The Women of Modernity, the Gendering of Modernity:
Bourgeois Respectability and the Forgotten Female Types of French Panorama
by Dana Goldstein
When assessing the growth of capitalism and industrialization, some women's historians have tried to determine whether or not these epochal shifts increased women's social and economic capital. They have examined the nineteenth century "cult of domesticity" that valorized middle-class women's roles as wives and mothers, and the new labor opportunities that opened up for working-class women in urban areas. Bonnie Smith, for example, author of the 1981 book Ladies of the Leisure Class, applies a Marxist understanding of the specialization of labor to her study of the bourgeois women of the nineteenth century Nord, the region along the France-Belgium border. Smith argues that because mechanization shifted the site of production from the home shop to the factory, and bourgeois wives no longer worked alongside their husbands as producers in the modern economy, their labor became solely that of reproduction. Birth rates soared, volunteer work became the primary way upper-class women contributed to society, and feminism and reactionary Catholic politics developed as two oppositional ways bourgeois women responded to a project of modernity that excluded them (Smith 13).
Smith's argument — that bourgeois women of the nineteenth century inhabited a "world apart" from their husbands and were thus excluded from shaping or experiencing public modernity — complicates our intuitive understanding of human history as a constant march toward a freer and more egalitarian society. Smith focuses on the women of the Nord because their lives confirm an overall critique she makes of 20th century feminism — that it deemphasizes women's private sphere experiences at its own ideological and political peril. This is an argument of difference feminism, the idea that women can contribute to society is that which is inherently female, as opposed to that which is common to both men and women, hence Smith's focus on the domestic, private sphere's centrality in women's historical experience. But were women really ancillary to the process of modernization, and did women as a group really experience significant social and political setbacks over the course of the nineteenth century?
In this paper I will argue that examples of popular 19th century literature dispute Smith's conception of modernity as a step backward for women, and thus raise questions about her prescriptions for the contemporary feminist project. Representations of women produced by established bourgeois writers and artists of 19th century France show that bourgeois gender ideology was both more fluid than Smith depicts it, and also less successful in keeping women locked within the home and out of the bustling public marketplace that defined modernity.
One collection of these representations is Les Français peints par eux-mêmes: Encyclopédie morale du dix-neuvième siècle, a panorama text published in eight volumes between 1840 and 1842. These handsome leather-bound books were bestsellers among the urban bourgeoisie, who exhibited them in their parlors much the way we would display a coffee-table book of paintings today. The urban "types" represented by the essays in Les Français, written by both male and female authors, some of them highly respected writers such as Honoré de Balzac, are an attempt to define modernity by characterizing the people who live within it, and to show how these characters, almost half of them women, helped to shape the modern city.
In his essay, "Same Difference: The French Physiologies, 1840-1842," Richard Sieburth writes that Les Français, was "designed to take [its] place within the cozy confines of the bourgeois intérieur," where readers could use urban types to help them make sense of rapidly changing, and sometimes seemingly threatening, city (166). It is difficult to compare such a text to Smith's research on the 19th century Nord. While Smith was concerned solely with the provincial bourgeoisie, the writers of Les Français, while members of the bourgeois class themselves, were steeped in urban culture, and set their observational eye on people of all classes. Furthermore, while economic class is a fixed category of analysis in Smith's research, the writers of Les Français tend to see class identity, especially for women, as fluid.
Nevertheless, depictions of women in Les Français show that while urban women of all classes were constrained by what Bonnie Smith calls the bourgeois feminine domestic "symbolic system," this gender ideology did not prohibit them from, as Smith argues, being active participants in the public economy and thus the process of modernization itself. Walter Benjamin defined modernity as a period in which drastic changes took place in the public sphere. In the pages of Les Français, we see bourgeois writers lamenting the fate of the housewife, noting the prevalence of working women in the streets and shops of Paris, and learning to identify new public forms of non-reproductive female sexuality. So in looking at this example of 19th century popular literature, it would seem that not only was bourgeois gender ideology much less fixed than Smith imagines it to be, but that bourgeois writers of the time implicitly accepted women's role in the process of modernization, even if they did not approve of women's public activity or of modernization itself.
The Role of Women in the Project of Modernity
In her collection of essays Gender and the Politics of History, Joan Wallach Scott makes the case for a theoretically-based writing of gender history, explaining, "Feminist history then becomes not the recounting of great deeds performed by women, but the exposure of the often silent and hidden operations of gender that are nonetheless present and defining forces in the organization of most societies (27)."
This "silent and hidden operation" often plays out within a text. In his introduction to Tome I of Les Français, publisher Jules Janin is conscious of the fact that the change in women's roles was a defining feature of his age. Janin was also conscious that he was writing a historical text — one that future generations would look to in imagining Paris at a time when modernity was blooming; when all that was comfortable and understandable was being replaced by much that was radical, confrontational and even obfuscated. Janin exposes his extreme negativity about modern life in the introduction, as he imagines how future generations will define his age:
Monde étrange, où il était nécessaire d'être effronté, d'être insolent, d'être mendiant ; où les plus habiles vivaient à la fois de l'église, de l'épée et de la robe ; où la vie se passait à recevoir et à demander, et à se congratuler et à se calomnier les uns les autres ; où l'on se masquait toute l'année, quoiqu'à visage découvert ; où l'oubli, la fierté, l'arrogance, la dureté, l'ingratitude étaient la monnaie courante ; où l'honneur la vertu, la conscience, étaient inutiles ; où l'on voyait des gens enivrés et comme ensorcelés de la faveur, dégouttant l'orgueil, l'arrogance, la présomption. Région incroyable (vii-viii) !
