- Revolution and Women’s Autobiography in Nineteenth-Century France
Kathleen Hart's Revolution and Women's Autobiography in Nineteenth-Century France is, according to the back cover, the first book "devoted exclusively to the topic of women's autobiography in nineteenth-century France." Hart not only shows the importance of this genre in nineteenth-century women's writing, she also demonstrates that dialogue with utopian socialist theories created surprising sub-groupings of women's writing outside of the boundaries of conventionally defined literary movements. It therefore adds to the emerging corpus of critical works such as Margaret Cohen's The Sentimental Education of the Novel (unfortunately not cited by Hart), that directly or indirectly challenge epistemological frameworks of nineteenth-century literary history on the basis of gender.
One of the most intriguing insights of the book is that if, by the terms of numerous psychological and psychoanalytic theories of gender, women's constructs of self are more "other-related" than those conventionally found in men's autobiographies, then "the liberation of women's autobiographical writing would require new myths of origins. . . . [that] would call for a dynamic as opposed to a static conception of human existence." The French Revolution, Hart affirms, "contributed to the birth of such myths." Hart convincingly traces new "harmonious" and "passionate" ideas of civilization and feminine selfhood in the work of socialist utopian thinkers including Fourier, Leroux, and the Saint-Simonians. She then proposes that the socialist woman autobiographer – as studied here in the cases of Flora Tristan, George Sand, and Louise Michel – developed "new life scripts," writing to participate "in the great historical process which her very text would serve to shape and influence."
Hart's book is a valuable addition to theories of post-Revolutionary selfhood and nineteenth-century gender development, as well as to the enormous corpus of scholarship on autobiography (which she efficiently encapsulates in an introduction that serves in effect as a brief feminist history of the genre). Although Revolution and Women's Autobiography does not necessarily make Tristan's Peregrinations of a Pariah, Sand's Story of My life, and Michel's Memoirs more compelling to the reader as literary [End Page 415] texts, it reveals new valences of Sand's observation "'I am no wiser than my century,'" and in so doing, opens up new terrain for study of the woman writer as an enfant du siècle. Some of the biographical similarities among the writers that she presents, such as the fact that all three were the offspring of unions of women of low social status and men of high social status, and that all grew up haunted by questions of disinheritance, illegitimacy, or maternal banishment, are of renewed cultural interest in relation to socialist theories that "humanity could only advance when all individuals adopted traditionally 'feminine' faculties." Such theories allowed these writers to valorize their life stories "without repressing the 'feminine' or matrilinear trace in their texts," and to explore their personal crises in relation to society's perceived failure to realize a more complete human identity.
Hart closes with a cogent consideration of modern autobiographical discourses as "an exercise in 'impression management,'" in which different discourses battle to privilege varying subjects and forms of representation of individual and social being. The discourses analyzed in Revolution and Women's Autobiography in Nineteenth-Century France illuminate the role of the French Revolution as a hidden ancestor in modern French women's life stories.