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Amongst Women

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

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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 4 A Woman’s Place in the Nation

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Women held much symbolic capital in France after 1789, representing the nation and its core values, and producing and nurturing its citizens. A woman in a Phrygian cap, the Marianne figure, was, as Maurice Agulhon asserts, ‘une allégorie double, celle de la Liberté, vertu éternelle, et celle de la République française, régime nouvellement constitué’ [a double allegory: that of the eternal virtue of liberty and that of the newly created French Republic].1 Mothers, according to Brigitte Mahuzier, were ‘the equivalent of the ideal patriotic soldier in the Revolutionary army, who gives up his life for the good of the Nation’.2 Women thus had a paradoxical place in, and relationship with, the nation: they gained greater symbolic importance as emissaries of national values, while their social standing became confined to the domestic sphere and their reproductive functions within the model of the Republican mother.

Building on the conflictual relationship between the individual and the nation demonstrated through masculinity in Chapter 3, this current chapter shows how Staël’s and Duras’s female characters attempt to evade the national and gendered representational and structural frameworks that are imposed over them. None of their central female characters (Staël’s eponymous Corinne and Delphine; Duras’s Ourika, Sophie, Nathalie in Édouard and Louise in Olivier) become biological mothers. All are either young widows, widowed early within the narrative or single women beyond the age of majority. Staël’s and Duras’s fictional women transgress, question and attempt to remould...

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