Marie Martine, DPhil in Modern Languages (German and French)
Georges de Peyrebrune, Woman. Writer. Feminist is an exhibition currently on display at the Taylor Institution (Voltaire Room) from 12th October until 26th October. It showcases the Taylor’s unique collection of Georges de Peyrebrune’s works.
Georges de Peyrebrune was born Mathilde Marie Georgina Elisabeth de Peyrebrune Judicis on the 18th of April 1841 in the Dordogne as an illegitimate child. She marries at the age of 18 a man ten years older than her, and their marriage is an unhappy one. She starts publishing in regional journals soon after and goes to Paris after the 1870 war, at 30 years old. Despite her literary success, Georges de Peyrebrune will struggle all her life with money and will die in poverty, in 1917. This exhibition is a tribute to her work and feminist engagement.
Because of Peyrebrune having been forgotten and erased from the French literary canon, her works are difficult to access. The Taylor Institution’s collection of her works is therefore unique in the United Kingdom as it holds several first editions of Peyrebrune’s works, as well as a wide range of digitalized ones. In the exhibition, visitors can find first editions of her novels Gatienne (1882), Au Pied du mât (1899), and of the short story ‘Giselle’ (1892). It also shows the new editions of her most successful novel, Victoire la Rouge (1883, republished in 2020), De Fouillis-les-Oies à Paris. Odyssée burlesque (1878) and Jupiter et les bas-bleu (1894). The exhibition also showcases Sarah Bernhardt’s autobiography Ma Double vie (1907) and several texts by the decadent writer Rachilde, both contemporaries of Peyrebrune.
Why rediscover Georges de Peyrebrune today?
Firstly, Georges de Peyrebrune’s trajectory tells us about what it means to be a woman and a writer in nineteenth-century France. Writers like George Sand and Madame de Staël, among others, have certainly paved the way for the next generation of women wanting to make a career out of writing; but men still reproach women to be too fragile and sentimental. Additionally, writing is seen as a distraction from women’s sole duty: motherhood. It is well-known that women of the time used different strategies to access the literary market: writing under a male pseudonym or using their husbands’ or fathers’ names, under initials, or anonymously. Peyrebrune chose the unisex name of ‘Georges’ that is derived from her birth name, Georgina, but which we can see as a tribute to many other women writers who chose the name George as well. These strategies, however, are limited: the Decadent writer, Barbey d’Aurevilly, claims he can ‘smell’ a woman writer from a book, because the feminine smell always betrays itself, even if the author used a male pseudonym. He uses the qualifier ‘bas-bleu’ to negatively designate women with literary ambitions, a name derived directly from the English ‘blue stockings’. For him and numerous of his contemporaries, women are physically incapable to write books comparable to those by men and are to be labelled as ‘hysterical’. This sexist discourse reveals male anxieties in fin-de-siècle France: not only did men worry about women getting out of their dedicated sphere, the household and motherhood, but they also worried about women writers becoming serious competitors on the literary market.
Georges de Peyrebrune is aware of those discourses and she proudly reappropriates the term ‘bas-bleu’ to designate herself and her peers. She directly responds to those male anxieties in her play Jupiter et les Bas-bleu published in 1894, which has been republished by Jean-Paul Socard and Lydia de Haro Hernandez (displayed in the exhibition). In this comic play, she stages Emile Zola, one of the main literary figures of the time, under the traits of Jupiter, posing as a judge putting her contemporaries on trial. Well-known women writers defend themselves in front of an ruthless judge who reject women’s ability to write on principle. The text ends with his definitive judgement: ‘elles n’enteront jamais à l’Académie !’. This is unfortunately true: the French Academy will only admit women as their members in 1980. Ironically, Zola himself will never get admitted either! What is interesting with this recently republished text is that Georges de Peyrebrune smartly mocks the anxieties of men writers fearing the competition from women. She debunks their pseudo-scientific arguments to justify women’s exclusion from public life and shows that the women of her generation have proven their ability to write.
It is also worth noting that Georges de Peyrebrune herself was awarded the prize of the Académie Française twice in her life, once in 1896 for Vers l’amour and another time in 1899 for Au pied du mât (displayed in the exhibition). This institutional recognition shows that she was read and appreciated by her contemporaries. Even if many best-sellers of any period have been forgotten and might not be interesting for us as contemporary readers, it is important to recognize that the erasure of women writers from our canon is complex and cannot be justified by saying that women’s writing was less qualitative and interesting than their male contemporaries’. Rediscovering Georges de Peyrebrune thus means rediscovering an author who was deeply aware of the contemporary discourses on femininity and authorship and who used literature to counter sexist ideas.
Secondly, Peyrebrune’s literary career gives us a glimpse of feminine and feminist literary networks of the Belle Epoque. Peyrebrune’s correspondence show that she stood in solidarity with other women writers and tried to build a literary network made of women. We unfortunately have few archives left from Georges de Peyrebrune, but some letters she received enable us to see how her contemporaries considered her as a generous mentor figure. For instance, in a letter from September 1912, Julia Daudet (the wife of the well-known writer Alphonse Daudet) asks Peyrebrune to support the publication of another woman writer. She writes: ‘Pourquoi favoriser toujours le travail masculin qui a toutes les chances, toutes les facilités ? […] Enfin je m’adresse à vous dont l’œuvre est toute généreuse et remarquable à tant de titres, dans un élan de justice féminine ou féministe, si vous aimez mieux’ (Why always favour men’s work which has all the chances, all the opportunities? […] I address you whose work is so generous and remarkable in so many ways, in a spirit of feminine or feminist justice, if you prefer). Here, Daudet reflects on the numerous opportunities given to men to get their works published and publicized, compared to the few women get. I also find her conscious choice of the word ‘feminist’ very telling: Peyrebrune’s ambition to have the value of women’s writing recognized as a feminist project. Daudet’s letter also demonstrates her confidence in Peyrebrune’s influence, highlighting that we are dealing with a respected and influential player on the literary market. Other letters from Georges de Peyrebrune’s correspondence show her as ready to help young writers by sharing her contacts within the publishing world and by giving them advice. One could think that in a society so hostile to women’s writing, the few who dared to publish would jealously protect their secret, but Georges de Peyrebrune was clearly a woman who valued other talents and strived to help other writers.
