Neither Public nor Private: The Domestic Sphere in French Enlightenment Thought
For the last twenty years or so there has been a burgeoning interest in the contribution of women to the cultural life of the ancien régime. Much of the groundbreaking research has been done by feminist scholars who have argued for the importance of gender as both a historical as well as analytical category.1 In addition to reshaping the boundaries separating historical and theoretical research, feminist scholarship has also underscored the attendant methodological difficulties in combining the two. At the risk of simplification, one can say that historians have tended to privilege empirical evidence of women's activity while literary and cultural critics have focused on the cultural value of key women writers and artists.2
Lesley H. Walker's A Mother's Love: Crafting Feminine Virtue in Enlightenment France (Bucknell, 2008) intervenes on both sides of the issue. Tracing the emergence of a "maternal discourse" centered on an idealized mother figure, Walker aims to historicize our current notions of feminine virtue which she views as bound up in a modernist narrative of emarrcipation. By arguing for the importance of the domestic sphere in the development of an enlightened society based on greater justice and equality, Walker's goal is to recuperate an alternative picture of female virtue. This is one in which maternal solicitude, and rejection of the public sphere in favor of private virtue, are key factors to overall social reform. Walker convincingly shows that the domestic sphere cannot be reduced to the distinctions between public and private spheres, since domestic reform was considered an essential component in the creation of an enlightened community. In so doing she argues against the traditional feminist narrative, which has typically cast the domestic sphere as the place where women have been " 'repressed,' 'silenced,' 'marginalized/ and 'domesticated'" (18). In this sense, her book rejoins Carla Hesse's recent claim that radical feminist scholarship, by focusing on the exclusion of women from the public sphere, has underestimated the cultural contributions of women who saw themselves as working within the liberal enlightenment tradition.3
Walker's evaluation of the domestic sphere is motivated by two observations. First, that feminist scholarship, while opening up new areas of research, has tended to privilege visionary personalities such as Olympe de Gouges or public figures such as Germaine de Staël to the detriment of those female writers and artists who cleaved more closely to the century's own understanding of feminine virtue. Second, that the contemporary theoretical interest in the psychodynamics of the bourgeois "nuclear family," especially as developed by Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalytic tradition, has its roots in an eighteenthcentury valorization of domestic life whose historical specificity has been subsequently forgotten. Unlike Freud's narrative that is predicated on an absent mother, Walker shows how eighteenth-century idealizations of the loving family stressed the presence pf an (often) all-seeing, self-sacrificing mother and the virtual absence of the "husband as a viable love object" (35). Although not all readers will accept her characterization of affectionate mother-daughter relations as "homo-erotic," Walker's suggestion that the eighteenth century viewed heterosexual love between husband and wife as an unsustainable norm even as it privileged an idealized domestic life is an interesting one. For it suggests that the domestic sphere functioned as a space of freedom for women even as it constrained them in other ways.
Subsumed under these general goals is a further concern: to introduce the reader to key women writers and artists in order to expand our understanding of what constitutes a "feminist canon." In addition to analyzing the works of such well-known figures as Marie-Jeanne Roland, de Staël, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, and Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, Walker also treats lesser-known figures such as the prolific writer and journalist Jeanne-Marie Ie Prince de Beaumont and the painter and engraver Marguerite Gérard, sister-in-law of Jean-Honoré Fragonard. By emphasizing what she calls the "cultural labor" of women writers and artists who succeeded in publishing or exhibiting their work, Walker seeks to vindicate a notion of female agency that conceived itself not as a form of resistance to prevailing modes of thinking but as a reformulation, and in many cases, an intensification, of tropes and ideas of social reform developed elsewhere, most notably in François Fénelon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Walker's desire to emphasize both rupture and continuity in her discussion of domestic life is reflected in the thematic organization of the book. Chapters are dedicated to "the diligent mother," "the good mother," "the erotics of motherhood," rather than divided by individuals or genres. Walker begins by arguing that mother-daughter relations, as imagined through literature and the arts, can be considered a "mirror for the larger Enlightenment project" in which a daughter's enlightenment is crucial for any large-scale societal reform (28). Walker makes much of the homoerotic element that draws from the narrative structures of the novel to represent mother-daughter relations as a kind of "love story" (35). Through a series of close readings - of genre paintings of maternité, of novels, of Rousseau's reception among women writers - Walker shows how maternal education was geared in part to teaching daughters how to live, if not quite happily then at least not unhappily, with largely unreliable husbands and lovers. Libertine and rococo painting and writing, precisely because it concerned the "problem of passion for women"(133), was thereby transformed into a moralizing tradition in which the primary passionate attachment remained that of mother and daughter.
Particularly intriguing is Walker's association of maternal ominiscience with Providence, a trait accentuated in Mme. de Genlis but also present in other female writers. Although not a narrative that Walker explicitly pursues, such a feminization of divine authority sheds interesting light on the role played by the mother figure in secularizing the cultural sources of patriarchal authority in the ancien régime. It is a compelling leitmotif in a book whose other great strength lies in the wide-ranging use of sources and the way it brings visual sources to bear on textual ones (the book contains fifteen illustrations, wellplaced at key points in the author's discussion).
