Amongst Women

Literary Representations of Female Homosociality in Belle Epoque France, 1880–1914

by Giada Alessandroni (Author)
Monographs VIII, 236 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction The Romantic Novel in France
  • Chapter 1 Between Self and Other: The roman personnel
  • Chapter 2 The English Malady: Towards a Transnational mal du siècle
  • Chapter 3 Patrie and père: Shaping Masculinity
  • Chapter 4 A Woman’s Place in the Nation
  • Chapter 5 On England: Between Nationhood and Cosmopolitanism
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index


This book and the doctoral thesis on which it is based were written on trains travelling between Oxford and Bristol (and on the station platform at Didcot Parkway en route), on planes bookending weekends away, and buses commuting to London during a stint of teaching. Parts of the book have been presented in Gettysburg and Coventry, Paris and Sheffield, Berlin and Bristol. Much like the two women upon which it centres, it is a piece of work that has travelled. Much like the ideas of these two women, it has been developed and enriched in conversation with others.

Completing a monograph without institutional support poses certain challenges, and I am especially grateful to the friends and mentors who read through my proposal, commented on sections, and gave me advice. In particular, I would like to thank my PhD supervisor Bradley Stephens who supported the project from the beginning. Stimulating conversations with and friendly support from Clare Siviter, Christie Margrave, Jennifer Rushworth, and Kate Astbury have been of immense value. I’m also very appreciative that Tom Harding and Katja Wiech allowed me to work flexibly whilst I completed the manuscript. Finally, I must mention the unwavering companionship and encouragement of Johnny McFadyen, who patiently read through, corrected, and offered feedback on this material in its various guises over the years.

S.A. Rheinsberg, November 2018

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The Romantic Novel in France

In Mémoires d’outre-tombe (1849), François-René de Chateaubriand, the grandfather of French Romanticism, described his chère sœur and devoted friend Claire de Duras as ‘[une] personne si généreuse, d’une âme si noble, d’un esprit qui réunissait quelque chose de la force de la pensée de madame de Staël à la grâce du talent de madame de La Fayette’ [such a generous person with a noble soul and a spirit that united something of the intellectual magnitude of Madame de Staël with the elegant talent of Madame de Lafayette].1 By comparing Duras to French Romanticism’s other founding thinker, Germaine de Staël, and the author of one of the first European novels, Marie-Madeline de Lafayette, Chateaubriand inscribes the author into two traditions that underpin nineteenth-century literary history in France, two traditions that tend to be dominated by male writers within existing scholarship. Despite the recent ‘Ourika mania’ of teaching Duras’s 1823 text as part of university syllabi in the United States and beyond, the author’s critical reputation does not extend to the heights of Chateaubriand’s appraisal.2 Similarly, whilst Duras’s contemporary and friend Staël is, of course, recognized as a key proponent of European Romanticism, her work does not receive the same level of scholarly attention ←1 | 2→within the French tradition as later (male) canonical writers, particularly among dix-neuvièmistes.

Taking Staël’s and Duras’s hitherto unexplored intertextual relationship as its primary subject, this book places women back at the centre of French Romanticism and the novel’s development across the nineteenth century. Its dual focus on novel writing practices and the complex and evolving concept of subjectivity in France after 1789 reveals the two to be interrelated: gendered perceptions of men and women influenced the reception of different types of novels, and novels contributed to individuals’ understanding of themselves and their relationship to the nation. The novel’s rise is generally understood to coincide with that of nationalism; its compositional processes, as Benedict Anderson argues, ‘provided the technical means for “re-presenting” the kind of imagined community that is the nation’.3 Such a reading presents the novel as bounded, national and gendered – qualities that are reflected in the nation itself. According to Anne McClintock, ‘nations are contested systems of cultural representation and legitimize people’s access to the resources of the nation-state […]. Nations have historically amounted to the institutionalization of gender difference’.4 Analogously, when it comes to the nineteenth-century novel in France, literary history, as Margaret Cohen observes, ‘offers few cases where gender and genre line up so neatly’.5 To undo these hierarchical conceptions of the novel and the nation, this book considers how gender and nationhood were ideological battlegrounds in the search for identity and self-expression, as evidenced in the novels published from 1789 to the ascent of Realism around 1830.

