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Thelma and Louise meet the Hilton sisters at the court of Louis XIV: Editing the Memoirs of Hortense and Marie Mancini
MRIC 2004/05

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"Thelma and Louise meet the Hilton sisters at the court of Louis XIV: Editing the Memoirs of Hortense and Marie Mancini"

October 12
Sarah Nelson - Foreign Languages and Literatures

Abstract: Since 1992, an important project of canon expansion has been underway, under the auspices of the University of Chicago Press and with considerable financial backing from the National Endowment for the Humanities. "The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe" is a series of primary source texts written predominantly by women in Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Holland, Belgium, the Scandinavian countries, Poland, and Russia between 1400 and 1750. The purpose of the series is to enlarge the canon of historical, literary, and philosophical authors and texts, by making available in inexpensive and easily accessible English editions, texts that had previously been untranslated and unavailable in modern editions, some existing only in manuscript. The volumes of the series are published simultaneously in hardcover and paperback; they are a boon to students of western culture in general, whether in school or out, although they are intended especially for assignment in college classrooms.

In my talk I will discuss my involvement with this project, which includes not only the publication of the texts in the "Other Voice" series but also an effort at integration of these texts into college and secondary curricula. Over the past several years one of the series editors, Albert Rabil, has been organizing NEH summer institutes on early modern women writers in Europe for college and high school teachers (college teachers in 2001 and 2003; high school in 2002 and 2004). In July 2003, I attended one of these institutes at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill; following on that experience, I was given the opportunity to translate and edit the texts for one of the projected volumes in the series, the memoirs of the sisters Hortense and Marie Mancini. After a ten-minute presentation of the "Other Voice" series and the related project of curricular development, I will devote the rest of my talk to a discussion of the Mancini sisters and the interest of their memoirs for modern readers.

Published in 1675 and 1677 respectively, the memoirs of Hortense and of Marie Mancini represent nearly the earliest examples in France of women’s accounts of their own lives, published under their own names and during their lifetimes. Furthermore, the lived experience that the two sisters recount conforms to no contemporary mold: nieces of the powerful Cardinal Mazarin and members of the court of Louis XIV, they fled their unhappy marriages and chose the unheard-of alternative of independent travel and a life on the road. In choosing to publish their memoirs, Hortense and Marie extend their acts of self-determination to the discursive realm. As both make clear at the start of their memoirs, they write in order to rehabilitate their reputations; in other words, by telling their own stories in print, they are reclaiming the right to define their public images themselves. Moreover, the publication of their personal stories is very much a strategic action with repercussions both within the circle of their own lives and beyond it, in the broader culture of their time. It is a maneuver in their drawn-out struggles with their husbands—indeed, Hortense’s text was actually entered as evidence, first by her side and later by her husband’s, in their legal battles; but because of their prominence, it is also a contribution to the public debate on marriage. The two memoirs offer a rare look at the negotiation of personal independence within the confines of early modern aristocratic women’s lives.

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