Amongst Women

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

by Giada Alessandroni (Author)
©2021 Monographs VIII, 236 Pages


«In the wake of pioneering scholarship by Sharon Marcus and Juliette Rogers, Giada Alessandroni’s study situates Belle Époque women’s writing in the broader literary and cultural history of friendship, highlighting how representations of female homosociality were used ‘to deconstruct gender and redefine modern femininity’ (p. 24). One of the work’s key strengths lies in its careful navigation of the relationship between subversion and the re-inscription of gender norms in a range of middlebrow works by successful women writers. […] Of particular interest to scholars of women’s writing and the Belle Époque, Alessandroni’s analysis nuances our understanding of female homosociality, reminding us that literature need not be avant-garde to reflect socio-cultural change.» (Helen Craske, French Studies 76.3, July 2022)
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.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • INTRODUCTION. Female Friendship: ‘The Troubling Silence between the Lines’?
  • CHAPTER 1. Female Friendship and the Body
  • CHAPTER 2. Female Mentorship and the Making of the Femme Moderne in the Female Bildungsroman
  • CHAPTER 3. Female Communities in Schoolgirl Fiction
  • CHAPTER 4. Female Rivalry and Love Triangles
  • CONCLUSION. The Troublesome Noisiness of the ‘Troubling Silence between the Lines’
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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Female Friendship: ‘The Troubling Silence between the Lines’?

The expression ‘the troubling silence between the lines’ was used by historian Alan Bray in his seminal work on the history of friendship, The Friend (2003), to indicate the seeming lack of evidence regarding the public and political dimension of female friendship in early modern archives.1 In this introduction, I wish to employ Bray’s expression in a different sense, calling attention to the way in which, for a long time, French women have been marginalized or erased from the cultural history of friendship. With regard to the nineteenth century, the ‘troubling silence between the lines’ concerns French women’s exclusion from traditionally androcentric definitions of friendship, their apparent absence from ongoing discussions on the value of this relationship, the scarcity of positive representations of female friendship in canonical literature, and the small amount of research conducted on this topic in French scholarship. At first glance, some of the most well-known French novels from the nineteenth century suggest that female friendship was non-existent or, at best, dangerous when it was not simply replaced by rivalry. In Madame Bovary (1857) the heroine Emma is utterly lonely, in La Cousine Bette (1846) Bette and Valérie’s alliance is evil and threatening, in La Chartreuse de Parme (1839) Gina and Clélia are in competition for Fabrice’s affection, and in Boule de Suif (1880) Elisabeth is the object of other women’s contempt, just to mention a few ←1 | 2→examples. However, the picture provided by such canonical literary representations and by the few studies dedicated to this topic remains incomplete, or even inaccurate, as long as we do not attend to how French women themselves imagined and represented their relationships, and to what ends. In focusing on female-authored, middlebrow fiction during the period 1880–1914, this study seeks to include women’s writing of the Belle Epoque within the narratives of the literary and cultural history of friendship in the long nineteenth century.

Even though we can assume that women have been establishing relationships among themselves at least as long as men have, for many centuries these rarely gained public attention, thus leaving behind a smaller quantity of traces than have relationships between men. As stated by Marianne Legault, ‘the expression of friendship between women is located precisely within this lack, this literary and historical emptiness, this omission or socio-historical erasure’.2 Classical ideals of friendship, which continued to resonate, although not unchallenged, at least until the nineteenth century, were distinctively masculine; they usually stressed the importance of the civic, moral, and rational characters of this bond, thereby largely excluding women from its definition due to the supposed incompatibility of female nature with its requirements.3 For centuries, prominent novelists and philosophers continued to doubt or even entirely deny women’s aptitude for friendship. Such inability to foster strong, authentic relationships was attributed, in particular, to women’s lack of virtue and rationality, and ←2 | 3→to their tendency to compete for men’s attention, a behaviour mainly dictated by the primacy of love in their lives.4 The eighteenth century, however, was marked by several shifts in the perception of female bonding, the gradual feminization of the ideal of friendship starting to place women at the foreground of its history. Indeed, the new models of friendship promoted by the educated elites from the middle to the late eighteenth century progressively challenged previous, traditionally masculine models of intellectual friendship, by becoming intimate and exclusive, distinctively emotional, and more closely associated with the private sphere, which is to say, at least to a certain extent, with women.5 By the nineteenth century, women’s friendship had become more visible than ever before.

