Paliyenko on Cooper, ed. (2021)

Cooper, Barbara T., editor (coll. Roger Little). Clara et autres écrits dont deux lettres inédites, by Mélanie Waldor. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2021, pp. xli + 193, ISBN: 978-2-343-22332-2

Since 2006, Barbara T. Cooper has published twenty volumes in the Autrement Mêmes series founded by Roger Little, adding an impressive range of works to the French colonial canon. Cooper supplements her modern critical edition of the novella, Clara (1836), with other writings by the nineteenth-century author Mélanie Waldor (17961871) which engage with the French colonies and, moreover, with nineteenth-century women’s literary ambitions. Painstakingly researched and carefully organized, this volume develops as its core theme Waldor’s original perspectives on the charged relationship between the French and the indigenous peoples of Mauritius, Martinique, Madagascar, and Mexico. An amply annotated bibliography grounds Waldor’s diverse production and erudition along with the historical context and attendant iconography Cooper provides for her selection of texts.

By way of a critical framework, Cooper adopts the stance espoused by other modern scholars seeking to dispel the narrow legacy of Mélanie Waldor as Alexandre Dumas’s lover and muse. As suggested by the first subheading in the introduction, “Mélanie Waldor: une femme de lettres à (re)découvrir,” in order to recover Waldor’s place among the influential women who emerged on the literary scene during the Romantic era, many of whom considered French colonization and its discontents in their writings, we must return to her oeuvre. Throughout her introductory remarks, Cooper refers via footnotes to her extensive archival findings on Clara and the other texts she includes in the volume as a way to extend her analysis and invite further research on Waldor’s literary activism and fuller legacy. The bibliography of selected works lists first, per the order in which each text appears in the volume, its editorial history and contemporary reception. In a second bibliographical section, Cooper lists other writings by Waldor that, in addition to her individual volumes of poetry, demonstrate the author’s breadth. A third section offers a long list of secondary works, including travel writing, by other nineteenth-century authors. These sources provide significant details upon which Waldor likely drew to develop the cultural currency of her writings about colonial mores.

Cooper’s introduction provides a blueprint for reading Waldor’s novella Clara, published in the collection Pages de la vie intime (1836), in mutually illuminating cultural and literary contexts. Waldor’s colonial writings, like those of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Charlotte Dard, Sophie Doin, and Anaïs Ségalas among other women writers, coincided with the revival of the French abolitionist movement, which began in the early 1820s and continued through the 1840s. In three of the four texts selected by Cooper, Waldor stages various encounters between whites and Blacks in the colonies and/or in France, which reveal the devastating effects of slavery and its attendant racial prejudice on humanity. Via an intertextual reference to Claire de Duras’s Ourika (1823), in particular, as well as the theme of interracial love thwarted by society, Waldor relates Clara to the French Romantic colonial corpus. However, as Cooper deftly underscores, “Ce qui fait l’originalité de l’œuvre de Waldor, c’est la suggestion que les sociétés coloniales et métropolitaines sont moins différentes qu’on ne le croit” (xxi). In Clara, moreover, Waldor thinks beyond the presumed inequality and antagonism between the races: “[U]ne véritable complicité s’établit entre des femmes noires et blanches, […] une femme noire parle longuement de sa vie sans intermédiaire, voyage de façon autonome entre une colonie et la métropole et distribue de l’argent aux autres,” condemning in this way the pseudo-scientific racial theory of polygenism and the resultant prejudice against people of color.

To build on Waldor’s knowledge of the colonial world and related corpus anchored by Clara, Cooper includes a long excerpt from the novel, La Coupe de corail (1842), set in Martinique. To this complicated story of lost or stolen identity and its impact on one’s place, or lack thereof, in the new world born of slavery, Waldor adds a stunning sense of local color, which distinguishes the history and culture of the then French Antillean colony. Colonial themes in Waldor’s œuvre extend to the first text in the Appendix. The nostalgic poem, “La Mexicaine” (1835), is written from the point of view of an indigenous Mexican woman reflecting on her homeland rent asunder by colonization, and dedicated to her contemporary Anaïs Ségalas who wrote about France and its colonial empire, beginning with the conquest of Algers in 1830. “Un voyage à Madagascar” (1839), the second text in the Appendix, offers, as Cooper suggests, “une leçon de géographie dans un salon” (xxix), coupled with an indictment of colonization exploiting the land and its peoples for France.

Also included in the Appendix are the essays, “De l’influence que les femmes pourraient avoir sur la littérature actuelle” (1833) and “Les Femmes auteurs” (1836), and two letters by Waldor seeking publicity for recent works, all of which illustrate how savvy she was in positioning herself as a woman writer, and serve as a fitting bookend. In her 1833 essay, Waldor deftly reflects on her moment in literary history: “Les siècles à venir jugent les siècles passés, non sur les hommes qu’ils n’ont pas connus, mais sur les écrits de ces hommes. […] C’est aux femmes, puisque la lice leur est ouverte, et que leur voix n’est plus étouffée, à donner l’exemple de tout ce qui est grand et noble, de tout ce qui tend à immortaliser” (171). As if writing back to her critics in 1836, Waldor distinguishes the woman from the author: “Un auteur est plus responsable, devant la société, de ses livres que de sa conduite: sa conduite lui appartient, il peut la murer, la renfermer dans un cercle étroit, mais ses livres appartiennent au public” (178). With this thought-provoking volume, readily accessible to students and a treasure trove for scholars, Barbara Cooper achieves her aim. Clara et autres écrits dont deux lettres inédites provides the ground work along with a capacious framework for a book-length study that will restore Mélanie Waldor’s contributions as a poet, novelist, journalist, literary and cultural critic and further enrich our understanding of women’s centrality in nineteenth-century French and Francophone letters.

Adrianna M. Paliyenko
Colby College