Reviewed by Karen Langley
French literature doesn’t lack a wide range of great women writers; the names which spring most readily to mind are those like George Sand, Colette, and Simone de Beauvoir, though there’s also Francoise Sagan, Marguerite Duras and more recently Annie Ernaux as other women making their names in the world of writing. However, as a new initiative from Gallic Books makes clear, this is only the tip of the iceberg…
The publisher is launching a range of works entitled Revolutionary Women, which aims to bring some unjustly neglected books by French women authors back into the public eye. These authors were often subversive, transgressive and openly political, most definitely deserving to be read today. The first three books in the series are from Violette Leduc, Renee Vivien and Marie-Louise Gagneur; and it’s the latter two authors I’ll be covering here.
The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories by Renée Vivien
Translated by Karla Jay & Yvonne M. Klein
Before you even get to her writing, Renée Vivien is an intriguing and inspiring figure. Born Pauline Mary Tarn in England, she attended school in Paris, inheriting her father’s money at a young age. On turning 21 she decamped back to France with her inheritance, adopting her pseudonym and going on to live a high-profile lesbian life as a Sapphic poet. A friend of Colette and Natalie Clifford Barney, she died tragically early at the age of 32. Her verse has been published in English, but her prose fictions have, as far as I’m aware, never been translated – so this is a very welcome publication!
Night is falling, as beautiful as impending death. And the hope of a short and painless death is a comfort to those who sit in the shadows.
Vivien’s Symbolist poetry has been described as thinly-veiled autobiography, but her fictions seem to take her writing much further. The Woman of the Wolf collects together seventeen pieces of varying length which explore the lot of women in vivid and often dramatic prose. The title story, for example, tells of a woman with bright yellow eyes, travelling in the company of a wolf. The narrator of the story, an unbelievably arrogant man, is unable to accept that she has no interest in him at all, a mistake which may have fatal consequences. Similarly, in Paradoxical Chastity, the narrator cannot grasp that a strikingly individual Madame has no wish to share her favours with him. In fact, a running theme in the stories is that of men, often the narrators, who either completely misunderstand the woman with whom they keep company, or cannot accept that the women are superior to them in all aspects.
She was neither beautiful, nor pretty, nor charming. But she was the only woman on board the ship.
The Woman of the Wolf is a fascinating collection, drawing on myth, fairy tales and biblical sources and it’s clear that the females in the story are the characters whose stories Vivien wants to tell. The men are often brutal and their behaviour downright vile; on several occasions women will choose death as a better option than staying in their company. The writing is often florid, surreal and in places verges on the hallucinogenic. The finer details of whether her settings, flora and fauna are accurate never bothers Vivien. She’s going for effect, really, with the vivid stories and brief vignettes creating memorable imagery.
I do have to mention that there are occasional racial stereotypes which we wouldn’t find acceptable nowadays; but these stories were written pre-20th century when values were very different. Vivien was herself a larger than life character, and her stories feature women from the same mould; a fascinating and entertaining collection.
Three Rival Sisters by Marie-Louise Gagneur
Translated by Anna Aitken & Polly Mackintosh
Turning to Marie-Louise Gagneur, she was an author from an earlier period to Vivien. Born in France in 1832, she had a long and illustrious career, writing more than 20 novels which often took up the cause of the status of women and attacked the influence of clericalism. Notably, she campaigned to change divorce laws and was appointed Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur in 1901, shortly before her death.
Three Rival Sisters collects together two short works by Gagneur, and inevitably her focus is on the options open to women as well as the illusions of those approaching marriage. The title story tells of three sisters all attracted to the same man. Henriette, Renee and Gabrielle are doomed to meet different fates, and the one who wins Paul will find that marriage is not necessarily all she had hoped it would be. The second story, An Atonement is a dramatic piece where two lovers find they can finally be together after the man’s wife dies. But did he have any involvement in that death, and how will guilt affect their relationship?
Gagneur’s stories are much more rooted in the reality of women’s lives of the period, though her prose can be at times as heightened as Vivien’s; and her stories share the same melodramatic action. But she highlights wonderfully the illusions under which women of the time laboured, the limited options available for them and the consequences of the strict and religious structure of the society in which they lived. Her searing indictment of marriage as a financial contract, leaving the woman as a possession of her husband, is sobering; and one of her sisters, having been through this, is determined her daughter will be educated so she is ready to meet men on equal terms, commenting “… I thus hope to spare her the dangerous illusions under which girls are normally brought up.” Her heroines might long for a different life to the one they’ve been permitted to have, but despite the involvement of women in the French Revolution of 1789, the status quo had been reinstated and it was not yet time for transgressive women to step outside the norm.
For someone like me who loves to read inspirational women’s writing, it’s wonderful to see an initiative like this coming to fruition. The lives of the women featured so far (including Violette Leduc, who makes up the third of the trilogy) range over the period from 1832 to 1972; and it’s fascinating to note on the changes in attitudes reflected over that period. I shall follow Gallic Books’ Revolutionary Women imprint with great interest and very much look forward to seeing which titles appear next!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and dreams of one day actually visiting Paris…
Renee Vivien, The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories (Gallic Books, 2020). 978-19110477946 111pp, paperback. BUY (affiliate link) at Blackwell’s.
Marie-Louise Gagneur, Three Rival Sisters (Gallic Books, 2020). 978-1910477953 143pp, paperback. BUY (affiliate link) at Blackwell’s.