The next section of this introduction will focus on the notion of ‘female romantic friendship’, the model of friendship to which, according to historians and literary critics, middle- and upper-class women usually adhered during that period. The analysis of the current debate surrounding this notion will show to what extent this category has become controversial and confusing, and will lead to a clarification of the terms and concepts adopted in this study.

Nineteenth-Century Female Romantic Friendship: A Source of Debate

According to critics today the historical and literary model that best describes how women interacted during the nineteenth century, in Western societies, is the one commonly known under the name of ‘romantic friendship’. From the 1970s onwards, the study of nineteenth-century ←3 | 4→female romantic friendship has raised issues concerning the embodiment of female friendship and its relation to homosexuality, this debate leading to a questioning of the definition of friendship itself. What romantic friendship was or what it involved remains an open question. The term usually refers to the passionate, intimate, nurturing, emotional, and physical bonds that nineteenth-century women established with one another in the United States and in western European countries. The role of romantic friendship in nineteenth-century American society was first highlighted by the feminist historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, whose work unearthed the existence of a segregated and exclusive female world in which relationships between women ‘ranged from the supportive love of sisters, through the enthusiasm of adolescent girls, to sensual avowals of love by mature women’ and provided them with emotional and physical support throughout their lives.6 Smith-Rosenberg insisted on the social acceptability of these relations and on their compatibility with heterosexual marriage, at least until new cultural taboos introduced in the twentieth century broke them off. She further suggested that we view ‘sexual and emotional impulses as part of a continuum or spectrum of affect gradations strongly effected [sic] by cultural norms and arrangements’, thus pointing out not only that friendship is a dynamic concept determined by cultural and historical specificities, but also that it could be useful to understand female relationships through the prism of a ‘continuum’ that blurs the lines between different forms of bonding.7

The idea of the ‘continuum’ has been subsequently articulated in different ways by prominent critics such as Adrienne Rich and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Rich proposes that all women exist on a ‘lesbian continuum’ that embraces ‘many forms of primary intensity between women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support’.8 In her view, this broad range of woman-identified experiences is primarily defined by its resistance ←4 | 5→to ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ and to male domination rather than by sexuality. Furthermore Sedgwick, discerning an asymmetry in the functioning of a male versus a female spectrum of relations, alludes to a certain smoothness and unbrokenness between female homosociality and homosexuality, further stating that ‘an intelligible continuum of aims, emotions, and valuations links lesbianism with the other forms of women’s attention to women: the bond of mother and daughter, for instance, the bond of sister and sister, women’s friendship, “networking”, and the active struggles of feminism’.9 Drawing from some of Smith-Rosenberg’s principal arguments, Lillian Faderman claims that ‘romantic friendships were in the quality and intensity of the emotions involved no different from lesbian love’, further observing that these friendships ‘were love relationships in every sense except perhaps the genital’.10 In other words, romantic friends were women who loved other women, but this form of love was tolerated or even valued by society only so long as it was considered asexual, following the nineteenth-century assumption that women in general had little or no sexual desire. Like Smith-Rosenberg, Faderman concludes that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the medical naming of ‘lesbianism’, these friendships started to be increasingly perceived as suspicious or abnormal and were consequently suppressed.

Such claims about the fundamentally asexual nature of female romantic friendship, which are partly motivated by a political desire to overturn the pathologizing model of lesbianism and emphasize the emotional intensity of women’s bonding, have been differently received and often fiercely contested. In particular, scholars have argued against the utopian and reductive idea of a pre-sexual world, a lost age of innocence, later disrupted by the intervention of sexologists, in which relationships between women followed the mother-daughter model, were conceived of as non-sexual and consequently unproblematic, and were entirely approved of or even encouraged. Since then, the impact of the medical discourse on these friendships ←5 | 6→has been reconsidered, their acceptability in nineteenth-century society questioned, and, in certain cases, their erotic and sexual nature proven.11 The debate surrounding the notion of nineteenth-century female romantic friendship has thus started to generate growing confusion regarding the nature and the content of this relationship, the term ‘romantic friendship’ gradually becoming a sort of catch-all label applying to friendship as well as to sexual, romantic partnership.

