Nan Gerdes

Nan Gerdes

Part-time lecturer


My postdoc research focuses on the literary topos of secluded women. The act of secluding or banishing women has a long history in myth and folklore, but in the French tradition it is no less historical or literary for that reason. Already in the twelfth century the topos serves as a means to address, debate, and give new shapes to the historically contingent question of women’s nature and status in society. For centuries to follow the topos makes up an arena for affirming or reversing the commonplace assumption that outside restrains and discipline are needed to control women. In history as well as in literature enclosures for women occur in different varieties with or without barred windows or locked doors: towers, convents, rural refuges, modern day buildings such as the bourgeois home, etc., lately gaining renewed importance with writers with cultural backgrounds from beyond the borders of the Hexagon. Due to the extensive historical scope of my analysis, it brings to the fore a variety of conflicts with women protagonists placed at the center. While confinement and unfreedom may sometimes be devised in literature as the inescapable condition of womanhood, enclosing women against their will may also serve to catalyze resistance and change in plots. Importantly, I also include texts in which women choose to isolate themselves. What I find particularly intriguing about the topos is the great extent to which the act of writing and concern for the nature and power of language receives importance. Especially for women writers – from medieval times onwards – on several levels the enclosure may serve not only as a locus nurturing reflection and the imagination, it may also spur women to pick up the pen and turn isolation into an entrance into written French and lead to endeavors to reshape it.

Overall, my work is placed at the intersection of literature and history. I have received my education in comparative literature at the University of Copenhagen with a specialization in eighteenth century French literature. At ENGEROM I teach courses in French literature and history, mainly from the seventeenth century and onwards.

My PhD topic

18th French libertine fiction revolved around the topic of initiation and education, a topic also crucial during the French Revolution: in politics, educational literature, fiction and ephemera. After the foundation of the first French republic pro-revolutionaries disregarded libertine learning as a lesson of Old Regime corruption and perversion. Yet the revolutionary illegal book market fostered some of the most explicit and notorious interpretations of libertine education, most notably the pornographic oeuvre of Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). Having his work as the focus of attention the dissertation discusses how libertine novels interpreted the legacy of libertinage when it collided with republican notions of education and regeneration in revolutionary culture. As a result, libertine literature twists and criticizes political questions regarding nature, virtue and the range of personal freedom by way of pinpointing the relation between private desire and political society, a critical issue in revolutionary, republican thought. Moreover, the idea of libertinage and its learning got displaced in space or time as it was identified with Old Regime decadence. Thus, the dissertation shows how reinterpretation of libertine education was part of a larger construction of the cultural memory of revolutionary France. 

ID: 17275388