Strange Adventures

Women’s Individuation in the Works of Pierrette Fleutiaux

by Elizabeth Sercombe (Author)
Monographs X, 393 Pages


Strange Adventures examines portrayals of womanhood in the works of prize-winning French author Pierrette Fleutiaux. Fleutiaux’s refreshing pictures of womanhood offer insights into how women can become more whole, substantial and free in themselves and in their relationships, as well as how they can contribute to the external world through their creativity and leadership. The study demonstrates how Fleutiaux’s heroines navigate the external, bodily and inner situations of adolescence, early adult life, marriage, motherhood, maturity, leadership and death, in the process developing greater inner resources of wisdom, compassion and resilience. This volume considers selections from Fleutiaux’s œuvre, from her first short fiction Histoire de la chauve-souris to her recent Loli le temps venu, including Métamorphoses de la reine (Goncourt de la nouvelle) and Nous sommes éternels (Prix Femina). Using a theoretical framework which draws on Jungian concepts and the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, the study analyses women’s individuation trajectories at each stage of life. Throughout, Fleutiaux’s depictions are shown to pose a challenge to existing conceptions of womanhood and individuality, thus opening up new understandings of what it means to be a woman, and to be human.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Towards a New Theory of Womanhood
  • Chapter 2: (Co)-Creating the Woman in Histoire de la chauve-souris, Histoire du tableau and Allons-nous être heureux?
  • Chapter 3: Negotiating (with) the Mother in Métamorphoses de la reine and Des phrases courtes, ma chérie
  • Chapter 4: Relating (to) the Other in Nous sommes éternels and Les Amants imparfaits
  • Chapter 5: Invigorating Women’s Leadership in L’Expédition, La Saison de mon contentement, Bonjour, Anne and Loli le temps venu
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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I started my research on Fleutiaux’s work in 2004 and this book is thus the product of more than ten years of research and writing. I am tremendously grateful to everyone who has encouraged me during this season of my life.

I would like especially to thank Mary Orr for her consistent support, advice, encouragement and inspiration, both as the supervisor of my PhD and as an academic mentor and friend. Her insights and questions have enriched the whole project. Thank you also to Jennifer Birkett, Loraine Day and Gill Rye for their astute feedback at different stages, and to Pierrette Fleutiaux for her reflections on her work. I would also like to thank Martin Sorrell for his comments on my early translations of Fleutiaux’s texts, Zosia Beckles for help tracking down pre-Internet book reviews and articles, my copy-editor Mary Rigby, and Jennifer Speake for her work on the Index. Financial assistance for my PhD was provided in the form of a one-year Graduate Teaching Assistantship from the University of Exeter, for which I am very grateful. A special thank you to Bridget Sealey for her friendship and academic support throughout this project.

I would like to thank my consultancy clients, whose business has both funded and strengthened my research.

Finally, thank you to all my friends and to my family, and especially to my parents Andrew and Sue Sercombe, for their faithful love and support.

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The following abbreviations are used in references and footnotes:

Pierrette Fleutiaux

HT Histoire du tableau
MR Métamorphoses de la reine (1984)
NSE Nous sommes éternels (1990)
ANEH? Allons-nous être heureux? (1994)
E L’Expédition (1999)
PC Des phrases courtes, ma chérie (2001)
AI Les Amants imparfaits
SC La Saison de mon contentement (2008)
BA Bonjour, Anne (2010)
LTV Loli le temps venu (2013)

Simone de Beauvoir

DS Le Deuxième sexe

Carl Jung

| 1 →


Roman: vision et interprétation du monde.

Novel: vision and interpretation of the world.


‘What is a woman?’ More than sixty years after the publication of Le Deuxième sexe,2 Simone de Beauvoir’s question continues to perplex and inspire, frustrate and fascinate.3 The enduring concern with defining what it means to be a woman is borne out both in feminist theory and in French women’s writing since 1949 as key to women’s liberation, since, as Toril ← 1 | 2 → Moi reminds us, ‘a picture [can hold] us captive’.4 Establishing a picture of womanhood that contributes to women’s ongoing liberation is still a task of vital importance today.

