|Original title||Monsieur Vénus|
|Published||1884 (Auguste Brancart), Paris: Flammarion, 1977|
Published in English
|ISBN||978-2-080-60969-4 (Flammarion), ISBN 978-0-873-52929-7 (Modern Language Association of America)|
Monsieur Vénus (French pronunciation: [məsjø venys]) is a novel written by the French symbolist and decadent writer Rachilde (née Marguerite Eymery). Initially published in 1884, it was her second novel and is considered her break-through work. Because of its highly erotic content, it was the subject of legal controversy and general scandal, bringing Rachilde into the public eye.
The novel is the story of a French noblewoman Raoule de Vénérande and her pursuit of sexual pleasure in the course of creating a new and more satisfying identity for herself. In order to escape the ennui and malaise of her tradition-bound upper class existence, she must subvert and transcend social class, gender roles, and sexual morality.
History of the Work
Rachilde was often flexible with biographical information. Her explanations of writing of Monsieur Vénus are no exception. According to Maurice Barrès, she wrote the book when she was still a virgin, not yet twenty years-old. (That would put it before 1880.) Rachilde variously reported writing it while in hysterical paralysis after Catulle Mendès rejected her amorous desires; writing it as catharsis for memories of her mother's abuse of her father; and writing it just plain to create a scandal and make a name for herself.
Whatever the circumstances in which it was written, the book was first released in 1884 by Belgian publisher Auguste Brancart with the dedication, "We dedicate this book to physical beauty," and a warning that essentially implied that any woman on the street might secretly be just like the depraved heroine of Monsieur Vénus. It was only ever published as a monograph; there was serialization prior to release as was common at the time, for at least excerpts of the final product.
The first edition was attributed to Rachilde and a co-author credited as F. T., who was supposedly a young man named Francis Talman who appears to have written nothing else before or since. It has been suggested that Talman was created to take the blame for the obscenity of the novel, much as Rachilde had once tried to convince her parents that earlier obscenities were the fault of a Swedish ghost, "Rachilde."
There were three printings of this first edition. The second and third printing were of a revised first edition that changed some front work and removed some content from the novel itself. Not much was taken out in terms of word count, but the effect of the changes did soften some of the obscenity and may have been an unsuccessful attempt to forestall looming legal problems.
The first French edition was published 1889. Editor Felix Brossier opened the book with an assertion first that Rachilde was the sole author of Monsieur Vénus, explaining that some material from an unnamed collaborator had been removed. (In addition to maintaining the earlier revisions, some more material was removed, described by Rachilde as Talman's contributions.) Brossier went on to say that this edited version of the novel was literature and had nothing in common with the sort of erotic literature that was "published and sold clandestinely." Maurice Barrès also lent his credible voice to publication with a length preface in which he praised the author and prepared the readers for what they were about to experience. The effect was, perhaps, to help legitimize the book for a French public that was both curious and apprehensive of this banned Belgian novel.
This 1889 edition was the basis for all subsequent editions and translations until the original first edition text was recovered for Monsieur Vénus: roman matérialiste (2004).
- Raoule de Vénérande, a noble woman and artist, disaffected with her life and trying to create a more satisfying identity for herself.
- Jacques Silvert, a poor florist, the object of Raoule's desires and manipulations.
- Marie Silvert, the sister of Jaques and a prostitute, the feminine opposite of Raoule.
- Baron de Raittolbe, a suitor of Raoule and a soldier, the masculine opposite of Jacques.
- Ermengarde (1st Edition) / Elizabeth (French Edition), Raoule's Aunt, the voice of the conservative cultural establishment.
In the novel, noblewoman Raoule de Vénérande becomes bored with her life and her usual suitors. She begins a relationship with an underprivileged florist named Jacques Silvert, paying him for his favors. Through a process of escalating humiliation, she then transforms her lover from somewhat androgynous into cultural feminine.
One of Raoule's suitors is Baron de Raittolbe, an ex-hussar officer. Raoule further flaunts the rules of her social class by rejecting her acceptable suitor and marrying Jacques, sometimes referred to as her husband but behaving more as her wife. When a furious de Raittolbe beats Jacques, Raoule begins to abuse her makeshift wife even worse than her old suitor had. The spurned de Raittolbe takes to enjoying the companionship of Marie, Jacques' sister, who is a prostitute.
Jacques soon begins trying to seduce de Raittolbe himself. Jealous and frustrated that her project to create a perfect lover has not worked, Raoule gets de Raittolbe to finally respond by challenging Jacques to a duel. Most of the around do not understand why the duel is taking place, nor how Raoule encouraged its escalation from "to the blood" to "to the death." de Raittolbe wins the duel and Jacques dies.
