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Elisabeth Badinter, L’amour en plus (II): Rousseau, and the Nouvelle Mère

victorian-family-scene-alfred-emile-stevens

It seems that Rousseau has really been the first creator and promotor of this new mother: the one who appears at the end of the 18th century and, even if one may acknowledge another revolution with Freud, she still pervades nowadays. Rousseau’s work Emile was literally a manual for the new mother who learnt there how to wash, feed, educate and take care of her child, it was the beginning of ‘le règne de l’enfant-roi’. The new mother was mainly the middle class woman, the plain bourgeoise, not the aristocracy or high bourgeoise neither the lowest classes but the woman whose world was the house and had no ambitions neither economic independence. The domestic space is thus this place where the new mother and the ‘new’ child inhabit, it is the sacred place of privacy where their mutual relationship took place and where the child may become a good citizen. Rousseau establishes in Emile a parallelism between the convent and the house, the noon and the mother, it is Julie, the new Heloïse one the new mothers who sanctified this new space, while the first Heloïse spent her life in a convent.

This idea is empowered along the 19th century when ‘en gouvernant l’enfant, la mère gouverne le monde. Son influence s’étend de la famille à la societé, et tous répètent que les hommes sont ce que les femmes les font’. Now she is also the governess, she should teach and educate her children at home, while the father keeps reduced to the workplace and outside the kingdom of mother and child. The aristocracy however despises this new bourgeoise mentality and aristocratic women decide to enjoy life without changing the previous attitude towards children. One of the best writers to depict this reality was Balzac who often shows the difference between la mère et la séductrice.

Another important figure in the 19th century is the family doctor: he helps the mother in all her concerns. The doctor is very present for example in Mme Bovary (especially in the form of pharmacist), or The Awakening, and his main role is to have plenty of knowledge of not only the physical state of the family members but also of their moral state becoming a primordial moralist against the adulterer.

Elisabeth Badinter, L’Amour en Plus (I): on maternal love

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In her work L’Amour en plus Badinter puts in question the authenticity of maternal love, and analyses the cultural influences which have built such a feeling. The book starts with an overview of maternity before the Enlightenment in France and ends with the 20th century. The first part of her research is focused on the 16th and 17th centuries when maternal love as known today was almost inexistent in society regardless of social status. There was no appeal for kindness, the child was mainly a nuisance which caused the common practice of abandoning the newborn with nurses. In the lower classes the child was left with a bad-paid nurse who often did not care about the child which actually died before the first year of life; among the high classes, parents use to choose the nurse more carefully, but some of them did not ask for news during the 4 years the child used to be away from home with the nurse. When the child came back, he had probably never meet his or her parents, and shortly after the child was put in a board school after which he/he was supposed to marry or enter religious or military life. Badinter insists in the main aim of the parents: getting rid of the child.

The second part of the book focuses on the late 18th century when, due to economic and political reasons, a new discourse begins to safe newborn lives which meant to avoid foreign nurses and keep the child at home. The new nation was in need of more -and healthy – population, therefore, a lot of propaganda was made to convince fathers and mothers of the value of parenthood. This policy was based on capitalist principles: every citizen is a source of wealth, a producer, so it is necessary to reduce mortality. A new concept was created: maternal love; mothers should breast feed their own children and fathers should become their mentors. Two main discourses were built in order to change mentalities: to men it was insist on economic reasons, to women on equality and happiness, which shows that the beginning of this new fashion was no less selfish than the previous one:

‘Soyez de bonnes mères et vous serez heureuses et respectées. Rendez-vous indispensables dans la famillie et vous obtendrez droit de cité’

To make parenthood easier, a new concept of marriage and family attitudes were also necessary, it was the turn of l’amour-amitié, and the marriage for love from where having children was the happiest fruit. This discourse was supported for the enlightened idea of earthly happiness which argued that only through freedom happiness can be achieved. Therefore, marriage should be based on free choice of the spouses which became equal as they both were free. The new mother appeared, she is now responsible for the education of her child, that is, of the nation.

In this context the modern family was created; the nuclear family and the importance of intimacy which may help to built friendship among the family members was a result of political and economic interests.

