Study Guide

Rachilde

Rachilde Essay - Critical Essays

Rachilde

Introduction

Rachilde 1860-1953

(Born Marguerite Eymery) French novelist, short story writer, dramatist, biographer, autobiographer, and critic.

Rachilde is considered an important figure in the fin-de-siècle French Decadent movement. Characterized in public life by her male dress, and habit of calling herself a "man of letters," Rachilde tittilated readers with frequent depictions of unconventional sexuality, including gender inversion, androgyny, and homoeroticism. Her most well-known novel, Monsieur Vénus (1884), is a meditation on the nature of sexual desire from the female perspective.

Biographical Information

Rachilde was born near Périgueux in southwestern France. Her mother was the daughter of a successful publisher, while her father was the illegitimate son of an aristocrat and a colonel in the French army. As a child Rachilde's relationship with her mother was strained, and she often felt the harsh disappointment of her father, who made it clear that he would have rather had a son. Informally educated in her parent's home, she was allowed to peruse the works of her grandfather's library, where she discovered the works of the Marquis de Sade. In her youth she turned to writing as a form of imaginative escapism, producing her first novel at the age of sixteen. She moved to Paris in 1878 to begin her career as a writer. Once there she adopted the name Rachilde and applied for permission from the French authorities to dress as a man in public. She published her first novel Madame de sans-Dieu that same year. In 1884 she won immediate notoriety with the publication of her fifth book Monsieur Vénus. The work, because of its frank and iconoclastic depiction of sexuality, was almost immediately banned in neighboring Belgium under charges of pornography, quickly earning her the appellation "Mademoiselle Baudelaire." By the late 1890s, Rachilde's weekly salons in Paris had become well known, and in 1889 she married Alfred Vallette. The following year, the couple began publication of Mercure de France, a journal devoted to promoting the literary works of the Symbolists and Decadents. Rachilde contributed short stories to the periodical (later collected and published separately under the title Le démon de l'absurde in 1894), and wrote regular reviews for it until 1914. After World War I she continued to produce novels as well as a handful of nonfiction works, most notably her biography Alfred Jarry; ou, le Surmâle de lettres (1928). By this time, however, she was experiencing somewhat failing health and had taken to collaborating with other authors on many of her novels. In 1935 her husband died, leaving her with little money. She continued to write well into her eighties, producing her final work, the autobiographical Quand j'étais jeune, in 1947. She died at the age of 93 in 1953.

Major Works

The vast majority of Rachilde's writings were novels in the Decadent style. Among her early novels, Monsieur Vénus is typical in its emphasis on passion and sexuality from a female point of view. In this work Rachilde inverts the gender roles of master and mistress by allowing its heroine, Raoule de Vénérande, to take a working-class man as her lover. After his violent death in a duel, however, she withdraws from society and succumbs to a pathological depression. Several works that followed dramatized similar themes. La Marquise de Sade (1887) is a psychological study of Mary Barbe and her burgeoning sadism. Androgyny and gender ambiguity are the motifs of Madame Adonis (1888), in which the recently married Louise Bartau falls in love with a enigmatic woman whom she believes to be a man. The heroine of Le Jongleuse (1900) forsakes all men, choosing instead a Greek vase as the object of her amorous desires. The varied manifestations of sexual deviance are evident in a host of Rachilde's later novels, including studies of incest L(es hors nature, 1897), erotic obsession (L'heure sexuelle, 1898), and pedophilia (La souris japonaise, 1921). In her dramatic works Rachilde often employed symbolism to explore deeply hidden emotions or to develop a social critique. In Madame la Mort, first performed in 1891, a young man's thoughts of suicide are personified as Madame Death, who vies with his living girlfriend for his love. Le vendeur de soleil, originally staged in 1894, criticizes the inability of the bourgeoisie to appreciate natural beauty, as its protagonist attempts to sell indifferent passers-by a glimpse at the setting sun. Of her nonfictional works, Rachilde's essay Pourquoi je ne suis pas fé ministe (1928), is among the most telling. Semi-autobiographical in format, it describes her thoughts on relations between the sexes and explains the sources of her often misogynistic writings.