Janin's picture of the moral condition of the modern urban space is painted in language that calls to mind dissimulation — the crafty obfuscation of one's true motives behind a manufactured façade, in this case, one made of wealth, insincere virtue, arrogance, pride and ingratitude. His description of the new, urban woman is also colored in this language of morality. But while the modern male might be deceptive in his business dealings, the modern female is deceptive in sexual matters of the body and of the heart. Janin writes:
...ce chapitre infini des femmes ne saurait se comparer à rien de ce que nous savons de nos jours en fait de femmes. ... C'est bien le même amour de luxe, de la toilette, de la parure, le même caprice tout proche de la beauté pour en être le contre-poison ; c'est bien la même femme, coquette, galante, perfide, pleine de caprices ; mais cependant que de types effacés ! ... Oui, mais nous avons de nos jours tant de femmes que le siècle passé ne comprenait même pas, à commencer par ces femmes de génie en vieux chapeaux et en bas troués, à finir par cet être nouvellement découvert, qu'on appelle la femme de trente ans !
Nous avons aujourd'hui, en fait de passions du cœur, des passions échevelées, des amours à coups de poignard, des adultères plus réglés et plus réguliers que des mariages des amours moyen âge et barbus, des délires au clair de la lune ; la passion est une exposition publique ; le cœur est un étalage, tout comme les chaînes d'or à la boutique des bijoutiers ; on a tué ainsi deux choses dont les moralistes tiraient un si bon parti la galanterie et l'amour (x-xi).
Here, Janin trades in two recurrent characterizations of the modern woman, the first being her love of luxury goods, and the second being her artificial nature in matters of the heart. Janin combines these two stereotypes in his final metaphor, in which he compares the amorous heart to a "display" of gold chains in the window of a jewelry shop. Janin is ridiculing the spectacle of the dramatic, modern love affair, in which the most intimate details of two people's lives are aired in public. It is important to note that Janin locates this modern woman in the public sphere in his introduction, as opposed to Bonnie Smith, who locates the women of the Nord in their private sphere, domestic capacities, and examines their relationship to modernity from that standpoint. So if modernity is based at least part on the reshaping of the public sphere, Janin observes woman as a vital part of that process, while Smith, with her limited view of history in terms of economic production and the alienation of labor from production, excludes them from it, arguing that women live in "a world apart." She writes:
Such alienation had the important consequence of removing women from the historical stage. Their encapsulation in the home made them resistant to the mode of interpreting human experience that treats of public events and thoughts in relationship to public time or chronology. Working-class women in the marketplace or feminists in the political arena more easily fill the requirements for historical narrative. But an appreciation of women's lives demands that we discuss a private world whose time was often more natural and traditional than modern (14).
Smith draws a distinction between bourgeois and working-class women that writers of the nineteenth century may not have. The pages of Les Français are filled with physiologies of women who are part of the traditional bourgeoisie, or who have some sort of social or economic relationship with the upper middle-class, even if it is only through their liaisons with men. And at least in Janin's point of view, even completely domesticated bourgeois women are active in redefining urban culture because of their illicit, yet shockingly public, adulteries. In terms of the relationship between marriage and modernity, where Smith sees a valorization of traditional marriage and domesticity, Janin sees an erosion of it, represented by an increase in incidences of adultery. But perhaps most fundamentally, class distinctions that have been codified by historians, including Smith, appear fluid in the pages of Les Français, especially in the case of enterprising young women willing to trade in talent, charm, and sexuality.
Women's Work: Les Femmes Comme il Faut and the Eroding Boundary
Between the Working Class and the Bourgeois
Les Français is an excellent source in terms of imagining how a young woman might have found a spot in the urban economy of 19th century Paris, and of understanding the gender ideology surrounding women's appearances in public spaces such as shops and gardens. While Bonnie Smith simply posits that women stopped "producing" in the nineteenth century, and while this was certainly the case for many bourgeois wives, Les Français shows that alienation from production was not always a step backward for women. In the modern city, where most people were alienated from production, new mass production provided a new economic opportunity — that of the salesperson.
Les Français categorizes a whole group of urban women as les femmes comme il faut — women who modestly supported themselves through hands-on, often artistic and traditionally feminine jobs in the retail, luxury-goods sector. In these positions, "common" girls were able to brush up against upper class society in a way that la grisette, the young bohemian worker, could not. La grisette, too, however, was able to meet her economic and social needs through participation in the urban public sphere. I will discuss her unique place in the social and economic hierarchy in the next section of the paper.
