Rickard on Larson (2022)

Larson, Sharon. Resurrecting Jane de La Vaudère: Literary Shapeshifter of the Belle Époque. The Pennsylvania State UP, 2022, pp. xiii + 190, ISBN 978-0-271-09444-1

As Alain Corbin suggests in his 2011 L’Histoire de la virilité, the French nineteenth century was a period which corresponded to “l’emprise maximale de la vertu de la virilité.” Yet scholars continue to rediscover authors from this period who challenge this view, perhaps precisely because of this intensely masculine atmosphere, rather than in spite of it. While on the surface, the life and work of Jane de La Vaudère (née Scrive) may be dismissed as the stereotypical trope of a female author who battled to be heard over male contemporaries, Sharon Larson demonstrates in her new book that the author not only overcame, but also subverted masculine dominance to become a (now forgotten) voice of her generation.  

The interweaving of biography and literary analysis in this work is a major strength, ensuring that the woman and her work are inseparable as each is necessary to understand the other. Chapter one, “The Makings of a Bibliography”—the title of which hints at the self-conscious blurring of artistic and personal creation—provides us with several “crucial points of reference in understanding Jeanne Scrive’s strategic transformation into Jane de La Vaudère” (13). La Vaudère cultivated both her public persona and literary offerings in relation to the market and trends of the day, often to scandalous effect. This deliberate authorial persona is further explored in chapter two, “Becoming Jane de La Vaudère.” An interesting anecdote is the description of La Vaudère’s handwriting by Albert du Rochetal as “au premier abord […] masculine” (39). However, Larson asserts that the author “presented herself as unequivocally female” (41). As such, we can see that La Vaudère played with gender to court acceptance from male peers while ensuring a layer of bourgeois acceptability. 

It becomes clear then that La Vaudère is as ambiguous a figure as she is controversial. Chapter five, “Deciphering La Vaudère’s ‘Fierce’ Feminism,” demonstrates that although she “promote[d] female sexual and emotional fulfilment” she also “[clung] to some traditionalist views of womanhood, a tactic that many activists also employed” (11). What emerges in Larson’s reading is a covert feminism by stealth and by necessity. Indeed, Larson invites us to ask the question: to what extent is La Vaudère a “feminist,” and is her engagement with issues of equality simply another marketing ploy? Larson does emphasize that La Vaudère is “not a ‘queer’ figure as we understand it today,” despite challenging and subverting the “perceived ‘natural’ order of the gender hierarchy to promote women’s equality” (137). In doing so, Larson highlights the ambiguity and nuance of La Vaudère’s “feminism” in order to avoid optimistic and anachronistic attempts to reclaim her as a modern-day heroine. She is much more interesting if we place her in the context of the evolution of modern feminism rather than retrospectively applying our context to hers. 

Given this constant interplay of ambiguity and controversy, one might cynically suggest that La Vaudère was simply manufacturing and benefitting from a deliberate authorial strategy of polemic; in the words of Larson: “to deftly appeal to readers’ interests” (3). However, Larson goes beyond this superficial reading in chapter three, “La Vaudère’s Plagiarism: Subversion through Copy,” which centers on the author as plagiarist. Larson reexamines the act of plagiarism in a positive light, suggesting that it provided La Vaudère with “a medium for reappropriation and transgression” (72). Similarly, chapter four, “The Plagiarized Plagiarist: Missy de Morny, Colette, and the Scandal of Rêve d’Égypte,” reverses the perspective of the previous chapter by focusing on La Vaudère as the victim of plagiarism to demonstrate her “calculated marketing of nonnormative female sexuality” (11) and how she courted infamy both publicly and professionally. In doing so, La Vaudère asserted herself on a male platform and both challenged and engaged male authors with their very own words. Therefore, could we begin to understand La Vaudère as an écrivain médiatique in the same way that scholars today like Ashley Harris understand the works of Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder, or Virginie Despentes? 

A major obstacle in the writing of this study seems to have been the scarcity of archival materials. However, by writing this book, Larson has effectively crafted an archival reference for future scholars, including “library references and call numbers when applicable” as well as “an exhaustive bibliography of La Vaudère’s publications across genres and media” (5). The ostensible lack of “traditional” archival sources also led Larson to consider the inclusion of so-called “non-empirical” evidence, specifically in the form of rumors and anecdotes which “complement written accounts” and some of which can even be “traced to La Vaudère” herself (6). This unconventional approach and inclusion of non-canonical sources not only represents another strength of the work, but also a useful and necessary recalibration of historical enquiry in order to allow for the importance of non-canonical, informal, and “non-credible” sources. It also attests to the deliberate strategies of ambiguity employed by La Vaudère both personally and professionally—even long after her death, it remains difficult to uncouple the woman from the myth. Indeed, the conclusion, “Driving into the Future: The Château de La Vaudère and Continued Legacies,” looks to the specter of the author at her former home both through the memories of the villagers but also through the figure of her estate’s current chatelaine, whose passion for rally racing and vintage cars mirrors La Vaudère’s more “masculine” pursuits.  

Just as other female authors have now passed into the canon of nineteenth-century French studies because of the work of pioneering scholars to reclaim them, so too does Larson lay down the foundations for a broader appreciation of La Vaudère in her study. This book goes a long way towards demystifying the figure of Jane de La Vaudère and will provide an invaluable springboard for future scholars. 

Mathew Rickard
Université de Picardie Jules Verne (Amiens)