'That God Within:' Writing Female Genius from Diderot to Staël

Cecilia Feilla
1997 Paroles gelées  
A thin but significant line is traversed in the representation of female authorship between the depiction of Germaine de Stael at age twenty as the possessed "pretresse la plus celebre d'ApoUon" (Stael's Journals intimes qtd. in Vallois 4) and that of Emily Bronte in 1851 as an author who "possesses the creative gift" (C. Bronte 40). One of the central figures to effect this change is, ironically, Stael herself. Her novel, Corinne, ou, I' Italic (1807) rescripts possession (both ownership and
more » ... e proper) in important ways which negotiate a new place for female genius in the novel. What I pursue in this paper is how "genius" is constructed along gender lines at the moment it takes its modem introjected form as a natural gift in the late eighteenth century, and how the "inspiration," "prophecy" and "possession" which characterize genius take on a negative valence when applied to women writers, often emblematized as sibylline, and read as signs of hysteria. Is the woman writer possessed by genius (a transcendent figure) or does she possess genius (an immanent gift)? A close reading of Corinne in light of Denis Diderot's essay, Sur les femmes (1772), will reveal how gender marks the discourse of writing and genius, especially as it pertains to issues of style and female authorship. Diderot wrote Sur les femmes as a reply to I'Abbe Antoine-Leonard Thomas's Essai sur le caractere, les moeurs et I'esprit des femmes (1772). A complex meditation on the "nature" of women and their potential for genius, Diderot's essay is also a reflection on writing and the exercise of style. From the first lines, Diderot establishes his authority on the subject of women by invoking his carnal knowledge of them. He explicitly links the lack of heterosexual activity in men with a lack of style in writing: Thomas, he claims, cannot write because he is celibate (251, 261-262), d'Alembert
doi:10.5070/pg7151003055 fatcat:y2mj6kgtdjd5lmgzgb5avzwxre