Charrière’s je ne sais quoi: Why Trois femmes is a must, by Pamela Cheek

Isabelle de Charrière, Trois femmes (1795-98)

Pamela Cheek, University of New Mexico

What must a must do in order to be a textual must de la Révolution française?  Like any must, it must have style, a certain je ne sais quoi, it must be the little black dress of the event — rich in its references, an object of privilege, and, finally, one of a kind. Isabelle de Charrière’s novel Trois femmes is both one of a kind and one of many kinds, an aristocratic novel seeking an answer to the question of how to write for the people.  Searching for a solution to the questions posed by the Revolution from among an array of styles, it registers five Revolutionary musts: first, an echo of the representative genres and characters of fiction in the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary period; second, the personal, authorial stance of an engagé; third, a meditation on key philosophical questions of the revolution; fourth, a critique of the revolution; and fifth, an attempt to act for social change.

Must I: An echo of representative genres and characters from the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary periods

Trois femmes appeared first in a German translation in 1795 and in French in 1796 and 1797 in editions that Charrière considered “mutilated” by editorial expurgations as well as filled with errors.  It wasn’t until 1798 that a more faithful French edition of the first two sections of Trois femmes was published in Zurich.[1] Taken as a whole, Trois femmes constituted a catalog of the narrative forms and novelistic tropes of the Ancien régime and the Revolutionary period.

Responding to Revolutionary events in 1790, Charrière exclaimed in her letters: “heureux ceux qui pouront vite se plier à tant de choses nouvelles[.  L]es autres seront antiques dans leurs propos & leurs pensées comme nous le serions dans notre habillement si nous reprenions les parures de nos grands peres & grands meres [sic].”  The character of the emigré became crucial to her exploration of flexibility — se plier — to political and social change.  As Valérie Cossy has argued of Charrière’s novels: “Ses romans dévoilent un monde en mutation où le système des rentes et des droits féodaux cache mal le flux de capitaux issues du commerce international, qui […] produit ses propres formes d’exploitation et de nouveaux tabous.” [2] If émigrés are captivating characters, encapsulating the problems of theage, it is because they are forced into the position of either longing for a past that no longer exists or adapting, as energetic cosmopolitans, to a new world — they must choose between a private chimera of privilege and national prejudice or social equality and flexible cosmopolitanism. The choice of style was thus a political choice.  It demanded a strategy for confronting the inability of fiction to match the fictive excess of the real historical events of the French Revolution.  And it also required staking a position with respect to rigid nostalgia for the past or flexible accommodation to constant change.  The novel was a vexed genre, at best, with which to tackle the problem.  Echoing the old attack on the novel to explain why her French émigré characters read Saluste, Tacitus and Plutarch instead of novels, Charrière wrote in Trois femmes that novels “ruin the mind, especially those of women”  (Charrière 134).

Nonetheless, Trois femmes is a novel, but one that meets the challenge of employing a style suited to the age of revolution by assembling a set of pastiches of the great Ancien régime genres.  The framing device of the novel constitutes a nod to dialogues like Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville. In Trois femmes, the Abbé de La Tour participates in a salon dialogue about Kant’s categorical imperative before then going on to narrate a conte philosophique exploring the question of whether actions that are inconsistent with a priori ethical principles may nonetheless be considered moral.  His conte parodies Voltaire’s Candide, most pointedly in an opening that establishes the characters in Altendorf in “la plus jolie maison du plus joli village de la Westphalie” (Charrière 44).  The three women of the tale are a servant — the loving, practical and church-going sinner Josephine, an orphan — the young, aristocratic émigré Emilie, and their worldly female friend Constance de Vaucourt — the heiress to a commercial fortune acquired illicitly by her father and husband in the West and East Indies.  The pastiche of Ancien régime genres continues in the second section of the novel. In a mode inherited from the monovocal epistolary novels of women writers such as Graffigny and Ricobboni, Constance de Vaucourt writes a volley of letters to the Abbé, a man who cannot, because of social conventions, pursue his attraction to her.  Constance’s letters include the words of others.  The young Baron of Altendorf, whom marries Emilie, prepares his people for an abdication of his feudal rule by writing a satiric philosophical dictionary for them that strikes a tone somewhere between Voltaire and the Encyclopédie and defines in short order “Liberty,” “Moderation,” “Nature,” “Obligation or Duty” and “Potato.” Charrière’s rapid exchange of one literary form for another may be read as a virtuosic unmasking of the conventions implicit in any genre, as well as of the forms of judgment elicited by it.  Her facility with different modes of storytelling, however, also involves an attempt to make fiction— however, well, fictional — into an agent of revolutionary change.

