Against the Grain

The Poetics of Non-Normative Masculinity in Decadent French Literature

by Mathew Rickard (Author)
©2021 Monographs XII, 260 Pages


Is it really a man’s world? At a time when masculinity is being challenged, this book explores the links between reading and writing and how they have historically been associated with masculine privilege. This book focuses on the representation of masculinity as a literary concept in Decadent literature by Huysmans, Lorrain, Rachilde, and Mirbeau to demonstrate how the movement both appropriated and subverted patriarchal assumptions surrounding reading and writing. The author takes a broad approach towards masculinity and its discontents by uncovering unlikely pretenders to the throne – witches, dandies, and cuckolds – destabilising its validity. By positioning the study against the backdrop of the fi n-de-siècle «crisis» of masculinity, the book undermines previously held assertions about the nature of masculinity then and now, opening up fresh ground for the appraisal and analysis of gender in French studies and beyond.
This book was 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: Against the Grain
  • Chapter 1 ‘Idées Masculines’: The Intertextual Poetics of Masculinity in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebours (1884)
  • Chapter 2 ‘Vers le sabbat’: Occult Initiation and Non-Normative Masculinity in Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas (1901)
  • Chapter 3 Who’s on Top?: Dequeering and Requeering Rachilde
  • Chapter 4 The (Im)potency of the Pen(is): Mirbeau’s Masculine Author(ity) in Le Calvaire (1886)
  • Conclusion: Decadent Masculinities
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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This book began its life as a PhD thesis, and while the undertaking of doctoral research can often be a lonely and isolating experience, it is important to remember that no piece of writing comes to fruition in isolation, and that no man is truly an island. It therefore remains for me to thank the many, many people who have supported, encouraged, and cheered me on since I began writing.

First of all, I would not have come to this point in my academic career without the sustained encouragement and advice from my primary supervisor Dr Steven Wilson from BA to MA and throughout the PhD. Thank you for going above and beyond the call of duty to read my many (many!) drafts over the years, and your insightful and unique comments that often forced me to rethink how I perceived the world. Similarly, I owe a great debt to my secondary supervisor Dr Claire Moran, who often provided a necessary counterpoint to Steven’s advice and helped to keep myself and my work grounded in academic rigour. Again, I am eternally grateful for your comments and feedback on what often seemed to be endless drafts of the thesis that gave birth to this book. I am happy to consider you both as mentors, colleagues, and importantly, friends as I close this chapter of my academic career, hopefully to begin a new one.

Of course, I would not have reached this stage without the exceptional education in modern languages and literary studies that I received both at St Louis Grammar School in Kilkeel and Queen’s University Belfast. As such, I would like to thank all the French, Spanish, Irish, and English teachers who have had an influence on me to date; you all set an excellent example for me to follow and for that I am grateful. I am particularly grateful to the staff members at QUB who scrutinised my work throughout my PhD: Professor Mícheál Ó Mainnín, Dr Geraldine Lawless, Dr Caroline Sumpter, Dr Dominique Jeannerod, and Dr Ricki O’Rawe. I owe thanks particularly to Professor Margaret Topping, Dr Bradley Stephens (University of Bristol), ←ix | x→and Dr Maeve McCusker for guiding me through an enjoyable and rigorous viva voce.

I was also lucky during my PhD to become an active member of several academic societies, through which I have met colleagues who in addition to enriching my own research, have become, I hope, lifelong friends. I would therefore like to extend my gratitude to the Society for French Studies, the Society of Dix-Neuviémistes, and the British Association of Decadence Studies as well as to their many members for the opportunities, advice, and friendship I have had the pleasure of receiving. A particular thanks to Professor Jane Desmarais (Chair of BADS) and Professor Nigel Harkness (former President of SDN and Honorary Member) for taking the time to read the manuscript of this book and for providing such glowing endorsements. I am also grateful for the journals of SDN and BADS – Dix-Neuf and Volupté – for publishing my first articles, and subsequently for their permission to reproduce the material in this tome. Portions of Chapter 3 were previously published as ‘Vers le sabbat: Occult Initiation and Non-Normative Masculinity in Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas (1901)’ in Volupté: Interdisciplinary Journal of Decadence Studies, 1.2 (2018), 1–16, while portions of Chapter 4 were previously published as ‘«Ça n’empêche pas d’être un homme»: Requeering Masculinity in Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus (1884)’ in Dix-Neuf: Journal of the Society of Dix-Neuviémistes, 24.4 (2020), 1–15. It also goes without saying of course that this book wouldn’t have come into existence without the support I received from the editorial board of Peter Lang after having submitted a proposal for their 2019 Young Scholars Competition in French. A particular thanks to Dr Laurel Plapp, who was on hand for all my queries as Senior Commissioning Editor, the anonymous peer reviewer(s), as well as Dr Valentina Gosetti and Professor Patrick McGuinness for believing in my work and accepting it in their series, Romanticism and after in France.

