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Mojca Sauperl

Literary Archaeology: Disclosing Fanny Mongellaz's Canon of Women Writers


In 1828 Fanny Mongellaz (1798–1829) published her second and last work De l'Influence des femmes sur les mœurs et les destinées des nations, sur leurs familles et la société, et de l'influence des mœurs sur le bonheur de la vie. Divided into three books, the work deals with the history of women around the world, their social roles, and a number of other, mainly moral, issues. De l'Influence des femmes is a reaction to an essay by Marc-Antoine Jullien de Paris, Esquisse d'un cours d'histoire, ou d'un plan de lectures historiques, rapporté spécialement à l'influence des femmes, considéré dans les différens siècles et chez les différentes nations (1821), where he had invited women to write their own history and proposed a method of note-taking in the study of history, comprising a list of key words, such as piété filiale, amour conjugal, tendresse maternelle, éducation, amour de la patrie, courage, législation relative aux femmes, poésie, etc.

In her enterprise to demonstrate women’s worth, and the importance of their education and status in society, Mongellaz adopted Jullien’s key words, but paid considerable attention to women who were speakers, legislators, philosophers, scientists, polyglots, poets, writers or translators, of all ages and “nations”.

This paper looks at European women writers since the Renaissance, whom Mongellaz mentions, uses as sources or critiques. Among these, there are 35 francophone writers from Christine de Pizan to the translator and writer Bonne de Maussion, 17 Italian writers from Nina di Messina or les deux Isotta to Mongellaz’s contemporary educator and poet Cecilia de Luna Folliero, 27 “English” authors from the Seymour sisters to Letitia Elizabeth Landon, and 14 authors of Prussia and Allemagne from Sophia-Charlotte of Hannover to the Dutch Katharina Wilhelmina Bilderdijk-Schweickhardt.

The retrieval of European women’s literary heritage bequeathed by this Savoyard-French author is inhibited by a 21st-century reader’s lack of intimacy with what was common knowledge in the 1820s, and hindered as well by either scarcity of information in Mongellaz, who (without altogether dismissing quality) favoured quantity, or by possible errors by either Mongellaz or her source (cases in point are a “Madame Recklan”, probably the French-German writer Marie Henriette Charlotte Reclam, and a “Madame Hoffman” listed as English but likely to be the Pole Klementyna Hoffmanowa).

Mongellaz was well read and must have known works by many of the authors she mentioned, particularly the historians and novelists, yet in accounting for women writers she admittedly drew on Félicité de Genlis, Pierre-Louis Ginguené and others; she borrowed from Fortunée Briquet but, astonishingly, never mentioned her either as her source or as a writer. Other likely but unacknowledged sources for her information on writers are such diverse texts as Morgan’s Italy and a short overview of contemporary English women writers in a critique of Landon’s poems by Frédéric Degeorge.

Mongellaz herself seems never to have been included in a literary compilation and remains almost entirely neglected today, although she published a novel and included two novellas in De l’influence des femmes, and despite the fact that her work was rather favourably received. However, she has been acknowledged as a writer of some worth on education, and enjoyed international recognition as a historian of women throughout the 19th century, to be cited in 1946 by the American historian and feminist Mary Ritter Beard in her Woman as Force in History.

SvD, November 2012

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