La femme comme il faut, written by Balzac, is the second female physiology appearing in Tome I of Les Français. A conservative monarchist, Balzac nevertheless displays a more positive outlook of the modern, urban woman than does Janin. Janin does not draw class distinctions between women when he criticizes the way in which changing gender roles and public sexuality define the licentious urban public sphere. But Balzac, in positioning la femme comme il faut as a foil to the bourgeoise, actually supports the ambitions and grace of the lower class, yet acculturated, working girl, and criticizes the vacuity of the dominant cult of domesticity. He even recognizes, as Smith does, the psychological havoc that enclosed domesticity wrought on upper middle-class women.
Like Smith, Balzac displays disgust at the materialism and "softness" of la bourgeoise. Unlike the professionally busy, unmarried femme comme il faut, the bourgeoise is forced to tote nagging children with her through the streets of Paris. She rushes, but has nothing much to do other than shopping, in which she acquires more and more tasteless objects for her overly decorated home. Balzac vividly describes a public sighting of a bourgeoise:
Quant à la bourgeoise, il est impossible de la confondre avec la femme comme il faut ; elle la fait admirablement ressortir, elle explique le charme que vous a jeté votre inconnue. La bourgeoise est affairée, sort par tous les temps, trotte, va, vient, regarde, ne sait pas si elle entrera, si elle n'entrera pas dans un magasin. Lá où la femme comme il faut sait bien ce qu'elle veut et ce qu'elle fait, la bourgeoise est indécise, retrousse sa robe pour passer un ruisseau, traîne avec elle un enfant qui l'oblige à guetter les voitures ; elle est mère en public, et cause avec sa fille ; elle a de l'argent dans son cabas, et des bas à jour aux pieds ; en hiver, elle a un boa par-dessus une pèlerine en fourrure, une châle et une écharpe en été : la bourgeoise entend admirablement les pléonasmes de toilette (27).
Balzac is sympathetic to the plight of housewives. He writes, "Vous sentez, lá surtout, combien des femmes sont isolées aujourd'hui, pourquoi elles veulent avoir un petit monde dont elles soient la constellation (28). " But he cannot hide his disgust and sarcasm. The bourgeoise is "mother in public," she is "admirably" obsessed with personal hygiene and maquillage. In fact, Balzac seems to be criticizing the bourgeoise for bringing the domestic, private sphere into the public space. She does so in the form of motherhood, dress, and domestic aesthetics.
Balzac, acknowledged to be a bourgeois conservative uncomfortable with many aspects of modernity, is nevertheless regarded as a great defender of women's humanity. According to Bonnie Smith's conception of conservative bourgeois values, women's role in the economy was constrained to that of biological reproducer and mass-produced goods consumer. Writing about the role of the woman as reproducer, Smith states:
Instead of minimizing sex roles...the development of industry accented the division of the world by gender. This reorientation meant that the activities of one segment of the population emphasized the exclusive use of the biological and opposed to the intellectual faculties. Rather than marching in tune to the progress of civilization, rather than absorbing ideas of liberalism, individualism, and rationality that accompanied that march, women retreated to the world of nature and biology (49).
This biologically-defined woman ventures into the public marketplace only as a consumer needing to purchase the products necessary for her to create a sanctuary out of the domestic space. "The home is seen as the repository for industrial goods," Smith writes, "and the taffeta-clad lady becomes the parasitic consumer who fortifies the marketplace with her spendthrift habits" (54).
In the physiology of la femme comme il faut, Balzac certainly seems to share the disdain for the materialistic "taffeta-clad lady" that Smith writes about in her description of bourgeois economic and gender ideology. But Balzac's text does not fit within Smith's thesis on reproduction as the key to bourgeois respectability for women. The women Balzac truly respects are les femmes comme il faut, those who refuse to retreat into a private "constellation" of the domestic space. In an age of materialism, these young women work hard, stay busy and perhaps above all, display feminine "good taste" and sexual charm. In fact, it seems that Balzac would classify the ideal woman not as a domestic goddess or as a consumer, but as an active participant in the marketplace who manages to maintain a feminine sexuality that is divorced from reproduction. Like Janin, Balzac sees the new, openly sexual urban woman as a harbinger of modernity, and charts modern urban life in her lifestyle and comportment. Revealing a positive attitude toward societal transformation, Balzac writes:
Le glas de la haute société sonne, entendez-vous ! le premier coup est ce mot moderne de la femme comme il faut ! Cette femme, sortie des rangs de la noblesse, ou poussée de la bourgeoisie, venue de tout terrain, même de la province, est l'expression du temps actuel, une dernière image du bon goût, de l'esprit, de la grâce, de la distinction, réunis mais amoindris (32).
The internal contradiction in this text is clear. As in Janin's introduction, here we see a male author using female types to negotiate his excitement about, but reluctant acceptance of, a new social order. Even as Balzac lauds la femme comme il faut as a uniquely modern creation who admirably stands her ground despite her uncertain economic and social identity, he valorizes her for representing somehow something old. She is "the last image of good taste, of spirit, of grace, of distinction (my italics)." Balzac's notion of women active in the public sphere as representatives of an older social order is directly contradictory to Smith's association of the 19th century housewife as "the last bastion of a preindustrial, traditional, or premodern world view. She continued to express her tie to nature and its attendant weakness and power through primitive signs and rituals. ... The bourgeois woman continued an outdated holistic vision into the fragmented atmosphere of the nineteenth century" (214). Balzac argued that it was the working woman, not the bourgeoise, who resisted the fragmentation of Parisian life reflected throughout Les Français. She did so through her personal dignity and unwillingness to obsess about material objects in the way the housewife did.