I have said that undertaking doctoral research is often considered to be a lonely and isolating experience, but I was lucky to have a strong and steadfast group of friends throughout the process, without whom I would not have reached this point. My eternal thanks to Sarah McDonagh, Daniel Magennis, Wanees Kaseh, Catherine Coffey, Thomas Murray, Merryn Davies-Deacon, and Mike McKenna, who have stood beside me and were ←x | xi→always available for advice and a drink. I could name numerous others here – which is testament to the atmosphere of friendship and comradery at QUB. Thank you to all colleagues who have shared office buildings, friendship, and discussions in numbers 5 and 6 on University Square. You have left an indelible mark on my memory. A particular mention must go to Lauren Quigley, who has walked this path with me from BA to MA and on to PhD, as well as Claire Whyte, who accompanied me from MA to PhD. We have walked this journey together and in addition to becoming colleagues, I am confident that we have built lifelong friendships.

Of course, in addition to professional and educational support, I have been overwhelmingly lucky to have been supported from the very beginning by my wonderful family. A particular word of thanks to my parents Teresa and Maurice, who have always pushed me to do my best no matter what, and to always work to fulfil my potential. I would particularly like to dedicate this book to the memory of my grandparents Sadie and Pat, who sadly did not live long enough to see me begin a PhD, let alone complete one. My grandmother taught me my first words in French while my grandfather was a constant supporter and rock. This is for you. Finally, I wish to thank my dog Toby, who sat beside me throughout my many hours of researching, writing, and editing this book, and always reminded me to take regular breaks so I could give him attention. I apologise if I have left anybody out that I need to thank – the list is endless but know that if you have helped me in any shape or form over the past three years, then my gratitude knows no bounds.

←xii | 1→


Against the Grain

Fin de siècle, fin de sexe

– Jean Lorrain1

Writing and reading have historically been considered as inherently masculine due to their assertive and active nature, functioning as an exertion of masculine influence. Whereas Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have rightly asserted that ‘writing, reading, and thinking are not only alien but also inimical to “female” characteristics’ in the nineteenth-century imagination,2 this gender-essentialist analysis of literature has recently been challenged with respect to the cultural changes of fin-de-siècle France. For example, François Proulx comments on the social anxiety concerning men’s reading at the fin de siècle,3 while Kathryn Brown argues that the proliferation of the liseuse genre in paintings from the Third Republic reconceptualises our ideas of reading and literacy in the nineteenth century.4 The connections between reading and writing, and their undeniable influence on men, is extensively ←1 | 2→explored in Huysmans’s À Rebours through which the protagonist celebrates not only the non-normative themes of authors he admires, but also their overtly masculine writing style. Huysmans (through his protagonist, Des Esseintes) refers to being attracted to a woman for her idées masculines – masculine idea(l)s that she is ultimately unable to enact, thereby reinforcing the links between traditional masculinity and literary creation ironically through the lens of non-normative masculinity.5 Such a framework epitomises Jean-Jacques Courtine’s suggestion that ‘[la] domination masculine ne relève d’aucun état de nature, mais qu’elle est profondément inscrite dans celui de la culture, du langage et des images, des comportements que ceux-ci inspirent et ordonnent.’6 The misogynistic connections between intellect and masculinity were appropriated and subverted by Decadent authors in their desire to discuss taboo topics freely yet clandestinely.7 Taking À Rebours as its starting point due to its undeniable and perhaps axiomatic position as the quintessential Decadent text,8 this book explores the interconnections between intertextuality, reading, and writing in the works of Lorrain (Monsieur de Phocas), Rachilde (Monsieur Vénus and La ←2 | 3→Tour d’amour), and Mirbeau (Le Calvaire). The overarching argument is that while these authors present different, non-normative moulds of masculinity within their texts, the deliberate interaction of their protagonists with acts of reading and writing offers a system of representation, in which the narrative act – both ‘active’ writing and ‘passive’ reading – ultimately breaks with gender-essentialist notions of literature and constitutes a construction of both gender identity and literary identity via the transmission of ideas. By positioning the study against the backdrop of the fin-de-siècle ‘crisis’ of masculinity, the book challenges previously held assertions about the nature of masculinity at the time, opening up fresh ground for the appraisal and analysis of gender in nineteenth-century French studies, as well as adding to the debate of the established notions around the connections between masculinity and literary representation.

