Anne Steinberg (French) presented a paper at the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) Conference in Boston March 17 in a seminar entitled “The Female Voice”.
Description and title of paper:
Working girls: from prostitutes to attributes, « Les Converseuses » in Rétif de la Bretonne’s Le Palais-Royal (1790)
Prostitutes’ voices have no room in the literature of the Enlightenment until Rétif de la Bretonne, “friend of the truth” as he often calls himself, manages to make them stand out and stand up for themselves. In a desire to reform her “girls”, Mme Janus decides that her prostitutes will no longer sell their bodies but their stories to men of good condition and good money or aristocratic women. Believing in the curative and elevating power of conversations, Mme Janus trains her “girls” to become storytellers. With wit and finesse, they become more than “converseuses”. They create a community of working girls, where their voices become their tool to transform their uncertain fate and social path. Marriage, procreation and permeation of societal strata will redeem their initial unfortunate condition thanks to their ability to be, literally, heard. In other words, the prostitutes grow into attributes to society, announcing, in a somewhat utopian way, the long struggle ahead for women to be recognized as citizens and powerful voices.