A Rave Review from 1904: Celebrating Colette’s Birthday

Today marks the anniversary of Colette’s birthday so I thought I would celebrate by sharing this enthusiastic 1904 review of her work I stumbled across some time ago.

In the early 1900’s Colette and her then husband Willy were much talked about figures in the press. The Claudine series, which appeared under Willy’s name, had been a huge, commercial succes. Journalists loved the fact that these scandalous novels cleverly blurred the lines between fiction and autobiography. The books made Willy and Colette literary stars -although not always taken seriously by the literary establishment – as well as regular features of the gossip columns.

However, Colette’s first solo authored book was Dialogues des bêtes (1904). In these stories her beloved pets do the talking. As a slightly obsessive cat lover, I have always had a weak spot for both Colette and this book. The dialogues convey not only Colette’s subtle sense of humour, but also her great love of animals. Critics in 1904 felt the same. In fact, the book marked an important turning point in Colette’s literary career. Over the years she would  become one of France’s most successful authors and journalists.  Dialogues des bêtes received mostly rave reviews when it appeared such as here in La Revue illustrée from 15 May 1904 accompanied by a wonderful photograph of the author (Source: BnF/Gallica)

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‘Mme Colette Willy vient d’écrire un petit chef d’oeuvre’ (Mme Colette Willy has written a small masterpiece), the reviewer writes.

What better way to celebrate Colette’s birthday than to celebrate her work?

What do the Bristol Rovers, the Tour de France, agressive Futurists, and forgotten female poets have in common? *

One of the beauties and one of the dangers of using digital archives is that a random keyword search can lead you on a fascinating journey through the past in which apparently random events suddenly seem surprisingly connected.

A while ago I typed ‘Bristol’ into Gallica for no other reason than that I happen to live there. One of the first things that came up was this photograph of Bristol Rovers playing Southampton in the Parc des Princes stadium –then primarily a velodrome – in March 1909. 

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Curious to find out why they played there and who won, I Googled ‘Parc des Princes 1909’. Many results were about the Tour de France since the race always finished in the Parc des Princes until the 1960’s. Here is another photographic treasure from Gallica showing the exhausted winner of the last stage of the 1909 Tour and third overall, Frenchman Jean Alavoine, being held on his bicycle by flowers and men with facial hair.

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But a lot more was happening in 1909 in the Parc des Princes. A month after the Bristol Rovers-Southampton match the poet F.T. Marinetti, leader of the Futurists, duelled writer and critic Charles Henri-Hirsch in the stadium on 16 April. Hirsch had not only been very critical of Marinetti’s play Le Roi Bombance, but had also suggested that Marinetti was having an affair with Jane Catulle Mendès. Catulle Mendès? Yes, that’s right, this one. And also this one, the one who always drank Vin Mariani when writing newspaper articles.

Jane Catulle Mendès was however not just someone’s wife and mistress. She was also a writer. In fact she was a prize-winning poet in her time, but she seems to have been completely forgotten by literary history. No wonder perhaps with all those drunk, aggressive male poets around her. Here is Jane on a publicity photograph from 1909 (source: Gallica) looking like someone had just told her that she would not make the canon of French literature:

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The duel in the Parc des Princes ended when Hirsch was wounded on his arm. Marinetti was victorious and no doubt relished the publicity generated by his fight with Hirsch. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto had only recently appeared on 20 February in Le Figaro.

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Marinetti probably also loved the symbolic value of him, the Futurist, having literally and aggressively defeated the ‘old’ literary crowd embodied by Hirsch. Word of the duel and of Marinetti’s new, artistic movement even reached the New Zealand Evening Post on 2 June 1909 in which the two men are aptly described as ‘fighting cocks’.

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Football, Tour de France, duels, avant-garde: the Parc des Princes in 1909 as a place of macho modernity. Marinetti and the Futurists would have approved. Hirsch and Jane Catulle Mendès probably not so much.

Perhaps digital archives and random keyword searches can lead you to see connections and meanings that never existed. Then again, they might turn out to be a lot of fun.

*Answer: The Parc des Princes in 1909/random keyword search

Where to get condoms and pornography in 1902? In Le Frou-Frou!

I might be alone in this, but when reading about life in the Belle Époque I always wondered how people got away with having affairs or how for example prostitutes could do their jobs without getting pregnant or sexually transmitted diseases all the time?

