Other Enlightenment : How French Women Became Modern (01 Edition)
by Carla Hesse
Cherchez la Femme
A review by David A. Bell
Looming high above the rooftops of the Left Bank sits a lugubrious monument of the French Republic: the Pantheon, final resting place of the "great men of the patrie." Its oppressively severe classicism, an exaggerated evocation of republican Rome, betrays the anxieties of its eighteenth-century architects, and recalls Heine's line about the impossibility of introducing republican severity into a city of one hundred fifty thousand stylists, perfumers, and hairdressers. Downstairs, the claustrophobic crypt houses a very peculiar selection of illustrious French corpses. The Pantheon has admitted no kings and few generals, but many engagé intellectuals and intellectual politicians, in a very French marriage of politics and higher learning.
For more than two hundred years after the monument's opening in 1791, its roster of national heroes had one further peculiarity: it included not a single woman. Only in 1995 did Marie Curie finally take up belated residence in one of its somber mausoleums. And when she did, it was in the company of her husband Pierre.
At first glance, this exclusion of women would seem to confirm a story about the French past that feminist historians have been developing for some time now. As they tell it, the eighteenth century's new birth of freedom for men entailed nothing less than a new birth of servitude for women. Before the Revolution of 1789, women had exercised a surprising degree of influence in French public life, as courtiers, aristocratic patrons, or hostesses of intellectual salons. Yet the Revolution brought this influence to an end, and prescribed new and far more rigid gender distinctions.
If, after the Revolution, all men could vote and speak freely and stand for office, women were confined to the household, to serve as helpmeets and mothers, unable even to publish a line without the explicit consent of their husbands. And this "separation of spheres" did not crumble away until the belated extension of the suffrage to women in 1946, and the establishment of legal equality within marriage in 1965. Until then, women unwilling to accept their prescribed fate could do little more than wrestle with the paradoxes of a politics that both offered and denied them the "rights of man," as Joan Scott argued in 1996 in Only Paradoxes to Offer.
It is a gloomy story, and one that not all feminists and historians entirely accepted. But it had a great influence, in large part because no scholar stepped forward to offer a persuasive alternate story of French women's journey into modernity. Carla Hesse has now done this, in her short, suggestive, and brilliant book. She offers a story that does not ignore the evidence of the Pantheon, but seeks instead to put it into a different, more complex, and more interesting perspective.
Hesse, who trained as a historian of the book and who edits Representations, the flagship journal of the "New Historicism," has a keen sense for how cultural hierarchies work. She has argued in other writings that modern interpretations of the Enlightenment unjustly prefer certain genres over others: Rousseau's formal treatises over his more widely read sentimental novel, for example. In her new book Hesse develops a similar idea with reference to French women.
If we are to find what Hesse calls an "arena for female self-constitution" in modern France, a place where women carved out a space of autonomy, it could not have been within the supposedly "higher" realms of politics and higher learning, in which their subordination was clearly prescribed. The realm in which women achieved autonomy, Hesse contends, was the realm of literature. It was less valued by the male mandarins of the Pantheon (and the nearby École Normale), and consequently more open to women's participation. The central chapters of Hesse's book illustrate how women of the revolutionary era not only found an outlet for their ambitions in the writing of novels, but also used their novels to criticize, if sometimes obliquely, the cultural order that the Revolution brought into being. Hesse briefly traces out a female canon of authors who continued this tradition, from Germaine de Staël through George Sand and Colette to Simone de Beauvoir.
This bold and imaginative interpretation unfortunately gets off to a shaky start, in an introductory chapter given to overreaching generalizations. In Old Regime France, Hesse asserts, it was women who defined the extremes of unacceptable forms of speech: on the one hand the vulgar slang of Paris fishwives, on the other hand the pretentious patter of aristocratic précieuses. Yet much evidence suggests that the fishwives and the précieuses figured among a great many groups who all symbolized uncouth language in their ways, including patois-speaking peasants, pedantic bourgeois, pettifogging lawyers, and urban artisans.