Both Balzac and Janin, then, are suspicious the facades women put up and their tendency to dissimulate. In the pages of Les Français, this tendency is exacerbated within the confines of bourgeois marriage. But while Janin blames adultery on the new public role of women, Balzac recognizes that the institution of marriage itself is partly at fault. In his femme comme il faut physiology, Balzac emphasizes that many modern social exchanges are artificial, especially those between men and women. But even as he trades in the age-old stereotypes about women being somehow mysterious and incomprehensible, Balzac does not seem to exhibit Janin's disapproval of women in public. In fact, the mystery surrounding the very public femme comme il faut is part of what makes her sexually attractive to men, and in Balzac's view, because she is an inherently moral creature, this must not be such a bad thing. He writes:
Elle disparaît avant la fin du spectacle ... Elle est là par ordre, elle a quelque regard furtif à donner, quelque promesse à recevoir. ... L'esprit de cette femme est le triomphe d'un art tout plastique. Vous ne saurez pas ce qu'elle a dit, mais vous serez charmé (28).
This sexy, public persona is what distinguishes la femme comme il faut from la bourgeoise, whose sexual persona is defined not by mystery, but by motherhood. Still, in various physiologies within Les Français, these two types are depicted as having basically the same base desires for luxe and a profitable marriage. Unlike la grisette, whose physiology was written by Janin, la femme comme il faut clings to bourgeois notions of respectability — she waits until marriage to have sex. This point is particularly important to Maria d'Anspach, the female author of the essay on La Modiste, in Tome III of the series. La Modiste, a shop girl who works designing windows and other retail displays of luxury items, is presented as a typical femme comme il faut in the mode of Balzac. She works within the "symbolic system (89)" of bourgeois femininity as described by Smith; la modiste's work is the public sphere manifestation of the private sphere housekeeping Smith writes about in Ladies of the Leisure Class.
As a writer, d'Anspach is concerned with showing a male audience the respectability of the middle-class working woman, and the way in which women can participate in the modern project of a meritocratic economy. Directing a skeptical male audience who may not be comfortable seeing a woman in the public sphere, d'Anspach writes:
Que si vous me demandez encore comment et pourquoi elle est devenue ce qu'elle est, je vous répondrai qu'elle est devenue modiste, comme vous êtes peut-être vous-même devenue artiste, comme on devient aujourd'hui homme de lettres, — faute de mieux, parce que cela est commode, n'engage pas l'avenir, et que c'est parfois un moyen d'arriver à quelque chose, quand on ne meurt pas en chemin de désespoir et de misère. Ce n'est pas une profession, un état, comme disent les grands parents et les négociants : mais c'est une position assez avantageuse pour attendre, pour épier la fortune et la saisir au passage. On est en évidence, ou du mois on croit l'étre, et qui sait ? les banquiers, les mylords, et les princes russes visitent quelquefois les ateliers de modes aussi bien que les ateliers de peinture, et s'ils achètent un tableau dans ceux-ci, ils font souvent choix d'une jolie femme dans ceux-là (110).
By comparing La Modiste to men who try to improve their lot in life through economic activity, d'Anspach locates women as players in and contributors to the modern social and economic project. D'Anspach has a more nuanced and realistic view of women's role in modernity than Balzac, Janin or Smith. Because she understands that modernity was in fact, transformative for many women, she is able to explain how they enthusiastically took part in it. But d'Anspach also understands that respectable women are still expected to conform to bourgeois values when it comes to home and family. Her modiste will never achieve upper middle-class status by working in a boutique. To do that, she will need to make a good marriage, and d'Anspach accepts that ultimately, that is how these young women will better themselves. By selling commodities to the rich, they expose themselves to a world of eligible suitors who might not ever have considered them in another era. This relatively liberated working woman becomes a commodity herself. She must look pulled together, smile at her customers, and engage in coquettish conversation with ease. Her sexuality is for sale. So while Smith conceives of 19th century women as reproducers and consumers, it is clear that another role was open to them: that of the self-marketer. La modiste barters in traditional femininity in the hope of attracting male consumers.
Another view of the female social climber: Janin's Grisette
D'Anspach unabashedly approves of the way in which la modiste brings her sexuality into the urban marketplace as a working woman. In doing so, this femme comme il faut manages to improve her own situation in life while simultaneously contributing to the economy and thus to the project of modernization itself. She is a decidedly public sphere character who delights in new opportunities available to the modern woman.
La grisette is a similar female urban type who publicly trades in sexuality and hopes to make beneficial alliances with men. But la grisette is fundamentally different from les femmes comme il faut for two reasons: first, she uses her sexuality in a different, more revolutionary way, and secondly, she associates not with men of the bourgeoisie, but with bohemians, a subculture regarded with suspicion by the upper middle-class.
