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Katharina Lescailje: another Sappho

With the increasing interest in early modern women writers in the last twenty years, the so-called ‘Sappho-myth’ has become well known among literary scholars. The Greek poetess Sappho became a symbol for female intellectuality in the seventeenth century, and most of the writing women in the Low countries, as well as their colleagues in other European countries, have been called ‘like Sappho’, ‘the new Sappho’, ‘even better than Sappho’ etc. That was not different for Katharina Lescailje (1649-1711), an Amsterdam poetess who was commonly called the ‘Nederduitsche Sappho’. She received this compliment already from her contemporaries, but it is also the ‘quality’ most referred to by literary historians in later eras.

With all the writing women from the seventeenth century being ‘Sapphos’, the significance of this compliment has diminished, or at least it can scarcely be used in researching the status of a specific poetess. There were many women writing in the seventeenth century Republic – it has been regarded as a ‘trend’ of developed women by Peereboom – but many of them have written not much more than some occasional poems. However, in the critics these women seem to be as much a Sappho as others. Therefore, to grasp something of the authorial status of a seventeenth century woman writer, we need to disregard the Sappho compliments and use other approaches.

In this paper, I would like to show how, for the case of Katharina Lescailje, contrasting the reception of the poetess with the analysis of self-representation can be useful. I will give a short survey of the construction of Katharina Lescailje as an author – by others (in literary history and in contemporary reactions) as well as by herself. I hope this survey will make clear how different readers constructed a different authorial status of the poetess, and how the interplay of the construction of contemporaries and that of Lescailje herself is historically most interesting.

I would like to state here emphatically that this paper is work in progress, so my findings are only based on a pilot – focusing on a small amount of the large work of Lescailje, and my theoretical framework is not worked out definitively at all. Comments are, therefore, more than welcome.

Katharina Lescailje
First, I will briefly introduce Lescailje and her work for those not familiar with it.
Lescailje was the second daughter of the pretty well known publisher and poet Jacob Lescaille. As Lescailjes publishing house was the main publisher for theatre plays, and he himself was, therefore, well acquainted with many Amsterdam poets, Katharina Lescailje probably had been in artistic circles from her childhood onwards. Since the 1720s, the story goes that at her eleventh, the already famous poet Joost van den Vondel had read her first poems and encouraged her to become a poetess.

Whatever may be true of this story, Lescailje did write a lot more poems since then, some of them being published. She also translated more than seven tragedies, six of them being performed at the town theatre (and being published). When her father died in 1679, Katharina Lescailje took over the publishing house together with her younger sister Aletta, who was unmarried as she herself was. A third sister, the eldest, had married another publisher some years before, but she died two years before her father did.

Lescailje seems to have been in the centre of the artistic circle in Amsterdam in the late seventeenth century. Many of the occasional poems she wrote, were attended to writing colleagues: men as well as women. The publishing house kept narrowly bound to the theatre, and even more of her poems and plays were published – by herself, actually. Yet her collected works were published for the first time twenty years after her death, in 1731. Her nephew, who ran the publishing house by then, therewith did something new, since Lescailjes Toneel- en Mengelpoëzy was one of the first collected works of a woman that had been published in the Netherlands.

Lescailje in literary history
I will now give a short overview of the reception of Lescailje in literary history. Her place in Dutch literary history is – not suprisingly – a small one. In the eighteenth century, her fame was taken for granted: she headed lists of female authors and she was mentioned in important reference books. However, she never got as much attention as her male contemporaries and to the end of the century, her position marginalized.

The first literary historians in the nineteenth century did still mention Lescailje, but they expressed mostly a negative view on her work: they regarded it as boring and monotonous, and, in the words of the historian Van Kampen (1821) ‘pretty average’. From this moment on, there can be obtained only negative views within the still further decreasing number of references until the end of the twentieth century. They probably thought as Hofdijk (1876), who stated as an argument not to mention Lescailje: ‘… within an overview, mediocrity can not lay claim to a mention’.

