To me, this is a classic example of picking up a book at random, taking a small gamble, and finding something completely unexpected. I’d never heard of Jenny Diski before, I’m not massively well-versed on Montaigne, and Marie de Gournay was a complete stranger to me. However, I was completely immersed in this book from start to finish, and I really missed the experience of reading it once it had ended.

Plot: Marie de Gournay was eighteen when she read, and was overwhelmed by, the essays of the French philosopher Montaigne. She had to be revived with hellebore. When she finally met Montaigne, she stabbed herself with a hairpin until the blood ran in order to show her devotion. He made her his adopted daughter for the two months they knew each other. He died four years later, after which, though scorned by intellectuals, she became his editor. Jenny Diski engages with this passionate and confused relationship between ‘father and daughter’, old writer/young acolyte, possible lovers, using both their voices.

My Thoughts:

The thing I really liked about this, probably more than anything else, is how honest Diski’s portrayal of everything is. She doesn’t romanticise France in the 1500s, or any of the characters, and it’s because of this that everything feels so realistic. It also makes it easier to understand the context and the reality of Marie’s situation; you feel torn because you can completely understand Marie’s desire to read and write as opposed to marry or join a convent, but you can also understand how important it is for her to conform to society’s expectations for the sake of her own survival – as well as her mother’s peace of mind.

Diski makes her narrative continuous and detailed, so you often feel as though you know exactly what’s going on. But she cleverly conceals certain things and reveals them when she sees fit, making you second-guess everything. Especially when she plays with narrative voice – her choice at the beginning doesn’t make sense until later on, and ends up being a secondary mystery in some ways.

There isn’t a lot of remaining evidence that explains the full nature of the relationship between Marie and Montaigne, and so you can appreciate Diski’s imagination and her hints towards what she feels the reality may have been. It is through her character development, as well as the inclusion of the concrete facts (when Montaigne passed away, when Marie’s works were published etc) that the latter part of the story takes shape.

Characterisation:

Diski’s portrayal of both Marie and Montaigne are essential to the success of telling the story of their relationship, and I think she does an amazing job. Marie is described as “awkward, obsessive”, and I think this is a huge understatement. She comes across very strongly – having a sheltered upbringing in an environment of females she differs greatly from makes her opinionated and strong-willed. Her feminist perspective, as well as her determination, is inspiring, but she is extremely difficult to like. There were so many times I wanted to scream at her to get her to understand the reality of her situation as opposed to the denial she often lived in. It is this denial- formed from the strength of the faith she places in Montaigne – that shapes and hinders her development as a character.

Montaigne was portrayed exactly as I expected him to be; aloof, stern, self-absorbed and introverted. He is the focus of the story, and yet he serves as a shadow to Marie. He isn’t particularly likeable either; he comes across as selfish, and Marie’s adoration for him comes across as crazy given how uninspiring he can be at times.

I loved reading this, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who’s interested. Diski emphasises that this is not a factual, non-fiction piece of work, but Marie de Gournay comes to represent a step towards the acknowledgement of female authors in France at this time, and I think that’s an amazing way to commemorate her.

Published by Avni Bhagwan