Category Archives: Novel

Call for proposals, ‘Teaching the French Revolution’ (MLA book)

mla-logo-thumbEssay proposals are invited for a volume in the MLA’s Options for Teaching series entitled Teaching Representations of the French Revolution, to be edited by Julia Douthwaite (University of Notre Dame), Catriona Seth (Université de Lorraine), and Antoinette Sol  (University of Texas Arlington) This goal of this collection of essays is to make this field more accessible to non-specialists and to teachers in different settings, from the Humanities class at a community college to the research seminar in a graduate program. The collection of essays will complement traditional sources and include the arts, ephemera, realia, archival material and once popular but now forgotten texts in the classroom.  Accordingly, we intend to highlight through a number of settings how the revolutionary heritage lives on in our own vulnerable times. As a glance at any newspaper will reveal, we still live in a world of propaganda, advertisement, political violence, terrorism, revolution, and reaction. The essays in this proposed volume will speak to ways current students will be helped in understanding these things as well as learning about more narrowly focused topics.

The volume is divided into four sections: 1) How to Represent the Revolution: Classic Debates; 2) What Are the Musts of the Revolution (and Why Should Anyone Care)?; 3) Global Reverberations: The Impact of Emigration and Radicalism; and 4) Teaching the Revolution for Diverse Audiences.

We welcome proposals for essays that draw parallels to current events, on the idea of revolution itself, on global reverberations of the French Revolution (Haiti, Russia, Cuba, China, South America and even the recent ‘Arab spring’), on how these later revolutions intersect with literary representations of the earlier one, and essays on the French Revolution in literatures other than French, American and English such as German, Spanish, Arabic, Haitian, Chinese, or Italian. In short, essays dealing with European, transnational and the global impact of the French Revolution will round out the French and English traditions.

We are particularly interested in pedagogically-oriented essays on ways to integrate the French Revolution into diverse courses, including European Literature, Humanities, language and writing courses for community colleges and liberal arts colleges, along with ways to present difficult material, how to engage students, and how to help students acquire the necessary contexts to understand the volume’s topic.  In addition, essays dealing with teaching with translations, finding source materials (written, visual, or musical), and suggestions for ways to use these in the classroom are welcome.

If you are interested in contributing an essay (3,000-3,500 words) to one of these sections, please submit an abstract of approximately 500 words in which you describe your approach or topic and explain its potential benefit for students and instructors alike. The focus of proposed essays should be pedagogical.

Note that if you plan to quote from student writing in your essay, you must obtain written permission from your students to do so. Proposed essays should not be previously published.

Abstracts and CVs should be sent to the volume editors by 1 June 2014. Please send e-mail submissions to Professor Julia Douthwaite (jdouthwa@nd.edu), Professor Catriona Seth (Catriona.Seth@univ-lorraine.fr), and Professor Antoinette Sol (amsol@uta.edu) with the subject line “Approaches to Teaching the Fr Rev.” Surface-mail submissions can be sent to Professor Douthwaite at the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556.

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Les Chevaliers du Cygne, by Lesley Walker

Les Chevaliers du Cygne ou la cour de Charlemagne: A Must of

French Revolutionary Fiction, by Lesley Walker, Indiana University South Bend

In the first edition of the Les Chevaliers du Cygne ou la cour de Charlemagne (1795), Stéphanie-Félicité Ducrest de Genlis informs the reader that she writes to help France exit the catastrophe of the French Revolution.  She chose the court of Charlemagne because she wanted to give her contemporaries an example of great deeds performed by men and women of the past: “Enfin, j’ai voulu rappeler, par de grands exemples, à ces vertus antiques et sublimes qui ont honoré des siècles que nous nommons barbares. Je n’ai point eu le projet de rétablir la chevalerie, mais j’ai cru que la générosité, l’humanité, la loyauté des anciens chevaliers affermiroient mieux une république que les principes de Marat et de Robespierre. »[i] For Genlis, the heroic French past should serve to illuminate the path for the present; it should instruct by offering great examples of virtuous deeds performed by les grands hommes and, importantly, femmes or great women of the past.  In this manner, her moral fiction is harnessed to the public good and provides her contemporaries with models as they strive to remake France.  Included in this moral prescription are women; for Genlis, women too have a role to play in reforming the nation.

Skip forward ten years, however, and in her 1805 l’Avertissement de l’Auteur, Genlis declares that, thanks to the new regime, that is Napoléon’s, there is no longer any need to look to the past for political exemplars:

Aujourd’hui, de grands exemples offerts sous nos yeux, rendent inutiles les fictions morales ; le tableau de la vie guerrière de Charlemagne, les justes éloges donnés à son zèle pour la religion, à son infatigable activité, et son goût pour les sciences, pour les lettres et pour tous les arts, à ses sollicitudes paternelles pour l’éducation de la jeunesse, ne sont plus des leçons, et ne paroitroient maintenant que des allusions, si cet ouvrage étoit nouveau. (Genlis’s emphasis).

As Napoleon’s victories accumulate and his regime self-legitimates, the heroic past no longer provides models of exemplary behavior to be imitated by the present.  Instead, the past offers a kind of prophetic preview of the greatness to come—the legend of Charlemagne anticipates the advent of another equally enlightened Emperor.  In the 1805 edition, then, Genlis seeks to reframe the novel as merely entertaining fiction, stating that Les Chevaliers du Cygne no longer offers up moral lessons.  Indeed, as the actual Terror recedes in time, Genlis exorcises its rawest elements from her fiction: a long note that justified her activities during the Revolution is omitted; a subtitle that explicitly links the novel to the Revolution is left out in the 1805 edition; and eventually the bloody ghost—the most controversial aspect of the novel—is relegated to the hero’s over-active imagination à la Ann Radcliffe.

As any of us who were in graduate school studying French literature in the 1970s, 80s, or 90s know, the period that corresponds to the Revolution is a kind of black hole in the literary canon.  Typically after Laclos, we skipped forward in time to Chateaubriand; from 1782, we leaped to 1802.   But as today’s panel makes obvious, there was literature produced between 1789 and 1795— plays, poems, songs and even novels continued to be written despite the political turmoil.   But the Revolution does loom large as the site of immense epochal change and literature can seem beside the point.  Indeed, after the Terror, the Swiss novelist Isabelle de Charrière would write: “pour qui écrire désormais?”  Julia Douthwaite’s formulation of the “musts” of the Revolution invites us to consider a whole host of questions that confront literary studies, I think, more generally today.   As we undertake this excavation, what are we looking for?  Answers to thorny historical questions? Significant data sets to explain the behavior of specific social groups?  Or are we interested in discovering new masterpieces?  I have no intention of answering these questions; I’ll leave them to Julia, who has much to contribute to that particular conversation.  But I will ask what can this three-volume, 1200-page novel tell us that about this period that we don’t already know?   In other words, why is it a “must read?”

So why read Les Chevaliers du cygne ou la cour de Charlemagne ?   On the one hand, what we discover is, in fact, continuity with certain ideological and literary concerns of the pre-Revolution.  In 1794, Genlis’s editor P.F. Fauche was willing to gamble that the novel would sell well when he paid her the handsome sum of 6,600 pounds for the three-volume work.  The evidence seems to indicate that Fauche’s gamble paid off.   According to the catalog of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, there are six different editions of the novel—1795, 1797, 1799, 1805, 1811, and 1825. Each volume of the 1797 edition is embellished with an engraving that depicts a dramatic scene in the novel.  An English translation, by a certain James Beresford, appears in 1796.  The novel also seems to have been widely reviewed in both France and England.  In her Mémoires, Genlis claims that, due to the popularity of this novel, she was the first female author to make her living as a writer. To what, then, did Genlis owe her success?  In Robert Morrissey’s excellent book, Charlemagne and France, he explains that, despite the acerbic critique by Voltaire of past French kings including Charlemagne, the emperor as both historical figure and myth grew in prestige throughout the eighteenth century.   At the same time, interest in troubadour literature was also on the rise as evidenced by the publication of the Bibliothèque universelle des romans in 1775.  Morrissey notes that the first novels of the series were primarily medieval; and its aim was to craft a national patrimony out of the French Middle Ages, exploiting les chansons de gestes and romances, for instance.[ii] Morrissey offers Genlis’s novel as evidence to bolster his claim that France was yearning for a “Great King,” who would embrace constitutional monarchy, well before Napoléon strode upon the historical stage.

