Belenky on Belnap, Cropper, and Lee (2022)

Heather Belnap, Corry Cropper, and Daryl Lee. Marianne Meets the Mormons: Representations of Mormonism in Nineteenth-Century France. U of Illinois P, 2022, pp. xii + 304, ISBN 9780252086762 

When one thinks of nineteenth-century France, Mormons may not be the first topic that comes to mind. Yet, reading the exciting new book by Heather Belnap, Corry Cropper, and Daryl Lee reveals that, in fact, numerous popular novels, vaudeville plays, diaries, travelogues, newspaper articles, essays, illustrations, and caricatures featured members of the American Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. What accounts for this unexpected interest? Marianne Meets the Mormons convincingly argues that the French fascination with Mormons can teach us a great deal about nineteenth-century French society, its anxieties and preoccupations. In French cultural productions of the time, the figure of the Mormon was successfully deployed in order “to explore inconsistencies and unresolved issues in French culture itself, such as gender roles, the institution of the family, divorce, class warfare, and colonialism” (6–7). Paradoxically, while in the United States Mormons generated a lot of vitriol and were portrayed as radically different from other Americans, in France they were mostly depicted in the satiric mode. More than that, Mormons were frequent stand-ins for the French themselves. Unlike other “others” such as Jews, Muslims, or Asians—whose representations often highlighted differences—Mormons were frequently used as a mirror in which the French could see themselves: “Mormons were portrayed as the embodiment of unresolved French social, economic, cultural and even political issues; nineteenth-century French authors and artists used Mormons to work through the possibilities and impossibilities of their own society” (9). Focusing on the timeframe between 1830 and 1914, the authors have unearthed a veritable treasure trove of texts and images from popular culture that constitute the bulk of their primary sources. Each of the three authors brings their disciplinary expertise to the study of this fascinating material—Cropper and Lee are literary scholars and Belnap is an art historian. This meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated and lively book offers a fresh perspective on the French nineteenth-century cultural imagination. 

The book is organized thematically, with three chapters devoted to gender, women’s rights, marriage, and divorce; a chapter on Mormonism, utopianism, and social experiment; a chapter on Mormonism’s association with vitalist movements; and one focused on colonialism.  

Of the chapters focusing on gender, chapter three (“Mormonism, Masculinity, and the Woman Question in Second Empire France”) shows how cultural productions featuring Mormon characters channeled anxieties about the changing role of women in French society, with increased access to education and participation in the public sphere. An analysis of numerous illustrations and texts demonstrate how preconceived notions about the Mormons were mapped onto French ideas about masculinity and bourgeois male identity. Of particular note is the discussion of A travers l’Amérique, an 1869 travelogue by the feminist journalist Olympe Audouard in which she gives voice to Mormon women and, surprisingly, offers support to polygamy: she argues it is superior to the hypocrisy of the French system in which men keep illicit mistresses. Chapter five (“From Page to Stage: Mormonism and the Woman Question in the Early Third Republic”) looks at how French authors and artists explored changing gender roles in France through satirical representations of Mormonism in parodical novels, plays, newspapers, and caricatures. Taking Mormon marriage practices as a point of departure, French cultural productions “used American Mormonism to express unease about how French women were reconfiguring social interactions” (135). Works such as Albert Robida’s Le Vingtième siècle (1883) and Saturnin Farandoul (1879), as well as several other plays and images, intervene in gender politics in late nineteenth-century France, using their depiction of Mormon marital practices to critique French bourgeois mating rituals. Finally, chapter six (“‘Ces mœurs sont bien les nôtres!’: Mormons, Marriage, and the Divorce Debate”) shows how depictions of Mormonism reflected debates about divorce in France and criticism of the commercialization of French bourgeois marriage. As is often the case with deploying “the other” to criticize the self, “writing about Mormonism was a safe way for the French playwrights, librettists and journalists to more subtly raise […] questions about the nature of the family, the place of illegitimate partners, children, and the role of marriage” (175). What’s more, the book shows how “Mormonism played an outsized role in navigating the debate about divorce on France” (183), so much so that it was even frequently referenced during the parliamentary deliberations on legalization of divorce in 1880. Plays like Les Douze femmes de Japhet allowed French authors to work through and even laugh at sensitive topics such as divorce.  

The remaining chapters highlight how French writers and artists harnessed what the authors call “the malleable nature of Mormonism in French thought” (99) to both critique and extoll various ideas and movements of the time. Chapter two (“‘La Loi nouvelle’: Mormonism and the Social Question in France”) shows how, during the July Monarchy, Mormonism was a way to engage with a host of relevant social questions in France. Perceived as a radical social experiment, Mormonism was treated both as a positive and negative model in the context of flourishing social theories such as socialism and utopianism. If Mormonism’s spiritual manifestations resonated with French Romantic Socialists, these traits were also deployed by conservative thinkers to criticize and ridicule their rivals. Chapter four (“Between Man and God: Mormons, Spiritualism, and the Occult”) explores, as the title suggests, how French writing about Mormonism engaged with alternative spiritual practices in French society such as mediumism, occult sciences, and Spiritualism. Finally, chapter seven (“Exotic Mormons and the French Colonial Project”) explains how colonial fantasies growing out of France’s expanding imperial projects were (again, safely) projected onto the Mormon context. While some authors exoticized the Mormons, others presented them as colonizers “whose […] conquests paralleled France’s domestic politics and own colonizing enterprise” (215). The prism of Mormonism allowed authors such as Robida to dramatize the ambiguities of French attitudes toward colonialism.  

Taking representations of Mormonism as a privileged lens on French society and culture allows Belnap, Cropper, and Lee to discuss a wide range of topics with nuance and complexity. More than that, Marianne Meets the Mormons introduces the reader to a wealth of delightful and understudied works of popular literature and visual culture that enrich our understanding of nineteenth-century France. This impressive and innovative book is a welcome addition to French cultural studies and a true pleasure to read. 

Masha Belenky
The George Washington University