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New York, Cornell University Press, 2009

$29.95s paper
2009, 408 pages, 7 x 10, 2 charts/graphs, 106 halftones
ISBN: 978-0-8014-7545-0

the course of the eighteenth century in France, increasing numbers of
women, from the wives and daughters of artisans and merchants to
countesses and queens, became writers-not authors, and not mere signers
of names, but writers of letters. Taking as her inspiration a portrait
of an unknown woman writing a letter to her children by French painter
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Dena Goodman challenges the deep-seated
association of women with love letters and proposes a counternarrative
of young women struggling with the challenges of the modern world
through the mediation of writing. In Becoming a Woman in the Age of
Letters, Goodman enters the lives and world of these women, drawing on
their letters, the cultural history of language and education, and the
material culture of letter writing itself: inkstands, desks, and
writing paper.

Goodman follows the lives of elite women from
childhood through their education in traditional convents and modern
private schools and into the shops and interior spaces in which
epistolary furnishings and furniture were made for, sold to, and used
by women who took pen in hand. Stationers set up fashionable shops,
merchants developed lines of small writing desks, and the furnishings
and floor plans of homes changed to accommodate women’s needs. It was
as writers and consumers that women entered not only shops but also the
modern world that was taking shape in Paris and other cities.

many women, from major novelists, painters, and educators to
schoolgirls and their mothers as well as Parisian tourists and other
shoppers, come to life in this book, Goodman focuses on four bodies of
epistolary work by little-known women: the letters of Genevieve de
Malboissière, Manon Phlipon, Catherine de Saint-Pierre, and Sophie
Silvestre. These letters allow Goodman to explore how particular girls
of different social positions came to womanhood through letter writing.
She shows how letter writing expanded women’s horizons even as it
deepened their ability to reflect on themselves.

The analysis of
more than one hundred illustrations-from paintings by major Dutch and
French artists to inkstands and writing desks, stationers’ trade cards,
and manuscript letters on decorated paper-is integral to Goodman’s