More recent works on the subject of female romantic friendship confirm that this debate is ongoing. Martha Vicinus, for example, claims that in the eighteenth century ‘sensual romantic friendships’ and ‘sexual Sapphisms’ represented two separate, although non-exclusive forms of female intimate friendships. In the nineteenth century, following the French Revolution and the spread of Romanticism, these two categories were progressively combined by women in order to create a new form of ‘intimate friendship’, which Vicinus describes as ‘an emotional, erotically charged relationship between two women’.12 Leila J. Rupp, in a section of Sapphistries (2009) dedicated to female romantic friendship, provides a nuanced and complex picture of this relationship.13 By rediscussing several examples previously considered by other critics, she shows that nineteenth-century female romantic friendship could either coexist with heterosexual marriage or be in conflict with it, eventually evolving into the so-called Boston Marriage (i.e. a marriage-like relationship between women). It could involve or be a cover for sexual desire and acts, but not necessarily. Finally, it could find acceptance, arouse anxieties, or be policed. In addition to this, Rupps draws attention to the prominence of the eroticization of same-sex friendship through history. More recently, Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan ←6 | 7→Brown have overtly adopted the continuum theory in their discussion of nineteenth-century romantic friendships. Although they give the name of ‘passionate friends’ to all those ‘women loving other women passionately and even physically, with caresses and kisses, though not necessarily sexually’ and cite historians who have warned us against interpreting those relationships as protolesbian, they consider ‘lesbian romance’ as the variant of romantic friendship falling to the extremity of the continuum ‘where love intermingles with sex’.14 These examples attest to the continuing ambiguity inscribed in the notion of romantic friendship, a category which indistinctly refers to female friendship and lesbian love alike.

In Between Women (2007), Sharon Marcus queries precisely this ambiguity, pointing to the extent to which the idea of the continuum has blinded us to the differences between homosocial, homoerotic, and homosexual ties, differences mainly determined by the peculiar ‘content, structure, status, and degree of flexibility’ of each social bond.15 Marcus interestingly remarks that female relationships have been mainly conceptualized within the field of lesbian studies, and that the dominant tendency has consisted in conflating same-sex friendship and homosexual love, thus creating a persistent ambiguity between the two, as if every female bond was always at least potentially inhabited by lesbian desire and should be considered as a subset of lesbianism. According to Marcus:

rather than valorize an invisibility or transgressiveness that all women’s relationships share, or define women’s relationships in terms of an intrinsic ambiguity that blurs the line between friendship and sexual partnership, we need distinctions that allow us to chart how different social bonds overlap without becoming identical.16

For example, in her study of female relationships in Victorian culture and literature, she sets female friendship apart from unrequited love or obsessive infatuation between women and from female marriage or life partnership. Adopting Roland Barthes’ definition of the ‘erotic’ as a set ←7 | 8→of dynamics located in ‘practices of classifying, ritualization, and image-making and in emotional states’ rather than in sexual acts, Marcus insists upon the distinction between homoerotic and homosexual.17 A ‘restrictive, literal definition of the sexual enables a corresponding latitude in defining the erotic in a way that does justice to the complexity and ingenuity of desire’.18 Therefore homoeroticism, far from being a ‘synonym’ or a ‘euphemism for lesbianism or sex between women’, can be seen as one of the Victorian codes of female friendship and accounts for the playfulness and physicality involved in relationships between women who considered themselves friends, not lovers. According to Marcus, this form of homoeroticism is neither to be equated with lesbian love nor to be dismissed as an adolescent stage leading to heterosexuality. This understanding of female friendship has the advantage of possessing a certain latitude and flexibility while remaining separate from other kinds of relations.

Since the notion of romantic friendship is possibly the one most insistently referred to in discussions of female friendship in nineteenth-century Western societies, its significance and the scope of the debate surrounding it could not be ignored in a study that investigates representations of female homosociality in Belle Epoque France. The term ‘homosociality’, which, in Sedgwick’s own words, ‘describes social bonds between persons of the same sex’, applies in this book to female friendship as well as to female solidarity, mentorship, and rivalry.19 However, I intend to focus on female homosociality as distinct from female homosexuality, rejecting the view of female friendship in particular as a subset, a sublimation, or a form of lesbian love or desire. The fact that friendship could turn into love, or that friendship could come out of love, or that two lovers could at the same time be friends, in fiction or in history, is not the concern of this book. As we have seen, the discourse on nineteenth-century female romantic ←8 | 9→friendship is characterized by a consistent disagreement about whether these relationships were sexual or platonic, whether they opened up the possibility, for women, to express and act on same-sex sexual desires or rather represented an attempt to confine female behaviour to a respectable, pure, and socially acceptable form of interaction, and whether or not they should be considered as part of lesbian history. Following Marcus’ lead, I call into question the utility or accuracy of placing all female relationships under the same heading of ‘friendship’, and the emphasis put on potentially sexual desires or acts even when they may not have been present or when they were not constitutive elements of what people understood as female friendship, thus obscuring the specificity of this form of bonding. Therefore, in my discussion of representations of female homosociality in Belle Epoque French literature, I have decided not to adopt the term ‘romantic friendship’, a label that implies far too great a degree of confusion, ambiguity, and self-contradiction.20