Critical Reception

Rachilde achieved considerable celebrity in her lifetime, in large part due to the publication of Monsieur Vénus and the charges of immorality it elicited. Her fame grew with the production of several plays in the 1890s and her many contributions to the Mercure de France into the early twentieth century. After the First World War, how however, her popularity declined as her Decadent novels—no longer in vogue—began to take on a bleaker and more cynical tone, and her strong female protagonists were replaced by mysterious and brooding male figures. Rachilde is little known outside of France and Belgium; only a few of her novels, including Monsieur Vénus and Le jongleuse (The Juggler), have been translated into English. Nevertheless, Rachilde, although typically appreciated for the role she played in the French Decadent movement, has most recently attracted the attention of critics for her nascent Modernism, as well as for her exploration of sexual politics and changing gender roles.

Principal Works

Madame de sans-Dieu (novel) 1878

Monsieur de la nouveauté (novel) 1880

La Femme du 199e régiment (novel) 1881

Histoires bêtes pour amuser les petits enfants d'espirit (short stories) 1884

Monsieur Vénus (novel) 1884

Nono (novel) 1885

Queue de poisson (novel) 1885

A mort (novel) 1886

La virginité de Diane (novel) 1886

La Marquise de Sade (novel) 1887

Le tiroir de Mimi-Corail (novel) 1887

Madame Adonis (novel) 1888

Minette (novel) 1889

Le mordu (novel) 1889

Les oubliés: L'homme roux, filles de neige (novel) 1889

La sanglante ironie (novel) 1891

Théâtre: Madame la mort. Le vendeur de soleil. La voix du sang (dramas) 1891

L'animale (novel) 1893

Le dé mon de l'absurde (short stories) 1894

La princesse des té nè bres (novel) 1896

Les hors nature (novel) 1897

L'heure sexuelle (novel) 1898

La tour d'amour (novel) 1899

Contes et nouvelles, suivis du Théâtre (short stories, novellas, and dramas) 1900

La jongleuse [The Juggler] (novel) 1900

L'imitation de la mort (novel) 1903

Le dessous (novel) 1904

Le meneur de louves (novel) 1905

Son printemps (novel) 1912

La délivrance (novel) 1915

La terre qui rit (novel) 1917

La découverte de l'Amérique (novel) 1919

La maison vierge (novel) 1920

La souris japonaise (novel) 1921

Le grand Soigneur (novel) 1922

L'Hôtel du grand veneur (novel) 1922

Le château des deux amants (novel) 1923

Le parc du mystére [with Homen-Christo] (novel) 1923

La haine amoureuse (novel) 1924

Le Théâtres des bêtes (short stories) 1926

Refaire l'amour (novel) 1927

Alfred Jarry; ou, Le surmâle de lettres (biography) 1928

Madame de Lydone, assassin (novel) 1928

Pourquoi je ne suis pas féministe (essay) 1928

Le prisonnier [with André David] (novel) 1928

La femme aux mains d'ivoire (novel) 1929

Portraits d'hommes (biography) 1929

L'homme aux bras de féu (novel) 1930

Notre-Dame des Rats (novel) 1931

Les voluptés imprévues (novel) 1931

L'amazone rouge (novel) 1932

Jeux d'artifices (novel) 1932

La femme Dieu (novel) 1934

Mon étrange plaisir (novel) 1934

Les accords perdus (novel) 1937

L'autre Crime (novel) 1937

La fille inconnue (novel) 1938

Pour la lumière (novel) 1938

L'anneau de Saturne (novel) 1939

Face à la peur (novel) 1942

Duvet d'ange (novel) 1943

Quand j'étais jeune (autobiography) 1947

Criticism

Daniel Gerould (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Madame Rachilde: 'Man' of Letters," in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1983, pp. 117-22.