Even though this period -like any other period – was fascinated with sex, people could not not discuss the intimate and practical details of their sex lives openly. Unwanted pregnancies or diseases were a serious problem in the nineteenth century and campaigns by a progressive minority for birth control and sex education were still in their infancy. Yet that did not mean that birth control, condoms, pornography or sex toys did not exist of course. These had existed in some shape or form (no pun intended) for centuries. But where did people find them?

Well,  in Le Frou-Frou apparently.

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Poster by Leonetto Cappiello for Le Frou-Frou (1899)

Le Frou-Frou (meaning frilly or fancy) was, as its title suggests, a light-hearted paper, one of the many humorist journals of the period. The magazine reflected the slightly risqué, Moulin Rouge atmosphere of 1890’s Paris and advertised itself through colourful posters of alluring can-can dancers. Its pages are filled with cartoons, humorist anecdotes on Parisian life or theatre, and lots of publicity.

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Le Frou-Frou 12 April 1902
Source: BnF/Gallica

What struck me most was a recurring section of wonderfully euphemistic advertisements such as the ones on 12 April 1902 for: ‘appareils spéciaux pour l’hygiéne intime des deux sexes et la préservation des maladies’ (special equipment for the intimate hygiene of both sexes and the prevention of diseases), for ‘usage intime caoutchouc’ (rubber intimate use),’photos suggestives, idéales, d’une pureté troublante’ (suggestive, perfect photographs, of arousing purity) or for ‘use musée secret, ultra-galant'(a secret museum, extremely seductive). All of the products are available by discreet mail order and can be send abroad and to the colonies as well. These also include products to make women’s breasts more opulent and firm, or elixirs to cure impotence and frigidity. There also ads for mid wives offering to treat ‘maladie des dames’ (ladies’ diseases) which might suggest women could go there to get an abortion.

Le Frou Frou appareils

It is easy  for us to laugh at the way these ads are phrased. Yet they make clear that there was a strong demand for these products at a time when prostitution was rife, women were ostracised for having an illegitimate child, men died from syphilis, and sex in general was very much taboo.

A positive effect of the rise of mass media and advertising in the nineteenth century was that it made these products and services more easily available to a larger audience, at least for those with some money and access to newspapers. Advertising and seemingly superficial magazines like Le Frou-Frou played their own small part in providing access to birth control and in enabling people to enjoy sex. 

Want to start your own literary salon? Don’t be too beautiful says Le Figaro

Ladies, if you are thinking of starting a literary salon, make sure you are not too beautiful. This is the sound advice of ‘un indiscret’ (an indiscrete one) in Le Figaro from 9 October 1901. A woman who is too pretty will only be the unwanted centre of attention, because all the other women will be jealous of your beauty and all the men will be attracted to you. Even worse, the level of conversation will drop to an unacceptable standard.

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Une chanson de Gibert dans le salon de madame Madeleine Lemaire (1891) by Pierre-George Jeanniot -Source: Wikimedia Commons

After these wise words, our indiscreet columnist then lists some of the most notable salons in Paris 1901. This includes that of Madeleine Lemaire, painter and society hostess extraordinaire, who launched the career of many artists including that of Marcel Proust and who famously served as one of the models for Mme Verdurin in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. The anonymous columnist in Le Figaro calls her salon ‘the most pittoresk’, because ‘every segment of society is represented there’. People are reciting verses by M. de Montesquiou or Marcel Proust, ‘women are singing songs by Raynaldo (sic) Hahn’, ‘Sarah Bernhardt recites poetry’. ‘Right and left, high finance and aristocracy, society ladies and great artists all mingle here.’ Read the article in French on Gallica here.

Madeleine Lemaire would have no doubt been pleased to read on the front page of Le Figaro that it must have been her mediocre looks that made her salon so successful.

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Madeleine Lemaire is not amused (photographed by Nadar in 1891)

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Duelling Women: Marie-Rose Astié de Valsayre

An intriguing news item on page 3 of Le Petit Parisien in 1886:

A duel between women has just taken place in Belgium, as evidenced by the following message we received: ‘Mme Astié de Valsayre, know for having published several books, has just been to Waterloo (Belgium) for a fencing duel with an American, Miss Shelby. During a debate on the superiority of French female doctors over American female doctors she had thrown her glove in the face of Miss Shelby. France was victorious. During the second engagement the American was lightly wounded on the arm. Witnesses have stated that everything happened according to the rules.’ (Le Petit Parisien, 27 March, 1886, source: Gallica BnF)

Duels were not uncommon in the nineteenth century and often highly publicised. It was the gentleman way of dealing with a dispute or an insult, rooted in a century-old code of honour and masculinity: a tradition from which women were excluded.

