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Damned Women: Lesbians in French Novels, 1796-1996.

by Jennifer Waelti-Walters
288 pages,
ISBN: 0773521100


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Charmeuses des femmes
by Julia Creet

Jennifer Waelti-Walters's exhaustive study of the lesbian figure in French Literature from her first appearance in the 18th Century is an important, but unfortunately heavy-handed contribution to the fields of queer studies and French literature. Primarily an historian by training, now retired from the Department of Women's Studies at the University of Victoria, Waelti-Walters's historiographic reading roots out the lesbian figure in all her various guises, more present in French literature than in other literatures, but more constrained by a society that tolerates female deviance only as dalliance. While a study of literature, Damned Women struggles to be literary, invested as it is in the politics of historical mimesis.

The title, "Damned Women", is taken from the title of one of Baudelaire poems in his scandalous book of poetry Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil). Published in 1857, six of its poems were immediately banned for obscenity. Though only three poems have any lesbian content, and though Baudelaire describes his strophic lesbian figures "in the same language of passion and perversity that he uses in his heterosexual poetry," Waelti-Walters's claims that the "[t]he words that went into literary history as the markers of lesbian experience wereÓthose of the poem's title, which encoded and implied all the sexual sins of which the nineteenth-century male imagination had no experience and did not dare to attempt to express by anything other than innuendo." Never mind that Baudelaire laments the destruction "of Mannish Sappho, lover and poet!/¨More beautiful than Venus rising over the world," or apostrophizes the glorious age of lesbian history (strange as his identification may be): "For lesbos has chosen me among all men of the earth/To sing the secret of its flowering virgins," it is Baudelaire's unsparing description of Hippolyte and Delphine's torments that will set the tone for lesbian representation for the next two and a half centuries. The title bears the weight of Jennifer Waelti-Walters's thesis that lesbians in their literary apparitions from the 18th century to the present have suffered under two kinds of damnations. Damnation number one: in the hands of male authors from Diderot to Proust, lesbians characters were "stereotypical, perfunctory, and misogynistic, but, at least as long as men wrote the novels, the novels remained within the margins of literary history." Damnation number two: in the hands of female authors since the 20th Century, "[t]he only women to write about lesbian experience and not disappear from view were Colette and Violette Leduc," and Monique Wittig, but only feminists read her. Either monstrous or marginal, the lesbian is damned to be abject.

Oddly, some of the most valuable parts of the book do not fit Waelti-Walters's thesis very well. The very first author she discusses, Denis Diderot, she must admit is a "judicious observer." "La Religieuse (based on the true story of Marguerite Delamarre, who in 1757 sued to leave the convent to which her parents had committed her, but was still there on the book's publication just after the French Revolution) "is remarkably modern in its tolerance and understanding of the social, emotional, and physical circumstances that might well predispose women to the practice of lesbian sexuality." But even though Diderot's "Suzanne" is the first lesbian character in French literary history, Waelti-Walters insists that she has no lasting influence.

Waelti-Walters does offer some astute analyses of the social factors that propel and impede lesbian literary love. For example, of the cultural context at the end of the 19th Century, Waelti-Walters writes that young girls "raised to expect and exalt feelings of love, almost as a divine mysteryÓare completely vulnerable to expression of love in any form." This combination of "over-stimulated imagination together with culturally fostered expectations set in a context of sexual ignorance," produce lesbian protagonists such as Adrienne Saint-Agen's "HTlFn" of Charmeuse de femme (Woman Charmer of Women, 1906) who burn with both passion and remorse.

The limitations of her arguments become more obvious as Waelti-Walters moves into contemporary territory. She would have been well advised to end her book before the radical texts of second-wave feminism, texts that attempted to lesbianize language itself, rather than the life of characters. Here the demands of explicit representation become a bit ludicrous. Waelti-Walters praises Monique Wittig's L' Opoponax (which won France's highest literary prize, the Prix de MTdicis, in 1964) since it "introduced into literature the notion not only of the sexuality of children but of lesbian love as unexceptional in the world," yet dismisses it because "we learn that nothing came of the childhood connection."

Waelti-Walters never manages to negotiate a path away from the abject/heroic dichotomy that has dominated popular gay and lesbian historiography. Each branch has its political uses, and one could argue they are really two sides of the same coin (see my review of Lillian Faderman's To Believe in Women: What Lesbians have done for America in the July, 2001 issue of BiC for the flip side), but neither allows for nuanced historical or literary readings. Read around the argument of Damned Women for its wealth of historical information and the sheer fun of Waelti-Walters's plot synopses of obscure texts that will probably never otherwise be available to English readers. ˛

Julia Creet has three degrees in History and teaches in the English Department at York University.

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