Apology for the Woman Writing, By Jenny Diski

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The Independent Culture

Marie de Gournay was so enamoured of the work of essayist Michel de Montaigne that when she met him, she stabbed her arm with a hairpin until the blood dripped to the floor. Mixing historical fact and fiction, Diski sets out to recreate the intense relationship between one of France's most celebrated writers and his number-one fan. Marie was a gentleman's daughter with no obvious future. Uninterested in getting married or becoming a nun, she spent her days "as a bee" dancing over the books in her father's small library.

But then in 1584, thanks to a visiting uncle, she was introduced to the Essays of Montaigne and her life took a new course. Montaigne is credited with bringing the essay, then a new form, to France. The effect of this discursive, intimate new genre on self-taught Marie was electric. She felt Montaigne's presence behind the words as persistent "as the calling of a dove", and imagined the author was talking to her alone. A correspondence developed, punctuated by meetings, and after his death Marie was entrusted by Montaigne's widow to revise his third edition.

Although an excellent editor, Marie was ridiculed by her male contemporaries. Jenny Diski proves no straightforward apologist. Marie is portrayed as a borderline hysteric bereft of physical charm or literary talent. In a novel about writers and their readers rather than costume drama, Diski conjures up an age when books still possessed the potency to make young girls swoon.

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