Marie de France: First Author of Courtly Love

One of my students found this blog, and I thought it was worth sharing with all of you.

Notable Women

This post is dedicated to Devon, who, at the end of reading Wolfram’s Parzifal, tossed her book on the table in frustration and asked, “Why do the women always have to be given away like property?”  

Marie de France, as depicted in a medieval manuscript. (Source)

Name: Marie de France

Birthplace/Dates:  France–possibly the Vexin region (between the Ile de France and Normandy), roughly 1140-1215?

Occupation/Claim to Fame:  The first person to write what we would now call “chivalric tales.”  She was author of several texts (including one translation): most famously, a collection of 12 Lais, brief poetic tales that were forerunners to works like Wolfram’s Parzifal and the Roman de la Rose.  Marie also produced a collection of Fables (based on Aesop and other classical sources), and a religious text called The Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick (based on a Latin document…

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Shameless Self-promotion

“What I want is for men to read my work and make the same leap of identity that we [women] have to make when we read one of the 99 percent of comic strips that star straight white men, boys, or animals.” – Alison Bechdel

As many of you know, for almost 2 years I worked on a book on Alison Bechdel, hence why we read Fun Home a few semesters ago. As a matter of fact, our class played a role in my writing process; teaching her graphic memoir helped me flesh out some key elements within the work. In the Acknowledgements section of my book, I even thanked Mike and Amy and our Spoilers class directly.

Well, now my book is (finally) available for purchase. I’m attaching the link to the publisher’s website and the flier for the book, just on the off chance any of you are interested in buying a copy. Bechdel

Alison Bechdel

The Twelve Olympians and Some (Other) Women

In Circe we encounter both Titans and Olympians, as well as many stories related to these gods. Many of the gods we may already know; many of the stories we may have heard; some of the gods and some of the stories may be new to us. As a primer or refresher on the Olympian key players, I have found a great little text titled  The Twelve Olympians.

A large number of women in Greek mythology exist, but we usually only hear or discuss a few; here is a fairly comprehensive list of all of them. It’s an extensive list and well worth spending some time digging through; it’s no small task. We will discuss the key ones related to Circe in class, but there are so many more than we generally realize.


Endlessly Repeating

Publishing anything centers on the hope that someone will read it. I publish my work with that same hope. Despite that hope, sharing my published academic works with friends, family, and colleagues is a struggle for me. To an even greater extent, I wrestle with sharing my creative work with anyone, not because my writing isn’t good (I’m a solid writer), but because my creative pieces are intensely intimate to me. Publishing and sharing involves the risk of rejection. Who wants such a piece of their soul rejected?  But I wrote and published this short story, because I needed it to be written. I released these written words into the world, because I needed them to be heard. I placed this personal piece of me out there, because I needed the world to know this story is as relevant to today as it was when Kate Chopin published her novel, because this loss, this life, this lesson resonates for many of us still, because this is our yesterday, this is our present day, and this may be our tomorrow. So for these reasons, I also share it with you. This specific short story of mine connects not only to the content of what we read for this week’s class, but directly to the notion of artistry and courage of which Mademoiselle Reisz speaks: “The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies.” And so, I muster my courage, defy my self-doubt, and plunge myself into the gulf… “Endlessly Repeating”

Reading for the First Time a Second Time

Many of you have previously read this week’s book. I first encountered The Awakening in high school. I read it again in my sophomore year as an undergrad. I returned to the text in two graduate classrooms. I teach the text as well. I re-read Chopin’s novel again this week. Each time I explore this small book I find another turn of phrase or idea or passage that I missed last time. As we begin to explore The Awakening tomorrow, I want to challenge you to read it anew as well:

I think that authors’ ghosts creep back
Nightly to haunt the sleeping shelves
And find the books they wrote.
Those authors put final, semi-final touches,
Sometimes whole paragraphs.
Whole pages are added, re-written, revised,
So deeply by night those authors employ
Themselves with those old books of theirs.
How otherwise
Explain the fact that maybe after years
Have passed, the reader
Picks up the book – But was it like that?
I don’t remember this … Where
Did this ending come from?
I recall quite another.
Oh yes, it has been tampered with
No doubt about it – 
The author’s very touch is here, there and there,
Where it wasn’t before, and
What’s more, something’s missing – 
I could have sworn …

(Muriel Sparks “Authors’ Ghosts” 2003)

(Side note about Muriel Sparks: today would have been her 100th birthday. If you haven’t read anything by her, I recommend you check her out. She’s one of my favorite Scottish authors. For more information on Muriel Sparks, check out this article from The Guardian:

Literally Laced with Allusions

Disclaimer: This is Rachel, not Mike. I can’t figure out how to change the name of who is posting. I am not a blogger. But I’m going to give it a try, because there is so much material to cover on each reading and so little class time to cover it.

As Mike has mentioned and as Zadie Smith herself mentions, On Beauty draws upon EM Forster’s Howards End. It also directly references Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just” (see the previous post by Mike). The description of Levi doing laps in the pool during the anniversary party echoes Sheever’s short story “The Swimmer” ( and the name Kipps refers to a story by that name from HG Wells ( This novel is literally laced with allusions.

Beyond Forster and Scarry, the most obvious allusions woven through the text are to the work of Zora Neale Hurston, specifically They’re Eyes Were Watching GodTell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, and “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” Some of the references to Hurston abide on the surface: Kiki is from Eatonville, FL (home of Zora Neale Hurston) and the Belsey’s daughter is named Zora. Some of the other allusions reside slightly below the surface,such as the Haitian politics, and if you haven’t read Hurston’s anthropological works, you may have missed them: Tell My Horse chronicles Hurston’s anthropology work in Haiti and Jamaica.

On Beauty has been described as a follow-up to this anthropological work and many scholars argue that the “minor” Haitian characters are just as important for the development of the novel as any of the Belsely’s or the Kipps. I put minor in quotation marks, because Haitians make up a large number of characters and are the economy that allows the novel to work. They do the labor in Wellington and represent more than just plot devices in moving the story forward. They work for low pay as servants; Haitian art is the commodity that seals the upper-middle class position of the Kipps; Haitian laborers do menial jobs; and Haitian street vendors sell the faux designer handbags. The Haitians help Wellington’s upper-middle class maintain the illusion of affluence. Thus Smith connects on another level (beyond that of Levi and Carl) with Forster’s discussion of socio-economic class, which I’m sure we will discuss in more detail in the classroom. (Another connection to Tell My Horse is Michael’s fiance/wife is Jamaican).

While many have detailed the allusions to They’re Eyes Were Watching God and Tell My Horse, the most compelling connection comes in the characterization of Kiki and in Hurston’s short autobiographical piece “How It Feels to be Colored Me” ( Zora Neale Hurston’s pieces places humor and race and pride and slavery and femininity hand in hand. Smith places all of these in Kiki. When Kiki’s sadness over Howard’s betrayal with a skinny white woman wells up, we hear Kiki giving herself a rebuke for focusing on Claire’s color that reverberate Hurston’s lines, “BUT I AM NOT tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. …No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” Kiki’s voice sounds very similar to the voice of Hurston’s in her autobiographical writing.

When discussing Wellington, the reader could substitute Smith’s words with Hurston’s; Hurston acknowledges, “I do not always feel colored. …I feel most colored when I am thrown up against a sharp white background. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.” Kiki feels her color most when she navigates the streets of the town of Wellington and the halls of the academic Wellington.

Kiki also feels her color when in contrast with Howard, or rather when Howard is in contrast at home in the midst of his wife and children: “Sometimes it is the other way around. A white person is set down in our midst, but the contrast is just as sharp for me” (Hurston). Kiki’s blackness contrasts with Howard’s whiteness; they both are defining themselves based on the Other, in the same way the Hurston only came to realize she was black upon leaving her all black childhood home at the age of 14.