Although Morrissey is certainly correct to place Genlis’s novel within a late Enlightenment context of growing interest in specifically national history and literature, Genlis herself argued that her novel represented significant innovation.  In addition to relying on recent historical works such as the four-volume Histoire de Charlemagne by M. Gaillard or Les Observations sur l’histoire de France by the Abbé de Mably, Genlis defends adamantly her choice to tell a ghost story not only on ethnological grounds but also on esthetic ones.  That is, what is innovative about the novel, according to its author, is to have killed off the heroine in the first pages while still maintaining readerly interest in her throughout the work’s three volumes.  This bloody ghost struck a nerve: critics tended not to like it.  For the first three editions, she resists giving into their judgment; but by 1805, she rewrites the ghost scenes to please her critics.  I want to consider briefly the implication of this choice.

In the 1795 edition of the novel, Genlis says that she wrote the first nine chapters before the Revolution.  In the Epitre Dédicatoire to that edition, she explains that the idea for the plot came from a work entitled Voyage de la caverne de R***, probably penned by the Comte de Tressan, who was one of the editors of the Bibliothèque universelle des romans.  From the beginning then, the novel combined a chivalric plot with elements of the roman noir that were both apparently popular genres before the Revolution.  We also learn in the 1795 Epitre Dédicatoire that the novel was originally called Les Petits Talons.  These petits talons will suffer multiple erasures as Genlis rewrites and reframes the novel to fit into imperial shoes.

As the title indicates, the novel is set during the reign of Charlemagne in the ninth century. Our two heroes Oliver and Isambard  represent « la générosité, » « l’humanité, » and « l’amitié. »  Reminiscent of the opening scene of La Princesse de Clèves, the court of Charlemagne is peopled by many young and beautiful men and women. In addition to a long description of our two heroes, the sublime Célanire, daughter of Vitikund, chief of the Saxons who is eventually vanquished by Charlemagne, is introduced, as well as the scheming coquette Armoflède, who causes much unhappiness.  Olivier quickly falls in love with Célanire and has reason to hope that he will be able to marry her.   Because he saved the life of her father Vititkund, he expects to be rewarded with her hand.  But, unfortunately, she has already been promised to Albion, an old and faithful friend of Vitikund.   Despite this parental interdiction, these two young people decide to marry in secret, which is always a bad idea in Genlis’s novels!  The reader is then treated to a full-blown gothic wedding: a storm, multiple faintings, underground passage-ways, candles blown out, and of course a priest.  This marriage is clearly ill-fated.  Due to the machination of Armoflède, the ever-credulous Olivier comes to believe that Célanire is having an affair.  He surprises Célanire in the midst of what he believes to be an amorous assignation: he takes out his sword; his supposed rival flees; and « à bras forcené » he kills Célanire before running himself through with his own sword [see image 1].  The frontispice of the 1797 edition reads : « On la trouva baignée dans son sang. »  In this dramatic fashion, Célanire dies but fortunately for the reader and Olivier, it turns out that he is only wounded again.  He will eventually recover physically from this wound, but he will never recover from the horror of his deed.

The reader only discovers what “really” happened to Célanire about half way through, that is, 600 pages into the novel, thanks to Isambard’s detective work.  In the meantime, the knights encounter a series of other characters (Giafar, the English King Egbert, the Caliph Aaron, and Ogier le Danois), who relate their stories and delay the discovery of Olivier’s crime.  Although we see the ghost within the first 50 pages of the novel, its true origin and raison d’être are not revealed until hundreds of pages later.  Eventually, however, Olivier reveals his mysterious secret to his friend.  The first night of their exile, Isambard is surprised that Olivier intends to sleep alone (apparently it was customary for frères d’armes to share the same bed).  He assumes that Olivier has made a secret assignation with Armoflède.  His curiosity thus piqued, he decides to spy on his friend.  Later in the evening, he hears the sound of les petits talons of a woman who enters his room and slips into bed with our hero.   Yet what at first appears as a scene of libertinage turns quickly into a nightmare when Isambard realizes that the person in bed with Olivier is in fact the ghost of Célanire.  The nocturnal visits of a bloody skeleton are meant to be the eternal punishment for his heinous crime.

What interests me about this apparition is that, at least in the first three editions, the ghost is real; that is, it is not mere a figment of Olivier overly active imagination.  Isambard, as witness, not only sees and hears it, but he also mops up its blood.  The ninth chapter, entitled Affreuse découverte, opens with these words : « Mais qui pourrait exprimer le saisissement et l’horreur qu’il éprouva, à l’aspect terrible du tableau surprenant qui frappa ses regards ! Il vit un affreux squelette ensanglanté, qui s’éloignait avec lenteur en gémissant sourdement . . . »  Genlis knew that this vivid ghost story might fall foul of certain critical expectations.   In a long footnote to the first edition, she defends her choice to include the supernatural in her tale by arguing that she is writing about a different world, the Middle Ages, that possessed different beliefs, which included the supernatural.  She rightly points out that classical and Renaissance literature is replete with ghosts and magical beings.  Indeed, many of the novel’s chapters begin with an epigraph from Shakespeare.  As a kind of ethnographer avant la lettre, she insists that the novel is “historically” accurate and should not be judged by eighteenth-century standards of verisimilitude.  « Je place une apparition dans un siècle où la croyance universelle consacrait ce grand moyen de terreur. »  And, moreover, she explains that she had very specific esthetic reasons for including this apparition.  As I have already stated, what she claims to be her most significant innovation was to have killed off her heroine in the first pages of the novel; yet the novel is nonetheless concerned with her throughout—hence the necessity of the ghost and eventually a double.   What this long footnote suggests is that the novel is as much about Célanire as it is about the knightly brothers of its title.

If the first half of the novel is about Oliver’s secret, the second half concerns the transformation of his unhappy passion into something productive and useful.  As wandering Knights errant, Olivier and Isambard decide to assist a princess who finds herself and her lands, the duchy of Clèves, besieged by a band of confederated princes who insist that she cannot rule alone but must marry one of them.  If she refuses to do their bidding, they will take her and her lands by force.  Such conduct convinces the Princess Béatrix that any one of these princes would be a despot to her and her people.  In order to defend their freedom, she makes a general appeal for help to all brave knights, to which Olivier and Isambard respond—as well as a host of others.   With two armies amassed on either side of the city’s walls, Olivier is introduced to Béatrice and promptly faints because she is an exact double of Célanire.

It is with the young and enlightened Princess Béatrix that the novel takes an explicitly political turn.  Confronted with a difficult choice, Béatrix consults her people to decide whether she should abdicate and place her lands under the protection of Charlemagne or if she should fight and risk the lives of many good men.  Her people elect to fight under the banner of their enlightened princess rather than submitting to the laws of a foreign king.  Béatrix is thus represented as a leader worthy of the highest respect and patriotic love of her people.  Indeed, as with Charlemagne, Béatrix is also represented as one of the novel’s exemplary monarchs who respects the will of the people, is reasonable and just, and is highly cultivated.  (Under Charlemagne, France of the ninth century had legislative assemblies and royal academies of the arts and letters).

In addition to being an exemplary ruler, Béatrix is also the double of Célanire.  Due to time constraints, however, I won’t detail the extraordinary plot twists—the gifts, portraits, tear-filled nights, disguises and so forth—that comprise Olivier’s and Béatrix’s doomed love affair.  It is enough to say that after vanquishing the army of the confederate princes, Olivier is mortally wounded by Theudon who mistakes him for Isambard.  On his death bed, Olivier insists that Béatrix marry his frère d’armes, Isambard.  The two are married and Olivier dies.  On his death bed, Olivier will again faint away into Isambard’s arms : « Tout à coup Olivier entr’ouvre des yeux languissans ; il voit, il reconnoît son frère . . . . O mon ami ! dit-il . . . . A ces mots, il laisse tomber doucement sa tête sur le sein d’Isambard, ses yeux se referment pour jamais . . . il expire ! »  This last scene of the novel, a kind of pieta, recalls Girodet’s painting, the Entombment of Atala, (1808) [image 2]. The difference, however, is that it is not the woman’s dead body over which we are asked to grieve; but it is the aestheticized body of the dead hero that causes tears to flow.   Instead of the female figure being sacrificed for the sake of the male protagonist’s lonely quest à la Chateaubriand, here, the hero dies to reestablish order and re-institute the reign of virtue.  Through death, Olivier opens the possibility of a better future for the couple of Isambard and Béatrix as well as for Béatrix’s people.

