To kick off a whole new year of GEMS in portraits we sat down with Astrid Van Assche, doctoral researcher at the department of French Literature. Astrid’s PhD focusses on the early seventeenth-century salon culture and studies the gallant letters circulating in the Parisian Hôtel de Rambouillet. This subject is a continuation of research she conducted in her bachelor’s and master’s dissertations. After graduating in 2013 as a Master of Linguistics and Literature (French-Dutch), Astrid continued studying at Ghent University to obtain her teacher training degree. In 2014 her PhD proposal was accredited with a BOF scholarship.
How did your interest for your research arise?
As a student I took French Literature classes from Professor Jean Mainil, who is now supervising my PhD. He introduced me and my fellow students to the Hôtel de Rambouillet, a Parisian salon hosted by the marquise de Rambouillet. The 17th-century salon culture immediately drew my attention. I became fascinated by its grandeur, its luxurious settings and the elegance of the people frequenting them. The salon culture struck me in all its brilliance, like a chandelier I had never seen before.
Then I got the chance to go to Aix en Provence as part of the Erasmus exchange programme, where I found the Méjanes library, with its extensive documentation on the Hôtel de Rambouillet. It turned out to be an absolute treasure trove. The more I delved into the subject, the more I started to get acquainted with the different writers participating in that salon – such as Vincent Voiture, Charles Cotin, Antoine Godeau and Claude de Mesmes – and the letters they wrote. If the salon culture were a chandelier, I was now taking a closer look at the different crystal pearls it was made of.
At the time, the Académie didn’t think of the literary productions of salons very highly and were certainly not inclined to recognise the letter as a literary genre. But studying the individual letters from the Hôtel de Rambouillet, it is hard not to notice their literary quality. Moreover, it’s important to note these letters were read out loud at the salon meetings and addressed members of the highest social classes. Their influence on society is not to be underestimated. When I took my eyes off my chandelier and looked around the room, I discovered the reflections the chandelier casted. That’s how I found myself studying the letters as social and literary vectors and analysing their impact on 17th-century France.
Do you consider your research in general as interdisciplinary and/ or groundbreaking?
I find interdisciplinary approaches valuable in every aspect of life. Therefore, I try to ensure the interdisciplinary character of my own research by taking into account both the social and literary natures of the Hôtel de Rambouillet letters. As literary vectors the letters evolved from a very ceremonial format to a more experimental approach of traditional genres and codes. By the 1640s, I believe the lettre galante to have reached its full potential as an innovative and playful literary style. As social vectors, the letters were a means for the writers to diffuse the salon’s ideals and to construct an aristocratic network for themselves. In order to better showcase and interpret the potential reach of these letters – their social and literary impact – I immersed myself in Network Theory, with its patterns and hubs, and in concepts of anthropology and discursive psychology. Historiography also came into play when I looked at the letters as lieux de mémoire. Through the letters’ descriptions of salon life, both direct and indirect, the customs and ideals of the era are revealed. Certain behavioural codes regarding women, for instance, are displayed in the letters by portraying the ladies of the salon as incomparable goddesses.
I believe that the fascinating epistolary production of the Hôtel de Rambouillet hasn’t raised enough academic interest. I’ve been looking for writers, for letters, for references to letters in footnotes to other texts, gathering a corpus that can offer the foundation for continued study of the salon culture and its literary production. My research offers a selection of letter writers and letters documenting the much debated phenomena of préciosité and gallantry, and points out the hybrid genre of the gallant letter as a catalyser in the evolution towards the first French modern novel. In these respects I believe my work to be groundbreaking, yes.
Have you ever experienced a ‘Eureka moment’ during your research?
I have, when I was trying to establish my theoretical framework. Like many Eureka moments, mine was connected to a period of uncertainty, of not knowing where to go next. I struggled to find the right theory to match my corpus when I first read Derridà’s ‘La carte postale’. His epistolary theory, written in the form of an epistolary novel, is a true masterpiece, showing the many possibilities of the epistolary format. My Eureka moment was not just encountering ‘La carte postale’ but foremost realising the parallel with the lettres galantes I study. They, too, play with different genres within their epistolary format, turning a so-called genre mineur into genuine literature. As a result of their experiments with genre, Derridà and the gallant letter writers alike encouraged their readers to alternate between various reader-text relationships and reading attitudes, making them aware of their own point of view. Apart from the big ‘Eurekas’, I owe a lot to the small surprises that accompany everyday research. It’s a great feeling to discover new letters or details, or to read old texts anew, even my own, and get new insights from them.
What is the most inspiring (literary) study you have ever read? And the most recent one?
The book I reread recently and found very inspiring is Faith Beasley’s ‘Salons, History and the Creation of Seventeenth-century France: Mastering Memory’ (2006). In this book, Beasley interrogates collective memory and its Le Goffian ‘silences’ that actively manipulate historiography. It is striking that the salons, where women were offered a cultural and literary stage, were dismissed as schools of morality and good behaviour. The women themselves were thereby pushed into roles that were deemed appropriate for women at the time: those of host and educator. Beasley’s study further encouraged me to reveal the female participation in the salon’s literary activities and to look into their letters, often forgotten if not lost, fallen through the cracks of history. Recently I found a letter by a duchess referring to a novel that is commonly ascribed to a male author. This letter tells us that her female correspondent has had a significant, yet unrecognized share in it. These silenced female voices help us discover new social and literary aspects of early seventeenth-century French culture.