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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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Whilst existing scholarship overlooks the intertextual relationship between Staël and Duras, contemporaries and biographers alike did not fail to see some connections: their apparent superiority over other women of their period, their supposed physical resemblance, their common melancholia and their similar intellectual and political heritages passed on from their fathers. Sainte-Beuve depicts an exterior likeness and a convergence of interior sentiments:

Il est impossible de ne pas trouver entre ces deux femmes […] une grande ressemblance de physionomie […] l’âme ardente, la faculté d’indignation généreuse et de dévouement, l’énergie de sentir, voilà surtout ce qu’elles avaient de commun, et ce par quoi l’auteur d’Édouard était sœur au fond, sœur germaine de l’auteur de Delphine.1

[It is impossible not to find between these two women a great resemblance in their physiognomy. A passionate soul, the capacity for generous indignation and devotion, the energy to feel: that is what they have in common, and that is why the author of Édouard was the sister at heart, the sœur germaine (full sister) of the author of Delphine.]

Staël’s descendant the Comte d’Haussonville identifies similar dispositions and paternal loyalties: ‘Mme de Duras était, en effet, une mélancolique, comme l’était au fond Mme de Staël. Comme elle, jamais elle ne renia les opinions de son père’ [Mme de Duras was, indeed, a melancholic, like Mme de Staël was deep down. Like her, she...

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