"THERE ARE SO MANY WOMEN who write in the 20th century!" That is what Evelyne Sullerot, an eloquent sociologist, fairly gasps when she reaches the end of Women on Love. It was certainly not always so. This book, now translated, is written by a French feminist who has unearthed the opinions of Frenchwomen for a French-speaking audience -- all the more fascinating to an American reader. The book rests on our now familiar (Western) perception that it has been men who have molded and interpreted our culture, created our myths, cast our frames of mind throughout the ages and, in the case in point, defined and described love. This is because it has been men, and only a small upper tier of them, who were taught to read and write. It is chance that has allowed the letters, diaries, poems of a few women to survive from the time of the Middle Ages -- poems from the powerful and dominating ladies in the period of courtly love; letters from the incomparable and forthright Heloise: "And though God may seem to have dealt harshly with you," she writes to Abelard, after he has been castrated by her enraged uncle, "in reality He proved merciful. For me, on the other hand, the first of a youthful age burningly alive to pleasure and my experiencing of the sweetest pleasures of the senses fan the flames of these desires of the flesh. They praise my chastity; that is because they do not know my hypocrisy."
Sullerot seems first to have come across the writings of women on love through the course of pursuing her major professional work -- sociological studies of the feminine condition. She brings us these forgotten women, like stolen fruits, with delight and admiration, but also with an unsentimental and undogmatic assessment of their adaptation to the cultural strains and the social milieux in which they lived. Her introductory essays to each century, particularly the four from the 16th to the 19th, are beautifully written and immensely instructive.
Always there is evidence of two sorts of women, with "a line of demarcation that would appear to have little to do with social status and cultural conditioning, since in all times and places it has served to establish a dichotomy between women who are 'hot-blooded' and those who are lukewarm.'" I will add that many of us fall somewhere along the spectrum. We all, however, must negotiate with the society in which we live and its mores. The 16th century, for instance, was remarkable as a period of such violence of temperament, of such instability of emotion, that men were given to rape and murder to defend their "honor," and women were warned against even those in holy orders.
However, the old rules of courtly love became quaint and ineffectual, and women, under such bloody siege, begin to evolve a sense of their own "honor," seeking safety in the enshrinement of virginity and marriage. "Victory through refusal, victory through resistance, victory through resistance, victory through abstinence: This regorous self-discipline (tortured and crippled) women for centuries to come."
In every period Sullerot introduces one to women of the richest variety. There is not a stock character in the lot. Ninon de Lenclos, a 17th-century "hotblood" had a grand independence and boldness, proclaiming love to be"a taste based on the senses a blind sentiment, which in no way presupposes any merit in the object that gives rise to it, and in no way binds the latter to feel gratitude." She said to one of her lovers, "I suppose that I shall love you three months. That is all eternity for me." She writes to another, "Sir, it is only through marks of respect, constant attentions, countless courtesies, and eternal compliments that you may succeed in sharing the extreme love that your mistress has for her beauty." How about that!
There are themes that recur through the centuries. It seems that women have always experienced the maddest passion through adoring their own bodies, were always thrilled by the arching of their own backs, the ampleness of their own thighs. Not too much in this love poetry about the body of the lover; a few white shoulders, and no notice of the sexual organs until our time. Another assumption, at least until the 18th century, is that marriage is a bad lot, period. Nobody expects it to be anything else, expects a husband to be lovable, or even pleasant. Old and disgusting is what is entirely probable.
As usual, the 18th is the best centruy, and most of the women who represent it seem very modern, like our sisters, as Sullerot suggests. After the Revolution, Bonaparte says women shouldn't mix in politics and Sophie de Condorcet retorts, "In a country where they get their heads cut off, women would like to know the reason why!" In a country where they've had such heads it's no wonder the men were running scared. This is a rich book and a pleasure to read.
Jill Tweedie, an English feminist and successful London journalist, has also been roused by the fact that it has been men alone who have imposed their conception of love upon us all; in fact, she's been roused to fury. In the Name of Love is a long indictment of the victimization of women, and for American readers, I think, not new. Tweedie writes with bitterness and candor about her own life: "powerful, unloving father, powerless loving mother;" three marriages, only the last of which brought her "true love;" four children, but only the fourth receiving her immediate and spontaneous love. About the first-born: "I would sit at one end of the sofa, he, a shawled bundle, would lie propped at the opposite end and we would regard each other." The short glimpses into her personal life make a chilling and painful story, but for the most part this book is a catalogue of cultural crimes perpetrated by men from the beginning of time. It is unculled and repetitive, and the witless women victims described are either monsters or craven or out of the "soaps."
At the end there is a note of hope for the future of love and marriage through true equality between men and women. Then there will be less unbridled emotion, and a greater use of the second, rational and more highly evolved of homo sapiens' two brains. I share Tweedie's hope, and feel compassion for her wrath, but I wonder whether her expression of it will be news to many American readers.