Study explores women’s literary links to gossip

The heroines of early 17th-Century French tragedies are widely represented as vengeful, shifty or even sneaky. These gossip- and slander-driven characterizations were also quite often emphasised as a feminine practice.

Were these portrayals to be expected from the male-dominated playwrights? Or did gossip and slander hold some sort of social power and currency for women of the time?

An upcoming project from Brescia University College professor Heather Kirk will examine how women in Early Modern tragedies used slander, rumour and their networks to fortify their own social positions, as well as a way to protect their own reputations by demolishing another’s.

The research is an effort to understand better the historical roots and reasons behind stereotypes that remain today.

“We haven’t changed that much since the 17th Century,” said Kirk, who received a recent Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Development Grant to explore the idea.

“In today’s society, we see various examples of women being represented as vindictive gossips, who seek to undermine each other through rumor and backstabbing. In order for students – and society at large – to understand how these stereotypes persist, we need to examine the historical sources.”

Characters in Early Modern (roughtly from the years 1500-1800) tragedies are often based on specific tropes, with the female either being virtuous – think about The Mother, The Queen, The Maiden, The Martyr – or vicious. A meeting of these two characters in a work often brought about scheming, rumour-mongering, backbiting and even death, Kirk explained.

With her project, Our sex is extremely vindictive: Feminine Expression in French Pre-Academic Tragedies (1610-1640), Kirk questions the depiction of these stereotypes of women as slanderous, spiteful gossipers. Is this behavious strictly the domain of villains? Or could tragic heroines be gossipers, too?

“We see this triangular relationship in the often-hostile exchanges between feminine characters. Slander or rumour is used as a weapon by the vindictive woman to hurt her adversary, much like a physical wound, so that the victim loses esteem in her sphere,” Kirk said. “The victim is then obliged to defend her reputation in the court of public appeal quickly and effectively, so as not to lose face.

“So, can you be the heroine in the plot and gossip, or is it only the villians that gossip? Very few people are one thing. But in theatre, they tend to be represented very unidimensional. I am interested in seeing if there are ‘good girls’ – or guys – who gossip, too. We don’t have an answer for that yet.”

Commencing in September 2019, two Brescia undergraduate students and one doctoral student will work with Kirk to analyze the stereotyping of women as malicious gossipers in a variety of French literature texts, published between 1600-1640. From their research, a series of case studies will be published over the next two years, culminating with a final article and public website outlining their findings.

Kirk’s favourite French tragedy is Tristan L’Hermite’s La Mariane (1636) in which the playwright stages a remarkable confrontation between two women – one catty and sly, the other scathing but virtuous.

“When maligning her sister-in-law, Mariane, Salomé, the king’s jealous, conniving sister, disparages her own sex as being prone to malice and treachery,” said Kirk, adding its Salomé’s rumour-mongering that inevitably leads to Mariane’s death. “The power of words, of rumour, reveals itself. Rumour proves itself to be an important currency in the feminine social sphere.”

Kirk, who will teach this year’s Senior Seminar in Literature at Brescia on on tragic heroines, stressed the importance of today’s students understanding how studying the past helps then better understand today – and the future.

“Often, historical literature can seem alien or irrelevant to modern student. But rumour and representations of cattiness are contemporary subjects. Engaging young women in a study of ‘feminine’ behaviours aligns well with the goal of developing valuing and critical-thinking skills. They will question the validity of these historical stereotypes and perhaps reconsider the power of rumour in their own society.”

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