Prof. Catriona Seth, ‘Girls with Books. Reading, Contagion and Acquired Immunity in Eighteenth-Century Fiction’: The Inaugural Lecture of the eighth Oxford Marshal Foch Professor

Prof. Catriona Seth, outside the Taylorian Institution, Oxford. Photograph: Henrike Lähnemann.

On 9 May, Oxford’s eighth Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature gave her inaugural lecture to a packed hall at the Taylorian Institute. As she noted in her introductory remarks, the date is significant: 9 May is Europe day, commemorating the 1950 Schuman Declaration. What is also significant is that the eighth Marshal Foch Professor is the first to deliver her lecture at all: Catriona Seth is the first woman to hold the professorship.

Fellow of the British Academy, Member of the Académie Royale de Belgique, President of the Société Française d’étude du dix-huitième siècle, and Member of the Franco-British Council, Seth’s accolades testify to the respect for her research across Europe, and reflect her European academic career (which has included posts in the UK, France and Germany). She has published monographs on eighteenth-century French poets, on the history of smallpox, and on Marie-Antoinette; she has established the Pléiade editions of Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, and Germaine de Staël’s novels and De la littérature; she has published on the gothic novel, on women’s writing, on book illustration, and on the history of childhood, not to mention her article, with Katherine Astbury, on Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s boxer shorts…[1] Beyond the headline undergarment, the latter is actually about a woman’s correspondence: that of Bernardin’s sister, Catherine. Indeed, much of Seth’s research to date has uncovered – and helped restore to the canon – the neglected history of what women read and wrote during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As the title of her lecture hinted, among many other things, Seth’s work has changed our understanding of the history of ‘girls with books’.

We were introduced to many such girls over the course of the hour: from Rousseau’s Julie and the women who devoured her story, to Laclos’s Merteuil who herself devoured La Nouvelle Héloïse (as well as every man, woman and child who crossed her path). Seth discussed less well-known women, too, showing that they were not only readers of novels, but often their champion and their raison d’être. Her analysis of Bougeant’s Voyage merveilleux du prince Fan-Férédin dans la Romancie (1735), for instance, highlighted that without women, this novel would not have existed. It was Prince Fan-Férédin’s mother who introduced him to novels and set off his travels in ‘la Romancie’, and without Bougeant’s female dedicatee, Madame C** B**, for whom he claimed to have written the novel, there would have been no text at all.

Weaving together some of the strands of her research, Seth merged close reading with cultural history, medical humanities, and the visual arts. Her argument centred on a metaphor and an analogy, both of which bridged the fields of medicine and literature. The metaphor (that reading the body is a metaphor for reading texts), and the analogy (that as inoculation can protect the body, so book-based instruction can protect the mind), are central to the two most famous eighteenth-century French epistolary novels: La Nouvelle Héloïse and Les Liaisons dangereuses. Both of these novels suggest that reading books in the right way can provide you with what Seth calls a ‘textually transmitted immunity’, to protect you from irksome textually transmitted diseases such as a romantic imagination or, worse, libertinage. The prophylactic needed is not a barrier, but an inoculation.

Gravelot (illustrator) and Mire (engraver), ‘L’Inoculation de l’amour’ (La Nouvelle Héloïse, 1761), Bryn Mawr Collections, accessed 12 May 2019.

Rousseau shows us this in La Nouvelle Héloïse. Wolmar attempts to cure Julie and Saint-Preux of their love for one another, for example, but never quite succeeds. As Julie contracts smallpox, recovers, but is scarred for life, so she manages to get over her love for Saint-Preux, but will always bear its scars; the physical trace of the disease – like the trace of her love for Saint-Preux – remains. Building on the argument of scholars such as, of course, Jean Starobinski, Seth explained that this is how Rousseau expected the novel to function: as a literary inoculation that infects readers with a carefully administered dose of morally harmful material, in order to protect them from greater, worldly hazards.[2] Since French society was rife with moral sickness, Rousseau believed, the only way to stem the contagion was to inoculate girls with books. However, the remedy was not fool-proof. Inoculation produced side effects, as Seth touched upon with reference to the work of Claude Labrosse on contemporary readers’ reactions to La Nouvelle Héloïse.[3] In their letters to Rousseau and their pilgrimages to the shores of Lake Geneva, Seth suggested that readers were not content with having received their treatment: they now wanted to see the doctor.

Side-effects were not the only problem; some readers signally failed to acquire immunity. Merteuil may have read and admired La Nouvelle Héloïse, as well as bundles of other people’s letters, but she failed to learn the lesson that her own letters could also be read in a way that her outward appearance could not… at least initially. The famous autobiographical letter 81, and letter 85 recounting her entrapment of Prévan, eventually uncover the true Merteuil behind her carefully constructed façade. In the end, Merteuil is not only publicly disgraced, but is also irremediably scarred by smallpox. Her punishment for failing to learn her lesson about the nature of texts, therefore, is to have her body finally betray her soul. Whether she likes it or not, everyone can now read her like a book. Seth argues that by leaving Merteuil vulnerable to smallpox (at a time when inoculation was becoming recognised as a cure), Laclos uses her as an illustration of what happens if one is not ‘inoculated’, by one’s reading, against the ills of society.

Seth closed by highlighting the present-day stakes of her argument, with a reference to Boko Haram’s abduction of over 250 school girls from their secondary school in Nigeria in April 2014. Citing New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof (a peer from Seth’s years as an undergraduate at Magdalen College), Seth reminded us that still today, girls’ education is perceived as a threat by certain extremist groups because of its ability to transform society. The socially transformative potential of education is precisely what made it the site of countless disputes during the eighteenth century and, as Seth showed, these disputes show no sign of abating. Borrowing Kristof’s words, she noted, ‘the greatest threat to extremism isn’t a drone overhead but a girl with a book.’[4] The new Marshal Foch Professor thus concluded with a health warning, or rather a call to arms: ‘reading can seriously damage your ignorance’.

– Gemma Tidman

[1] For a list of Seth’s major publications, see her faculty profile. For the latter article, see Katherine Astbury and Catriona Seth, ‘Unblocking Enlightenment Loos, Bernardin’s Boxer Shorts and Other Day-to-Day Practicalities in Eighteenth-Century Normandy: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Catherine de Saint-Pierre’s Networks’, Nottingham French Studies, 54.2 (2015), 210–23.

[2] Starobinski, Le Remède dans le mal: critique et légitimation de l’artifice à l’âge des Lumières (Paris: Gallimard, 1989).

[3] Labrosse, Lire au XVIIIe siècle: La Nouvelle Héloïse et ses lecteurs (Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1985).

[4] Nicholas Kristof, ‘Honoring the Missing Schoolgirls’, The New York Times (7 May 2014).

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