The question that needs to be asked is how female friendship and sociability were conceived of and negotiated in the context of nineteenth-century France by women and by society at large. This book, it should be noted, does not aim to fill a historic gap or further our knowledge of homosocial practices through the analysis of non-fiction primary source material, such as letters or diary entries; it does, however, address and explore ‘the troubling silence between the lines’ by considering the discursive treatment of female homosociality in middlebrow fiction, and by comparing these fictional representations to the prescriptive models of female interaction found in didactic or orthodox literature. As the book progressed, the difficulty of defining friendship with pinpoint accuracy and a broader interest in female homosociality as a more complex and varied set of interpersonal interactions has led to a consideration of related themes, such as physical intimacy, mentorship, solidarity, community, camaraderie, or intellectual and sexual rivalry, which in Belle Epoque fiction are all part of the imaginaire littéraire of female homosociality. Friendship thus functions ←9 | 10→as a starting point, but also as a fil rouge connecting one chapter to the next and ensuring the overall coherence of this book, even when the focus shifts from one particular aspect of female homosociality to another.

Each chapter will offer an in-depth exploration of one of the recurrent themes found in Belle Epoque novels dealing with the topic of female homosociality and the ways in which these selected novels support or challenge the general statements about friendship expressed in nineteenth-century French conduct manuals and essays. I hope, thus, to further our understanding of female homosociality as conceived of in nineteenth-century French culture, and to demonstrate that one of the interests of these novels lies precisely in their engagement with and renegotiation of dominant ideals about women and their relationships. Although parallels between orthodox texts and fiction will be drawn throughout the book, the next section will provide a brief overview of the ideas outlined in didactic literature, so as to convey a clearer sense of the prevailing conceptualizations of female friendship in nineteenth-century France, and better to gauge the various innovations made, in relation to these ideas, by the novels under consideration in this study.

The Ideal of Female Friendship in Nineteenth-Century France

The didactic texts analysed for the purpose of this book are written predominantly, but not exclusively, by female authors, perhaps following the nineteenth-century belief that women were in a privileged position to counsel and guide other women, as discussed later in this book.21 Nineteenth-century essays on friendship continued that literary tradition which, in France, originates in Montaigne’s Essays, and were directed at the general public. As for the conduct manuals here examined, they were specifically aimed at a female readership and were designed to ←10 | 11→instruct and encourage girls and young women to adhere to strict social and moral codes of behaviour in line with Bellle Epoque society’s expectations of them.

These texts usually share similar concerns about the requirements and characteristics of friendship, the choice of a friend, and the behaviour a girl or a young woman should adopt in society and in the company of other women. The authors strive to provide an accurate definition of this bond and its principles, describing in detail its qualities and the duties it implies; they usually insist on the rarity of friendship and clearly instruct their readers on how to find a good friend and avoid the false ones. Fictional and actual friendships from the past, such as that between Patroclus and Achilles or Montaigne and La Boétie, are presented as models to imitate. Moreover, a comparison between friendship and love is often made, usually at the expense of the latter. Female friendship, however, does not seem to represent a recurrent object of interest in these texts and, excluding a few exceptions, most of the authors, like their predecessors, remain sceptical about the possibility of its existence. ‘Peu d’amitié entre femmes. D’abord c’est une fiction poétique et rien de plus’ [There is little friendship between women. Firstly because this friendship is a poetic fiction and nothing more], is the curt observation of the anonymous author of Les Usages du monde (1880).22 By contrast, some female authors write in defence of women’s aptitude for friendship, usually in a way that reinforces conservative ideals of femininity. Notably, Mme de Maussion endeavours to make Cicero’s essay on friendship available to female readers and overtly criticizes negative assumptions on the subject of female friendship expressed by previous authors, such as Mme de Lambert, by highlighting the affinity between essential femaleness and the attributes of intimate friendship.23 Borrowing from the classical ideal of friendship, this author presents virtue as the foundation of friendship and describes it as a primary bonding agent for women. The definition of virtue, traditionally understood as a masculine ←11 | 12→affair, is expanded by Maussion to include the set of wifely and maternal duties that women are expected to perform in patriarchal societies, according to their presumed nature. Female friends are consequently required to sustain each other in their quest to become respectable women and to play the role of ‘honour keepers’; friendship is thought of both as a safeguard against improper behaviour and as a means for women to conform to mainstream femininity.