The creation of the Angel of the House

The-First-Kiss-of-Love-La-Nouvelle-HeloiseJulie, ou la nouvelle Heloïse is a Rousseaunian work of 1761, a novel of these, a fictional work which aims to be witness of its author’s ideas. Rousseau is not a simple character: if it is true he is an enlightened it is also true that he had his particular ideas very different from some of his contemporaries as for example, Voltaire. Rousseau exalted reason but also feeling, criticized religious dogmatism and praised virtue to an heroic degree. Julie is an idea, a model, it is indeed a female perfection: what a woman should be. No less important is, I think, what joins the name of Julie, la nouvelle Heloïse, not very considered by its critics, as far as I know, but something I intend to insist on. Rousseau had no need to call his novel as he did, it may very well be called only Julie without implying a change in the text as it is all based on her and its aim is, as I said, to show us Julie’s perfection. But he did make a reference to the story of the medieval lovers, Heloïse and Abelard, and this fact will not leave me rest till I find why. Up to now, I consider the possibility that Rousseau, as enlightened, intended to create the woman of virtue, born in the 18th century as a reply to Heloïse, a woman of the medieval age, that is, for Rousseau, an obscure and catholic period. If Heloïse succumbed to Abelard’s seduction being, Rousseau would say, perverted and, as he actually said, dishonest – I guess for being faking her religious feelings all her life -, Julie is the new Heloïse: chastity, virtue, reason and honesty are her adjectives, which, of course, may be those of the Enlightenment according to Rousseau.

And here it is: the angel of the house. Julie has a limitless heart full of goof feelings, she  is full of virtue marrying her father’s candidate against her will and being able to love her ‘lover’ chastely; but she will also love her husband eventually being an impressive wife and mother. The text dedicates a part to describe how Julie manages the house, every single detail is in her mind, and this house is, indeed, as heaven. But all that was not enough for Rousseau, Julie dies saving her son’s life, and as her husband notes, she is la martyre de l’amour maternel. Even after her death, it is possible to feel her spiritual presence in the house, that is, as an ever present angel. Victorians will love this female expression, and we see how Victorian critics need to repetitively talk of the angel of the house, something which will die at the turn of the century with Modernism. But before that, I think Flaubert already puts in danger this glorified creation of the woman; and I think that a very interesting point. Some critics say Flaubert to be a proto modernist, some even dare to affirm he is a modernist, I do prefer the first option. One of the moments in Mme Bovary where it is possible to see this path towards Modernism is the moment of her death. Emma like Julie dies in bed, but unlike Julie the description of her body is terribly realistic – and a great piece of modern art . If Julie does not loss her perfection while dying, Emma does, indeed one can see the putrefaction of her body, her decay. Is this decay not the the end of the angel of the house and the advent of the new woman? May not the difference between the two dying bodies be the expression of one type of woman and the other?

To finish, I wish to note that if Rousseau presented a new Heloïse against Heloïse, one was real, not the other. Heloïse was a real woman with a real story, Julie did not exist: the angel of the house was a creation which filled for years and years an idea of femininity: Julie is never angry, never does wrong, never feel weak, never falls into temptations, she always wins her passions, and always remains happy.

I am definitively Heloïse.

Coco Chanel ou la Femme au Garçon

Gabriel Chanel was a French low class girl who grew up with her sister in an orphanage after her father having abandoned them there. She never intended to be neither popular not even a dress maker; her aspirations were to be able to make a living by herself without a need for a husband. Her situation was completely different from that of Ives Saint-Laurent who was a bourgeoise with very clear aims within the fashion world and whose master was Dior. The last film about his life affirms the idea that he was the most important fashion designer and changed radically women fashion, something I completely disagree with. I may advocate for Channel as being the most important and radical fashion designer for women, something these two pictures may help to clarify comparing what her contemporaries dressed and she did:

1900mccallsb               coco-chanel-3

Her fashion originated in her views on the corsican: a very useless piece of underwear that limited women’s movement, freedom and comfort. She was the one to remove it allowing the female woman to move freely under her clothes, her flesh to be less carefully controlled by the corsican’s tightness and avoiding thus the formation of the predominant silhouette. The corsican may be seen as a meaningful piece of underwear linked to a particular ideas of the function of women and the representation of her body, probably, related to the decorative idea of woman in the family house, an extreme version of which is the Victorian idea of the angel of the house. The body limitations the corsican imposed show indeed the lack of movement in a woman, that is, her static place at home, and the standing out of her body which may be beautiful, decorative. The corsican’s pressure made even eating difficult, of course strong exercises too as it hindered the breathing. The New Woman at the turn of the century needed indeed to give up corsicans: the new released woman may take upon her manly duties; but even before that, the new dress very well anticipates the female role in society. The Great War served to assert this new fashion as the absence of men made women work on their husbands’ duties.

