“No womman of no clerk is praised.”

An old-fashioned historian can be forgiven for feeling a touch of empathy for the bewildered Egyptians upon whom Yahweh emptied the vessels of wrath some 3,500 years ago. The Hebrews’ God plagued the Egyptians for a matter of days, but the stern Minerva who reigns over academe has tormented historians for two decades or more. Like the pullulating frogs that hopped and croaked on the banks of the Nile, a host of noisome creatures has invaded the orderly precincts of historical scholarship. Pestilence appears in many forms: Marxism, the new social history, black pride, gay consciousness, pop Freudianism, and computer analysis.

None of these has wreaked quite so much havoc as feminism. These are parlous times for the historian who clings to the once-respected craft of chronicling the achievements of statesmen, warriors, priests, and fashioners of ideas, most of whom have suffered the misfortune of maleness. Faced with this onslaught, one is tempted to adopt a siege mentality and brace for the final assault of the barbarians. But in this case, the barbarians may have something to teach us, for in spite of their procrustean ideologizing, their cant and posturing, their venomous scorn for outmoded forms of historical inquiry, the practitioners of women’s history have illuminated a realm largely ignored by previous historians. That the lives of obscure women should be brought into the historian’s purview is not such a radical idea after all; the pity is that the deed has been wrought too often by people whose scholarship is twisted by sexual animosity and political exigency.

The new concentration upon the daily lives of women has had at least one beneficial result: the publication of primary materials that have been either unknown or accessible only to archival moles. Neither Growing Up in the 1850s, the adolescent musings of Agnes Lee, nor Marthe, a collection of family letters that reveals the carryings-on of a fin de siècle French woman, contains anything especially earthshaking; this is not the stuff from which revisionists fabricate innovative interpretations. Both volumes do, however, open a window upon the banalities of existence in times and places—Virginia of the 1850’s and France of the 1890’s—whose study is often preoccupied with the unfolding of BIG EVENTS: say, for example, the Dreyfus Affair in France, or the secession crisis in Virginia. They, too, serve who grapple only with the demands of insignificant lives.

Obsessive feminists will hitch these books to their ideological wagon: Agnes Lee, in this transmogrification, emerges as the pedestaled belle of Old Virginia, and Marthe de Montbourg as the victim of repressive morality. Such reductionism ill serves both women. If she was, in fact, oppressed by patriarchy, Agnes seems ignorant of her plight, confiding to her journal the normal joys, sorrows, aspirations, and apprehensions of a young Virginian woman of her class and era. Like her father, who would soon be transformed from an obscure colonel into the hero of the Confederacy, she faces tribulation with a stoic sense of honor and duty; a Virginian of her class—whether male or female—did not whine, wallow in self-pity, or curse the gods for meting out justice imperfectly. Had she not died in 1873 at the age of 32, she would have forged in her person that combination of lace, lavender, and steel that has made the Southern woman a figure not to be pitied but to be approached with a mixture of respect, trepidation, and awe.

Frederick Brown, the eminent elucidator of French literature, remarks in the foreword to Marthe that “what we see of Marthe are mostly images projected by the people in whose hands her fate lies: her mother, guardian, uncle, and later, husband.” Such a description will hardly suffice for a young woman who dominates an entire family’s attention for a decade and who, in pursuit of sexual gratification, sets off an uproar akin to that created by a loose cannon careening about the deck of a ship awash in a moiling sea. If this Marthe is repressed, it is frightening to imagine what an unrepressed Marthe would have accomplished. Sexually active from the age of 14, she becomes pregnant by a peasant five years later and bears an illegitimate child. The family correspondence (mainly between Marthe’s mother Emilie, and Emilie’s brother Charles de Cerilley) begins in 1892 with the frantic search for a husband for Marthe. After repeated disappointments, Emilie settles upon Robert Caron d’Aillot, a feckless and impecunious member of the petite noblesse, who is willing to undertake the reformation of the wayward fille “into a nice wife able to take her place in a salon”; the tainted past of a handsomely dowered wife takes second place to the prospects of financial solvency.

