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XVII. women's influence on literary style.

We are fortunate in having from one of the masters of French literature, Fontenelle, a felicitous statement of what women had contributed up to his time, through men, in the formation of literary style; and though the statement was made more than a century ago, and made for Frenchmen, it still has in it much truth for all manner of persons. Fontenelle, it should be remembered, died in 1757, within a month of completing his hundred years, and without the slightest impairing of his vivacity and keenness of mind. His bodily powers had suffered just enough to make him apologize at ninety-five for not stooping to pick up a lady's fan with quite the agility of eighty years; but his very infirmities, such as they were, were only material for witticisms; and he remarked when dying, “I am not in pain, but I am troubled with a sort of difficulty in existing” (Je ne souffre pas, mais je sens une certain difficult daetre). And this vivacious old man, who had seen the flowering and fruitage [86] of the literature of a century, gave this as his opinion about the comparative contributions of the two sexes: “For solidity of reasoning, force, and depth, men alone are sufficient [il ne faut que des hommes]. For a natural elegance [une elegance naive], for a fine and piquant simplicity, for the delicate recognition of the proprieties, and for a certain flower of wit [une certaine fleur d'esprit], you must have men who have been polished by the society of women.”

It was, to be sure, Fontenelle who said on another occasion that there were three things which he had always loved very much without knowing anything about them-music, poetry, and women; yet here he showed that he knew something of women, at least in their influence on men. As a member of the famous French Academy, the “Forty immortals” --on his election among whom he pleased himself with the thought that there were now only thirty-nine men in France who were wiser than himself-he had reason to recognize what women had done for French literature. The Academie itself, the chief literary association of the world, grew indirectly out of an association of women. When in 1600 the beautiful Catherine dea Pisani was married to the Marquis de Rambonillet, and changed the name of the great mansion which had borne her Italian mother's name to that of Hotel de Rambonillet, she there began a series of literary receptions [87] which lasted half a century, and have been the model of all such gatherings ever since. There Corneille read his tragedies before their public representation, and Bossuet preached there his first sermon. Out of the conversations at the Hotel de Rambouillet, in the desire to create something a little more solid, grew the meetings of literary men which Cardinal Richelieu organized into the French Academy. Though this was wholly a masculine body, its first prize was awarded to an essay by a woman, Mademoiselle De Scudery, and its great work, the French Dictionary, was initiated by a literary body of some eight hundred ladies, known as the Precieuses, and afterwards satirized by Moliere. They had two aims — to drive out indelicate expressions, in which for a time they succeeded, and to reform French spelling so that words should be spelled as they were pronounced. At one of their literary meetings Madame Leroi told M. Leclerc, then secretary of the Academy, that all French spelling needed to be simplified, and he accordingly took a pen, while the ladies proceeded to make out a long list of words, which is still preserved, anticipating the very changes that at last, under Voltaire, came to be generally accepted, and determined the modern French orthography. Alas! English spelling still awaits the eight hundred women who shall bring it back to common-sense. [88]

Since Fontenelle's day women have begun to show what they could do personally in the way of literary style, besides acting through men. With George Sand and George Eliot to represent their sex, it is clear that woman's contribution is now direct as well as indirect. With the advance of higher education and the incentive of magazine opportunities, we may gradually expect results such as these two fine writers only prefigure. When we consider how rare in printed literature are the qualities we often find in women's letters — the wit, the grace, the daring, the incisiveness, the “lyric glimpses” --it is certain that there is more to come hereafter from that direction. The elaborate descriptions of nature or society in the literary man's book are often not half so good as the dashing delineations of the same thing in his wife's correspondence, from which he perhaps drew his materials. I still remember with a fraternal pride which was, I fear, a substitute for all shame, that the one passage which was applauded in my Commencement oration on leaving Harvard College was contributed by my elder sister. Perhaps if all college boys made similar confessions, we should get some additional light as to the influence of women on style.

Nor is it altogether a disadvantage to literature, I suspect, that women have been kept out of academic education while it was narrow and pedantic, [89] and are now being admitted to it after it has become more truly liberal. An extremely clever woman, Mrs. Mary Astell, who wrote “A Defense of the female sex” nearly two centuries ago (1697) in England, puts this point in a very lively way. “I have often thought,” she says, “that the not teaching Women Latin and Greek was an advantage to then, if it were rightly consider'd, and might be improv'd to a great length. For Girles after they can Read and Write (if they be of any Fashion) are taught such things as take not up their whole time, and not being suffer'd to move about at liberty as Boys, are furnish'd among other Toys with Books, such as Romances, Novels, Plays, and Poems, which though they read carelessly only for Diversion, yet unawares to them give 'em very early a considerable Command both of Words and Sense; which are further improved by their making and receiving Visits with their Mothers, which gives them betimes the opportunity of imitating, conversing with, and knowing the manner and address of older Persons.” 1

1 “Defense,” etc., p. 67.

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