Jewish Women in Historical Perspective

The last decades have seen a growing debate over the status of women in contemporary Judaism. As the conditions of secular Western life have allowed women greater choice in their educational and vocational opportunities and society has begun to endorse female equality with men, dissatisfaction with traditional Jewish limitations on women’s participation in communal, religious, and scholarly activities has increased. Whilst there have been numerous contemporary responses to traditional Jewish views of women’s roles, perspectives from the past have been missing from the ongoing discussion. This collection of essays is intended to provide such a historical excursion. Each essay provides an overview of the period in question, and asks serious questions about the general situations of Jewish women and their activities in a male-dominated public and intellectual Jewish life, as well as in a larger non-Jewish cultural environment.

Writing Love

In this compelling new addition to Sandra M. Gilbert’s Ad Feminam: Women and Literature series, Katharine Ann Jensen examines the cultural form of the love letter and its intersection with the novel in the works of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French women writers. Traditionally, French literary history has focused on eighteenth-century male writers Rousseau and Laclos as the master artists of the epistolary novel. That emphasis on one century, one gender, and one epistolary form—the novel—obscures the history of women’s writing in France.

In the seventeenth century, the love letter was viewed as a feminine literary form in which a woman’s passionate and emotional “nature” found its logical expression. Such emotional writing was criticized for its structural and grammatical imperfections, rendering it—in the eyes of men—invalid as true “literary” material. However, men often wrote under female pseudonyms, composing letters of seduction and betrayal that were published as true accounts. Jensen contends that men disguised their words as women’s words because writing as women allowed them to experiment with narrative fiction at a time when men’s writing was rigidly defined by classical rhetoric. She further argues that men were able to moderate women’s linguistic strengths by limiting their epistolary expertise to a social, rather than literary, practice, thereby maintaining literature as an almost exclusively male province.

Jensen argues for a tradition of women’s writing by examining both the love letters and novels of such writers as Desjardins, Ferrand, Graffigny, Riccoboni, and Lespinasse. In her novel Les Désordres de l’amour, Desjardins (Madame de Villedieu) creates an ambitious, letter-writing heroine. Through an analysis of the textual similarities between the heroine’s letters and Desjardins’s personal love letters to her unfaithful lover, Jensen concludes that Desjardins rewrites her own unfortunate epistolary relationship. Jensen draws similar conclusions from an examination of the personal letters of Ferrand in relation to her novel Histoire des amours de Cléante et de Bélise.

In order to chart the legacy of seventeenth-century feminine epistolarity, Jensen goes on to consider the works of eighteenth-century French women writers. Like Desjardins’s novel, Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne and Riccoboni’s Lettres de Mistress Fanni Butlerd present letter-writing heroines who overturn the conventions of seduction and betrayal in order to claim their independence and desire to write. This desire correlates to Graffigny’s and Riccoboni’s own writing ambitions, thereby asserting the ability of women to write self-consciously, rather than emotionally, and to create narrative fiction rather than cyclical letters of love and suffering. Jensen demonstrates that these assertions constitute a significant break with seventeenth-century ideas about feminine letter writing that inextricably bind women to a supposedly natural language of sexual and literary disempowerment.

This important and insightful book will prove a valuable addition to the libraries of scholars in French seventeenth- and eighteenth-century studies, feminist studies, epistolary fiction, and novel and narrative studies.

In Love with Jerzy Kosinski

From Agate Nesaule, acclaimed by writers across the globe from Doris Lessing to Tim O’Brien, comes a long-awaited novel. In Love with Jerzy Kosinski is a story of courage and persistence, exploring in fiction the themes that gripped readers of Nesaule’s award-winning memoir, A Woman in Amber.
    After fleeing Latvia as a child, Anna Duja escapes Russian confinement in displaced persons camps and eventually arrives in America. Years later, she finds herself in a different kind of captivity on isolated Cloudy Lake, Wisconsin, living with her disarming but manipulative husband, Stanley.
    Inspired by the transformation of Polish-Jewish émigré Jerzy Kosinski from persecuted wartime escapee to celebrity author in America, Anna slips away from Stanley and Cloudy Lake in small steps: learning to drive, making friends, moving to Madison, falling in love, and learning to forgive. Readers will applaud the book’s power, the beauty of its prose, and its strong evocation of a woman gradually finding her way in the wake of trauma.  
Winner, the Chancellor’s Regional Literary Award, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater