Already a noted novelist and an acknowledged leader in the naturalist movement before he wrote Sappho, Alphonse Daudet chose for this novel a subject of great personal interest. Having been engaged himself in a lengthy affair with a Parisian courtesan, the novelist dramatizes in Sappho the bohemian lifestyle characteristic of the denizens of certain sections of the city. This subject was of great interest to contemporary readers, whose curiosity was aroused by tales of young men caught up in the web of sex and degradation. French readers were insatiable in their appetite for stories of collages, relationships between unmarried lovers, especially when the woman was one of ill repute. Despite its reputation as a salacious work, Daudet’s novel contains little to satisfy the baser interests of readers; instead, the relationship between the young Jean Gaussin and the older Fanny Legrand is handled with a sensitivity and decorum not normally associated with naturalistic fiction.
As one might expect, the central interest in the novel is the relationship between Jean and the worldly-wise courtesan who seduces him and leads him into the relationship that will govern his life for years to come. Daudet has often been commended for his ability to create strong female and weak male characters, and for his penetrating insights into love relationships. Drawing on his personal experiences for this novel, he is particularly successful in delineating his protagonists. Nevertheless, Jean is not simply a fictionalized portrait of the artist as a young lover. Instead, Daudet gives him little of the artistic sensitivity that his creator possessed, instead providing him the kind of career aspirations more common among young men in France in the late nineteenth century. Bound for a career in the diplomatic service, Jean is initially fascinated with the lifestyle represented by Fanny; he pursues her initially merely to fulfill some juvenile romantic fantasy. He does not realize the power of such a woman until it is much too late for him to avoid her clutches.
Fanny Legrand is one of those “vampire” characters who fascinated...
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