Biography 24.3 (2001) 649-652
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During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when much women's writing contained some kind of rebellion against patriarchal tradition, three relatively obscure French women essayed through novels, letters, memoirs, diaries, and other discursive forms of written expression to address privately and discreetly certain issues at a critical moment in the history of the women's rights movement in France, 1848-1922. [End Page 649]
James Smith Allen has drawn detailed and compelling portraits of the personal and intellectual lives of Marie-Sophie Leroyer de Chantepie (1800- 1888), Geneviève Bréton-Vaudoyer (1849-1918), and Céline Renooz-Muro (1840-1928), while providing ample background on their historical context, a time when society curtailed women's activities and influence, but failed to squelch their self-expression in a variety of written genres. The author notes that each of these women, whom he called "feminist misfits" (169), would not have considered herself a feminist, as each was indifferent to the women's movement of her time as she knew it. Nevertheless, "each in her own way demonstrated a common concern for agency and resistance in language within a patriarchal context" (151), while specifically illustrating "the arts of feminist consciousness in modern France" (9). The fact that these three were "women on the margins"--that is, little known to the general public--"actually makes their work and language revealing if not exemplary of discursive practices during the Third Republic" (9).
"For Leroyer, Bréton, and Renooz, gender was manifested not solely in their dealings with men and their institutions, however important, but also in the context of their families, other women, and their writing especially," Allen states (13). He notes that this feminist awareness occurs at a precise historical moment with very specific implications for feminist literary theory and history. Because language of the time was not an entity of its own, these women, along with such contemporaries as George Sand, Marie d'Agoult, Hortense Allart, and Flora Tristan, "negotiated with their historical moment for the space they needed to create" (17).
Allen's first chapter, entitled "The Women's Question: Historically Speaking," traces women's century-long struggle to rise above domestic expectations and stereotyping that were foisted on them not only by men and government, but also sustained by the majority of their fellow citoyennes. Although women's autobiography was gaining respect in this era, due in part to Sand's Historie de ma vie (1854-55), most female intellectuals were more given to an older and ultimately more revealing medium--the personal letter. In addition, the woman's diary, ironically intended originally to preoccupy restless adolescent girls and monitor their moral development, had the opposite effect of leading women to self-discovery by allowing them uninhibited and unbridled personal expression.
Although not as widely produced as were the more personal writings, the novel was basically a woman's genre as well. Though women had produced novels as early as the seventeenth century, Allen notes that prose fiction in the nineteenth century became their entrée into French intellectual life, as well as an avenue for them to critique French society and culture. [End Page 650]
The author then delves into the various private literate worlds of Leroyer, Bréton, and Renooz "to see more precisely the ways in which they developed an identity, a sense of agency, and the possibility of resistance within these special historical circumstances. Such were the expressions of a feminist consciousness, historically speaking, at the heart of the woman question and its many relations in modern France" (31).
Allen's most interesting chapters are the ones that examine the personal and intellectual lives of these three writers. Chapter Three, entitled "A Provincial's Devotions," examines Leroyer's lifetime in Angers as a Romantic feminist, "indefatigable diarist," and "passionate correspondent." Independently wealthy, never married, but dedicated to service to her extended family and to various other residents who looked...