The original conception of the novel is then structured by two sets of doubles: Olivier/Célanire and Isambard/Beatrix.   The tragic pairing of Olivier and Célanire is superseded by a virtuous and blameless couple, who can capably manage the political interests of the duchy of Clèves.   As other critics have suggested this denouement can certainly be understood as a political allegory, but it is not yet about the advent of another “Great King.”  If Genlis wrote an allegory, that allegory is as much about the centrality of feminine moral agency as it is about constitutional monarchy.  Accordingly, it is the ghostly presence of Célanire throughout the novel that drives Olivier to accomplish the necessary sacrifices that will save the Duchy of Clèves (France?) from her enemies and unite Isambard and Béatrix in marriage (national reconciliation?).  The bloody skeleton of Célanire is the terrifying agent that literally propels the plot.  The haunted Olivier finally dies for the sake of friendship and the greater good.  In so doing, he releases the Célanire/Beatrix character to marry and rule over a peaceful and prosperous homeland.  Importantly, Beatrix is not only the double of Celanire but, is herself a wise and generous ruler; she is also the double of Charlemagne.  Thus the agency granted these female characters should not be underestimated.

By 1805, however, Genlis reframes the novel and introduces another couple, Charlemagne and Napoléon, who takes the place of Isambard and Béatrix as the ultimate solution to the tragic events recounted in the novel.  Genlis thus domesticates past terrors by turning them into mere ghost stories that serve as light entertainment   In the preface to the 1805 edition, she writes: “Mais enfin ce spectre a déplu, et je l’ai retranché.”  Isambard would no longer scrub floor boards clean of the bloodstains left behind by a ghost that he had seen.  This act of rewriting not only erased the traces of the bloody skeleton, which caused offense, but it also diminishes the active role of the novel’s heroines.  It was certainly true that after Ann Radcliffe’s Mysterious of Udolpho (1794), the supernatural in fiction, despite deceptive appearances, demanded a rational explanation.   Thus, as with Radcliffe’s ghosts, women rulers are also relegated to a distant and superstitious past, turned into characters of someone else’s over-active imagination.  These fanciful stories would no longer make any claim on real-life events—the new regime would take care of the present and future.

To sum up, then, Les Chevaliers du cygne provides a relatively extensive historical and esthetic record of significant ideological continuities and shifts over the course of the Revolution.   As we have seen, Genlis, an accomplished writer during the ancien regime, began the novel before the Revolution; its original nine chapters clearly link the 1770s and 80s to post-Revolutionary tastes and concerns. As Morrissey explains, Charlemagne became an idealized and popular figure of enlightened monarchy during the last thirty years of the eighteenth century.  In literary terms, we also note that the roman noir tradition of bloody skeletons and hauntings precedes the Revolution—despite the often repeated comment by the Marquis de Sade to the contrary.  The presence of strong female characters as active agents of social transformation likewise continues an Enlightenment tradition.  In this light, the novel also allows us to understand Genlis’s political views and esthetic opinions as less reactionary and conservative than often claimed.  The 1805 edition does, however, portend a significant shift: les fictions morales are declared inutiles.  I want to suggest that this is an enormous shift, particularly for a woman novelist.  Are we witnessing literature become “mere” entertainment?  And as she makes this move, the agency of the female characters is also diminished.

It has been said and repeated innumerable times that there is a necessary gap between momentous historical events and good literature. But literature, as Don Delillo’s the Falling Man illustrates, can also provide compelling and poignant eye-witness accounts from those who live to write the tragic tales of these events.  The spectacle of a bloody skeleton chasing our good-hearted, brave, but guilty hero throughout Europe strikes me as a fitting image for 1795: the bloodstains are still wet; guilt and innocence remain unclear; and the ghosts demand to be seen.


[i] Madame de Genlis, Les  Chevaliers du Cygne ou la cour de Charlemagne, Conte historique et moral, pour servir de suite aux Veillées du Château, et dont tous les traits qui peuvent faire allusion à la révolution française, sont tires de l’Histoire. (Hambourg: P.F. Fauche, 1795).

[ii] Robert Morrissey, Charlemagne and France: A Thousand Years of Mythology, (University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame Indiana, 2003).  Also should cite work from other folks Grossman for example.

What else must we know about the French Revolution?

Call for papers for annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies in Vancouver, British Columbia (March 17-20, 2011) and projected volume of essays.

Over 1,200 novels were published between 1789, when the Bastille fell, and 1804, when Napoleon triumphantly declared the Revolution’s end.  And yet literary study of the Revolution and its aftermath remains a work-in-progress.  Nineteenth-century scholars, like Eugène Maron in his Histoire littéraire de la Révolution (1856), dealt primarily with oratory and journalism, and dismissed fiction as unworthy of serious study.  Inspired by the linguistic turn in cultural history and supported by new reference tools and databases, researchers since the 1980s have begun excavating this material, yet no single compendium exists to date where the “musts” are presented to the world.
This round table builds on the excitement generated by a sister panel at 2010 ASECS (which filled a large conference room at 8:00am), and will advance progress toward a projected volume of essays on the same topic.  Publishers have already expressed interest; the proposed book fills a noticeable gap in revolutionary studies.
We invite scholars to present short position papers that explain 1) what one literary work they consider a “must” for scholars and students of the French Revolution, and 2) why it is important for us to read this text today (literary, political, or aesthetic/critical rationale).
Position papers will be 5-7 minutes in length, in French or English.  Up to seven contributions may be accepted for the 75-minute round table.  Longer versions of the papers will be posted in advance on the website :   What you must know about the French Revolution.
Interested?  contact jdouthwa@nd.edu with a one-page proposal and CV by September 10, 2010.

Two novels worth knowing: Pauline Guizot’s Les Contradictions (1799) and La Chapelle d’Ayton (1800), by Nanette LeCoat

Nanette Le Coat, Trinity University

What characteristics should a novel possess to be “must” of the French Revolution?  Should it critique the Revolution by sensationalizing the horrors of a recent past?  Or should it avoid awakening the memories of what Germaine de Staël called “ce temps incommensurable” by a creating an exotic fantasy world?  Must it express nostalgia for a regime where the cultivation of feeling became a fashionable indulgence? Or must it imagine a new era with where the pursuit of happiness is earnest and egalitarian?  Must it content itself with recombining old forms to new effect or should it strive instead to find forms of expression fitting a new era?

Pauline de Meulan’s post-Revolutionary novels Les Contradictions (1799) and La Chapelle d’Ayton (1800) do not portray the life of aristocrats struggling to remake their lives on a foreign soil.  Revolutionary events, either heroic or bloody, do not figure as a backdrop.[1] Nor indeed do their young protagonists, like many of the college students we teach, seem more than dimly aware of recent historical and political events so preoccupied are they with their own fear of failing to find a position in life and a companion to share it with.

Meulan’s political allegiances are expressed indirectly in her post-Revolutionary fiction.   While the locale of the Chapelle d’Ayton may reflect Meulan’s anxiety about locating her story in the seismic terrain of post-Revolutionary France, her novel is situated in England for the simple reason that her heroine is English. More interesting than the question of why the English locale, is the question of why Meulan chose to translate and appropriate as her own an English novel which unabashedly rewrites the narrative of the most notorious French novel of its day–La Nouvelle Héloïse.

La Chapelle d’Ayton, ou Emma Courtney is the story of a young woman who loses successively her mother, her beloved aunt and uncle with whom she is sent to live, her father, and finally and most tragically, the one great love of her life.  The novel relates a concatenation of circumstances—including a mysterious “obstacle insurmountable”—conspiring to prevent Emma from marrying Auguste Harley.  As Meulan’s narrative evolves it progressively adopts diverse subgenres of the 18th-century fictional repertoire—the memoir, the epistolary novel, the novel of manners, and the gothic romance.  But in this hybrid architecture—symbolized by the central structure that gives the novel its name—echoes of Rousseau’s influential novel are always heard.  Emma, like Julie, is prevented by paternal interdiction and social prejudice from marrying Auguste.  She marries instead the austere and older Mr. Montague who, suspecting that Emma is still in love with Auguste, exacts a promise from her that she will no longer write to August and that she will distance herself from him by moving to the Ayton estate.  Here, Emma keeps her marital promise to live a virtuous life.  She devotes herself to good works and to the education of Montague’s daughter from an earlier marriage.  The novel ends on a bitter-sweet note that is no more convincing than Julie’s attempts to persuade Saint-Preux of her happiness: “Si quelquefois la mélancolie venait s’emparer de son cœur, Emma connaît les moyens de se distraire; elle redouble d’activité pour le Bonheur de ce qui l’environne; le nuage se dissipe, Emma peut dire encore: Je suis heureuse.”(267)

In  her preface to the first edition of her “translation” Meulan claimed that her decision to translate this particular novel was a matter of chance implying that she could very well have chosen another instead.[2] This claim, I believe, was disingenuous. For Mary Hays, the author of whose novel inspired Meulan’s, the decision to translate the French story of a young woman’s moral dilemma into an English context was clearly a political.  I believe that for Meulan, too, the choice was also political.  Rousseau’s novel, in the eyes of contemporary British critics, was fraught with dangerous implications, for as Claire Grogan, Katherine Binhammer and others have pointed out, La Nouvelle Héloïse had the reputation of having made novel reading seductive for women while at the same time exposing women’s fatal vulnerability to such seductions. In the decade of the 1790s (Hays’s novel was published in 1796), the critique of Rousseau became a major weapon in the arsenal of conservative British educators and critics whose anti-Jacobin screeds were bent on demonstrating the baleful social and moral  influence of the French philosophes on both French and British society.[3] While Hays elected to the explore the complexities of women’s identification with Rousseau’s fictional characters some of her contemporaries, such as Elizabeth Hamilton in her Memoir of Modern Philosophers, chose rather to viciously satirize the female types who too readily fell into his seductive trap.  Critiques of Rousseau were not merely incorporated into satiric novels; they also generated sustained commentary on the pernicious influence of French philosophy from in such journals as the Anti-Jacobin Review.