A reconsideration of the question of ‘What is a woman?’ is particularly urgent given the way womanhood is portrayed in French women’s writing at the start of the twenty-first century. Despite the gains achieved since 1949, representations abound of female protagonists in states of fragmentation, despair, relational breakdown, doomed mother–daughter relationships, and various forms of violence, both suffered and inflicted.5 However, the landscape of desolation in French women’s writing is only one side of the story. The representations of women in the works of prize-winning author Pierrette Fleutiaux offer an alternative and a challenge to prevailing strands of feminist theory, yet they are largely absent from recent academic criticism. Fleutiaux’s work highlights the everyday home and working lives of (typically) white, French, bourgeois, educated (and heterosexual) women, experiences that have been relatively neglected in recent edited collections of studies on French women’s writing.6 The realities of these women’s lives ← 2 | 3 → are nevertheless worthy of study, in particular as the women concerned are representatives of the demographic who were first to experience the economic, professional, legal and educational gains of first-wave feminism.7 Indeed, these women enjoy a significant degree of equality with men – that is, in their external situation. Yet despite this, women protagonists in Fleutiaux’s fictions are frequently challenged by inner tensions and conflicts. These outer and inner issues are not clear-cut, however; inner preoccupations affect the interpretation of external events, and outer circumstances shape inner perceptions and attitudes. Fleutiaux’s heroines are distinctive in that they choose to negotiate paths that integrate experiences of both the external world and the inner world, leading to increased psychological wholeness; that is, they individuate, rather than fragment. In so doing, Fleutiaux’s women embrace life as an adventure.

The aim of this book, then, is to show how Fleutiaux’s heroines encounter and take up the invitation to individuation at each life stage, and to gain a deeper understanding of womanhood through the examples of her female protagonists’ inner and outer situations, their choices as to how they use their freedom, and the ways in which they attune themselves to the inner guide of ‘personal feeling’. Chapter 1 will outline a framework for the understanding of Fleutiaux’s texts which draws on the philosophy of Beauvoir and the psychology of Carl Jung. Chapter 2 focuses in more detail on individuation at the start of adult life in Fleutiaux’s early works. Chapter 3 then reveals new dimensions of understanding in the heroines’ relationships to their mothers. The potential for (and dangers of) individuation in romantic relationships will be explored in Chapter 4. Chapter 5 opens up questions beyond the individual women ← 3 | 4 → protagonists and their close relationships to look at elements of women’s leadership in the wider world of international adventure, national politics, the arts, and humanity as a whole.

First though, Fleutiaux’s oeuvre will be considered in context, through an introduction of Fleutiaux and her writing, its central themes and critical reception. Consideration will then be given to contemporaneous feminist and French feminist thought, and French women’s writing, backgrounds from which Fleutiaux’s own work emerges so distinctively.

Pierrette Fleutiaux and her Work

Pierrette Fleutiaux was born in 1941 in Guéret, in the Creuse, where she spent most of her childhood on her grandparents’ farm.8 The child of two educators, she spent much of her early years reading both French and English classics in the library of the École Normale d’Instituteurs. She studied in French and English universities, and eventually married one of her fellow students. In the 1960s, she lived for some time in New York, an experience she describes as a liberation.9 After a career in teaching, Fleutiaux’s retirement has allowed her to devote more time to writing, leading to a substantial increase in her literary output. She contributes widely to cultural life in France, participating in conferences, book signings, television programmes and other events.10 ← 4 | 5 →

