Women’s Public Voices

Reviewed by Terri R. Baker

In a recent lectureMary Beard discussed the ancient history of men silencing women’s public voices: from Telemachus telling Penelope that speech was for men only to today’s underrepresentation of women in politics. In Novik’s fiction-Conceit (2007) and Muse (2013)-women who live in the shadow of a canonical poet also find their public words silenced.

Francesco Petrarch’s love sonnets have secured his place in the literary canon. In them, he, describes the frustrations of his unattainable love for Laura. Conversely, John Donne’s place in the canon derives from love sonnets in which the speaker and his lover unite in physical and spiritual love. Whereas much has been written about these two pillars of the literary canon, virtually nothing has been written about the women they loved. Mary Novik has entered into this unexplored space through her fiction, reimagining the public and private voice of the unnamed mother of Petrarch’s two children in Muse, just as she did for Donne’s wife and daughter in Conceit.

Muse shares the idealization of love found in Petrarch’s poetry, just as Conceit shares the grotesque language and sustained conceits of Donne’s poetry. Muse is grounded in the first person point of view of Solange Le Blanc, the physical love, scribe, and editor of Petrarch, whereas Conceit has a non-linear timeline and diverging points of view. Muse moves from the squalor of a whore’s apartments to a nun’s cloister to the Pope’s palace in Avignon, whereas Conceit firmly grounds itself in the bourgeoisie of London. Novik’s use of first-person point of view for Solange and for Ann indicates that we can never really know their stories. Despite this ambiguity, Muse is less complex and, at times, more frustrating than Conceit, such as when Solange forgives Petrarch for yet another betrayal. It would be easy to dismiss Muse as the lesser of the two novels-too accessible, too sentimental. However, the intertextuality of Novik’s prose and Petrarch’s poetry serves to remind us that the author is in dialogue with that poetry and claiming a voice for medieval women in a prose form that, given her first novel, echoes the sonnet cycle.

Timeless feminine cycles also form a critical part of both of Novik’s novels. Solange’s journey begins with her own birth, pauses over the awakening of her sexual desire on meeting Petrarch, and culminates with her rejecting the world of men for the seclusion of a convent. Petrarch’s ambition-for a career, for his poetry-comes at the expense of his love for Solange, forcing her to navigate her own way in the corrupt and avaricious world of Avignon during the Babylonian Captivity. Drawing unwanted male attention is Solange’s gift of prophecy from the moment of her birth. This means that Muse’s Solange, who loses control of her body and voice during her visions, must take control of her legacy as a prophet for the sake of her daughters. The novel’s ending, with Solange beginning her own chronicle, reinforces Beard’s reminder readers of how women were silenced in the past-no such chronicle exists-and of how women today must still be wary of being silenced.

This review “Women’s Public Voices” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 179.

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