Marie de Gournay was born in Paris in 1565 and died there in 1645. She was the first-born child of Guillaume Le Jars, the king’s treasurer from 1563, and of Jeanne de Hacqueville. The Le Jars family settled at the Gournay-sur-Aronde manor in Picardy in 1568. Marie de Gournay was self-taught, and it was in 1583 or 1584, at the age of nineteen, that she discovered Montaigne’s Essais; she met the author in Paris in the spring of 1588 and shortly afterwards Montaigne spent several months at Gournaysur-Aronde. From then onwards she had a great passion for Montaigne (Gournay declared herself his ‘adoptive daughter’ – ‘fille d’alliance’) and for the Essais which she edited tirelessly for more than fifty years.
Gournay also prided herself on her writing and in 1594 published her first work, Le Proumenoir de M. de Montaigne, which she said she sent to Montaigne as a manuscript in 1588. In 1589, she also began a sustained correspondence with Justus Lipsius. This relationship with one of the most celebrated figures of the humanist movement lasted for around ten years before deteriorating in 1601. In a letter addressed to Moretus, dated 27 December 1601, Justus Lipsius wrote, ‘I once praised this young French woman and I am not content, and nor are others (perhaps), with the judgement I made of her. Hers is a deceptive sex which has more sparkle than substance’ (‘J’ai une fois loué cette demoiselle française, et ne m’en contente pas trop ni les autres (peutêtre) du jugement que j’en ai fait. C’est un sexe trompeur, et qui a du lustre plus que de substance’). Justus Lipsius was not the only one to fall out with Gournay, who seemed to attract gibes and mockery from most of her contemporaries and was treated harshly by the intellectual class of the period. Gournay was the laughing stock of her time, repeatedly called ‘old maid’ (‘vieille fille’), ‘bluestocking’ (‘basbleu’), ‘witch’ (‘sorcière’), ‘forger’ (‘faussaire’), ‘old madwoman’ (‘vieille folle’) and ‘old virgin’ (‘vieille pucelle’), for she remained celibate her whole life. She was insulted in this way in the Anti-Gournay ou Remerciements des beurrières de Paris and derided in La Comédie des académistes. She could certainly be accused of a lack of diplomacy, but, in reality, her greatest crime was to be a learned woman in a time dominated by men of letters.
Marie de Gournay is best known as the editor of Montaigne’s Essais. Pierre de Brach and Montaigne’s wife asked her to print a copy of the 1588 Essais in Paris, annotated by Montaigne and containing a great many notes written in the margins by the author himself between 1588 and 1592. This posthumous edition of the Essais was published in 1595 in Paris by Abel L’Angelier. It was supervised by Gournay and included a long preface, the aim of which was to defend the author against the ‘cold reception that our men have given the Essais’ (‘froid recueil [accueil], que nos hommes ont fait aux Essais’) and, above all, to impose the editor’s right to monitor Montaigne’s text, to which she claimed to be the only heir. However, the effect created by this preface was completely the opposite of that intended. Certain phrases shocked readers and Gournay became the target of caustic criticism. In order to silence her critics, she quickly replaced the preface with a note of apology added to the 1598 edition and repeated in many of the editions at the start of the seventeenth century. Despite this controversy, Gournay, however, continued to publicize Montaigne’s name throughout her life. Even in 1635, she published a final edition subsidized by the ‘Great Men’ of the kingdom, notably Richelieu .
At the same time as this publishing career linked to the Essais, Gournay published numerous literary as well as philosophical texts. Le Proumenoir de M. de Montaigne (1594) was reprinted three times up until 1623 (without counting two unauthorized editions) before her works were combined into L’Ombre de la damoiselle de Gournay in 1626. The works that should be mentioned include Adieu de l’ame du Roy de France et de Navarre Henry le Grand, avec la defence des peres jesuistes (1610), Versions de quelques pieces de Virgile, Tacite et Saluste, avec l’institution de Monseigneur, frere unique du Roy (1619), Remerciement au Roy, harangue du très illustre et très magnanime prince François, duc de Guise (1624). It was primarily on a linguistic level, in her hostility towards Malherbe’s disciples, that Marie de Gournay earned herself a reputation in the seventeenth century. Montaigne, once again, became her model and she defended the language of the Essais and of the poets of the Pléiade at a time when gasconisms and other expressions considered archaic were no longer in fashion.
Gournay was also known for defending women’s causes. For example, she reworked a long passage taken from the Proumenoir after 1607 in order to publish it under the title Egalité des hommes et des femmes (1622); this text, along with her ‘Grief des Dames’ published in the first edition of her complete works in 1626, has today earned her a reputation as a feminist. Like Montaigne, Gournay continued to rewrite her works. Thus, in 1634, with the title Les Advis, ou les Presens de la demoiselle de Gournay, she published a new edition of her complete works of 1626 with new texts and a complete reorganization of the volume. In 1641, the last edition of Les Advis was published.
Marie de Gournay held an important but highly controversial position on the intellectual scene of the first half of the seventeenth century. Today, she is known mainly as the first editor of Montaigne’s Essais, but her ‘feminist’ texts and her status as a woman of letters (she was linked to the creation of the Académie française) make her a true intellectual who was critical of many aspects, both literary and philosophical, of her era.
, ‘Marie de Gournay dans l’ombre de Montaigne. Du bon usage de la vengeance , in F. Lecercle and S. Perrier (eds), La Poétique des passions à la Renaissance, Mélanges offerts à Françoise Charpentier (Paris, 2001), pp. 225–36 .