Renewed interest in the work of Lescailje dates back only a couple of decades. The increasing interest in women writers has given Lescailje back her place in literary history. From the 90s onwards different articles on the work of Lescailje have been published and new scopes of research have been formulated. This has been accounted for by the research for Met of zonder lauwerkrans, the anthology of Dutch and Flemish women writers in the early modern period.

Contemporaries about Lescailje
A development of reception history as I am sketching here, corresponds to what Foucault's article is demonstrating. He has argumented that the author, or author-function, is always constructed by people handling texts of him or her. What happened with Lescailje in literary history probably sounds familiar: it is representative for the way in which women writers were approached in literary history for ages. Their ‘author-function’ had been marginalized until there has been developed, from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, a different discourse on women writers.

When looking at the author Lescailje as constructed by contemporaries, we see a fairly different view on Lescailje than that expressed in literary history. In the seventeenth century, people were positive about her, and about her work. Her tragedies were performed successfully in the theatre until years after her death, and her published works seem to have been sold widely enough to be lucrative. It was only her collected works that were less popular. The three big volumes consisting of mainly epithalamia and birthday poems were published in 1731. The publication had been requested for by colleagues of Lescailje, but it seems it did not sell very well. When the first publisher died five years after publication, the many remains of the print run were brought on the market via other publishers.

However, Lescailje was praised widely within her artistic networks. She was acquainted with the most important Amsterdam poets of her time, who all wrote laudatory poems for her. In those poems, she was regarded as the best of the women writers – better than icons from the past such as Sappho, Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678) or Tesselschade Roemersdochter Visscher (1594-1649), but also the best of her contemporary female colleagues. In a report on his itinerary through the Netherlands in 1711, the German book and art collector Conrad von Uffenbach (1683-1734) wrote about his visit to Lescailje. In Germany, he had heard about the great poetess Katharina Questiers (1631-1669), but it turned out she had died years before. In Amsterdam, he was suggested to visit Katharina Lescailje instead, because she was one of the best poetesses of her days. Hardly ever did a contemporary speak of Lescailje as the best of all poets – male or female – but it did occur that she was regarded as a ‘male poet’, or ‘almost a male poet’. It was a great compliment in the seventeenth century, but at the same time degrading.

The reasons for the praise were various. Her work was mentioned, especially her theatre plays, which were considered to be in line with the dominant poetics of that time very well – in following the classical poetics, making the listener feeling frightened and compassioned. Her occasional poems were also mentioned now and then. The love poetry for example was praised because it affected the heart of the reader. In addition, Lescailje was said to be ‘schrander’ (clever), and writing with a beautiful ‘dichttrant’ (metre). It was even more often that she was praised for her good character. Contemporaries often recalled how nice it was she helped younger colleagues with their plays.

With the reasons for the praise being pretty conventional and even not always reflecting on the work itself, we can assume that Lescailje, like many other successful women writers, was regarded and has functioned as an icon. Indeed, many of her male contemporaries asked Lescailje to write poems in praise of their work, to be published in front of it. Her poems opened different books from intellectual poets such as Pluimer (1646-1720), Nuyts (?-1707), Van Hoogstraten (1658-1724) and Sweerts (1669-1749). Again and again she was the one who wrote the opening poem, followed by poems from the other, male, poets from the circle. In collections of poems, gathered for example for a marriage, it was not different: Lescailjes poem was the first, most of the time. The young poet Hoofman (1672-after 1727) dedicates his first play to her and David van Hoogstraten, a well known intellectual poet from Dordrecht, honours all of the Amsterdam poets in a poem he attends to Lescailje when he visits Amsterdam. It makes clear how she had a central position and was regarded as an honorable reference.

