Digital Scholarship Incubator Reflections: Laura O’Brien and Hélène Bilis

This post is part of a series of reflections from 2017 Digital Scholarship Incubator participants.

Laura O’Brien and Hélène Bilis: Our project grapples with the specificities of textual networks across genres–fictional and historical. In a previous project, Hélène Bilis had created visualizations of the social network represented in the novel La Princesse de Cleves (1678) by Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, Comtesse de Lafayette. This novel is widely regarded as one of the first psychological and historical novels, and is a canonical text of French literature. The novel is set at the court of King Henri II and describes the perils of courtly interactions, especially for women who suffer great unhappiness and eventually meet their downfall because of the social dynamics of court. The plot rests on the eponymous heroine’s wish to break off entirely from court society and retreat into solitude.

Scholarship on how to understand the Princesse’s desire to escape from what today we would call the court’s “network” is lengthy, but scholars tend to agree that the court life Lafayette describes in the novel resembles more closely the world of Louis XIV’s reign than the Renaissance court of Henri II. Readers have noted many similarities between the fictional Princesse and the memoirs Madame de Lafayette wrote on the subject of Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, Henriette d’Angleterre. This memoir, the Histoire de Madame Henriette d’Angleterre (published posthumously in 1720), is the text whose social network we propose to document and visualize next.

So here, then, is the question. These texts are connected by author, by subject matter, by theme, but will they lend themselves to the same mode of analysis and visualization? Can we capture similar data on the interactions and network represented in a biography of a historical figure as we capture for a purely fictional (if similarly historically-inspired) novel? By tracing the interactions described by the same person (Lafayette) of similar worlds (the elite circles of the royal court and the city of Paris) through texts of two different genres, can we change how we perceive of social interaction in Lafayette’s work? Or will we find surprising similarities despite the difference in genre? In this project we assume and hope that the process of asking these and other questions–and the editorial decisions we make as a result–will be as instructive as the final visualizations.

Even with these broad questions yet to be answered at this point, there’s a certain relief in analyzing a network as represented in a text, as opposed to a more historical network. The scope is thus defined (albeit based on often subjective interpretations of the interactions); no new characters will be added, no new scenes will appear with new interactions to be tracked. This aspect of data collection, at least, can be “finished.”