Raoule does not seem to grieve normally. Not long after, Raoule creates a wax dummy version of Jacques with real hair, teeth, and fingernails from a corpse (we assume Jacques'). In the closing passage of the novel, Raoule puts the grisly mannequin in a shrine and gazes upon it nightly, dressed in mourning clothes, sometimes as a woman and sometimes as a man. Each night she embraces the dummy and kisses its lips, which are mechanically animated to kiss her back.
The title of the book predicts some of its themes. Invoking the name Venus naturally sets an erotic tone for the book. The combination of the masculine "Monsieur" with the name of that feminine goddess suggests the gender subversion which dominates the story. The title also recalls the use in 18th Century anatomy classes of wax female dummies called anatomical Venuses, a prediction of the novel's ending.
Running through all the themes described below is one major theme. Raoule is not looking for escape. She is not ultimately looking for sexual pleasure. She not even looking to find her identity. She is looking to create a new identity for herself, something better and more satisfying than the dreary and oppressive identity she was born with.
It is no accident that bored and stifled Raoule de Vénérande is a member of the upper class, the height of banal conformity for decadent writers. The hysteria that appears to drive her is the perfect excuse for her to go outside the constraining traditions of her social class. Not only does she have an affair with lower class man, but she pays him for his favors, making him not her mistress but her prostitute. When she marries him, she is not only marrying outside her class, but she is therefore marrying a prostitute.
Importantly, Raoule does not subvert her social class in the modern way. She follows the model set forth by the decadents: not forsaking her wealth and privilege, but using them to her advantage and in defiance of the traditions that gave her that position in the first place. She does not pursue freedom as a starving artist. She claims freedom by transforming herself into a dandy.
The subversion of gender roles in Monsieur Vénus is two-fold. First, there is the basic gender role reversal that can be observed in the power structure of the relationship between Raoule and Jacques. Beyond her superficial cross-dressing, Raoule takes on the traditionally masculine roles: she pursues the object of her desire and commands the obedience of her lover. She is also the abuser, and a better abuser than the man who had first beaten her lover, essentially asserting herself as the better man. Similarly, in the end, she turns de Raittolbe into her killing machine, once again proving herself the better man.
Second, there is a deeper exploration of gender identity. Raoule sees Jacques as an androgynous figure with some feminine characteristics which she then amplifies. In one sense, through her merciless abuse, she helps him find a more certain gender identity for himself. At times he even calls himself Marie, his sister's name. By this same process, Raoule subverts her own gender, at one point even being begged by Jacques to just be a man. At the conclusion of the novel, Raoule appears to have no single gender, sometimes appearing as woman and other times as a man.
Her contemporary and friend Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly once remarked of Rachilde, "A pornographer, yes, she is, but such a distinguished once!" Raoule does not feminize Jacques because she is attracted to women. She has no interest in Marie and she denies being a lesbian to de Raittolbe. She feminizes Jacques because she is using sexuality as an escape from ennui and a tool for her identity. In the name of those causes, she explores and takes pleasure in cross-dressing, humiliation, sadomasochism and something that falls somewhere between Pygmalionism and necrophilia.
Illusion and the Impossible Ideal
Throughout the novel Raoule demonstrates a willingness to always push things further and further in pursuit of an ideal experience that she realizes is impossible. In the end, she turns to illusion and artifice and the force of her own will, because natural reality is not compliant. In this, she is joined by others in the Decadent Movement. In his Against Nature, Joris-Karl Huysmans suggested both that human creations are more beautiful than natural ones, and also the line between dream reality and natural reality is simply waiting an act of human will. Later, the Czech decdant Arthur Breisky would assert the priority of a beautiful illusion over reality. That is the context in which Rachilde's Raoule completes her transformation of Jacques by supplanting him with something of her own making, based on him, but improved through her creativity.
Controversy and Changes
Legal authorities in Belgium were aggressive in going after Monsieur Vénus. A trial was held on charges of pornography. The author of the book was found guilty in absentia. The court ordered fines and two years of prison time. The Belgian authorities confiscated and destroyed every copy of the book they could find. While there is no question that the book was obscene, Brancart, the publisher was already on their radar for a number of reasons, and that likely contributed to the hastiness and thoroughness of their response. For her part, Rachilde simply did not go back to Belgium and thereby avoided her sentence. French authorities began to monitor her, and so Brancart hid most of her personally-held copies of the book, but they never took any legal action against her.