For women writers also, Lescailje seems to have been an important icon. In laudatory poems for Lescailje from poetesses as Jetske Renou van der Malen (1687-1752) and Titia Brongersma (1650-after1687) – from respectively Groningen and Frisia –, she is presented as an example, someone far above themselves that they want to approach. Lescailje, in their eyes, writes also for the honour of the female sex. Poetesses from Amsterdam, with whom Lescailje was well acquainted – Cornelia van der Veer (1639-1704), for example – idealized her less, but still, she was regarded as an important poetess within their circle.

We have seen so far two fairly different views from the past on the authorial status of Lescailje. More interestingly is, in my opinion, the authorial status Lescailje herself constructed. Foucault mentioned the importance of the relationship between the text and the author, but he focused mainly on the discourse in which this relationship was discussed by people handling the texts. It was not without a reason that some time earlier Roland Barthes had declared the author dead. In the dominant view within post-structuralism was no place for a consistent, intentional operating author. Stephen Greenblatt, the founding father of the New Historicism, has published his main work on the author only eleven years later. It is in large parts affected by the work of Foucault. But Greenblatt does pay attention to the author himself. With his concept of self-fashioning, he sought to argument how authors, especially in the Renaissance, both constructed their selves themselves, and were constructed by others and the world around them. Inspired by this keynote, as well as by works from within ‘career criticism’, I like to show how a whole new authorial representation turns up, when we look at the way Lescailje constructed herself as an author in her work. This, of course, is only possible with regard to the authorial status her contemporaries gave her, and to many other aspects of the world around her. A woman commonly had not the position to explicitly state her literary virtues. In my research, I try to look at different layers in Lescailjes work. Here, I will present some hypotheses about her selfrepresentation, based on my analysis of her political poems.

The editors of Lescailjes work gathered her political poems in the section ‘Staatgevallen’. It is a relatively small part of her oeuvre. The poems were written between 1672 and 1704, and reflect on important political happenings in the Dutch Republic of those days: the wars, the peaces and the virtues of Dutch heroes – stadholders as well as officers from the Dutch army. In the section ‘Lijkdichten’ are some more political poems, written at the occasion of the death of important political figures. I assume that most of the political poems of Lescailje were published as a pamphlet by the publishing house of her father, that was runned by herself after his dead in 1679. (I have found some eight longer poems in catalogues of pamphlets up until now.)

Lescailjes generation was the first of Dutch women writers to write and publish political poems, and Lescailje wrote and published by far most. This is already a signal she took herself seriously as an author, or at least she wanted to present herself as a serious author. The published poems were written at the occasion of important national happenings such as the Peace of Rijswijk (1697) and the death of Maria Stuart (1695), which were also celebrated or mourned in poems from male contemporaries such as Pluimer and Nuyts: in those days, they were the important poets in Amsterdam, and especially in circles around the city theatre. In writing and publishing those kind of poems, Lescailje represented herself as one of them – one of the most important (male) poets of her days.

Within the poems, this representation is maintained. Lescailje keeps a safe distance to her subjects. Scarcely, she speaks of herself as involved and she also stages her ‘zangster’ (muse) – conventionally used to perform some modesty – relatively little. She stays even more at the background herself, because she keeps introducing speaking personifications of countries or abstractions (War, Peace), or persons concerned (i.e. kings or heroes). In the mean time, she acts pretty self-consciously: the people, the nation, the country or the sovereign are spoken to and advised. Moreover, the poet seems to be able to predict the future. For example in the following lines from the poem ‘Vreêverbond tusschen den koning van Grootbrittanje, en de staaten der vereenigde Nederlanden’ – a poem Lescailje wrote in 1674, when she was pretty young, to celebrate the peace between the Republic and Britain, a great victory for the Republic:

Nu zingt myn zangheldin, hoe goed
En lieflyk is ’t altyd bevonden,
Dat broeders niet elkander wonden;
Noch met hun eigen dierbaar bloed
Het kleed van Eendracht meêr bevlekken,
Tot ramp en onderling bederf,
Terwyl de witte vredeverf
Het zuivert van de roode plekken!
Dit geeft het Schip van Staat weêr lucht,
Om ruimer over zee te zweeven,
En doet de Koopmanschap herleeven,
Die lang heeft moedeloos gezucht.
’k Zie reeds een groot getal van scheepen,
Onlangs tot rooven toegerecht,
Nu schuw van vyandlyk gevecht,
Niet meêr de bloedvlag met zich sleepen:
Maar met een rykgelaaden vracht
Uit al des waerelds oorden keeren,
En Holland d’Overvloed verëeren.