Fleutiaux’s first work, Histoire de la chauve-souris [The Story of the Bat], was published in 1975.11 This text focuses on the inner transformation of its female adolescent protagonist through her developing relationship with the bat attached to her neck, and her experience of ‘coming to terms’ with her inner self, her body and the wider world. Fleutiaux’s novels and short fictions consistently return to this central issue of women’s inner transformation and their external situation(s). Histoire du tableau ‘[The Story of the Painting] (1977), highlights the female protagonist’s experiences of the restoration of balance to a psyche enmeshed in intellectualism.12 In 1985, Fleutiaux won the Goncourt de la nouvelle prize for Métamorphoses de la reine [Metamorphoses of the Queen],13 a reworking of Perrault’s Contes with women centre-stage,14 and in 1990, the Prix Femina for Nous sommes éternels [We are Eternal], in which the heroine narrates her stumbling attempt to readdress her tragic past and to move forward into a new relationship.15 Allons-nous être heureux? [Are We Going to be Happy?], published in 1994, depicts the renegotiation of the older heroine’s romantic relationship.16 It was followed in 1999 by L’Expédition [The Expedition], which foregrounds the intentional expedition (and consequent inner ← 5 | 6 → explorations) of a group of women to explore the ‘mystery of the world’.17 Published following the death of Fleutiaux’s mother, Des Phrases courtes, ma chérie [Short Sentences, My Dear] ( 2001), examines the female narrator’s changing relationship with her dying mother.18 Making a rare use of a male narrator, Les Amants imparfaits [Imperfect Lovers] (2005), highlights the ongoing dangers of women’s failure to individuate.19 La Saison de mon contentement [The Season of my Contentment] (2008), published after the 2007 presidential campaign of Ségolène Royal, details the narrator’s unexpected happiness at the sight of a woman in a place of high power. Bonjour, Anne [Hello, Anne] (2010), portrays the narrator’s search for and rediscovery of the life and work of an older woman mentor.20 Lastly, in 2013, Fleutiaux published Loli le temps venu [Loli, the Time Has Come], an account of a grandmother’s relationship with her young grand-daughter.21 While the texts are not formally connected to each other, resonances appear between them. For example, the narrator’s displacements between the towers of Histoire de la chauve-souris are mirrored by the narrator’s negotiation of the tower blocks and skyscrapers of New York in Histoire du tableau, and the problematic relationship between the narrator and the ← 6 | 7 → ‘reine-mère’ [queen mother] in Métamorphoses de la reine is reprised in Des phrases courtes, ma chérie.

Themes and Variations

The women characters extensively foregrounded in Fleutiaux’s work are the very same white western bourgeois heterosexual women who are the heiresses to the legacy of Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième sexe. They are educated, employed in interesting and purposeful work, well travelled; they are wives who have married for love, mothers who have chosen to have children. In Fleutiaux’s representations, legal, economic, educational and professional equality have resulted in definite improvements in women’s material situation. Her female characters have much greater freedom of choice in their careers, marriages and relationships, as well as the opportunity to develop creatively and artistically. However, the solving of many material inequalities reveals other fault lines. Despite their external freedoms, women in Fleutiaux’s fictions struggle with the inner legacy of living in a world where power is still largely in the hands of men, and where the values of the ‘Age of Reason’ – rationality, universality and logic – predominate. The inner landscape is of paramount importance in Fleutiaux’s oeuvre. Fleutiaux’s female characters struggle to free themselves from their rationalist education (HCS, HT, BA), have an innate tendency to defer to male authority (ANEH?, PC, SC, LTV) even when this is disadvantageous, doubt themselves at critical moments (NSE, E), and balk at disturbing conventional patterns for female roles within the family (ANEH?, NSE, LTV). The renegotiation of such inner constraints is continually foregrounded in Fleutiaux’s work, leading to moments of disintegration as old patterns are relinquished, and reintegration as new ones are formed.

The preoccupations of women’s experience, the ‘courants souterrains’ [underground currents]22 of the inner life, and the unknown/unknowable ← 7 | 8 → are confirmed in Fleutiaux’s own comments on her writing.23 These three fundamental elements of her work deserve further analysis.