Both Kiki’s and Hurston’s blackness is felt in relation to whiteness, not a thing unto itself. Hence, “at certain times I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty Second Street Library, for instance. So far as my feelings are concerned, Peggy Hopkins Joyce on the Boule Mich with her gorgeous raiment, stately carriage, knees knocking together in a most aristocratic manner, has nothing on me. The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time.” The cosmic Kiki – the one and only Kiki stands. She stands two hundred and fifty pounds allows her an even more youthful face (“A beautiful tough-girl’s face” 15), more voluptuous breasts (her enormous spellbinding bosom 47), and allows her to physically take up more space, shoving Howard metaphorically and physically into a chair to get out of her way (“Now she crossed the room and pushed him with such force that he was muscled into an adjacent rocking chair” 15).

Where Hurston directly references slavery, Smith only alludes to Kiki’s ancestral roots in slavery with referring to her as coming from “simple Florida country stock,” as well in the use of the word “simple” to describe Kiki’s lack of academic interests.

We are able to go through nearly every line of “How It Feels to be Colored Me” and draw connections to Zadie Smith’s characterization of Kiki Belsey; however, I’ll end my alignment by drawing our attention to Zora Neale Hurston’s sentence, “I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads.” Throughout the text we read Kiki adorning herself with beads (necklaces, bracelets, earrings). Kiki’s body signals readers to the “eternal feminine” in the description of Kiki’s bosom: “The size was sexual and at the same time more than sexual: sex was only one small element in its symbolic range. …Her breasts gave off a mass of signals beyond her direct control: sassy, sisterly, predatory, motherly, threatening, comforting” (47). Smith writes Kiki’s body and personality to read as everything “eternal” feminine from sexual to motherly, from threatening to comforting. She carries upon her everything the world makes of women – from the Madonna to Malinche. Femininity is written on her body; she’s unable to escape it even if she wanted to. Even Claire notes that Kiki radiates “an essential female nature. …Full of something like genuine desire,” calling Kiki a “goddess in every way” (227). Men and other women recognize Kiki as what Hurston described as “the eternal feminine with its string of beads.”

As much as Forster’s and Scarry’s works inform On Beauty, the allusions to Zora Neale Hurston’s life and works flood Smith’s novel, informing everything from naming to Haitian politics to black feminine identity. Zadie Smith should have just named a character Zora, so that we readers didn’t miss the connection. Oh wait! She did.

End note: did you know Zadie Smith wrote a book of academic essays on writers, one of which was Zora Neale Hurston? She did. Besides her novels, Smith is also the author of the essay collection on writers, “Changing My Mind,” and a nonfiction book about writing, “Fail Better,” and edited an anthology of sex writing entitled “Piece of Flesh.”


More resources for reading “The World’s Wife”

I  thought that those of you reading Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife for this semester’s free class might like to hear from her about why she wrote these poems.  In an interview you can read here, she explains:

What I wanted to do in the book was to look at all the stories—fairy tales, myths, stories from history, film and pop music or whatever, stories of heroes which had informed me as a writer, part of my cultural ancestry.  So I wanted to celebrate them, in a way, but also find a truth which hadn’t been amplified previously.  And the way I wanted to do that was to find a female perspective on the character, and I did that by finding a personal connection with the fairy tale, myth, piece of cinema, etc., so that although I’m wearing the mask of Queen Herod or Mrs Beast I’m not lost in my own place, my own life.  It might be that it is autobiographical in that it might be true to my imaginative life or my emotional life but not necessarily true to the actual details of my life.  Once I’d done that I typed out the poems in a sort of chronological movement.  So we start with “Little Red Cap” which is about a young girl becoming a poet and end with “Demeter” which is about a woman becoming a mother.  So that it follows the arc of my own life in some ways.


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