The Hermaphrodite, the Effete and the Butch

Sexual and Gender Ambiguities in Nineteenth-Century French Narratives

by Géraldine Crahay (Author)
©2022 Monographs 348 Pages


Questioning hegemonic masculinity in literature is not novel. In the nineteenth century, under the July Monarchy (1830−1848), several French writers depicted characters who did not conform to gender expectations: hermaphrodites, castrati, homosexuals, effete men and mannish women. This book investigates the historical conditions in which these protagonists were created and their success during the July Monarchy. It analyses novels and novellas by Balzac, Gautier, Latouche, Musset and Sand in order to determine how these literary narratives challenged the traditional representations of masculinity and even redefined genders through their unconventional characters. This book also examines the connections and the disparities between these literary texts and contemporary scientific texts on sexual difference, homosexuality and intersexuality. It thus highlights the July Monarchy as a key period for the redefinition of gender identities.

Table Of Contents


The writing of this book, based on my doctoral thesis, started in Durham and was completed on the Welsh island of Anglesey during the Covid-19 global pandemic. I would like to express my thanks to my PhD supervisors Nicola Frith and Manon Mathias, who have supported this project from the beginning; Christie Margrave, Stacie Allan and Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze for their valuable advice; and Helena Chadderton for her careful proofreading of the manuscript. Finally, I would like to thank James Drysdale for his constant support and his interest in my work over the years.

– Durham, February 2022

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Masculinity and Gender Ambiguities during the July Monarchy (1830‒1848)

In 1821, a young Honoré de Balzac writes a letter to his sister Laure Surville, to whom he is very close, to tell her about a contract signing party. However, the writer soon expresses his melancholy: he is indifferent to the social agitation in his family, he deplores the absence of love in his life, he recalls his father’s coach accident and complains about his struggles to become independent through his work. In brief, he feels unhappy and dissatisfied. He concludes his letter as follows:

À quoi bon la fortune et les jouissances quand ma jeunesse sera passée? Qu’importent les habits d’acteur si l’on ne joue plus de rôle? Le vieillard est un homme qui a dîné et qui regarde les autres manger; et moi, jeune, mon assiette est vide et j’ai faim! Laure, Laure, mes deux seuls et immenses désirs, être célèbre et être aimé, seront-ils jamais satisfaits? …1

What is the point of wealth and pleasures when my youth is over? What is the use of an actor’s clothes if one is no longer playing a role? The old man is a man who has finished his dinner and watches the others eating; as for me, I am still young, but my plate is empty and I am hungry! Laure, Laure, my only two huge desires, to be famous and to be loved, will they ever be satisfied? …

At age 22, Balzac expresses his discontent with his life, which seems to be both empty and slipping through his fingers. This discontent concerning the discrepancy between social expectations and reality to which Balzac refers has, since the nineteenth century, been labelled le mal du siècle.←1 | 2→

About fifteen years later, in a letter to a woman named Louise, Balzac paradoxically attempts to minimize her admiration while aggrandizing himself: ‘Sachez que tout ce que vous présumez chez moi de bon est meilleur encore; […] que ma sensibilité est féminine et que je n’ai de l’homme que l’énergie; […] tout est contraste en moi, parce que tout est contrarié’ [Be aware that everything good that you presume in me is even better; […] that my sensitivity is feminine and that I only have the energy of man; […] everything is contrast in me because everything is thwarted].2 Balzac’s letter shows that he conceives of gender roles in opposition: feminine sensitivity versus masculine energy. However, the barrier between masculine and feminine identities does not seem to be insurmountable. Indeed, Balzac himself transcends this dichotomy, as his male identity is made up of feminine features. In highlighting his hybrid nature, he emphasizes his own alleged singularity.