[In the following essay, Gerould presents an overview of Rachilde's literary works, including several of her best-known plays.]

One of the most colorful and appealing figures in Parisian artistic and literary circles at the turn of the century—a period rich in flamboyant characters—was Marguerite àEymery, wife of Alfred Vallette (founder of the magazine Mercure de France) but known to her readers and fellow writers by her pen name Rachilde. Author of dozens of novels with provocative titles (The Marquise de Sade, The Sexual Hour) that...

(The entire section is 2365 words.)

Jennifer Birkett (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "'La Marquise de Sade': Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery) 1860-1953," in The Sins of the Fathers: Decadence in France 1870-1914, Quartet Books, 1986, pp. 159-89.

[In the following essay, Birkett provides a psychological interpretation of Rachilde's works.]

Woman's place, for the writers and artists of the decadence, was inside the work of art, as an image to fix the male imagination. If Rachilde, almost alone of women writers of her period, was accepted into the Club des Hydropathes and Le Chat Noir, patronized by Victor Hugo and Barbey d'Aurevilly, approved by the misogynists Huysmans and Léon Bloy, and befriended by Verlaine, Jean Lorrain, Catulle Mendès,...

(The entire section is 13554 words.)

Melante C. Hawthorne (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Monsieur Venus: A Critique of Gender Roles," in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. XVI, Nos. 1 & 2, Fall, 1987 & Winter, 1988, pp. 162-79.

[In the following essay, Hawthorne argues that Rachilde 's literary portrayal of gender roles lends her works a greater interest and relevance than they are usually accorded.]

A review of recent Modern Language Association Bibliographies reveals that most nineteenth-century French women prose fiction writers have received little critical attention. (The exceptions are, of course, Madame de Staël and George Sand.) Those who have been considered (Hortense Allait and Louise Colet, for example) have not been...

(The entire section is 6841 words.)

Robert E. Ziegler (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "The Suicide of 'La Comedienne' in Rachilde's La Jongleuse," in Continental, Latin-American and Francophone Women Writers, edited by Eunice Myers and Ginette Adamson, University Press of America, 1987, pp. 55-61.

[In the following essay, Ziegler analyzes the implications of the sadistic behavior of Rachilde's female protagonists, focusing on the novel The Juggler.]

Swords and daggers, bayonets and scalpels: all the pointed instruments men use for invading others' bodies are appropriated by the women characters in the novels of Rachilde. In the evolution of "l'amour compliqué" [Maurice Barrès, Preface, Monsieur Vénus] that Barrès sees emerging...

(The entire section is 2742 words.)

Melanie C. Hawthorne (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "The Social Construction of Sexuality in Three Novels by Rachilde," in Michigan Romance Studies, Vol. 9, 1989, pp. 49-59.

[In the following essay, Hawthorne regards Rachilde as a novelist whose works presented a view of human sexuality that was in opposition to the dominant psychological and medical theories of the late nineteenth century.]

In his multi-volume work on the history of sexuality, Michel Foucault explains how, with the rise of capitalism, sexuality passes from action to discourse: the energy previously invested in action is transformed into discourse about action. One of the resulting intersections of power, sexuality, and knowledge...

(The entire section is 2932 words.)

Melanie C. Hawthorne (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Juggler by Rachilde, translated by Melanie C. Hawthorne, Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. xi-xxix.

[In the following essay, Hawthorne focuses on Rachilde's thematic and technical innovations in her novel The Juggler.]

The novelist Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery Vallette) became an instant success in French literary circles when, at the age of twenty-four, she published her fourth novel, Monsieur Vénus (1884). Her celebrity stemmed in large part from the public condemnation of the book: it was published by Brancart in Brussels, where it was immediately declared pornographic. Copies of the book were seized, and Rachilde was...

(The entire section is 4794 words.)

