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Reviewed by:
  • La Fille Élisa
  • Peter Vantine
Goncourt, Edmond de . La Fille Élisa. Ed. David Baguley. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2010. Print. Tome VIII of OEuvres complètes des frères Goncourt. Pierre-Jean Dufief, gen. ed. Pp. 310. ISBN: 978-2-7453-2079-7

Under the direction of Pierre-Jean Dufief, Honoré Champion is publishing a new, critical edition of the OEuvres complètes of brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, with Alain Montandon overseeing the portion of the series dedicated to their novels. La Fille Élisa (1877), edited, annotated, and introduced by David Baguley, is the first volume of the collection to be published. La Fille Élisa was the first of four novels that Edmond de Goncourt published alone, though the brothers originally conceived it jointly following a visit to a women's prison. Both Edmond and Jules contributed to the first half of a carnet of notes for the novel, but their collaboration was cut short by Jules's death, after which it took Edmond seven years to complete the novel.

The protagonist of La Fille Élisa is the daughter of a Parisian midwife and is exposed early to the uncensored realities of adultery and prostitution (venereal disease, [End Page 186] unwanted children, abortion) as she overhears the consultations and confessions of her mother's clients. Élisa flees her mother's drunken violence and difficult profession by becoming a prostitute, first in the provinces and then back in Paris. While working at a brothel near the École Militaire, she falls in love with a soldier. When he tries to force himself on her in the Bois de Boulogne, Élisa is overcome by a sudden desire for a more chaste kind of love and by a homicidal rage that drives her to fatally stab her lover. She is condemned to the guillotine, but her punishment is commuted to a life sentence at a women's prison, where she is subjected to a strict regimen of silence that ultimately wears her down to a state of imbecility and then to death.

Unlike the preceding summary, Edmond de Goncourt's novel does not follow a simple, linear structure. Instead, it begins in medias res with an analeptic prologue set in a courtroom at the suspenseful moment when the protagonist who has not yet been introduced is awaiting and then receives the jury's verdict for a crime that has not yet been explained. The novel is then divided into two parts: the first recounts Élisa's childhood, her mother's work as a midwife, and Elisa's subsequent life as a prostitute up to the moment of the murder, which is evoked only elliptically; the second describes Élisa's monotonous, highly disciplined life and steady psychological decline in prison. It is not until the middle of the second part that Elisa's relationship with and murder of the soldier are described in detail when she recalls the fatal day in a fragmented flashback. In the final chapter, which reads like an epilogue, the narrator inserts himself into story and recounts a visit to the women's prison, during which he witnessed Élisa's mute death. This short novel is divided into sixty-five chapters of only a few pages each on average, with some chapters consisting of only a single, short paragraph. Such a disjointed narrative structure is typical of the Goncourts' novels, as is the inclusion of various authentic "documents" into the novel: for instance, Edmond reproduces the heading and format of the prison letter paper that detainees could earn the right to use through good behavior (189), and he lists the names and prices of supplemental foodstuffs available for purchase in the prison dining hall (213). In his succinct but striking preface, Edmond evokes the brothers' earlier novel Germinie Lacerteux to renew their call for artistic liberty. He aligns himself with the "jeune et sérieuse école du roman moderne" by refusing to limit the genre to being "l'amusement des jeunes demoiselles en chemin de fer" and by insisting that, unlike popular novels about courtesans, his is "une sévère monographie de la prostitution non clandestine" (97-98). Finally, he describes his novel as a "plaidoyer" by...


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