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  • The Forgotten Generation: French Women Writers of the Inter-war Period
  • Raylene Ramsay
Jennifer Milligan. The Forgotten Generation: French Women Writers of the Inter-war Period. Oxford: Berg, 1996. 236 pp.

This work makes an admirable attempt to retrieve the female-authored texts of the inter-war period overlooked by literary history. Even the feminist histories that responded particularly to the marginalization of women authors came up with only a few names—Rachilde, Anna de Noailles, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Colette. This study of the forgotten generation presents a carefully documented and well-referenced analysis of the reasons for such a pervasive “forgetting.”

A fascinating retrospective overview introduces the cultural and artistic brilliance and the delight of the modern that characterized the années folles. Social and economic instability and agitation for suffrage were breaking down gender roles but against a backdrop of a conservative, pronatalistic rhetoric of national regeneration and idealized nostalgic constructions of womanliness (motherhood, domesticity, separate spheres). Milligan traces the difficulties experienced by these women “coming to writing” in a male-dominated society. Nonetheless, she argues, they represented a substantial body of widely-read and successful writers who, in 1933, for example, carried off 16.5 percent of the literary prizes awarded. What then made these women’s work simply vanish?

Virility was a criterion for the inclusion of a work in the canon—Rachilde had homme de lettres (Man of Letters) printed on her calling [End Page 1027] card—as was universal interest. Women’s fiction was considered to deal mainly with the heart and less with the universal—the cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic debates of the time. The attempt to understand what it meant to be female in the contexts of the time hardly counted. Where entries in anthologies do exist on women (de Noailles and Colette, for example), the focus is on identifying biographical details, in particular marital and maternal states, and paternal lineage. A woman’s experience was seen as bounded by circumscribed notions of feminine spheres and transposed in certain genres, autobiography or romance, of second-rate importance in literary hierarchies.

Part two of the work examines the actual female-authored autobiographical writing in the period, observing the manner in which women avoid intrusive readerly expectations of gender (protecting themselves from the criticism of indulging in selfish and unwomanly egocentrism), of genre (moving away from autobiography as a record of momentous events and important personages), and of authorial status (employing strategies of self-concealment and fictional transformations of self in a genre traditionally marked by self-display and self-assertion). The canon-makers have reduced these often-revolutionary explorations of gender identity to narcissistic and aesthetically conservative representations of the author’s life.

Where, then, is repression to be situated? In the simple inertia that allows only established authors to continue to be taught? Milligan rejects Spender’s thesis—concerning a comprehensive, discriminatory exclusion of women authors by males to protect their own power base—as alarmist and unrefined. Her own thesis is that women’s literary contributions, which often transcend generic boundaries, combining personal testimony, social chronicle, biography, romance, and wish fulfillment, is frequently distorted by the classification process itself. Literary histories build on previous canonical compilations without returning to the actual texts described. Whereas these canonical compilations are based on a reinscription of notions of the feminine, the texts themselves, argues Milligan, explore the very nature of cultural gender construction. Maternity, for example, is reconstructed as a celebratory female bodily experience, a form of female bonding or a means of achieving a fully matriarchal realm. French interwar women writers, then, have been read in terms of outdated notions of femininity and categorized in relation to genres that their work resists. [End Page 1028]

What should be the status of this forgotten generation in the present where only a handful of exceptional writers have been canonized? Links can be drawn between the two periods in the reconstruction of gender relations, mother-daughter bonds, matriarchal inheritance, and genre. But rather than categorize or pin down the forgotten texts as minor works that constitute missing links between two generations, the proper function of literary historians, according to Milligan, would be to weave...

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