Throughout the late nineteenth century in France, intellectuals from a variety of disciplines took part in what Foucault has referred to as "la mise en discours du sexe"--the process by which writers, doctors and scientists sought to discern the "truth" of sexuality. (1) Women constituted a privileged object of analysis in this scientific discourse of sex--Foucault's scientia sexualis--written largely by and for men. (2) Even as a growing feminist movement emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century and educational reforms made it possible for women to pursue professional degrees for the first time, female voices remained virtually excluded from scientific fields. (3) The science of sex and its moral implications were determined almost entirely by men.
In what follows I would like to consider Lucie Delarue-Mardrus's Marie, fille-mere (1908) as the exception that proves the rule regarding the gendering of the scientific discourse of sex at the turn of the nineteenth century, Fiction-writing was among the most accessible discursive domains open to women during this period, although few women writers are linked to the dominant literary movements of the time. With her remarkable first novel, Delarue-Mardrus takes the unusual step of adopting the male-authorized, positivistic tropes of naturalism in order to construct a female counter-discourse of sexuality. Delarue-Mardrue's novel constitutes a counter-discourse in the sense that Richard Terdiman uses this term: as an adoption of the dominant discourse in order to gain power over it. Her novel is both a rewriting of Zola's La Bete humaine from a female perspective--that is, a naturalist novel ultimately determined by the forces of female sexual desire--and a feminist science of sex. (4)
Delarue-Mardrus first entered literary circles with the aid of her husband, Joseph-Charles Mardrus, who was known for having translated 1001 Arabian Nights into French. She began publishing poetry in the Revue Blanche, a radical journal that included Leon Blum and Alfred Jarry as contributing editors, and in which Mirbeau published his Journal d'une femme de chambre. Her first collections of poetry enjoyed only a limited success, despite her connections to Renee Vivien, Colette, Anna de Noailles, and Jean Lorrain. Delarue-Mardrus was far more successful in her fiction writing, and by 1914 was one of the most highly paid and highly sought after female novelists. By the time of her death at age seventy-one she had published twelve collections of poetry and over forty novels, two of which were adapted for film. Marie, fille-mere first appeared in serial form in Le Journal in 1908, and despite rather poor critical reception (Apollinaire and Rachilde accused her of trying to imitate Charles-Henry Hirsch's pastoral fiction) enjoyed great popular success, especially with female readers. (5) Unfortunately, Delarue-Mardrus's originality has eluded modern critics, and current recognition of her work has been almost entirely limited to anthological mention rather than scholarly analysis. (6)
Marie, fille-mere recounts how the life of seventeen-year-old Marie, "une fille des campagnes normandes, nee de paysans assez pauvres," is disrupted by her brutal sexual initiation at the hands of a rich neighbor, le fils Budin (10). The novel is in some sense a sexual coming of age story, tracing Marie's life from before her first sexual encounter and the initial awakening of her libido, through her rape, pregnancy, marriage, eventual discovery of sexual pleasure, and the sexual rivalry that leads to her death. Although naturalism as a literary movement had fallen out of use by the time of Delarue-Mardrus's writing, links to it and to Zola's corpus in particular are evident throughout her text, from her depiction of the peasant class to her attention to dialect. In addition, Marie is thought to be based on Delarue-Mardrus's childhood maid, suggesting a relationship with another naturalist text, the Goncourts' Germinie Lacerteux, also modeled upon a family servant. …