Husbands, Wives, and Lovers: Marriage and Its Discontents in Nineteenth-Century France
by Patricia Mainardi
A review by Graham Robb
In 1826, an elderly Parisian gentleman called Descharmes shaved off his mutton-chop
whiskers, put on a disguise and went to spy on his young wife. Passion must have
blinded her to the gentleman with large spectacles, flailing mustachios, green
trousers and his arm in a sling. She was caught in flagrante delicto with a shop
assistant called Beauval. In this way, M Descharmes was able to have his wife
and her lover incarcerated for three months (the minimum sentence). Since the
law allowed husbands to annul the conviction, he retrieved his wife six weeks
later from the Madelonnettes prison, most of whose inmates were adulteresses.
The lover was left to finish his sentence.
Divorce had been abolished in 1816, but it was still quite easy in Restoration
France for disgruntled or greedy husbands to get rid of their wives. A fortune-hunter
could bribe witnesses, accuse his wife of adultery, and grab the estate while
she served a sentence of up to two years. A husband could even murder his wife
without risking a death sentence: he had simply to allow the guilty pair to
attain "the highest degree of criminality" before administering the
fatal blow. The Code Penal of 1811 called this "excusable violence".
It carried a maximum sentence of five years. In practice, homicidal cuckolds
were often acquitted.
The law that made adultery an excuse for murder was diligently applied. Even
if Mme Descharmes had been innocent, she might still have been convicted. In
the opening chapter of Husbands, Wives, and Lovers: Marriage and Its Discontents
in Nineteenth-Century France, Patricia Mainardi quotes a Rouen lawyer called
Senard, who represented the husband in an adultery trial of 1827: "Proof
is not needed against the guilty wife . . . . It is enough that the magistrates
have a strong conviction of her guilt". Otherwise, he explained, immorality
would increase and women "could lead scandalous lives with impunity".
Male lovers were treated far more leniently and sometimes escaped punishment
altogether, while the woman went to jail. In the eyes of the courts, it was
effectively possible for a wife to commit adultery on her own.
Though Mainardi does not identify him, the Rouen lawyer was presumably the
Jules Senard who successfully defended Flaubert's Madame Bovary in the
obscenity trial of 1857. This was not professional hypocrisy. As Senard pointed
out in his speech for the defence, Flaubert quite properly showed that adultery
leads to "disillusionment, grief and remorse". Depressing realism
was better than titillating melodrama. Emma Bovary's vomit-stained shroud was
the guarantee of the author's good intentions: "M Flaubert is not only
a great artist but also a man whose heart is in the right place, for in the
last six pages of his book he heaps all the horror and contempt on the wife
and saves all interest for the husband".
This purge of adulterous wives and the "widespread obsession with adultery",
Mainardi argues, were a relatively recent development in France. Cuckoldry was
no longer a laughing matter. With the abolition of primogeniture in 1816, all
children boys and girls, legitimate and illegitimate inherited equal shares
of the estate. Since adulterine children legally belonged to the husband, adultery
could now have serious financial consequences for the family.
Behind this legal change lay a more intimate anxiety the fear of the older
generation that the sensible marriage of reason was giving way to the romantic
marriage of inclination. The "discontents" of the title were, of course,
women, but also elderly husbands who were forced to compete in an open market.
At the end of the Restoration, Victor Hugo's Hernani (1830), with its
dashing young outlaw and "stupid old man" competing for the delectable
Dona Sol, dramatized a "generational conflict" that was fought over
the bodies of women.
Mainardi, a professor of art history, displays the graphic evidence of this
anxiety in a splendid selection of caricatures. In eighteenth-century prints,
the woman caught in the act was usually an unmarried daughter. In the nineteenth
century, the scandalized parents were replaced by horrified husbands: a bug-eyed
hunchback peering through a Venetian blind at the canoodling couple ("That's
my wife, damn it! It's impossible!"), or an incredulous cuckold raising
a dress form from the floor to find a lover crouching underneath ("What!
my son- in-law! It's you!").
Men stood for tradition; women came to represent dangerous individualism. Paternal
love was depicted mainly as a contrast to the wife's abandonment of the legitimate
brood. Increasingly, the subject of adultery was suppressed altogether. In the
first version of Philibert-Louis Debucourt's "La Croisee" (1791),
a woman sitting by a window allows her trailing hand to be kissed by a lover
in the garden below while her husband dozes in a chair. In the published version,
the husband is wide awake and the hand is being kissed by two adoring children.