The physiology of la grisette is the first female type depicted in the first Tome of Les Français, which reflects her importance to observers of the 19th century Parisian cityscape. La grisette can be similar to a femme comme il faut in that she might work as a salesgirl in a boutique or be the servant of a wealthy woman. Her class-identity is cleary "in-between" in that she barely manages to scrape together a living, but she is exposed every day through her work to the luxury of the bourgeois lifestyle. And as in Balzac's essay on la femme comme il faut, Janin describes la grisette's personal dignity and her simple, girlish beauty of la grisette, so removed from the overbearing maternal presence of la bourgeoise. In this passage, Janin writes about the poverty of la grisette and how she manages to hide it — just as all modern women obscure their true identities — through fashion and engagement in the public sphere:
Dans cette position à la fois élevée et subalterne, et placées, comme elles le sont, entre le luxe le plus exagéré des puissants de ce monde et leur propre misère à elles-mêmes, certes il faut à ces pauvres filles bien de l'esprit et bien du courage pour résister à la fois ce luxe et à cette misère. Car à peine descendue du cinquième étage qu'elle habite, la grisette est introduite dans les plus riches magasins, dans les maisons les plus somptueuses, là, elle règne ; là elle dicte ses lois sans appel ; pendant tout le jour elle préside à la coquetteries des femmes riches ... Oui, certes, c'est là une de ces immenses tentations auxquelles résisteraient bien peu de courages. En effet, on comprend très bien qu'un homme passe devant monceau d'or sans y toucher : sa probité le sauve : mais une jolie fille, qui peut tout d'un coup, d'obscure et inconnue qu'elle était, devenir l'admiration et l'amour des hommes, si elle veut mettre seulement ce morceau de gaze créé par son aiguille, renoncer ainsi à ses admirations et faciles conquêtes, voilà, certes, le plus surprenant de tous les courages ! (11)
Janin's portrayal of la grisette's personal dignity seems to contradict his condemnation of her sexuality later in the essay. To understand Janin's ideology, it is useful to compare la grisette to d'Anspach's modiste. In Janin's introduction to Les Français, he criticizes the dissimulation and materialism of modern urban life. To Janin, all women in the public space dissimulate; they hide their true, feminine, domestic identities behind a carefully constructed sexual façade of costume maquillage. Whether these women be adulterers out in public with their lover or the simple grisette obfuscating the poverty of her wardrobe by encasing her garments in "the most precious tissues (Janin 11)," public women are, to Janin, displaced persons from the private sphere.
Where d'Anspach's modiste differs from the grisette is in her reasons for wanting to be in the public sphere. La modiste is hoping to find a bourgeois husband who will make her life more economically comfortable. In Janin's ideology, she would thus be embracing the materialism he despises in the modern social order. La grisette, while exposed daily to the temptations of luxe, resists using la mode and her sexuality to attract a bourgeois husband, and for this she gains at least begrudging respect for Janin. She seems to lose his respect, however, when he considers her after-hours lifestyle, which consists of gallivanting around the Left Bank with the male students, artists, and writers who participate in Paris' bohemian subculture.
If la modiste is a savvy self-marketer in her quest to attract a husband, la grisette also markets her sexuality, although for her, this process is tied up with romantic ideas about art and love. La grisette finds emotional, artistic, and economic support through her relationships with bohemian men. She uses her sexuality to gain paid work modeling for male artists, who might later become her lovers. But when an artist or young student ends an affair with her, she is heart-broken. Ultimately, la grisette hopes sexuality will bring artistic and emotional meaning to her life, and when she is left alone by men trading bohemian authenticity in for bourgeois comfort and respectability, she becomes a vulnerable, and even tragic, figure. Janin, revealing his underlying disgust with la grisette's sexual mores, as well as his skepticism about the artistic lifestyle, writes:
C'est que l'art est la grande excuse à toutes les actions au délà du vulgaire ; c'est que l'art purifie tout, même cet abandon qu'une pauvre fille fait de son corps. (15)
After submitting herself "blindly (15) to her artist lover, Jenny, la grisette whose story Janin narrates in his essay, marries a commercially successful bourgeois artist and becomes a Grande Dame. But Janin does not let Jenny outlive her youthful promiscuity or working-class status. Underneath her new clothes, he writes, she is still "Jenny, la bouquettière" (16). But by, at least initially, refusing to succumb to notions of bourgeois respectability and accept an economically strategic marriage, la grisette resists domestic gender ideology in a way that the women of the Nord could not. Smith sees religion and political feminism as the ideologies women turned to when "the language of domestic artifacts limited women in the kinds of statements they could make about themselves; they could not reveal, for example, a complicated intelligence. ... The domestic language failed to render the full range of human feelings (89-92)". The resistance of la grisette is more revolutionary in that it critiques not just bourgeois gender ideology, but the capitalist economic order itself — until she becomes desperate, la grisette is simply unwilling to sell herself in marriage to the highest bidder.
Before I move on to a discussion of marriage's role in the project of modernity, I want to briefly discuss the rhetorical style of Janin's la grisette physiology. Les Français, along with other panoramic texts, is a fascinating cultural document because it attempts to depict the entirety of the urban experience by categorizing the individuals within the urban space — a sort of process of synthesis through deconstruction. In La Grisette, Janin shows the reader how an urban observer, a flaneur of sorts, might approach this process. He first compares Paris to other modernizing cities, such as London, Berlin, Philadelphia, and St. Petersburg, claiming that la grisette epitomizes everything that sets Paris apart. He then instructs the reader that to truly understand the social phenomenon of la grisette, he must see this "specimen" "up close" (10). He directs the reader to observe the female inhabitants of the city as one would observe animals in their natural habitat.