The French Revolution represents a pivotal and complex moment within the history of personhood in France. The move away from hereditary ←2 | 3→class-based determinants of identity shifted the foundations of society and reformulated social bonds between people: the beheading of the king transferred unity from the national père [father] to the patrie [fatherland]. The theoretical individualism of the eighteenth-century could now be played out in real life and have its boundaries tested, the psychological effects and structural limitations of which were a source of continual conflict. This new formulation of identity was founded upon a violent severing of long-established links to family and land, which left an entire generation disconnected from their past lives. In contrast, the composition of the emerging French nation was rooted in the binary of gender difference; its legislation outlined specific national duties for men and women and allocated separate spheres of activity to them: the masculine public sphere and the feminine private sphere. This tense co-existence of individual freedom and determinism and the melancholia it provoked produced the mal du siècle [malady of the century]. This psychological condition preoccupied Romantic writers, who experienced exile and alienation from France’s new regime. Their writings attest to how the individual and the nation were interdependent and conflicting concepts. Far from the novel writing out the totalizing boundaries of the nation, this book reveals how the novelistic form questions, pushes against and transgresses its national and gendered limitations.

Staël’s and Duras’s personal biographies meant that they acutely suffered the effects of France’s post-1789 social transformation, particularly in its consequences for individual subjectivity. As my analysis will show, these instances of exile, losses of close friends and family and a withdrawal of status in gender, national and class terms were similarly points of departure for their writings.6 These shared experiences were ‘a ←3 | 4→source of melancholy’, as Peter Fritzsche notes, but they ‘also prompted a search for new ways to understand difference’, which had creative and cultural advantages.7 Facing hostilities in France because of their identities whilst being welcomed in foreign England threw into sharp relief the myth of nations existing as eternally cohesive and unique entities. The experience of exile breaks down the boundaries that nations construct because it presents a rupture between the past nationally defined self, from which the individual is now excluded, and the present deracinated self. The illusion of selfhood as a unified, stable concept and the nation’s ←4 | 5→composition as a constantly changing entity become apparent: the lines between self and other effectively become blurred. Staël and Duras adopt a variety of fictional positions to act out this alienation from France and detachment from their past lives. I, thus, contend that the two authors articulated the generational trauma of the extended Revolutionary period by writing the self through agents and sites of otherness, in terms that evidence a dialectical relationship between sameness and difference. Across their works, Staël and Duras develop a fluid and relational model of selfhood: a Romantic selfhood.

The term Romantic is inherently difficult to define; the transience it supposes means that the boundaries of generic, thematic and temporal inclusion within its associated movement Romanticism are excessively flexible. Within the French tradition, D. G. Charlton acknowledges ‘the astonishing breadth of [the Romantics’] concerns and the sheer diversity of literary, intellectual and artistic forms’ they employed. The Romantic era he establishes is bookended by Staël’s first published work Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau (1788) and the posthumous appearance of Victor Hugo’s Dieu (1891).8 Finding a broad range of practitioners, each with their own interpretation of the term, and covering a century in which France continually remodelled itself means that Romanticism is characterized by its very diversity. The task of defining Romantic is problematized further by the French tradition’s complex relationship to other Romanticisms, notably the English and German variations, which emerged first and nourished subsequent national iterations. Staël’s De l’Allemagne locates Romanticism’s roots abroad, which attributes a firmly transnational dimension to her application of its principles, capturing both French specificity and European universality. To speak of a pan-European Romanticism is no less challenging: Lilian Furst views the tradition as ‘too large, too complex, and above all, too elastic to be captured in some scholarly butterfly-net’, whilst Michael Ferber resorts to identifying a broad list of ‘eight or ten “norms”’ that are represented ←5 | 6→across the European context.9 Romanticism, it would seem, resists any boundary that seeks to contain it. Indeed, as Duras wrote in 1824: ‘la définition du romantique, c’est d’être indéfinissable’ [the definition of Romantic is to be indefinable].10

It is, however, in these very difficulties of defining the term that some of the constitutive elements of what Romantic means emerge. These qualities, which equally apply to my identification of a Romantic selfhood and the movement as whole, include a will to evade fixed definition, an inherently comparative nature and a reliance on individual interpretation. Essentially, Romanticism defies straightforward generic categorisation since its practitioners and their cultural produce rejected established codes. As Duras asserts: ‘c’est un genre indépendant qui prend les beautés où il les trouve, qui ne croit qu’à lui-même: c’est le protestantisme de la littérature; aussi y a-t-il bien des sectes. On s’égare quand on ne reconnaît pas d’autorité’ [it is an independent genre that takes beauties from where it finds them, that only believes in itself. It is the Protestantism of literature, but there are other religions in it, too. One wanders when one does not recognize authority].11 Duras highlights a fluidity gained from a lack of authority, an ideological métissage and a reliance on individual inspiration. For Paul Hamilton, these qualities give European Romanticism an ‘internal comparative dynamic’, which demonstrates ‘a resistance to generic boundaries of all kinds, and a cultural investment in the transgression of inherited boundaries [that] permitted a choice of the traditions with which one defined ←6 | 7→oneself.’12 Romanticism is predicated on the individual cultural actor’s prerogative to appropriate selective elements and creatively juxtapose them. Consequently, I propose, a Romantic selfhood is one that incorporates different cultural affiliations to surpass traditional constraints.