An anti-Anti-Jacobin novel

Fluent as she was in English and familiar as she was with the British literary scene, Meulan could scarcely have been unaware of the controversy that Rousseau-inspired fiction generated across the Channel.   Nor was she unaware that the French Counter-Revolution like the Counter-Enlightenment which had preceded it, made the critique of the philosophes the core of their campaign to restore France to ancien régime glory.  Meulan’s own views on the Revolution were moderate.  Like most people who had survived the Terror, her life had been inalterably changed and, as Sainte-Beuve observed, she looked back on the late stages of the Revolution as “un affreux spectacle qui blessait toutes ses affections et ses habitudes.”[4] Nonetheless, like the Thermidoreans, she refused to abandon her faith in the Revolution’s early ideals.  This political independence earned her the respect of Suard, the Enlightenment man of letters, who published Le Publiciste and hired her there as a regular journalist.  In this role she refused to bow to the critical orthodoxy of either the Right or the Left and her assessments of writers as diverse as Collin d’Harleville, La Harpe, Germaine de Staël and Louis de Bonald were notable for their dry wit and judiciousness. Because Meulan was politically savvy, she must certainly have anticipated the critical reactions her text was likely to provoke when she undertook to translate Hays’s novel.  To amplify and expand upon a novel whose themes were so obviously indebted to Rousseau was then, consciously or not, a gesture of defiance to the Counter-Revolutionary Right and an implicit reaffirmation of the French revolutionary ideals.

Reading Rousseau

As James Swenson has argued, there are many ways that Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse was retrospectively interpreted as prefiguring revolutionary ideas: its affirmation of a personal conception of God independent of orthodox religious pieties, its vision of a utopian space in which nature both shapes and is shaped by human will,  its reinvention of virtue.[5] But the influence of Rousseau’s novel did not derive exclusively from abstract ideals. The novel provided a way for its readers to understand their own lives by drawing out the connections between their imaginative and affective inner experience and their social existences.  Through the reading and writing of letters, Rousseau’s protagonists fashioned their own moral identities.

Both the French and English versions of Emma Courtney’s story make plain the foundational role of reading in her moral development.  Emma’s early contact with literary texts creates the essential lineaments of her character and establishes her most significant affective ties.  Emma’s aunt, having lost her infant son, lavishes her maternal feeling on her young niece.  Mme Melmoth “se plaisait à développer et à faire ressortir une sensibilité, déjà plus vive qu’elle ne l’est ordinairement dans l’enfance” (10).  Whereas Emma’s uncle loves poetry and introduces her to best examples of ancient and modern verse, Mme Melmoth, has an inordinate predilection for novels—a taste which she transmits her niece:  “Son goût pour les romans allait jusqu’à la fureur.  Elle employait à cette dangereuse occupation tout le temps qu’elle ne donnait pas à ses études, ou à la société de sa tante. Tout son petit revenue passait à se procurer des livres [. . .] tous les personnages du plus fade roman saisissaient tour à tour son imagination; elle se mettait à la place de chacun d’eux; la position la plus extraordinaire était toujours celle qu’elle choisissait de préférence. .  . ” (11-12).

The reading tastes of her surrogate mother, and to a lesser extent her uncle, prove to have a negative effect on Emma’s character.  In the assessment of Meulan’s stern narrator, these character flaws reveal themselves at an early age for while Emma is tender, affectionate, and intellectually curious, she is also flighty and incapable of self-discipline.  Through her choice of reading, her aunt has transmitted to her niece her own moral shortcomings.  While Mme Melmoth is kind and generous, she is also pampered, complacent and ignorant of the world.  She has no real judgment, no intellectual interest, and no fortitude.  As Emma becomes a young woman, her aunt’s example becomes increasingly dangerous for the “maternal” education she has provided has ill-equipped Emma to be strong in the face of adversity, to learn the skills she needs to be independent, or to negotiate the treacherous ways of polite society.

When Mr. Melmoth dies, Emma’s father belatedly accepts his paternal obligations.  Having spent his life pursuing pleasure in fashionable society, Mr. Courtney has taken no real interest in his daughter, but fearing the prospect of a lonely old age and discerning in his daughter some intellectual aptitude, he attempts to make amends by overseeing her education. “M. Courtney paraissait mettre le plus grand soin à former le jugement de sa fille, à rectifier ses idées, à détourner sur des objets utiles l’activité d’une imagination ardente.” (30)

Emma, suspecting that her father’s newfound interest in her is motivated solely by as sense of duty, is at first reticent.  But she is soon absorbed by the texts to which her father introduces her.  At this stage in the narrative Guizot introduces another scene of reading reminiscent of Rousseau’s most intimate writing. The text Mr. Courtney chooses to inspire Emma to abandon her novels and take up more serious reading is Plutarch’s Lives. This stage in Emma’s education mirrors a similar transition in Rousseau’s formation.  The author of the Confessions recalls that after his mother’s death, he and his father would indulge in the guilty pleasure of staying up all night reading the novels she had left behind.  This “dangereuse méthode,” Rousseau confesses, gave him a misshapen education: he knew everything about feelings and nothing about things. The novel reading period of Rousseau’s education soon came to an end, however, when he and his father had exhausted all the books in his mother’s library.  It was now time to turn to his father’s library.  “Plutarque surtout,” Rousseau explains, “devint ma lecture favorite. Le plaisir que je prenais à le relire sans cesse me guérit un peu des romans.”[6] Yet despite Rousseau’s acquisition of more philosophical reading habits, the impressions created by his first reading experience leave an indelible imprint on his character. The confused feelings awakened in him by his mother’s novels do not alter his as yet-to-be-developed reason but “elles m’en formèrent une d’une autre trempe, me donnèrent de la vie humaine des notions bizarres et romanesques, dont l’expérience et la réflexion n’ont jamais bien pu me guérir.”

Similarly for Emma, the novels and tales which inspired her early identification with romantic heroines leave a lasting impression on her imagination and shape her responses to new experience.  Emma’s new paternal education will be tested when her father invites her into his social world.  Mr. Courtney’s worldly friends are impressed by his daughter’s literary sophistication, but condescending regarding her social skills.  Emma’s instinctive reaction is to reject the pretensions, egotism and falseness her father’s stylish circle.  At the same time, she is astonishingly naïve regarding the intentions of the people who offer her their friendship. Emma has learned to read, but she has not yet learned to decipher the codes of polite behavior or to conform to social expectations.  This incomplete education will lead Emma to become a victim of many misunderstandings and deceptions.  It is only when she has acquired the discernment born of long experience of the world that Emma finally succeeds in overcoming the obstacles which thwart her happiness.

Gender and genre

What are we to make of the contrast Meulan draws between “maternal” and “paternal” educations?  Is Meulan saying that novels are the frivolous indulgences of women whereas works of history, philosophy and the natural science reflect the interests and more systematic mental training of men?  Do Emma’s early reading experience incite her to imagine and then to enact passionate sexuality by offering herself to Augustus before marriage?  And if Meulan intends to suggest a linkage between frivolous reading and immoral behavior how does her view distinguish itself from the anti-Jacobin posture?