It is significant that Chanel belonged to the low class: she needed to work and to breathe freely; she loves simplicity, her dresses are no more full of decorations as she is not a decoration but a worker. Her status together with her rejection of marriage helped her to build her ideas on fashion. In 1918, she looked like that:

chanel trousers

That is, she looked like a man. Her short hair au garçon outlining as well its practicality was another cause of criticism becoming a fashion in the 1920s. Chanel changed radically women’s fashion since then; two of her most popular dresses were the little black dress -having been a lady in black a complete unusual and distasteful idea-, and the Chanel suit, that is a work piece for ladies (being both of them reworked till today):

the-little-black-dress2                   jackie-kennedy-in-chanel-suit

A Modern Ifigenia

Teresa de la Parra sans frame

Teresa de la Parra’s work Ifigenia (Venezuela, 1924) tells the unfortunate story of a young woman who sees all her dreams perish in the dull reality of the 1920s Caracas society. The book is a large one and a lot of topics, all the same interesting, may be identified. Aware that other readers may find some other themes than those here presented, I will limit myself to the following ones:

Ifigenia is a Venezuelan high society girl who has spent almost all her life in Paris with her father; she attends a French boarding school and enjoys all Parisian pleasures which by the date are totally subject to the modernist fashion: art noveau, Channel and Vogue conform her parisian life and she does not attempt to give up her daily life. But Ifigenia’s father dies and she is forced to go back to Caracas out of pure necessity where she expects to inherit her father’s fortune. Unfortunately, thinks are very different for Ifigenia, and once she arrives at Caracas, at her grandma’s house, she encounters  an old fashioned society and principles: her grandma and aunt have strict plans of marrying Ifigenia with a proper man who does not stand for parisian modes and fashions; European airs are totally out of place in the American country. Ifigenia is not the first work to show this fear of European contamination, Henry James pursues this topic in most of his works, Edith Warthon’s character, Countess Oleska, is to blame for her liberal european ideas, even Tolstoi puts himself out of ‘Europe’ and criticises moral degeneration in the continent. Thus, Ifigenia is left alone in most of the occasions to enjoy her parisian dresses and haircuts, most of them found in Vogue, which became a fashion magazine for the New Woman.

Ifigenia is also a work full of Romantic ideas about love; apart from the multiple literary references to couples such as Tristan and Isolda, Romeo and Juliet, etc. Ifigenia herself experiences a romantic passion for Gabriel, the man she will not marry because he is a divorced man, and society would not accept it. Ifigenia is not ready to abandon her family for her love and she finally marries her family’s match, César, a man with a complete tyrannical character who puts an end to all her parisian customs. It is very impressive the use of romantic discourse in such a late work, however, the influence of Romanticism in the 20th century is notably and is one of the pillars for breaking with bourgeoise rules in the 19th century and defending a marriage for love trying to avoid any kind of sense of duty. Another influence in Ifigenia is sentimental deism and the importance of feelings and nature. In this sense, it is remarkable Gabriel’s love letter to Ifigenia asking her to escape with him; the discourse is full of deistic ideas such as the exaltation of real feelings upon moral and social conventions, and the importance of nature as a divine setting.

Ifigenia finally marries César, and hence  her mane which refers back to Ifigenia’s sacrifice to save the Greek boat in its way home. She sacrifices herself, and her love, for her family marrying a man she does not love and who does not love her. There is a strong sense of not only spiritual but also physical renounce in her last words after the wedding which embrace the whole sexual experience in a terrible act of female submission.

Still Something to do

Asian-Ballet-Watercolor-Painting-360x480thIn 1928 Virginia Woolf was concerned about women, money, and writing. Her essay A Room of One’s Own is an attempt to analyze the situation of female writers through the history of literature, and to figure out why they are far less in number than men. Even if for many the reasons concerning such situation could appear clear enough, there is one particular reflection in Woolf’s thoughts far from being solved, even thought of, eighty years later she put it into words.

