The link below is to an article that takes a look at NaNoWriMo.
Straddling the private and public domains, the early French women’s press – the various published journals and pamphlets that began to appear in the 18th and early 19th centuries – can provide a unique insight into women’s everyday struggles and successes during a particularly turbulent period in France’s history.
Women’s magazines today are often thought of as ideologically somewhat conformist. They are seen to promote a limited range of feminine role models and to reinforce norms regarding women’s position within patriarchal society. The content of much of the early French women’s press presents a very different picture.
The origins of the French women’s press date back to the 18th century. The first women’s journal of any substance and longevity, Le Journal des dames, was published from 1759 until 1778. Over the next few decades a variety of different subsections and types of article emerged – many of which, whether the domestic magazine or the problem page, remain current in today’s women’s press.
It was my interest in the “political” potential of these representations of French women’s daily lives that gave rise to my book Figurations of the Feminine in the Early French Women’s Press, 1758-1848. During this period, French women had no right to political representation. Despite the Enlightenment emphasis on the rights of the individual, women were not considered of equal status to men. Their education was significantly less extensive than men’s in terms of both subjects taught and duration, resulting in high levels of illiteracy.
The playwright and social reformer Olympe de Gouges famously drafted her own Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen in 1791 in response to what she viewed as the gendered inequalities of the original Declaration in 1789.
The Napoleonic Code of 1804 legally obliged wives to obey their husbands and gave the latter complete control of all property. So how did these earliest women’s journals engage with the rights and roles of French women at the time?
Building communities of women
The early French women’s press spans a range of genres, from the literary review (Le Journal des dames) to the fashion journal (Le Journal des dames et des modes [1797-1839]) to the more socially conscious feminist journal, La Femme libre (1832-34), which strove to improve employment conditions for women. These publications had a variety of target readerships, depending on the sorts of issues they covered – and these, in turn, partly depend on their historical period of publication.
Just as the Revolution of 1789 provided an impetus for women’s journals and pamphlets, such as Les Étrennes nationales des dames(1789) to intensify their demands for sexual equality, journals during the Restoration adopt a moralistic tone (Le Journal des dames et des modes, focusing on more light-hearted subjects such as fashion and characterising female readers as guardians of the hearth and paragons of virtue.
The actual readership of early French women’s journals, aside from what we can glean from articles and letters submitted by readers, is more difficult to establish and circulation claims are notoriously unreliable. Both literacy levels and the expense of the earliest women’s journals clearly limited their readership, although journals were passed among friends and within households – and, according to the correspondence of readers in Le Journal des dames et des modes (July 1803) were even read aloud.
What is clear is the pleasure expressed by many women readers at engaging in dialogue with a community of like-minded individuals and the resulting sense of collective identity and political consciousness based on gender. For the first time, French women readers – largely confined to the domestic realm – were encouraged to articulate their “private” opinions in a public forum.
Women authors too, such as Madame de Savignac – who published educational fiction for young people – writing in Le Journal des femmes in May 1833, appreciated the role played by women’s journals in supporting women’s intellectual achievements and in giving women authors the confidence to renounce their male pseudonyms.
Many contemporary women authors adopted male pseudonyms – Savignac makes specific mention of George Sand – in order to maintain anonymity and increase the likelihood of publication in a male-dominated publishing world.
Women’s journals both act as a mirror to the society in which they are produced but can also help modify aspects of that society. Like today’s women’s press, early women’s journals in France were also selling the notion of a better life. But rather than appealing to the reader’s materialist aspirations, they did so by highlighting the need for women’s personal and public responsibility. They demonstrated a form of “civic feminism”, to employ a term adopted by the historian Carla Hesse.
If the content varies depending on the journal and the historical context in question, the radicalness of the agenda and of the narratives these journals promote is striking. Many journals – in particular the fashion press – still remained conservative in their worldview. But many others confronted legislative and social prejudices against women in an endeavour to strengthen their rights – whether to divorce or to vote – and to improve their standing in French society through the promotion of a more intellectually challenging education for women. As Suellen Diaconoff remarks in her study Through the Reading Glass: Women, Books, and Sex in the French Enlightenment:
It would be overstating the case to say that female editors focused on setting a full pro-woman agenda in their periodicals, or to assert that they saw themselves first as feminist activists and secondarily as journalists. But it is, nonetheless, true that their journals often carried a competing and alternative discourse for women, at significant variance from the model widely accepted in the mainstream.
Early French women’s journals also fought for a more inclusive French canon that treated women authors seriously. They championed women’s right to choose their own husbands in an age of arranged marriages and encouraged those women with unhappy marriages to write in anonymously about their problems, thereby providing the first example of the problem page (Le Courier de l’hymen, journal des dames, 1791).
