Contesting National and Gender Boundaries: Flora Tristan's Promenades Dans Londres

By Pauk, Barbara | Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Fall-Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Contesting National and Gender Boundaries: Flora Tristan's Promenades Dans Londres


Pauk, Barbara, Nineteenth-Century French Studies


Flora Tristan (1803-44) was a celebrated and well known French feminist and socialist whose works appealed to a wide audience. Promenades dans Londres (1840), for instance, sold well and went through four editions between 1840 and 1842. Even after her death, Tristan was an important figure in the French workers movement and, as Claire Goldberg Moses puts it in French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century, "perhaps the most celebrated of all nineteenth-century French feminists" (l07). Tristan owed this success very much to the fact that she was "an extremely audacious, rhetorically gifted, and formidable social critic" to use Kathleen Hart's words (452).

This article will investigate Tristan's rhetorical strategies, particularly how she uses discourses on nationality and ideas of foreignness and exclusion to publicise her radical feminist ideas. (1) Its main claim is that in Promenades dans Londres, Tristan uses "othering" as a means to manipulate power relationships in regard to nation, race, gender and class and at the same rime constructs herself as an outsider and victim of exclusion. (2) Playing with different positions and perspectives, Tristan challenges Western patriarchal society.

Notions of foreignness pervade Tristan's work. For instance, in her first brochure, Necessite de faire un bon accueil aux femmes etrangeres (1835), she discusses the problems of foreign women in Paris. Moreover, Tristan repeatedly constructs herself as a foreigner or outsider throughout her work. In Peregrinations d'une paria (1838), for example, she insists on the fact that her father's relatives did not consider her to be a legitimate child of her father and a full member of the Tristan family, (3) Likewise, in her letters, published under the title Flora Tristan. La Paria et son reve. Correspondance etablie par Stephane Michaud, Tristan casts herself in the role of a foreigner and outsider. She writes, for instance, to her portraitist in 1839: "Songez, mon frere, que ce portrait sera celui de la Paria--de la femme nee Andalouse et condamnee par la Societe a passer sa jeunesse dans les larmes et sans amour!" (114). She associates the word "paria" not only with being a stranger, emphasizing her foreign origins, but also with being condemned and stigmatized by society. (4) In her later works, for instance in Union ouvriere, she describes not only all women as pariahs but also workers and other peoples whom she considers to be oppressed, such as the Irish (44-45).

Tristan was very conscious of the advantages of foreignness. As Deborah Epstein Nord outlines in Walking the Victorian Streets. Women, Representation and the City, Tristan, during her travels, took advantage of the fact that a foreigner is afforded some license by her host society and is often less bound by constraints (121). In her works, writing about other countries, as in Peregrinations d'une paria (1838), and Promenades dans Londres, allowed her to spread her radical ideas on Western society in spite of the rigorous censorship under the July Monarchy.

Tristan's preoccupation with foreignness has been analyzed in a recent study, Flora Tristan, la paria et la femme etrangere dans son oeuvre by Porfirio Mamani Macedo. He emphasizes Tristan's international solidarity and universality in her engagement with social improvement claiming that "chez elle le nationalisme s'effacera totalement pour laisser place a l'idee que le monde doit etre la commune patrie de tous les hommes" (36). Tristan indeed proclaims a certain international solidarity. However, she also clearly deploys ideologies of nationality and class.

Throughout Promenades dans Londres the English population is repeatedly marked as "other" and inferior. At the same time, Tristan casts herself in the role of a disinterested and invisible observer and knowledgeable narrator who describes another nation. One of the scenes where this becomes particularly apparent takes place in the English brothel where men and women are debased and objectified, and are seen to be offering themselves to the disinterested gaze of the superior observer (76). …

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