In the British context, there was in fact considerable consensus about the dangerous seductiveness of Rousseau’s novel; disagreement amongst critics and the novelists who were inspired by him focused on assessments of women’s capacity to resist this textual seduction and what views on what means should be favored to counter the novel’s influence.  As Claire Grogan noted, the remedies that were proposed were of three types: censorship, guidance, and knowledge.[7]

Meulan, not surprisingly, takes the middle stance favored by Mary Hays.  Emma’s “paternal” instruction provides a corrective to the lax novel-reading upbringing given to her by her aunt.  Mr. Courtney intends the intellectually demanding readings and critical debate he engages in with Emma to develop her analytical skills so that she might resist the suasions of imaginative fiction.  Though Meulan suggests that the effect of imaginative literature has not been altogether beneficial in the development of Emma’s character, and though she proposes an alternative form of reading and an alternative style of instruction, she does not seem to suggest that novel reading be banned altogether.  Nor does she draw a strict dichotomy between the male and female reading provinces.  It is, after all, Emma’s uncle who instills in her a love of poetry, a genre which like the novel, had been viewed as a slightly feminine.  Meulan also suggests that the “serious” form of instruction offered by Emma’s father is not entirely successful unless Mr. Courtney succeeds in establishing a closer rapport with his daughter.  Mr. Courtney’s coldly intellectual approach initially backfires.  His mocking tone and sarcasm initially cause Emma to refrain from discussing her enthusiasms with him. It is only when he learns to listen to her in a respectful manner that she becomes more receptive to his lessons. Emma’s most enduring and powerful lessons derive not from a particular literary genre, but from the affective relations she has with her teachers.  Mme Melmoth’s unconditional devotion to her niece and her affectionate, accepting attitude reinforce Emma’s passion for certain kinds of reading, much in the same way that Rousseau’s early slightly illicit reading sessions with his father help to palliate the loss of his mother and her affection.  Ultimately, the shaping of Emma’s moral character depend both on the cultivation of her feelings and imagination and her capacity to negotiate the social world through rational discernment.

On the surface at least Les Contradictions, ou ce qui peut arriver, a novel Meulan published a year before La Chapelle d’Ayton, are quite different novels.  Meulan’s first novel is the story of a young man’s struggles to marry a woman of equal fortune and status.  The marriage is constantly deferred by a series of social obstacles of varying degrees of seriousness –rainstorms, elopement, miscarriage and the death of an aunt.  Whereas Emma’s story has a dark romantic tone enhanced by gothic elements such as the brooding ambiance of the Chapelle d’Ayton and the appearance of ghostly apparitions, Les Contradictions is told in a breezy style.  While its characters experience misfortune, they display throughout the comic resilience of the protagonists of Voltaire’s Candide, and the reader never really doubts that their story will have a satisfactory resolution.   Indeed the novel ends when the hero marries a suitable young lady leaving his servant, Pierre, to conclude with the Panglossian observation:  “Dieu fait tout pour le mieux.”(275)

Huguette Krief has remarked on the heterogeneity that characterizes Pauline de Meulan’s oeuvre.[8] I would suggest, however, that these two novels reveal essential continuities.  They share the standard topos of sentimental fiction—marriage— and the plots of both novels are driven by the deferral of desire.  More importantly, both novels illustrate the importance of choice in the moral formation of the young and an invitation to the young to participate in the creation of their own moral identity.

From the novel to moral philosophy

In the prefaces to both the first and second editions of La Chapelle d’Ayton, Mlle de Meulan, soon to be Pauline Guizot, displayed an ambivalent attitude towards her progeny.  As Antoinette Sol has remarked, this ambivalence reflects a diffidence concerning the hybrid nature of her production for her version of the Emma Courtney story was neither fully a translation of another’s work, nor fully an original production.[9] Her ambivalence stemmed as well from a critical attitude to the form she had adopted:  “. . . j’ai fait un roman et une préface, après avoir juré vingt foi que si je faisais jamais un livre, ce ne serait point un roman, et n’aurait point de préface.”(vi)  Meulan’s translation/imitation is as Sol, suggests, at once a mémoire de roman and a roman-mémoir; it is also, I would suggest, an experimental novel.  Meulan adopts Hays’s novel expanding and adding many characters and episodes not in the original.  It is in this material that the most significant generic shifts occur.  In elaborating Hays’s novel Meulan tries on the themes and preoccupations which would become truly her own in her subsequent work.  Through this experimentation with genre Meulan identifies her own literary niche.  The role Meulan elects is that of the “moraliste.” As her contemporary, Charles de Rémusat, commented: “toutes ces compositions prouvent un penchant visible à tout ramener au point de vue moral.” (74)   Meulan’s choice is important. In the first few years of the nineteenth century, the eighteenth-century was in ill repute.  Many writers expressed their contempt for the philosophical tendencies of the previous century by celebrating and imitating the literary genres of the Siècle de Louis IV.  The choice to adopt the role of moraliste in the tradition of La Rochefoucauld, Pascal or Chamfort, might be interpreted as a gesture of conformity with the retrograde tendencies of the time.  Such is not the case.  Meulan may well have taken up the literary genre of an earlier period, but her orientation was decidedly modern.  What made it new was her audience—one which hitherto had largely been ignored by the literary world.  In the years 1802 until her death in 1827, Pauline Guizot produced a stream of moral tales destined for children which bore the titles L’écolier, ou Raoul et Victor, Le pauvre José: conte dédier à la jeunesse, Jules ou le jeune précepteur, or my particular favorite, L’éducation de Nanette.   This work culminated in her most admired text—L’Education domestique, ou lettres de famille sur l’éducation—which won her literary validation in the form of the prize in moral philosophy from the Académie française in 1828.

Pauline Guizot’s literary trajectory typifies the work of early nineteenth-century women writers who adopted eighteenth-century genres to the political and social ambitions purposes of the new century. Guizot’s skeptical attitude regarding the implausibility and excess of sentimental fiction inspired her to embrace its plots with a provisional and ironic attitude.  Whatever its perceived flaws, the novel would remain for nineteenth-century women writers a capacious and flexible receptacle for wide ranging reflections on politics, history and new social roles for women and the young.


[1]Both novels were published Chez Maradan in 1799 and 1800 respectively. The second edition of La Chapelle d’Ayton appeared Chez Maradan in 1810.

[2] “Je voulais traduire un livre anglais; le hasard me fit tomber sur un roman en deux volumes, nommé Emma Courtney”, Préface de la première édition, v.

[3] See Claire Grogan, “The Politics of Seduction in British Fiction of the 1790s: The Female Reader and Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 11, Issue 4. 1999 and Katherine Binhammer, “The Persistence of Reading: Governing Female Novel-Reading in Memoirs of Emma Courtney and Memoirs of Modern Philosophers in ,”Eighteenth-Century Life, vol. 27, Number 2, Meulan2003. For a discussion of the Anti-Jacobin reaction to Rousseau, see M.O. Grenby, The Anti-Jacobin Novel: British Conservatism and the French Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[4] Sainte-Beuve, Charles, “Madame Guizot,” in Portraits de Femmes, (Portraits lIttéraires, vol. 2) Paris: Gallimard, 1960, 1180.

[5] James Swenson, On Jean-Jacques Rousseau Considered as One of the First Authors of the Revolution. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

[6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Confessions. Paris: Garnier Frères, 1964, 8

[7] Grogan, 6.

[8] Huguette Krieff, Vivre libre et écrire: une anthologie des romancières de la période révolutionnaire 1789-1800. Oxford /Paris: Voltaire Foundation, 2005.

[9] Antoinette Sol. “A French Reading and Critical Rewriting of Mary Hay’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney” in Strategic Rewriting, vol. 8 edited by David Lee Rubin Early Modern Fiction, vol. 8, 2002.

Rousseauism and Revolution: François Vernes’ Adélaïde de Clarencé, ou Les Malheurs et les délices du sentiment : Lettres écrites des Rives Lémantines (1796), by Catriona Seth

Catriona Seth

Université de Nancy 2 and Indiana University (Bloomington)

It may seem paradoxical to choose a never reedited text published by a little-known Swiss writer as a ‘must’ of the French Revolution, but I would argue that it deserves to be considered an emblematic work in more ways than one.

A mere glance at the title-page of François Vernes’ 1796 novel indicates some of its essential aspects. The date is given both according to the traditional calendar and the revolutionary one: ‘1796, An 4e de la République Française’. As the two ways of computing years do not overlap completely, the an IV or quatrième of the Republic stretched between the end of 1795 and the start of 1796; this means the book in fact came out somewhere between January 1st and September 22nd 1796. The double date is a salutary reminder of the upheaval in traditional norms during the revolutionary period and the problematic coexistence of two eras.

