Dubbed “Mademoiselle Baudelaire” by Maurice Barres and called a distinguished pornographer by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Rachilde is one of the most complex literary figures to emerge at the tipping point between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her most famous work includes the novels Monsieur Vénus/Mister Venus (1884) and La Jongleuse/The Juggler (1900, rev. 1925), and a nonfictional work called Pourquoi je ne suis pas féministe/ Why I am not a feminist (1928) in which she famously claims, “I have never had any confidence in women since the eternal feminine first betrayed me in maternal guise.” Scandalous in her youth, reviled by moralists as well as early feminists, her work ignored or forgotten in the years after her death, Rachilde balances between decadence and literary modernism, and between a virulent misogyny and deeply held belief in her own feminine worth.
Marguerite Eymery was born in February 1860, the only child of her parents’ largely unhappy marriage. A voracious reader from a young age, a lack of parental supervision gave her the run of her grandfather’s library, much of which would have been considered unfit for a young girl’s consumption at the time. Available juvenilia show her to be an avid writer since age twelve, keeping a cahier de style and publishing her first short stories in a local paper. These display a preoccupation with sexual identity and question extant gender scripts, themes that surface time and again in her mature works. She was not yet sixteen when she began writing commissioned pieces of fiction and non-fiction for local presses using the pseudonym, ‘Rachilde’. The name was chosen after a Swedish man she claimed to have contacted her supernaturally, which was allegedly an elaborate ruse to make her mother think that she was not really responsible for the scandals literature she wrote.
Adult life and the move to Paris
In 1878, she left for Paris against her father’s will but accompanied by her mother as chaperone. The 1880s were a literary golden age in Paris as climbing levels of general literacy, advances in printing press technology and the Haussmannisation of the city combined to create an atmosphere in which more than fifty daily papers and many small literary journals were published.
Rachilde and her husband, Alfred Vallette, founded and worked at one such, the Mercure de France, where her earliest reviews and essays also appeared. Moving to Paris also allowed Rachilde, for the first time, to become part of a group of artists whose sensibilities matched her own. Her first novel Monsieur de la Nouveauté was published in 1880 with an introduction by Arsène Houssaye, followed shortly afterwards by the development of a literary circle of decadents and symbolists. From inside this circle, Rachilde saw herself as a werewolf: iconoclastic, impatient of petty bourgeois concerns, and disdainful of “the imbecilic crowd” which, to her, was always against the individual (Face à la peur, 1942).
In 1884, faced with penury, Rachilde wrote and published Monsieur Venus, the story of a cross-dressing noblewoman who takes an impecunious flower-maker for her lover but slowly and surely turns his masculine characteristics into ones that are feminine. The conclusion of the story, where both the gender divide and distinctions between human and nonhuman become blurred, remains extremely disturbing and almost prescient in terms of recent debates around embodiment. This piece was before its time in regards to the feminist themes. It also mirrored her own life in the way that she was known to wear men's clothing herself.
Symbolism and Decadence
The symbolist and decadence art movements were style movements that took place over the late 19th century and early 20th. They are seen as being a part of the larger, avant-garde art movement. Symbolism focuses on using characters, props and events not to propel the plot but rather to represent complex ideas. Symbolism uses sensory experiences to explain what cannot be communicated through words. It often involved memories, dreams or supernatural/spiritual occurrences. It arose as a response to the naturalist art movement that had dominated the European art world throughout the late 19th century. It started questioning the ideas of reality, truth and normality that had been so straight forward in the naturalist art. Decadent art was focused on glorifying all forms of sensual experience. Using extreme pain and misery in a romanticized light. Decadence, along with the symbolism art movement, aposed main-stream society, and main-stream thought.
Rachilde and her husband, Alfred Vallette, were some of the most influential people in the symbolist and decadent community in Paris. They started the Mercure de France as well as a publishing company for young talent. Rachilde and her husband would host gatherings known as 'salons' every Tuesday afternoon where young artists could come and meet established writers. This helped launch the careers of many notable writers. One of the most well known writers to attend the gathering was Oscar Wilde who was inspired in part by Rachilde's book Monsieur Venus. Another famous attendee was Alfred Jarry, an obscure French playwright responsible for writing the avant-garde master-piece Ubu Roi. Rachilde also helped to establish the Theatre de I'Ouvre and Theatre d'Art and wrote reviews of the productions in her magazine.
Rachilde also wrote several notable plays in the symbolist world. The most well known and important of her plays was a one-act called L'Araignée de Cristal or The Crystal Spider which debued in 1892. This play shows a mother and her son, Terror-Stricken, while talking about a smashed mirror. The play is famous for its use of gender roles and mirror symbolism. In it, the mirror does not simply reflect the person in front of it but it surrounds and creates an ubiquitous abyss.
Her significant works include:
- 1880, Monsieur de la Nouveauté
- 1884, Monsieur Vénus (Brussels: Auguste Brancart, 1884 in two "first" editions; Paris: Flammarion, 1977)
- 1885, Queue de poisson (Brussels: Auguste Brancart, 1885)
- 1885, Nono (Paris: Mercure de France, 1997)
- 1887, La Marquise de Sade (Paris: Mercure de France, 1981)
- 1890, La Voix du Sang
- 1891, Madame la Mort
- 1892, L'Araignée de Cristal
- 1893, L'animale (Paris: Mercure de France, 1993)
- 1899, La tour d'amour (Paris: Mercure de France, 1994)
- 1900, La Jongleuse (Paris: Des femmes, 1982)
- 1934, Mon étrange plaisir (Paris: Éditions Joëlle Losfeld, 1993)
- Kiebuzinska, C. (Summer, 1994). Behind the Mirror: Madame Rachilde's “The Crystal Spider.” Modern Language Studies, 24(3), 28-43.
- Gerould, D. (1983). Madame Rachilde: “Man” of Letters. Performing Arts Journal, 7(1), 177-122.
- Youker, T. (5 Feb. 2014) On the Avant-Garde. University of Toronto Mississauga, Mississauga. Lecture.
- Hawthorne (2001) p.261
- Hawthorne (2001) p.89
- Sanchez, Nelly (Spring–Summer 2010). "Rachilde ou la genèse (possible) de Monsieur Vénus". Nineteenth-Century French Studies (University of Nebraska Press) 38 (3 & 4): 252–263. doi:10.1353/ncf.0.0142. ISSN 0146-7891.
- Katharina M. Wilson, Katharina J. Wilson: An encyclopedia of continental women writers, Taylor & Francis, 1991, ISBN 0-8240-8547-7
- Melanie Hawthorne: Rachilde and French Women's Authorship: From Decadence to Modernism, University of Nebraska Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8032-2402-8
- Diana Holmes: Rachilde: Decadence, Gender and the Woman Writer, New York, Berg, 2001, ISBN 1-85973-555-X 
- Julie Lokis: Deadly Desires: Widowhood and Perverse Female Sexuality in Rachilde's Fiction (PhD Thesis, RHUL), 2008
- Fisher, Dominique D. (Spring–Summer 2003). "A propos du "Rachildisme" ou Rachilde et les lesbiennes". Nineteenth-Century French Studies (University of Nebraska Press) 31 (3&4): 297–310. doi:10.1353/ncf.2003.0014. ISSN 0146-7891.
- Chiara Cretella, Rachilde, su http://www.enciclopediadelledonne.it/index.php?azione=pagina&id=220
- Lukacher, Maryline. Maternal Fictions: Stendhal, Sand, Rachilde, and Bataille. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. Print.
- Works by Rachilde at Project Gutenberg
- More details
- Brief details
- Monsieur Venus (English translation) at Google Books