This book focuses on the Decadent movement of the fin de siècle, the innovative aesthetics of which challenged the dominant social and cultural forces of the time. My interest lies in the way Decadent aesthetics intersect with gender and sexuality, and specifically masculinity, and the implications these aesthetic responses have for the narrative representation of non-normative masculinity. The following research questions guide the development of the book: how is masculinity accommodated in Decadent aesthetics? How did Decadent writers capture non-normative masculinity? What are the links between Decadent thinking on masculinity and conceptions of narrative creation and representation? In order to frame these questions in their cultural, social, and literary contexts, the book opens, in this Introduction, by considering the gradual (perceived) decline of French masculinity, pointing to the fin de siècle not only as a culmination of anxiety but also as a key period for the production of literature which highlighted and celebrated non-normative moulds of masculinity. This Introduction sets out the historical, economic, social, political, and cultural context for the literary analyses to follow, such as the emancipation of women and the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, while it also engages with Foucault’s assertion that this period was marked by the ‘discovery’ of the homosexual as a ‘species’. It reviews extant scholarship not only of masculinity in the nineteenth century, but of Decadence Studies ←3 | 4→more specifically. This sheds light on the critical lacuna which this project aims to begin to occupy and highlights its originality and contribution to knowledge within the field. Taking into account late nineteenth-century French cultural attitudes to gender and sexuality, the introduction asks, in short, what it meant to be a man during the profound social changes of the fin de siècle.

The Interplay of Decadence and Gender

The corpus of literature on which I have chosen to focus is taken from the fin-de-siècle Decadent movement, due to the challenges that works from this field presented to the dominant social and cultural forces through innovative aesthetics. Arthur Symons noted that Decadence, although notoriously difficult to define, can be recognised by its ‘intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an oversubtilizing refinement upon refinement [and] a spiritual and moral perversity’.9 Such an introverted and critical gaze provided a lush milieu in which explorations of the weird and wonderful ‘perversions’ of the nineteenth century could take place. As such, its embracing of the artificial, the perverse, and the grotesque marks an aesthetic individualism that becomes what Matei Călinescu refers to as ‘the rejection of the tyranny of tradition’, not only artistically at the level of representation, but also socially at the level of theme and content.10 Decadence therefore marks a flouting of both textual and sexual norms, which are explored through my concept of idées masculines (elaborated upon in Chapter 1). This book argues that Decadent privileging of the grotesque and individualism against the establishment both subverts and redefines masculinity in a textual and consequentially societal manner. The Decadents were painfully aware of ←4 | 5→the artificial nature of language: as Dorothy Kelly suggests, their ‘dissatisfaction with existence’ stemmed from ‘a new understanding of language’, whereby the ambiguous and often nebulous nature of language informed their ‘cult of artifice’.11 Symons notes that Stéphane Mallarmé’s writing was ‘delicately artificial’ yet allowed for the ‘exact noting of sensation’.12 It is precisely this awareness of linguistic artifice that provides a locus for gender interrogation by way of linguistic interrogation. The connections between gender and language are rendered visible in the highly gendered structure of French grammar, which inevitably comes to bear in its literature and culture. This bipartite recognition, and subsequent subversion of linguistic and gender norms, is highlighted and even exploited in Decadence, as shall be seen, for example, in Rachilde’s ludic use of language in Monsieur Vénus and La Tour d’amour. This linguistic self-awareness has deeper implications as it highlights the artificial nature of literature itself, thus underscoring the Decadent love of artifice. This book argues that this crossroads between aesthetics and societal progress provides a fertile breeding ground for the development of what I analyse as a poetics of non-normative masculinity.13


XII, 260
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (September)
French Decadent Literature masculinities queer studies Mathew Rickard Against the Grain
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XII, 260 pp.

Biographical notes

Mathew Rickard (Author)

Mathew Rickard studied French and Spanish literature and culture at Queen’s University Belfast, where he recently earned his PhD in French studies. He is currently maître de langue at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne’s antenna campus in Beauvais, France. He has presented and published his work in English and French in the UK, Ireland, and mainland Europe. His broader research interests include book culture, intertextuality, transgression and gender studies, with a particular focus on masculinities and queer theory.


Title: Against the Grain
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274 pages