Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Susan Broomhall: "The Misfortunes of Love"

Susan Broomhall

Book Review

Claudine-Alexandrine Guérin de Tencin, Memoirs of the Count of Comminge and The Misfortunes of Love. Edited and translated by Jonathan D. Walsh. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series, Vol. 48, ITER Academic Press & Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Toronto, Canada & Tempe, Arizona, 2016), 147 + xiv pp. ISBN: 9780866985543

1> This volume brings together two of Claudine-Alexandrine de Tencin’s prose works, the Memoirs of the Count of Comminge (1735) and her last novel, The Misfortunes of Love (1747). Both were published anonymously during the lifetime of their author, a remarkable interlocutor within the social and political scene in Paris whose tumultuous and passionate life surely inspired some of the reflections on particularly female feeling forms, modes of affective expression, and opportunities for emotional experience with which these two works are fundamentally engaged.

2> Strong passions underpin the Memoirs, which narrate the ill-fated love of cousins, Adélaïde de Lussan and the Comte, whose father has sworn eternal hatred for his brother, and whose perspective and feelings the reader follows through various unlikely scenarios of the roman d’aventure. The love that binds these protagonists is felt and expressed primarily as suffering. Its experience is not found in the joy of marriage but in commitment to a particular form of torment and grief that drives decisions to choose other partners and retreat to remote environments such as the monastery. It is an agony for and of love, for example, that sees Adélaïde chose to watch in silence (while disguised as a fellow monk) over the anguished Comte rather than reveal herself as the lover that he believes he has lost to the grave.

3> The Misfortunes of Love, as the title indicates, works over a similar theme but through the viewpoints of three women, in a sophisticated framework of interwoven voices and connected experiences. Although distinguished by their class, the wealthy heiress Pauline, the nun Eugénie and the jailer’s daughter, Hippolyte, nonetheless share stories of the betrayal, loss, forgiveness and friendships forged by destructive love and acceptance of marital duty. Forceful passion can be disastrous, Tencin’s work suggests, but love can also be indulged, perhaps even enjoyed, as suffering, and directed into binding commitments in the form of deep and fulfilling companionship.

4> Tencin published at least one other novel, Le Siège de Calais, and is considered the possible author of several other contemporary works (although Walsh does not explore these suggestions in his Introduction). Read together, the particular two novels that he has chosen to translate in this edition form logical counterparts and offer valuable counterpoints. Neither are set in the contemporary world of Tencin, yet both explore challenges for, and cults of, emotional expression of both men and women very much of her time.

5> One might, therefore, expect pointed commentary on contemporary social and moral strictures of love for men and women from this leading salonnière. However, neither historical nor socio-political contexts matter much to these texts, in which focus and action is thoroughly contained to the experience of a feeling self. Its narrative is not the implausible plot but the trajectory of how love can be experienced within a particular feeling self, as an evolving intellectual and bodily practice of pleasure and pain, even pleasure in pain, and in relation to decisions and actions that love, in its various forms, motivates. Where Tencin does offer innovation, certainly, is in depicting an emotional and affective journey that is accessible to any feeling self, male or female, and of any class: these are indeed ‘other voices’ in the literature of her time.

6> These are texts that draw readers into an imagined and felt community of empathy—readers, much like the friends and allies within the stories, are people who are uniquely sensible to feel with the protagonists. Both this readerly pact of sensibility and the works’ exploration of sentiment evidently captured the mood of the reading public through the Ancien Regime and into the early nineteenth century. Abbé Prevost claimed that the Memoirs would be read by ‘everyone with taste’ in his review in Le Pour et contre (vol. 7, 1735, p. 292), even if he was less convinced by the ‘bizarre conclusion’ and strength of feeling (or ‘passion’) between the lovers. Popular with the fashionable set, the works were widely translated and even adapted into theatre pieces at the end of the eighteenth century.

7> Walsh highlights the generic conventions in which Tencin’s works can be located, the ‘cult of suffering’ in which they participate, and her protagonists’ spaces for feeling, including the monastery and wilderness, which anticipate the gothic. He situates Tencin’s work primarily within contemporary emotional practices of literary men, most notably Prevost (about whose Cleveland Walsh is currently preparing a study for publication). In doing so, he perhaps misses an opportunity to articulate thoroughly what the female author working within a tradition of the historical novel that was then dominated by women, might bring to that conversation. The Introduction offers most to those who are already aware of the conventions and contributions of that literature. In that sense, readers who come to the works for the first time here may struggle with the scholarly apparatus that surrounds the translations. The preface that precedes Walsh’s Introduction, by leading Tencin editor and scholar Michel Delon (translated here by Walsh), proceeds even more so than the Introduction from assumptions of readers’ deep familiarity with the works.

8> At a first reading, then, one might be persuaded of Prevost’s opinion, that these works are well written, albeit somewhat ‘sterile’, pieces in the French classical style (he intended the Memoirs). However, a deep appreciation of Tencin’s complex exploration of the misfortunes of love, misfortunes capable of both pleasure and pain, is the reward of repeated, careful engagement with these works. Walsh’s translations and commentary enable Tencin’s voice to be heard in a growing scholarly conversation about gender, genre and emotions in literary culture and reader experience.

Professor Susan Broomhall is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at The University of Western Australia and was a Foundation Chief Investigator in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. She is author of various studies of women’s writings, emotions and experiences in early modern Europe, particularly France. She is currently working on a monograph on emotions and power in the correspondence of Catherine de Medici.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern
Literature and Culture,
Volume Ten (2017): Artefacts

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