The Hysteric’s Revenge considers fin-de-siècle French women writers in the context of prevailing cultural anxieties about female intellect. During the years that overlap between the fin de siècle and the Belle Epoque, women began to write in record numbers, due to a number of factors including educational reforms and demographic shifts. This trend terrified many male literary critics, who described it as the “crisis of women’s writing” in a series of efforts to circumscribe the perceived problem. Such critics frequently linked women’s writing to sexual depravity. According to popular medical theories, the fragile confluence of the female mind and body might steer the woman writer towards illicit sexual behavior when she exercised her intellect. This book argues, however, that the fear of sexual abandon – though real – veiled an even more insidious fear: that women might be capable of intellectual equality with men and thus pose a threat to the most basic structures of French patriarchal society.

In demonstrating the pervasiveness of this anxiety through analysis of nineteenth-century medical texts, literary criticism, and fiction, this book brings into relief a critical relationship between the female mind and body that is essential to understanding the discursive position of the turn-of-the-century woman writer. The novels presented here confront this mind/body problem through a wide variety of styles and genres that challenge conventional fin-de-siècle notions of femininity. From the compelling autobiography of Liane de Pougy – one of Paris’s most renowned courtesans – to Colette’s frank discussions of female pleasure in one of her early novels, to the violent creativity of Rachilde’s androgynous heroine, Mesch demonstrates how both canonical and non-canonical writers promoted women’s intellectual authority through the development of a sexual counter-discourse. In engaging the relationship between women’s minds and bodies, these novels challenge the conclusions of a century of doctors who sought to prove a physiological basis for female intellectual inferiority. At the same time, they point the way towards later French feminists who sought to subvert patriarchal structures through literary explorations of sexuality.

Praise for The Hysteric’s Revenge:

“This fine book underscores the linkages among late-19th- and early-20th-century discourses–scientific (especially medical), social, religious, and literary…Highly recommended.”


“An undeniably important contribution to studies of the nineteenth century and of women’s writing that merits being widely read and thoroughly discussed.”

—Lisa Downing, French Studies

“An entertaining and innovative interpretation of France’s turn-of-the-century women writers and the cultural climate in which they wrote their works.”

—Juliette M. Rogers, The French Review

“Both specialists of hysteria and those new to the cultural vagaries of this protean disease can find something to learn in this well-written and engaging book.”

—Cristina Mazzoni, Nineteenth-Century French Studies

“An important fresh look at the way that antifeminist discourses could be co-opted in the name of radical female autonomy in the Belle Epoque. Both Mesch and [Michael] Lucey have provided studies that are at times poignant in that each instance of sexual and artistic liberation is hamstrung by literary convention, social decorum, codes of shame, or simply language itself. Both authors combine deft literary analysis with a careful attention to historical context and, indeed, taken together, make a compelling case for the Belle Epoque as a critical moment in the formulation of certain sexual identities. […] Historians of this fraught period in French history will doubtlessly find these studies as provocative and useful as practitioners of literary analysis and cultural studies.”

—Patricia Tilburg, Journal of the History of Sexuality

“Meticulously researched and historically grounded… readers will be indebted to Mesch for excellent close readings of several novels by women writers that previously received little critical attention. The book also contains fascinating biographical information about the writers she discusses, including their often vexed relationships with contemporary women’s movements. In The Hysteric’s Revenge, Rachel Mesch relates a heretofore unwritten chapter not only in the history of women’s writing, but in the history of French literature and French cultural history as a whole.”

Masha Belenky, French Forum

“Mesch’s exploration of the plots, themes, key characters, and important images in this selection of nine writing women’s autobiographical, naturalist, decadent, and sentimental sexological novels serves both as an interesting extension of previous scholarly work on the fin-de siècle discussion of gender, sex, and sexuality and as a useful complement to previous histories of the fight for women’s rights under the Third Republic.”

—Jean E. Pedersen, H-France Review

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