- The Feminine Copy:Travel and Textual Reproduction in Jane de la Vaudère's Les Demi-sexes
In a somewhat paradoxical gesture, Jane de La Vaudère's Les Demi-sexes (1897), a novel about clandestine ovariectomies in finde-siècle Paris, opens with a sonnet commemorating the "Vénus de Syracuse," a Sicilian sculpture of the goddess of fertility. A tribute to her "flancs puissants" and her "blanches mamelles" (line 14), this reproductive model of femininity seems a far cry from the sterilized Parisian "demi-sexes" that occupy the novel's pages. Famously described by Maupassant in his travel memoir "La Sicile" (1886), the "Vénus de Syracuse," a copy of an original ancient Greek statue, incarnates Les Demi-sexes's conflicting and contradictory discourses about femininity, procreative responsibilities and the sexual emancipation afforded by sterilization. Yet La Vaudère's epigraph-poem also provides a framework for the novel's underlying tensions concerning the authenticity of both womanhood and authorship, or if we may, of sexual and textual reproduction. As a thorough comparison of La Vaudère's novel and Maupassant's travel memoirs suggests, the author of Les Demi-sexes liberally "copied"—with slight modifications—her confrère's descriptions of Sicily's architecture, culture and landscape.1 In duplicating Maupassant's passages that conflate the Sicilian terrain with untamed, fertile femininity, La Vaudère simultaneously problematizes male-authored constructions of womanhood in the literary and medical realms alike. For in the context of the controversial ovariectomy, the author's plagiarism allows her to undercut, through copy, the stability of such normative constructions of femininity. [End Page 225]
As Michael Finn has demonstrated, the ovariotomie, first practiced in France in 1882 to combat hysterical symptoms, developed into a highly polemic method of birth control that pitted feminist and pronatalist groups against one another.2 At the time of its development, France was still recovering from the devastating Franco-Prussian War and the threat of depopulation continued to occupy medical and literary texts. By 1895, two years before the publication of Les Demi-sexes, deaths reportedly outnumbered births in the Hexagon (852,000 to 834,000, according to historian Karen Offen). As this contentious medical procedure tapped into scientific anxieties about the country's declining birth rate and female sexual autonomy, female sterilization was also a literary plot device in the late nineteenth century used to corroborate the correlation between depopulation and female procreative duties. In the so-called "novel of problematized reproduction" (Finn 27), women who opt for sterilization are depicted as oversexed, defeminized beings who irresponsibly swap the joys of motherhood for the pleasures of the flesh. These works often feature Paris as the vice-ridden epicenter for sterilization of such debauched "Venuses." In addition to La Vaudère's Les Demi-sexes, other examples in the genre include Camille Pert's Les Florifères (1898), Armand Dubarry's Les Femmes eunuques (1899) and Émile Zola's Fécondité (1899).
With its interest in female reproductive responsibilities and the sexual contamination of the capital city, Les Demi-sexes occupies a prominent place in this corpus. Nevertheless, La Vaudère's novel is at times characterized by a moral ambivalence that sets it apart from the other works of the genre, whose unequivocal condemnation of non-procreative heroines leaves little possibility for feminist readings. In her œuvre of nearly thirty novels and short story collections, La Vaudère (1857–1908, née Jeanne Scrive) continually explored marginalized sexualities and unconventional gender expression in her Decadent works, themes that are reflected in such titles as Les Androgynes (1903) and Sapho, dompteuse (1908), among others.3 While Les Demi-sexes is representative of La Vaudère's recurrent depiction of non-normative sexuality, its initial resistance to essentialist discourses on female procreative duty—a seemingly feminist position—is ultimately [End Page 226] complicated by an eventual restoration of moral and gender codes in the otherwise depraved Parisian society.
This moral shift occurs not in Paris but in a Sicilian setting. In order to fully understand the discursive contradictions in the novel, we must consider them in the context of Maupassant's travel memoir "La Sicile," whose...