The Belle Epoque

Review: Having it All in the Belle Epoque by Rachel Mesch

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La Belle Epoque
La belle epoque art | Emmanuele Contini, commons

In July 2013, while poking around the website of Stanford University Press, I came across the webpage of the book Having It All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women’s Magazines Invented the Modern Woman by Rachel Mesch. The title piqued my curiosity. As an American woman I was intrigued and somewhat irked. Did Mesch mean that French women’s magazines invented the French modern woman or did she mean that they supposedly invented the modern woman, period? And can magazines really conjure up any particular sort of womanhood?

What sort of book is this? The acknowledgments give us a clue. Mesch writes, “This project has fundamentally transformed my experience of research, transcending my literary training to force me to think about literary production, communities, feminist history and cultural artifacts in wholly different ways.” No wonder Mesch also mentions her participation in “the cultural conversation around work-life balance.”

The Belle EpoqueThis book is about the French modern woman, not so much all modern women. Frenchwomen, as I understand Mesch’s argument, were far less concerned about suffrage as an issue than many women of comparable background in the English speaking world were. The “literary feminism” of their French sisters would probably have struck the women of the Pankhurst family and Susan B. Anthony as air-headed and quite beside the point.

But therein lies the value of Mesch’s book. It makes you wonder, “So what was happening in France in terms of feminist history when the battle for the right to vote was entering its later stages in the US and Britain?” And her book is fascinating in making the argument that the first two photographic magazines aimed at women (does that mean in France or anywhere?), Femina and La Vie Heureuse and the novels associated with them, offered Frenchwomen a unique discursive space.

But as I read the book, I was constantly wondering if this was restricted to France. That is, were the Femina and La Vie Heureuse discursive spaces unique in France or to France? One has to assume unique in France because the US, at any rate, was awash in magazines that appealed to women, circa 1901. There were plenty of discursive spaces stateside in that era.

Mesch shows that the stereotype of Frenchwomen as being preoccupied with looks and looking chic as much as possible is reflected in the pages of Femina and La Vie Heureuse. As she says, “To be a modern woman, these articles declared, as much through the writing itself as through the accompanying photographs, was to climb mountains and explore new realms, all the while looking beautiful and carefree.” The book is charmingly illustrated. A cover of Femina in 1911 shows an attractive woman bowling in a long skirt and ridiculous shoes.

As noted, the range of the book is impressive covering everything from how Belle Epoque literary feminism was an elaborate constructed fantasy of modern femininity (in which the scientist Marie Curie was acceptable as a heroine because she was a devoted spouse and mother and worked with her husband in their lab) to consumer culture to the history of photography. The book’s main weakness is that we are given very little idea of what women looked like in American, British, Canadian, German, etc. magazines of the day. Were they bowling in high heels, too?

Belle Epoque
Belle Epoque Fashion, 1894 | flickr | April Mo

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way that Femina and La Vie Heureuse both seemed to vaunt female achievement, provided it was primarily literary in terms of actual accomplishment. That is, it was okay for there to be female mountain climbers but it was in fostering women writers and normalizing the idea of the woman as writer that the magazines are historically important, as least as far as France goes. As Mesch puts it, “…one real and fully documentable triumph of Belle Epoque literary feminism was its coronation of the woman writer as the ultimate femme moderne.” Again, the book would have benefitted from some cross cultural comparisons. Was France a latecomer to the woman writer as heroine party or an early arrival?

Mesch makes the case that even while Femina and La Vie Heureuse portrayed literary activity among women as admirable and something that their readers could aspire to, it was not so much a career for its own sake but an ancillary activity to being, as usual, a gorgeous, beautifully attired person of exquisite taste in a room full of the requisite number of bibelots and plush carpets all the while caring for young children who uniformly gaze at these paragons of domesticity in enthralled adoration. As she says, “Femininity can be conjugated with authorship, these photo spreads prove, and to glorious and exemplary ends. To be a woman writer, according to Femina and La Vie Heureuse, is no longer a contradiction in terms.”