Marthe’s marriage, however, plunges her family into what her uncle calls “an ocean of muck” and “a sea of shame”: Robert abuses Marthe; Emilie threatens Robert, who in turn vows to expose Marthe’s “lascivious past”; Robert and Marthe engage in feverish and frequent coupling; and Marthe refuses to leave Robert because, as M. de Cerilley puts it, she has “to have it at any price.” After seducing a farmhand, Marthe flees to her mother; newly liberated, she beds her farmhand again, rejects him in favor of a valet, and before her death in 1902 makes her final conquest in the person of her solicitous cousin, Henri. Feminists may view this as a tragic tale of female subjection; more properly, it is a farcical comedy compounded out of Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, Therese Raquin, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

What distresses the de Montbourgs and de Cerilleys is not so much Marthe’s rampaging wantonness, but rather her proletarian tastes in bed partners. Émilie in particular exhibits that last gambit of a decadent aristocracy, snobbery; she bemoans the “mean republican spirit” of fin de siècle France and decries the “egalitarian vulgarity” of the age. Marthe parades a cast of repellent aristocrats; greedy, grasping, and small-minded, they think only of money, the horrors of scandal, and the iniquities of a society that threatens their status. Agnes Lee, by contrast, feels no menace from the lower orders; with the best of Virginia’s prewar landed gentry, she assuages the rigors of slavery with the decency demanded by noblesse oblige. The Lees are secure in their social position, and their graceful practice of the aristocratic virtues suffuses their existence with a special poignancy, for as we—but not they—know, their world is doomed. None but a purblind apologist would mourn the passing of Marthe’s class; but the Lees: now there is an aristocracy worthy of nostalgia; only the bitter reminder that Virginia’s gentry flourished on a foundation of human bondage blemishes our admiration.

All was not serene and idyllic in Agnes’ world, however: a nameless and free-floating guilt cursed her young life. With a moral agony worthy of a 17th-century Puritan she searches her heart for the hidden source of her unworthiness. In a burst of self-recrimination she anguishes that “my poor weak, miserable nature makes me despise myself with a force which no language of mine can describe.” Even a wrenching emotional experience that leads to confirmation in the Episcopal Church does not completely staunch the flow of guilt; only months after her conversion she cries out: “O May I love Jesus more, my heart is so hard & cold.” Agnes Lee writhed under an almost morbid sense of spiritual inadequacy that seems to have warped her psyche. But is such agony really “warped”? Is not the Christian soul always tormented by an acute sensitivity to its own imperfection? Is it not appalled by the glaring blotch that compels it to quail before the ineffable purity of the stainless Christ?

Marthe de Montbourg gave evidence of a spiritual condition more prized by Americans of the late 20th century. Her letters express no guilt or remorse for her sins; she mainly longs for a man who will prod her to multiple ecstacies. Emilie’s judgment upon her daughter is close to the mark: “But this creature thinks only of eating, drinking, and sensual amours!” Yet there is something else. Louise Galouret, Marthe’s faithful companion in the last year of Marthe’s life, writes to Charles de Cerilley: “She was esteemed and loved by all those who came near her, and in the eyes of God she may perhaps have been greater than many of those whose religion is so hypocritical. She was frank, loyal. and charitable, qualities that are rarely met with.”

Each will make of Marthe de Montbourg and Agnes Lee what he will. To the feminist, they are victims; to the Freudian, case studies; to the Marxist, members of the oppressor class. In some sense, they may have been all of these, but they were something more as well. Marthe sinned grievously, her unsatiated compulsions driving her into fornication and adultery; Agnes, too, transgressed, not in matters of the flesh but in a despairing reluctance to trust in grace. Mildred Lee, Agnes’ younger sister, kept her own journal, and in 1884, 11 years after Agnes’ demise, she described her sister’s deathbed scene. “I managed,” Mildred writes, “to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, & she joined in at ‘Forgive us our trespasses,’ murmuring ‘ah that’s the part.'” Whatever Marthe and Agnes suffered as females in a male-dominated society, women’s liberation would not have solved their problems. As Agnes Lee realized as she lay dying, only divine forgiveness suffices. Truly that is the part.


[Growing Up in the 1850’s: The Journal of Agnes Lee, edited by Mary Custis Lee deButts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press) $11.95]

[Marthe, translated by Donald M. Frame (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) $19.95]