On incomplete and failed hangings is the disturbing and strangely specific title of a book written by a certain Dr. Verse. Even stranger is that it is among a list of book titles recommended by fashion and women’s magazine Mode et Beauté in 1902. Find it here on BnF/Gallica.
I came across this list while doing research for a talk I gave a few months ago about Jean Lorrain’s newspaper articles. Now, Lorrain was infamous for his gossipy, decadent pieces and his fascination with death, sex, and crime. However I was a bit surprised to find a similar obsession in a magazine primarily devoted to fashion and beauty tips. In the December Christmas issue no less. Mothers killing their children, alcoholism, suicide, sexual assault: nothing better than a bit of light reading to get you through the holidays.
The magazine stressed that its heart was in the right place. As the editor explains: ‘We have created a bibliography for our readers, with works on philosophy, the occult, novels and – in these times of crime and murder – on criminology. We think it is good to share with our readers studies on these important issues. Knowing the causes of criminal development will serve to avoid the danger and help fight poverty, alcoholism and social degeneration.’
The list of 107 titles is truly fascinating, in particular because fiction is mentioned alongside non-fiction and scholarly literature. Most notable is Madame Bovary. The editors seem to suggest that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Willy and Colette’s Claudine en ménage, Rachilde’s L’Heure sexuelle are on equal footing with ‘scientific’ studies such as Vampirisme, nécrophile, nécrosadisme, nécrophagie. It shows how at the time novels were still very much judged on their morals and their didactic value. And so were literary authors. Hence also the mention of Oscar Wilde whose life and the ‘affair’ are held up as a cautionary tale.
I used this list in my talk to illustrate the extent to which Decadent literature was intertwined in the press with contemporary medical theories and discourse on crime and sexuality. Scientific ideas were being popularised through literature and magazines like this influencing public opinion and perceptions on crime, class, gender and sexuality. Judging from some of these books titles tattoos for example were a clear sign of bad behaviour.
For the respectable lady readers of Mode et Beauté these titles constituted dangerous reading. Yes, they are must-reads, ladies, but they must only be read as a warning to help you recognise and fight ‘social degradation’ Otherwise who knows. You might end up like Emma Bovary. Or Oscar Wilde. Or a vampire.
Fortunately for the readers of Mode et Beauté this December issue wasn’t all doom and gloom. To make sure its female audience would not have the most depressing Christmas and New Year ever, the magazine also recommended this wonderful electric massage tool on page 7, made especially for ladies and their lady parts. Happy holidays indeed!