Monsieur Vénus (1884) – Rachilde
Part I – Introduction and Context of Monsieur Vénus
Who is Rachilde?
- “Rachilde” is a pseudonym adopted by Marguerite Eymery who was born on 12 February 1860 near Périgueux in south-west France.
- Her father Joseph Eymery was a decorated cavalry officer presumably with aristocratic origins, while her mother Gabrielle Feytaud was the daughter of a family from the upper bourgeoisie. Despite the disapproval of Gabrielle’s family, they got married in 1859 and Marguerite was born soon after. Joseph and Gabrielle were ill-matched and unhappy with each other, which affected Marguerite’s childhood and adolescence.
- Marguerite’s father was unhappy that he did not have a son but a daughter, and her mother did not show affection or pay attention to Marguerite throughout her childhood. In late life Rachilde remarked that “My father, magnificent brute that he was, could not forgive me for being a little girl” (quoted in Holmes 13). Joseph Eymery’s disapproval of her daughter’s gender/sex, and her constant desire to “become the missing male child” (Holmes 13) were to have a significant impact on Rachilde’s life at both the personal and professional levels. As a child, she got involved in activities that were considered traditionally male such as fencing, horseback riding, and she often got into brawls with the local boys. She also wore trousers.
- Marguerite’s first story was published under her initials M.E. In 1876, she adopted the pen-name of Rachilde. According to her, this was the name of Swedish nobleman.
- In Paris, Rachilde made the acquaintance of other decadent writers such as Albert Samain, Paul Adam, Jean Moréas, Jean Lorrain and Félix Fénéon. Oscar Wilde was also her contemporary on whom her novel Monsieur Vénus is said to have had an important influence (Hawthorne 99).
Cross dressing in nineteenth century Paris
- Dress was an integral part of gender and class identity in nineteenth century Europe, and it was regulated by law. To dress contrary to the expectations of one’s class, rank and gender was to challenge the existing status quo and to disrespect dominant socio-cultural and political establishments. Thus, the general public would associate women like Rachilde who cross-dressed with nonconformity, rebellion, eccentricity and even criminality.
- The law of 16 Brumaire IX (November 17, 1800), a law promulgated by Napoleon, prohibited cross-dressing except in certain circumstances (ex: medical condition) for which one had to obtain special permission from the police commissioner.
- Cross-dressing in public spaces and at balls was specifically prohibited by article 471, section 15 of the Penal Code of 1853, which was subsequently upheld in 1927 and 1949 (Hawthorne 103).
- Even as a child, perhaps as a result of her father’s contempt and the resulting inadequacy she felt, Marguerite cross-dressed by wearing trousers even on non-special occasions that required the wearing of trousers. As an adult, Rachilde requested permission from the police to cross-dress in 1884. Although she was initially denied permission, Rachilde was eventually granted her request.
- Although cross-dressers were still a minority in Parisian society, several of Rachilde’s contemporaries such as writer George Sands and painter Rosa Bonheur were cross-dressers.
- It is interesting to note, however, that while some artists such as George Sands did not obtain permission but cross-dressed anyway defying authority, Rachilde decided to obtain legal rights to cross-dress.
What were Rachilde’s motivations for cross-dressing?
- Did Rachilde’s desire to cross-dress arise from an intrinsic desire to “become the missing male child” (Holmes 13)? Can her cross-dressing be interpreted as an attempt to challenge hegemonic gender roles and notions of how a woman should dress and behave in nineteenth century Paris? Rachilde’s unfulfilled relationship with her father and her desire to become male appear to be obvious reasons why she would desire to cross-dress. Yet, her letters and journals reveal other more mercenary interests in abandoning her female attire. These economic reasons also seem more plausible than a desire on her part to challenge conventional gender roles given Rachilde’s explicit anti-feminist stance.
- In one of her correspondences Rachilde claimed that she cross-dressed because she was under pressure to do so by her publisher: “My manager told me: 200 francs for a month as a man or get out” (quoted in Hawthorne 108). She also claims that to dress as a man is very economical and practical. As Hawthorne points out, “one man’s suit could last for ten years, while the rapid shifts in women’s fashion entailed continual expenses” (109).
- Rachilde’s letter to the police commissioner, requesting permission to cross-dress, further indicates her economic reasons for such a decision (Hawthorne 105-106). She claims that freedom of mobility is essential in order to work as a reporter, which is necessary to earn her “daily bread”. Rachilde is quick to point out that her motivation to cross-dress is very different from that of “certain degenerated women who desire to create scandal by cross-dressing”.
