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Femmes de lettres/l’être femme : émancipation et résignation chez Colette, Delarue-Mardrus et Tinayre Collado, Mélanie Elmerenciana

Abstract

Since Elaine Showalter's proposal of "gynocriticism", a considerable amount of work has been done in English-speaking countries to establish the existence o f a "female tradition" in literature. In France, where feminist critics have focussed on new ways "to write the feminine", there has been relatively little interest in reexamining the production of lesser-known women writers. The canon of French literature remains comparatively unchallenged, and few people are aware o f the many women who wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century. This dissertation is a contribution to the rereading of three of such authors, looking at the representation of femininity in relation to feminism. Three novels, one by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, one by Marcelle Tinayre and one by Lucie Delarue-Mardrus. The careers of these "femmes de lettres", all established before World War I, were comparable, yet two o f them have been forgotten. These novelists remained ambivalent in relation to feminist efforts at that time to achieve the emancipation o f women. Despite their own relative freedom and lack of conformity in their lives, and the criticism o f established norms embedded in their narratives, all three kept their distance from feminism as a movement. The three texts compared here all have conservative endings, in spite of other elements that challenge the status quo. A t the core of their ambiguity is the tension between two concepts which remain in conflict today: on one hand the feminist agenda aimed at greater freedom and autonomy for women is based on the idea that gender roles are constructed, whereas on the other hand the concept of femininity is inseparable from the idea of an "essential" woman, represented, in the early 1900's in France by a particular nationalist concept of the French Woman. A close look at critical texts published in the first part o f the twentieth century shows the weight of that concept in the evaluation o f women's writing of that period. The growth in the number and reputation o f women writers ("femmes de lettres") was accompanied by a declaration o f the need to maintain French femininity ("l'etre femme"), and individual women authors like Colette, Delarue-Mardrus and Tinayre were caught in a dilemma. They all proclaimed their allegiance to the French ideal of femininity, while contributing to its denial and renewal by their own performance as successful women writers. Their representation of femininity as performed in their novels (as it was in their lives) shows the various ways in which it was possible to negociate a compromise between being feminine and challenging that concept through writing. These texts also demonstrate that women's literary production of that period in France is far more diversified than standard anthologies of French literature would lead us to believe. Colette appeals to reader's senses and aims to seduce, Tinayre appeals to reason and aims to convince, while Delarue-Mardrus appeals to the emotions and aims to move. All three, combine the "feminine" and the "feminist" in different ways, constructing literary models that represent a range of responses to a similar problem: how to remain a woman while contesting the notion of "woman".

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