Must II.  A personal, authorial stance as an engagé

Charrière was deeply commited, as Susan K. Jackson has pointed out,  to the “general good of promoting the discursive public sphere.”[3] The extent of her correspondence testifies to an active participation in the Republic of Letters.  Her correspondence functioned as a mirror image as well as a source for the “marathon conversations among strangers,” as Jackson characterizes them, that Charrière put into play in her fiction (198).[4] After a visit to Paris in 1786-87, Charrière became a political journalist, sending a volley of Observations et conjectures politiques anonymously to European heads of state in the years leading up to the Revolution, commenting on possible early Revolutionary reforms in texts expedited to Paris,[5] and writing pointed corrective moral fables, such as Aiglionette et Insinuante, a fairy tale sent directly to Marie-Antoinette, admonishing the queen to be more flexible.  As Charrière revised her optimism about the Revolution in 1792 and 1793, the flight of aristocrats through Neuchâtel furnished her with the opportunity to offer direct aid to emigrés by finding them work, housing and, in a few cases, friendship.  In early 1793, at the behest of the state chancelor, Charrière intervened to moderate the Swiss Jacobin sentiment that had overflowed into popular revolutionary festival and protest.  She quickly published an invented correspondence between a Frenchman and a Swiss, Lettres trouvées dans la neige, to influence public opinion and soon thereafter drafted the novel Lettres trouvées dans des portefeuilles d’émigrés.[6] Already, in 1784, Isabelle de Charrière had used the form of the epistolary novel as a way of acting on the public sphere when, in Lettres de Mistress Henley, she responded to the immediate misogynist image of women and marriage presented in Samuel de Constant’s popular Le mari sentimental (1783) and, more generally, challenged the Rousseauian model of gender roles and sexual difference.  Trois femmes, written a decade later, was originally drafted to raise money through subscription for an impoverished French émigré in England, the Countess of Montrand, Angélique-Marie d’Arlus.[7] It was also conceived, like most of her work of the past decade, as an act or intervention in writing.

Must III. A Meditation on key philosophical questions of the French Revolution

Like the Lettres de Mistress Henley, Trois femmes responded to a contemporary work published the year before that functioned as a textual touchstone in a broader cultural and philosophical debate: Immanuel Kant’s On the Proverb: That May Be True in Theory But Is of No Practical Use (1793).  Carla Hesse has situated Charrière’s encounter with the Kantian notion of the a priori foundation of categorical moral imperatives within the context of thermidorean anxiety after the Terror about the possibility of national moral regeneration and the difficulty of reconciling the public and the private good.[8] Hesse argues that Charrière’s novel is “at every level a searing cri de cœur against the emerging cultural agenda of the Committee on Public Instruction in Paris” and Henri Grégoire’s espousal of the Kantian position that happiness and virtue are not necessarily compatible (112). [9]

In a complex reading of the first two portions of the novel, Hesse maps against Kant’s three male ethical actors Charrière’s choice of three French female characters who find themselves without fathers, husbands or brothers in exile from France. Each character, Josephine the servant, Emilie the marriageable but impoverished orphan, and Constance de Vaucourt, the heir to a commercial fortune, is representative of a different sphere potentially governed by a priori rules of duty: “the domestic sphere of the household, the civil sphere constituted through marriage, and the cosmopolitan sphere of multinational business” (Hesse 121).  Yet each is, according to both Kantian principles and the competing consequentialist philosophy to which thermidorians were also attracted, excluded from full moral autonomy because of gender and status.  As Hesse summarizes,

In the end, Charrière’s story becomes a story of how these three women constitute their ethical life beyond the laws of men and without regard to absolutes.  Trois femmes, as scandalized readers recognized at the time, was the story of a band of outlaws; a story of the ethical life of women beyond the laws of propertied men (124).

