Rachilde Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.