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  • Ingénue Saxancour, ou, La femme séparée by Rétif de La Bretonne
  • Andrew Billing
Rétif de La Bretonne, Ingénue Saxancour, ou, La femme séparée. Edited by Mary S. Trouille. (MHRA Critical Texts, 33.) Cambridge: MHRA, 2014. x + 262 pp.

Mary Trouille’s masterful critical edition of Rétif’s 1788 novel aims to make this distressing portrait of domestic violence in the late eighteenth-century context available to a broader audience. Ingénue is a fictionalized account of Rétif’s daughter Agnès’s marriage to her abusive husband Charles-Marie Augé over her father’s objections, told in the first person from the daughter’s point of view, and a part of which had earlier appeared in La Femme infidelle (1786). Ingénue (Agnès) describes her systematic isolation, estrangement from her family, learned passivity, degradation, and emotional, physical, and sexual torture at the hands of her violent abuser Moresquin (Augé), in a period in which a husband is effectively ‘un maître […] qui a des droits sur notre corps, sur notre âme, sur notre pudeur, sur notre chasteté même, sur le bonheur ou le malheur de tous nos instants’ (p. 147). Although Trouille cautions that Ingénue remains a ‘complex blend of fact and fiction’ (p. 34) that draws some of its most shocking incidents of sexual abuse from other sources (and Trouille quotes Pierre Testud, who observes that ‘Rétif avait l’imaginaire très fécond en ce domaine’ (p. 26, n. 8)), her comprehensive notes and introductory essays work to correlate the events of Ingénue’s narrative with those of Agnès’s marriage, while Appendices include a chronology of Agnès’s life drawn from Rétif’s diaries, and excerpts from his correspondence. This emphasis on the novel’s biographical and documentary value also informs Trouille’s analysis of Rétif’s motivations in publishing Ingénue. In the novel’s Preface Rétif’s narrator claims that the horrors it documents are offered as a caution ‘aux filles qui se marient malgré leurs parents et surtout en bravant l’autorité sacrée d’un père éclairé’ (p. 56); nonetheless, as Trouille observes, this didactic purpose is only one of a complex of motives including Rétif’s guilt at failing to intervene sooner to rescue Agnès from her abuser, and his desire for vengeance against his son-in-law, culminating in the rivalrous enmity and contest between the rights of fathers and those of husbands recounted in the novel’s final pages. However, Trouille’s notes point to a more disturbing aspect of Rétif’s investment in recounting the details of Agnès’s abuse. The author’s diaries suggest that he begins incestuous relations with [End Page 393] Agnès ‘less than a week after the novel was completed’ (p. 27) and that this liaison also re-enacts elements of the violence of her relationship with Augé: ‘querelle, mal foutu Senga [Agnès]’; ‘Senga m’a refusé’; ‘le soir Senga malgré elle’; ‘Senga foutue sévèrement’; ‘querelle Agnès coup tête’ (p. 29). Is Rétif’s impulse to write Ingénue driven not only by guilt and compassion but by an identification with his son-in-law’s ‘rage lubrique’ (p. 109), in which case the narrative repeats Agnès’s abuse even while deploring it? Such are the questions that this meticulous new edition of Ingénue Saxancour invites scholars and students of Rétif to reconsider.

Andrew Billing
Macalester College


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pp. 393-394
Launched on MUSE
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