Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Curious Savages: Cultural Transvestism, Identity, and New France in Alain-Rene Lesage's Les Avantures De Monsieur Robert Chevalier, Dit De Beauchene

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Curious Savages: Cultural Transvestism, Identity, and New France in Alain-Rene Lesage's Les Avantures De Monsieur Robert Chevalier, Dit De Beauchene

Article excerpt

"Voici un sauvage curieux que je vous amene. Sans aller au Canada, vous allez voir un Iroquois, mais un Iroquois qui ne vous fera pas peur" [...] et ce ne fut pas sans etonnement qu'elles virent un gros gargon d'assez bonne mine, blanc et blond comme le sont communement les Canadiens.

--Alain-Rene Lesage, Les Avantures de Monsieur Robert Chevalier, dit de Beauchene

The 1727 edition of Furetiere's Dictionnaire universel defines "curieux" as "rare" and as something possessing "bien des choses singulieres [...] que peu de gens scavent" ("Curieux" n.page). Robert Chevalier, the main character described in the epigraph above from Alain-Rene Lesage's 1732 novel Les Avantures de Monsieur Robert Chevalier, dit de Beauchene, capitaine de flibustiers dans la Nouvelle-France, is indeed curieux, as he is the exceedingly rare white and blond Iroquois. Or is he Canadian? Clearly the narrator of this passage--Monsieur Remoussin, a French colonist whom Chevalier meets in Saint-Domingue--is playing with an identitary ambiguity predicated on the clash of Chevalier's physical appearance and his vestimentary choices. Dressed as an Iroquois, but normatively handsome in European standards, Chevalier is an object of wonder to be gazed on. As a Canadien, he is already "other" for the French eighteenth-century metropolitan reader. As an "Iroquois," he is doubly so. But Chevalier is only one of several "curious" characters who dresses against his prescribed social and ethnic station in Lesage's work. By analyzing these instances of cultural cross-dressing in Beauchene, I argue that this understudied work sheds new light on the intersection of dress, colonial imaginaires, and identity in New France.

My analysis of Beauchene builds on scholarship that links sartorial choices and identity, seeing in dress an expression of agency, or "self-fashioning" (Greenblatt 2). Cultural cross-dressing of the type Chevalier is practicing has garnered particular scholarly attention recently. Sophie White's Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians, for example, directs our attention to how "the process of cultural cross-dressing was foundational to the initially fluid ethnic, class, and racial elaborations" in New France (4). White's work complements studies by researchers of New France, working in historical modes, who have examined metissage and cultural transfers on the ground in the French New World. (1) However, far less attention has been paid to texts about New France, written for cosmopolitan consumption, that depict it as a place where identities could be constructed, transgressed, disputed, and negotiated. The sartorial transgressions--what I call cultural transvestism--puts into question the immutability and "naturalness" of categories in the New World. As such, Beaucbene depicts New France as a privileged space for the problematizing and questioning of the ancien regime's traditional hierarchies--either gender or ethnically based.

French Sauvages

By the time Beaucbene appeared on the Parisian book market in 1732, Lesage had achieved success in France with his play Turcaret (1709) and the first nine tomes of his picaresque novel L'Histoire de Gil Bias de Santillane (1715-35). Contemporary scholarship has tended to overlook Beaucbene in favor of these better-known works. This is unfortunate because Beauchene's setting in the French Atlantic and its depictions of the interactions between settlers and Native Americans mark it as a rich and comparatively untapped resource in the study of French imaginaires, or representations, of the New World.

Of course, Beauchene's emphasis on alterity is not radical per se, sharing a kindred spirit with other "orientalist" fiction of the period. Like Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (1721) and Madame de Graffigny's later Lettres d'une Peruvienne (1747), Lesage's Beaucbene makes use of the exotic gaze of the other to observe France. Unlike these canonical texts, however, the cultural transvestism of Beaucbene creates "otherized"--read "savage"--Frenchmen who become the critiques of French society. …

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