Within the French tradition specifically, Romanticism is most commonly understood as a transgression of neo-classicism’s fixed rules, an unshackling of creativity from the dominating ‘littérature transplantée’ [imposed literature] as described in Staël’s De l’Allemagne. In contrast, ‘la littérature romantique ou chevaleresque est chez nous indigène, et c’est notre religion et nos institutions qui l’ont fait éclore’ [Romantic or chivalric literature is indigenous to us; and it is our religion and institutions which made it flourish].13 Staël characterizes Romanticism as coming from the individual, being born out of and reflecting the social circumstances of a specific period. Whereas neo-classicism stifles cultural production, Romantic literature is ‘susceptible encore d’être perfectionnée, parce qu’ayant ses racines dans notre propre sol, elle est la seule qui puisse croître et se vivifier de nouveau’ [still able to be perfected, because of its roots in our own land; it is the only one that can grow and revive itself ].14 Founded on individual interpretation, drawing on subjective and often emotional experience, and originating within a particular context offers infinite variation. For writers after 1789, Romantic codes facilitated the expression of the personal and collective melancholy of modernity.

Drawing on these Romantic qualities of transience, comparativism and individuality, I argue that Staël and Duras use their literature to write against the systematic shoring up of the concepts of gender and nationhood in post-Revolutionary France, in short, against binary difference. Their formulations of Romantic selfhood incorporate elements presented as opposites within contemporary legislation and discourse to provide a fundamentally cosmopolitan perspective on the self and the nation. I posit that Staël and Duras reconfigure difference as dialectic rather than dualistic, interconnected ←7 | 8→rather than divided. Within this line of thinking, difference, as Mary Jacobus explains, ‘becomes a traversal of […] boundaries […] a traversal that exposes these boundaries for what they are – the product of phallocentric discourse and of women’s relation to patriarchal culture’.15 Staël and Duras write the Romantic self by portraying characters of different nationalities, genders, races and classes, who defy straightforward categorization: an Anglo-Italian poetess, a black Senegalese woman in France, a bourgeois soldier in upper-class society, an Anglo-Scotsman travelling in Italy, an impotent aristocrat and a Catholic trainee canoness exiled in London. Moreover, the two writers employ the aesthetically hybrid and diverse form, the roman personnel [personal novel], whose defining feature is the fictional reformulation of the authors’ own lived experiences, often through a confessional narrative that gives prominence to the individual’s voice and sentiments.16 In this blurring of fiction and reality, self and other, selfhood is presented in its individual and emotional complexities through form and theme.

Comparatively, Staël’s and Duras’s approach to writing the nation is also distinguished by this multiplicity and interplay of opposites. Nowhere is this clearer than in the two writers’ engagement with England, its institutions and its historical evolution to address contemporaneous French issues of national specificity. Across their works, Staël and Duras almost exclusively talk about Angleterre to refer to the entirety of Great Britain and its constituent parts. For example, in Staël’s Corinne ou l’Italie, the Anglo-Scottish hero Oswald is often referred to as anglais; and the two writers describe Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott as English, too. The use of this terminology destabilizes a fixed and singular notion of Englishness: anglais becomes plural, expansive and accommodates diverse elements ←8 | 9→under its national umbrella. The Anglo-French relationship is, as Robert Tombs succinctly characterizes, ‘one of the most intense, most troubled and most significant of modern times’.17 From the Norman Conquest onwards, France and England have been tense and co-dependent neighbours: each country relying on the other’s perceived opposition to construct its own identity. England warmly welcomed large numbers of Revolutionary émigrés, including Staël and Duras, and even offered financial aid to those in need, at the time when they were forcibly excluded from France.18 Engaging with England and its connections to France was an oppositional position during the twenty-five years of war from the 1790s to the Battle of Waterloo. My assessment of Staël’s and Duras’s interactions with England – an under-studied area in each writer’s works – shows how they write the nation as a diverse and contradictory social and cultural entity, whilst also reflecting on the significant place of this foreign nation within their own subjectivities.

