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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, December 7th, 2003


Husbands, Wives, and Lovers: Marriage and Its Discontents in Nineteenth-Century France

by Patricia Mainardi

Adulterers all

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" (1842).

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 it out.

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.

Graham Robb's 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.

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