The revised first edition may have been an attempt to prevent what happened in Belgium, but it is believed that books from all three of the Brancart printings were destroyed. Nevertheless, the changes did soften certain kinds of obscenity. The revisions removed a description of Raoule experiencing an orgasm as she daydreamed about Jacques (Chapter 2) and abbreviated the moment of implied necrophilia. In the original, after describing how Raoule would kiss the mannequin and its mechanisms would allow it to kiss her back, the text continued by saying it also opened its thighs ("en meme temps quil fait s'ecarter les cuisses").
When the 1889 French edition was put together, the rest of the so-called Talman material was removed, primarily the original Chapter 7. The focus of that chapter was very specifically on gender and the struggle for authority between the two sexes. The excised chapter describes Raoule as establishing the formula by which women could destroy men: using sexual pleasure to control them and rob them of their masculinity.
It is worth noting that, contrary to some reports, that chapter was still present in the 1885 Brancart printing of the revised first edition and so was not part of the original Belgian censorship of the novel. It was not removed until the Brossiers edition which was published in 1889, also the year Rachilde married Alfred Vallette, who had always hated that material.
In fact, the message of that chapter may have been reinforced in the 1885 printing by the quote chosen for its cover: "To almost be a woman is a good way to defeat a woman." The quote is from Catulle Mendès' "Mademoiselle Zuleika," in which it described a man's decision that the only way to resist a woman's natural authority through her sexual appeal was to become even more feminine himself in his flirtations and his vanity.
Reception and Influence
Beyond the legal problems in Belgium, the initial reception seems to have been a mixture of titillation at the erotic content, fascination with the scandal, and amusement at the fact that this darkly sexual fantasy was from the mind of a young woman who was only twenty-four years old at the time of the first publication and reportedly not yet twenty when she wrote it. Even among Rachilde's friends and supporters, there was a struggle to offer praise without either a wink or a snicker.
It is believed by some that Monsieur Vénus was the impetus for Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly's infamous remark about Rachilde: "A pornographer, yes, she is, but such a distinguished once!" It also provided the context in which Paul Verlaine said to Rachilde, "Ah! My dear child, if you've invented an extra vice, you'll be a benefactor of humanity!" In his preface to the 1889 Brossiers edition, Maurice Barrès described Monsieur Vénus as depraved, perverse, and nasty. He referred to it as a "sensual and mystical frenzy" and the appalling but exciting dream of a young virgin who suffered from the same hysteria as her main character.
Even so, it was certainly Monsieur Vénus and its attending scandal and all the questions about its status as literature that solidified Rachilde as part of the Parisian literary scene. Even a winking connection between Monsieur Vénus and the work of Charles Baudelaire was enough at the time to give Rachilde credibility within avant-garde circles.
Oscar Wilde read the book while he was in France in 1889. He was not only a fan of it, but it is believed he drew inspiration from it, paying it tribute by naming the book which ensnares Dorian Gray, Le Secret de Raoul. Monsier Vénus is also credited with paving the way for other, less extreme, and ultimately more successful writers like Colette to explore gender and complicated love in their own work.
- Monsieur Vénus by Rachilde (Revised 1st Edition - via Google Books)
- Monsieur Vénus by Rachilde (1889 Edition - via Gutenberg Project)
- Maternal Fictions: Stendhal, Sand, Rachilde and Bataille by Maryline Lukacher
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- Holmes, D. (2001) Rachilde: Decadence, gender and the woman writer, Oxford and New York: Berg, p. 171.
- Hawthorne, Melanie C. and Liz Constable (2004) Monsieur Vénus: roman matérialiste, New York: Modern Language Association of America, p. xiv
- Lukacher, Maryline (1994). Maternal Fictions: Stendhal, Sand, Rachilde, and Bataille. Duke University – via Google Books.
- Hawthorne, Melanie C. (2001). Rachilde and French Women's Authorship: From Decadence to Modernism. University of Nebraska.
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- Gounaridou, Kiki; Lively, Frazer (1996). Kelly, Katherine E., ed. "Rachilde (Marguertie Eymery) The Crystal Spider". Modern Drama by Women, 1880s - 1930s.
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- Bugge, Peter (2006). "Naked Masks: Arthur Breisky or How to Be a Czech Decadent". Word and Sense: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Theory and Criticism in Czech Studies. Retrieved 19 February 2017 – via Word and Sense website.
- Mendès, Catulle (1882). Les monstres parisiens. Paris: E. Dentu.
- Classen, Constance (2002). The Colour of Angels: Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination. Routledge.
- Bruzelius, Margaret (1993). ""En el profundo espejo del deseo": Delmira Agustini, Rachilde, and the Vampire". Redvista Hispanica Moderna. 46: 51–64 – via JSTOR.
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