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Biography 24.4 (2001) 946-948

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Jo Burr Margadant, ed. The New Biography: Performing Femininity in Nineteenth Century France. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. 308 pp. ISBN 0-520-22140-0, $48.00 cloth; ISBN 0-520-27141-9, $17.95 paper.

The New Biography examines the lives of eight French women who achieved celebrity status in the nineteenth century, a time when it was widely believed that women belonged in the private domestic sphere; however, each of these women became a part of the public sphere.

These biographical articles are "new" because they propose a postmodern methodological approach to the study of people's lives. Their approach defines culture as relative, and questions the meaning of identity. Following late twentieth century literary critics, these authors believe that individuals construct their identities through language. Each of these eight nineteenth century French women found her own way to construct her identity by naming it, and this construction gave her the possibility of escaping the domestic norm for women created by their culture. Thus, these biographers are not trying to write definitive biographies which tell the essential truth of a unified coherent individual; rather, they are drawing a picture of how the individual attempted to give the illusion of coherence to her life, or how her multiple selves were seen by others.

In the first essay, "The Duchesse de Berry and Royalist Political Culture in Post-Revolutionary France," Jo Burr Margadant analyzes the image of motherhood which the Duchesse tried to establish around two events--the birth of her son, and the conspiracy to put the last descendant of the Bourbons on the throne. When her son was born more quickly than expected, she realized how important it was to prove that the royal heir was her (and her husband's) son, and called in guards and greengrocers to prove it. This shocked the sensitivities of the upper classes of Paris, who felt that sexuality should be a private thing. However, her popularity in the high society of Paris ultimately made her the only Bourbon whom most people respected. After her part in an aborted conspiracy to replace Charles d'Orléans on the throne with her son Henri, the legitimate Bourbon heir, the Duchesse succeeded in regaining the admiration of most legitimists, especially the women. Margadant claims that this strategy succeeded because the Duchesse had modernized the image of the royal mother, making her a person with whom the readers of romantic literature could identify.

In "Playing the Princess: Flora Tristan, Performance, and Female Authority in the July Monarchy," Susan Grogan studies the different images which social activist Flora Tristan projected as she tried to claim authority as a public figure through her attempts to reform French society. Her diaries [End Page 946] reveal that she often saw herself as a performer, assuming different roles to convince her public. Her first role was as an innocent victim, as she explained in Peregrinations of a Pariah in 1838 that she was both an illegitimate child and a woman who left her abusive husband. She often addressed assemblies of workers, envisioning herself as a heroine of the melodrama of her life; however, appealing to women's "moral superiority," she became a messianic figure for some. Grogan suggests that one way to understand Tristan's life is to see her representations of herself as "performance," and to read her writings through the frameworks of melodrama and messianism. Yet Grogan emphasizes that these are only a few of Tristan's possible selves.

Whitney Walton's essay, "Republican Women and Republican Families in the Personal Narratives of George Sand, Marie d'Agoult and Hortense Allart," examines three writers and their images of republican families. She introduces George Sand, the most famous women in the collection, who seems to lie at the heart of these studies. Sand's caricature appears on the cover of the volume, and in addition to the two other women in this essay, she appears to have many imitators among nineteenth century celebrities. (In another essay, Mary Pickering asserts that Clothilde de...