Barbara R Woshinsky, Imagining Women’s Conventual Spaces in France 1600-1800: The cloister Disclosed, Ashgate, Farnham, 2010.

Barbara R Woshinsky, Imagining Women’s Conventual Spaces in France 1600-1800: The cloister Disclosed, Ashgate, Farnham, 2010, £70.00, 978-0-7546-6754-4, pp. 344.


Caroline Bowden, Research Fellow, Who were the Nuns? Project

Queen Mary, University of London, February 2014

This is a substantial work, the result of extended reading, reflection and theorizing about literary texts and what they suggest about women’s conventual life in France between the Council of Trent and the French Revolution.  The author defines the period as contained by the imposition of strict enclosure at Trent and the closure of all convents in France in 1792 (except for the English Augustinian convent in Paris). However, as Woshinsky points out, it was not really the end of monasticism: by the beginning of the nineteenth century changing attitudes to the role of nuns  and their work in hospitals, schools and other charitable institutions led to the reopening of a number of convents. Ironically, given the discussion of the prison/enclosure dichotomy running through the book, the famous convent of Fontevraud did indeed become a prison, only closing in the mid-twentieth century. [p. 292]

Woshinsky sets out her purpose at the outset ‘I have chosen to study, not the communities themselves, or even the literary imagination, but the place of these communities in the cultural and literary imagination.’ [p. 5] It is a work that moves between theorizing ways of thinking about female space, expanding existing definitions, relating her analysis to her own observations of contemporary conventual space and detailed discussion of her chosen texts. She points out that she includes spaces for female retreat such as a closet or refuge as well as convents. In this way she broadens her definitions in ways which sometimes complicate arguments, ultimately challenging readers such as myself trained as historians and less familiar with literary constructs. Woshinsky takes us outside the recognized boundaries of conventual space  occupied by professed women through ‘thresholds’ where she considers their points of contact with the outside world and she also includes convent spaces occupied by secular women. As the author recognizes, historians have been discussing for some time the permeability of the enclosure and the ways convent leaders negotiated relationships with external authorities and families connected to the convents. Enclosure as a concept presented some writers (particularly male) with a problem: since they were excluded it was apt to feed the fertile imaginations of those who found it difficult to visualize how a community of women functioned.

Chapter I starts with positive views of female communities based on religious writers including Bishop Jean-Pierre Camus and Francis de Sales whose works were also read by lay people.  The chapter entitled ‘Thresholds’ takes the study to novels where convent space becomes involved in dramas as settings where women at different points of their lives are either placed in or retreat to convents. These texts lead to discussion about whether enclosure even if temporary should be considered as choice, retreat or imprisonment. By the eighteenth century, criticism of enclosure deepened and became focused on imagined erotic lascivious behaviour occasioned by errors, such as forced enclosure and the moral frailty of the inhabitants of the convents. Works such as Diderot’s Lettres portugaises first published in 1662, were reprinted many times and translated into English. Such critiques combined with attitudes questioning the need for enclosure fed the demands for closure in France and elsewhere.

In an interesting discussion of the meaning of ‘Cloister’ [p. 22], I was struck by her observation that the cloister was not the most important building in the convent; it was not built first, yet in the external imagination it comes to represent the convent. Woshinsky argues there is a disconnect between symbol and practice. What does the use of the term cloister signify? Raising such questions particularly for those of us who write about enclosed convents is an important way to better understand convent communities and is likely to make us more reflective in our approach.

Woshinsky’s knowledge of the texts is impressive and will serve as a guide to scholars wishing to understand how outsiders, some secular and some religious were viewing the religious life in the convents in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There are some disadvantages deriving from the author’s focus on literary sources without adding a comparable reading of convent texts and histories. There are a few places where a deeper knowledge of convent sources would have prevented the author from making a few misleading statements such as ‘Conventual enclosure breaks women away permanently away from their families’. [p. 4.] On one level of course this is true, but it it is more complicated than that. Woshinsky herself later argues how girls were sent to convents with family connections to avoid unsuitable attachments thus continuing the links. Correspondence from English convents shows how links with families were maintained over the long term and successfully maintained support networks. Comparisons can themselves mislead and it is important not to generalize convent experiences even within the same time period across national boundaries: existing historical work shows how different was life in convents in Italian states, France and for the English convents in exile.

The author assumes a knowledge of French literature but it would have been helpful for a non-specialist to have some guidance on reader reception to understand how widely the quoted works were sold and read. For instance, in a brief look at the publishing history of  Lettres portugaises in COPAC we find it was first translated into English in 1678 only fourteen years after its appearance in French and continued to appear in England. By 1716 the fourth edition appeared with ‘The art of love, a poem in two books, dedicated to the ladies’ added to it. Such statistics suggest a wide readership of a book which gives a very particular view of convent life that has little basis in the reality revealed in convent documents on either side of the channel. Was this comparable to the situation in France? Elizabeth Rapley argues it was not [quoted p. 301]. Emma Major [English Convents in Exile, Vol. 6, ‘Convents and the Wider world’, ed. Carmen Mangion, Pickering & Chatto, London, 2013, p. 38] finds a long-term Protestant fascination with the figure of the nun in her analysis which by the eighteenth-century English polemic has a similar focus on what she calls ‘the putative sexual sins of the religious’ in the texts she quotes.

The images are well chosen: in particular on the cover the delightful small painting of the nuns of Port-Royal-des-Champs near Paris seated in a circle in the garden in summer with their needle work and spinning in hand.  They are probably listening to a reading in a scene which encapsulates the meaning of ‘retreat’ behind an enclosure wall with a heavy grille to keep out intruders.

It is an impressive piece of work which repays the re-reading needed for this reviewer (trained as a historian rather than literary scholar) to tease out explanations and ideas.