Review: Apology For The Woman Writing

Jenny Diski’s varied talents come to the fore in her new novel about a 17th-century, culturally ambitious young girl


By David Herman, November 13, 2008

By Jenny Diski; Virago, £16.99

Jenny Diski became a writer in her late 30s. Suddenly, words poured out: 16 books, fiction and non-fiction, in just over 20 years. She is as wide-ranging as she is prolific. Novels about Abraham and Sarah, a Jewish girl living in medieval Poland, and an anthropologist in Borneo. What is common to these otherwise very different books is their darkness: characters locked in an abusive relationship, eccentrics, madwomen and alcoholics.

Diski's latest novel, her 10th, begins with two people dying. One, in 1645, is an old woman, watched only by her maid. The attic room is bare except for a "chaotic jumble of papers and books... unorganized stacks of printed and inked words". The other, in 1592, is the great French essayist and man of letters, Michel de Montaigne. What follows is the story of the relationships between the old woman, the man and the maid - and those piles of manuscripts and books.

At first glance, the story seems straightforward enough. A young girl, Marie de Gournay, grows up in provincial France. Her mother is desperate to bring her up as a marriageable young woman, but Marie is interested only in reading. She sits all day in her father's library, devouring books. Then one day her uncle brings her two new books from Paris, books of essays by Montaigne. These will change her life.

Marie becomes obsessed with this extraordinary author and devotes her life to him and his work. Her only ambition is to become a woman of letters, leaving the country and meeting fellow writers at literary salons in Paris. She is an intellectual Madame Bovary; young, passionate and longing for recognition.

Diski tells the story of Marie between the moment when her uncle brings the "two small volumes"and the deathbed scene at the novel's opening.

Apology for the Woman Writing is a dark, artful and clever historical novel. From the beginning, it plays with time, moving backwards and forwards, making references to scenes we have already come across. The opening chapter is gripping, introducing us to the central characters. And here, Diski has done her research, set out in a useful Author's Note at the end.

Above all, it is a wonderful evocation of a youthful passion, a young girl's longing for books and the great world of ideas beyond her provincial home.

Diski builds up the obstacles to Marie's dreams. Marie is poor, a spinster and, crucially, a woman in a man's world. Everyone sees this. Her mother, her kind uncle, Montaigne himself, even her devoted maid. This is a feminist novel about the cruel disadvantages intelligent women have always faced, but is also about the gulf in perspectives between men and women. Marie, despite her passion for philosophy and literature, is essentially a romantic, fired by a passionate longing to find a new life. Montaigne, an old, wise man knows that there is something melodramatic, even foolish, about her longings. What he knows and what she does not know lead to the cruel twists in a stimulating book.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011