Imagining Rachilde: Decadence and the Roman a Clefs

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In his extensive 1888 repertory of the roman a clefs, Fernand Drujon proposed a classification for the genre by century. Most 16th century literature a clefs, for example, consisted of polemical writing on religious and political topics, while in the 17th, the allegorical novel, interminable and more circumspect, brought increased polish to the genre. The 19th century appeared to Drujon to absorb all previous typologies, "depuis le pamphlet revolutionnaire et la satire antireligieuse jusqu'aux parodies plus ou moins reussies de la vie publique et privee." (1) Certainly, the great majority of romans a clefs are satirical, representing, as a recent compendium of papers on the subject phrased it, "[une] litterature souvent vacharde et haute en couleur." (2) But as certain critics have stressed, the genre is not necessarily tendentious or parodic; it is in fact infinitely variable, intimidatingly protean. (3) A roman a clefs can be a passionate love letter, as is the case for Olivia, a novel by the English writer Dorothy Bussy featuring and addressed to Andre Gide. Le Regne de la bete, by Adolphe Rette, reads as an apology to Edouard Drumont whom Rette had depicted insultingly in other works. (4) And what is one to make of A la recherche du temps perdu, a sometimes parodic, but often seriously moralizing novel where the habit of juxtaposing the names of fictional characters with those of their real-life keys is meant as a play within a play, and a bow to one of Balzac's tics. (5)

The purpose of the present essay is to examine how three authors of the 1880s employed the vehicle of the roman a clefs to portray aspects of the decadent writer Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery). As far as I am aware, none of these works--Decadence by Oscar Metenier, Une Decadente by Georges de Peyrebrune, and La Buveuse de sang by Louise Mie d'Aghonne--has ever been connected to Rachilde, though she did, of course, figure in the fiction of other authors of her time, and a number of these sightings have been discussed. Practitioners of the roman a clefs would, in fact, have been derelict in their duty had they not featured the controversial Rachilde, labelled by one conservative commentator a hysteric and a hermaphrodite in need of institutionalization. (6)

Rachilde is the hypocritical, publicity-seeking writer Raclife in a bitter tract written by a woman who may have been her spurned lover, Gisele d'Estoc. (7) After Rachilde slapped the journalist Paul Devaux following a misogynistic public lecture, he portrayed her as the fellatrix of a gay male lover in a volume titled Les Fellatores. (8) Rachilde plays a more respectable role as the unnamed female partner of Barres' protagonist in Sous l'oeil des barbares, (9) and some feel she is the character Argine in the novel Saint-Front by writer Henri Barbot. (10) Catulle Mendes, with whom she had a serious flirtation in the early 1880s, would later be on the receiving end of a number of her jibes; he is described as a tasteless Don Juan in the preface to her novel A mort, appears in it as the blond poet Desgriel, "inventeur de tous les raffinements obscenes" (143), and in her Le Mordu he is the character Charles Desyrs. (11) Mendes himself was an adept of the roman a clefs (12) and one wonders if, in his novel of lesbianism Mephistophela (1890), the name of his perverse heroine Sophor d'Hermelinge is not a deliberate, "dirty-linen" play on the name of Rachilde's pure heroine Hermione de Messiange in Minette, a novel that had appeared the year before. The always well-informed Jean Lorrain thought he knew the real-life model of Sophor, and his description suggests she might well have been Rachilde: "[Mephistophela] n'etait encore que la tres inquietante et tres svelte jeune femme a tete impertinente de boy, au petillant esprit de gavroche." (13)

But why investigate what are now obscure references in the works of Metenier, Peyrebrune and Mie d'Aghonne? There are two very good reasons, one biographical, the other related to the unusual versatility of the roman a clefs as genre. …


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