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  • Rachilde and French Women’s Authorship: From Decadence to Modernism
  • Lynn R. Wilkinson
Hawthorne, Melanie C.Rachilde and French Women’s Authorship: From Decadence to Modernism. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. Pp. XII + 304. ISBN0803224028

At the beginning of her rich and suggestive study of the writer known variously as Rachilde, Marguerite Eymery, and Marguerite Vallette, Melanie Hawthorne recounts an anecdote that illustrates her work's distance from older biographies that juxtaposed a writer's life and work as separate if interdependent entities. One July, she arrived in Périgueux, Rachilde's birthplace, only to find that the departmental archives would close in two days. Sitting in a café, she found herself fantasizing that the café owner would recognize her as a scholar and send her to talk to an old-timer who could tell her all about the "real" Rachilde. Even at the time, Hawthorne recognized this as a "B-movie fantasy." But giving it up meant also abandoning a dream of writing "the kind of biography [she] had read as an undergraduate," "large, authoritative biographies, particularly those by Enid Starkie," whom she imagines as a "figure . . . rather like Margaret Rutherford's version of Miss Marple in some of the old films" (6). Instead, Hawthorne turned her sleuthing ambitions on Rachilde's many texts and wrote a far more self-conscious biography.

In contrast to older biographies that juxtapose "life" and "works," Rachilde and French Women's Authorship presents the two as virtually indistinguishable. Much of the evidence that Melanie Hawthorne had to work with took the form of Rachilde's accounts – overlapping, contradictory, and often contradicted by other documents – of her own life. Indeed, one of her initial tasks was to correct the mistakes of earlier scholars whose interpretations of Rachilde rest on an uncritical reading of one or more of these texts. Rachilde liked to mislead people about the date and time of her birth, claiming that she was born in February, 1862, at midnight, when in fact her birth certificate states that she was born two years earlier at 6 in the morning (13-14). But in clearing away earlier misconceptions, Hawthorne does not pretend to present us with a portrait of the woman apart from her texts. The Rachilde we can know, she argues, is an author who emerges in and is constructed by her writings. Indeed, one of Rachilde's most important accomplishments was to invent herself as a French woman author, passing on aspects of this role to writers such as Colette, who also chose to present herself to the reading public in a series of literary texts signed with a single androgynous name.

Rachilde's accounts of her birth and childhood are highly melodramatic. Claiming to be the daughter of an illegitimate son of a nobleman, Rachilde also asserted that her family tree included a werewolf and that the family estate harbored ghosts. Faced with her parents' insistence that she marry a man they had chosen, the young writer-to-be attempted suicide by drowning. Later she wrote to Victor Hugo, interpreting his [End Page 197] brief and gallant reply as encouragement, and she adopted Rachilde as a nom de plume based on an encounter at a séance with the ghost of a Swedish nobleman with a name that sounds more Algerian than Scandinavian. Hawthorne points to telling parallels between Rachilde's account of her attempted suicide and other texts of the period – notably Sarah Bernhardt's evocation of an early suicide attempt in Histoire de ma vie and Durkheim's Suicide. And while there is no documentary evidence for the claim to aristocratic origins, Hawthorne notes that Rachilde herself suggests a psychological motive for such an assertion in her 1937 L'Autre Crime, in which she writes: "un bâtard qui n'a pas de parents connus ça peut être fils de prince, naturellement" (quoted on page 32).

Rachilde was a prolific writer, publishing her first book in 1880 and her last, the autobiographical fiction Quand j'étais jeune, in 1947. Beginning as a literary outsider from the provinces, she quickly gained acceptance in Parisian literary circles, first as a decadent then as the...


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