoot this animal, and I must add in passing that it is in such a circumstance that I sometimes recognize the courageous lineage from which I might well come.
Monsieur de Birague, who saw what I had done from a distance and who thought I was riding at full speed in order to catch up with the boar, cried out against my bravado. He galloped up to me and asked me if Monsieur de Molière was out of his mind to expose me to such danger. But since he was so far from imagining what had really happened, and since I had no time to lose, I told him, without taking the time to explain anything, that I knew him to be a good gentleman, and that I had important secrets to tell him. I said that while I was talking to him, he should tell Madame de Molière to go find her husband, who was a little farther in the wood and seriously wounded. I had hardly finished these words when she joined us. When she heard what I said, she immediately had two of the forest keepers take her to her husband. I took this occasion to tell my gentleman that I was the one who had fired the shot, and I begged him to take me someplace where I would be safe. His surprise and the fact that he believed the wounded man to be my father caused him to reproach me, showing how astonished he was. But since I wanted to avoid anything that was useless to my cause, I replied with sadness: "He is not my father, and this is not the place to explain this mystery to you. If you plan to help me, put me in some place where I will be safe," I said to him again, "and I will answer all the questions you want to ask." As I was saying this he saw his man, who came riding up behind him at a gallop. He ordered the man to take me to his wife at the chateau of Sersac. He then followed his mistress.
She had arrived at the fatal spot. I don't know whether what people today say is true, that a woman can have a lover and still love her husband just as much, but I have been told that no one has ever seen grief to compare with that lady's, when she saw her husband lying on the ground in his own blood. She leaned over to embrace him, and it was almost impossible to separate her from him. The tendency to slander, which does not spare even the holiest of actions, led people to doubt her extreme love and to suppose that she was clinging to him in order to impede others from stopping his bleeding, for he had already lost a lot of blood and perhaps would not survive. But whatever persecution this lady has caused me to suffer, and although her actions could indeed have caused her husband's death, I want to do her the justice of believing that she acted in good faith.
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Table of Contents
Madame de Villedieu, a Woman on Her Own
Volume Editor's Bibliography
Memoirs of the Life of Henriette-Sylvie de Molière
Fragment of a Letter
Series Editors' Bibliography