The importance of women’s lived experience is exemplified in Fleutiaux’s views on the impact of women’s freedom to control their fertility. In personal correspondence, she pinpoints this as a major ‘upheaval’ in society and politics.24 Yet for Fleutiaux, such changes in external constraints, although necessary, are not sufficient conditions to ensure liberation. She acknowledges that ‘mental pictures are resilient. Women here are liberated in theory. But in our minds we’re not quite there yet’.25 The emphasis on the power of mental pictures demonstrates Fleutiaux’s interest in the inner workings of the psyche, confirmed by the refrain throughout her oeuvre and interviews of the phrase ‘les courants souterrains’,26 which she also sees as the source of her writing. For Fleutiaux, external prompts are not enough to provoke writing; there must be an inner resonance that comes ← 8 | 9 → from something ‘that has formed you, in some ancient and obscure way, as a person […]. It takes desire, a desire as mysterious as romantic desire.’27

This ‘mystery’ of the inner world is a constant in Fleutiaux’s work, which continually highlights the irrational, the unconscious and the uncontrollable elements of human experience. For Fleutiaux these elements are dangerously powerful and potentially fruitful. Her correspondence with Atienza outlines an early childhood awakening to the horrifyingly arbitrary nature of the world. Yet at the same time, she recognizes the unknown as a wide, open space. Fleutiaux’s refusal to privilege the unknown and uncontrollable over the rational and controllable is a marked feature of her work. Moreover, she uses this ambivalence consciously; more than once, she underlines her desire to write in a way that is ‘disorientating’ for the reader.28

The reluctance to privilege one position over another is at the heart of Fleutiaux’s preference for fiction over theory as a means to elucidate key issues of human experience. She describes her ‘fear’ of the theoretical,29 with its polemics and position-taking, preferring fiction that enables her to bring together various points of view, with positions being indicated more obliquely through form and characters. However, Fleutiaux’s later work indicates a possible shift, albeit refracted through her narrators. La Saison de mon contemtement contains the idea – quoted in the epigraph for this chapter – that theories themselves are all ‘novels’. This perspective ← 9 | 10 → effects an important levelling of authority between philosophy, science and the arts.30

This desire to connect different perspectives – from biology, psychology and culture – results in representations of womanhood that are distinctive in their greater completeness. In contrast to the increasingly fragmented depictions of women over the past half-century, Fleutiaux’s own portrayals of women’s experience from Histoire de la chauve-souris onwards show women continually integrating experiences of their unconscious, of their body, and of their social, historical and cultural situations, despite moments of intense crisis and even tragedy. As a result, they benefit from a stronger inner stability from which they make choices and act. For Fleutiaux, a woman is always in the process of becoming who she is; although her female protagonists can and do achieve significant milestones in this process, it is never shown as finished.31

Fleutiaux’s desire for connectedness in her writing of women’s experience raises questions about possible autobiographical elements in her work, especially given the current trend towards autofiction.32 In ‘De l’île de Pâques et de la littérature’, Fleutiaux states that ‘I can only write about the things that are deeply enmeshed in my own life’,33 and there are obvious connections between her life and work: the towers of Histoire de la chauve-souris ← 10 | 11 → and the New York setting of Histoire du tableau and Allons-nous être heureux? hint at her time in America; she has one son, like Madame Carel in Allons-nous être heureux?; and she has explicitly linked her own experience of a profound shock with that of the heroine of Histoire du tableau.34 Other links are clear in the connection between Fleutiaux’s life and the narrator’s experience in Des phrases courtes,35 and between Fleutiaux’s trip to Easter Island and that of Angèle Lapérierre in L’Expédition.36 However, Fleutiaux rejects a simplistic autobiographical interpretation of her texts;37 the autobiography/fiction dichotomy is another binary opposition undermined in Fleutiaux’s work, as hinted at by the narrator in Des phrases courtes:

Seul reste ‘je’ qui est moi. Moi dont le nom est sur la couverture de mes autres livres. Mais dans ces livres-là, ‘je’ n’est pas moi. L’est-il dans ce ‘livre’ sur ma mère?