This work towards promoting women’s writing led Georges de Peyrebrune to be part of the first jury of the Prix de la Vie Heureuse. In 1904, several feminist and women intellectuals were tired to see that the prestigious Prix Goncourt was again given to a man despite the talent of a potential female candidate Myriam Harry with her novel La Conquête de Jérusalem. They thus decided to build their own literary prize to finally recognize and reward women’s talents, as well as encourage contacts among women writers. Among Georges de Peyrebrune, we find in the jury Anna de Noailles, Julia Daudet, Daniel Lesueur, Marcelle Tinayre, Gabrielle Réval, Séverine and Lucie Delarue-Maldrus all brilliant and influential writers of the time and well-established on the Parisian literary scene. This prize will become the Femina prize in 1917 and is still awarded today.
Her friendship with her contemporary, Rachilde, is also fascinating. Both women had opposite worldviews and ways to respond to literary trends of their time, but their literary ambitions brought them together. Both come from the Périgord and tried their luck as writers in Paris. At first, Georges de Peyrebrune appears as a mentor for the young Rachilde who tries to navigate the capital city and its literary circles. As she marries Alfred Valette, director of the influential journal Mercure de France, Rachilde gains more influence. It was now Georges de Peyrebrune’s turn to ask for Rachilde’s support through her literary critiques to publicize Peyrebrune’s new publications.
Rachilde is known for being ‘the queen of the Decadents’ in fin-de-siècle France. She scandalized French audiences with her bold portraits of independent and sadistic heroines in her novels Monsieur Vénus (1889) and La Marquise de Sade (1887). Interestingly, she claimed loud and clear that she was not a feminist and often refused to be associated with other women writers, instead calling herself ‘homme de lettres’ (man of letters). Her pamphlet Pourquoi je ne suis pas féministe (1908 – a signed first edition is displayed in the exhibition) illustrates her anti-feminist stance, but this text could also be interpreted as a marketing move to make herself relevant. Georges de Peyrebrune, on the contrary, clearly revendicated to be a feminist, but her female characters can seem rather tame compared to the ones of Rachilde. Rachilde published several critiques of Georges de Peyrebrune’s novels in the Mercure de France and underlined her moralising tone. Georges de Peyrebrune makes Rachilde appear under fictional traits in the novel Une Décadente (The Decadent Woman – displayed in the exhibition) in which she criticizes the morbid values of the Decadents. A friendship between the two can thus seem quite surprising, but their letters (see Nelly Sanchez’s edition of Georges de Peyrebrune’s correspondence, Correspondance. De La Société des gens de lettres au jury du prix Vie heureuse from 2016) show that they shared worries and advice on how to navigate the Parisian literary circles, making for a true literary friendship.
Finally, Peyrebrune’s concern with sexual violence in her fiction makes her works strikingly relevant for readers today. In a letter from June 1886, addressed to Georges de Peyrebrune, Rachilde mentions the way sexual harassment is a banal occurrence for young women writers: ‘En bonne franchise, quand une femme de lettres n’est pas une catin il faut au moins qu’elle puisse avoir l’air de l’être et au fond vous ne pouvez pas trop me donner tort, vous qui connaissez notre siècle’ (To be perfectly frank, when a woman of letters is not a whore, she at least needs to look like one and you cannot really disagree with me, you know our century all too well). All have to deal with unwanted sexual advances from publishers and journalists and sometimes have to compromise to get published. Georges de Peyrebrune deals with this issue in Le Roman d’un bas-bleu (The novel of a Blue-Stockings, 1892) which tells the destiny of a young writer who falls into despair as she refuses to compromise her self-worth for literary success. This novel poignantly reflects the debates started by the #MeToo movement which unveiled the harassment and abuse faced by women, particularly in their professional lives. Already in the nineteenth century, Georges de Peyrebrune denounced this harassment and how it kept women from accessing the public sphere as equals to men. Her message strongly resonates with contemporary debates.
This is not the only aspect which makes Peyrebrune’s works worth rediscovering today: as you will see in the exhibition, Georges de Peyrebrune wrote across genres, always finding new styles to reflect sometimes with humor, other times with pathos, on issues of class, sexuality, and modernity. We hope this exhibition will encourage more readers to discover this fascinating figure of French literature whose versatile style and political messages deserve to be rediscovered today.
You can listen to the episode from the French History Podcast on Georges de Peyrebrune to learn more information on her trajectory as a woman writer in fin-de-siècle France: https://www.thefrenchhistorypodcast.com/rediscovering-georges-de-peyrebrune-by-marie-martine/
With many thanks to Nick Hearn, French Subject Librarian, Taylor Institution Library.