Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 404-405
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Christopher Rivers has done a great service in re-editing and translating Adolphe Belot's popular novel, Mademoiselle Giraud, Ma Femme (1870). Although largely unknown today, Belot (1829-90) was a prolific and best-selling writer who specialized in scandalous success. French and English editions of the text, companion volumes published in the MLATexts and Translations series, give both specialists and general readers access to this fascinating novel, which has been out of print for over a hundred years. Of interest to scholars of French, gender, and sexuality studies, as well as of the popular novel, Mlle Giraud is also a welcome new pedagogical resource. My own experience of teaching the novel was highly rewarding: it's a fun read for students, provokes lively and rich discussions, and gave rise to written work of quality.
Mlle Giraud tells the pulpy story, from the point of view of an unhappy husband, of a marriage doomed by the Sapphic tendencies of his wife. The tale begins as Adrien, the wealthy and successful but hopelessly naïve narrator-protagonist, scours Paris in search of a wife. Finding flaws in each of the eagerly marriageable women paraded before him, he finally falls in love with and marries the ravishing but intractable Paule Giraud - against the advice of Paule herself and of the Countess Berthe de Blangy, Paule's friend from convent school. Without for a moment imagining that Paule and the countess are lovers, Adrien engages in a battle of wills with his new bride, who refuses to consummate their marriage. Indeed, Paule refuses even to unlock her bedroom door, mystifying Adrien and moving him alternately to employ patience, seduction, trickery, tears, and violence - all unsuccessfully - to bed her.
Frustrated, unfulfilled, and still unenlightened, Adrien flees Paris and ends up in Nice where - thanks to the conventions of the popular novel - he coincidentally encounters the Count de Blangy, the husband of his wife's "inseparable friend," Berthe. Blangy finally opens the dumbfounded Adrien's eyes to the sexual nature of their relationship. Together the husbands devise a plan to separate their wives geographically since, according to Adrien, "We owe it to society, we owe it to ourselves, to challenge reprehensible aberrations!" (154). Moreover, he reminds the reader, they are perfectly supported in their undertaking by the Code, which requires a wife to follow her husband. Upon their return to Paris, Count de Blangy whisks his wife northward to an undisclosed destination while Adrien takes the ailing Paule southward to Algeria. They stop in Oran where Paule's failing health begins to improve under his chaste ministrations. All signs point to her eventual physical recovery and concomitant conversion to heterosexuality when Berthe locates Paule and seduces her once again. When Adrien finally catches up with Paule, she is on her deathbed, repentant. [End Page 404]
Initially portrayed as a witty and highly attractive if near-sighted woman (typically blonde to Paule's brunette), Berthe becomes progressively insidious and cunning, represented as the older convent seductress responsible for Paule's death. Paule too undergoes a transformation from a headstrong young woman savvy beyond her years to the impressionable victim of Berthe's evil influence. Adrien metamorphoses as well during the course of the novel, abandoning his passive innocence for calculating action. The novel ends with a fait divers in a provincial newspaper, which details the death of the countess, who drowns while swimming despite Adrien's attempts to save her. The count (clearly able to read between the lines better than Adrien) thanks and absolves Adrien "on behalf of all decent people, for having rid us of that reptile" (206).
Christopher Rivers's introduction contextualizes the novel in several important ways, first by examining its position in the tradition of lesbian novels from Diderot to Colette...