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Madeleine Neveu eloquently gives words of wisdom to her daughter Catherine in her piece entitled, "Epistle to My Daughter." Madeleine is quite aware of the attitude surrounding educated women in her time period. Yet, she abandons those opinions to express her own for her daughter. Her epistle embraces the need for a woman to be true to herself and to stand on her own two feet, as opposed to relying on a man to hold her up.
Madeleine’s epistle is quite straightforward. Her message to her daughter is very sincere. She starts her epistle by referring to traditional views on how one should live their life. "Ancient lovers of learning, / Said that to God one must do one’s duty, / Then to one’s country, and a third to one’s lineage" (ll.1-3). But Madeleine is quick to refute those opinions. She then states that while she does honor God, she is completely helpless when it comes to public service affairs on the other hand because men have all the power. "I revere the Lord God; as for my country, I lack all power, / Men have full authority" (ll. 7-8). It is here that Madeleine refers to the Salic Law, the law that excludes women from the throne. But Madeleine’s duty to her "lineage" or daughter is taken much more seriously. Since Madeleine has no control over Salic Law, she takes control of the matters she has a say in. Her daughter is under her control. She feels the need to provide the best life for her daughter as possible. And thus she writes this piece as a guide for her.
After Madeline refutes the ideas of the old, she presents ideas for the future. The piece seems to pause just before she focuses solely on her daughter. The tone of the first nine lines is snobbish almost. Madeleine seems to be raising her nose to ideas of the old. But as she begins to focus on her daughter, the tone changes. The snobbish tone becomes softer, gentler, as if she’s raising her daughter’s chin to meet her gaze and speak to her:
But as concerns you, my daughter, who are so dear to me / I would be liable to great blame and reproach / If I were to lead you on the beaten path, / Seeing that your heart is born into virtue.
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She breaks away from that gentle tone one last time to bring back the issue at hand: her daughter’s education. Madeleine tells her daughter that it is not enough for her "to be well born" (ll. 14). To be a well-rounded person one must be educated: "Acquired sense makes us well-mannered" (ll. 15). She uses imagery to get her point across as she compares the passion of knowledge to a fire. "And the flame, burning in our soul, / Is soon consumed without learning" (ll. 16-17). She advises her daughter that the passion will die out if she does not practice or live out her knowledge, understanding, judgment, and reason.
Madeleine also wishes that her daughter will not only be educated but write as well. She hopes her daughter won’t keep her thoughts locked away in her heart but rather expressed on paper. Madeline uses imagery again to make her point clear. She states that writing is like food and medicine. Food nourishes and medicine heals and she feels writing does the same. Food and medicine are key to survival, Madeleine expresses. "The letter serves as a holy source / For one’s diet as well as for medicinal use" (ll. 18-19). But she adds that it’s also good to "alter vice" or to correct wrongdoings, collect thoughts, and to strengthen the heart.
Again, Madeleine returns to the gentle tone as she speaks directly to her daughter once again. "May this brief discourse on such a topic / Be welcomed by you / My only daughter, so precious to me" (ll. 24-26). This line is important because it gives evidence to the kind of mother Madeleine is. This epistle is not a command or a set of rules for her daughter to follow but an offering of a few words of wisdom. As she stated "may this be welcomed by you", she’s making it clear that her views are not required for her daughter. Madeleine’s not going to punish her if she doesn’t follow her advice but rather Madeleine just hopes that her daughter will embrace the same beliefs and live her life accordingly. Madeleine is not a controlling but an understanding parent. She seeks to offer love and advice for her daughter’s future.
As Madeline compares characteristics of her own to her daughter, she uses four words to describe internal and then four more to describe external similarities. "In hair, tan, build, and trait, / Manner, bearing, word, countenance" (ll. 29-30). Previously, she gave four reasons as to how writing is important and useful. Throughout the rest of her work, she continues in this fashion. According to Numerologist Brett Simpson, the number four represents the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. "Four points can be used to construct a solid and therefore it is seen as a symbol for the way in which things are constructed" (Simpson 1). Perhaps Madeline used the repetitive four references simply for stylistic purposes. But yet this piece focuses on how Madeleine feels she can mold her daughter into having the best life experience possible. So perhaps Madeleine wishes to convey the four "elements" to make her daughter a well-rounded, "solid" human being. Her work gives evidence that those elements are that her daughter follows the word of God, honors her family, keeps herself educated, and that she writes as often as she can.
She continues at length to compare herself to her daughter and states how alike they are. She sees herself in her daughter. "In you I see my own portrait…And age only distinguishes us" (ll. 28, 31). This beautiful daughter of hers, who seems to be her equal, appears as if she could do no wrong. However, Madeleine’s choice of words in lines 40-44 paint a different picture. She expresses that it wasn’t so easy to raise her daughter all the time.
But to think that in the midst of so many calamities, / Ills, troubles, sorrows, pains, / Subjection, torment, work, sadness, / Which for thirteen years have given me no respite. (ll. 40-44)
Madeleine seems to contradict herself when she says that through all her trial and tribulations, her daughter has been an answer to her prayers. "The Almighty to whom I turned for refuge / Had you provide me my only succor" (47-48). The daughter who hasn’t allowed her a moment’s rest, Madeleine feels she owes something to. "To reward you for your worthy services, / I cannot grant you a greater gift / Than to urge you to do your duty / Toward the Muse and divine learning." (50-53). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a Muse is regarded as an "inspirer of learning and the arts, especially of poetry and music." Again, Madeline reiterates the importance of writing in her daughter’s life and seems to also suggest that not only does her "duty" or writing have to pertain to the arts but also to the Lord above.
Madeline’s feminist views come alive as she encourages her daughter to deny society’s roles for a woman and to study for herself and no one else. "The true center and function of study / is to accustom oneself to virtue" (54-55). Study perfects nature and virtue is necessary for learning and living. She hopes her daughter will continue to lean toward the Arts.
As she draws to a close, Madeline states more wishes for her daughter. "And the Daemon, who began the work, / Guide so well the issue of your thought" (62-63). The Dictionary of Classical Mythology defines daemon as a personal spirit, both good and evil. Daemons look after mortals at birth and death as a director. Madeleine wishes that the Daemon that watched over her daughter at birth will always help her make good decisions the rest of her life.
In Madeleine’s closing lines she states one final wish for her daughter. "You may become immortal some day through your virtue. Its thus that I have always wished you to be" (66-67). Madeleine’s true wish for her daughter is that she’ll live on in her own writings. She hopes that her daughter’s good heart will touch others’.
It is clear that Madeleine wants her daughter to get the most from life. The epistle that started off pretentious ends as a touching expression of unconditional love. Madeleine’s message is clear, she wants her daughter to stand on her own two feet. Her daughter is sure to get the best out of life if she follows Madeleine’s words of wisdom. After all, mother knows best.
Bell, Robert. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. California: ABC-Clio, Inc., 1982.
Neveu, Madeleine. "Epistle to My Daughter." Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation. Ed. Katharina M. Wilson. Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1987. 244-255.
"Numerology Meanings." Online. Internet. 7 Oct. 2000. Available: http://www.thedreamtime.com/spirit/num_meanings.html.
The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Online. Internet. 8 Oct. 2000. Available: http://dictionary.oed.com