Another essential element present on the title-page is the indication of the editor’s identity. With the abolition of privileges and the opening up of publishing, anyone could set up as a printer and editor. ‘Chez l’Auteur, au Bureau de la Décade philosophique, Rue Thérèse, et chez les principaux Libraires’ indicates as much. This would have been impossible under the Ancien Régime. The reference to the Décade philosophique, the paper run by people one could call moderate democrats also points to the increasing power and politicisation of the press during the period. The author, ‘F. Vernes, de Genève’, careful to indicate, by the presence of the comma, that ‘de Genève’ is not part of his name, but his origin (and to delete the latter part of his earlier signature, Vernes de Luze which could have been construed as aristocratic), bears a patronymic which would have been familiar to many contemporaries.  Pastor Jacob Vernes (1728-1791), the author’s father – François’ earliest published work, a 1783 collection of poems, was signed ‘Vernes, fils’ –, was a friend of Rousseau and critic of Voltaire, a well-known protestant theologian and controversialist. The reference to Geneva lends weight to the Rousseau connection, harks back to a Republic more ancient than the French one and, as the developing tale within the novel shows, poses the question of national boundaries.

François Vernes, himself, as was frequent at the time, refers to his own earlier works on the title-page of his 1796 novel: ‘Auteur de la Franciade, du Voyageur Sentimental, etc.’ This serves a dual purpose. It is a form of advertisement, the writer is, de facto, saying to his reader: if you enjoy this book, you might like to look out for other texts I have written. It is also a sort of guarantee: the author is not a novice. The ‘etc.’ after the two titles makes it sounds as though his literary production was huge[1]. One could also notice that Franciade is a title which suggests a glorification of France. As to the Voyageur sentimental, a 1786 text which rode shamelessly on the success of Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, it is actually called Le Voyageur sentimental, ou ma promenade à Yverdun, referring to a lakeside town in Switzerland. Everyone was bound to have heard of the Voyage sentimental without necessarily knowing Sterne’s name. By quoting the brief form of the title, Vernes may be hoping to profit from Sterne’s literary reputation.

Returning to Vernes’ own work, the title is obviously the most important single element on the page: Adélaïde de Clarencé, ou Les Malheurs et les délices du sentiment: Lettres écrites des Rives Lémantines. No-one could have any doubt that this is a sentimental novel, one in which ‘les malheurs et les délices du sentiment’ play a central role. The heroine’s name is remarkable in itself. ‘Clarencé’ contains ‘Clarens’, the paradisiacal lakeshore village where Rousseau’s Julie was to be found, and which the heroine herself visits in Vernes’ fiction. This connection with La Nouvelle Héloïse is further enhanced by the reference to the ‘Rives Lémantines’, which creates an adjective for the banks of Lake Geneva, the Lac Léman. Vernes’ sentimental and epistolary text obeys literary conventions of the time since, like Rousseau, the writer only claims to have collected the letters, they are ‘recueillies par F. Vernes’ whose afore-mentioned identity as a citizen of Geneva could lead the reader to expect a high degree of ‘vraisemblance’ if not of truth in the letters which follow.

So what does this two volume tale, a ‘must’ of the French Revolution, actually recount? Eusèbe G*****[2]’s 1839 Revue des Romans. Recueil d’analyses raisonnées des productions remarquables des plus célèbres romanciers français et étrangers. Contenant 1100 analyses raisonnées, faisant connaître avec assez d’étendue pour en donner une idée exacte, le sujet, les personnages, l’intrigue et le dénoûment de chaque roman, offers the following plot-summary:

ADÉLAÏDE DE CLARENCÉ, ou les Malheurs et les délices du sentiment, 2 vol. in-8, 1796. — Adélaïde est fille d’un des premiers citoyens de Genève, entiché d’aristocratie, qui refuse de consentir à l’union de sa fille avec le chef d’un parti opposé au sien. Tout l’ouvrage roule sur les combats de l’amour avec la piété filiale. M. de Clarencé aime beaucoup sa fille ; mais il tient invariablement à ses opinions. Adélaïde respecte et chérit son père, mais elle aime avec passion. Elle résiste cependant aux séductions de l’amour, ainsi qu’à la force de l’autorité paternelle ; elle reste fille vertueuse et refuse constamment l’époux qu’on veut lui donner. Enfin, réduite au désespoir, elle se précipite dans l’Arve et y périt[3].

What the summary only suggests, is that the tale is a contemporary one: the baron de Clarencé is an aristocrat fond of his privileges. Adélaïde is in love with Versan, who is fighting for democratic rights. Many of the letters are dated, they range from early 1791 to November 1792, a little under two years in which hopes rose and were dashed on both sides of the political divide. Born in 1765, Vernes himself was not yet 26 in early 1791 and could almost certainly identify with the spirited push for democracy defended by his hero. In his novel, he is taking on essential current issues: much of Switzerland viewed the Revolution warily and indeed, in August 1792, the massacre of the Swiss guard at the Tuileries palace radicalised feelings. That same year, France attempted to invade Geneva. Émigrés had been flocking to the calm and relative neutrality of Switzerland since 1789. Vernes’ novel portrays, among the secondary characters, a charming French noblewoman, Fanny de Vaucluse, who has escaped with her children after a terrifying ordeal. She is duly reunited with her aristocratic husband who has to become a manual labourer in order to provide for his family. The novel thus takes on politically sensitive issues, shows street skirmishes on the barricades in Geneva and illustrates the fear of contagion felt by many Europeans who saw the effects of the events in France.

Letter 3 of part IV, for instance, from Adélaïde to her friend Clémentine, a character in some ways reminiscent of Rousseau’s Claire in La Nouvelle Héloïse, shows revolutionary events impacting on individual destinies. Adélaïde’s father is putting pressure on her to marry someone to whom he is close politically:

L’armée française borde les frontières de la Savoie ; tout menace d’une irruption prochaine ; si Genève se trouvait entraînée dans la prise de cette province, la chute du gouvernement suivrait de près, et mon père craint sans doute, que Versan à la tête d’un parti triomphant, ne réussît alors à écarter La Rivière, et à faire respecter ses prétentions. L’ordre de chose actuel, et la crainte d’un tel avenir, agissent évidemment sur son caractère, et y jettent une âcreté, une agitation nouvelles ; le retour de Versan ne contribuera pas peu à les augmenter, et je puis m’attendre à des efforts redoublés de sa part, pour m’amener à ses fins. Tandis que ce nouvel orage ne gronde encore que sourdement autour de moi, et avant que j’y sois tout à fait livrée, ouvre moi ton cœur, ma tendre amie, toi qui peut seule me guider dans mes perplexités, toi dont je mets la raison, la conscience, à la place des miennes, tant leur vois est troublée par celle d’un cœur égaré ; parle, que me conseilles-tu de faire, dans le cas où mon père voudrait forcer mon choix … Ah ! je suis donc bien malheureuse, puisque je cherche les limites de mes devoirs, du pouvoir d’un père, moi que cette recherche n’eut besoin d’occuper jamais, et qui suivis toujours la route de la vertu, sans avoir demandé si c’était elle !

As characters go through exile and imprisonment, the feeling of history accelerating is striking. The political differences between Adélaïde’s father and Versan mean that the liberating aspects of revolutionary upheavals do not apply to the young couple. On the contrary, new divides appear: social differences become less important than political choices.

The novel marks a culmination, but also the end of certain forms of rousseauism. Adélaïde’s garden contains direct allusions to La Nouvelle Héloïse and the characters’ names are often quoted by Vernes’ own heroes. They live in the same part of the world and seem to wish to model their existence on Julie and her ‘petite société’. In July 1791, when all hopes still seem legitimate, Adélaïde recounts to her friend Clémentine a visit she has made:

Je reviens de Clarens ; jamais promenade ne m’a plus intéressée. Parcourir la demeure de Julie, c’est, en quelque sorte, entrer dans le temple de Gnide, et errer autour de ses autels. Tout y enchante les regards ; la nature y paraît plus fraîche, plus touchante, le ciel plus pur, le Léman plus calme et d’un plus bel azur ; la campagne plus riante semble y exhaler un parfum d’amour ; le cœur sensible contracte un sentiment de tendresse plus délicieux ; ceux qui ont aimé, y donnent des regrets au passé, et cherchent à vivre de leurs souvenirs ; ceux qui aiment, sentent mieux le présent, et demandent à Saint-Preux et Julie d’aimer et de sentir comme eux ; et ceux qui n’aiment pas encore, ou qui n’ont pu rencontrer l’objet qu’appellent leurs désirs, se livrent ) une mélancolie qui n’est point sans charmes, ou se bercent d’illusions flatteuses, et soupirent dans l’attente d’un doux avenir. Néanmoins les prés, les fleurs et les bocages ne brillent pas ici de plus d’éclat que sur nos bords, mais c’est toi, Rousseau, c’est ton pinceau magique qui répandit ici la féerie du sentiment !