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Le Petit Parisien, Supplément littéraire illustré, 19/01/1893, source: Gallica/BnF

Marie-Rose Astié de Valsayre had studied medicine and was a socialist, feminist, public speaker, and journalist. She sometimes published under the pseudonym Jehan des Etrivières, including the book Les Amazones du siècle (1882). She had also famously volunteered to be a guinea pig for Louis Pasteur so he could inoculate her. And she was a keen cyclist, which at the time was a feminist statement in itself as we have seen before.

In 1887 Astié de Valsayre asked parliament to grant women the right to wear trousers. This had been prohibited in Paris by Revolutionary law since 17 November 1799 unless the woman was ‘holding a bicycle, a horse, or had official police authorisation.’ Fun fact: this law was only officially abolished on 31 January 2013.

But Astié de Valsayre was particularly notorious in the media for being an accomplished fencer and duellist. Engaging in a duel as a woman was a provocative act and for many in the intellectual elite of Paris a step too far it seems. Fellow feminist and prominent journalist Séverine preferred to send her husband to duel for her instead. Astié de Valsayre then accused Séverine of not being able to stand up for herself. Séverine in turn distanced herself from feminists like Astié de Valsayre whose antics and demands for the right to wear trousers she deemed ridiculous and counter-productive.

In 1884 La Presse wrote that Astié de Valsayre was involved in a legal battle after someone had slandered her in the press. This had led to some sort of row en public and everyone being taken to a police station. In the article she is menacingly described as ‘armed with a whip and agitated’. Feminist troublemakers generally did not receive a warm welcome in the press. Even the Dictionnaire de pseudonyms (1887) described her as ‘too famous and eccentric’ (p. 144).

Catholic newspaper La Croix also reported her duel with Miss Shelby on its front page. It’s a small article, but it still manages to sneer at feminists, female doctors and Darwin’s theory of evolution:

Women have now completely barged through the doors of the Faculty of Medicine, and we have a legion of lady doctors who challenge the preconceptions of the restrained and modest sex. These female doctors are now getting women involved in the duel. A bluestocking, Mme Astié de Valsayre has…

Here the report follows that of Le Petit Parisien before it ends with a final editorial comment:

Very soon we will have no doubt another duel between two lady doctors to find out whether man or woman is descended from apes. (La Croix , 27 March,1886, source: Gallica/BnF)

The duel was not just reported in the French Press. The New York Times mentioned it as well, describing Astié de Valsayre as ‘prepared to go anywhere and do anything’ (New York Times, 20 April, 1886). The British tabloid Illustrated Police News  also provided a nice illustration of the event:

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Illustrated Police News, 10/04/1886, source: here

I suspect the illustrator had no idea what the women actually looked like and just wanted to show voluptuous, half undressed women trying to kill each other. It is a a bit of a contrast with Le Petit Parisien’s portrait of a scholarly, serious-looking Astié de Valsayre.

Judging from a quick scan of newspapers, the press seemed to focus mainly on the more outrageous aspects of her personality. However Le Petit Parisien did report on her fight for women’s rights in their illustrated supplement in 1893, albeit tucked away on the last page. Astié de Valsayre and others had formed a committee to get women elected in parliament. This proved a difficult campaign with opposition from politicians, but also from other prominent women like Séverine, but Le Petit Parisien writes:

Despite that, Mme Astié de Valsayre and her friends continue their campaign with real courage and a very honourable energy. (Le Petit Parisien, 29 January, 1893, source : Gallica/BnF)

I think Astié de Valsayre would have approved of those qualifications.

Real-life gothic horror: The Vampire of Saint-Ouen in L’Écho de Paris (1886)

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In L’Écho de Paris from 1 April 1886 I came across this intriguing headline announcing the arrest of the Vampire of Saint-Ouen accused of violating a corpse at a cemetery.  At first I thought it was some sort of macabre April Fool’s joke. The definition of a vampire is also a bit different from the one in contemporary, popular mythology. But apparently the term vampire also covered necrophilia in the nineteenth century, according to Montague Summers’ introduction to the history of vampires in his scholarly classic The Vampire, his Kith, his Kin (1928), which you can read here.

