Among the lesser-known gothics and memoirs I've been reading over the past few days is one worth the careful attention of everyone who wants to end physical abuse of women, children (and perhaps on occasion men) within families: Ingenue Saxancour, or la femme separee [The Separated Wife] (1786, 1788), a slender autobiographical novella until the 20th century attributed solely to Retif de La Bretonne (1734-1806), but now thought to be a partial collaboration with his daughter, Agnes.
It is not just the story of Agnes, but combines hers with that of Agnes's friend, Caroline Laruelle (told to Retif), and a story told to Retif by a draftsmans from Chartres, Sergent: another tale of wife abuse. Called Moresquin in the novel, Charles-Marie Auge, was a 35 year old childless widower whom Agnes found repulsive and stupid, her aunt, Mme Bizet, pressured her into marrying him (to get rid of her as a burden).
Note added on 2/16/11: I've just discovered that my copy of the book is an abridged version. I bought a very inexpensive Canadian edtion printed in 1967 (Collection Aries). Reading over a summary of the novel's story line (in Charles Porter's biography) I realized I had no read some of the episodes cited and discovered Gilbert Levy's 1960 edition is 50 pages longer. I'm missing the opening where we learn of Ingenue's childhood, and the women she met as a milliner (one of whose stories the novel is based on, see above) and the ending where the young woman who is introduced at the end of the abridgement goes with Ingenue to live in Normandy, Ingenue writes her memoirs and (at the close) Saxancour dies and Moresquin is killed
So it seems mine is a book where the intense center has been kept and all distracting episodes pulled. Still, from this I could still say it's not too much to say it seems to be the most powerful depiction of spousal abuse ever written, a probing analysis and presentation of the psychology of the abuser and abused. It belongs to a tradition in the 18th century of radical novels written by men in drag: Defoe's Moll Flanders, Diderot's La Religieuse, Richardson's Clarissa ,Rousseau's Julie and yes Sade's Justine) and gothic novels written by women (Charlotte Smith's Montalbert, Genlis's Duchess of C******), and also the popular court memoirs and causes celebres of the era.
What's particularly striking is it should (but it did not at the time) show the attacks on women for accepting abuse are cruel and obtuse. As a novel about the 18th century it also terrified me -- I could see that not simply did the girl have nowhere to turn, she kept being told to go back, it was her duty to, and she did have to leave her son behind (her dog and birds she could take but not the child).
Here is an illustration from a 1931 edition of the novel:
The words are too tiny to read: "Je ne pouvais plus me soutenir; je me trainais, quand it descendit, furieux, et me foula aux pieds" [I could not longer hold myself up [stand]; I was dragging myself when he descended on me, furious and trampled me to the ground.].
It is a genius-level equivalent of the causes celebres or court case memoirs that Sara Maza demonstrates were central in fomenting and channeling genuine grievances, conflicts, hurts, fears, rage, leading to revolution in France (and, alas, harsh repression and war in England) and across the continent until 1815 when it was squashed for a time. It is the subject of the last, candid and perceptive (eloquent) chapter in Mary Trouille's Wife Abuse in mid-18th century France.
Cover illustration of Trouille's study
Maza's book includes scandals of all types, but she tends to favor those which involved famous and powerful people.e.g, the Diamond Necklace scandal centering [wrongly, unfairly] on Marie Antoinette], the Veron-Morgan-Morangies case (still remembered because the horrible count, although innocent of the charge, became a site for beliefs in the a werewolf legend in Gevaudan), Beaumarchais, most of which were finally attempts on the part of one group of people to swindle anther out of vast (or medium-size) sums of money; she does include some marital ones, but Trouille concentrates on them. It's to these later the Bretonne memoir or novella belongs.
An engraving by Louis Berthet, which contains an inscription by Marandon to Retif: "'Son esprit libre et fier, sans guide, sans modele,/Meme alors qu'il s'egare etonne ses rivaux/Amant de la Nature, il lui dut ses pinceaux."
I have found no extant image of Agnes.
Most unfortunately, this slender novella while published several times over the course of the 20th century, has not been translated from the original French -- at least into English and English is the hegemonic language when it comes to translation -- with French coming in as a lagging second. Thus this blog. To alert people outside the Francophone world.
It's the first book I've ever read to bring home to me what it would be like to live with an abusive husband. I never had it brought home to me before how dire marriage could be in the pre-later 19th century European cultures and can still be today in traditional ones.
It's peculiarly terrifying -- and Retif knows this because his moral (for once utterly appropriate even if given an inevitable personal slant) is marriage is very dangerous for women, unless you have a strong father backing and supporting it. Once a woman was married to a man in France in the ancien regime, up to 1792, again after 1815 and until the twentieth century, she had nowhere to go or turn, if he cared to beat her up every day of their lives. As long as he didn't kill or cripple her permanently. One night when Moresquin's [the man's name] has beaten Ingenue [hers in the novella, meaning naive], and abused her sexually and she runs naked to another house, she's told to go back to her husband and do her duties. The last two years of a 5 year hell her aunt and father know what's happening, and do nothing (in effect); they keep sending her back, once with an offer of a place to placate him. She has a son by him who she must and finally does leave behind. She says (or Retif provides these words):
" "c'est un maitre que l'on se donne . . . qui a des droits sur notre corps, sur notre ame, sur notre pudeur, sur notre chastete meme, sur le bonheur ou le malheur du tous les instants.