Rousseau is the writer of the Revolution, ‘par excellence’, with his Social Contract. He is also the ultimate reference for the sentimental novelist of the time. What Vernes’ own fiction shows is that Lake Geneva may have delightful landscapes which attract tourists, in particular, readers of Rousseau, but that his tale is that of an utopian society and cannot serve as a pattern on which to model one’s life.

At the end of Vernes’ novel, Adélaïde, who wishes neither to disobey her father’s wishes, nor to renounce her love for Versan, commits suicide, a bold and terrible move. Only death can preserve her virtue and, like Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Virginie, death by water is a way of maintaining a form of unity which is threatened by surrounding events – natural disaster (the storm and shipwreck) in Virginie’s case, political upheaval in Adélaïde’s. There are three posthumous letters from Adélaïde. To her Father, she writes begging for forgiveness, stressing that she has remained virtuous, and asking that he do not mourn her as she is going from him into the arms of the eternal Father, at a time when suicide was considered by many to be a wicked and sinful act. To Versan, she writes, not knowing whether he is dead or alive but fearing they will never be united: ‘Aime-moi encore dans les malheureux à qui je tâchais d’être utile ; je te lègue le bonheur de les soulage. Aime-moi dans une patrie que tu peux servir et qui protégea ma jeunesse ; aime-moi dans une autre moi-même, dans cette amie si tendre … Les larmes m’empêchent de poursuivre … Adieu ! … adieu !!!’. Expecting to be welcomed by white flags of clemency in the eternal kingdom, she then writes to her friend Clémentine, stating that even if her belief in an after-life were to be wrong, she will still live on in her friends’ memories. Versan has the final word in the novel. He thinks he may soon leave this life and, whereas Julie died with the veil lifted from her heart, he is plunging into darkness: ‘Je la vois, je la sens ; elle approche enfin cette mort désirée ; son voile heureux s’étend sur moi ; il enveloppe déjà mon cœur de son obscurité profonde. …’. We are left with an unresolved question, not knowing what becomes of Versan after he has written the last letter to the dead Adélaïde.

The split between two worlds felt by Vernes’ heroes thus points to irreconcilable differences between aesthetics and politics, a literary tradition and the beginnings of a new Europe, a fictional Revolution in the novel thus heralds a Revolution in fiction.


[1] Right at the end of volume 2, Vernes lists his publications in order, he says, not to be saddled by unscrupulous publishers with works which are not his.

[2] Girault de Saint-Fargeau, Pierre-Augustin-Eusèbe, Revue des Romans. Recueil d’analyses raisonnées des productions remarquables des plus célèbres romanciers français et étrangers. Contenant 1100 analyses raisonnées, faisant connaître avec assez d’étendue pour en donner une idée exacte, le sujet, les personnages, l’intrigue et le dénoûment de chaque roman, Paris, Firmin-Didot frères, 1839.

[3] Vernes offers the following summary at the end of his novel : ‘PREMIERE PARTIE. Projet de correspondance d’Adélaïde et de Clémentine. Des Sociétés de Genève, pag. 5. Portrait de quelques hommes, p. 9. Portrait de quelques femmes, p. 20. D’Adélaïde, p. 28. De la physionomie, p. 34. Des Romans, de la musique, romances, p. 43. Dur vrai bonheur, p. 58. Prise d’armes, p. 79. Opinion de Versan, p. 83. Aveu d’Adélaïde, p. 89. De Genève, p. 94. Histoire de Fanny de Vaucluse, p. 100. Des mariages bizarres p. 121. Bague de cheveux, p. 125. Entrevue de Versan et d’Adélaïde, p. 130. Du véritable Amour p. 141. Bal de Morges p. 150. Songe, p. 163. Eulalie, 166. De la Religion, ma Philosophie, p. 179. Querelle au bal, p. 187. Maladie d’Adélaïde, p. 199. Entrevue de Versan et d’Adélaïde malade, p. 204. / SECONDE PARTIE. Séjour d’Adélaïde à Cologny ; projet d’un cours de philosophie, p. 211. Histoire d’Aline et Colette, p. 230. Cours de philosophie, p. 238. Promenade sur l’eau, Histoire de Corali, p. 271. Du mariage, p. 284. Visite à Fanny de Vaucluse, et son époux, p. 299. Rendez-vous d’Eulalie et Delarin, p. 312. Vers à Clémentine, 323. Histoire de la famille Nègre, p. 327. / TROISIEME PARTIE. Voyage aux Glacières, p. 3. Histoire de Delton, p. 8. Route de Cluse à Salenches ; Alphonsine, p. 22. Chamonix ; histoire de Sans-Souci, p. 30. Histoire de Delville, p. 41. Tableau des Glaciers, p. 47. Histoire d’Alméda, p. 55. Le Sourd et muet, p. 68. Clarens, p. 77. Meillerie, p. 84. Adélaïde au bain, p. 105. Duel, p. 124. Paris, p. 137. / QUATRIME PARTIE. Versan à Londres, p. 170. Lidelson, p. 177. Elisa, p. 179. Discours à Lidelson, p. 186. Fuite d’Adélaïde, p. 231. Son séjour à Aubonne, p. 241. Ses rendez-vous avec Versan, p. 258. Son départ de Genève, et sa mort, p. 315.’

Sade’s La Philosophie dans le boudoir: A “Must” of the French Revolution?, by James Steintrager

James A. Steintrager (University of California—Irvine)

Choosing Sade’s La Philosophie dans le boudoir as a “must” of the French Revolution might seem obvious. After all, it is not as if Sade—or this particular writing—is unknown. We are not talking about an archival discovery. But the reception of Sade nonetheless leads me to conclude that the relevance of this work to the Revolution has, in fact, been largely obscured. The best-known part of this reception has been, in a word, theoretical, and as such has often lost sight of—or misunderstood—the particular circumstances of his writings and how these circumstances inform and form a content that has sometimes been seen—to a degree correctly—as idiosyncratic. What are the high points of this reception? Following the decadent and surrealist invocations of the Divine Marquis—and they are little more than invocations—there have been, for example, Bataille’s thanato-erotic hero, Camus’s existentialist rebel of sorts, and Klossoski’s heir to the heretical counter-tradition in his Sade, Mon Prochain, which had a decisive influence on Lacan’s examination of Sade in his seminar on ethics (to put it mildly). Then, of course, there is post-structuralist Sade of Sollers, Barthes, and Foucault. The latter did place Sade in historical context, although the different and pivotal roles that he plays for Foucault suggest that here too we might learn more about the historian’s theoretical stakes and assumptions than about the object of his attentions. Foucault’s Sade is by turns a literary exemplification of a certain regime of madness, the point of rupture between epistemes, and eventually what we might call an exceedingly frustrated expression of the shift from juridical-discursive power to bio-power and “sexuality.” Nevertheless, Sade’s writings, including Philosophie dans le boudoir, have in the past couple of decades received historical attention (and the impetus that Focault’s work provided strikes me as crucial in this regard). There have been, for example, contextualizations of Sade’s writings in terms of the history of the novel and the history of science. “Sensibility” has been a keyword joining these two domains.

Still, the historical approaches just mentioned tend not to pass through the French Revolution. Instead they track trends that are neither explicitly political—in fact, running deliberately counter to political expression in favor of “cultural” or “discursive” formations—and have little place for events. There is, however, a longstanding tendency in intellectual history to place Sade’s thought at the endpoint of certain rationalist trajectory and to align it with the Revolution. Adorno and Horkheimer thus claimed that Sade was the monstrous revelation of what the instrumentalization of reason entails. But their Sade remains historically vague. Lester Crocker similarly made the case for Sade as the logical culmination of enlightened materialism in nihilism (with perhaps less verve but with considerably more attention to the array of philosophical inquiry in eighteenth-century France than Adorno and Horkheimer). There is a soupçon of the same case in Robert Darnton’s The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, which argues that libertine literature and libelles had a de-legitimizing effect on the monarchy and thereby contributed causally to the French Revolution, its inception and its regicidal, anti-aristocratic, anti-clerical, course. A role for Sade could be found here, of course, although events were well under way by the time Philosophie dans le boudoir or his other major writings saw publication.