Ben Fisher (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Companion and the Dream: Delirium in Rachilde and Jarry," in Romance Studies, No. 18, Summer, 1991, pp. 33-41.

[In the following essay, Fisher examines depictions of delirium in Rachilde's La princesse des ténèbres and Alfred Jarry's Les jours et les nuits, claiming that these works illustrate a view of dream-states differing from the theories advanced by Sigmund Freud in his Interpretation of Dreams.]

It is inevitable that discussion of the dream in literature, and particularly over the last hundred years, tends to focus on Freud and the relevance of Freudian interpretation. The mark of Freud upon twentieth-century thought is in fact so...

(The entire section is 3976 words.)

Melanie C. Hawthorne (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "To the Lighthouse: Fictions of Masculine Identity in Rachilde's La Tour d'Amour," in L'Esprit Createur, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 41-51.

[In the following essay, Hawthorne interprets Rachilde's novel La tour d'amour as an allegory of the author's place as a woman writing in a literary world dominated by men.]

"Is a pen a metaphorical penis?" asked Gilbert and Gubar in their study of women writers, [The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination] encapsulating the question of the role of gender in women's writing in the nineteenth century. The cultural assumption of a link between writing...

(The entire section is 4239 words.)

Renee A. Kingcaid (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Epithalamic Horror: Displacement in Rachilde," in Neurosis and Narrative: The Decadent Short Fiction of Proust, Lorrain, and Rachilde, Southern Illinois University Press, 1992, pp. 111-44.

[In the following essay, Kingcaid argues that the world of Rachilde's literary works is symbolic of the functions of women's bodies, especially the female reproductive system.]

To be a woman writer at the turn of the century, Rachilde maintained, was to assume an unenviable personality. Rachilde's preface to her 1888 Madame Adonis assures that the "woman of letters" commits herself to "a god-awful career, the most god-awful career possible." Engaged in by...

(The entire section is 12885 words.)

Will L. McLendon (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Rachilde: Fin de siècle Perspective on Perversities," in Modernity and Revolution in Late Nineteenth-Century France, edited by Barbara T. Cooper and Mary Donaldson-Evans, University of Delaware Press, 1992, pp. 52-64.

[In the following essay, McLendon perceives what is usually considered perverted behavior in Rachilde's fictional works as an indirect means used by the author to protest oppressive social conventions and institutions of her time.]

So far from constituting a threat to "good" moral values of the belle époque, the offbeat French novel of the 1880s and 1890s, often subtitled "Parisian Manners" or even "Foreign Manners" and regularly kept...

(The entire section is 4225 words.)

Margaret Bruzelius (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: '"En el Profundo Espejo del Deseo': Delmira Agustini, Rachilde, and the Vampire," in Revista Hispánica Moderna: Columbia University Hispanic Studies, Vol. XLVI, No. 1, 1993, pp. 51-63.

[In the following essay, Bruzelius examines the figure of the vampiric female as portrayed in the works of Rachilde and Uruguayan author Delmira Augustini.]

I have been faithful to thee,
Cynara, in my fashion.

E. DOWSON

The nineteenth century fascination with the femme fatale may have reached its apogee in the figure of the Vampire—that marble white, silent woman with luxuriant hair, heavy...

(The entire section is 7369 words.)

Elaine Showalter (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Decadent Queen," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4813, June 30, 1995, pp. 5-6.

[In the following essay, Showalter discusses the dominant themes in Rachilde's works.]

In "Grape-Gatherers of Sodom", a remarkable story about the genesis of homosexuality published in 1894, the French writer Rachilde displayed the perverse tastes and sensuous prose style that had won her the nickname "Mademoiselle Baudelaire". Out of the walled town of Sodom comes a procession of male grape-pickers led by a stern patriarch. As they rest in the vineyard, the men are approached by a naked girl, her breasts burned black by the sun, who seductively twines about their sleeping...

(The entire section is 2551 words.)