Janin uses this scientific language to paint himself as a flaneur par excellence. Readers of Les Français were given an opportunity to assume the coveted role of flaneur, to flip the pages and observe the diversity of modern Paris without ever leaving the safety and comfort of their own homes. In Janin's narrative, the male gaze, long accustomed to the public sphere, is set on the emerging public women of the modern city. This relationship between observer and observed echoes the relationship between la grisette and her artist-lover as she poses nude for a sculpture or painting. In the modern city, the female body is on display. Economically, this confirms my analysis of women's role in the modern economy often being that not of a consumer or reproducer, as Smith argues, but of a salesperson hawking a non-reproductive sexuality. She is both a self-marketer and a coveted commodity.
Modern Marriage and the Modern Woman
We have seen through exploring les femmes comme il faut and la grisette that marriage played a central role in the destinies of urban women, even if urban marriage was not as rhetorically tied to reproduction as was the bourgeois marriage depicted in Bonnie Smith's Nord. For writers such as Janin, Balzac, and d'Anspach, changes in marriage were indicative of the changes of modernity. Balzac criticized bourgeois marriage for constraining women to the domestic private sphere, Janin despaired of the rising incidence of public adultery, and d'Anspach hailed new opportunities for lower-class women to marry wealthy men.
In this section I will compare the portrait of modern marriage presented in three physiologies of Les Français — la demoiselle à marier (Tome II), la femme adultère (Tome III), and la lionne (Tome II) — to Smith's conception of bourgeois marriage ideology. Two major questions about modern marriage appear throughout these works. First, to what extent should love and marriage be linked? Second, once married, what is a woman's economic and social role in the public sphere?
In Ladies of the Leisure Class, Smith depicts courtship and marriage rituals that can only be described, by today's standards, as oppressive to both men and women. She writes:
When the young women of the Nord married, they did so without illusions of love and romance. They acted within a framework of concern for the reproduction of bloodlines according to financial, professional, and sometimes political interests. ... Children reaching an eligible age expected their parents, often in concert with other relatives, to undertake the search for marriage partners. ... Custom dictated an initial meeting between these representatives, followed by a dinner or other social engagement between the families and the two children. The subject of marriage never arose at such an event. If the two families remained interested, they then pursued detailed inquiries into the religion, morality, and health of even distant generations. The presence of madness or congenital disease might disrupt a proposed alliance. (57-58)
If we are to take Les Français as an example, these rituals would not have been alien to the urban bourgeoisie. In the physiology of la femme à marier, Anna Marie critiques modern marriage through a dialogue between two young women; Marguerite de Bussy, a 24 year old unmarried French bourgeoise from a family of declining fortune, and her English friend, Diana, recently married by choice to her first love. Diana visits Marguerite in Paris, and is dismayed to learn that after years of resistance, Marguerite has consented to an arranged marriage in order to satisfy her mother's desire to see her taken care of economically. Marguerite tells Diana all about the strange mating rituals of the French, trying to show her friend that she should be thankful that, as an Englishwoman, she had certain privileges in choosing a husband.
Just as Smith writes of parents taking charge of the courtship process and arranging meetings with potential suitors, Marie's Marguerite describes the entrevues she has been subjected to since age 16, a ritual that makes her feel like an animal for sale:
Une entrevue est une invention assommante et saugrenue de notre civilisation matrimoniale ; c'est une rencontre fortuite où l'on fait trouver ensemble une jeune personne qui ne se doute de rien et un homme à marier. Avez-vous jamais vu vendre un cheval ? (180)
Smith writes that women of the Nord consistently married in birth order and by age 21, reflecting their parents' influence on marriage arrangements (60). Marie's Marguerite describes similar expectations in Paris, where at 24, she already feels in danger of becoming a vieille fille — an old maid (178). Smith also highlights parental obsession with the health, morality, and religion of a potential spouse for their suitor. Marie's Marguerite recognizes the same concern in Paris, where she says that one mother went so far as to raise her daughter neither Catholic nor Protestant, so she would be considered a suitable wife for a wealthy man of either religion.
Throughout La demoiselle à marier, Marguerite reminds a silent and brooding Diana that she is fortunate, as an Englishwoman, to have escaped these horrific French mating rituals. But unbeknownst to Marguerite, Diana, despite have married for love has abandoned her husband and is traveling across Europe with her Italian lover. Marie's critique of marriage in this essay is thus two-fold — she first pillories the elaborate and economically-motivated courtship rituals of the French bourgeoisie, and she then cautions that even alliances of love cannot survive when young girls are encouraged to retreat into marriage before they have experience independent adult life. Marie's critique of modern marriage is thus similar to Balzac's in his well-known Physiology of Marriage.
Marie, however, writes in a decidedly feminist and even revolutionary tone. When Marguerite and Diana discuss marriage, they liken the plight of women to that of common people denied the rights of citizenship by their government, and Marguerite again compares young French women to animals, this time passive lams and doves:
— Les jeunes personnes ne comptent pour rien dans notre faubourg Saint-Germain: tout se fait pour elles, dit-on, mais rien par elles.
