With a single witticism, any who dared overstep the bounds of conformity were summarily cast back to their proper place in society. A withering comment on yesterday’s political blog? A snarky Facebook posting circa 2011? No, it’s the writings and sayings of 17th century France, the milieu of Roxanne Lalande, professor of foreign languages and literatures. From each comedic touché of playwright Molière to the scandalous repartee of Madame de Villedieu, Lalande brings the barbed wit of that elegant age to students.
Lalande recently published a chapter in the textbook Options for Teaching Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century French Women Writers from MLA Press. Her section “Gender and Genre in Villedieu’s Le Favori” traces female empowerment through the most popular novelist of the era.
“Villedieu was able to make a decent living in the 17th century, which was almost unbelievable for a woman writer,” Lalande says. Of Villedieu’s adaptations of established works by playwrights such as Corneille, “She flaunted the conventions and established her own female twist on what is a male plot.”
Lalande says Villedieu led the life of a libertine. Even in 17th century Roman Catholic France, sex sold. Or perhaps the fairer sex helped sell, at least when it came to books.
“Women had salons, determined which authors would be featured, who would be invited,” Lalande says. “So they had an important influence over who would become famous. There was an idea that women had an intuitive taste that allowed them to stand in judgment over the literary and artistic values of cultural items.”
Despite being ostentatious and grand, France of that day held another female enfant terrible who tore the pompous masque off the court, Liselotte von der Platz, or as she was also known, the Palatine Princess. After encountering in Heidelberg, Germany, the writings of the plump, insider critic of the court of Louis XIV, Lalande saw an opportunity to write that would transition her from academic writing to the realm of royal intrigue and historical fiction.
“I want to venture out to my creative side,” Lalande says.
So she studied the Palatine Princess, exploring the royal’s sham marriage to the Duke of Orleans, the Sun King’s brother – a brother who happened to conveniently dispose of his previous wife.
“There were many reasons Henrietta of England could have been murdered,” Lalande says. “So I’m using that fiction—though she probably was murdered, no one knows by whom— as the background of a mystery novel set in the court of Versailles.”
Called her “labor of love,” the as-yet-unnamed novel reflects the blend of intellect and entertainment that Lalande treasures in education. “Students have to get to the point where they understand how much fun learning can be,” the Marquis Distinguished Teaching Award winner says. “I want to transform my students from people who just want a good grade to students who are more interested in continuing to learn after class.” Lalande notes that her novel will bring historical truth into the realm of diversions that teach, even after class ends.
In addition to the 2010 publication of “Gender and Genre in Villedieu’s Le Favori” and her continuing research and writing of her novel, Lalande edited Nourritures. Actes du 40e congrès annuel de la North American Society for Seventeenth-Century Literature, Lafayette College, 24-26 Avril 2008 with Bertrand Landry. Look for it from publisher Günter Narr Verlag.