Balzac’s letters illustrate the fact that French society in the first half of the nineteenth century believed in a strict separation of gender roles. France in the 1830s and 1840s was indeed shaped by a resolutely virile model of masculinity encompassing values such as strength, bravery and honour. However, at the same time, there was awareness that a binary system of sexes and genders was not fully adequate to depict society. Like Balzac’s letters, literary narratives of this period were populated with androgynous characters: epicene men, eunuchs, hermaphrodites and mannish women. Protagonists were often portrayed as suffering from the so-called mal du siècle. This expression designates young men’s anxiety regarding the upheavals caused by the French Revolution, followed by the fall of the Empire, and, accordingly, their own loss of position in French society. While this representation of male youth in the early nineteenth century was largely ideological and therefore phantasmatic, it was nevertheless grounded in a genuine social inertia. Although Margaret Waller and Chantal Bertrand-Jennings have identified a concomitant female mal du siècle, this ‘disease’ was seen as affecting mainly men, and particularly young men from the middle and upper classes.3 In Balzac et le mal du siècle [Balzac and the ←2 | 3→Disease of the Century], Pierre Barbéris highlights the paradox that characterizes the early nineteenth century:

avec la Révolution, s’était opérée une brusque accélération, avec une double conséquence: d’une part, s’étaient ouvertes d’extraordinaires possibilités d’emploi de soi. D’autre part, les barrières, un moment levées, s’étaient refermées. Tout était apparu possible, et tout était à nouveau mis en question.4

[With the Revolution, a hasty acceleration had taken place which had a double consequence: on the one hand, extraordinary opportunities of employment were made available. On the other hand, the barriers, opened for a moment, had once again been closed. Everything had seemed possible and everything was once again brought into question.]

An emblematic literary text which discusses this indeterminate social phenomenon (although it is never called le mal du siècle) is the second chapter of Alfred de Musset’s novel La Confession d’un enfant du siècle [The Confession of a Child of the Century], published separately in La Revue des Deux Mondes [The Journal of the Two Worlds] on 15 September 1835. In this chapter, Musset generalizes the ontological unease of young men of his generation, who see themselves as the main actors of History whilst being excluded from it.5 The narrator, Octave, calls it a ‘maladie morale abominable’ [abominable moral disease], talks of a ‘sentiment de malaise inexprimable’ [indescribable feeling of malaise] and the ‘maladie du siècle’ [disease of the century].6 According to Octave, this malaise stemmed from nostalgia for the grandeur attributed to Napoleonic times and the lack of opportunity to gain glory in post-imperial society. Living ←3 | 4→in an era of uncertainty and nihilism, young men resigned themselves to a mediocre existence in a tedious, idle and lustful society. Importantly, many of Musset’s contemporaries shared his gloomy reading of la Monarchie de Juillet [the July Monarchy; 1830−48] and men’s role within French society in the light of a glorious past.

Focusing on this period of French history, the premises of this book are (1) that the sexual and gender yoke imposed on unconventional individuals such as individuals with intersex traits (or hermaphrodites, as they were called at the time), male homosexuals and masculine women also affected men who attempted to conform to traditional masculinity and (2) that the malaise generated by these sexual and gender constraints was at once illustrated, denounced and arguably remedied in the contemporaneous literature. Its aim, accordingly, is to investigate the complex relations between traditional definitions of sexual and gender roles and identities, especially those of men, as well as ambiguous genders and ‘deviant’ masculinities in the July Monarchy. This study focuses on the definition, depiction and critique of hermaphroditism, male effeminacy, homosexuality and female masculinity in medical, scientific and literary texts. I distance myself from other readings of this period, which claim that fictional works of the July Monarchy simply mirrored the contemporary masculine malaise in deploring the inability of young men to conform to an ideal model of masculinity.7 Rather, I argue that literary narratives challenged traditional concepts of masculinity by suggesting alternative models arising from the very flaws that were supposed to characterize a masculine malaise. The hermaphrodite, the effete and the butch of the title play a central role in literary narratives and in scientific texts of the July Monarchy, I argue, because they reflect the destabilization of gender and sexual categories during this period. In spite of, or even thanks to, their ‘abnormality’ they in fact contributed to redefining masculine values.←4 | 5→

Masculinities Studies and the ‘Crisis’ of Masculinity

Masculinity constitutes a relatively recent object of academic studies in comparison with women’s studies.8 As a branch of gender studies, masculinities studies were developed in reaction to the former, not in opposition to feminist principles, but rather as their extension.9 If women’s role in society and history needed to be reassessed in the light of feminist theories, men’s role should meet a similar fate. Indeed, masculinity used to be conceived of as an ‘empty’, ‘invisible’, ‘neutral’ or ‘abstract’ category, as opposed to femininity.10 In other words, it was deemed to represent the human norm and was therefore considered to be self-explanatory. The predominance of masculinity and maleness as the norms is illustrated, ←5 | 6→for example, in Thomas Laqueur’s study of sixteenth-century anatomical books. The historian shows that a male body was more frequently depicted on the cover of these books than a female one and, more importantly, that women’s organs (including genitalia) looked almost identical to male ones.11

