Filling in blanks in a literary education via early feminists and women writers….

Recently, it occurred to me (the more especially when I read about Colette on Wikipedia) that I had for too long now neglected several important writers who happened to be female and part of the history of the world novel.  Oh, I’d read Mrs. Ann Ward Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho in a Gothic literatures class, but I’d not followed up on the lead provided into the world of famous female writers, who often were the inspiration for later male writers, a thankless task which in fact often received little thanks and credit from the male writers who followed them, or at least none from the male literary establishment (I’m thinking now of the fact that Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela is usually talked about as the first epistolary novel, a startling innovation for the time (1740), and his further novels Clarissa (1748) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753) continued the tradition, but the actual initiator of the epistolary novel was the feminist writer Aphra Behn, with her novel Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, which was written in 1683).  I also consider the fact that Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s Claudine series, her first published works, were published under her first husband Henry Gauthier-Villar’s pen name “Willy,” and that she had to go through extensive legal contortions to get them back in her own name, with the proof being in her original manuscripts.  As well (and on a milder note, though still discouraging to female writers), Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, Baronesse Dudevant (alias George Sand) first published her own collaborative works through a liaison she had with the writer Jules Sandeau, under the pseudonym “Jules Sand.”  The name “George Sand” continued to be her pen name for the rest of her life.

At any rate, it seemed good to give some time and space to several female writers selected from amongst the many early female writers at random, and I’ve determined to write posts on some of their many works in turn (though not necessarily in chronological order).  the writers I’ve selected are Mrs. Radcliffe, Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, Aphra Behn, Colette, and George Sand.  I’ve felt no commitment to unearth their most popular books or their most scandalous (in some cases, the two were one).  I thought that today I would start with a few novellas and a novel I found by Sidonie Colette which just happened to be the first ones that came in at the library when I was ready to work on them.

There’s first of all a distinct difference in the two volumes by Colette which came to hand.  The one I picked up initially was the set of three novellas in one volume, Gigi, Julie de Carneilhan, and Chance Acquaintances.  While mildly evocative of a scandalous mode of life, the book had no listed translator, there was no foreword or introduction about Colette, in short, the book was an old-fashioned attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too, by publishing three slightly naughty stories by a noted female libertine without proper framework and introduction being offered.  The stories fall well within the range of Colette’s true topic, which as far as I can see without reading everything thing she wrote but by reading these three novellas and a widely different novel, The Pure and the Impure, is not sex and sensuality of various kinds per se, but is instead the topic of sexual politics as it affects everyone, whether straight, gay, or one of the many shades of in-between which Colette’s almost visionary world allows.

Most people have seen either the screen or the stage version of Gigi, have read the book, or know the story by hearsay.  The story is that of a young woman born into the demimonde and struggling innocently against the restraints and liberties practiced and the understood rules followed by her own female relatives, all of whom seem to have been rich men’s mistresses and public performers at some point, the latter of whom historically speaking were always “loose” women however inwardly respectable their instincts because that was the life forced on them by public understandings of their role.  The story is a charming one with a happy ending, and doesn’t at all prepare one for the bittersweet tale of repeated divorces and romantic misadventures contained in the second novella in the same volume, Julie de Carneilhan, which is about the daily life of an impoverished divorced woman in Paris whose days are often haunted by the spectre of hunger and worn-out clothing.  This is grim, to be sure, but even Julie makes her escape, in her case back to the past with her brother, in the end of the tale.  The third tale, Chance Acquaintances, takes a more autobiographical tone, is narrated in the first person, and in it the speaker is addressed as “Madame Colette.”  This is a tale drawn (however exaggeratedly or truly) from the days in Colette’s life when she herself was on the music hall stage, and when it was beginning to be fashionable for people in a higher walk of life (not just the men, but the women also) to be on first-name terms with music hall performers.  The perspective is the one taken of a conventional marriage from the point of view of Colette, who is drawn into its sexual politics willy-nilly and takes a hand in keeping the seamy underside of the marriage from one of its participants.  “Chance acquaintances” being the topic, we are drawn sympathetically close to the speaker, who does not spare her casual friends from our stricter views of them, and whose most devoted friend seems to be her cat, who travels everywhere with her.  As she is packing to leave the resort where she met the man and wife who occupy center stage in her tale, she says of the cat, who is “helping” her pack by getting amongst the suitcases, “I think she had understood it all, and that she was appealing to me yet once more to extricate both of us from chance acquaintances and from bitter disappointments–the full horror of which I had been hiding from myself–from fortuitious towns and strange rooms and all the rest of it.  She was imploring me to blaze a trail just wide enough for my feet and for hers, a trail that would be obliterated behind us as we went.”