A slightly disturbing Google search taught me that this article was in fact about an actual crime. On the 25th of March 1886 someone had opened the grave in the Cimetière de Saint-Ouen of an eighteen-year old woman buried only the day before and had desecrated her corpse. The April 1st article in L’Écho de Paris triumphantly writes that the police has arrested the ‘auteur de ces actes monstreux’ [author of these monstruous acts], a young 25 year old man names Charles Duhamel who confessed to the crime and who was obviously ‘en proie des horribles hallucinations’ [in the grip of horrible hallucinations]. You can read the newspaper article here.

But there was a twist. Duhamel didn’t do it. Charles Duhamel turned out to be a mentally unstable copycat who had confessed to this crime that had in fact been committed by a man named Henri Blot (1860-1898). He was the real vampire of Saint-Ouen:

‘On 12th June Blot again violated a tomb, he fell asleep, was discovered and arrested. On 27th August, when brought to trial, and the judge expressed his horror of such acts, he replied callously: “Que voulez-vous, chacun a ses passions. Moi le cadavre, c’est la mienne!” [What do you want, we all have different desires. Mine is the cadaver!] Dr. Motet was unable to certify him insane, and he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.’ (Summers, 1928, p.69)

On 29 August 1886 L’Écho de Paris also informed their readers that the real vampire had been caught and convicted, this time in a report of the court case tucked away on page two under Chronique des Tribunaux which you can read in full here.

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Two months after his arrest Charles Duhamel had been declared insane and released on 1 June. Blot then committed his second crime in June. He dug up the corpse of a recently buried young girl, which he hid in a shed on the cemetery. When police investigated the building, Blot –no mention of him sleeping here – fled through the window. Officers managed to arrest Blot and later discovered the girl’s body in the shed. The article also tells us that twenty-six year old Henri Blot was a day labourer who had previously worked at the cemetery just as his father had before him. He had a child and a wife who had left him because was abusive towards her.

In this second article in L’Écho de Paris the reporter also mentions that the first female victim was well known in ‘la vie galante de Montmartre’ (read: prostitute). This was of course completely irrelevant, but added a bit of sexiness to a story that, well, wasn’t very sexy. The story suited L’Écho de Paris’ obsession with sex and crime perfectly of course; a fascination also reflected in many of their serial novels. It also fitted the zeitgeist of the late nineteenth century. Vampires, prostitutes, violated corpses: a great gothic horror story served up with a bit of outrage to the evening newspaper’s readers while they were having their dinner. Bon appétit!

Sidenote: The British author of the 1928 vampire book, Montague Summers (1880-1848) was an eccentric and controversial figure in his own right: Catholic clergyman, author, scholar, vampirologist. Google him at your own risk.

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.

Want to be a successful nineteenth-century writer? Get high on Mariani

I previously wrote about Vin Mariani – the cocaine laced alcoholic drink labeled as a ‘medicinal tonic’ – being marketed to female cyclists. But apparently it wasn’t just women cyclists who were wandering the streets of Paris on a constant buzz. In 1933 Colette recalled her first encounters with the world of journalism in the 1890’s, visiting the offices of newspaper L’Écho de Paris where her then husband Henri Gauthier-Villars aka Willy worked.  She gives a vivid account of the dingy, gas-lit offices on the rue du Croissant filled with:

l’odeur d’encre, d’hommes, de gros tabac, de boue mouillée et de bière… Catulle Mendès  écrivait ses articles de critique en parlant, en fumant, en invectivant, en buvant du Mariani

the smell of ink, men, wholesale tobacco, wet dirt and beer… Catulle Mendès wrote his reviews while talking, smoking, railing against something, and drinking Mariani

(Le Journal de Colette, La Republique, 15 December 1933)

 Catulle Mendès (1841-1909), poet/novelist/ renowned critic, was one of L’Écho de Paris’ most prolific journalists, contributing columns, reviews, poetry and sensationalist serial novels to the newspaper almost non-stop. Now we know his secret. Also, Mendès was not alone. All over the world people were drinking the ‘French tonic wine’ judging from this poster published in Harper’s Weekly in 1894 advertising the drink through endorsements from international celebrities, including Émile Zola (top right) and playwright Victorien Sardou (top left).

Zola, Sardou: all high on Vin Mariani. Harper's Weekly, 1894.

These celebrities were all high on Vin Mariani.  Advertisement Harper’s Weekly, 1894.

Every time I used to read something about these nineteenth-century writers and journalists I have always been amazed by the sheer amount of work they produced. Every single literary figure seems to have been a poet or a novelist as well as playwright, journalist and a critic churning out articles, novels and plays on a daily basis while still having time left to read other people’s work, socialize in cafes and have an interesting life. It has always made me feel incredibly lazy in comparison, but I consoled myself by putting their high productivity down to not having phones, computers or the Internet to distract them from work with Twitter updates or a top twenty of the world’s cutest cat videos. Turns out I was wrong. They were just high all the time.