- It is important to note that Rachilde’s request to the police to cross-dress was in 1884; the same year that Monsieur Vénus, the novel that created her reputation as “Mademoiselle Baudelaire” was published. The letter sent to the police commissioner indicates that the request to cross-dress comes only after the publication of Monsieur Vénus. Could it be a coincidence that these two events occurred in the same year? Or was the decision to cross-dress a calculated publicity stunt maneuvered jointly by a savvy publisher and a daring writer? Another interesting point to note is the similarity between the descriptions of the cross-dressed Rachilde and Raoule in Monsieur Vénus (close-cropped hair, suits, riding boots, hat).
Why was Monsieur Vénus published in Bruxelles, Belgium and not in Paris, France?
- Monsieur Vénus was published in 1884 in Bruxelles, Belgium by the publisher Brancart.
- Although Monsieur Vénus was not Rachilde’s first novel but her second, this was the novel which created her reputation as a key writer of the decadence and launched her career as a writer. Soon after being published in Belgium, the book was deemed to be pornographic and was banned. Rachilde was in absentia sentenced to two years in prison; a sentence which was never realized since Rachilde judiciously avoided visiting Belgium. As Hawthorne pithily states, “the book was pornographic, it was banned; it got read, Rachilde got noticed” (90)!
- Hawthorne also remarks that censorship of literature considered as pornographic was motivated less by a sense of public moral outrage and more by economic and political agendas. Rachilde’s motivation for writing Monsieur Vénus demonstrates how well aware she was of this situation. Although Rachilde provides more than one account regarding the inspiration for Monsieur Vénus, her acknowledgement that she wrote the novel out of pure financial necessity explains her choice of subject and style in her notorious novel. With the help of her Belgian publisher, Rachilde resolves to write something “dirty” on “some filth that people would find new, unforeseen, never before published” that can be published in Brussels (quoted in Hawthorne 92). In the letter she writes to the police commissioner requesting for permission to cross-dress, Rachilde admits that Monsieur Vénus was a purely mercenary work. In this light, the decision to publish Monsieur Vénus in Belgium can be understood as a well-designed marketing ploy executed by Rachilde and her publisher in order to create the “buzz” that would launch Rachilde’s career as the notorious Mademoiselle Baudelaire.
- In the 1870s, as French censorship and publishing laws were very repressive, a lot of writers who wished to publish “sensitive material” (which could be political or pornographic material) sought publishers in Belgium where censorship and publishing laws were more relaxed than in France. However, in 1879, the Communards of the 1871 Paris Commune were officially amnestied, and they no longer needed to publish in Belgium; a change which severely affected the revenue of Belgian publishers. Further, in 1881, the Ferry laws relaxed rules regarding censorship in France. In order to maintain some source of income, Belgian publishers increasingly published pornographic works. Under the pretext of campaigning against the morally depraved “Belgian” books, Belgian publishers who formerly supported the Communards were singled out for criticism and their books were prohibited and seized in French bookstores. As a reaction to such French machinations, the Belgian government itself took preemptive and reactive measures in suppressing books it thought to be “pornographic”. Monsieur Vénus was one such book that was banned in Belgium but not in France.
Part II – Textual Observations
1) Why is Monsieur Vénus a “materialist novel” and what is the significance of the title Monsieur Vénus?
- As Hawthorne points out, when Monsieur Vénus was published in 1884, the term “decadent” had not yet gained wide currency. The word “materialist” was instead used to denote work that rejected “literary idealism” prevalent in Romanticism (Hawthorne 89).
- An article in La Revue indépendente, a French journal founded in 1841 by a group of artists including George Sands, defines materialism as “the negator of all social order and all morality”. Thus, materialism rejected the moralizing tendencies in naturalist literature. In Monsieur Vénus, for instance, Raoule defies established social order primarily via the categories of class and gender. Not only does the aristocratic Raoule have an affair with a working class man but she marries him. Raoule inverts traditional gender roles by assuming that of the dominant male, while training the young Jacques to be her effeminized mistress. The concept of morality too is questioned at several levels, from the depiction of her pious yet naïve aunt Ermengarde to Raoule’s sadistic treatment of Jacques.
- The subtitle “A materialist novel” also set Monsieur Vénus apart from novels of the former Romantic and Gothic traditions, which were predominantly written for a female audience. Hawthorne remarks that “Given the way in which idealism came to have certain feminized connotations in the context of the novel, the subtitle was also a statement of literary virility” (89).
