[Access article in PDF]
"Woman, Your Hour is Sounding": Continuity and Change in French Women's Great War Fiction, 1914-1919
Nancy Sloan Goldberg. "Woman, Your Hour is Sounding": Continuity and Change in French Women's Great War Fiction, 1914-1919. New York: St Martin's, 1999. xix + 233 pp.
The central character in J. Delorme Jules-Simon's 1918 novel, L'Impérieux amour (The Essential Love), remarks towards the end of the novel that she must take care to bring to her fiancé "an affectionate, sweet, [and] cheery soul because we have the obligation to make love many times in order to give a considerable number of little Frenchmen to a crippled France." This willing submergence of self into the national community is typical, according to Nancy Sloan Goldberg, of the ideological bias of French women's First World War fiction. Scores of women writers, whether they were previously unknown or, like Delorme Jules-Simon or Catholic novelist Marie Reynès-Monlaur, already well established, eagerly responded to their country's call to arms by producing a substantial number of fictional texts that explored the condition and the duties of women in wartime, almost all reassuring readers that women could do [End Page 513] their duty to the "family of France" while still fulfilling their traditional roles as daughters, wives, and mothers. "Woman, Your Hour is Sounding" is the first full-length study of these sadly neglected novels and stories, now mostly gathering dust (and almost all untranslated) on a few bookshelves in France.
The recent flowering of interest in British women's war texts (in the work of Claire Tylee, Trudi Tate, and Dorothy Goldman, for example) has uncovered a bewilderingly contradictory tangle of political and social allegiances, ranging from the greedy exultation of May Sinclair (The Tree of Heaven) to the bitter satire of Rose Allatini (Despised and Rejected). In France, by contrast, women writers were almost unanimous in their sense of urgent support for a war that threatened to engulf their homeland. They rose to the defense of women nurses and marraines, who sent letters and packages to soldiers at the front, seeking to demonstrate through their characters and their plots that such unprecedented intimacies with strange men and their bodies were not incompatible with the duties of the Republican mother, or mère éducatrice, on which, according to Goldberg, the image of the ideal Frenchwoman was based at the turn of the twentieth century. When, in these novels, women are heroes, they are heroes in ways that ultimately strengthen bourgeois family life. For example, in Mathilde Démians d'Archimbaud's 1917 novel A travers le tourment: une vie intime (Through the Torment: A Private Life), Madeleine, a war nurse who inadvertently discovers that one of her patients secretly returns her love, nonetheless persuades him to marry someone else and herself returns to the husband she does not care for. As Goldberg puts it, "Madeleine chooses the interests of France, represented by the preservation of the family unit, over her own and Jean's individual happiness." As in so many of these novels, a child--Madeleine's son--serves both to embody her civic duty and to redeem her as a woman and a citizen of France.
Repeated plot summaries of little-known novels are an inevitable hazard of books such as this, and "Woman, Your Hour is Sounding" has its fair share of synopses, which tend to focus attention on detail rather than on a broader picture. However, Goldberg is careful to place her accounts of individual texts in the context of developing ideologies in war-torn France, and a well-focused and significant picture emerges of a culture in which women, as Goldberg puts it, were asked to guarantee [End Page 514] simultaneously "permanence" and "transformation." The book would be even stronger if it included some discussion of why women writers in France toed the propagandist line so much more faithfully than they did in other...