Rachilde: Decadence, Gender and the Woman Writer

Rachilde: Decadence, Gender and the Woman Writer

Rachilde: Decadence, Gender and the Woman Writer

Rachilde: Decadence, Gender and the Woman Writer

Synopsis

Prosecuted for obscenity in her novel Monsieur Venus, Marguerite Eymery (pen name Rachilde), an apparently genteel young woman from a provincial bourgeois family, burst onto the French literary scene in 1884 amid scandal. This story of a sadistic transvestite and her pretty male lover was the first in a long series of novels, plays and stories dealing often in the most macabre and sensationalistic terms with sadism, gender inversion, and sexual desire.At the heart of the French literary world, Rachilde's life and writing defied patriarchal rules, particularly in relation to female sexuality, but she consistently and vehemently rejected feminism. Her extraordinary life and work, including a vast output as a literary reviewer, offer a prism through which to view the vibrant social and cultural history of France from the belle ¿poque to the Second World War. This book is the first serious critical study of Rachilde's work. Exploring the interwoven themes of French naturalism, modernism, decadence and feminism, it will be essential reading for anyone interested in French culture, literature and sexuality at the turn of the twentieth century.

Excerpt

Rachilde was a colourful, prolific, combative figure on the French literary scene for more than half a century. Her writing career coincided roughly with the life of the Third French Republic (1871–1940), a regime for which she felt a hearty anti-democratic contempt. She made a scandalous debut as the cross-dressing author of pornographic novels, and was the only woman to form part of the Decadent movement in the 1880s and 1890s. As one of the founders of the influential journal the Mercure de France and the wife of its editor-in-chief, she supported new writers and projects including Alfred Jarry and Symbolist theatre, and for over thirty years she publicized her idiosyncratic but often perceptive responses to contemporary fiction through the journal's reviews section. in the 1920s she quarrelled noisily with the next generation of enfants terribles, the Surrealists. Above all, she wrote novels, stories, to a lesser extent plays and poetry, that express an intense, often paradoxical vision: reactionary yet furiously aware of the need to challenge fixed hierarchies of power; anti-feminist yet in passionate revolt against the role and identity ascribed to women; shaped by the realist tradition but equally by the anti-realist polemics of decadence, and diverging from both, particularly in the representation of gender.

Writing a book about Rachilde raises several issues that are pertinent to any feminist study of a woman writer at the start of the twenty-first century. First, there is the question of the place of biography in the study of literature. I felt that as the first full-length study in English of a womanwriter who had—until the 1990s—virtually disappeared from history, the book should aim to reinstate Rachilde as an important figure in the cultural history of France, which meant that a purely textual study would not be enough. Her life—like that of her heroines—also seemed to mirror, albeit in heightened, dramatized form, that of her female contemporaries, so that the biography represented another small strand in the collective project of developing a women's history. Yet since Roland Barthes's witty demolition of the once traditional ‘man [it usually was] and his works’ approach to literature (in his 1968 text The Death of the Author), to mix biography with textual analysis is to run the risk of joining those critics . . .

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