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Jelena Bakic, Isabel Lousada, Ramona Mihaila,

Michaela Mudure, Efstratia Oktapoda, Suzan van Dijk

French : a women’s language ? Or a question of class ?


Over several centuries French has of course been a European lingua franca, replacing the use of Latin in former periods. It seems, however, that French language and French literature played – outside French territories – a more important role for women than for men, and a more important role than other languages. A clear example is the 18th- and 19th-century women’s periodical press: French female journals were widely distributed, copied and plagiarized in other European countries. During the 19th century, this was linked to the central place Parisian fashion had assumed.

Taking the Netherlands as a starting point, it is striking that during the 19th century “French schools” were in fact secondary schools for girls, while boys attended “Latin schools”. It is, then, understandable that quite a number of Dutch women chose to write in French – be it their diaries, novels or poems – while an author like George Sand, translated all over Europe, did not need to be translated into Dutch: female readers had the ability to read her in the original French version. (And men did not wish to read her…)

The Sand case might suggest that the Netherlands differed from other European countries as far as female use of French is concerned. This would, however, be surprising given, on the other hand, the number of French, or Swiss, governesses that were taking care of girls’ education in every part of Europe.

This is the kind of research question we are (and will be more and more) able to handle as a result of the availability of large-scale data. In this contribution we will only sketch some research directions, which we plan to further develop in the near future. In such research, it will be important to distinguish between the different ways the French language is used:
1. Reading French
2. Translating from French
3. Writing in French

Concerning active use (2 and 3) – as far as our present numbers indicate – French is more frequently used than other languages. In order to understand the reasons for this situation we refer to different elements that will need to be more completely documented in the records of the database. The first is religion: among Huguenots leaving France, there were also women, some of whom became writers, who simply used their own language: Mme Dunoyer, Mme La Fite for instance.

However, for most women writing in French outside of France, French is not their own language. It seems that the factor of class needs to be taken into account: clearly those numerous Russian women (studied by Elena Gretchanaia and Catherine Viollet) who wrote their diaries and travelogues, or even novels (which in some cases they even published in Paris) in French, belonged to the noblesse. Thus: was gender or class the main factor, determining women’s use of French ?

In this contribution, after a global overview of the use of French by female authors of European countries, we will present as examples two non-French women authors using French – one of them noble and even a queen: Elisabeth of Romania, who was by birth a German princess, and known as the writer Carmen Sylva; the second represents a more “ordinary” situation: Ida Verona, who lived in Romania and Montenegro.

The writers will be compared, particularly in view of their use of French. Carmen Sylva did not write exclusively in French (also in her native German), while Ida Verona, less prolific, published only in French – and at least one of her publications was published in Paris.

Why did they use French as a literary language, while living far away in the south-eastern part of Europe?
Were they representative as female authors using French?
Did their use of French have some positive influence on their reception ? First in France ? and then in other countries, such as Portugal? Did Cláudia de Campos, for instance, read Carmen Sylva in French or in another language? It is striking that she indeed compares her to a French author…

SvD, 10 June 2013

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