"Female eloquence," Hesse also argues, "became a central and dangerous element in revolutionary politics." Yet by any measure the revolutionary authorities paid less attention to women's speech than to the grain supply, diplomacy, educational reform, the counter-revolution, or any of a dozen other pressing issues. Most ambitiously, Hesse claims that the French Revolution saw "a shift from a regime of rhetoric to a regime of philosophy," in which "script eclipsed oral performance as the basis of cultural as well as political legitimacy." It is hard to know how she might prove such a statement, which ignores the centrality of written law to the early modern French monarchy as well as the continuing significance of rhetoric in French political culture during the Revolution and long afterward. Does such a complex thing as a culture really "shift" in such sweeping and simple ways?
Luckily, the rest of Hesse's book resists such unsubstantiated claims. One crucial chapter even does something that has become sadly unfashionable in cultural history of late: it quantifies, in the classic manner of the Annales school. Hesse here makes the obvious point (obvious once she has stated it, that is) that if a rigid sexual "separation of spheres" had indeed taken place in revolutionary France, one would expect to find the number of female authors declining during the period. Instead, after an exhaustive combing of bibliographies and card catalogues, she produces the following eloquent figures as to the number of French women in print:
That last hard-won number goes a long way toward exploding the story of a new birth of servitude.
True, in the absence of comparable figures for male writers in the 1790s, Hesse cannot say for sure that the proportion of women writers increased, although it most likely did. And since this proportion almost certainly remained under four percent, many men may still have regarded women writers as little more than unthreatening curiosities. But the basic point is made. Far from driving women out of public life, the Revolution brought them into it.
This entry into print was also, Hesse emphasizes, an entry into a new and anarchic literary marketplace. The Revolution destroyed the cultural order of the Old Regime, in which a leaden system of pre-publication censorship and official permissions stifled literary inventiveness, leaving much of the Enlightenment to be published in the shadows and sold "under the cloak." In its place, initially, came chaos, with copyright law in flux, piracy rampant, and readers abandoning books for the periodical press to keep abreast of the political whirlwind. Old-line publishing houses went under (as Hesse herself showed in an earlier book), and new ones increasingly followed a strategy familiar to modern observers of the industry: diving deep in search of the lowest common denominator.
By the late 1790s, France was awash in sensational Gothic novels and romances, often purportedly translated from English: Miss Belhowe and Lord Clarendon, or the Trials of Love and Virtue; The Enchanted Knots; The Black Castle, or the Sufferings of the Young Ophelle; An Uncovered Pot With Nothing In It, or the Mysteries Underneath the Street of the Moon; and so forth. These works were not only written in large part for women; they were also increasingly written by women. In France, women's writing marched hand in hand with print capitalism, even if the law still gave virtually complete control over married women's writings to their husbands (an arrangement actively reinforced by the French state as late as 1957).
This commercial success by no means endeared women to an emerging cadre of intellectuals and legislators, who loathed the literary chaos unleashed by the Revolution almost as much as they feared the political chaos. In its place, they longed to implement a new literary order: a rational, sober, enlightened, republican dispensation that would have no place for enchanted knots, black castles, or Miss Belhowe. These men mostly believed in the separation of spheres, and frowned upon women who "unnaturally" sought to publish romantic fiction instead of staying home as good republican housewives. After the end of the Terror in 1794 they founded new institutions, open only to men, to embody their ideals: a National Institute to serve as a sort of national cultural directorate, and a system of grandes écoles to train a new (male) elite. They also sought to develop new philosophical and ethical systems to undergird their creations.
To one sharp-minded observer, all these efforts amounted to nothing but an overwrought exercise in déjà vu. "The philosophical clergy," she wrote scornfully, "is as much a clergy as any other, and it was not worth the trouble to drive the curé from Saint-Sulpice in order to ordain the priests of the Pantheon." Her name was Isabelle de Charrière, and she was an assiduous reader of philosophy, a novelist, and the lover of Benjamin Constant. On the surface, her novel Three Women, written in 1795, fit easily into the fashion for melodramatic romances. Its heroines were a maidservant facing ruin after becoming pregnant, a noble orphan plotting to elope with a dashing aristocrat from far above her own social station, and a wealthy widow raising orphaned twins. But Charrière's treatment of these women, Hesse argues, was anything but conventional. The protagonists, each faced with ethical dilemmas, refused to invoke an absolute, general moral law, for the legal restraints upon them as women supposedly denied them the status of autonomous moral actors. Instead they followed what Hesse terms an "outlaw ethics," pragmatic and skeptical, holding their own interests above socially prescribed rules. Not surprisingly, male critics railed against the novel's "immorality."