Walker is at her best when contextualizing tropes of maternal benevolence in terms of older, often Christian traditions and bringing back to life, through painstaking analysis, long-forgotten books and themes. Yet this very strength also calls into question the viability of an exclusively feminist narrative. To what extent does this desire for a feminist canon obscure those important analytical distinctions that are not based on gender difference, for example the role played by genre, trope, Utopian idealization of history, religious versus secular conceptions of selfhood, and so forth? Although Walker, to her credit, does mention many of these concepts, her discussion nonetheless subordinates them to the feminist historiography that she wishes to engage with. The result is a book that is organized variously around prominent lives, genres, cultural 'discourse' or specific texts, flattening the relevant distinctions between these different sources and approaches.
This discursive paradigm - inspired in part by Michel Foucault - raises interesting questions about the nature of maternal agency under discussion. Are the specific female protagonists Walker discusses agents, or is discourse the agent? If it is discourse, then foregrounding female protagonists and relegating male authors to the background, is unnecessary. After all, if we are to stay at the level of discourse, surely we can devote more pages to Fénelon, Rousseau, and especially Denis Diderot, all of whom valorized domestic life both sentimentally and philosophically? However, if, as Walker also insists, part of the project is to recuperate a specifically female canon, then the problem is a different one, namely how to distinguish innovators from imitators, emerging new ideas from already existing topoi, and, more critically, gender relations from the generic determinations presupposed by novels, genre paintings, and so forth.
This raises a bigger issue that runs through feminist studies more generally and that Walker begins to problematize in her book. This is the question of how to square a theoretical paradigm, which largely developed as a critique of political and ideological relations inherent in Western liberalism, with a historicizing agenda. For example, Walker persuasively argues for a view of eighteenth century women's fiction as attempting to resolve the larger cultural and moral problem of destabilizing passion, a problem inherited from the seventeenth century and that cast doubt on the very concept of a durable love-marriage. Psychoanalysis, however, remains the primary theoretical lens and Walker goes to some lengths to show how the eighteenth century solution to this problem of destabilizing passion "so thoroughly anticipates" (144) a psychoanalytic theory based on "the loss of the mother" (34). This reinforces a transhistorical association of maternity that sits awkwardly with the nuanced historicist readings that otherwise characterize much of this book. It is telling in this regard that Jules Michelet, who, as Walkeo- herself notes in her introduction, provided perhaps the earliest formulation of her thesis, is not directly treated until chapter six and even then primarily as grist for the psychoanalytic mill.
In addition to problematizing some key assumptions of feminist scholarship, this book amply succeeds in demonstrating the vitality of maternal images and discourses for enlightenment thought. It will appeal especially to those readers who share Walker's conviction that the domestic sphere, as it was imagined and represented throughout the eighteenth century, was a site of radical social experimentation, at least just as important, if not more, than those debates taking place in the newly emerging public sphere. It will also appeal to those interested in the contributions and limitations of feminist historiography, including those influenced by the psychoanalytic tradition. Walker's detailed close readings of a wide variety of textual and visual sources do indeed provide, as the author intended, a useful corrective not just for the feminist critic of the eighteenth century but more generally to all of our (still engrained) habits of judging past lives from the values and perspectives of the present.
1. A by no means exhaustive list includes Geneviève Fraisse, Reason's Muse: Sexual Difference and the Birth of Democracy, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Chicago, 1994); Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca, 1994); Madelyn Gurtwirth, Twilight of the Goddesses: Women and Representation in the French Revolutionary Era (New Brunswick, 1992); Carla Hesse, The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern (Princeton, 2001); Joan B. Landes, Visualizing the Nation: Gender, Representation and Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France (Ithaca, 2001); and Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988). More recent publications include Helen Bostic, The Fiction of Enlightenment: Women of Reason in the French Eighteenth-Century (Newark, 2010), Dena Goodman, Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters (Ithaca, 2009), Jennifer Popiel, Rousseau's Daughters: Domesticity, Education and Autonomy in Modern France (Durham, N.H., 2008).
2. For the difference between empirical and value-based judgments, see the recent controversy around Hesse's claim that "despite the prominence of a few great women writers, in numerical terms women were relatively marginal to the literary culture of the Old Regime" (37), discussed by Walker, 20-21. This approach contrasts with those of critics such as Joan DeJean who have stressed the cultural value of significant female writers and artists. See Dejean's important Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France (New York, 1991). See also Mary D. Sheriff, The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art (Chicago, 1996). Walker briefly discusses this controversy (20-21).
3. See Hesse, xiv.
King's College London
SANJA PEROVIC is Lecturer in French at King's College London. She is completing a book, Untamable Time: Creating the World New in Revolutionary France, which examines the unique role played by the revolutionary calendar in the French Revolution. She has published or forthcoming articles on French theatre, encyclopédisme, and aspects of revolutionary culture in New Literary History, Paragraph, French Studies, and elsewhere.…