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From convention to performance


Isabelle de Charrière participated in a long tradition of women writers who challenged the widespread stereotype according to which women’s reason is inferior to men’s. Against the paradigm of the man of reason, Charrière created literary texts that proposed a new ideal: the woman of reason. A primary example is her novel Letters of Mistress Henley published by her friend (1784), a response to Samuel de Constant’s misogynous epistolary novel The sentimental husband (1783). Although Mistress Henley has often been interpreted as championing sentiment at the expense of reason, in fact the novel offers a multi-layered exploration and ultimate affirmation of reason. I read The sentimental husband as an attack against women who reason and Mistress Henley as a response to this attack. Countering a critical tendency to treat “reason” as if its meaning were both obvious and univocal, I propose a provisional distinction between three modes of reason at work in Charrière’s novel: conventional, insensible, and performative. Mistress Henley begins by challenging her husband’s reason and ends by calling into question an entire social order. Through her, Charrière takes her place alongside other Enlightenment thinkers determined to throw off the weight of tradition and allow reason to illuminate human life.

SvD, July 2008

  • Publications > Volumes WomenWriters > Isabelle de Charrière > Heidi Bostic

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