Decadence and the Woman Writer: Renée Vivien's Une Femme m'apparut

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Contribution to Books

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Publication Title

A ‘Belle Epoque’? Women in French Society and Culture 1890–1914


This edited collection of twenty-one essays emerged from the seventh international conference of Women in French UK held in 2002 on the theme of women and feminism during the ‘Belle Époque’ explored within the narrower historical frame of 1890–1910. A somewhat expanded time frame allows Holmes and Tarr and their contributors to explore women's situation within a period which retrospectively was viewed with some nostalgia from ‘beyond the trenches’ of the First World War. A fundamental question underpinning this excellent volume is ‘to what extent the period 1890–1914 was a “Belle Epoque” for women’ given the doublethink of a political régime that trumpeted freedom and equality for all while simultaneously denying women access to many basic civil rights. The collection is a crucial intervention in the field, building upon earlier, more narrowly focused studies of the period such as Jennifer Waelti-Waters and Steven C. Hause's anthology Feminisms of the Belle Epoque (1994) which comprises historical and literary texts. The five broad areas of the present study cover feminism, technology, spectacle, writing and reception and colonized and ‘other’ women, mapping women's diverse trajectories in an ambiguous era in which some but not all sought agency in the ‘first wave’ of multi-issue feminist struggle and in sciences and the arts while being subjected to widespread gender conservatism. At a time when the French colonial empire expanded rapidly (nine-fold between 1880 and 1895), some women were also able to be on the move and as travel writers offered a democratizing corrective to the mainstream metropolitan orientalism of the period, illustrating the internationalism which underpinned much feminist writing of the first wave. A major strength of the collection is its breadth of focus and its attention to the complexity of women's situation in this period of ambivalent modernity. Moreover, it does not homogenize women's experience in that it recognizes that class, age, sexuality, geographical location and education play decisive roles in women's agential possibilities, thereby nuancing the mutually dependent categories of ‘political feminist’ and transgressive ‘New Woman’ who regularly feature in discussions of gender in the ‘Belle Epoque’. Contributors focus on both the activities of well-known political and cultural figures of the period such as Madeleine Pelletier, Rachilde, Colette, Nathalie Barney and Camille Claudel as well as on less frequently explored areas such as women's manipulation of new technology and modes of self-representation. A useful timeline and comprehensive bibliography completes this fascinating volume, which will be of interest to a broad readership in nineteenth- and twentieth-century French studies and can be unequivocally recommended.