Madame Luce founded Algeria’s first school for Muslim girls in 1845, claiming an ambitious mission: ‘to change native morals, prejudices and habits, as quickly and as surely as possible, by introducing the greatest possible number of young Muslim girls to the benefits of a European education’ (p. 1). Initially, this meant teaching maths and French, as well as some practical skills, but later the school came to focus on embroidery. This vocational turn, whose relation to wider currents in educational policy is carefully analysed by Rebecca Rogers, was also expressed in terms of a higher calling, namely the revival of indigenous arts. After Luce’s time the school, or workshop, continued under the direction of her granddaughter Henriette, known later as Luce Benaben, and it is above all for the girls’ craftwork that the two women are remembered now — when they are remembered at all. Henriette’s workshop is described in a couple of texts by Leïla Sebbar; samples of the embroidery are preserved in the Musée national des antiquités in Algiers; and even today in Algiers, Rogers reports, there is a rue Luce Benaben. Other examples of the handiwork found their way to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, thanks to the interest taken in Luce by British women wintering in Algiers, and to Luce’s skill in catering to the tourist market: as well as handkerchiefs, decorative hangings, and the like, the workshop sold dolls’ clothing and souvenir busts of Luce herself. Among those impressed by Luce’s work was Barbara Bodichon, a prominent early feminist, whose journalism spread Luce’s reputation abroad. Nonetheless, Luce always had her critics. Especially in the school’s early years, an air of immorality lingered around Luce and her pupils, at least in the eyes of colonists who feared that the inevitable product of European education was the déclassement of girls, who would end up unmarriageable or worse. Historians have been suspicious that behind the high-minded rhetoric of education, civilization, and revitalized tradition lay some canny commercial self-interest. To a certain extent, Rogers’s book, which draws on her long-standing interest in girls’ education and on meticulous new archival research, is meant as a corrective to one or two received views — above all, the negative assessment of Luce by historians such as Yvonne Turin, who gave Mme Luce short shrift in her Affrontements dans l’Algérie coloniale: écoles, médecines, religion, 1830–1880 (Paris: F. Maspero, 1971), still a standard reference point in the field. Rogers argues, too, that Luce’s story complicates the widespread view that 1870 marked a clear turning point in the history of the mission civilisatrice. But in the end, even if Rogers is sympathetic to Luce’s protofeminist credentials, the corrective her book offers is not conclusive and cannot be wholehearted—and not only because parts of Luce’s story remain obscure. Just as colonial education policy emerges as volatile, inconsistent, and sometimes lukewarm, Luce herself appears to have been driven by a not uncommon mixture of idealism and opportunism.
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A Frenchwoman’s Imperial Story: Madame Luce in Nineteenth-Century Algeria. By Rebecca Rogers. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013. xxi + 267 pp., ill.
King’s College London
Copyright © 2014 Nicholas Harrison