Consequently, this book addresses the question of what it means to be French: what it means to have nationhood and how those criteria might differ for men and women. ‘In the modern world’, as Anderson states, ‘everyone can, should, will “have” a nationality, as he or she “has” a gender’, which sits in a paradoxical relationship to ‘the irremediable particularity of its concrete manifestations’.19 Undeniably, the Revolution was a pivotal moment in the rise of nationalism during the nineteenth century. And yet, my analysis reveals that Staël’s and Duras’s writings show resistance to narrow definitions of French nationhood in its immediate aftermath, which situates the two writers’ works within the longer history of debates over Frenchness. This present study, then, echoes the aim of the volume French Global to understand the ‘(French) language and nation in their multiplicity, their multiple possibilities’.20 Staël and Duras present a complex ←9 | 10→and inclusive version of nationhood with porous edges that is subject to modification over time. Far from nationhood appearing organically, I show how it is dependent on both the individual’s will to uphold the performance of national and gendered boundaries and the nation’s creation of totalizing narratives. My reading, thus, places Staël and Duras at the heart of debates within the Romantic and novelistic traditions. Overall, this book presents the creative and political advantages of employing sentimental fiction’s universal, emotional lens; brings to light the transnational dimension of the mal du siècle; and resituates England as a key reference point for the French Romantics.

The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Reading Gender and Genre

The principles of French Romanticism sit in almost uneasy relation to the defining literary form of the nineteenth century, Realism.21 Romantic fluidity, individuality and emotionality would appear to oppose the visual, universalist, objective and masculine perspective that Realist novels purport to offer. These oppositions underpin a set of assumptions about the nineteenth-century novel that is emphasized in traditional accounts of French literary history: men and women wrote about different subjects and employed different novelistic codes; apolitical and subjective sentimentality opposes the broad socio-historical focus and objectivity of Realism; 1830 ←10 | 11→was a juncture between two completely distinct novelistic traditions and two generations of Romantic writers; and nationally specific narratives that helped draw a French nationhood were produced.22

In spite of Pierre Barbéris’s work on Balzac and the mal du siècle and Cohen’s identification of the ‘sentimental social novel’, which both blur these distinctions, these assumptions continue to be perpetuated in some recent histories of French literature; a resolutely masculine concept of literature, written through the exploits of its grands hommes [great men], continues to be promoted.23 For Tim Farrant, ‘the novelistic landscape of France prior to 1830 looks like a great desert punctuated by a few relatively modest peaks’.24 After 1830, however, ‘the nineteenth century is arguably the defining century of French literature. It produced some of the world’s greatest novelists – Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, Dumas, Verne’.25 Farrant’s list includes no authors who were particularly active before 1820 and, conspicuously, no women, which sets up a bias towards the Realist codes that emerged around 1830. Similarly, Brian Nelson’s Cambridge Introduction to French Literature identifies Stendhal, Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Zola, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Malarmée and Rimbaud as representing the nineteenth century. Lafayette, the only woman allocated her own chapter, invented the modern novel, a tradition that ‘looks forward to the fiction ←11 | 12→of Laclos and Stendhal’.26 Correspondingly, Alison Finch, whose Women’s Writing in Nineteenth-Century France is one of the most in-depth overviews of women writers to date, concludes elsewhere in a cultural history of French Literature that Stendhal’s ‘Red and Black [1830] marks the return of elite French literature to its full powers’.27 This approach to literary history, which devalues other, supposedly feminine, forms and overlooks their cultural or political value and women’s contributions, has its roots in the nineteenth century itself.

The period immediately following the Revolution saw an increase in the numbers of women writing.28 This rise was exaggerated in the press to the extent that it defined the sentimental novel as a feminine genre.29 Terminology was modified to reflect this change, too. Throughout the eighteenth century, auteur [author] was used for men and women alike, yet the 1798 Dictionnaire de l’Académie française added to its entry for the word: ‘on dit aussi simplement, une femme auteur’ [one also simply says, a woman writer].30 Balzac and Stendhal discredited women writers’ achievements to conceal the origins of their own novelistic practices. ‘Collapsing genre into gender’, the two authors, as Cohen explains, ‘associate the sentimental novel with weak and stupid femininity even as they appropriate important aspects of sentimentality in forging their own practices.’31 Balzac distinguished his ←12 | 13→works as serious reading, declaring: ‘j’écris pour les hommes et non pour les jeunes filles’ [I write for men, not young girls].32 Stendhal called time on the sentimental tradition: ‘apparition de La Princesse de Clèves, 1670. Temps d’Ourika, 1825. Les hommes vulgaires au pied d’Ourika peuvent à peine, vu le changement des temps, apercevoir le sommet de La Princesse de Clèves’ [publication of La Princesse de Clèves, 1670. Era of Ourika, 1825. Given the changing times, the crude men at the foot of Ourika can barely see the summit of La Princesse de Clèves].33 In bookending a period of sentimental writing practices with Lafayette and Duras, Stendhal announces a new era for the novel that he, presumably, would take forward.

