History's Women: Misc. Articles: Woman in Literature - The Literary Position of Women in the Continental Nations of Europe - Hester Thrale

Hester Thrale

The literary development of women on the continent of Europe has always been fragmentary rather than systemic. There has been no continuous recognition of the mental powers of the sex, except so far as it was seen in the universities of Bologna and Padua, recorded in the one case by Carolina Bonafede, and in the other by Napoleone Pietrucci. The most remarkable instances of prominence were those of Laura Catharine Maria Bassi (1711-1778) and Clotilda Tambroni. The former of these on April 17, 1732, held a public dispute on philosophy in the Latin language at Bologna and in the May following submitted herself to a philosophical examination, after which the faculty invested her with the official gown and crowned her with a silver crown. The senate of the city settled a pension upon her. She married Dr. Veratti. She bore a large family, was an admirable housekeeper, and was appointed by the university to be a professor of experimental philosophy, in which she had carried on for twenty-eight years, in her own house, a course, of investigations.

Clotilda Tambroni (1758-1817) was born at Bologna and learned Greek by listening to the lessons of a celebrated scholar, Professor Aponte, who lodged with the Tambroni family. By his influence, she was, while quite a girl, appointed teacher of Greek in the junior department and afterwards became a full professor. Several other ladies of distinction received honors from the same university, and the intellectual position of medieval women in Italy was doubtless higher than that enjoyed by them anywhere else.


It is a curious fact that during the Augustan age of France, that of Louis XIV., the person whose style was on the whole the best borne the test of time was a woman writing letters to her daughter. Other letter writers of that time, then praised to the skies, such as Voiture and the elder Balzac, are now unreadable and forgotten.

History's Women: Misc. Articles: Woman in Literature - The Literary Position of Women in the Continental Nations of Europe - Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

But those of Madame de Sévigné (1627-1696) are still read and translated, and furnished in England at a later period the unquestioned model of those of Horace Walpole and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Like Walpole she pained by single touches and gave immortality to trifles. Her letters were not intended for publication and actually did not appear until thirty years after her death, in 1696, and there is not in literature, perhaps so remarkable an instance of permanent fame attained without conscious effort.

Another brilliant French woman, Mademoiselle de Scuderi, or Scudery (1607-1701), was one of the long series of women who have contributed to the literary reputation of men by writing books under men’s names. The interminable novels which bore the name of Scuderi were known even at the time to be the joint project of herself and her brother, George. But it became gradually known that she wrote them nearly all, and that her brother locked her up in her room to write while he went about his amusements. Among these were Artamène, Clélie, Le Grande Cyrus, and Ibrahim. She was chosen a member of the Academy of Padua, Christina of Sweden sent her a picture, and she was pensioned by both Cardinal Mazarin and Louis XIV. No woman of her period contributed so much by her writings to relieve the monotony of life in many a solitary castle.

Madame Dacier (1651-1720) was the great translator during her period, and her versions are still quoted. They included Plautus, Terence, Aristophanes, Plutarch, and Homer, but she was shy of discussing matters of scholarship and when asked for her name for a learned album added to it a sentence from Sophocles, “Silence is the ornament of women.”

Madame Guyon, was best known as the friend of Fénelon and the founder of the the sect of Quietests (1648-1717), was a singularly noble and lovable French woman who composed many religious books and had much persecution to undergo, being repeatedly tried, imprisoned, but usually acquitted. She left nearly thirty volumes of writings, but is best remembered by her hymns, which were singularly elevated and beautiful.

History's Women: Misc. Articles: Woman in Literature - The Literary Position of Women in the Continental Nations of Europe - Madame de Genlis

Madame de Genlis

Madame de Genlis (1746-1830) was one of the most prolific authors of her time and one of the ablest, and, while acting as governess in the family of the Duke of Orleans, wrote many books which were translated into other languages and had a wide circulation. These were, for instance, The Tales of the Castle and The Theatre of Education, which were quite familiar to American children half a century ago. They are both forcible and readable, and her views of education were far in advance of her period.

Madame Roland (1754-1793), whose name as preserved by her memoirs will keep her longer in memory than any of those yet mentioned, used to read Plutarch’s Lives when nine years old and carried them to church with her for secret perusal, thus forming herself upon them and marrying the man in all France who was most like to one of them, Monsieur Roland, a leader of the Girondist party. When the minister of the interior, he lost is post because of a letter of remonstrance to the king which was in reality written by his wife, and when protesting against the Reign of Terror they fell victims to it. She was thrown into prison and there prepared her memoirs, which are likely to be among the immortal books. Her remark when she passed beneath the statue of Liberty on her way to the scaffold, “O Liberty, how many crimes are committed in thy name!” will hold its place among historic quotations.

The most distinguished of women writers in France, and perhaps in all history, was Madame de Staël (1766-1817). She was the daughter of a celebrated banker, Monsieur Necker; and instead of being educated in a convent, like most French girls of her period, she was brought up in her father’s house, and accustomed from childhood to a highly intellectual society. This cultivated her mind and gave her an especial interest in political questions, which was further developed by her early marriage to the Baron de Staël Holstein, Swedish Ambassador at the Court of France. She took an active part in public affairs and, though a republican, published a powerful defense of Queen Marie Antoinette. She lived in Paris under the Republic, and exerted much public and private influence. Incurring the wrath of Napoleon, she was banished for a time. Her best known books were two founded on her visits to Italy and German, Corine, ou L’Italie and L’Allemagne. She had some personal vanities and peculiarities, but no one can read her works even at this day without recognizing their remarkable power.

History's Women: Misc. Articles: Woman in Literature - The Literary Position of Women in the Continental Nations of Europe - Rahel Varnhagen von Ense

Rahel Varnhagen von Ense

Perhaps one of the most eminent German women, intellectually speaking, was Rahel or Rachel Varhagen von Ense (177-1833); the same whom Whittier describes as “the blue-eyed Rahel,” although she was unhappily a Jewess and had brilliant black eyes. She knew and corresponded with most distinguished Germans of her time, and had great wit, originality, and truthfulness, and made herself a ministering servant to all sufferers during the war period in Berlin in 1813 and the terrible pestilence in 1831 when she exclaimed triumphantly, “My whole day is a feast of doing good.”

As Whittier paid tribute to her so did Emerson to Bettina Bretano (1785-1859), of those correspondence with Goethe he says that at one time he hardly needed any other book. That with her friend Günderode was equally fascinating to the readers a half a century ago, and was charmingly translated by Margaret Fuller, the work being afterward completed by Mrs. Minna Wesselhoeft. These books were such a delight to the writer in is youth that he may be in danger of overrating them, but their memory led him in later years to spend several happy days upon the Rhine in searching out the haunts which Bettina loved and the scene of Günderode’s tragic death.

Marie Aurore Dudevant (1804-1876), best known as George Sand, held once a literary standing which is now somewhat impaired by a change of literary taste, but the beauty of her style is conceded and her novel of Consuelo was considered, fifty years ago, to be one of the epoch-making books. Her free and somewhat daring mode of life created a suspicious feeling toward her stories such as they hardly justified, for when tried by more recent French standards they are a delicacy itself.


Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.

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