The Woman Priest

A Translation of Sylvian Maréchal's Novella, La femme abbé

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Sylvain Maréchal
Sheila Delany
  • Edmonton, Alberta: 
    Wayne State University Press
    , August
     104 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In providing a modern translation of Sylvain Maréchal’s little-known La femme abbé, first published in 1801, Sheila Delany sheds light on a text that illustrates the complexity of Enlightenment attitudes toward religion. This epistolary novella recounts the story of the protagonist Agatha, who dons male clothing in order to train for the priesthood and to be close to the handsome young priest with whom she has fallen in love. Its author, the journalist Sylvain Maréchal, is well known to French scholars of the 18th century for his role in the revolution and for his authorship of several radical publications, dealing with topics ranging from his anti-clerical, atheistic religious views to his blueprint for a proto-socialist utopian state. Yet his treatment of religion in this novella also betrays his sound knowledge of Catholic tradition, including medieval hagiographic writings. This demonstrates how some of the fiercest of anti-clerical authors in this period—Sade is another example that immediately comes to mind—grounded their critique in a thorough familiarity with the phenomena they were denouncing. This explains the ultimately ambivalent role assigned to the novella’s protagonist, of whom Delany asks, “is she a heroine or an anti-heroine?” only to conclude that “this is the reader’s decision.”

Delany’s rich introduction discusses a number of relevant contexts to understand the novella. One of these is the 18th-century woman question, with which Maréchal’s text clearly engages; a second one is contemporary interest in France’s former colony Canada, which provides the setting for the last part of the novella’s plot. But the context that Delany stresses most is medievalism. Delany hypothesizes that Maréchal, as former librarian of the Collège Mazarin, would have been familiar with stories of cross-dressing saints, specifically in the hagiographic texts of the Légende dorée that he had satirized in his La nouvelle légende dorée in 1790 (of which Delany has also published a translation, in 2012). While there is unquestionable merit in foregrounding the longue durée of some of the elements in Maréchal’s text—something 18th-century scholars sometimes fail to do, intent on stressing the specificity of their own period—not all these links are entirely convincing. Cross-dressing, for example, is found not only in medieval hagiography, but was a well-worn literary toposfound in scores of narratives that were widely read throughout the 18th century, ranging from the baroque romances of d’Urfé and Scudéry to the real-life exploits of the spy-adventurer chevalier d’Eon. The fictive Pope Joan, whom Delany mentions in passing, was similarly well-known during the 18th century, as testified by a number of popular publications about her produced during that period. Focusing only on the medievalist aspects thus potentially obscures the multiple ways in which Maréchal took part in 18th-century debates, building on and transforming existing literary traditions—and it is precisely these contemporary engagements that ultimately explain how and why his texts were able to resonate as they did with contemporary audiences.

Delany’s own disciplinary positioning—as a medievalist, rather than an 18th-century or Enlightenment scholar—leads to some other odd absences. The most salient of these is perhaps the tradition of anti-clerical, scandalous writings studied most famously by Robert Darnton (whose name is missing from the bibliography). Maréchal’s Femme abbé clearly inscribes itself in the larger, contemporary tradition of anti-religious, scandalous, and at times even pornographic literature that Darnton claimed constituted some of the best-sellers of the pre-revolutionary period. More broadly, many of the elements that Delany interprets within a medievalist framework—such as images of psychic warfare, personification allegories, the confusion between eroticism and religious fervor (reminiscent, among others, of Diderot’s La religieuse)—are common to other 18th-century writings, including also explicitly apologetic, Catholic ones Such similarities illustrate the multiple, complex interactions between religious and anti-religious themes in the fiction produced during the (pre-) revolutionary decades. This fact needs at least to be acknowledged if readers are to understand the originality—or lack thereof—of Maréchal’s contribution. Likewise, the similarities between some passages in Maréchal’s novella and the better-known work of the marquis de Sade would have merited comment. The relative lack of 18th-century contextualization makes itself felt, finally, also in the absence of discussion of the text’s publication history, including its critical reception, reprints, and other contemporary responses to it.

The translation that Delany provides of Maréchal’s text is a functional one that serves her purpose adequately without making any claims to stylistic artistry. This does on occasion result in expressions that sound stilted, but only in a single case—her translation of the verb “intéresser,” which in 18th-century French meant “to move” rather than “to interest”—does it lead to an inaccurate rendering of the original text. Throughout, the translation is literal enough to allow readers versed in French literature to identify intertextual references to other texts and authors, including the 17th-century moralists and Rousseau. Most importantly, it preserves the evocative power of some of the novella’s key passages, such as the male hero’s “Misanthropic stanzas,” with their Rousseau-like reversal of the Platonic cave myth, in which it is now the cave dwellers who see more clearly than those bathed in “light,” or the rest of humanity living in the so-called age of Enlightenment.

This is, in short, a valuable addition to the quickly expanding body of literature on the role of religion in the French Enlightenment that productively showcases the writings of an author who has long been recognized in French scholarship as exceptional for his atheistic positioning in the religious and political field of his day. Together with Delany’s other translations of Maréchal’s writings, and despite its sometimes sparse historical contextualizations, this volume provides a useful service in making these texts available to an English-speaking reading audience.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alicia Montoya is Professor of French Literature and Culture at Radboud University, the Netherlands.

Date of Review: 
January 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sylvain Maréchal (1750–1803) was a French essayist, poet, activist, political theorist, and editor of the journal Révolutions de Paris.

Sheila Delany is professor emerita at Simon Fraser University. A medievalist and lifelong political activist, Delany lives in Vancouver. Her book, Anti-Saints: The New Golden Legend of Sylvain Maréchal, was published by the University of Alberta Press.


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