Gender and Voice in the French Novel: 1730–1782
The last twenty years have seen many revisionary accounts of eighteenth-century fiction, and especially women's writing, by American feminist scholars. Aurora Wolfgang's book nevertheless makes a valuable contribution. In part this may reflect a more general recent turn away from modern revendication and towards the recognition of cultural differences and historical specificity. Wolfgang's Introduction is still a little aggressive. We are told straightaway that the success of the new fiction, which 'liberated authors […] from the constraints imposed by the classical […] style of the previous half-century', prompted a 'backlash' by 'conservative critics' who 'fiercely contested' and 'dismissed the "feminine" style found in the novel' (p. 1). Alongside this biased binarity is reification and teleology ('the novel's struggle for recognition and prestige' nevertheless may not have 'advance[d] women', pp. 1–3). More neutrally there are several tables of statistics, which are particularly interesting on the percentages of female-authored and of anonymously published fiction. In any case, the argument set out in the lengthy initial chapter is much more complex. First-person feminine voicing by novelists of both sexes — so uniquely prevalent in this period — reflects not just a new sensibility and intimacy but a 'feminised' culture of sociability. The feminine rises with 'mondanité' and particularly with the Modern side in the Querelle. Its expression is in conversation, correspondence and the salon as a space of discussion and of patronage. (The importance of oral performance and 'salon writing' is rather underplayed.) Broadly aristocratic, this 'feminine' culture, however, gives way increasingly from the mid-century to a new professionalism of 'philosophes' and authors, and a public sphere increasingly gendered as masculine. All this is well documented here, and seems to me very persuasive.
The diachronic account underlies the sequence of chapters that follow, each centred on a specific work. The first, Marivaux's Marianne, serves to illustrate [End Page 395] female-voicing and its association with 'natural' writing. Graffigny's Péruvienne shows the attempt by a woman writer to unite the sentimental female narrative with the social critique and the scholarly footnoting that are usually seen as male. Even at this mid-century high point, however, tensions are evident. Zilia retreats into her chateau with its separate spaces of library and mirrored temple. Female writing is seemingly reconfined with Riccoboni's Fanni Butlerd, which has been taken to show that a woman can only write her own sentimental life. Wolfgang finds on the contrary another fictional model of female artistry. (But does publishing one's love-letters like Fanni, let alone merely translating a few like Zilia, make one an 'author'?) Finally Laclos — claiming to show the harsh social reality that the ladies with their tender imagination are spared — gives us three emblematic women. Cécile is the victim of pleasure and Tourvel of passion (thus of their own 'biology'). Merteuil, who has the unwomanly and therefore monstrous ambition to control the pleasures of her body, is punished by disfigurement, which 'writes her soul' upon it. Like much else in these chapters, this is nice criticism (although one might argue that Laclos gives the moral victory to Tourvel and the foolish Valmont, the adherents of love and 'illusion'). In her Epilogue, Wolfgang cites Mmes de Staël and de Genlis both reflecting that women of the privileged classes had more freedom before 1789 than since, albeit at a price. There is always a price.