Mainardi has found only one nineteenth-century depiction of the adulterous woman
forgiven by Christ: Emile Signol's "Le Christ et la femme adultere"
A lively chapter on marriage manuals and legal guides shows, however, that
the forbidden subject was eagerly discussed. According to Mainardi, these manuals
were jocular when addressed to men and moralistic when addressed to women. Charles
Chabot's Grammaire conjugale presented itself as a training manual for wife-owners,
offering "general principles by which wives may be rendered as gentle as
lambs". The anonymous L'Art de se faire aimer de son mari ("for women
who have tied the conjugal knot") solemnly extolled the virtues of a clean
kitchen and a cheerful face. It included some model letters that could be copied
out and sent to the master when he was away on business: "Only three days
have passed since your departure, and each day seems like a year to me. Everything
around me has lost its charm . . . . Nothing can distract me from the cruel
sorrow that our separation is causing me", etc. Apparently, these manuals
were used. In one of the trials described by Mainardi, a marquis triumphantly
exhibited the passionate letters he had received from his wife, only to discover
that these tokens of her undying devotion had been copied out of a book.
Marriage manuals may reflect "the growing separation of gender roles characteristic
of bourgeois society", but witty self-help books like Balzac's Physiologie
du mariage were visibly not "addressed to an exclusively male readership",
as Mainardi puts it. By ordering women not to read his book, Balzac was appealing
to both sections of his audience at the same time. His advice to husbands was
also a warning to wives: keep her sick, pregnant and illiterate, "for by
ignorance alone is despotism maintained". Most of Balzac's informants were,
after all, women. Some of them might even have tried out his "insurance
policy" for would-be adulteresses. A husband lost the right to charge his
wife with infidelity if he kept a concubine in the family home. Balzac's answer:
get the maidservant to seduce him.
After this informative first half, Husbands, Wives, and Lovers narrows
its focus to describe "the ways in which art mediates social experience,
rapidly transforming an historical social issue into a cultural theme".
The book turns out to be a study of adultery (the idea rather than the practice)
in Restoration France as it was reflected in the relatively tiny mirror of "cultural
production": plays by Delavigne, Scribe, Ducange and Hugo, novels by Genlis,
Balzac, Stendhal and Sand, and various versions of the story of Mazeppa, who
was stripped naked, tied to his horse and sent galloping home after being caught
with another man's wife.
This "cultural" approach involves a certain amount of intellectual
tail chasing. If the main sources of "social experience" are works
of art, then the experience in question has already been mediated and is surely
a poor guide to the process of mediation. Works that were published and performed
reflect artistic convention, official censorship and self-censorship, as well
as daily life. Trial reports give a more direct but almost entirely negative
view of marriage. Most of them, in any case, are taken from that vast compendium
of calamity and vice, the Gazette des tribunaux, which seems to have been produced
by an editorial team of sniggering voyeurs. Mainardi quotes a typically sarcastic
example from 1827. For the Gazette des tribunaux at least, adultery was still
a laughing matter:
"From the looks of the two defendants before the trial... you would
never guess that these two were being tried for this offence. Monsieur Tendre
(he's the defendant) is forty-one years old. There is nothing good-looking
or seductive about him except his name. Mme Guichard, his accomplice, passed
the age of illusions at least twenty years ago."
This keyhole view of marriage in the early nineteenth century creates the unfortunate
impression that cultural studies are an academically convenient form of social
history. This impression is not dispelled by the use of earlier conference and
seminar papers. There is something to be said for "trying out" these
ideas on various audiences, but there is also something to be said for turning
them into a book. Simply inserting the phrase "as noted in previous chapters"
is no excuse for repetition.
More importantly, a work on "marriage and its discontents" might
reasonably be expected to say something about alternatives to marriage. There
are fleeting references to the interesting fact that women were better off in
a common-law marriage and that the urban lower classes rarely married, but there
is nothing on the peculiarities of adulterous or casual relationships. Saint-Simonian
ideas are mentioned in passing, but not the polygamous solutions of reformers
and "discontents" like Charles Fourier.
Happy marriages and private, equitable arrangements appear, on this evidence,
not to have existed. The marriage of reason is presented as an institution uniquely
favourable to men, though the heroine of Eugene Scribe's vaudeville comedy,
Le Mariage de raison (1826), was surely right not to run away with her
seducer. Financial security and respect-ability were not trivial concerns. The
wealthy elite that was responsible for "cultural production" could
afford to take a view of love and marriage that was much closer to modern assumptions.
Yet, in most parts of France, for most of the nineteenth century, marriage was
a matter of survival rather than a means of gratifying a sentimental urge. When
the wolf was at the door, men and women were more likely to be attracted by
a sense of duty, a fondness for hard work and the physical ability to carry
Husbands, Wives, and Lovers is a valuable, sometimes entertaining work
that is needlessly marred by some bad habits of academic publishing: the misleading
title, the cobbling together of conference papers, the lightness of evidence
compared to the weight of argument, and the ludicrously inflated assessment
supplied by one of the fifty-four people thanked by the author (this study "requires
that we rethink . . . all aspects of elite and popular culture of the period").
This only serves to make the reader as suspicious of the book as a girl should
be of a courting bachelor.
most recent book, Strangers:
Homosexual love in nineteenth-century Europe and America, was published
in Britain in October, 2003 and shall be published in the USA in January 2004.
He is the author of biographies of Rimbaud, 2000, and Victor Hugo, 1997.