or To love and be loved
Madame Marie-Adelaide in Turkish costume, by Étienne Liotard, 1753, oil on canvas, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Image source: WGA
The book is not a mere prop. This was a princess who loved reading and collecting books for their own sake. She ended up with 5000 volumes in her library. Marie-Adelaide was the favourite daughter of Louis XV. She never married and spent fifty-seven years of her life at Versailles. Unfortunately for her she was intelligent, and ambitious, so being denied a fulfilling role at court embittered her. She survived the Revolution, and all her brothers and sisters, and her nephew Louis XVI and his queen, and died in exile in Trieste in 1800, aged 67.
The majority of female readers, whether they were intellectually curious or just wanted to be trendy, were brainwashed by the best-selling novels of Rousseau. He extolled female education in virtue, passion and instinct, in order to make women into agreeable companions, and emotional and sexual guides, to the new ideal “natural” men.
The aim was not so different from the medieval Courts of Love, where aristocratic women had civilized the warrior-class. The great salons, the women-led network of radical thought and promotion, flourished under similar harmless cover. Individual women like Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and, very occasionally, the wives of kings, like Queen Caroline in England, had long ruled nations from the royal bedroom; now more women from different social backgrounds could influence and promote ideas, ministers, even policies, in their own homes, without exchanging kisses for votes.
Dandré-Bardon Salon Scene Pen, sepia ink and wash Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: WGA
Rousseau was a false prophet of feminism, assuring women that “in what they have in common, they are equal” to men, and then telling them all their qualities must be put into being good wives and mothers. His philosophy inspired them to follow their innermost feelings and instincts, helped them take off all the unwieldy paraphernalia of hoops and paniers, so they could dress more naturally in simple white muslin, decorated only with fresh roses, and let down their ridiculously pouffed and unhygienic powdered hair, or cut it short, and then, in the next breath, he chained them up again, to the hearth, the cradle and the drawing room.
With varying degrees of inner struggle, some women realized they could nurture others and themselves either without or by balancing, a conflict of interests, and declared ideological war which, unbelievably, is still going on.
Madame Roland by an unknown artist, c 1790 Musée Lambinet. Image source: Wikipedia.
Hardly the best painting of the great republican salonniere and political writer, but selected for the romantically feminine and simple style of dress with fresh flower corsage, so typical of the period. She struggled with her conscience to stay in the domestic sphere where Rousseauian orthodoxy kept her, as a mother and nurturer of her husband’s career, and ended up as the most eloquent of the self-sacrificing heroines of the Revolution, executed for her opposition to Robespierre and Danton during the Reign of Terror.
Like Charlotte Corday, political activist and assassin of Marat, she was a member of the Girondist faction.
The last thing that was supposed to be created out of enlightenment was an intellectually independent woman, and even worse, one who would escape into the world outside to claim equal rights as a citizen or leader.
Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, c 1790-91. Tate Britain. Image source: Wikipedia
Author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects’, 1792.She appears to be pausing from reading weighty philosophical matter; she wrote fiction herself, including children’s stories and a radical feminist novel called Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798).
In the patriarchal mind of the 18th century, the effect on a woman of reading novels or any inflammatory book was as dangerous as online radicalization of intelligent but naive Muslim schoolgirls is today. We cannot stop them simply by telling them they are wrong. The effect of reading is powerful, for good or evil.
When Charlotte Corday set out on her mission to assassinate Marat in July, 1793, she carried a copy of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives to justify in her own mind her terrible purpose, to kill “one man to save a hundred thousand”. She wanted to save the world from terrorism, not add to it.
Serena by John Jones, 1790, print after a painting by George Romney, illustrating William Hayley’s popular poem “The Triumphs of Temper” which was intended to help young women learn to control their tempers before marriage. Colour stipple, with some etching © Trustees of the British Museum
Ahhh, you think butter wouldn’t melt in the mouth of modest Serena – but see how rapt she is, thinking she is in private, she has given herself entirely to “…the dear pages of a new romance…soft ideas floated in her soul…To love and be lov’d, was all her prayer” (Hayley, The Triumphs of Temper, 1781).
It is possible the men involved in creating this image of the secret workings of the feminine mind got Serena wrong.