Schauer on Linton (2022)

Linton, Anne. Unmaking Sex: The Gender Outlaws of Nineteenth-Century France. Cambridge UP, 2022, pp. xvii +254, ISBN: 978-1-316-51182-4

Historians of sexuality have long understood the nineteenth century as the primary moment when what Foucault calls “true sex,” or the cultural belief that human bodies have one identifiable sex, held a firm grip on the collective consciousness of the French public.  Anne Linton disrupts this thesis by analyzing medical texts that unveil doctors’ deep-seated uneasiness with the “true sex” of their subjects. The author finds evidence not of consensus around “true sex,” but rather of disagreement amongst the very professionals who, until now, have been understood as the champions of binary sex. In Unmaking Sex, Linton presents the results of her extensive archival research, citing hundreds of medical cases and high-profile trials of intersex, which she then pairs with close readings of the well-known works of Balzac, Zola, and Gauthier, and lesser-known texts like Henri de Latouche’s Fragoletta (1829) and J.P.-R. Cuisin’s Clémentine orpheline et androgyne (1820)each of which had an influence on the public’s fear of and fascination with intersex people.

Unmaking Sex is divided into two parts, each containing two chapters, and an epilogue. In her introduction, Linton lays out her argument concerning “true sex” and a second thesis regarding the interplay of narrative in both the literary and medical communities: “[Unmaking Sex] reveals that in many instances, both literature and medicine use narrative as a means to unmask “true sex” as mere fiction” (3). Part one presents medical and legal cases of intersex in the nineteenth century and shows how “true sex” was an evergreen point of disagreement amongst medical professionals. Linton’s first chapter focuses on how doctors thought about the definition —and even the existence of—intersex. The author takes her reader through over two hundred medical cases to unveil doctors’ gonadal sex models, theories of sex based on secondary characteristics, ideas about sex based on self-identification and/or lifestyle choices, as well as proposals that sex might not even be possible to determine at all until an autopsy could be performed. Perhaps most interesting to the overall thesis of part one, Linton exposes the ways in which doctors used storytelling devices to communicate their findings to their colleagues. The second chapter wades into the murky waters of the Napoleonic Code and displays the inadequacy of the language therein concerning matters of indeterminate sex. Some sections of the Code were explicit; however, the question of intersex is left largely unanswered, leading many in the medical and legal communities to call for the inclusion of a “third sex.” The resulting legal cases involving intersex people posed difficult questions to the court, including what should be done if an intersex person wants to marry or had already married, whether or not the spouse might file for divorce on the grounds that their partner was intersex, whether the law dictates that a marriage ought to produce children, and so on. Linton again brings into relief the importance of narrative in chapter two, highlighting medical jurisconsults who used narrative tactics in the courtroom to persuade judges and juries. Cultural anxieties around intersex were expansive—including libertinage, prostitution, moral decay, declining birth rates, and the disintegration of the social order itself. For Linton, the need to invent a coherent storyline is reflective of doctors’ failed attempts at making sense of indeterminate sex.

Part two shifts focus from the fields of medicine and law to the novel. Linton’s project in the third chapter is three-fold: first, she shows that novelists used similar lexical fields as those seen in part one when developing their intersex characters; second, Linton argues that, contrary to the longstanding belief that the surge in literature about “hermaphrodism” was merely a resurgence of the ancient myth of the androgyne, these novels are in fact “important intertexts that enable us to see overlooked connections between the ways both doctors and novelists used narrative” (92-93). Finally, Linton brings nuance to A.J.L. Busst’s view that a definitive split occurred mid-century, severing the “romantic androgyne” from the “decadent hermaphrodite.” She analyses two lesser-known novels in chapter three, Clémentine orpheline et and Fragoletta, emphasizing tropes seen in the medical texts covered in part one, and underscoring decadent literary scenes written in the 1820s, thereby subverting the supposed mid-century schism between romantic and decadent intersex characters. In chapter four, Linton documents the effects of degeneration theory on both the literary and medical communities through close readings of Émile Zola’s La Curée, providing strong evidence for the influence of medicine on literature, and of literature on medicine. Finally, in her epilogue, the author reflects on the political implications of her book, tying her research into present-day intersex activism.

Linton’s extensive research has produced a striking account of uncertainty in the face of Foucault’s “true sex” model, yet future editions of the book could be improved by including visual aids for the numerous timelines and vectors of influence presented in the text. The intricate matrices laid out within the pages of this book are breathtakingly fascinating, and the addition of illustrations would have a welcome effect on her reader’s ability to digest her complex and convincing claims.

One of the greatest strengths of Linton’s work is her ability to illustrate interconnected narrative devices used by both doctors and authors. Extensive archival research and expert literary analysis persuasively demonstrate that these two genres—the medical treaty and the novel—function as intertexts, each feeding off the other to achieve goals specific to the author. By laying out numerous examples of the specific language used across these fields, Linton provides us with an original piece of scholarship that opens up new avenues of inquiry in literature, sexuality, gender, medicine, and law. This monograph will be of particular interest to scholars of nineteenth century literature, medicine, history, sexuality, and gender, as well as graduate students in a wide array of disciplines. Unmaking Sex is a thoroughly researched, detailed, and original contribution that leaves its reader with a nuanced understanding of intersex in the French nineteenth century.

Erica Schauer
University of Nebraska-Lincoln