Hesse explains that Charrière intended Three Women as a critique of Kant's influential ethical treatise On the Proverb, which the new cultural establishment had seized upon as a philosophical foundation stone for their new order. Her reading explicates the philosophical background with impressive economy, but more importantly it casts Charrière as the exemplar of those women writers who turned from philosophy and politics to fiction in the revolutionary era. "Modern women writers, [Hesse] suggests, have faced a danger unknown to their male counterparts: that their public personae will be interpreted as simple reflections of their inner female selves, and therefore dismissed as unworthy of consideration because of women's supposedly inferior moral and intellectual capacities."
Novels, Hesse argues, are not simply a fallback for women excluded from formal philosophical training and formal involvement in political life. The form itself, with its highlighting of contingency, moral ambiguity, and the constant making and remaking of character and personality, perfectly suited women wrestling with manifold restraints upon their own personal autonomy. "This formal indeterminacy of the novel," she observes, "made it possible for women to constitute moral identities that were in some fundamental sense always unfinished and always open to the possibility of radical change." Germaine de Staël, the great novelist and critic (and another lover of Benjamin Constant), recognized this point when she wrote that "literature, properly speaking, becomes women's domain, and men consecrate themselves uniquely to higher philosophy."
The second half of Hesse's book consists of readings in what amounts to an alternate literary canon. Besides Charrière, Hesse considers Louise de Kéralio, who published radical journalism and histories during the Revolution, but later turned to novel writing; the prolific Mme de Genlis; and especially de Staël. And in connection with these last two Hesse develops her most intriguing theme, that of the "doubled self." Modern women writers, she suggests, have faced a danger unknown to their male counterparts: that their public personae will be interpreted as simple reflections of their inner female selves, and therefore dismissed as unworthy of consideration because of women's supposedly inferior moral and intellectual capacities.
In response to this predicament, Hesse argues, writers such as Genlis and de Staël sought in their work to emphasize the gap between inner selves and outer selves, to defend the opacity rather than the transparency of language, and to distinguish women's writing from men's as more naturally restrained, delicate, and veiled. Once again, it was fiction, above all other forms of writing, that gave women a refuge, and a medium suited to their message. De Staël warned of the dangers of female self-revelation in her novel Delphine, and herself became the thinly disguised protagonist of a novel titled The Woman Author, which depicted a woman wooing, under an assumed name, a general modeled on Napoleon.
Hesse limits her sustained analysis to the revolutionary era, but in a last, brief, tour de force of a chapter she extends her story an additional century and a half, touching suggestively on the careers of George Sand and Colette and ending with Simone de Beauvoir. In The Second Sex, Hesse notes, de Beauvoir constructed her own canon of French female writers — first and foremost de Staël and Colette — whose works she drew on in developing her diagnosis of women's condition. In her central section on the possibility of women's emancipation, nearly every citation came from French women's fiction. De Beauvoir thereby highlighted an alternate, dissident, female Enlightenment, constructed out of very different prose materials from its male counterpart. But by the very act of writing The Second Sex, after having herself initially ventured into public life as a novelist, de Beauvoir reversed the journey taken by Louise de Kéralio one hundred fifty years before, and reclaimed the domain of philosophy and politics for women's voices. She thereby helped to bring the "other Enlightenment" to a symbolic end, and opened the way to contemporary feminism.
