Academic journal article French Forum

The Literary Culture of Workers, Women and Peasants in Novels by Andre Leo

Academic journal article French Forum

The Literary Culture of Workers, Women and Peasants in Novels by Andre Leo

Article excerpt

The reading practices of women, workers and peasants became the focus of intense debates among educators, political thinkers and religious groups in France during the second half of the nineteenth century. Since reading was seen as both beneficial and dangerous, they encouraged reading among all sectors of the population, while at the same time attempting to regulate which books should be available to more vulnerable readers. As reading became more prevalent and controversial in France, literary representations of reading also multiplied in the socially conscious fiction of authors like Andre Leo, a novelist and journalist best known as one of the "petroleuses" during the 1871 Paris Commune. (1) Andre Leo's novels Un Marriage scandaleux (1862) and Les Drames du cerveau (1882) provide excellent illustrations of the dichotomy between good reading and bad reading, between reading practices that enlighten and those that destroy. In this article I will analyze the literary practices depicted in these two novels, noting in particular the difference in the representation of reading in the two books. The earlier novel reflects the author's idealism and political optimism in the decade before the Commune when she was active in the feminist and socialist movements, while the later one, published twenty years later, is much more negative, reflecting her disillusionment with the lack of socialist and feminist activism and progressive change in the new French Republic.

Literacy rates rose dramatically in France during the nineteenth century. According to James Allen, in 1801 only 50% of men and 28% of women were active readers, while in 1901 those figures had risen to 96% for men and 94% for women (Allen: Table A-7). Because of this phenomenal increase in literacy, the reading habits of women, workers and peasants came to be considered as a social problem from the Catholic right to the anticlerical left. Everyone was concerned with what and how these emerging literate classes were reading. Lacking the proper educational background, intellectual rigor and economic resources, workers and peasants were said to read indiscriminately. Without guidance and resources, they would certainly read the wrong books--political propaganda for example, or popular fiction--rather than useful books and seventeenth-century classics. One important development that affected reading practices in the nineteenth century was the invention of the mass press. By the final decades of the century, the numerous inexpensive daily newspapers with widespread readership of la petite presse were blamed for wreaking havoc among workers with their palpitating faits divers and serialized novels.

Reading was equally dangerous, perhaps even more so, for women. Not only did it take them away from their domestic duties, but it also troubled their weak, impressionable minds. Since women purportedly lacked a strong, male constitution, the intellectual strain of reading could cause them to be afflicted with all sorts of physical and psychological ailments. Popular novels, though less of an intellectual challenge, presented a different sort of danger. Women--it was said--identified more with the characters, which caused them to develop unrealistic or immoral fantasies. Reading novels led to rampant bovarysme, a tendency toward escapist day-dreaming in which women imagine themselves as the heroine of a romance, refusing to acknowledge reality. Worse still, as in Madame Bovary, reading romantic fiction stimulated erotic desires and passions in women. In her study of the representation of reading in nineteenth-century novels, Carla Peterson points out that in the novel, reading could cause gender trouble for both men and women: while female reader-protagonists became more independent, assertive and sexually knowledgeable, their male counterparts took on more feminine characteristics such as passivity and emotional sensitivity.

Peterson notes a major difference in the relationship between reader-protagonists in French and English novels. …

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