Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 405-407
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Sophie Cottin is due for a revival. A best-selling author and critical success in the early nineteenth century, Cottin has been largely neglected by contemporary criticism. The publication of Michael J. Call's recent study coincides nicely with the recent MLA edition of Cottin's first novel, Claire d'Albe. Cottin's novels explore the quintessential dilemma of sentimental fiction, namely, the tension between the public and private good, between devoir and bonheur. Call's study on infertility in Cottin's novels not only provides a valuable introduction to her life and work: it also offers us a fresh perspective on Cottin's "coming to writing" (13) and on her representations of [End Page 405] femininity, in particular feminine bonheur. Call argues that Cottin's barrenness was not a minor detail; but rather, that Cottin's struggle with infertility underlies her fictional representations of the female experience, and her heroines' quests for alternative models of fulfillment.
What did it mean to be childless in a time when the ideal of happy, secular maternity defined the feminine experience? In his Introduction and Chapter 1, Call defines the "infertility experience," and opposes it to the dominant paradigm of the "happy mother." Drawing on current research from the social sciences, he establishes characteristics of the infertility experience, including a fear of "abnormality," a loss of self-esteem, and a questioning of gender norms and gender identity (14-15). The ideal of the happy mother - that is, the idea that a woman's worth is determined by her biological output - is not one that Sophie Cottin necessarily subverts. Indeed, as Call remarks, she was an enthusiastic reader of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But she does question the equation of bearing children with female bonheur. Through her female characters, Cottin explores other options of fulfillment open to women, such as virtue, desire, and filial duty.
This is most clearly seen in Chapter 2, Call's strongest, in which Call both establishes the importance of the infertility experience to Cottin, and extrapolates a non-maternal model of female plénitude from Claire d'Albe (1799). In the first part of the chapter, Call examines the social significance of barrenness, weaving together eighteenth-century social, religious, and medical discourses on motherhood and infertility. He posits that through most of her life, Cottin suffered from "persistent amenorrhea" (the absence of menstruation). This diagnosis is convincingly supported through a close reading of Cottin's 1805 letter to her suitor, Hyacinthe Azaïs, in which she explains that she cannot marry him, because she cannot have children. To understand better Cottin's own infertility experience, Call refers to a modern psychological model of stages couples go through to cope with infertility (60-61). This accent on infertility may seem incongruous to a discussion of Claire d'Albe, a novel in which the eponymous heroine conscientiously breast-feeds her children. However, as Call demonstrates, Cottin's first novel does not equate mater-nity with happiness, for Claire seeks "fulfillment outside the ascribed norms of fertility and maternity" (70).
If Claire d'Albe portrays a woman's struggle with the ascribed norms of femininity, Cottin's next novel Malvina (1801), as Call indicates in Chapter 3, endorses the ideal of the happy mother. In Chapters 4, 5, and 6, Call examines Amélie Mansfield (1803), Mathilde, ou Mémoires tirés de l'histoire des croisades (1805), and Elisabeth; ou, Les Exilés de Sibérie (1806), respectively. As is important in any introductory critical work, some plot summary is called for, and Call adeptly condenses intricate plotlines. In these chapters, Call juxtaposes the novels' portrayal of the femaleexperience with Cottin's own infertility experience. For example, referring back to the psychological model developed in Chapter 2, Call proposes that the anger and guilt of Amélie Mansfield mirror Cottin's own struggle with barrenness and self-definition (100...