— C'est là une maxime que les gouvernements voudraient bien adopter pour les peuples.
— Oui, mais les peuples se révoltent ; et nous, dont l'état est d'être agneaux ou colombes, nous subissons la loi commune, et on en abuse, du moins dans les familles qui n'ont point encore adopté la nouvelle mode, et où l'on ne nous contraint pas à faire des mariages d'inclination. (174)
Marie's female characters are savvy to the limitations of bourgeois gender ideology in a way that Smith's women of Nord do not seem to be. Smith portrays her wives as blindly accepting of the ideology that constrained them, soothed into domesticity by a combination of economic and societal forces that were backed by the teachings of the Catholic Church. Marie's text is important in that it wisely and with wit portrays women engaged in relaxed conversation, debating their social and economic status. Marie ends her story of Marguerite and Diana by revealing Diana's secret and having Marguerite wait several more years before she marries her cousin, with whom she shares a reasoned intellectual connection. She thus attributes Diana's infidelity to a society that encourages mere children to settle into marriage. By leaving her husband, Diana is rebelling, much the way common people would rebel against an oppressive regime. She takes advantage of an option that Smith does not acknowledge the women of Nord having.
Marie's view of adultery is basically the same as Balzac's in the Physiology of Marriage. But not all male authors were so forgiving of female adulterers. We have seen Janin attribute adultery solely to women's new participation in the public sphere. And although Hippolyte Lucas, author of La femme adultère physiology in Tome III of Les Français, admits that arranged marriages hardly help keep wives faithful, the gender ideology revealed in his rhetoric is perhaps most similar to Smith's reading of modernism as exclusionary to women. Lucas glorifies women's domestic private sphere roles, cautioning against them stepping out into the modern city.
Lucas begins his essay by stating that adultery is everywhere in modern Paris, but few people are comfortable uttering its name (265). Echoing Janin and Balzac's view of women as essentially dissimulating creatures, able to hide their true motivations and identities, he writes that adulteresses:
vivent dans un état de dissimulation qui corrompt les bons instincts du cœur et dégrade les meilleures natures. (266)
Lucas also expresses disgust with the physical body of the cheating wife, writing :
Le mensonge s'incarne dans leur chair et dans leur os. ... Elle croit qu'on aperçoit sur ses lèvres la trace de coupable baisers. (265)
Despite her lies and "guilty kisses," the adulteress believes herself to be moral, Lucas writes, and unabashedly invites her young lover over to dine with her and her innocent husband (265). She even encourages a "perfidious (265)" relationship between the two men, which is perhaps best portrayed by the illustration accompanying Lucas' essay in Tome III. In the picture, the middle-aged husband is seated by the fire, while his young wife stands behind him, her gaze averted toward the ground. He grasps her hand over his shoulder, but she seems uninterested. Across the room, a fashionably dressed young man leans against the mantle reading.
Lucas writes as the defender of all cuckolded husbands. While men are out working long hours to support their wives' taste for luxury, women are supposed to be in enshrined in the home, caring for children and creating a domestic sanctuary, just as Smith describes the bourgeois family of the Nord. Instead, Luca writes, the adulteress uses her family's "bread money" to pursue romantic romps throughout Paris:
Pendant que son mari consumera en longs travaux ses jours et ses nuits pour qu'elle puisse mener une existence décente et s'entourer de toutes les délicatesses de la vie intérieure ; elle se livrera aux joies prodigieuses de la courtisane, elle dépensera en folles aventures quelquefois le pain de sa famille, sans avoir le sentiment de sa dépravation. (266)
In assessing why adultery has become more common in Paris, Lucas looks to sentimental theater as a tastemaker, just as Smith examines the sentimental novel in Ladies of the Leisure Class to explain why women bought into domesticity. Drama, Lucas writes, depicts adultery as an exciting interlude in the banality of a housewife's daily lives, and thus adulterers are more likely to justify their actions by saying:
Le théâtre est l'expression de société ! (265)
Lucas' discomfort with portrayals of women on stage seems linked to his discomfort with wives who venture outside of the home. In fact, in describing the sins of the adulteress, he seems to focus more on her habit of leaving the domestic sphere than on her sexual and emotional betrayal of her husband. A similar condemnation of public wives is made by Eugène Guinot, author of the physiology of la lionne in Tome II. La lionne is a sort of female version of the male dandy, a fashionable street-walker seen on the boulevards of Paris. Portrayed by Guinot as à la mode, engaged in current events, and even athletic, la lionne is noteworthy for transgressing gender boundaries in both her personal appearance and her public activities. The aspects of femininity she retains, such as the tendency to gossip and the temptation to flirt with young men, are hardly portrayed as respectable.