The choices of the three women are based on what psychologist Carol Gilligan termed, in her study of the difference between female and male “moral reasoning,” an “ethics of care” for one another that allows them to legitimate their violations of an absolute “ethics of judgment.”[10]

When characters in Three Women make their moral choices, their decisions are generally catalysed by fictions. Thus, when Emilie must decide whether or not to renounce her national pride in France and accommodate herself to the Germany in which she has found refuge and which is the home of Théodore, the man she loves, it is a line from a copy of  Rousseau’s Emile, which Théodore has left lying open on a bench, that moves her to opt for flexible assimilation to German life rather than nationalism: “Sophie, vous êtes l’arbitre de mon sort, vous le savez bien” (Charrière, 57).  Similarly, when Théodore, heir to the Baronny of Altendorf, faces the typical Ancien régime dilemma of obeying his parents by assenting to a marriage of alliance versus asserting his autonomy by marrying the penniless Emilie, it is a line from Adèle de Sénanges, the popular novel by Adélaïde de Souza, comtesse de Flahaut, that decides him: “je ne puis vivre heureux sans elle ni avec elle” (77). When Emilie, retracing the steps of countless Ancien régime heroines, finds herself abducted by Théodore, Constance de Vaucourt moves quickly — but in absolute terms, immorally — to save her friend.  Working to protect Emilie’s reputation and to satisfy what she perceives as Emilie’s desires,  Constance involves Théodore’s parents, friends and servants in creating a public fiction that the elopement is really a wedding trip sanctioned by the family.  Constance enjoins Théodore’s parents, the Baron and Baronness of Altendorf, to display as much pomp as possible so that the elopement will look like a planned trip.  The stolid Baron, who has previously resisted the alliance of his heir with the penniless French émigré Emilie, colludes rapidly with the plot.  Charmed by the fiction and by Constance’s invention of it, the Baron cries to the servants preparing the coach in which he will follow the eloped couple, “Allons, un peu de faste; Mme de Vaucourt veut un peu de faste” (Charrière, 84).

The use of fiction as a catalyst for or even agent of change becomes, in the second part of the novel, even more feckless, but remains equally beguiling.  If, in the first section, Constance devises impromptu fictions to give the appearance of virtue to choices based on an ethics of care, in the second half of the novel, she develops expedient fictions to enable a series of Jacobin experiments in radical social transformation through education. When the son of the servant Josephine and the son of a noblewoman are mistakenly confused at birth, Constance contrives through persuasion to have them both nursed by Josephine and both given the same education by the Baronness of Altendorf.  She pays a handsome sum to have male and female twins each be given, from birth, the names, clothing and education normally reserved for the other gender.  While the reader never learns the conclusion to any of the experiments in social engineering — and, indeed, it is characteristic of Charrière’s stories that they are never brought to a full, romanesque close, the social agency of sly fictions emerges as the primary tool for tackling and rectifying injustice in a world in which women and servants are not acknowledged as autonomous moral actors.

