Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
A Belle Epoque?

A Belle Epoque?: Women and Feminism in French Society and Culture 1890-1914

Diana Holmes
Carrie Tarr
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 364
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Belle Epoque?
    Book Description:

    The Third Republic, known as the 'belle epoque', was a period of lively, articulate and surprisingly radical feminist activity in France, borne out of the contradiction between the Republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity and the reality of intense and systematic gender discrimination. Yet, it also was a period of intense and varied artistic production, with women disproving the critical nearconsensus that art was a masculine activity by writing, painting, performing, sculpting, and even displaying an interest in the new "seventh art" of cinema. This book explores all these facets of the period, weaving them into a complex, multi-stranded argument about the importance of this rich period of French women's history.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-701-1
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Diana Holmes and Carrie Tarr
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)
    Diana Holmes and Carrie Tarr

    If the decades around 1900 were remembered in France as a ‘Belle Epoque’, a golden age of affluence, security and frivolity, that is because they were cast in this light from beyond the trenches of a war that killed well over a million young French men and wounded three million more, disabling many of them for life (McMillan 1985: 77). Viewed retrospectively, the years before 1914 were suffused with the prelapsarian glow of an era blissfully unaware that the most ‘civilised’ nations on earth could thus choose to butcher their sons in a struggle for power and territory. The term...


    • Chapter 1 New Republic, New Women? Feminism and Modernity at the Belle Epoque
      (pp. 11-22)
      Diana Holmes and Carrie Tarr

      Postwar nostalgia played its part in constructing the Belle Epoque as an optimistic, confident and colourful era, but this image is not made of myth alone: the Third Republic did usher in what, for France, was an unaccustomed period of stability, relative prosperity and (qualified) democracy. Born out of national defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, and the resulting demise of the Second Empire, the new regime survived the bitter conflict of the Commune and the opposition of the monarchists to restore national pride and consolidate a democratic republic that, on 4 July 1880, was able for the first time...

    • Chapter 2 1890–1914: A ‘Belle Epoque’ for Feminism?
      (pp. 23-35)
      Máire Cross

      The term ‘Belle Epoque’ is a retrospective construction that is suffused both with belief in the vibrancy and innovation of the period in question (the moment when the nineteenth century passed into the twentieth), and with a more generalised nostalgia. On the one hand it evokes the style, glamour and sophistication of modernisation and multiple avant-garde movements. On the other, it is associated with exceptional political stability since, even with the Dreyfus affair raging, the parliamentary processes of the Third Republic demonstrated a certain maturity. As Michel Leymarie (1999: 9) argues, ‘What would come to be called the Belle Epoque...

    • Chapter 3 Marguerite Durand and La Fronde: Voicing Women of the Belle Epoque
      (pp. 37-49)
      Maggie Allison

      The publication run of the newspaper,La Fronde,and the lifetime of its founder-owner, Marguerite Durand (Figure 3.1), both sit well and truly astride the turn of the century, in the middle of a period which was rich in opportunities for women’s development and self-expression, but not without its hazards and ambiguities. The newspaper ran from 9 December 1897 to 1 October 1903, and Durand’s life extended from 1864 to 1936, providing perfect symmetry; yet Durand and her relationship toLa Frondeand the world beyond it also gave rise to asymmetries and contradictions which are arguably symptomatic of their...

    • Chapter 4 The Uncompromising Doctor Madeleine Pelletier: Feminist and Political Activist
      (pp. 51-64)
      Anna Norris

      Nothing seemed to predispose Anne Pelletier (1874–1939), born in the dingy back room of her parents’ fruit and vegetable shop in the rue des Petits-Carreaux in Paris, to become Dr Madeleine Pelletier, anthropologist, physician, psychiatrist and feminist theoretician (Figure 4.1). Pelletier’s later writings on sexuality, the right to abortion, the education of girls, and the questioning of the traditional nuclear family were to carry the most weight in the analysis of women’s condition, but her achievements during the Belle Epoque were crucial in French women’s itinerary toward equality. Focusing on the period from 1898 to 1910, this chapter examines...