- The title Monsieur Vénus brings together two elements traditionally associated with either the masculine or the feminine. Venus is the personification of love and the ideal / idolized form of the feminine. By titling her novel Monsieur Vénus, Rachilde indicates at the outset the gender inversions and the challenge to gender essentialism in her novel. To masculinize Venus and to present her as a man, also signals Monsieur Vénus’s potential for violence, aggressiveness and sadism. An interesting text to consider in this light is the novella La Vénus d’Ille (1837) by Prosper Mérimée (especially given the conclusions of the two stories).
2) Monsieur Vénus and its challenge to established gender roles
- The key theme of the novel can be identified as the challenge to the binary division of the sexes and their social roles in the nineteenth century. Or, as Rachilde puts it, “the destruction of… sex” (Rachilde 96).
- A majority of decadent writers treated women as femmes fatales; beings devoid of any creative or artistic ability who preyed upon men and brought about their fall. Baudelaire, for instance, considered women as “abominable”. In Monsieur Vénus, Rachilde reverses these roles with Raoule and Jacques. In her treatment of gender, Rachilde departs from her contemporary decadents. As Holmes points out, Rachilde’s works differed from “those of her male contemporaries in the degree of their challenge to gender essentialism. The male texts invariably find the narrative means to reinstate the vital difference between female inferiority and male supremacy. Rachilde’s novels for the most part operate no such closure” (40).
- Artificiality and contestation of what is “natural” are important tenets of decadent writing. To contest the “natural” and established binary divisions of gender falls within the purview of decadence. Raoule’s sexual transgressions and masculinized behavior, which would normally be considered as “deviant” and “unnatural”, are furthermore not presented as the actions of a hysterical woman, nor those of an evil and maneuvering femme fatale. Rather, they are deliberate and conscious actions executed by Raoule to fulfill her sexual yearnings and maintain a desired position of power in both personal and social relationships (as men are generally wont to do with minimal censure). Rita Felski points out how Rachilde’s heroines “do not express desire and psychic conflicts unconsciously through the involuntary symptoms of the body, but consciously enact a willed refusal of social and moral norms” (185).
3) Is Raoule an artist?
- In a conversation with Raittolbe, Raoule acknowledges that “I’ve had lovers. Lovers in my life, like books in my library, to learn, to study… But I’ve never had passion, I haven’t written my own book yet!” (Rachilde 69-70). In discovering Jacques, however, Raoule’s passion and libidinal creativity are unleashed. Her relationship with the young man becomes Raoule’s “book” and in “writing” this book, Raoule refashions herself as well as her mistress contrary to the conventional gender norms and established sexual behavior. Through her actions and persuasions, Raoule progressively transforms Jacques into an effeminized, passive and narcissistic “woman” who is emotionally and psychologically dependent on Raoule; Jacques becomes Raoule’s ideal and idolized mistress while the latter assumes the role of the authoritative and dominant male. Intoxicated with the object of love she has thus created, Raoule exclaims “You alone exist, Beauty. I believe in you alone” (Rachilde 178). This veneration of Beauty is a common theme found in other decadent writing, particularly in the poetry of Baudelaire. Raoule as an artist has thus succeeded in refashioning the young man to embody her passion and her ideal of beauty. It is also worth pointing out that Rachilde dedicates Monsieur Vénus to “physical beauty”.
- It is also interesting to note that the character of Jacques is one-dimensional and under-developed as an individual. Except for his dazzling physical perfection and sexual appeal to both men and women he remains a shadowy character overcome by the dynamic and vibrancy of Raoule.
- The practice of cross-dressing further contributes to the artistic recreation and inversion of the identities of Raoule and Jacques.
- Interior spaces such as the apartment of Jacques and Raoule’s bedroom are expressions of Raoule’s artistic bent (“mounted pictures rather free in their subjects were hanging from the molding walls” (Rachilde 22)).
- In several instances, Raoule refers to herself as an “artist” (Rachilde 37). This self-identification takes on a shockingly morbid meaning in the last pages of Monsieur Vénus when Raoule is described as removing parts of the corpse of Jacque: “armed with silver pincers, a velvet covered hammer, and a silver scalpel, [Mme Silvert] devoted herself to a very delicate task… Occasionally she wiped her tapering fingers with a lace handkerchief” (208). The redesign of the wax figure with “natural” elements borrowed from her deceased mistress’s body, from a decadent perspective, could be interpreted as Raoule’s final artistic act.
4) Violence in Monsieur Vénus
- Holmes identifies physical and sexual violence as a common feature of decadent literature: “Decadence refused the humanism it associated with democracy and the reign of the masses, hence scenes of brutal violence, uncensored by the narrator or by the text’s implied scheme of values, represented a deliberate attack on hegemonic standards of decency” (110-11).