Recent revisionist work undertaken from a feminist perspective stresses the significance of sentimentalism, women’s contribution to the novel’s history and the novel’s development across the nineteenth century. Indeed, Stendhal’s announcement of a new era obscures Staël’s and Duras’s roles in his own literary development. Finch has previously highlighted these debts: ‘most notable is the influence of women’s writing on Stendhal’, whose first novel Armance ou quelques scènes d’un salon de Paris en 1827 (1827) employed sentimental codes, and whose pseudonym ‘is (as too few critics point out) close to Staël’.34 Stendhal fluctuated between admiration for and animosity towards Duras: he was ‘appreciative of Duras’ talents’, as Margaret Waller suggests, yet he ‘resented the success and social privilege that made her, rather than himself, the heir apparent to Lafayette’s literary mantle’.35 When the scandalous impotency theme of Olivier ou le Secret was leaked from Duras’s intellectual circle, Stendhal and Henri de Latouche took the opportunity to destroy her literary credibility and further their own names. Latouche passed off his version of Olivier (1826) as ←13 | 14→Duras’s by following the publication format of her other works. Stendhal affirmed this deceit in a review, whilst also declaring that impotency was an inappropriate topic for a woman to undertake.36 The following year, he offered his own impotence narrative in Armance.37 Three years later, he took inspiration from Duras again, drawing on Édouard’s mésalliance [a marriage with a person thought to be unsuitable] plot for Le Rouge et le Noir, considered one of the founding Realist texts.38

Whilst such connections may be highlighted, the continual appeal of Realist codes today affects how scholars and readers approach texts, and has led to a lack of diverse critical modelling that negatively affects sentimental novels.39 Naomi Schor identifies that the ‘valorization of realism […] remains largely unexamined in contemporary theories of representation and the canonic hierarchies they serve to secure […]. The theory of realism from Lukács to Barthes is essentially a theory of a single fictional practice, Balzac’s’.40 For example, Rosemary Lloyd considers Duras’s Ourika and Édouard within the parameters of Realism: ‘both stories have considerable charm […] yet they may well strike modern readers as somewhat thin, with their single focus on the central character or pair and lack of secondary themes, characters and ←14 | 15→intrigues.’41 Their ‘single focus’ and short length are negative aspects, and the term ‘charm’ has pejorative connotations of frivolity, which suggests Duras’s novels do not have the literary gravitas of Realist texts. When studied against Realist criteria, sentimental novels come up short. Without the necessary critical toolkit, the subversive potential of sentimental novels is dismissed and their content is subject to narrow definition.


Second fiddle to love, fleeting and inauthentic, a disguise for sexual rivalry, a practice to be policed or, at most, a social mechanism aptly reinforcing traditional gender norms, female friendship did not always have a good reputation in canonical and didactic literature from nineteenth-century France. But how did French women imagine and represent their relationships in fiction, and to what ends?
Situated at the intersection of feminist cultural history and Belle Epoque literary studies, this book explores fictional representations of female homosociality in novels by Daniel Lesueur, Gabrielle Réval, Marcelle Tynaire, and Yver Prost, among others, including women’s writing of the Belle Epoque within the narratives of the literary and cultural history of friendship in the long nineteenth century.
Playing with the tension between traditional and modern womanhood and intersecting with topics as diverse as the female body, work, education, marriage, heterosexual love, and the moral regeneration of the French nation, the representation of female homosociality constitutes, in these texts, one of the literary devices through which the figure of the femme moderne comes into being on paper and reflects the authors’ engagement with a form of female modernism that problematizes the dichotomy between «high» and «popular» literature, helping to give shape to women’s experience of modernity.
This book was the joint winner of the 2019 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in Nineteenth-Century French Studies.


VIII, 236
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (May)
Female Homosociality French Literature Belle Epoque Giada Alessandroni Amongst Women
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. VIII, 236 pp.

Biographical notes

Giada Alessandroni (Author)

Giada Alessandroni holds a PhD in French Studies from the University of Exeter. She is now an independent scholar and novelist.


Title: Amongst Women