Colette's Republic

Colette's Republic: Work, Gender, and Popular Culture in France, 1870-1914

Patricia A. Tilburg
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 246
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  • Book Info
    Colette's Republic
    Book Description:

    In France's Third Republic, secularism was, for its adherents, a new faith, a civic religion founded on a rabid belief in progress and the Enlightenment conviction that men (and women) could remake their world. And yet with all of its pragmatic smoothing over of the supernatural edges of Catholicism, the Third Republic engendered its own fantastical ways of seeing by embracing observation, corporeal dynamism, and imaginative introspection. How these republican ideals and the new national education system of the 1870s and 80s - the structure meant to impart these ideals - shaped belle epoque popular culture is the focus of this book. The author reassesses the meaning of secularization and offers a cultural history of this period by way of an interrogation of several fraught episodes which, although seemingly disconnected, shared an attachment to the potent moral and aesthetic directives of French republicanism: a village's battle to secularize its schools, a scandalous novel, a vaudeville hit featuring a nude celebrity, and a craze for female boxing. Beginning with the writer and performer Colette (1873-1954) as a point of entry, this re-evaluation of belle epoque popular culture probes the startling connections between republican values of labor and physical health on the one hand, and the cultural innovations of the decades preceding World War I on the other.

    eISBN: 978-1-84545-930-7
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. XI-XIV)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    Histories of secularization inevitably pale alongside those of religious crusades. The convert and zealot, with their preternatural faith and drive to pull away from the worldly, are the visionaries. The secular, by contrast, begins as a negation, a removal of God from the public square. And so it has been with histories of the Third French Republic. In the find esiècle the most entertaining figures, historically speaking, were those who, while not necessarily religious, embraced the immaterial. In studying everyone from Baudelaire to Huysmans, historians have been drawn to those prophets of modernism who mocked and disdained the grasping commercial...

  6. 1 “There are no Foolish Métiers”: Work, Class, and Secular Girls’ Education
    (pp. 23-45)

    On September 28, 1890, capping more than a decade of renovations, the citizens of the quiet Burgundian village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye inaugurated their primary schools in an elaborate day-long fête. Local papers had trumpeted the upcoming celebration for weeks, particularly as the festival was to involve the visit of the French minister of agriculture and some two hundred other distinguished guests. In preparation for the occasion, the town’s medieval streets had been transfigured by paper roses, wreaths, and tricolored banners acclaiming the Republic. Several of the public school’s female students were chosen to represent their classmates in the ceremony, and among...

  7. 2 “A Healthy Soul in a Healthy Body”: Physical and Moral Education in the Third Republic
    (pp. 46-74)

    In 1882 the renowned educational reformer Félix Pécaut, who went on to found the secular teacher’s training college for women at Fontenay-aux-Roses, remarked that France was “becoming addicted to pedagogy.”¹ Gabriel Compayré, a teacher who soon entered the national political arena, agreed that pedagogy, “long neglected” in France, suddenly had become “the fashion” in the giddy early days of the Third Republic.² Such breathless accounts of pedagogy’s thrall over the French public might easily be mistaken as merely the hyperbole of two career pedagogues. But in fact, in the 1870s and 1880s, as the question of secular public schooling became...

  8. 3 Claudine in Paris: The Republican School in Memory and Fiction
    (pp. 75-99)

    Reminiscing in a lecture later in life, French actress and film director Musidora recalled her youthful reading habits, and those of her fellow schoolgirls, at the dawn of the twentieth century:

    It was in 1906 that the young girls of the era lent each otherClaudine at School,slipped it open under the pages of [a textbook] . . . in case the teacher questioned them. . . . At recess, we were not commenting on the classics but underlining our favorite passages inClaudine at School.The young language was so new, the characters so lively, so like us,...

  9. 4 Earning Her Bread: Métier, Performance, and Female Honor, 1906–1913
    (pp. 100-134)

    In February 1913 the well-heeled citizens of Nice gathered in a fashionable theater to hear thefemme de lettresColette Willy lecture on her years as a music-hall performer. The author, who had made her stage debut in 1906, disappointed her audience. While her listeners had come to hear Colette divulge “sensational details” about music-hall life, a journalist noted that “Mme Colette Willy revealed nothing at all, or rather, she tried to demonstrate that the music hall was quite simply a place whose atmosphere was moral and hygienic and where one could live tranquilly. She even insisted that young girls...

  10. 5 “The Triumph of the Flesh”: Women, Physical Culture, and the Nude in the French Music Hall, 1900–1914
    (pp. 135-166)

    In June 1907 the Parisian magazineFantasioannounced an upcoming stage show calledLa Chair(The Flesh), featuring Georges Wague and an actress known as “la Belle Impéria.”¹ In this mimodrama, an unfaithful peasant named Yulka is nearly murdered by her smuggler lover when he discovers her in an amorous embrace with a young soldier. When Yulka’s dress is torn in the struggle, the murderous cuckold is halted in his tracks by the startling power of his mistress’s nude body. Instead of murdering his lover, he nails his hand to a table with a knife, while Yulka promptly goes mad....

  11. 6 “The People’s Muse”: Pantomime, Social Art, and the Vie intérieure
    (pp. 167-196)

    In the spring of 1911 two French performers engaged in a lively public disagreement that drew responses from well-known writers, artistes, and critics and lasted for several years. This heated war of words centered on the unconventional but wildly popular pantomime shows of Georges Wague. While some called Wague “a true innovator”¹ and one of the “prophets of a future religion,”² a mime named Bighetti claimed he was nothing more than the “Barnum of a dizzying attraction” who succeeded by appealing to “the little pig that sleeps in all men.”³ In 1916, so-called modern pantomime’s defenders won out, when Paris’s...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 197-206)

    When Colette died in August 1954, she was honored with a state funeral, the first ever for a woman in the French Republic.¹ Her coffin was draped in the tricolor flag, set in the cour d’honneur of the Palais-Royal, and attended by a military honor guard. Wreaths lined the coffin, representing condolences from, among many others, the French government, the queen of Belgium, the Comédie Française, the author’s “compatriots” in Saint-Sauveur, and her music-hall comrades.² The twenty-five hundred invited quests were joined by more than six thousand mourners who silently filed past throughout the day. The actress Marlene Dietrich, in...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 207-224)
  14. Index
    (pp. 225-231)