Must IV: An articulation of direct criticism of the French Revolution

The criticism in Trois femmes of the Ancien régime and of the Revolution largely focuses on authors and fictions.  The first line of Trois femmes, a question the Abbé de la Tour addresses to a German salon, supposes that the normative order of relations between writer and reader have been upended by revolutionary events: “Pour qui écrire désormais?” (41).  The Abbé de la Tour shares the horror of other characters over the Terror, but assimilates it to the “carnaval,” “hideous orgies,” and “cruel and disgusting spectacles” that all peoples become capable of at one time or another (74).  For him, the singular fault of the French lies in having been “mesquins dans les ouvrages de l’art qui ont le public pour objet, dans ceux qui demandent unité, grandeur, dignité (74). In the second section of Trois femmes, Théodore tries his hand at just such a project when he drafts his philosophic dictionary for the feudal subjects whom he hopes to liberate from his own tutelage.  Still, as Constance suggests, the dictionary is hardly suited to its audience; she herself resorts to bribing the young people of Altendorf in order to keep them in school.

Nonetheless, the first two, published sections of Trois femmes eschew mystification and sentiment as styles suited to the people. Constance relentlessly criticizes the cult of Rousseau and Voltaire; “Le Clergé philosophe,” she writes, “est aussi Clergé qu’un autre, et ce n’étoit pas la peine de chasser le Curé de St. Sulpice pour sacrer les Prêtres du Panthéon” (106).   She objects not only to false idols and the idea of “culte” in general, but also to the claim of perfection for writers or for any human being: “mais qu’on ne demande pour ceux qui l’ont recherché, un culte que je ne puis leur rendre: en général, qu’on ne demande pas pour soi ni pour autrui l’oubli des bornes de toute perfection humaine” (104).  A lengthy authorial footnote embellishes on the theme, arguing against authors who set up characters as models of perfection for readers.  Readers, the footnote suggests, will always find a way of excusing themselves for failing to live up to those sentimental moral models and will never find themselves in moral situations that are unequivocal.

Must V: An attempt to act for social change

It thus comes as a surprise to read the third section of Trois femmes, “L’Histoire de Constance,” which remained unpublished until its inclusion in the ten-volume edition of Charrière’s complete works published in 1982. Constance’s memoir is set in Martinique, the East Indies and France and is told to the sympathetic French émigré with whom she once conducted the flirtation that led to the dueling death of her despotic first husband.  Charrière had consistently criticized one stylistic solution to the problem of representation raised by the Revolution: the sentimental and increasingly melodramatic aesthetic of turn-of-the-century drama and narrative which raised up tragic characters as melancholic exemplars of moral perfection and wounded virtue.[11] Nonetheless, “L’Histoire de Constance” is written in the “style of the day” — a style that Charrière openly attacked when Germaine de Staël employed it in Zulma.[12] So successfully does Constance’s memoir play on the tropes of early colonial and Romantic sentimental fiction that it can only be recognized as pastiche when read as the suite to the succession of pastiches in the first two sections of the novel. The significance of this conclusion to Trois femmes is threefold.  First, Charrière’s employment of the mechanisms of sentimental fiction, despite her own taste, features the very flexibility in style — the capacity to adapt to a new global reality — that she touts throughout the novel.  Second, Charrière adds two additional moral subjects to the three positions occupied by her three women: Bianca, a black slave in Martinique who tries to stab Constance’s uncle because he has abused his authority over her, and Biondina, Bianca’s young daughter, and the cousin whom Constance tries but fails to protect.  As female slave in the sphere of colonial authority and as biracial child placed at the ill-defined intersection between domestic intimacy and colonial exploitation, these new characters represent the degree zero of moral autonomy.  What claims may categorical imperatives have, Charrière seems to ask, on individuals who are forced to inhabit a society — domestic, civil and commercial — which is constituted outside of both an ethics of justice and an ethics of care?  Finally, against the grain of the style of her memoir, Constance stubbornly refuses to cast herself as a virtuous sentimental subject, an example for readers to emulate, or as the nostalgic victim of a turbulent age.   Like the orphan émigré Emilie, who realizes at the beginning of Trois femmes that she has been “abandoned to providence” “with no other mentor . . . than herself” (48), and unlike Candide, Constance has had to learn to negotiate the web of plots surrounding her, including her own romanticism, with only her own reason as guide.  If Charrière employs the style of the age to tell the story of the flexible, cosmopolitan and independent Constance, it is because it is politically expedient.  Her sentimental fable of reason, without a happy ending or, indeed any ending at all, is calculated as a lesson about the false moral authority of fiction.  In novels, Constance comments:

On y trouve une Morale qu’on appellera sublime si l’on veut mais que j’appellerois plutot idéale ou qui même n’est plus de la morale ne pouvant s’appliquer à rien.  Quelquefois l’on s’engoue tellement de sa chimérique excellence que ne trouvant pas à l’appliquer et n’en pouvant gouter une plus commune et plus adaptée à la vérité de la vie, on vit sans morale du tout ou bien on tache d’arranger sa vie à la ressemblance d’un roman ou bien encore on s’imagine qu’elle ressemble à un Roman dont on croit etre le Heros ou l’Heroine et alors on fait des aveux comme la Princesse de Cleves, on se tue comme Werther, mais cela n’arrive qu’a quelques Dupes.  Des gens plus sensés se garantissent de la catastrophe ne trouvant pas que le Roman doive finir si tot ou si tragiquement. (134)

If Charrière is flexible enough to violate her own ethics of style in order to practice an ethics of care for readers by reminding them not to be dupes, if her novel is marred by a patronizing attitude towards “le peuple”, and if the incompletion of Trois femmes reminds us of nothing so much as that the story will continue, her very failure to find the proper style for a work with the “peuple pour objet” is significant.  “Pour qui écrire désormais?” asks the Abbé de la Tour at the outset of the novel, raising a revolutionary question.  When Charrière tries purchase readers’ allegiance to reason with the bribe of a sentimental tale, the attempt speaks less of casuistry than it does of the nostalgia of a self-exiled aristocrat for an ethics of writing a priori to the marketplace.


[1] Isabelle de Charrière/ Belle de Zuylen, Œuvres complètes, 10 vols., Jean-Daniel Candaux, C.P. Courtney, Pierre H. Dubois, Simone Dubois-De Bruyn, Patrice Thompson, Jeroom Verruysse, and Dennis M. Wood, eds. (Geneva: Slatkine, 1981). 26-32.

[2] Valérie Cossy, “Des romans pour un monde en mouvement.  La Révolution et l’émigration dans l’œuvre d’Isabelle de Charrière,”  Annales Benjamin Constant 30 (2006). 158.

[3] Susan K. Jackson, “Publishing without Perishing: Isabelle de Charrière, a.k.a. la mouche du coche,” Going Public: Women and Publishing in Early Modern France. Ed. Elizabeth C. Goldsmith and Dena Goodman.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP. 196.

[4] On the relation between her letter writing and her fiction, see the articles collected in Yvette Went-Daoust, ed. Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen). De la Correspondance au roman epistolaire. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.

[5] In Lettres d’un evêque français à la nation in 1789 and Epigrammes de la mouche du coche.

[6] Isabelle Vissière, “De la lettre au roman,” Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen). De la Correspondance au roman epistolaire. 95-6.

[7] Charrière, vol. IX, 24.

[8] Carla Hesse, The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. 105.

[9] For an account of the role of moral reasoning in Charrière’s work more generally, see Colette Cazenobe, “Les Lumières au pouvoir.  La « philosophie » d’Isabelle de Charrière à l’épreuve de la Révolution,” Une Européenne. Isabelle de Charrière en son siècle.” Ed. Doris Jakubec, Jean-Daniel Candaux.  Hauterive et Neuchâtel: Éditions Gilles Attinger, 1994.  87-117.

[10] Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.

[11] On Charrière’s critiques of novelistic styles in general, see Cossy, cited above.

[12] Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen), Œuvres complètes, Jean-Daniel Candaux et al. (éd.), Amsterdam/ Genève, G.A. van Oorschot/ Slatkine, 1979-1984, 10 vols. Tome III, 181 and 542.  Cited in Cossy, 155, note 2.

2 responses to “Charrière’s je ne sais quoi: Why Trois femmes is a must, by Pamela Cheek

  1. What WP theme are you using?

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