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Amongst Women

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


Giada Alessandroni

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.

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Chapter 1 Between Self and Other: The roman personnel


The sentimental novel’s capacity to create emotional connections between subject and readership, and its transformative potential for readers has long been recognized. In 1762, Denis Diderot exclaimed in an essay on the English novelist Richardson: ‘o Richardson! on prend […] un rôle dans tes ouvrages, on se mêle à la conversation, on approuve, on blâme, on admire, on s’irrite, on s’indigne’ [oh Richardson! One plays a role in your works, is involved in the conversation, approves, criticizes, admires, gets annoyed, becomes angry].1 Readers emotionally engaged with texts and passed a personal judgment on their plots. To achieve this effect, sentimental novels were written and presented in a way that reduced the distance between characters and readers and produced a more reciprocal relationship between authors and readers. The form broke down barriers between fiction and reality, between the self (the reader) and the other (the characters and/or the author).

Most modern research in this area has focused on the eighteenth century, such as Robert Darnton’s study of the responses of Rousseau’s readers and Lynn Hunt’s argument that sentimental novels made their readership more receptive to the French Revolution’s promise of universal rights.2 ←31 | 32→Shifting the focus to the nineteenth century and the roman personnel, a subsection of the sentimental novel, this chapter examines the unexplored area of selfhood within these discussions. Tracking the formulation of subjectivity in romans personnels reveals a divergence with the novels produced prior to 1789 in its insertion of an additional layer...

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