Writing wrongs: sentences and sentencing in Madame Isabelle de Charriere's Mistress Henley

The writing of contemporary feminist critics Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar indicates a belief that feminist rhetoric originated in the nineteenth century when decreased social restrictions allowed for a sudden growth in the number of English and French women writers. This belief, however, is inaccurate as feminist rhetoric began centuries before, when women first began to write. In my thesis I argue that a thorough understanding of contemporary feminist criticism requires knowledge of the earlier phases of feminist rhetoric on which the current phase is built. In order to make this argument, I explore the feminist theories of Gilbert and Gubar and demonstrate their application to Madame Isabelle de Charriere's 1784 French novella, Mistress Henley. Charriere uses the sentences of her novella to expose the illusion of the separate spheres in society and to argue for women's freedom from patriarchal constraint. Gilbert and Gubar argue that women use the language of their texts to break free from and argue against the silence into which men have forced them. They seek to prove that women are not, as men have historically insisted, separated from the language that they use. In order to prove their right to language, women have been forced to subvert men's power over language rather than take control directly. Conscious of the male claim to authority over language by virtue of prior writing, they seek their own matrilineal ancestry of women writers from which to draw strength and prove ability. In order to do this, they have experimented with what language means and with the creation of their own unique language. The result, according to Gilbert and Gubar is a "woman's sentence", women's use of grammatical sentences to unsentence themselves from the constraint of the patriarchy and simultaneously resentence themselves to linguistic and legal freedom. Because the construction of a matrilineal line of texts is still so new, it is important that women become aware of the lineage begun by women writers in previous centuries. Mistress Henley is an example of an early matrilineal text. In it, Charriere uses her language to subtly argue for women's freedom from patriarchal social and legal constrictions. She tells the story of a young woman married to an older widow with a daughter. He Montagna 3 counteracts each of her ideas, attempting to replace them with his own so that her thoughts become entirely his. By showing the mental decline of a woman forced to live under tight restrictions, Charriere "unsentences" women by showing why male control is devastating to women and she "sentences" women to freedom by showing why women must not contribute to their condition by remaining silent.