The expectations thus put upon female friends betray a desire to legitimize this relationship by inscribing its ideal within the family, in response to perceived incompatibilities between marriage and friendship and to anxieties around women’s self-disclosure within this bond. If marriage and family life seem to represent the biggest obstacles to female friendship in nineteenth-century France,24 this bond, in turn, is often perceived as a threat to conventional ideas of women and their place in society. Indeed, in some conduct books women are exhorted to be primarily devoted to their roles of mothers and wives and not to place leisure or friendship above those duties: ‘La femme qui cherche son plaisir dans les fréquentations, dans les commérages du voisinage, au lieu de mettre sa maison en ordre et d’y retenir, d’y fixer son mari, manque de cœur, et de bon sens. Elle n’entend ni les intérêts de sa famille, ni ses propres intérêts’ [The woman who seeks pleasure in company, in neighbourhood gossip, instead of putting her house in order and keeping, holding her husband there, lacks heart and common sense. She understands neither her family’s interests nor her own].25 Therefore, relationships between women are strictly policed from a young age and virtually throughout a woman’s life. One of the strategies underpinning this policy, as we have seen in Mme de Maussion’s essay, consists in reinforcing an ideal of friendship that works to support traditional views of femininity. Girls and women are encouraged to cultivate their friendships insofar as these relations allow them to acquire and display distinctly feminine qualities, such as kindness and forbearance. In particular, historians argue that the families strongly supported particular, close, and ←12 | 13→solid friendships between serious girls. From the parents’ point of view, these exclusive relationships based on intimacy, confidence, and affection represented an extension of the mother-daughter relationship, and were privileged against the superficial and potentially dangerous acquaintances made in society. Most of all, they were praised for their formative value. They were understood as essential rites of passage before the discovery of heterosexual love, and as forms of training for future commitments, anticipating the kind of empathy, devotion, and selflessness which girls would be required to manifest later in life, as wives and mothers.26

Additional recommendations meant to regulate female friendship include the exhortation that girls choose their friends from among their family members (i.e. sisters and cousins),27 the identification of suitable topics of conversation,28 the monitoring of girls’ correspondence by their mothers,29 and the possibility, for the husbands, of controlling their wives’ social lives by reading their letters and by deciding whom they should visit or befriend.30

According to Clarisse Juranville (1826–1906), a former teacher who from the 1860s onwards published more than thirty books in the form of ←13 | 14→teaching and conduct manuals, essays, and stories for children,31 and whose ideas are representative of the nineteenth-century French model of female friendship, this relationship implies intimacy, trust, goodwill, loyalty, constancy, and seriousness. In order to be appreciated by her friends, a girl should possess qualities such as goodness, kindness, and generosity, all of which are supposedly feminine characteristics.32 The concept of emulation, one of the most frequently recurring in any discussion of female friendship at the time, is unsurprisingly evoked by this author, who instructs her readers thus: ‘Vous devez être un modèle pour vos amies; mais il faut aussi que vous ayez à gagner en leur société. L’émulation règne entre les amies et elles ne connaissent point la jalousie’ [You have to be a role model for your friends; but you also need to have something to gain from their company. Emulation is the rule among friends and they know no jealousy].33 If female friends are generally expected to act as role models and to encourage each other to conform to prescribed moral and social behaviours, girls are simultaneously told to avoid anyone who could exert a bad influence on them: ‘Vous ne donneriez point votre affection à une jeune fille de mauvais caractère, dissipée, toujours en révolte contre la règle, s’appliquant en quelque sorte à être désagréable à tout le monde’ [You would not give your affection to a young girl of bad and dissipated character, always in revolt against authority, as if endeavouring to be unpleasant to everyone].34 This kind of recommendation reflects the belief that women in general are vulnerable to any kind of influence and can be easily corrupted.35


VIII, 236
ISBN (Softcover)
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