    • Chapter 5 Clans and Chronologies: The Salon of Natalie Barney
      (pp. 65-78)
      Melanie Hawthorne

      While modernism may have reached its apogee in the interwar period, and while the First World War is generally viewed as one of its most important formative events, this chapter explores how women’s experience of modernism was shaped – at least in part – by events that preceded that conflagration. Modernism was a famously international movement, but men and women have had a different relationship, historically, to what it means to be internationally or nationally situated. For women living in France, the Belle Epoque was a time when questions of national affiliation were brought to their attention in a number...


    • Chapter 6 Vélo-Métro-Auto: Women’s Mobility in Belle Epoque Paris
      (pp. 81-94)
      Siân Reynolds

      How easy was it for women to move about freely in the city, during the age later known as the Belle Epoque? The much-written-about figure of theflâneurhas perhaps accustomed us to assume rather readily that freedom of movement was a male prerogative in the nineteenth century.¹ This is at best a half-truth, but examining the point at which half-truths break down can be instructive. This chapter concentrates on a few modes of transport which saw remarkable expansion during the Belle Epoque years, and on the degree to which they were available to women. For a sense of what...

    • Chapter 7 Popularising New Women in Belle Epoque Advertising Posters
      (pp. 95-112)
      Ruth E. Iskin

      Critical studies of advertising have tended to focus primarily on the objectification and sexualisation of women, and thus on the representation of women as passive objects of the gaze.¹ While insights drawn from this approach have been central to feminist critiques in art and visual culture, they do not address an important aspect of advertising, namely, the extent to which it addresses modern women as agents in its attempt to attract them to the products they advertise. This study focuses on selected Belle Epoque advertising posters and suggests that they offer possibilities of identification for modern women of the time...

    • Chapter 8 An American in Paris: Loïe Fuller, Dance and Technology
      (pp. 113-124)
      Naoko Morita

      Loïe Fuller (1862–1928) is a dynamic, multivalent and contradictory figure in French dance of the Belle Epoque.¹ An American by birth, Fuller arrived in Paris in 1892 and appeared at the Folies-Bergère; her performances attracted the attention of artists such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Chéret and Auguste Rodin. Though she possessed no formal training as a dancer or choreographer, she achieved international fame for her invention of the ‘serpentine dance’ as well as for her innovations in stage lighting. An inveterate entertainer, she was enthusiastic about the possibilities of advertising and was the only female performer...

    • Chapter 9 Becoming Women: Cinema, Gender and Technology
      (pp. 125-136)
      Elizabeth Ezra

      In 1898, the Parisian surgeon Eugène-Louis Doyen had himself filmed while performing a hysterectomy. His intention, at least initially, was to use this film, one of a group of six thought to be the first surgical films ever made, for training purposes. However, by 1907, this film was making the rounds of travelling fairground film exhibitors, where it was shown in a tent made up to look like an operating theatre, replete with wax anatomical figures, into which viewers were ushered by actors dressed as nurses and hospital interns (Meusy 1995: 123–24).

      Doyen’s films raise several issues concerning the...


    • Chapter 10 Spectacles of Themselves: Women Writing for the Stage in Belle Epoque France
      (pp. 139-152)
      Kimberly van Noort

      Exoticised, desired, feared, vilified or celebrated, the Belle Epoque was obsessed by the figure of woman-as-spectacle. While women in the public sphere constituted the most visible objects of society’s gaze – whether on stage, in the café, on the street or behind the feminist pulpit – the explosion of women’s magazines and the advertisements they contained increasingly invaded the private domain, offered prying eyes the spectacle of women accomplishing the tasks of bourgeois femininity. As Martine Antle comments, the Belle Epoque ‘rests principally on the staging and the exploitation of the feminine body’ (Antle 1997: 9).¹ Whether decoratively arranged in...