Stephen Whitehead and Frank Barrett have cautiously defined masculinities – the use of the plural helps indicate the complexity of the concept – as ‘those behaviours, languages and practices, existing in specific cultural and organizational locations, which are commonly associated with males and thus culturally defined as not feminine’.12 Several ideas are contained in this definition. Firstly, masculinity is a cultural and social concept, not a biological one, and it is therefore variable. Secondly, despite being cultural, masculinity is generally linked to biological data, as it is associated with male individuals. Finally, it is defined in opposition to another concept: femininity, which is traditionally linked to female individuals. Masculinity is therefore perceived as the characteristic, the prerogative and even the duty of men, whereas women are and must be feminine.

The French equivalent term to masculinity, masculinité, is ambivalent because the semantic difference between masculinité and virilité (the latter derives from vir ‘man’, as opposed to both mulier ‘woman’ and puer ‘child’)13 is far from simple. On the one hand, Alain Corbin and, to a lesser extent, Daniel Maira and Jean-Marie Roulin, consider that masculinité designates the biological characteristic of being a man – maleness in English – whereas virilité refers to the characteristics that are culturally associated with the male sex.14 On the other hand, in ‘Sois un homme!’: La construction de la masculinité au xixe siècle [‘Be A Man!’: The Construction of Masculinity in ←6 | 7→the Nineteenth Century] (2009), Anne-Marie Sohn points out the rarity of the concept of masculinité in the nineteenth century and considers virilité exclusively from a biological perspective.15 However, a glance through French dictionaries of the nineteenth century reveals the interpenetration of the two concepts. The definitions of masculin and viril (the derivative substantives were not frequently used) in the sixth edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française [Dictionary of the French Academy] (1835) and Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la langue française [Dictionary of the French Language] (1873‒77) do not clearly distinguish between biological and cultural connotations.16 While primarily referring to the biological sex and to manhood, the adjectives also encompass physical and moral attributes that supposedly derive from the male attributes of an individual, such as strength, vigour, sexual potency and courage. To put it simply, maleness and manliness were so deeply intertwined in the nineteenth century – and still are nowadays ‒ that questioning the latter would equate to questioning the former. Accordingly, one of the aims of this study is to understand what linked these two concepts in the July Monarchy, as well as the reasons for such a strong connection and the consequences of questioning them in literary texts.

A predominant component of masculinity was men’s ‘natural’ superiority to women, because activity, culture and reason, the values associated with the former, were ascribed greater importance than so-called feminine values: passivity, nature and emotion.17 Accordingly, men were encouraged to exercise their authority over women. This model of hegemonic ←7 | 8→masculinity, as R. W. Connell calls it,18 has been characterized by its historical permanence and by the simplicity of its script.19 This expected pattern of behaviour is summarized by David Gilmore as: ‘impregnate women, protect dependents from danger, and provision [sic] kith and kin’.20 Men’s ‘natural’ supremacy was reinforced by laws such as the Napoleonic Code in nineteenth-century France. In ‘Fonction paternelle et Code Napoléon’ [Paternal Function and Napoleonic Code], Xavier Martin shows that, by punishing the petty infractions with which the government could not deal, paternal power complemented the legal and penal systems in post-revolutionary times.21 As Maleville, one of the writers of the Civil Code, claims: ‘La puissance paternelle est la providence des familles, comme le gouvernement est la providence de la société’ [Paternal authority is families’ Providence, just as the Government is society’s Providence].22


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (May)
July Monarchy gender and sexual ambiguities hermaphrodites in science and literature The Hermaphrodite, the Effete and the Butch Géraldine Crahay
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. X, 348 pp., 2 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Géraldine Crahay (Author)

Géraldine Crahay is Lecturer in French at Durham University as well as a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Her research interests include nineteenth-century French narratives, gender studies, literature and creative writing in language teaching as well as relationships between language and dance.


Title: The Hermaphrodite, the Effete and the Butch