Forgotten Serial Novels: Catulle Mendès – La Femme-Enfant (1891)

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In my previous post we already met Catulle Mendès seen through the eyes of Colette. Here is a colourful and evocative publicity poster for Catulle Mendès’ novel La Femme-Enfant. Roman contemporain (The Child-Woman. A Contemporary novel) published as a serial in L’ Écho de Paris: a strange, melodramatic soap opera judging from this representation, but this scene does make the reader curious. See Gallica for a better look. Many of the serial novels in L’Écho de Paris sported the subtitle ‘contemporary, modern or Parisian novel’ which was perhaps supposed to give the novels an air of trendy urgency, but also seems to have been code for ‘contains spicy content.’ Most of Mendès’ work has now been completely forgotten, but his novels provide a great insight into late nineteenth-century literary tastes and what it took to write a best seller.

This novel tells the story of a painter who falls for a girl from the demi-monde. He hopes to elevate her to the status of saintly muse by trying to grasp the pure essence of her soul -and her body. Poor guy. It wasn’t easy being an esthete in the 1890’s, falling in love with adolescent singers/actresses/prostitutes who turned out to be real human beings when unable to live up to impossible ideals. In the novel the child-woman becomes a metaphor for the painter’s artistic failure to truly capture her essence. Idealized woman. Ruined man. It’s great stuff, very odd, very fin de siècle and if you want to read the full story in French, you can do that here. There is even a more recent, annotated reprint of the novel by Editions Palimpseste who apparently rescue fin de siècle novels from oblivion. So not completely forgotten after all then.

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