In short, while Sade’s works have frequently enough been invoked in relation to the French Revolution, they have less often been to tied to concrete events and specifically Revolutionary cultural discourses. And although I am entirely sympathetic to historicist modes that do not reduce a work to its immediate or near immediate context, I think that we cannot really grasp Philosophie dans le boudoir in particular—nor can we see what it brings to our understanding of its context—unless we consider what I would be willing to call its occasional nature. The original text appears to have been published sometime in the second half of 1795. Although we do not know exactly how long Sade took to write it, generally speaking authors at the time did not linger over their manuscripts for years. I would treat as the absolute earliest date of composition for the most politically pointed parts of text—for, again, there are themes and philosophical interests that extend beyond the occasional—as June 24th, 1793, that is, the date of the Constitution de l’an I. And as the editor of the Pléiade edition of the text remarks, while the action of the dialogue apparently takes place late in the reign of Louis XVI, internal evidence suggests as the terminus ad quem for composition some time shortly after the Constitution de l’an III (August 22, 1795), which established the Directoire and its less radical tone and content (see Sade, Œuvres [Paris], 3.1265-1266). Sade’s intervention certainly appears to be just that from a certain perspective: an engagé commentary on the socio-political landscape of this period, which included, of course the Terror (a point that lends topicality to Sade’s largely anthropological analyses of human aggression in the text, if not a dose of realism).

The false “pamphlet” inserted in the narrative of Philosophie dans le boudoir entitled “Français, enore un effort si voulez être républicains” looks a clear reference to the new Déclaration des droits de l’homme and du citoyen of 1793. In keeping with a certain historical trend, that is, the title says both “Let’s try again” and “Let’s push this even farther.” The content bears this out. The radicalization of republicanism and democracy in the new constitution included the addition of various rights not articulated in the 1789 declaration: rights of association, to work, to public assistance, to education, the right of rebellion, and the abolition of slavery. The rights put forward in Sade’s “pamphlet” echo, extend, and, it would seem, parody these new rights by adding, for example, the right to complete sexual access to any other citizen regardless of age or sex and the right to murder. In a way, what Sade’s pamphlet engineers is a defense of tyrannical power and violence not so much as an inversion but rather as a paradoxical corollary of the Déclaration’s exclusion of “actes arbitraires”: the notion that the “bonheur commun,” stated as the final cause of society at the outset of the constitution, is perhaps in contradiction with an individual pursuit of happiness that is irreducible to the former. That what we are potentially dealing with here is perhaps parody comes from the insinuation within the text that Dolmancé, libertine extraordinaire of the Ancien Régime stripe, is the author of the pamphlet. (Here I need mention as essential reading Lucienne Frappier-Mazur’s Writing the Orgy: Power and Parody in Sade, a work that does not avoid the topic of the French Revolution and the play of its rhetoric in my “must.”) At the very least, there is—as usual—a layer of irony that makes attributing certain views to Sade the author difficult and his political intentions at best murky. One could easily imagine a pedagogical exercise in which students compared the declarations of 1789 and 1793 along with Sade’s extrapolation. Not only would the very question of parody make for interesting discussion, but so would topics such as the possible conflict of individual rights, reductio ad absurdam as a real political problem, and the violent aftermath of 1793.

Paraphrasing Robert Darnton on the function of the lubricious in much libertine writing, especially of the materialist variety: sex is a useful vehicle for the tenor of thought (see “Sex for Thought,” The New York Review of Books 41.21 [Dec. 22, 1994]: 65-74). That we are not, however, faced with an entirely figurative use of sex is suggested by the philosophical and political investment in bonheur—long a part of ethical considerations—as good and goal. Which is to say that many libertines trotted out sexual jouissance as potentially foundational given that, in La Mettrie’s characterization, it “penetrates and transports the soul into the sweetest and happiest moments of our existence” (“On the Soul,” in Machine Man and Other Writings, trans. Ann Thomson [Cambridge, 1996], 58). Another way of looking at Philosophie dans le boudoir as a Revolutionary text would highlight the extent to which such issues where entwined with a cultural and gender politics that, again, did not spring up ab ovo in 1789 but that nonetheless has a specificity worthy of our attention. We might, for example, compare observations about marriage in Philosophie dans le boudoir with that peculiarly Revolutionary figure Le Père Duchesne, who in a 1790 edition of the periodical rants in vulgar language against the “indissolubricité” of marriage: “Here’s what our fucking marriage is…. it’s held together only by chains; it was okay when we were fucking slaves. But now we are free: it’s not money, fuck, which should make marriages; it’s no longer father’s authority, it’s inclination and taste” (cited in Suzanne Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France [Berkeley, 2004], 31). Desan quotes this as part of her case that “[f]reedom to choose a wife and marry would become a key element within revolutionary definitions of manhood” (31). Of course, questioning the rationality and ergo the morality of the Church’s position on divorce has a longer history (consider Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, where the unnaturalness of enforced lifetime monogamy is satirically compared to the equally unnatural confinement of the harem). The association of divorce with choice and choice with manhood, however, looks more like a historically specific conjunction within the Revolution. That Sade’s text to me seems part of this discourse should be clear; I would simply add that the populist coprolalia of Le Père Duchesne strikes me as comparable in certain respects to the vulgar interjections of Sade’s characters and to his second-order explanations of why we should curse even if their is no God to blaspheme, no shame in intercourse, and thus no inherent offense in shouting foutre: a Revolutionary harnessing of the perlocutionary force of language—as opposed to the bereft constative reference—as a sort of rebellion against conventions and release from them.

I would also suggest another interesting if potentially controversial linkage. Desan notes that along with the manly prerogative of choice, there is a concomitant concern about the “sacrifice of daughters” (31). The theme is once again, hardly unknown, and I might cite only Diderot’s La Religieuse as proof. But it gains in intensity and in literate and literary female porte-paroles with the French Revolution: witness Olympe de Gouges’s Le Couvent, ou les vœux forcés or, of course, her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne. It is interesting to see that Sade similarly takes up the issue of women’s rights in Philosophie dans le boudoir. This is often enough explicitly so in the text, but one might argue that the entire work is about the issue: the extraction of a young woman of near marrying age from the socio-cultural “traffic in women” and her (wicked) delivery over to freedom and to her right to pleasure. It would be fair enough to cry “parody” here again. Certainly the woman-directed violence that has often and understandably been taken as indication—if not apodictic proof—of Sade’s misogyny would seem to point us in this direction. Interestingly, Sade’s characters’ defenses of what we would now call “gay rights” have increasingly been seen as sincere and laudable expressions of authorial intent. Surely this has to do with his hardly exclusive yet nonetheless clear predilection for violence against woman rather than against men—and Simone de Beauvoir and Angela Carter both understood well why this might be the case and how, while hardly escaping misogyny, Sade’s version could nonetheless double-back on itself in the form of critique. But if there is a certain absurdity to claiming Sade as a supporter of women’s rights in the same manner of Olympe de Gouges, it is nonetheless clear that Sade as a thinker put forward the absurd—that is, the hitherto unthinkable—as simply a logical consequence of following principles. We might take this possibility of thinking the absurd as at the very least conditioned by the Revolutionary context.

Having passed through the cleansing fires of historicism, I do not think it unlikely that even the reading paths just mentioned could benefit from a renewed theoretical attention—that part of Sade’s canonicity, as it were, is the very availability of his texts—including Philosophie dans le boudoir—to a variety of approaches and perspectives. In lieu of a conclusion then, let me schematically indicate a couple of possible directions for a renewed theoretical Sade (both of which are returns of sort to questions that have been associated with Sade before and that I have already indicated above). First, for a while now there has been in political philosophy and increasingly among those we would once have oddly classed as “literary theorists” an interest in revisiting the writings of Carl Schmitt (whose support of National Socialism has made him a controversial figure, to say the least). Schmitt’s recent reception includes contributions by, among others, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar, Chantal Mouffe, and Slavoj Zizek. While neither eighteenth-century studies nor the study of the French Revolution more particularly has played a major role in this reception, it seems worth noting that for Schmitt the so-called “Jacobin argument” expressed the tension of Rousseau’s general and individual wills in an acute form. In Schmitt’s own analysis, 1793 is the moment where liberalism as a “coherent metaphysical system” divulges the irrationalism at the heart of the absolute claims for reason—the moment that the future crisis of parliamentary democracy appears in a brief, bloody epiphany (The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, trans. Ellen Kennedy [Cambridge, Mass., 1988], 35). Surely the current interest in a post-liberal politics that has led to a re-examination of Schmitt—cognizant of his frightfully problematic commitments—might benefit as well from a circumspect return to Sade as an often articulate—frightfully so as well—thinker of violence not as something banished by the liberal political order but rather as inherent in it (for such is the case that Philosophie dans le boudoir makes). Another possibility is to place Sade into dialogue with the recent philosophical assessment of nihilism and radical contingency by Quentin Meillassoux in After Finitude and—it would appear—in Ray Brassier’s forthcoming Nihil Unbound. That Sade is perfect companion for the exploration of such topics strikes me as almost self-evident, albeit the very category of “must” begins to look a bit wan in this light. What is a “must,” after all, under conditions of radical contingency?

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.