Most fundamentally, la lionne is a bourgeois housewife, but one unwilling to constrain herself to the private sphere in the manner of Smith's wives of the Nord. Like a man, she reads the newspaper (11), takes fencing lessons (12), bets on horse races (14), and gambles (15). Perhaps because, as we have seen, there was no clear way for a woman to be both a public figure and a respected person within 19th century bourgeois society, la lionne, clearly desiring to be part of the excitement of urban modernity, assumes conventionally male characteristics and interests. This is epitomized in her comportment:
A voir la lionne dans son négligé du matin, on pourrait aisément commettre une grave erreur, et la prendre pour un joli jeune homme de dix-sept ans, tout aussi bien que pour une femme de vingt-huit. Le costume est d'une ambiguïté complète. (11)
La lionne has found an active, playful, and public way to resist bourgeois norms of domesticity. In Ladies of the Leisure Class, Smith remarks that while late 18th and early 19th century women of the Nord were noted for their robust health and tireless work within family businesses, the domesticated women of the later 19th century were weaklings, practical prisoners in the home, and some even suffered bad health as a result (48). La lionne shows that bourgeois women's separation from the means of production did not always result in a life sentence of confinement in the domestic sphere. Just like other types of 19th century women, bourgeois wives tested the boundaries of gender ideology, blurred distinctions between private and public, and rebelled against constraining marriages and class identities.
Conclusion: Women's History, the Project of Modernity, and Contemporary Feminism
Bonnie Smith paints a bleak portrait of women's lives in Ladies of the Leisure Class. In her conception, bourgeois economic and gender ideologies were so fixed as to make it almost impossible for wives to venture out of the home — unless they were doing so as hungry consumers or charitable mother-figures. Female sexuality was confined to reproduction and beyond that, completely repressed.
It would be unfair to simply compare Smith's wives of the Nord to the female types of Les Français. Most obviously, Smith's archival research was based on the lives of real women, while Les Français is, at its core, a collection of essays and short stories. Its physiologies tell us more about how their authors viewed the modern city and its inhabitants than about those inhabitants themselves. But stereotypes are often based on reality, and we cannot ignore the collected evidence from popular literature telling us that although bourgeois respectability remained the dominant discourse of the 19th century, real women transgressed gender and class boundaries every day as they navigated the urban public sphere unaccompanied for the first time.
There is also no doubt that the Nord of the 19th century was a deeply conservative region, while Paris was a bustling and diversifying city. But in assessing the vastly different conceptions of women's role in modernity that are presented in Smith's book and Les Français, we must step back and consider the historian's ideological agenda. Why would Smith, a feminist, Marxist historian, choose to focus her research on the Nord? The answer is clear: it is in this region that the evidence of women's lives most supports her overall argument, which is that modernity was a setback for women and that if contemporary feminism is to be successful, it must recognize women's exclusion from capitalist production. This exclusion, Smith argues, should be ideologically reflected in the feminist project, which she argues should contain an implicit critique of capitalism:
Feminism declined whenever it forgot an essential female quarrel with the industrial order by accepting too many favors from liberal politicians. It diminished, too, when the rush to gain influence engendered attempts to wipe out the reproductive past that had fostered women's claim to influence in the first place. Disinterest in or suppression of the story of women like those in the Nord in favor of less reproductive and family-oriented women drained feminism of numerical support. But more important, such ignorance of the historical grounding of women's lives diminished the value of the feminist critique. The story of the reproductive past is unpleasant for its revelation of women's primitivism and antirationalism. But it is crucial when demonstrating the solid commitment of women to things human, their cogent critique of the marketplace, and a unanimous determination to claim a share for women in shaping the social order. (216-217)
While it is certainly important for historians to focus equally on women's private and public sphere historical experiences, it would be a grave error to assume that women's contributions to modernity consisted solely of a critique of it. Modernity was evidenced by changes in public life, and as we have seen, many women did, in fact, have the opportunity to participate in the public sphere, and were thus active in changing its essential character from one of maleness to one in which the genders interact. This is undoubtedly a transition still in process today, as women continue to fight for equality in government representation, control of their bodies, and employment opportunities and compensation. Feminism experienced its biggest historical triumphs, it seems, when women left the private sphere, asserting that they could perform on an equal plane with men.
In looking at 19th century modernity and indeed any historical period, women's historians should recognize the staying power of the public/private divide, and consider women's experiences within both spheres, while recognizing that many women transgressed this boundary. To forget the lives of new types of public women in favor of their domesticated, provincial sisters is just as erroneous as isolating the more romanticized urban experience. It is only when we analyze women as a diverse social group with a variety of historical experiences that we can begin to grasp the tensions and nuances of the historical gender ideologies that continue to affect women's lives today.
Balzac, Honoré de. The Physiology of Marriage. The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London, 1997. Originally published 1829.
Les Français peints par eux-mêmes: Encyclopédie morale du dix-neuvième siècle. 8 vols. L. Curmer : Paris, 1839-1842.
Ferguson, Priscilla Parkhurst. Paris as Revolution: Writing the Nineteenth Century City. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1994.
Scott, Joan Wallch. Gender and the Politics of History. Columbia University Press: New York, 1999.
Sieburth, Richard. "Same Difference: The French Physiologies, 1840-1842." Notebooks in Cultural Analysis 1 (1984): 163-199.
Smith, Bonnie. Ladies of the Leisure Class. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1981.
Written in partial fulfillment of requirements for HI197.19, The City as Modernity (Professor Mary Gluck, Fall 2004).