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This report is taken from PN Review 181, Volume 34 Number 5, May - June 2008.

Paper Creatures Sarah White

As a retired professor, I still dream scenes of teacher-inadequacy such as this one:

I find myself attending a reunion banquet at the college where I used to teach French. Emeritus colleagues around me are exchanging fond classroom memories with their alumni, while I sit brooding over my lack of such memories and wondering why I didn't insist on being seated next to my former students - five girl majors and one boy minor clustered at the far end of the table. I try in vain to recall their names.

Even awake, I can't come up with the names, but I remember much of what I tried to teach them.

In the small college French department where I spent 23 years, I often taught the first semester of 'Civilisation', a survey for majors, most of them women. I always regretted that France's Middle Ages, Renaissance, seventeenth century, and Enlightenment offered so few significant females to study. Other than a few regent-mothers of under-age kings, queens of consequence were precluded by French laws of succession. More importantly, among the canonical writers - La Fontaine, Molière, Voltaire, and the rest - I knew of only one exemplary woman poet, and every year I proudly trotted her out.

She was Louise Labe of Lyon, called La Belle Cordière because her father and husband were rope-makers. Her written corpus was small - three elegies, one prose ...

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