By contrast with the three novellas, Colette’s novel The Pure and the Impure is more direct (though since in this case we are provided with a translator’s name, Herma Briffault, and an introduction by Janet Flanner, we can also wonder if it just wasn’t translated more honestly).  It starts out with a chapter taking place in a residence which serves as a casual opium den and dosshouse for sexual liaisons of an “irregular” nature, whether between two unmarried heterosexuals or cheating spouses, two women, two men, or some other variant on a theme.  The first chapter concentrates a lot of attention on the subject of Charlotte, a woman “of a certain age” who flatters her younger lover by “singing” like a nightingale when he gives her pleasure.  The suggestion is that her faking it is a generous act of love rather than the impiety and hypocrisy which our own time insists on seeing it as.  The very suggestion that the faking is a part of the true love act itself when it occurs (and it seems that she derives pleasure from the confidence and assurance she gives the younger man) is a real eye-opener from a twentieth-century stick-to-the-truth point of view.  The hypocrisy is still troubling, but Colette writes with such complexity of the love act and the politics of loving between whomever that she at least introduces some doubt into the equation of “duplicity equals lack of love.”

The second chapter of The Pure and the Impure focuses on an aging Don Juan-like character and his attitudes towards his conquests.  Colette writes as herself doing something like interviewing him, only for her own benefit instead of for a news station.  She compares and contrasts his attitudes about sex and sensuality with what she imagines were the perspectives of the great legendary Don Juan, and comes up with some surprising conclusions.  The most unusual thing about her way of considering his views is that she often sides with what would seem to a woman of our time to be sexist politics aimed at making women less secure and comfortable in their love.  She reiterates often, though, that this man is not a lover of her own, but a friend to whom she is talking, and thus more or less excuses herself from challenging him except in a friendly way.

As if brought on or excused or justified by the combination of the previous two chapters (one in which a woman feels bound to fake or at least exaggerate orgasms and the next in which a man articulates a seemingly unfeeling and predatory attitude towards women), and always assuming that anyone thinks such life choices have to be justified, the rest of the book is predominantly about gay relationships, first among women, then among the famous two “ladies of Llangollen,” then among men.  She provides then a short chapter focusing on how and why a jealous quarrel over a man is in reality a strong and vital relationship between the two women fighting over him.  Finally, the question of what is pure in love is mooted, and Colette’s last remark in the book is:  “The word ‘pure’ has never revealed an intelligible meaning to me.  I can only use the word to quench an optical thirst for purity in the transparencies that evoke it–in bubbles, in a volume of water, and in the imaginary latitudes entrenched, beyond reach, at the very center of a dense crystal.”  Thus, for Colette, there is presumably no “white light” in love, but only a collection of various shades and hues.

If I didn’t know better, I might almost think the two volumes by Colette were written by two different people.  The book of novellas is terse and sometimes cynical, but not outspoken in the usual sense of the word–it is allusive and elusive both.  Sexual pleasure is rather an arrangement two people come to for the predominant pleasure of one over the other, with one party clearly losing out.  The novel, by contrast, though there are opportunistic relationships like this spoken of also, is mainly about consensual sexual and romantic relationships, however unusual or improvised, which give pleasure to both people.  Colette is only one writer, of course, and only one person, and her views are those of her own experience and lifestyle.  But I’d like to think that regardless of what particular “team” one “plays for,” to quote a much-overused sexual metaphor of our own time, Colette in her quest for emotional, sensual, and sexual freedom and the supremacy and sanctity of the love relationship in our makeup speaks for us all, and that we can all learn something from reading her sometimes sad, often quizzical, but also frank and open “essays” on the art of love.

(My remarks on the other writers I’ve mentioned in this post will follow in days to come.)


Filed under Articles/reviews, Full of literary ambitions!, Literary puzzles and arguments

5 responses to “Filling in blanks in a literary education via early feminists and women writers….

  1. Impressive, Victoria. My own favorite female writer—and at the very top of my list regardless of gender—is Virginia Woolf.


    • Thanks for visiting and for the compliment, Richard. As the Indigo Girls say in their song entitled “Virginia Woolf,” “Each soul has its grace.” She in particular had a lot more grace than many others, and was a true and generously blessed descendant of the precursors I’m studying now. And I think when we can see that in a writer, then we too get to participate and partake of that grace to some extent. Of course, you are a writer full of grace on your own tick, and I’m still eagerly awaiting the publication of your memoir.


  2. D. James Fortescue

    In my English Literature days at high school, we had ‘Pride And Prejudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ in the curriculum. Both were an entertaining exposè on a lady’s plight in the early 1800’s, and a blistering beatdown on the social constructs of the times. To be an accurate portrayal, while also a scathing parody, proved Austen a true literary artist.


    • Yes, Austen is definitely up there among the greats. The person on whom I did my thesis, Henry James, played down her accomplishment slightly by calling her a miniaturist or something of the sort, but he himself was so very copious and “large” in the literary forms he chose that she would have been equally justified in calling him “gargantuan.” Mainly, though, she is very mainstream for everyone these days, so although I dearly love her work (especially “Emma”), I decided to look at some of the earlier precursors who did not get as much credit for their work as Austen now regularly gets. That’s why I’m not currently writing on her, though of course it may come if I think up an unusual angle that hasn’t already been done to death (everyone, luckily, seems to have something to say about Austen, but unluckily because of that, my lack of ingenuity doesn’t suggest yet anything new for me to say just yet).


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