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  • Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth-Century France by Gretchen Schultz
  • David A. Powell
Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth-Century France. By Gretchen Schultz. (University of Toronto Romance Series.) Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. 295 pp., ill.

Gretchen Schultz delivers a first-rate exploration of French lesbian literature from the mid-nineteenth century through the turn of the century and its influence on mid-twentieth-century American lesbian pulp fiction. Schultz seeks to examine ‘what stake French male writers have in female homoeroticism, and what kind of heritage these sapphic fathers bequeath to subsequent generations’ (p. 4). Not only a skilful investigation and analysis of male-authored literature with lesbian content, the book is also well written: coherent and cogent, precise and witty. A comprehensive historical, political, and sociological contextualization of representations of homosexuality and lesbianism begins the study, followed by a sophisticated version of the requisite terminology section. Schultz lucidly analyses the far-reaching effects of the poetic tribade depictions of Baudelaire and Verlaine. Her exquisitely thorough and sensitive reading of these ‘lesbian poems’ will be appreciated by scholars already familiar with them, and shows ‘it is predominately the poetry of the period that offers the most striking examples’ (p. 29) of nineteenth-century French male authors’ identification with lesbians. Notwithstanding the clearly masculine subjectification inherent in these and most of the texts written by ‘sapphic fathers’, Schultz consistently avoids essentializing and frequently engages the criticism of the voyeuristic construct. After a close reading of Mademoiselle Giraud, ma femme (1870), she examines Adolphe Belot’s place in the ‘rise of the sapphic novel’ (p. 66) with an in-depth analysis of the less familiar Mélinite (1878). This chapter looks at how romans populaires and pornography contribute to Belot’s and others’ marketplace success. Schultz notes that Belot’s erotic novels ‘condemn [the] hypocrisy’ (p. 103) of the sexual double standard apparent in his popular novels, despite ‘[t]he disjunction between female narratee and implied male reader enabl[ing] male voyeurism of female homosexuality’ (ibid.). Schultz next tackles the question of social class. Comparing the aristocratic lesbian and the sex-worker-turned-lesbian characters in Zola’s Nana (1880), Catulle Mendès’s Mephistophéla (1890), and Joséphin Péladan’s La Gynandre (1891), Schultz reveals the anti-Republican and socialist sentiments these texts present, casting prejudice of class and ethnicity as a significant cause of the degeneration of Third Republic society and nation. Chapter 4 delivers a comprehensive summary of French, British, and European ‘scientific’ discourse on homosexuality. Schultz identifies how these texts depict ‘tribadism’ in terms of hygiene, class, heredity, and masturbation. Her cogent analysis demonstrates how scientists, jurists, and novelists came to perceive and define lesbians as symbols of criminality, prostitution, pathology, degeneracy, and the decline of family and society. Finally Schultz explores the influence of French novelists on mid-twentieth-century American pulp novels. Schultz shows how the Paris–Lesbos context enhanced readers’ attraction to train-station lesbian narratives. Moreover she explains how the cross-Atlantic association challenged the perceived connection McCarthyist politics drew between lesbians and Communism. Schultz’s book will undoubtedly be required reading for scholars of queer studies and [End Page 616] students of nineteenth-century French literature. The lengthy overview of naturalism makes the book accessible to a wider audience. The book is a treasure chest of insight, information, and inspiration for researchers interested in, or curious about, representations of lesbians in (nineteenth-century French) literature.

David A. Powell
Hofstra University


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pp. 616-617
Launched on MUSE
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