Indeed, a major contribution of Mesch’s book is that it instills in the reader an awareness of how female writers are portrayed in the media. The next time, for example, you read a profile of the latest new female novelist to come along, just note what is shown in the accompanying photo spread. Is the writer shown with a child at her knee? Is the writer shown in a domestic setting? Is she smiling beatifically? Even those who are weary of the endless op-eds and movements (“Lean in, ladies!”) about careers and motherhood will find Mesch’s book of great value for its close readings of turn-of-the-20th- century photographic portrayals of French female writers of the day. This chapter should be required reading for journalism students.

And yet, and yet … One aspect of the book that speaks for the divide among American women between as those who are married and have children and careers (like Mesch) and those women who have jobs but who are not married and who do not have children (like me) is that I found tedious Mesch’s rather strained efforts to connect work-balance questions as reflected in the prose and pictures of Femina and La Vie Heureuse with the struggles of the modern, highly educated married woman with children and an active career of our own day.

At the risk of offending my married female peers, I found that all a bore. But that, of course, is a large part of the premise of her book — that these questions have roiled Western societies for decades and that studying how they have been reflected in popular culture such as women’s magazines help women thrash out how they want to live and with whom, if anyone. I wonder if Mesch has a nanny and what magazines the nanny reads and what she dreams of while minding the children of the scholar on sabbatical. But the fact that I wondered about all of this points to the power of Mesch’s book. We don’t tend to wonder who is looking after the children of male writers of either academic books or novels.

An additional problem with the book is it is somewhat overly sympathetic to French women of the Belle Epoque who simply did not take the kind of personal risks or courageous political stands that many British suffragettes took, for example. She writes, “…this book reminds us that the challenges of educated women are hardly new, and reveals that choices that might appear retrograde or antifeminist with the hindsight of a century were once lived as important steps towards change.” A cynic could argue just as easily that rather than being major media players in a subtle campaign to liberate women, Femina and La Vie Heureuse pandered with vapid content to the vain, vacuous and inert.

The fact that American women got the vote nationally in 1920 whereas Frenchwomen had to wait until 1944-45 (as Mesch herself points out) suggests that women who care about equality don’t have all that much to learn from the French no matter how strenuously and eruditely Mesch argues on behalf of the French. Belle Epoque literary feminism might have been all very well for women in France who daydreamt about literary success and pretty clothes and did not want to fight for something as mundane as the right to vote but as for me, thanks but no thanks.

Another carp. One does wish that Francophiles (Mesch is an associate professor of French at Yeshiva University) would not assume that everyone on the planet speaks French and that it would help if she immediately told us what the English translation is of the title of one of the two early 20th century magazines she focuses on in her in her study. I had to turn away from her book for several minutes to determine that La Vie Heureuse translates as “The Happy Life.” Luckily for me, as part of the cultural conversation I learned that in an article for Slate by Mesch herself. I wish scholars and university presses would live in the real world and translate French phrases. The point of the book is, presumably, to educate those of us who know little about Belle Epoque (c. 1871-1914) literary feminism and translating into English key phrases is not condescension: it is imperative.

That a reader can be infuriated by one page and fruitfully tutored on another on how to look intelligently at photographs of women is a sign that a scholarly book has done its job. Mesch makes us think. Her book could be read profitably by historians of feminism and of women in general and by those who study media, literary and cultural history and the 20th century as a whole. She is a model of a scholar with a firm command of her subject matter and writes well besides. The general reader will have no difficulty following the arguments in this book.

And those who are looking for astute readings of such literary subjects as the marriage plot and Orientalism in Belle Epoque literary feminism will find this book a must. Mesch also makes clear that fashion and female consumer culture should not be dismissed as subjects of scholarly study. I may be a slob, but doesn’t mean I should not know about women who desperately did not want to be.

Hope LemanHope Leman is a research information technologist and a 2009 graduate of the Master of Library and Information Science program at the University of Pittsburgh. She is extremely interested in the subjects of crowdfunding, publishing and all things digital. She can be followed on Twitter.

About Hope Leman

Hope Leman (@hleman) is a research information technologist and a 2009 graduate of the Master of Library and Information Science program at the University of Pittsburgh. She is extremely interested in the subjects of crowdfunding, publishing and all things digital.