MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002) 514-516
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Lesbians in French Novels
Jennifer Waelti-Walters. Damned Women: Lesbians in French Novels. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2000. xi + 270 pp.
Jennifer Waelti-Walters provides readers of French literature with a much-needed "preliminary map" of the representation of lesbians in French novels, which she hopes will open the field to further study. In light of the growing number of articles, book chapters, and conference sessions devoted to the topic of lesbians in French literature, it is surprising in some ways that a comprehensive monograph on lesbians in French novels has not been undertaken until now. Waelti-Walters, even as she begins to illuminate the path through this "uncharted territory," gives us some sense of why this region has been heretofore neglected. As she points out, the lack-luster quality of some of the literature in question may have discouraged even sympathetic scholars in the field of French literary studies from writing on it. Far from being an uncritical celebrant of literature featuring lesbian characters, Waelti-Walters is a close reader with a keen eye for the weaknesses not just of particular works, but of the genre as a whole, which has suffered from its closeted status. She explains that the "very possibility of bearing witness to lesbian experience without having to disguise or diminish its importance in the text is [End Page 514] crucial to the development of fine and undistorted lesbian literature [. . .]." Waelti-Walters comes to the conclusion that there are not yet many "great lesbian novels" because there has not been enough explicitly lesbian literature written.
While avoiding "mainstream literary criticism" as well as "theoretical debates surrounding Cixous, Irigaray, et al.," Waelti-Walters divides the texts she examines into male and female "traditions" as well as into three historical periods. (This system of classification, which organizes the entire study, is somewhat perplexing since Waelti-Walters often notes similarities between texts that are from different "traditions" and periods.) An accomplished literary critic (as one can see from her earlier work on Jeanne Hyvrard and Michel Butor, among others), Waelti-Walters often delivers nuanced readings of the novels she considers. At times however, her negative pronouncements on some of the lesser works may serve to discourage future readers. In addition, while claiming to avoid the on-going debates surrounding the more prominent theorists, Waelti-Walters demonstrates a marked preference for the writings of Wittig when comparing her to Cixous.
As she states in her introduction, Waelti-Walters sets out neither to give extended analyses of the works she examines nor to pursue a rigidly ideological thesis, but rather to provide a preliminary sense of how lesbians have been represented in French novels from 1796 until 1996. To this end, she traces the changes in this representation from the earliest portraits (1796-1929: the "monstrous lesbian," the "refined bisexual," and the rare sympathetic representation) through a middle period (1929-1968: the "hopeless love," the "repressed lesbian," the licentious bisexual, and the first positive images of lesbians) to the most recent contemporary portrayals (1968-1996: the recurring "hopeless love," the "sci-fi lesbian," the "bad girls," the detectives, the survivors of dysfunctional families, the right-wing elitist, and the few positive portrayals of "real" lesbians). Along the way, Waelti-Walters marks a number of "firsts": Adrienne Saint-Agen's Charmeuse de Femmes (1906), "the first realistic and poignant writing about the lesbian condition in the history of the French novel," Clarisse Francillon's La Lettre (1958), "the first modern French novel that gives a clear sense of being focused on specific lesbian experience lived in a real [. . .] context," and Violette Leduc (1907-1972), the first self-avowed lesbian writer. [End Page 515]
The route revisits some members of the French canon whose representations of lesbians have already received much critical attention—Diderot, Maupassant, Balzac, Baudelaire, Colette, Proust, Beauvoir, Cixous, and Wittig. In addition, Waelti-Walters provides us with an introduction to a long list of lesser-known authors, some of whom will deserve further study. (Although her study...