They petitioned for improvements in women’s education and employment conditions (La Femme libre and La Voix des femmes, 1848). In short, for their contemporary readers, these early journals promoted women’s intellectual, familial and professional contributions to French society.
For today’s reader, they provide a privileged and – as yet – largely un-navigated mapping of French women’s evolving personal and political trajectories.
Why do we tell stories, and how are they crafted? In this series, we unpick the work of the writer on both page and screen.
To limited levels of success, debut novelist Shaun Prescott explores alternatives to this tradition in The Town.
Women and nature to conquer
Voss, an anti-hero, virtually penetrates his immaculate lover, Laura, through telepathy; just as his journey into the “dead heart” of the country is both invasive and seemingly invisible.
Winton’s Pike looks back on a life defined by his own climactic physical drives towards the ocean and women. Despite rarely making sexual references, even Gerald Murnane’s narratives often employ traditional fantasies of women who, similar to his grassy horizons, are distant and mirage-like.
Though not without self-awareness, these stories repeat gendered male quests in which women and nature are analogous. They also reflect colonial visions of unpeopled landscapes for the taking.
Inspiring a new response
Written in the era of the Stella Count – a survey of newspapers, journals and magazines to gauge gender bias in Australian book reviews – Prescott’s The Town joins recent debuts by his peers, Jack Cox’s Dodge Rose (2016) and Tom Lee’s Coach Fitz (2018), in attempting to respond to a moment of intensified feminist and anti-colonial activism.
These novels follow the great renaissance of First Nations fiction led by Alexis Wright, Kim Scott and Melissa Lucashenko. They appear alongside culturally and sexually diverse settler stories by male authors like Omar Musa and Peter Polites. As a corollary to social change, the future of the white, heterosexual male character in Australian writing will undergo revision.
Murnane’s influence on The Town manifests in Prescott’s minute attention to Australian regionalism. It’s also there in Prescott’s reduction of that locality to abstractions, his narrator speculating:
If there’s a town in the countryside where I belong, it might already be hidden by some impenetrable shimmer.
Ireland’s novels, including A Woman of the Future (1979) and City of Women (1981), probe the edges of realism and project into dystopian or surreal futures, just as Prescott does in The Town. Like Ireland, Prescott creates a magical realist world of parochial plausibility.
Prescott’s unnamed narrator is attempting to write a book on disappearing Australian towns, when the one he has chosen to research begins to dissolve into blank gaps and holes. This happens both metaphorically, as plazas and supermarkets take over town precincts, and literally as a source of mild terror. It’s all relayed with a bemused, laconic tone of narration:
The shops in the main streets were all closing. Dust set in thickly, brochures and mail littered stoops, and signs lost their colour beneath the gloom of rusted awnings. These losses did not register with the townspeople: they wandered the air-conditioned plazas, entering and exiting via escalators from dark undercover car parks.
Not driven by desire
Prescott ups the ante when it comes to plot. His narrator is searching for purpose. He has no outwardly directed sexual drive and where attraction looks like it could become a motivation, it proves a red herring.
The narrator strikes up a rapport with his housemate’s girlfriend, Ciara, who becomes an ally. While she leaves her boyfriend and joins him on the road, the journey is neither romantic nor sexually tense. They are useful to one another. Her help makes the narrator feel “unqualified to speak”.
By reconstructing character conventions, Prescott flouts a heterosexual questing plot. Instead of sex, his narrator seeks food and drink, an austerely documented yet solo pastime.
Touching on the right to speak at the heart of anti-patriarchal and anti-colonial representations, the narrator’s cultural voice – his manuscript – peters out. A remnant sense of conservative responsibility compels him salvage what he can of the town’s disappearing culture. Ultimately, he comes to reject the goal as foolish and vain.
Alone in a crowd
The narrator ends up in Sydney, living in a car. Anonymity, incoherence and lost community define his experience of the city. Alone in the crowd, he observes an Anzac parade, a fleeting celebration of “unanimous sadness”. He concludes that collective cultural identity is a temporary truth. The man in the landscape, once silently independent, is now confused, homeless and deferential.
This is where the frame of the novel buckles. Prescott’s narrator must speak – a lot, and to us – so he remains our interpreter of the world. While he relinquishes anthropological detachment, he also encourages himself to let go of the town as a subject to be recorded.
The novel’s protagonist exceeds its fictive device. This leaves Prescott in a tricky spot; The Town is, after all, the promised manuscript about disappearing towns. Prescott doesn’t scramble his protagonist’s world or morality as Ireland does, but ends the narration of his own cultural theory.
Structurally, The Town outstays its plot, becoming circular and monotonous. The narrative veil over Prescott’s own voice can feel like an unnecessary smokescreen when his ideas might, after all, have reached greater depths in the form of an essay.
To speak or not to speak; Prescott seems undecided. We watch as a white Australian male writes himself a marginal relationship to the continent.