    • Chapter 11 Being a Dancer in 1900: Sign of Alienation or Quest for Autonomy?
      (pp. 153-166)
      Hélène Laplace-Claverie

      A number of dancers – both real and fictional – haunt the imaginary of the fin de siècle, in France and throughout Europe (Ducrey 1996). However, this almost exclusively masculine imaginary includes figures who are, to say the least, contradictory. Deified and disdained, idolised and stigmatised, the ballet dancer is an object of both fascination and repulsion. She may be the archetype of the femme fatale (evident in the incredible vogue for the role of Salomé in various artistic domains); but she also incarnates the darker side of a period which condemned her to be just ‘a little woman who...

    • Chapter 12 Visions of Reciprocity in the Work of Camille Claudel
      (pp. 167-180)
      Angela Ryan

      Writing in 2002, Odile Ayral-Clause sums up as follows some aspects of Camille Claudel’s unique contribution to women’s creative representation and to nineteenth and twentieth-century sculpture:

      Defiance was probably the most visible characteristic of Camille Claudel. She defied the prejudiced society in which she lived in almost every step she took: her choice of a career in sculpture; her entrance into a previously all-male atelier and a liaison with the master of this atelier; her determination to sculpt the nude with as much freedom as her male counterparts; her persistence in soliciting state commissions for works that were sure to...


    • Chapter 13 Feminist Discourse in Women’s Novels of Professional Development
      (pp. 183-196)
      Juliette M. Rogers

      The Belle Epoque witnessed a great blossoming of new women writers, yet few can be called feminist in any late twentieth-century sense of the term. In fact, later generations have often dismissed women novelists from the Belle Epoque as anti-feminist, a famous example being Simone de Beauvoir who, inMémoires d’une jeune fille rangée(Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter,1974 [1958]), singles out Colette Yver as one of those anti-feminist novelists whom her conservative father admired.¹ Clearly the women represented in women’s novels are neither openly political activists nor radical revolutionaries compared to their feminist counterparts in the second half...

    • Chapter 14 Daniel Lesueur and the Feminist Romance
      (pp. 197-210)
      Diana Holmes

      ‘What would you have me do?’ asks Renée Néré, heroine of Colette’sLa Vagabonde(Colette 1984 [1910]), when her lover objects to her semi-naked performances on the music-hall stage, ‘Sewing, or typing, or street-walking?’¹ (Colette 1986: 122). Ways of making an independent living were limited for women at the Belle Epoque. Renée, like Colette, chose the stage, but both the fictional heroine and her author found another means of survival: writing. Increased demand for publishable text and the expansion in female readership produced some limited openings for women in the literary profession. The Belle Epoque was a period of dramatic...

    • Chapter 15 Virginal Perversion/Radical Subversion: Rachilde and Discourses of Legitimation
      (pp. 211-223)
      Jeri English

      As a stated misogynist, a female trespasser in the production of Decadent fiction and a creator of novels imbued with potentially sexually subversive feminist themes, Rachilde was a sometimes shocking and nearly always problematic author and public figure. Beginning her career in the late nineteenth century, when ‘the many debates about women culminated in the idea of “the war of the sexes” and in a violent antifeminist and misogynist fury’,¹ Rachilde remains today canonically marginal despite her initial literary successes.² In this chapter, I will examine polemically opposed discourses of legitimisation in prefaces to two works by Rachilde: Maurice Barrès’...

    • Chapter 16 Decadence and the Woman Writer: Renée Vivien’s Une femme m’apparut
      (pp. 225-237)
      Tama Lea Engelking

      When Renée Vivien’s autobiographical novel,Une femme m’apparut(A Woman Appeared to Me) was first published in 1904, it shocked and revolted the critics who had admired the finely crafted verse of the five books of poetry she had previously published. Her only novel,Une femme m’apparuttells the story of her lesbian relationship with Natalie Clifford Barney, using a heavy-handed decadent aesthetic that even the decadent novelist Rachilde criticised as outmoded and ‘already horribly decayed’, not least in its use of the androgyne figure (Goujon 1986: 275). This much-misunderstood novel, variously defined as a symbolist novel, an allegorical prose...