Lescailje wrote – I paraphrase and summarize in English: now my muse sings of how good peace is, and harmony. It makes it possible for the state to go everywhere on sea and to repair the trade, which has been suffering for so long. I see, she writes – in a self-conscious prediction for the future – how many ships, now not being forced to fight, will return to the Netherlands with food and other worthy stuff in abundance. Holland will be rich and wealthy.

Although, presenting herself as a distant political commentator – in the seventeenth-century clearly a male role – is not the only thing Lescailje did in her political poems. She presents herself, moreover, as a poet. The role of a poet writing on political subjects in the seventeenth century was that of a distant political commentator, but it was also that of an intellectual, the homo universalis. Lescailje shows in her political poems her know-how of the classic traditions in, for example, using mythological metaphors that were widespread in those days. Moreover, she places herself in the literary tradition through intertextuality – not only in writing poems that can be compared with those of her contemporaries, but also in referring to the great Vondel. This becomes most clear in ‘Daphnis harderszang’, the poem Lescailje wrote in 1697 on the occasion of the Peace of Rijswijk – making an end to the nine years’ war with France. With this pastoral poem, Lescailje referred to Vondels well-known play Leeuwendalers, written on the occasion of the upcoming peace of Munster in 1647.

The last thing I want to mention here as part of Lescailje's self-representation as a poet, is the fact that she focuses, whenever it seemed appropriate, on literature within the political poems. For example in the before mentioned ‘Daphnis harderszang’, where she introduces a poet to celebrate the peace, and also in an elegy on Jan Six (1700), the Amsterdam city regent who was very interested in art and wrote some plays himself.

To conclude: within the given boundaries, Lescailje wanted to show herself as a poet, a serious poet. The authorial status represented by Lescailje is ‘male’, one could say, and differs, therefore, from the ‘female’ authorial status constructed by her contemporaries. In this light it is interesting, that her contemporaries scarcely mentioned or praised her political poems, whereas the 19th century literary historians, when they mentioned her, actually found those poems the only ones interesting in her oeuvre.


I have sketched above the popularity of Lescailje among her contemporaries. Yet, since the praises are pretty conventional, it is an interesting question how this popularity is caused. I assume gender played an important role here, as the praise for Lescailje sounds familiar: for more women in the early-modern period was created a role like hers. However, another element deserves particular attention too. It is likely the fact that Lescailje was a publisher accounted for some of the positive reactions of contemporaries.

The same question could be asked concerning the above sketched authorial representation Lescailje created herself. Why did she create such a male representation? I have focused above only on the political poems, in which she makes herself almost absent, whereas in other poems, she is more present. The ‘male’ political genre probably played a role in this case, but maybe also the reception among contemporaries does.


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Nina Geerdink, November 2007

Nina Geerdink is a PhD-student at the Free University Amsterdam since March 2007. In August 2006 she graduated from the Research Master Dutch Language and Literature at Utrecht University, specialized in early-modern literature. Her current research is about authorial representation in the occasional poetry of Jan Vos (1610-1667) and Katharina Lescailje (1649-1711). Both Amsterdam poets obtained a central position in the literary field, in spite of their not being classically educated, as they were respectively a catholic artisan and a woman. The role of their poetry in obtaining a central position in Amsterdam is the main focus of the research project.

  • Conferences > NEWW November meetings > 2007 > Geerdink

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