Catulle Mendès : probably holding a bottle of Mariani outside of the frame.

Newspapers and Nymphomaniacs

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Le Journal publie La Nymphomane (1892). Source: Gallica/BnF

By the end of the nineteenth century most newspapers published feuilletons. Immensely popular and widely advertised, these serial novels were a major tool to bind readers to a paper. Many famous French authors pre-published their novels as serials, but even more feuilletons were written by authors who did not quite make the literary canon. In the first ever issue of newspaper Le Journal on 28 September 1892 we find the first instalment of the serial novel La Nymphomane. Une étude passionnelle (The nymphomaniac.  A passionate study) by Oscar Méténier.  The novel was later published with the slightly more serious sounding subtitle moeurs parisiennes (Parisian customs).  Oscar Méténier (1859-1913) was a well-known playwright/novelist/theatre man, famous for his naturalist plays and stories about the working class and underworld Paris. In one of his novels he introduced a prostitute as the main character, something unheard of at the time. He worked with André Antoine for the Théâtre Libre, an experimental theatre devoted to staging realist plays. So realistic in fact that a play about butchers had to be cancelled after the raw meat used as props started to rot and made the audience vomit. Son of a police officer, Méténier had worked for the police himself in his twenties –one of his tasks was to accompany convicts to their execution. He used this experience for his stories. Writing about crime, prostitution and the misery of life in poverty, Méténier’s intention was to show the hypocrisy of a society that judged the crimes of the disenfranchised differently and more harshly than those of the ruling classes.

Oscar Méténier

But this socio-political message might have been lost at times in the way his novels were advertised in newspapers. Under the guise of a serious, sociological study writers –and newspapers – could get away with writing about all sorts of ‘perversions’. The colourful, alluring poster (see here on Gallica) for Méténier’s La Nymphomane by Le Journal should probably be read as: look at this sexy woman immoral nymphomaniac. Read all about this object of our fantasies sexual deviant in minute detail to see how exciting dangerous she is. Through these sort of colourful, tantalising posters and announcements readers were drawn in with the promise of stories about sex and gore more than anything else.

For another lively example of how newspapers advertised their serial novels also take a look here for a poster by Jules Chéret advertising Méténier’s Zézette. Mœurs foraines (1891) in L’Éclair. Interested? You can read Zézette here. For free!

Advertising on trains, Franco-British rivalry and creepy children

The illustrated supplement of L’Écho de Paris from 24 May 1890 (read it here) has an advert on page 4 that tries to sell the idea of advertising on trains. Train companies knew that people might get annoyed by them or, even worse, ignore them. So they had to pretend these posters were not just there to sell you something and make money. They were making the world a better place.
The three images all illustrate the supposed benefits of publicity posters, but mainly teach us three valuable historical lessons: Franco-British rivalry was exploited as a marketing tool, advertisers have always been good at insulting people’s intelligence, and nineteenth-century children looked disturbing.

L’Écho de Paris, 24 May 1890, illustrated supplement. Source: BNF/gallica

‘Excuse me, Madame’, asks the elderly person in the first image (look here for better quality), ‘does one have to pay a supplement to travel in coaches with publicity posters?’ The question is left unanswered and it seems everybody in the picture is still waiting for an answer. In the second drawing a man in a top hat sporting a monocle wonders whether his son/brother/boyfriend won’t be bored to death during his day-long journey. ‘Oh, not at all!,’ the other man replies, ‘since the Compagnie de Lyon has had this great idea of putting op posters in their coaches, reading them breaks the monotony of my trip, not to mention the useful information they provide.’ The third illustration shows a mother pointing out a poster to a creepy adult-looking child. ‘Thanks to publicity on the train, our children will learn how to read while travelling, making us more practical than our British neighbours.’
Did they really think people had never heard of books or schools? Knowing perhaps that these cartoons were a bit weak, the company resorted to the age-old tactic of invoking a shared enemy to get people on board. Colonial rivalry between France and Britain had reached new heights at the end of the nineteenth century so beating the British at anything was a bonus; even if it was just at being practical. Judging from the illustration the posters on this train would teach children the phrases ‘best chocolate’ and ‘wisdom teeth’. What country wouldn’t be jealous of that level of practicality?