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Katharina Lescailje, Dutch author, 1649-1711

By Nina Geerdink, VU University Amsterdam

Katharina Lescailje was one of the first Dutch female poets whose complete works were published. Twenty years after her death, in 1731, the three volumes of Tooneel- en mengelpoëzy appeared. In this publication, Lescailje’s nephew had collected her plays (7) and poems (more than 300). Most of the plays and some of the poems had already been published before, during Lescailje’s life. The number of works Lescailje published on her own is extraordinary for a female poet in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. Lescailje’s possibilities and the courage to make use of these should be regarded in connection to her descent and family situation.

Katharina was the second daughter of the well-known Amsterdam publisher and poet Jacob Lescaille. As he was the main publisher for stage plays and was well acquainted with many Amsterdam poets, it is likely that Katherina had dwelled in artistic circles from her early childhood onwards. It was even rumoured that when she was eleven years old, the uncontested patriarch of Dutch poetry Vondel read some of her first poems and encouraged her to become a poet. Whether this story is only a rumour or the truth, Lescailje did grow up in a literary inspiring environment and wrote many poems. She also translated over seven French tragedies into Dutch, six of which were performed at the town theatre. When her father died in 1679, Katharina Lescailje took over his publishing house together with her younger sister Aletta, who like Katharina was unmarried. They kept the publishing house closely bound to the theatre and Katharina was able to publish her own works, moving in the circles of the Amsterdam cultural elite.

Many of the occasional poems Lescailje wrote were addressed to fellow writers, both men and women. The amount of political poems she wrote, about 20, is striking considering her position as a woman, but she scarcely reflects explicitly on her participation in male genres. Moreover, Lescailje seems to quietly adopt most of the conventions upheld by literary men in her environment. She wrote over 90 nuptial poems, a very popular genre at the time. Although most of these nuptial poems were quite conventional, the discourse in some of these support Lescailje’s self-representation as an autonomous businesswoman. Moreover, it is likely that a considerable amount of the nuptial poetry was written for commercial reasons – she probably got paid by some of the couples whose weddings she wrote about.

It is possible that Lescailje’s plays too were written for commercial reasons, but there is no evidence for this hypothesis. In fact, there has not been much attention for her plays yet in literary history. All of Lescailje’s plays were translations from French male authors such as Tristan l’Hermite (1601-1655), Jean François Juvenon de La Thuillerie (1653-1688), and Pierre Corneille (1606-1684). Lescailje’s last translation, Geta of de Broedermoord van Antonius (originally by Nicolas de Péchantré and published in French in 1687 as Geta), remained unfinished, but was completed by the Dutch author J. Haverkamp and published in 1713.

Reception history shows how Lescailje’s position was regarded by others as exceptional. Lescailje was asked to give young theatre authors advice and her colleagues exalted her in their poetry as the ‘Nederduitsche Sappho’ (the ‘Dutch Sappho’). She was also asked to write opening poems for their own publications: they made a muse out of her. It could not prevent Lescailje from being neglected in nineteenth and twentieth century literary history, just like many other women. In the last decades, however, she is ‘back’. It has turned out that Lescailje’s central position in seventeenth century Amsterdam cultural networks, her political poems and her feelings towards other women are most interesting, leaving points for literary studies.


Key Works

  • Tooneel- en mengelpoëzy, 3 vols. Amsterdam: Erfgen. Lescailje en Dirk Rank, 1731.


  • Gemert, L. van, ‘Schrijfster annex uitgeefster: Katharina Lescailje’, in: M.A. Schenkeveld-van der Dussen et al. (eds.), Met en zonder lauwerkrans: schrijvende vrouwen uit de vroegmoderne tijd 1550-1850: van Anna Bijns tot Elise van Calcar. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1997, 396-402.
  • Grabowsky, E.M. ‘Lescailje, Katharina’, Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland.
  • Sanders, M.J.E., ‘De familie Lescaille’, Amstelodamum 47 (1960), 60-67.

Criticism and Comparative Analysis

  • Geerdink, N., ‘The Appropriation of the Genre of Nuptial Poetry by Katharina Lescailje (1649-1711)’, in: Anke Gilleir, Alicia C. Montoya and Suzan van Dijk (eds.), Women Writing Back / Writing Women Back. Transnational Perspectives from the Late Middle Ages to the Dawn of the Modern Era. Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2010, 163-200.
  • Geerdink, N., ‘Rouw om een ‘cieraat grooter vrouwen’. Lijkdichten bij de dood van Maria Stuart (1695) door mannen en vrouwen’, Historica 32 (2009) 1, 3-5.
  • Geerdink, N., ‘Katharina Lescailje: another Sappho’ work in progress, 2007
  • Gemert, L. van, ‘De vrouwenzucht van Katharina Lescailje’, in: Arie Jan Gelderblom, Henk Duits and Mieke B. Smits-Veldt (eds.), Klinkend boeket: studies over renaissancesonnetten voor Marijke Spies. Hilversum: Verloren, 2004, 143-149.
  • Gemert, L. van, ‘Hiding behind Words? Lesbianism in 17th-century Dutch Poetry’, Thamyris: mythmaking from past to present 2 (1995) 1, 11-44.
  • Grabowsky, E.M., ‘Katharina Lescailje (1649-1711) en de ‘vrouwenzucht’: schijn of werkelijkheid?’, Mededelingen van de Stichting Jacob Campo Weyerman 23 (2000) 2, 65-79.
  • Grabowsky, E.M., ‘“Op de goede beterschap van ons sieke privilegie”: over Amsterdamse schouwburgregenten, drukkers en censuur’, Jaarboek voor Nederlandse Boekgeschiedenis 2 (1995) 35-55, 213-214.
  • Jeu, A. de, ‘’t Spoor der dichteressen’: netwerken en publicatiemogelijkheden van schrijvende vrouwen in de Republiek (1600-1750). Hilversum: Verloren, 2000.
  • Oostrum, P. van, ‘Dutch interest in 17th- an 18th-century French tragedies written by women’, in: Suzan van Dijk et al. (eds.), ‘I Have Heard about you’. Foreign Women's Writing Crossing the Dutch Border: from Sappho to Selma Lagerlöf. Hilversum: Verloren, 2004,153-172.
  • Spies, M., ‘Oudejaarsavond 1675: Cornelia van der Veer schaduwt Katharina Lescailje als deze van het huis van haar vriendin Sara de Canjoncle naar dat van haar zuster gaat. Het vrouwelijk aandeel.’, in: M.A. Schenkeveld-van der Dussen et al. (eds.), Nederlandse literatuur, een geschiedenis. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Contact, 1998, 282-285.

AsK November 2010

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