Sullivan on Rattazzi, ed. Cooper (2022)

Rattazzi, Marie née Bonaparte-Wyse and Barbara T. Cooper. L’Aventurière des colonies: Drame en cinq actes suivi de documents inédits. L’Harmattan, 2022, pp. xxxv + 225, ISBN: 978-2-14-026331-6

Murder, blackmail, and a duel are just a few events that ensue when le monde clashes with the demi-monde in L'Aventurière des colonies, a five-act drama purportedly based on a sex scandal that rocked the Second Empire. Marie Rattazzi adapted this play from her novel, Les Mariages de la créole (1866), that she wrote about a banker who had an affair with an aventurière of color living with his family. When the preface to Mariages appeared, Rattazzi's cousin, Napoleon III, had the manuscript seized and destroyed before it could appear in France. Shortly thereafter, Mariages was published in Brussels. Exiled a second time by her cousin, Rattazzi adapted her novel for the theater in Italy because no director in Paris dared take on the controversial play. Happily, while in exile, Rattazzi delighted in seeing the play published in Florence in 1867 and performed in Italian to great accolades in Naples. 

As Barbara T. Cooper explains in her well-documented introduction to this morality play, a second edition of the drama was published in Paris in 1885 with a preface. In it, Rattazzi explains her wish for the work to appear in France: “J’avais trop désiré voir naître mon drame dans la patrie que mon esprit lui avait assignée, pour que ce désir s’éteignit complètement” (206). Saved from oblivion some eighteen years after it first appeared in Italy, Cooper has resuscitated this work of social realism once again. The volume includes Cooper’s introduction, a selective bibliography, the annotated play (1867), and a four-section annex featuring photos, illustrations, reviews, and articles. 

The prologue of the play opens on a plantation on the Île Bourbon where Magarthy, a quarteronne slave, schemes to marry her master and lover, le Comte de Cerny. When he discovers she has caused his wife’s death, Magarthy escapes with another lover, the slave trader John Bradston. In act one, Magarthy has reinvented herself as the Baronne de St. Denis but is not content as a demi-mondaine in Paris. She needs a legitimate husband to make her appear honest and frequentable in the eyes of le monde, and asks a lover, a Breton noble, to marry her. His refusal does not damper her determination to marry, even if securing a husband means deceit and manipulation. As Magarthy tells the woman she has blackmailed into playing her respectable aunt from the colonies, all women, given their subaltern status, must cunningly deceive to survive: “La nature en nous faisant femmes, la société en nous faisant esclaves, ne nous ont laissé pour arme défensive et offensive que la ruse: il faut bien nous en servir” (61). When Magarthy is on the verge of becoming the legitimate wife of an aged bachelor named Lauménil, a respectable and wealthy scientist, Bradston reappears in act two, and warns Lauménil not to marry her: “Hypocrisie, assassinat, débauche, voilà les trois fleurons de sa couronne” (115). He claims she has stolen a name and her crimes would destroy the scientist’s reputation. However, as Bradston declares in act three, thereby echoing the play’s central message, corruption and deception reign supreme, even in proper society. As he crosses one dishonest character after the next, he laments the “fourberie, la trahison, l’hypocrisie” people accept in the name of self-interest (133). After Bradston reluctantly kills the prince who intended to marry Magarthy’s daughter, he discovers he is her father. Act four finds Magarthy determined to marry her daughter to Schneider’s rich son and Bradston eager to help his daughter secure a happy marriage. In the final act, Bradston, a constant moral foil to Magarthy, reappears and tells Schneider’s wife about her husband’s infidelity. Even though she knows Magarthy does not want to leave her newly married daughter, the wife insists she has the right as the legitimate spouse to demand her departure. The venal woman is punished but not alone: with Bradston as her companion, the two can recall memories of their daughter together. This intriguing play features a heroine who refuses to let prejudices about her race, gender, and class crush her ambitions. 

The annex materials feature pithy anecdotes about the novel and play sure to pique the curiosity of researchers interested in the politics of the Second Empire. Rattazzi penned this roman à clef two years after the wealthy industrialist and politician Eugène Schneider (rebaptized Tayeur in both works) married his son Henri to Zélie Asselin, the daughter of his Creole mistress, Marguerite. Rattazzi reimagines the Bourbon-born Asselin as the conniving Magarthy. One sycophantic article in La France describes the marriage of Schneider’s son in Le Creusot in front of his foundry workers in 1863 (199). The article does not mention why the son of the vice-président du Corps législatif married in the provinces, but scholars reading between the lines can deduct from Rattazzi’s fiction the extent to which le monde shunned the Schneider family. Rattazzi’s preface also relates an amusing anecdote about Alexandre Dumas père not only cooking French feasts for the homesick writer exiled in Italy, but also recopying her play in his fine handwriting as she wrote LAventurière. Cooper notes the influence of Le Demi-Monde (1855) on Rattazzi’s play, but one wonders whether it, in turn, shaped Dumas fils’s depiction of a similar adventuress in LÉtrangère (1876). The last section features an anonymous 1880 biography emphasizing the rumor that Rattazzi penned Mariages to extort her cousin as well as laudatory obituaries published after her death in 1902. They celebrate her accomplishments as a novelist, political expert and director of the Nouvelle revue internationale for twenty-two years. 

As with the other two dozen annotated reeditions in the Autrement Mêmes collection Cooper has published, her innovative revival of Rattazzi's play will serve as a springboard for scholars eager to explore the interplay between obscure texts and canonical works. The field needs more work examining the intersections of gender, race, and colonialism in the depictions of characters of color such as Magarthy. This work is an excellent place to start.