William A. Peniston and Nancy Erber, Eds., Queer Lives: Mens Autobiographies from Nineteenth-Century France

By Powell, David A. | French Forum, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

William A. Peniston and Nancy Erber, Eds., Queer Lives: Mens Autobiographies from Nineteenth-Century France


Powell, David A., French Forum


William A. Peniston and Nancy Erber, eds., Queer Lives: Mens Autobiographies from Nineteenth-Century France. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. 270 pp.

William A. Peniston and Nancy Erber, eds., Bougres de vies (Queer Lives): Huit homosexuels du XIXe siecle se racontent, trans. Clement Marie. Cassaniouze: Erosoynx, 2012. 215 pp.

William A. Peniston (author of Pederasts and Others: Urban Culture and Sexual Identity in Nineteenth-Century Paris, 2004) and Nancy Erber (coeditor of Disorder in the Court: Trials and Sexual Conflict at the Turn of the Century, 1999) have made available to English-speakers a group of eight "autobiographies" of nineteenth-century homosexual men. Some of the texts published here are known to late nineteenth-century French historians and scholars of queer cultural studies and literature. Peniston and Erber have made it possible for a much wider audience to become familiar with the circumstances that led to these early representations of homosexuality as well as the human aspect of such highly intimate writings.

The editors' translations successfully and accurately represent the tone and context of the original texts. Two of the texts--"Secret Confessions of a Parisian" ("Confidences et aveux d'un Parisien") and "The Novel of an Invert" (Le Roman d'un inverti)--are fairly traditional, albeit brief, autobiographical writings; the others, as the editors explain, are examples of life writing of the sort that medical and judicial officials "asked" patients and prisoners to write in order to assist them in their study and categorization of the type. Some have judged these latter texts, and others like them, to be inaccurate testimonies of gay life in late-nineteenth-century France because of the coercive circumstances of their composition; others, however, point out that as these are largely speaking the first authentic examples we have of self-identifying homosexuals, they offer invaluable evidence of cultural, social, and psychological circumstances of the period that provide indispensible information about the social and individual changes shifts in attitudes toward sexual identity.

In a successful twist of translations, the editors followed their 2008 English-language volume with a 2012 publication of the original texts with a French translation of their presentation and notes; in addition, the French volume includes a letter written by Zola to Dr. Laupts, the pseudonym of Georges Saint-Paul, who had gained a reputation as a specialist in sexual and criminal disorders. He translated certain passages of the autobiography into Latin for reasons of moral discretion. This review examines both volumes.

The last chapter of each volume is the text of an anonymous Italian who sent his story to Zola, who in turn sent it on to Dr. Laupts for his consideration. Clearly hoping it would be published in France under the sponsorship of the famous naturalist author, the autobiographer writing in French is plainly a well-bred person with literary aspirations, judging from the style and clear familiarity with literary techniques. Though the general history of this text is known to scholars of sexology studies, Peniston and Erber's presentation provides substantial background and bibliography for readers to put this text into context as well as to continue their research in some lesser-known sources.

The Third Republic "queer life" presented in the first chapter is a fairly traditional autobiography insofar as its author adopts a confessional style and tells his story from childhood to adulthood, as the editors point out, in the spirit of a Bildungsroman. Less well known than the Italian's autobiography, the story of "La Comtesse," alias Pauline de Floranges, is presented by Arthur W***, a masculine pseudonym for Arthur-Louis Belorget. …

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