Memoirs: Marie Mancini and Hortense Mancini

Elisabeth Ladenson writes:

In her 1675 memoir – one of the first autobiographical accounts to be published by a woman during her lifetime under her own name – Hortense Mancini begins by noting that she is writing at the request of her patron, Charles-Emmanuel, duc de Savoie, and that she is doing so despite her ‘natural reluctance’ to talk about herself. She apologises in advance for telling a story that may ‘seem like something out of a novel’, and protests that she is well aware that ‘a woman’s glory lies in not giving rise to gossip.’ Pericles said as much in his funeral oration of 431 BCE as reported by Thucydides, but seldom can that bit of wisdom have been more spectacularly flouted than it is here. Not only do the lives of Hortense and her sister Marie, who published her own memoirs not long afterwards, resemble fiction: the two generated about as much gossip as any two noblewomen could have managed (their contemporary Ninon de Lenclos gave them a run for their money, but then she was a courtesan). Echoes of their adventures are to be found in many memoirs and letters of the time. Mme de Sévigné turned their name into a generic term for renegade wives.

(LRB 18 December 2008)