- In Monsieur Vénus scenes of brutal violence are recounted by a detached narrator who passes no judgments on the perpetrator. Raoule whips Marie with such force that she falls unconscious; Raittolbe beats up Jacques with the hand rest of an easel until he falls down insensible; Raoule tears open Jacques wounds with her fingernails and plucks off parts of his corpse with indifference. Holmes points out that sadism, expressed in some of these violent acts, are common in Rachilde’s fiction as well as in decadent writing in general. For instance, in Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Les Diaboliques (1874), one of the key decadent texts, violence plays a significant role.
(Illustrations by Leonor Fini)
5) Language and the construction of gender in Monsieur Vénus
- From the outset of the novel, language is used to confuse gender roles and expectations especially with regard to Raoule and Jacques.
- Characters use language to invent and establish their preferred identities and gender roles (as opposed to conventional, expected or “natural” identities). Raoule is her aunt’s “nephew” (28), while Jacques identifies himself with his sister when he says “I’m Marie Silvert” (9) on first meeting Raoule (unconsciously drawing a parallel between Marie’s prostitution and his future role as a mistress). Raittolbe refers to Raoule as a “boy” and a “hussar” (54), while she identifies herself as a “gentleman” and a “man” (55, 68, 72, 73). The language used for the refashioning of gender is most evident in the conversations between Jacques and Raoule. Language is one of the tools that Raoule consistently and repetitively uses to instill in Jacques his submissive femininity and her masterful authority. Raoule “roars madly” that “I am a jealous man”, “I’m always more manly” (83) and “Am I the master, yes or no!” (87), while reminding Jacques that he is her “slave” (87) and “a capricious little woman” (88) until he claims that she is her “master” (178) and that “I’m not a man but the slave who loves” (153).
- Rachilde also breaks conventional linguistic rules, which is obvious when reading the French version of the novel. She uses masculine adjectives and forms with the female subject of Raoule and feminine forms with Jacques.
1. Raoule is sometimes described and identified as a “monster” and a “Devil” (36, 52, 53, 85, 88, 108, 173). At other times her physical beauty and masculine characteristics are celebrated (19, 54, 73, 83, 87, 97, 132). How does such a portrayal represent / contest the decadent worldview? How does Raoule’s depiction concede to the representation of a typical decadent protagonist?
2. Jacques is consistently associated with flowers. He is a flower-maker who arranges and paints flowers. He wears clothes with flowers embellished on them and Raoule sends him flowers regularly. In most illustrations representing Jacques in the 1972 edition of Monsieur Vénus illustrated by Leonor Fini, he is generally surrounded by flowers. What is the symbolic significance of the trope of the flower in Monsieur Vénus?
Click on the folliwing links for illustrations on Monsieur Vénus by artist Leonor Fini:
3. Is there a masculine ideal presented in Monsieur Vénus via the depictions of Raittolbe, Raoule and other male / masculine characters?
4. In what ways do Jacques and Marie represent different ideas of the feminine / female? One inspires ecstatic passion and the other evokes repulsion and contempt. How do ideas of the feminine expressed in Monsieur Vénus differ from or agree with the concept of the feminine expressed in the poetry of Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde that we have already read in class?
5. Rachilde was openly critical of feminism and feminist interpretations of her work. In Why I am not a Feminist, she explains how women are biologically inferior to men and that “women’s basic nature remains eternally the same”. In this light, how can we interpret and understand the implications of the gender / sex inversions in Monsieur Vénus?
Felski, Rita. The Gender of Modernity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Gerould, Daniel. “Madame Rachilde: ‘Man’ of Letters.” Performing Arts Journal 7.1 (1983): 117-22.
Hawthorne, Melanie C. Rachilde and the French Women’s Authorship. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
Holmes, Diana. Rachilde: Decadence, Gender and the Woman Writer. Oxford: Berg, 2001.
McLendon, Will L. “Rachilde: Fin de siècle Perspective on Perversities.” Modernity and Revolution in Late Nineteenth-Century France. Ed. Barbara T. Cooper and Mary Donaldson-Evans. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992. 52-64.
Rachilde. Monsieur Vénus. New York: MLA, 2004.
Wilkinson, Marta. “Equinoxes: A Graduate Journal of French and Francophone Studies.” 2003. The Threat of Vénus, Monsieur? Rachilde’s vision of the artiste féminin, Creator and Monster. 20 January 2014 <http://www.brown.edu/Research/Equinoxes/journal/issue1/eqx1_wilkinson.html>.
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