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  • Lesbian Decadence: Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-siècle France by Nicole G. Albert
  • Kayte Stokoe
Lesbian Decadence: Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-siècle France. By Nicole G. Albert. Translated by Nancy Erber and William A. Peniston. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2016. 380 pp., ill.

Nancy Erber and William A. Peniston have produced a translation of Nicole G. Albert's Saphisme et décadence dans Paris fin-de-siècle (Paris: Martinière, 2005). The volume begins by examining the fascination with Sappho in France towards the end of the nineteenth century, and provides a meticulous commentary on shifting attitudes towards her work, her image, and the interlinked perception of Lesbos. Similarly, in Chapter 8, Albert carefully traces the mobilization of the idea of the androgyne in Decadent novels, demonstrating the links between this concept and its mythological precedents. In doing so, Albert clarifies the impact of the imagery in Zola's La Curée, Rachilde's Monsieur Vénus, and Joséphin Péladan's L'Androgyne, while elucidating societal attitudes towards homosexuality and gender fluidity. The breadth and vivacity of Albert's analyses ensure that this book will also appeal to non-specialists. Erber and Peniston have chosen to include the original titles of texts and artworks alongside their English translations in the main body of the text, while providing English translations of extended quotations, which appear in their original form in footnotes. This strategy allows readers with little or no French to appreciate Albert's analyses in full, while enabling French-speakers to read quotations in either French or English. Albert's thorough commentary on the sexological category of inversion, which she examines in Chapters 4 to 6, also increases the accessibility of her work for non-specialists. In addition to familiarizing readers with the work of celebrated sexologists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, Albert examines the attitudes of lesser-known theorists, such as Dr Georges Saint-Paul, known as Dr Laupts, and Dr Rhazis. Albert's analysis of inversion discourses also provides valuable feminist insights, including the suggestion that the creation of the invert figure narrowed 'the boundaries of so-called normal femininity' (p. 118) in addition to pathologizing lesbian embodiment. However, I believe that Albert's analysis of typologies of inversion would have benefited from a discussion of transgender identities and their relationship with sexological categories. As Jay Prosser ably demonstrated in 'Transsexuals and the Transsexologists: Inversion and the Emergence of Transsexual Subjectivity' (in Sexology in Culture: Labelling Bodies and Desires, ed. by Lucy Bland and Laura Doan (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), pp. 116–31), considering transgender possibilities can enrich one's understanding of sexology and its relationship with later medical advances. Nevertheless, Albert's analysis of inversion discourses remains rich and thought-provoking overall. The final part of Albert's volume, 'Damned Women or Exquisite Creatures', examines the condemnation of lesbian characters, either to violent fates or to the status of damned beings. In Chapter 11, for example, Albert provides a persuasive account of the use of illness, whether mental or physical, to silence lesbian characters. This part of the volume also considers a tendency among authors and artists to depict lesbian couples as incarnating a form of ethereal beauty, while decrying their supposed vice. Overall, this is a timely, readable translation of Albert's volume. I thoroughly recommend it for those with an interest in lesbian representation. [End Page 460]

Kayte Stokoe
University of Warwick


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