Among the women writers Woolf cites Jane Austen is one of the most acclaimed by her. It is not because of being better than, for example, Charlotte Brönte, but because of the mode in which she wrote, that is, completely free from male conventions. In fact, Woolf is looking for something purely feminine, a mode of being in the world as a woman, not as a woman according to a patriarchal society, which is still where we still live. “The book has somehow to be adapted to the body”, that is an interesting statement, and it shows how Woolf was thinking about the essence of being woman or man and their corresponding artistic expressions. She was not so far from Barthes’ The Semiotic Challenge or The Pleasure of the Text considering the writing as adapted to the author’s mind or physical expression; at the very least, as a living entity. This self-expression is what Woolf found in Jane Austen and not in other female writers:

“They [Jane Austen and Emily Brontë] wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue -write this, think that. They alone were deaf to the persistent voice, now grumbling, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too-conscientious governess, adjuring them”

It is exactly that which gives freedom to a woman to be a woman, instead of trying to put oneself within the male paradigms in order to be accepted or considered. The book should be adapted to the body, and it can be applied to other realms of the existence. That is what part of Feminism has lost: her own body. Instead of it, it has been the male body what has been defended every time some woman has tried to become a man. Part of the results from Feminism in the Twentieth Century have been to adapt the woman to a male society, instead of adapt society to the female body.

Memories of Mrs Dalloway

mrs-dallowayPeter Walsh comes back from India and decide to assist as well to Clarissa Dalloway’s party. After the popular ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’, the novel opens with a wandering for Westminster. Clarissa thinks and reminds different episodes of her life, especially those before marrying. When she comes back home at 11 o’clock she is surprised by the unexpected visit of her past lover, Peter Walsh. She knew of course he would go to her dinner party this very evening but she had not read his letter about his early visit. Of course Peter is introduced before his appearance through Clarissa’s thoughts; they were in fact in love with each other before Clarissa married Richard Dalloway, but they have not meet again since Peter leaving from England. After this short visit where Peter tells her to be in love with a very youth Indian, he starts his own wandering for London as Clarissa did before. Thirty years later he too reminds from his own perspective similar episodes of their youth and his feelings for Clarissa.

‘The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain strong as ever, but one has gained -at last!- the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence -the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light. A terrible confession it was, but now, at the age of fifty-three, one scarcely needed people any more, Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun, in Regent’s Park, was enough. Too much, indeed. A whole lifetime was too short to bring out, now that one had acquired the power, the full flavour; to extract every ounce of pleasure, every shade of meaning; which both were so much more solid than they used to be, so much less personal. It was impossible that he should ever suffer again as Clarissa had made him suffer.’

The whole book takes place in a day; a day which is important for the memories and thoughts it brings back. Clarissa refused to marry Peter, she married a MP and since then they live in Westminster. Peter Walsh has a set of affairs to keep with him, none of them durable or fruitful. But there remains still a kind of Why; why did they do not marry? Peter thought ‘How they would change the world if she married him perhaps’. It is indeed this annoying ‘perhaps’ all the time around Peter’s head. But Clarissa is not a woman of Perhaps, she is a woman of Yes; she enjoys life terribly until the point of being vitalistic. Her answer to life and events is Yes. He could be happy with Peter as she is with Richard, but probably she could not stand a doubtful man as his life finally has shown so.

And there is the city, London, this wonderful city where Clarissa and Peter walk around. London has a meaning in this novel, a very subtle one, it is not a mere scenario. Clarissa is herself in part because of London, she loves it and her thoughts are born along her paths. London brings as well memories back and the act of reflection takes most of its part in the streets. London is meaningful, is the capital of the Empire, but it is also a capital of ideas, something of course very present in the Bloomsbury Group. And Peter lives in India but he comes back and finds Clarissa there, living in the core of the City and married to a MP, she belongs to the elite. It marks Peter as an outsider, he is an adventurer and it is important to note that he went to India after Clarissa refused him. There are political readings to their relationship as well.

Virginia Woolf is an excellent narrator; she achieves to present the characters’ heads and hearts with the same shadows as one himself does. A whole day introduces the  life of the main characters by showing just the necessary. There is nothing completely sure about themselves, about their longings or desires, just as they are not completely aware of them. But we know real people and we are able to engage with them in the most human sense. Woolf is a master of human heart and she shows and hides as the heart itself does in our lives.

‘Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life’. Mrs Dalloway