NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003) 221-222
[Access article in PDF]
Poignant Relations: Three Modern French Women by James Smith Allen. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, 270 pp., $42.50 hardcover.
James Smith Allen's study brings to our attention the lives and works of three forgotten nineteenth-century French women: Marie Leroyer, Geneviève Bréton, and Céline Renooz. Although unacknowledged, these women devoted a significant amount of their time to writing, whether such writing took the form of letters, diaries, memoirs, novels, or scientific treatises. Whereas other scholars have focused on elite women's works and lives during the same period, Allen chooses these little-known women on the assumption that their writings more accurately reflect middle-class French women's lives. His work grows out of the equality vs. difference debate, especially as it opposes historians Joan Scott's (1996) and Mona Ozouf's (1997) views on modern French society. At stake is the extent to which an egalitarian (yet, patriarchal) discourse benefits women. Allen claims that, despite unequal treatment, the women writers he is interested in participated in a broad exchange of ideas and crafted a valuable space for themselves. Clearly, he presents writing as an empowering step toward equality.
Of particular interest to a feminist reader should be Allen's argument that these three women shared a "deliberative" approach to their literary endeavors and were motivated by "the voluntarist elements in discursive practice" (10). Thus, writing enabled them to achieve "a sense of agency in the creation of identity" (13). Allen points out how, on various occasions and in different ways, these women's writing activities shaped their experiences and helped them gain a firmer grip on events in which they were involved. To support this thesis, the book includes summaries and analyses of the current scholarship on feminist, historical, and literary theories, and then applies this information to the author's trove of data collected during his research. In addition, the chapters are organized around the themes of relationships (how these women interacted with [End Page 221] others) and relations (how their experiences translated into their art). Such a structure undoubtedly privileges the notion that women are natural and/ or socialized caregivers. More insightfully, it allows Allen to demonstrate the relevance of reading the author's self in her texts and to exemplify the feminist belief that the political is located in every aspect of each individual's life. Contrary to many scholars who adamantly dissociate the writer's life from her work, Allen, as an historian, posits that the work assumes further significance through our knowledge of its author.
Negotiated across a broad range of disciplines, from history and literary criticism to French studies and feminist scholarship, such an eclectic approach to questions of equality and difference as well as of agency and voice fuels an encompassing reflection on how feminism may be understood. Drawing from a diverse array of sources, Allen argues that, although these women dismissed the rising feminist consciousness of their times, they nonetheless addressed a number of feminist issues, such as how to strive for their best interests or how to express their opinions. As shown by the book's multidisciplinary perspective, these authors practiced "implicit feminism" and subtly challenged patriarchal rule (161).
Equally attractive in Poignant Relations is its systematic, well-organized approach. The concise style should appeal to a general readership as well as specialists. The thoroughness and clarity of Allen's analysis make the book a fitting text for women's studies courses at all levels, especially those that focus on literary or historical issues. Most of all, this work is an invitation to readers to discover these forgotten women, thus fulfilling the promise of such a project: exposing readers to the works of little known writers! Finally, Allen insists that "whatever her personal views, however conflicted her self-conception, the human being always deserves our attention" (14). Unmistakably, his book reads as a respectful tribute to these unknown, struggling women, and it is this poised authorial stance that makes Allen's work a "poignant relation."