[(essay date 2005) In the following essay, Lalande explores the “thematic and structural analogies” that connect Villedieu’s late epistolary novel, Le portefeuille (1674; published as The Letter Case in 2005), with her early plays. Lalande discusses the tension between the “female-marked” genre of the letter and “male-marked theater,” suggesting that The Letter Case can be viewed as a “feminine subversion of theatrical discourse.”]
Madame de Villedieu’s immense popularity in the seventeenth century was paralleled only by her celebrity as an adventuress. However, until recently and for nearly two centuries, this prolific, best-selling author was consigned to a minor rank. As a result, her works have suffered from critical neglect. Today, in literary circles, the works of Madame de Villedieu no longer need a lengthy apologetic introduction. Thanks to the efforts of Micheline Cuénin in France and the American scholar Bruce Morrissette,1 critical interest in this versatile woman of letters has been reawakened over the past few decades and her reputation has been reestablished. The writings of Marie-Catherine Desjardins, better known to her reading public as Madame de Villedieu, have struck a chord in the contemporary reader’s imagination. One might argue that this renewed attention can be explained by the influence of feminist scholars who are intent on saving numerous nearly forgotten women writers from literary oblivion, but it also rests undeniably on the author’s own merit.2
Following the publication of the novella Alcidamie in 1661, and the subsequent appearance of a small volume of poetry in 1662, Madame de Villedieu devoted herself for a limited period to playwriting and subsequently published three dramatic works: Manlius Torquatus (tragedy) in 1662, Nitétis (tragedy) in 1664, and Le Favory (tragicomedy) in 1665. Her talent for versification won her the support of the renowned theoretician of the theater, the abbé d’Aubignac, who defended her Manlius against the attacks of the illustrious tragedian Corneille. Madame de Villedieu had in all probability gained inspiration from the latter’s works,3 thus revealing her ambition to rival the great dramatists of her time. This incursion into the sacrosanct arena of playwriting by a young woman—Marie-Catherine was in her twenties at the time—was extremely controversial and can be regarded as the equivalent of a political act in itself, quite aside from the polemics raised by the subject matter.4 After a brief period of success she abandoned the theater in favor of the novel, the gallant tale, and the historical novella. Though Madame de Villedieu never again ventured into the realm of playwriting, one can nonetheless ascertain that her literary debut in the theater left an indelible mark on her later production.
One of her last works, Le Portefeuille (1674) [The Letter Case] is a letter novel of considerable literary merit, whose epistolary form was probably inspired by the publication of Lettres portugaises [Portuguese Letters] a few years earlier. Despite present-day scholarly interest in the works of Madame de Villedieu, The Letter Case has remained on the margins of contemporary critical analysis. The primary reason for...