    • Chapter 17 Sensual Deviations and Verbal Abuse: Anna de Noailles in the Critic’s Eye
      (pp. 239-251)
      Catherine Perry

      From the time of her earliest publications Anna de Noailles (Figure 17.1) became the most popular, the most celebrated, and also the most denigrated female poet in early twentieth-century France.¹ Admired by writers, thinkers, and artists throughout Europe, this literary ‘star’ of the Belle Epoque was the only woman writer of her times in France to receive the highest public recognition, despite nationalist critics who distrusted her Greco-Rumanian origins and could not bring themselves to consider her a legitimate French poet. Noailles’ first book of poetry,Le Coeur innombrable(The Innumerable Heart), published in 1901, was an immediate best seller,...

    • Chapter 18 Proletarian Women, Proletarian Writing: The Case of Marguerite Audoux
      (pp. 253-268)
      Angela Kershaw

      Marguerite Audoux (1863–1937) came to the attention of the French reading public in 1910 when her autobiographical first novel,Marie-Claire, was awarded the Prix Fémina (Audoux 1958 [1910]) (Figure 18.1). The contemporary press was fascinated by the story of the abandoned little girl turned shepherdess, then dressmaker, and then novelist. Interest in Audoux and inMarie-Clairehas never been exclusively textual, but has focused on the relationship between the author’s situation and her aesthetic output; necessarily perhaps, since the socio-political context of literary production is the defining aspect of proletarian writing.¹ Critics have continued to interpret Audoux within this...


    • Chapter 19 Coloniser and Colonised in Hubertine Auclert’s Writings on Algeria
      (pp. 271-282)
      Edith Taïeb

      Hubertine Auclert’sLes Femmes arabes en Algérie(Arab Women in Algeria) was published in 1900. It consists of a collection of articles previously published inLa Citoyennewhen Auclert was still living in Algeria, a country which she left on the death of her husband in 1892. This chapter aims to demonstrate the originality and subversiveness of Auclert’s feminist discourse on the French presence in Algeria in these (and other) articles, particularly in comparison with the orientalist discourses of other writers of the period.¹

      When Hubertine Auclert (1848–1914) (Figure 19.1) departed for Algeria in 1888 to join her husband,...

    • Chapter 20 The Chivalrous Coloniser: Colonial Feminism and the roman à thèse in the Belle Epoque
      (pp. 283-294)
      Jennifer Yee

      In the years around 1900, no doubt in part as a reaction against the previous literary generation’s pursuit of ‘art for art’s sake’ (‘l’art pour l’art’), an increasing number of French novelists produced works which corresponded to the idea that writers had an important social and moral function to fulfil. As Pierre Citti puts it, ‘around 1900 most novelists wanted, or accepted, or allowed it to be said that their work […] dealt with or asked a moral or social question’ (1987: 240). While such a belief in the social role of the writer was of course not entirely new,...

    • Chapter 21 Marcelle Tinayre’s Notes d’une voyageuse en Turquie: Creating Solidarity among Women
      (pp. 295-306)
      Margot Irvine

      One of the most popular women writers of the Belle Epoque, Marcelle Tinayre (1871–1948) is chiefly known for her best-selling novels, particularlyLa Maison du péché(The House of Sin, 1902) andLa Rebelle(The Rebel, 1906), which led to her nomination for the Legion of Honour.¹ Tinayre became associated with other women writers of the period when she joined the staff of the feminist newspaperLa Frondein 1898. Her ties to the women’s literary community were further strengthened in 1904 when she was named to the all-female jury of thePrix de La Vie heureuse, the ancestor...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 307-308)

    As the preceding chapters demonstrate, the Belle Epoque was an era of lively, articulate and surprisingly radical feminist activity in France, when new images of women as mobile, assertive and excitingly modern were seeping into popular culture, mingling there with more traditional images of women as mothers and objects of male desire. The 1914–18 war put an end to what had been a vibrant, conflictual, creative period for French women, resolving, as Annelise Maugue puts it, the ‘crisis of masculine identity, not by the emergence of new values but by the resurrection of ancient virile myths’.¹ Achievement of the...

  12. Select Chronology 1870–1914
    (pp. 309-312)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 313-334)
  14. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 335-340)
  15. Index
    (pp. 341-344)