Cities of Ladies
This Essay First Appeared on Nicole Evelina’s Website
When I began my second novel, City of Ladies, I didn’t have a title in mind. I wanted to move my main character, Catherine Havens, forward in time: get her married, put her in charge of a large household. Catherine, however, is not the sort of person who would simply forget the convent that she grew up in, which was a community of women (despite the presence of a priest and the male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church). She would, of course, keep women around her. She is comfortable with women. She respects their ability to reason and work.
As the novel evolved, Catherine’s newly-formed household seemed to draw to it former nuns, and Catherine wanted to protect them. The women have nowhere else to go—and yet they still have skills and knowledge that can help the girls and village women nearby. What else would Catherine do besides take them in and shelter them? This is part of her calling, as she sees it, even in a secular world, and it also becomes part of the problem of the plot, as the women begin to turn up dead.
At some point in the drafting, the original City of Ladies began to tug at my mind, both as a book that Catherine would have owned and as a metaphor for the world Catherine is trying to build under Henry VIII. The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) was written about a hundred and fifty years before my book’s time period, by a woman named Christine de Pizan. Christine was Italian by birth but spent much of her life in Paris. She was unusually well-educated for her time (like my Catherine), primarily because her father (like Catherine’s father) insisted upon it.
Christine was happily—and conventionally—married in her teens and bore three children. Her husband, however, died, leaving Christine to raise her family alone. This she did by writing, becoming the first woman in European history to earn her living as an author. Other women did write—and some of them were widely known—but they were nuns, who had the leisure and the status to circulate their work. Nuns didn’t have to make money, but Christine did. And she succeeded.
The authorial tradition was heavily against her, and The Book of the City of Ladies takes on the cultural and theological arguments against women in general. Christine writes in defense of women’s moral and intellectual worth, against the backdrop of “all manner of philosophers, poets and orators too numerous to mention, who all seem to speak with one voice and are unanimous in their view that female nature is wholly given up to vice” (6). As she becomes more and more despondent about being a member of such a flawed sex, she is visited by three ladies, who reveal themselves as Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. These three ladies encourage and assist Christine in building her “City of Ladies.”
This city is metaphorical. The book itself is the structure, and within it are the “lives” of many women, historical, biblical, and mythological, who have been exemplary or have done extraordinary things. They are mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives—and they show that women are resourceful, caring, intelligent, and moral. The entire book becomes, as Rosalind Brown-Grant notes, an example of the “biographical catalogue,” and it seems designed more for visiting than for a beginning-to-end tour. The three-part structure and multiple sub-headings and “arguments” within the text make for fruitful lucky-dipping. Christine’s City of Ladies may be old-fashioned in its emphasis on moral virtue in women, but her goal is not to provide a defense of what women should do but rather a defense of what women are.
My own City of Ladies is a metaphor, as well, but it’s also the physical house where Catherine Havens lives. She dreams of a world where women can read, write, think, and work. My Catherine does want to go out into the world and use her knowledge. She wants to hear her calling for herself—and then act to make the most of her gifts, which she believes are given to her by God.
And so Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies became the only choice when I sought out a title. My Catherine began life in a convent, and the historical Christine went to live in one as an older woman. In hindsight, it seems natural that Catherine claimed that book as one of her most prized possessions. It gave her something that Christine herself didn’t have—a foremother who showed her in writing what a woman, even under a harsh king, could accomplish.
Brown-Grant, Rosalind, editor. The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan. London: Penguin, 1999.