[Just ‘I’ is left. Me, whose name is on the cover of my other books. But in those books, ‘I’ isn’t me. Is it in this ‘book’ about my mother?] (PC, p. 55)

The very anonymity of the narrators of Histoire de la chauve-souris, Histoire du tableau, Métamorphoses and Des phrases courtes, as well as the lack of a first name for Madame Carel allow these women to point to the general experience of the middle-class, white, western intellectual woman.38 While there might be connections between Fleutiaux and these narrators, ← 11 | 12 → Fleutiaux leaves a deliberate ambiguity about these.39 Fleutiaux’s relationship to her work is thus emblematic of her concerns elsewhere for connectedness and mystery in relation to women’s experience.

Critical Reception

In terms of critical engagement, Fleutiaux’s affirmative and expansive vision of women’s metamorphosis has been largely overlooked.40 A review of the critical reception of Fleutiaux’s work reveals the limitations of newspaper and journal reviewers’ attempts to pin down her fictions, and while Fleutiaux’s work has attracted some academic attention, the central theme of womanhood (and personhood) throughout her oeuvre has not been explored in detail, with a particular omission of the role of the female narrators.

Fleutiaux’s work is popular in France, and has garnered consistently positive reviews from such established reviewers as Claire Devarrieux (Libération), Matthieu Galey (L’Express), Jérôme Garçin (Les Nouvelles Littéraires and Événement du jeudi), Patrick Grainville (Le Figaro) and Daniel Martin (Le Magazine Littéraire). Reviews of her books also feature in European and North African journals and newspapers (from France itself to Belgium, Geneva and Morocco41), a smattering of articles in the ← 12 | 13 → US (in World Literature Today and French Review) and, increasingly, on websites.42 In the newspaper and journal articles, critics tend to focus on Fleutiaux’s fascination with the inner workings of the individual. Writing about L’Expédition, for example, Patrick Grainville declares that ‘Pierrette Fleutiaux excels […] in the analysis of the most subtle inner turbulence’.43 However, where critical discussion focuses on a single text, opinion is often divided. Examples of this include the desire to label Fleutiaux’s early work as ‘fantastic’ despite its realist elements;44 emphasis on reducing her work to her autobiography, despite her claims to the contrary;45 and the numerous and contradictory reviews of texts such as Allons-nous être heureux?, Des phrases courtes and Nous sommes éternels,46 where each of these works escapes a neat definition as a love story, a memoir or a tragedy, respectively.

Fuller academic treatment of Fleutiaux’s work is sparse. The three most significant analyses of her writing are Bettina Knapp’s 1997 monograph, Rebecca Munford’s 2003 thesis, and Ann Amherst’s MA dissertation on ← 13 | 14 → ‘Le Petit Poucet’.47 Knapp’s study is the first full-length published work on Fleutiaux and provides a lively introduction to her earliest texts, including her novels (in Part One) and short stories (in Part Two). Knapp interprets Histoire de la chauve-souris as following the three stages of Jungian alchemy,48 but does not pursue a Jungian reading to the same extent in her consideration of other works (including Histoire du tableau, despite its similarities in structure), perhaps because she does not place the same emphasis on the role of the female narrators in the other novels considered.49 Knapp does not broach feminist questions pertaining to Fleutiaux’s work. While Munford’s and Amherst’s studies also provide illuminating insights into Fleutiaux’s work, both focus on her earliest texts only (to 1990), and, as with Knapp’s study, neither directly address the question of womanhood central to the analysis here.50 Aside from these studies, academic responses to Fleutiaux’s work comprise only a handful of articles on single texts: Mary Orr’s comparison of Histoire du tableau and Claude Simon’s Tramway,51 and of Métamorphoses and Michel Tournier’s ← 14 | 15 → Roi des Aulnes;52 Julio Cortázar’s response to Histoire de la chauve-souris;53 Sandrine Chabot’s ‘Lecture durandienne de l’Histoire d’une [sic] chauve-souris de Pierrette Fleutiaux’,54 Françoise Grauby’s comparative study of artists’ studios in Histoire du tableau and Hervé Guibert’s L’homme au chapeau rouge,55 and Catherine Montfort’s article on writing and mourning in Des phrases courtes.56

