Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

Feminist icon or elaborate hoax? The mystery of Louise Labé

The 16th century poet Louise Labé laid her desires bare in a single collection of love poetry produced just before her death. But 500 years later — a shocking theory emerges about her identity. Did she actually write the poems ascribed to her? And does the truth matter when literary history is made?

French scholar provokes controversy with theory on a groundbreaking poet

Louise Labé was a 16th century French poet. Or was she? She was a real person, who was also known as La Belle Cordière (The Beautiful Ropemaker). But did she actually write the poems ascribed to her? (Wikimedia Commons)

*Originally published on October 1, 2020.

Curiosity surrounds the identity of pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante. There's anger over the ancestry claimed by novelist Joseph Boyden.  And outrage at the unmasking of JT LeRoy as one writer's fictional alter ego.

So it's no wonder that a cultural battle broke out in 2006, when a bombshell book by an academic challenged public assumptions about a historic literary heroine in France. 

"Some accused me... of essentially killing a poetess," says Mirielle Huchon, author of Louise Labé: Créature de Papier. 

The Labé debate that rages to this day, as freelance producer Ruth Jones discovered for her documentary on the subject for CBC Ideas.

A bombshell book

*Originally published on 

Louise Labé is one of few female poets of the French Renaissance. Her name is on the cover of one collection of 21 love sonnets and some elegies, which includes unusual poems about female desire. That book is part of the canon in France, with Labé sometimes named as one of the greatest poets in French history. 

The only poetry collection credited to Louise Labé was published in 1550, rediscovered in the 18th century, and built a 20th century fan base that included poet Rainer Maria Rilke. (NYRB Poets)

But Mireille Huchon — now a professor emeritus at the Sorbonne —  proclaimed Labé's collection to be a literary hoax. She theorizes that a group of 16th century male poets were out to experiment with a female voice.

The resulting uproar resounded beyond the small world of French Renaissance studies.  Even French citizens debated the news. 

Labé defenders saw Huchon's book as an anti-feminist attack on a female writer. Huchon's supporters saw evidence that Labé should be struck from both the canon, and French literary history.

Who is Louise Labé?

Huchon bases her argument on two key points. She sees a lack of concrete information about Labé's education and life. She also analyzes the poems, and other poems written in praise of Labé. 

There are few recorded details about the life of Louise Charly – the 16th century Lyon resident who most people still accept as the author of Louise Labé's works. 

Rumours abound, including one that she was a courtesan. But from her book's prose pieces, scholars see evidence that Labé was a musician,  a student of Greek, Latin, and Italian, as well as part of a lively literary circle.

Mireille Huchon argues that these clues add up to nothing if the book wasn't meant to be taken seriously. 

How come we don't have any more publications by her?- Mireille Huchon

While Lyon was a lively and cosmopolitan city in 1550, Huchon also points out that most of its residents were illiterate, and that Charly/Labé apparently came from a modest educational and family background. 

As well as some coarse language that she sees hidden in the poems, Huchon asserts that there is a strange silence around Labé. 

None of the praise poems directed at her are signed. And where a scant biography and modest output might be seen by historians as typical for women of that period, Huchon simply sees inconsistency. 

"It's really quite strange," she says. "How come we don't have any more publications by her? And why didn't she write a single piece responding to these praises for one or another of her poems?"

Reclaiming the poems

Translator Richard Sieburth published a 2014 collection of Louise Labé's "gorgeous, gorgeous love poems."  He believes that they are written by one person, and points to the way that the voice speaks to readers across the centuries.

Historian Leah Chang wants to go beyond 'did she or didn't she' when it comes to Labé's poems. (Photo courtesy of LR Chang)

"More explicitly, more confidently, more caustically and ironically, here is a woman assuming her own desire," says Sieburth.

As a historian researching female authorship, Leah Chang considers Mirielle Huchon's argument alongside a feminist reading of Labe's work. Not only are these "wonderful poems," but for centuries, readers have assumed that their author is a woman, and female writers have been inspired by her.

For Chang, that doesn't have to change.

"In Louise Labé, you're witnessing a historical moment, a moment where the idea of a female author is coming into being."


Guests in this episode:

Mireille Huchon  is Professor Emeritus of French at the Sorbonne in Paris, and the author of Louise Labé: Créature de Papier (2006). 

Richard Sieburth is Professor Emeritus of French Literature, Thought, and Culture and Comparative Literature at New York University and a translator of Louise Labé's Love Sonnets and Elegies.

Leah Chang is a historian and independent scholar specializing in French women in the Renaissance.

 


* This episode was produced by Ruth Jones with Lisa Godfrey.

 

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