Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 416-418
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This volume of correspondence between the writers Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery Vallette, 1860-1953) and Maurice Barrès (1862-1923) is a useful volume for many reasons, but it is essential reading for anyone who wishes for deeper insight into the fascinating early years of Rachilde's writing career. Rachilde met Barrès just months after the publication of her most famous novel, Monsieur Vénus, in 1884, they had some kind of close relationship (whether that relationship found physical expression is anyone's guess, as editor Michael Finn notes), and the relationship then cooled off until a friendly reprise in the late 1880 s when Barrès offered to write the introduction to the French edition of Monsieur Vénus that would appear in 1889 - the year Rachilde committed to a marriage, though not with Barrès - after which their correspondence remains friendly but distant. But that five-year period from 1884-1889 is one of the most interesting yet enigmatic of Rachilde's life and this book helps to show why.
These previously unpublished letters (all but one of the 104 in this volume), help-fully annotated for the most part, offer a valuable resource, but no less valuable is Michael Finn's engrossing introduction that bristles with careful scholarship.
He sketches the background and childhood of both Rachilde and Barrès, speculating that the former may have been the victim of childhood sexual abuse (12), reviews how they first met and the subsequent stages of the relationship, and places this friendship in the broader context of Rachilde's other romantic entanglements during the 1884-1889 period.
For Rachilde was not only flirting with Barrès. In early 1885, she first met the man who was to become her husband, Alfred Vallette, and would have an on-again, off-again relationship with him for the next four years (i.e., until they married, after [End Page 416] which the relationship was presumably mostly "on"). At the same time, Rachilde was also deeply involved with Léo d'Orfer (Marius Pouget, 1859-1924), to the degree that, if rumors are to be believed, she would claim that they were married (22). Finn has pulled together a great deal of what is known about the minor literary figure of d'Orfer (though I believe that he first met Rachilde well before the date of 1880 suggested by Finn) and adds new information. For example, in the section of the introduction where he assesses Rachilde's fictional depictions of Barrès and vice versa, Finn is to be credited with noting the oblique allusion to d'Orfer in Rachilde's A mort (1886) that puns on the words "or" (gold) and "fer" (iron), a code already used elsewhere to link their names publicly (29-30). What seems to be missing from Finn's discussion of Rachilde's complicated love life in the mid 1880 s, however, is the role of Gisèle d'Estoc (Marie-Paule Courbe Desbarres, 1845-1894), whom he mentions in passing but without acknowledging that the two women seem to have had an affair in the midst of all this. Finn refers to d'Estoc's roman à clef about Rachilde, La Vierge-réclame (Librarie Richelieu, 1887) but without explaining, at least here, that this vindictive portrait, which he refers to as a "curious pamphlet" (22) is less curious and makes more sense when it is understood that d'Estoc wrote it in retaliation after being spurned by Rachilde. And just as Rachilde wrote Barrès into her fiction at the time (most notably A mort), Rachilde also worked d'Estoc into her writing, for example in Madame Adonis (1888). Some of the references to intimates in Rachilde's correspondence who cannot be identified may refer to d'Estoc. Thus...