- Grappling with Feminism in the Belle Époque:Colette Yver’s Princesses de science and Les Dames du palais
Colette Yver is one of several Belle Époque women novelists whose heroines break new ground by venturing into traditionally male-dominated professions and by articulating an overtly feminist discourse.1 The plots of two of her best-known novels, Princesses de science, published in 1907 (and awarded the Prix Vie Heureuse—later to become the Prix Femina—the same year), and Les Dames du palais, in 1909, follow an almost identical trajectory: a brilliant, ambitious woman allows an insistent suitor in the same profession to convince her to marry him; when her acclaim eclipses his, his jealousy and insecurity make marriage a minefield even more challenging for her to navigate than the workplace, where the patriarchal system still reigns supreme. The novels conclude with the heroines’ unexpected decision—aptly termed “un coup de théâtre” in Princesses de science (243)—to renounce their hard-won careers, choosing marital harmony over what Yver is wont to call “la gloire.” It is thanks to this unanticipated ending that most readers, including Simone de Beauvoir, have considered Yver anti-feminist.2 Yet Jennifer Waelti-Walters includes her among the “feminist [End Page 946] novelists of the Belle Époque” featured in her seminal book, Juliette M. Rogers insists on the subversiveness of her first novels (Career 221), and, most recently, Andrea Oberhuber makes a case for looking beyond the classification of anti-feminist (64). As we shall see, Princesses de science and Les Dames du palais reveal much slippage where feminism is concerned, ultimately resisting both anti-feminist and feminist labels.3
The heroine of Princesses de science, Thérèse, is a talented young doctor who has no intention of following in her mother’s footsteps by ceasing to exist as an individual after marriage. It is telling that despite having known a colleague, Fernand, for four years, Thérèse has never considered him a potential mate. Her confusion at his sudden marriage proposal turns to disbelief when he reveals his expectation that she give up her career. It is only when Fernand agrees to let her continue to work that she accepts. But love never really manages to “tuer l’étudiante en [elle]” (12) as he had hoped; in fact, Thérèse immerses herself in her research to the exclusion of nearly everything else, as is evidenced by the utter chaos that is her home life.4 Thérèse’s feminism emerges often and insistently, such as when a fellow intern, Dina, abandons her career for a suitor who is essentially Fernand’s double, causing an outraged Thérèse to exclaim, “Comment! … votre science, votre art, tout ce que vous avez acquis, la femme que vous êtes enfin, tout s’évanouit, tout s’efface devant le vœu égoïste d’un homme!” (76); or when Thérèse discovers, to Fernand’s extreme delight and her utter [End Page 947] horror, that she is pregnant: “Suis-je l’individu libre qui a le droit de choisir sa vie” she asks, “ou un instrument passif soumis au génie de l’espèce, simple anneau dans la chaîne humaine?” (128). Thérèse’s attitude toward motherhood stands out all the more in a post-1870 world, whose pro-natalist discourse, as Melanie Hawthorne has shown, “characterized childlessness as a form of selfishness, charting the prevalent view that if you were not doing your part to replace society, then you were essentially depleting resources without contributing to their replenishment, creating a cost for others without paying your own way” (185).5
The problem is that our inclination to endorse Thérèse’s brand of feminism, to cheer her on as she attempts to control her own life, is constantly undermined by her cold and narcissistic personality. This is someone who can scarcely contain her embarrassment that her husband is but a simple neighborhood doctor in whom she has “immolé son nom glorieux” (79); who, when Fernand sets out to find a cure for cancer, literally laughs and says “mon pauvre chéri! Quelle...