Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Policing Prostitutes: Adaptations and Reactions to Edmond De Goncourt's la Fille Elisa

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Policing Prostitutes: Adaptations and Reactions to Edmond De Goncourt's la Fille Elisa

Article excerpt

Edmond de Goncourt's 1877 novel, La Fille Elisa, is the story of a working-class prostitute who is jailed for life for murdering her soldier-lover following his attempt to rape her. Much of the novel is loosely based on actual events and stems from a visit by the Goncourt brothers to a prison at Clermont d'Oise, recounted in their Journal on 28 October 1862, and from legal cases reported in the Gazette des tribunaux in the 1860s (Ricatte, "Autour" 69). Like L'Assommoir, which was published in the same year, La Fille Elisa received an extremely hostile critical reception, due in large part to the premise that a prostitute could be raped. Although no legal action was taken against the novel, the newspaper Le Tintamarre had to defend its satire of it in the courts. Another adaptation of the text, published clandestinely in the early 1880s with the title La Fille Elisa, scene d'atelier, is as much an attack on Goncourt's work as it is on Naturalism in general, and ignores those parts of the novel that deal with prisons. In an 1890 adaptation, a play entitled La Fille Elisa: piece en trois actes, the issues of prostitution and rape are also sidelined. Elisa is presented as murdering her lover as a result of an uncontrollable physiological impulse. Whereas in 1877 critics had been hostile to the story, by 1890 the critical reception of the play verged on the laudatory. Yet, whereas in 1877 there was no legal action taken against the novel, in 1890 the play was deemed dangerous and was repressed not by censors, but through the direct intervention of a government minister. By studying the original text alongside these three nineteenth-century adaptations, this article will trace the evolution of literary, critical, and legal objections and reactions to Goncourt's story.


A proviso in the preface to the 1877 novel attempts to justify its controversial subject matter: "la prostitution et la prostituee, ce n'est qu'un episode, la prison et la prisonniere: voil' l'interet de mon livre," writes Goncourt (30). While the text is, in effect, divided evenly into two halves, the first dealing with prostitutes, the second with female prisoners, in 1877 most responses focused on the former and sidestepped the latter and its alleged refutation of the "penalite du silence continu" (Fille 30), which Edmond de Goncourt presents as leading to madness. "Et mon ambition [...]," Goncourt states,

   serait que mon livre donnat la curiosite de lire les
   travaux sur la folie penitentiaire, amenat a rechercher
   le chiffre des imbeciles qui existent aujourd'hui dans les
   prisons de Clermont, de Montpellier, de Cadillac, de Doullens,
   de Rennes, d'Auberive, fit, en dernier ressort, examiner et
   juger la belle illusion de l'amendement moral par le silence,
   que mon livre enfin eut l'art de parler au coeur et a l'emotion
   de nos legislateurs. (Fille 30)

The attempt to divert attention from the profession of the prisoner to her status as an inmate--while begging the question as to why prostitution was chosen as the profession of the main character--relates to Goncourt's worries that the novel would be repressed. These are first expressed in his Journal on 30 December 1876 (2: 722), before the novel was published, thus proving that he was aware of the potential dangers of the subject matter, even if, as Rene-Pierre Colin believes, the Naturalists' fears of censorship were unfounded (147).

The Goncourts had had run-ins with the law before. In 1852, the brothers appeared in court charged with 'outrage a la morale publique' over an article they had written. In addition, their debut novel, En 18 ..., was censored before publication in 1851 (Fosca 42). Due to these past encounters with the law, it comes as no surprise that prior to publishing La Fille Elisa, Edmond de Goncourt wished to divert attention from Elisa-as-prostitute to the less controversial theme of Elisa-as-prisoner. …

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