All this is a powerfully crafted historical vision, presented by Hesse in lucid and engaging prose. In stressing women's success in the literary marketplace, and the new opportunities that opened up there after 1789, Hesse dispels the idea that the French Revolution was an unmitigated disaster for women. In her emphasis on women writers' subsequent search for moral autonomy, she gives depth and nuance to a history that had previously focused too sharply on the quest for the vote. And by emphasizing the success of writers such as Charrière, Sand, and Beauvoir, she shows that it was possible for women to step outside the deep and gloomy shadows of the Pantheon.
Yet this frustratingly brief book also leaves important questions hanging. In an appendix Hesse provides a comprehensive bibliography of French women's writing for the years between 1789 and 1800, but she does not subject it to a thorough analysis, or ask whether the period's less well-known women writers engaged in the same sort of criticism that she finds in Charrière, Genlis, and de Staël. Hesse's treatment of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, meanwhile, is so brief that it unintendedly places George Sand and Colette in a subordinate position to their female predecessors, as if these two much greater novelists were producing only variations (if sublime ones) on established themes.
Most significantly, Hesse gives very little sense of how readers other than de Beauvoir actually read, understood, and reacted to this al Staë alternate canon of writers. A few scattered quotations, some buried in the footnotes, hint that the books in question stirred controversy and drew predictably misogynistic scorn from male defenders of the literary status quo. So they arguably possessed the power, and posed the sort of threat, that Hesse attributes to them. But how many women readers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw in these books what de Beauvoir saw, and what Hesse sees?
The question is particularly pressing because seven years ago one of the most eminent women historians in France published a book quite similar to The Other Enlightenment, but offering a strikingly different reading of some of the same writers. Mona Ozouf, best known for a landmark study of French revolutionary festivals, is one of the very few living French historians who is also a great prose writer: elegant, witty, even haunting. In Les mots des femmes (translated in this country as Women's Words), she sketched out richly textured portraits of ten French women writers, including Charrière, de Staël, George Sand, Colette, and de Beauvoir. Unlike Hesse, she had precious little sympathy for the last, titling the essay "Simone, or Greed," and criticizing the writer's "hypocrisy," "bad faith," lack of genius, and servile relationship to Jean-Paul Sartre.
Ozouf also appended to the book an unfortunate, caricature-laden "Essay on French Singularity," which accused "American feminism" of identifying all sex with rape and of trying to erase all sexual differences. In contrast, Ozouf praised French women for celebrating those differences, and for developing a distinctive voice without falling into "extremism." Overall, Ozouf interpreted French women's writing not as a critical response to the Revolution's new cultural order (which she did not find particularly exclusionary or misogynist), but as something complementary to it. So where Hesse sees a sharply critical tradition culminating in de Beauvoir, Ozouf saw a much gentler tradition of female self-expression that largely bypassed de Beauvoir and remains alive in writers such as herself.
Ozouf's evocation of a distinctly French style of women's writing was surprisingly ahistorical, and her downplaying of the revolutionary period's misogyny and exclusionary tendencies failed to convince. I much prefer Hesse's version of the story. But I find it unfortunate that Hesse does not even mention Les mots des femmes — not only because she should confront Ozouf directly, but because Ozouf's interpretation has value as historical evidence: it shows how at least one enormously intelligent and eloquent French woman has read the female literary canon.
Perhaps Ozouf's reading is an untypical one, driven less by her reading of the texts themselves than by the political conjuncture of the mid-1990s, in which centrist French intellectuals such as Ozouf were recoiling from the American import that they dubbed le politically correct. But if Ozouf's reading is at all typical, then Hesse's women writers start to look either less radically critical or more like figures whose critical intent went largely unremarked and unappreciated by their readers. It is a pity that Hesse does not deal with this issue more directly.
So were French women writers burrowing subversively under the heavy pillars of the Pantheon, or were they helping, perhaps unintendedly, to prop the building up? Without adding an analysis of novel-reading to her discussion of novel-writing, Hesse cannot provide an entirely satisfying answer to this question. Yet she has satisfyingly changed the terms in which the subject will be discussed from now on, and provocatively illuminated the changing contours of female experience in modern France. And in her deft combination of quantitative research and critical readings, Hesse provides a model of how to pursue the social history of ideas.
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