- “A Terrible Ordeal from Every Point of View”: (Not) Managing Female Sexuality on the Wedding Night
To judge by publishers ’ lists from the first decade of the twentieth century, self-appointed doctors of sexual pathology must have abounded in France at the time. Or if, as one suspects, they were in fact few in number, they managed remarkably well to “multiply themselves,” as the French would say, being both active and increasingly numerous. Not only were they prolific publishers, but they also used noms de plume (often simply identifying themselves as a docteur without a full name) and borrowed liberally from each other’s texts. Moreover, the milieu in which they published produced its own effect of multiplication, as medical texts were offered for sale alongside fictional stories of passionate eroticism, prurient studies of exotic or ancient cultures, and flagellation pornography. So even as these compendia worked to establish a newly orthodox understanding of such made-to-order medical topics as syphilis, impotence, and abortion, they were laying equal claim on behalf of sexual medicine to topics like hysteria, hypnotism, and morphinomania. Their activity and the place in which they conducted it effectively defined the range of the sexual, and that range was vast.
One topic regularly included within the scope of sexual knowledge was marriage. The fifth volume of the Bibliothèque sexuelle du Docteur Désormeaux (Dr. Désormeaux’s Sexual Library) is entitled Le mariage (Marriage), and the twentieth volume of Dr. Caufeynon’s Bibliothèque populaire des connaissances médicales (Popular Library of Medical Knowledge), Le mariage et son hygiène (Marriage and Its Hygiene).1 Attention often focused in these texts on the quality of amorous relations between husband and wife: Dr. Désormeaux added a separate volume to his library entitled L’amour [End Page 44] conjugal (Conjugal Love), and Dr. Eynon contributed his own Manuel de l’amour conjugal (Handbook of Conjugal Love).2 Dr. Rhazis, in a work entitled L’initiation amoureuse, ou L’art de se faire aimer et de plaire (The Initiation to Love, or The Art of Being Attractive), devoted a chapter to “l’amour libre et l’amour conjugal [free love and conjugal love].”3 Marriage was envisaged in these works not as an alliance of families or even as the proper means of procreation but as an occasion for sexual intimacy.
I do not, of course, wish to imply that conjugal love was being invented as a topic at the end of the nineteenth century. It had, after all, been the subject of a famous text written over two centuries earlier. Nicolas Venette’s Tableau de l’amour conjugal (Depiction of Conjugal Love), historically the most popular work in French bridging the medical and the erotic, was first published in about 1686 and republished continually thereafter. But I am going to argue in what follows that sexual relations within marriage took on new importance at the turn of the twentieth century. One of the manifestations of that change was in fact the renewed attention paid to Venette’s work. Sometimes that attention consisted in simply republishing the classic text, as Paul Fort, the publisher of Désormeaux’s Bibliothèque sexuelle, did in 1903.4 More often, and more typically of this publishing milieu, it consisted in reappropriation of various kinds. In 1907 Jean Fort published Bréviaire de l’amour dans le mariage (Handbook of Love in Marriage), in which Venette’s text had been “revised and augmented” by Dr. Caufeynon.5 In 1909 he also published Bréviaire de l’amour dans le mariage, ou L’homme et la femme considérés dans l’état physiologique du mariage (Handbook of Love in Marriage, or Man and Woman Considered in the Physiological State of Marriage) by a certain Dr. Wolf. This text appears to be a straightforward case of plagiarism in which Venette’s work is attributed to another author.6
I want to say more about the reprise of Venette’s work in order to show how the progressive norm that was emerging in psychosexual compendia differed from older views that seemed to persist alongside it. But first I need to...