Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 373-375
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Bertrand-Jennings, Chantal. D'un siècle à l'autre: Les Romans de Claire de Duras. Jaignes, France: La Chasse au Snark, 2002. Pp. 139. ISBN 2-914015-08-9
Chantal Bertrand-Jennings's D'un siècle l'autre: Les Romans de Claire de Duras contributes to the rediscovery of Claire de Duras's novels and integrates them in a broader literary tradition, beginning with Mme de Lafayette and continuing with Stendhal. Bertrand-Jennings persuades us the work of Claire de Duras (1777-1828) is, indeed, worth rediscovering. In their depictions of sensibility, her novels - Ourika, Edouard, and Olivier ou le secret - offerunique insights into the cultural and social movements of nineteenth-century France.
Ourika (1824) relates the story of a young black woman's hopeless love for a French nobleman and her continually disappointed efforts to be accepted by the French aristocracy. The story ends tragically, as the young woman enters a convent and dies. In Edouard (1825), the hero, who is the son of a worker adopted by a nobleman, falls passionately in love with and wishes to marry the nobleman's sister. [End Page 373] In this case as well, such an alliance is impossible because Edouard is not aristocratic. With a deep sense of pain and frustration, the hero abandons his hopes and becomes a soldier. Olivier (published in 1971) depicts the effects of physical impotence upon love.
In analyzing these novels, Bertrand-Jennings focuses, for obvious reasons given their main themes, on class and racial relations and on gendering: not only on Duras's representations of gender relations, but also on the author, in her specificity as a female writer in "a society where women were at the same time placed in a position of civic inferiority and diabolized or idealized by symbolic systems" (my translation, 8). Furthermore, the author inscribes Duras's work in what she calls the cultural crisis between liberal Enlightenment thought and the residual values associated with the Ancien Régime. Duras's unique sensibility towards marginalized groups offers a third alternative to this cultural tension, one which will flourish more fully during the Romantic movement.
The first chapter, "Claire de Duras et son œuvre," depicts Claire Rose Louise de Coënempren, duchesse de Kersaint's childhood and adolescence, the influence of her mixed cultural heritage - her father was Breton; her mother a white Creole from Martinique - as well as important personal and literary interactions, such as her tumultuous amitié amoureuse with Chateaubriand. Bertrand-Jennings maintains that the emotional and sentimental frustration that Duras experienced throughout her life awakened the sensibility that characterizes her work. This chapter also traces indirect influences upon Duras's work - such as her admiration for Goethe - as well as the reception of her novels, including the homage payed to Ourika by Goethe, Walter Scott and Humboldt. Given the critical success of this novel, Bertrand-Jennings examines the reasons why the book became almost forgotten until 1979, when Claudine Herrmann republished it in the edition des femmes. Since then, Duras's work - and especially Ourika - has once again risen in popularity and been analyzed by several important literary critics, including Roger Little, Margaret Waller, J. F. Hoffmann and D. O'Connell, some of whom identify the novel as an important precursor to the contemporary critiques of racism and colonialism offered by Sartre, Fanon, and Memmi.
Bertrand-Jennings, however, places the work above all in the context of the tradition of the psychological novel initiated by Mme de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves. The second chapter, entitled "L'altéritè absolue: Ourika," performs a close textual analysis of the work. Furthermore, the author situates the novel with respect to the emerging Romantic movement (along with works such as René, Oberman, Chatterton, and Lorenzaccio) while also highlighting its modernity and continued relevance. By way of contrast to the male heroes that epitomize the Romantic mal du siècle, Bertrand-Jennings argues that Ourika, as a young black woman in French society, represents a well-defined...