Fleutiaux’s representations of women’s experience speak directly to, and connect the central issues of, womanhood over the last sixty years. Moreover, they position womanhood in an unusually hopeful light, as an adventure in which people navigate a path through situations of immense challenge – including both the normal transitions of a person’s life (work, romantic love, relationship crisis, parenthood, ageing) and the more exceptional (mental illness, early bereavement, war trauma) – to emerge with greater wholeness, resilience and capacity to contribute to the world around them. Given the popularity and importance of Fleutiaux’s work, her almost complete neglect in edited collections of studies on women’s writing over the past forty years, and her absence from academic debates, may appear surprising.57 ← 15 | 16 →

Several potential factors may have contributed to this virtual invisibility. Firstly, and most importantly, the central position of the white, heterosexual, educated, bourgeois women characters in Fleutiaux’s work leaves them in the ‘blind-spot’ of current academic attention, which has increasingly moved its focus away from this privileged figure to women on the margins, and to related issues such as postcolonialism, race and sexuality (including pornography).58 Secondly, Fleutiaux’s own position in relation to French women’s writing may have presented a challenge: the continual stylistic development of her work, and her concern with uniting all aspects of women’s experience (bodily, psychological, social) have made it difficult to categorize. Following her omission from ‘new women writers’ anthologies and studies in the early part of her career, she is now too old to be included in more recent anthologies, which are almost all concerned with women writers who started publishing in the 1990s.59

Whatever the reasons for this historical neglect, the analysis here will demonstrate the value of paying attention to Fleutiaux’s oeuvre, and particularly to her female protagonists. This book will demonstrate that Fleutiaux’s representations of women constitute a positive challenge to existing conceptions of womanhood (and personhood) in theory and in fiction: her protagonists act as guides, provocations, warnings and consolations to other women, both readers and writers, and provide pictures of ← 16 | 17 → womanhood that are liberating for their growing sense of agency, wholeness, freedom and maturity.

First, however, given the importance of the term ‘woman’ to the current work, the meaning of this and associated terms must be clarified.

‘Woman’ and ‘Womanhood’

Throughout this book, my use of terms is shaped by the clear-eyed analysis of Moi’s groundbreaking study ‘What is a Woman?’ (1999). The following definitions are particularly pertinent.

Firstly, ‘woman’ will be used in the sense of ‘a person with a female body’. With Moi and Beauvoir, I agree that ‘the possession of the usual biological and anatomical sexual characteristics is what makes a woman a woman’.60 ‘Woman’ is well understood in the vast majority of cases,61 and need not imply any metaphysical or essentializing underpinning. Following Moi, there is, then, no particular usefulness (or accuracy) in the sex/gender binary as it relates to individual women.62 Instead, and as Chapter 1 will more thoroughly explore, this book will use the concept of bodily ‘situation’ to highlight how a woman is shaped, but not defined, by her possession of a female body. It is not necessary to posit a sex/gender binary in order to refute biological determinism.63 Moreover, the fact of being a woman will not be taken as the pre-eminent factor in a woman’s life. Sexual difference ← 17 | 18 → is not a relevant factor in many contexts, and this is certainly true for Fleutiaux’s heroines.64


X, 393
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
Pierrette Fleutiaux womanhood mother-daughter relationships women's leadership women's creativity
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. X, 393 pp.

Biographical notes

Elizabeth Sercombe (Author)

Elizabeth Anne Sercombe is the Director of evolute, a human transformation consultancy based in the UK. She holds a PhD in French Literature from the University of Southampton. Her consultancy work combines research, writing and facilitation to enable individuals and organizations to thrive in the adventures of twenty-first-century life.


Title: Strange Adventures