Pasco on Palacios and Méndez, eds. (2013)


Palacios, Concepción, and Pedro Méndez, eds. Femmes nouvellistes françaises du XIXe siècle. Coll. Espacios literarios en contacto. Bern: Peter Lang, 2013. Pp. 366. ISBN 978-3-0343-1409-1

Allan H. Pasco, University of Kansas

The French have never held the short story or nouvelle in particularly high regard. Perhaps as a result, critics neglect the most basic questions, such as “what is the nouvelle?” and French short stories have seldom attracted the kind of probing critical analyses that novels regularly elicit. In a note to her contribution to this volume Carmen Camero Pérez suggests that the short story is “un récit court” (69n3). In the introduction to my anthology of Nouvelles françaises du XIXe siècle, I suggest that it is “une courte fiction littéraire en prose.” Certainly, it is short and it is in prose. It also has aesthetic goals, and it is fiction. Even if one limits the definition of the genre to two traits, there is no doubt that the short story has been terribly neglected. Masters of prose fiction through the ages, from Marguerite de Navarre to the present, have demonstrated their skill.

Unless Honoré de Balzac is correct to say that male writing is marked by “le choix d’un sujet sérieux,” “la nécessité d’une vue d’ensemble,” and “le maintien d’un style égal” (113), the nouvellistes’ gender should have no importance, since virtually all of these female authors meet these criteria. Nevertheless, female writers have tended, unlike their male counterparts, to fail to attract serious, prolonged attention, and most often disappear rapidly from view. This collected volume of studies provides an admirable reminder that, as Victor Hugo, Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, and Émile Zola exercised their abilities with the short story, so too did many outstanding women, with remarkable results. As the editors explain, female writers have also worked “à faire de la nouvelle un genre majeur sur un pied d’égalité avec le roman” (25). Furthermore, as René Godenne points out in his “inventaire” of nineteenth-century French short stories, a significant number of women had far better sales than their male counterparts. Tragically, for all their excellence, the field has lost track of most of them.

The included studies are arranged more or less chronologically, and most begin with a short introduction to the female author of the short story or stories being considered. The expertise of the scholars is obvious. This collection of essays begins with an excellent introduction by Ángeles Sirvent Ramos to the early Mme de Staël; the essay is sensitive not just to the girl’s emotions but also to her budding expertise as a writer. The following essays remain for the most part at a similarly high standard. Most of the analyses focus on the topics themselves, whether love, perversion, the occult, exoticism, colonialism, slavery, or revolution. A recurring interest with short stories arises with their incorporation in cycles. Two excellent studies by Pedro Pardo Jiménez on Mme de Choiseul-Meuse and Yvon Houssais on Anna de Noailles discuss the cyclical interplay within the incorporating volumes.

Most of the essays reveal an insightful grasp of subtle themes and images. Study of the visual and olfactory images of Symbolist theater by Marta Pedreira, like the superb analysis of fin-de-siècle themes and images by Rosa De Diego, and of the “savage instinct” in Rachilde’s La Jongleuse by Ana Alonso, demonstrate uncommon critical skill. The volume also includes two insightful studies of Louise Colet by Thanh-Van Ton-That and Teresa Lozano Sampedro that make it clear that she is both unjustly ignored and in desperate need of further consideration. As Ton-That writes, “Elle est plus audacieuse et originale [que George Sand] dans sa volonté de mêler les tons, les styles et les genres” (180). Elsewhere, Encarnación Medina Arjona offers an entrancing consideration of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore’s voice, which echoes through most of her characters, though on different keys. Barbara T. Cooper and Kyoko Murata maintain the volume’s high quality when they deal with writers of lesser note. While it is not at all certain that Delphine de Girardin and Mme Charles Reybaud are as artistically successful as George Sand or Rachilde, their inclusion gives a more adequate sense of writers’ life in mid-century France.

In short, this volume is outstanding, and the scholars/critics involved in it offer the chance to become acquainted, if not to renew familiarity, with a score of female nouvellistes who deserve a place in the pantheon of nineteenth-century French writers who brought prose fiction to maturity. These female writers of short stories deserve more attention; consequently both editors and incorporated scholars deserve our gratitude.