A lost aesthetic? Bringing back French literature by Belle Époque women

Daria Chernysheva, a PhD candidate at UCL’s School of European Languages, Culture, and Society, writes that the cultural output created by a generation of female writers in the Belle Époque period in France is an overlooked aesthetic movement.

Hélène Picard, Marie Dauguet, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, Renée Vivien, Marguerite Burnat-Provins, Judith Gautier, Valentine de Saint-Point, Cécile Périn, Cécile Sauvage. These names may sound familiar to specialists in nineteenth and twentieth-century francophone literature, but to the general public, both in France and abroad, these names signify little. They are just a handful of prominent women of the French literary scene, alongside better-remembered male figures such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Valéry.

The Belle Époque period in France witnessed a boom in the number of of women who took up the pen to write professionally. They worked as novelists, playwrights, journalists, and poets. The link between female writers and poetry was especially strong – perhaps because poetry, far from being a lucrative employment, was a genre that was easy to cede to these professional newcomers. Poetry written by women was described as ‘poésie féminine’ (feminine poetry): its main characteristics were thought to be naturalness of expression and a lack of artifice. Unlike their male counterparts, female poets were perceived as relying less upon skill and technical prowess, than on the innate channeling of sentiment. It was imagined that they wrote out of intuition, not genius. Put another way, men reasoned their verses; women merely felt them.

For most of the twentieth century, these women writers languished in the unfortunate inheritance bequeathed by this stereotype. Dismissed as composers of poorly thought-out verses about love and nature, these writers were denied the attention and close reading their work justly deserves. Over the course of writing my doctoral dissertation, which focuses on translating the poetry of Cécile Sauvage (1883-1927) into English, I have come to believe that the cultural output created by a generation of women writers in Belle Époque of France amounts to an overlooked aesthetic movement. Their work is formally diverse, with many writers publishing novels, traditional lyric collections, and experimental prose poetry. Much of their literature is marked by highly sensual compositions in which the male body becomes the focus of the female gaze. There is also an intriguing intersection between the work of these writers and contemporaneous visual arts movements in Europe.

Dismissed as composers of poorly thought-out verses about love and nature, these writers were denied the attention and close reading their work justly deserves.

For instance, Valentine de Saint-Point (1875-1953) was a writer, artist, and choreographer (even a diplomat), whose ideas about the Futurist movement influenced her writings. In the 1913 Futurist Manifesto of Lust that Saint-Point composed in response to Filippo Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism, she emphasised the sensual and the erotic, the feminine as well as the masculine, that would drive European arts and society to rejuvenation. Saint-Point’s theories found echo in her own novels and live performances.

Marguerite Burnat-Provins (1872-1952) was a writer and painter, originally from Switzerland, whose poetry found success: the collection of prose poetry she composed as an ode to her male lover in 1907, under the title The Book for You, was still in circulation by its fortieth printing by 1926. Today, Burnat-Provins appears to be better remembered for her art. A retrospective of her works was held in Vevey, Switzerland in the autumn of 2020, while a collection of her drawings was exhibited in Paris in June 2021.

Cécile Sauvage wrote a clandestine collection of erotic prose poetry that may have been inspired by Burnat-Provins. Sauvage’s poetry offers interesting readings in connection to the Art Nouveau visual arts movement. Her own poetry was also set to music, although her creative legacy has largely been obscured by that of her famous son, the composer Olivier Messiaen.  

Fortunately, it appears that these once-forgotten makers of culture and their many contemporaries are resurfacing in an overdue Belle Époque renaissance, both within the francophone sphere and abroad. In 2023, Diana Holmes and Martine Reid published a volume on Jeanne Loiseau (1854-1921), whose prolific works were penned under the name of Daniel Lesueur. The translator John Irons and Cameron de La Follette are working on an English translation of the poetry of Marie Dauguet (1860-1942).The American translator Norman Shapiro produced English versions of the poetry of Cécile Périn (1877-1956) with a collection published in 2016. Shapiro also translated the poetry of Anna de Noailles (1876-1933) in a collection published in 2012.

I intend for the fruits of my project on the English translations of the poetry of Cécile Sauvage to add to this exciting and international interest in the contributions of Belle Époque women writers. These writers turned the female gaze upon the male subject, expressing the erotic and the sensual in feminine terms. They responded to the aesthetic movements of their day: many worked in what we might now describe as an interdisciplinary fashion. This renewed attention will shed light on how these writers contributed not only to francophone literature, but to the history of women’s cultural production more broadly.

Daria Chernysheva is a PhD student at UCL’s School of European Languages, Culture, and Society. Her doctoral dissertation focuses on translating the poetry of Cécile Sauvage (1883-1927) into English.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Image credit: photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash.

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