Retif was a fervent advocate for liberalizing the divorce laws; whatever the problems of the text and personal motives (grief, guilt, shame, a desire to get back at that son-in-law and Retif's wife who helped engineer the match) he makes the point several times that marriage was set up in a way that was untenable for most women, from the way it was entered into, to the reality a woman had no power and couldn't escape -- without a powerful family behind her and even then it was very hard for the family to do something and not risk themselves. Parents, relatives, neighbors, the Parisian neighborhood all upheld the present order. .Betty Rizzo's Companions without Vows (scroll down to see my review, part of which is reprinted in the comments to this blog) shows that given much power most people will abuse it some, and a significant minority abuse it a lot. Now governesses and companions were not answerable with their bodies and there was no law against leaving the boss.
What's really important is the sobriety and persuasiveness of it. This is not fantastic over-the-top gothic based on a reality; it reads like the reality itself. It is hard to read through. Let us begin with the motives for this marriage: the motives for the marriage. Agnes's aunt wanted to get rid of her. Ingenue had no dowry to speak of, there could not be a job, and the aunt would be stuck. There's an entry in Retif's journals where he berates himself for leaving his daughter with this woman because he knew how limited she was. This happens today: parents insist the child find a job, join the military or they will eject him or her in so many months. Ours is a world today where there are so few jobs for young adults we can again feel what it's like to be desperate with a young adult person who is not being given any chance for a decent future unless there is money or connections to buy or an agent who has these to get a place. Marriage was the only place for a middle class girl then. Agnes had not been trained to do anything but be a wife and mother -- and how that became her punishment when this horror of a husband himself made no money, he beat her into becoming a laundress, a cleaning woman, tried to make her become a prostitute, introduced his male friends into her bed. When she protested, he beat her.
The mother was intensely jealous of Retif's relationship with the daughter, angry at Retif's not making money, angry at his promiscuity and relatively free life as a man. She wanted to get back. The mother abused her authority by forcing Agnes to write letters she doesn't want to. The mother worked to poison Retif's mind against her by presenting the girl as a rebel, stubborn, wanting the marriage. All was done that could be done to hide the man's real lack of a place or occupation and his past. He had literally driven his first wife to her grave.
And yes Retif let it happen. So nonetheless he is partly to blame and he knows it. That's why he kept retelling the story. He allowed his wife and her or his sister (his daughter's aunt) to marry her off to a man he distrusted. Not only did he write this book once, he retold the story in his autobiographical writing apparently time and time again. He also knows by the time he writes this that he avoided the problem for two years wrongly.
The first three nights after her marriage Agnes is sodomized by this man, and he begins the process of insulting, berating, and cuffing her. It would get much worse: daily bruises, boxing on her ears, kicks, pinches, using his thumb to break her insides of all sorts. But as she begins to see this the narrative stops to have Ingenue (Agnes was her real name) told by her husband, Moresquin his history.
It fits novel conventions. A character goes on at length to tell all about himself. Uncommon is this is a long history utterly persuasive (and that means for human nature today) portrait of a sociopath as commonplace if usually hidden and repressed. The purpose is to terrify and intimidate and bully her into utter acquiescence; he need not be afraid she will leave him. He did very well in the military he tells her, his fundamental traits were given full play there. Moresquin's long history includes all sorts of incidents I've seen even close up of spite, bullying, cruelty, in school, at work. The thing is as an eldest son so he was encouraged in much of this, particularly we are told by his mother who turned a blind eye, and at first by the father, M. Saxancour, fearful his son would not grow up lordly, manly. We are told of how he formed a gang to beat up a tyrannical teacher - who did try to get them to study. His adulthood leads to murders in duels, of slaves, successful destruction of girls (though one with her mother comes to beat him up), of a postal clerk, of ganging up to beat people up with impunity. it is only once he is older that his father separates himself from the son. The father sees what he is and knows he endangers the family (in effect) and is (actually) sickened (or so we are told). Montesquin is then not young, his mid-30s and the truth is he has no place or occupation in society that's respectable.
He is then given a girl in her teens for his first wife. She had no dowry but her father was famous, well-connected. Montesquin wanted her physically and I surmise intuited she was susceptible to being a victim. Bullies smell sensitive people out, plus it was simply probable he could get away with it. After all he'd abused a first wife. Trouille says some studies suggest that Moresquin was partly homosexual as well as sadistic, and his dislike of women as well as his minor position fuelled his cruelty.
This section also belongs to the educational literature of the era -- so common. It's a description of bad education, of too much indulgence in the wrong places. As in Genlis and Sade and Austen and Rousseau I could recognize real events that occur in educating a child and types, including teachers. The enlightenment saw education as a key to improving the species. They had not given up hope :)
Moresquin can tell Ingenue because what we see is until he really brings her near death, she's got no place to turn - and even then she could have died had she not finally turned to flee, had enough -- a woman does help her then, someone supports her for once. I wonder if the reader wants the details of these years? I'll briefly suggest. There's just too much remembered of intimate details (repeated more briefly in the court case), for it not to be partly by Agnes and it differs in tone from Retif's other works. No tillation here when this man goes in for "irrumation" (coercive oral sex) nor soiling her (Moresquin would shit and piss on her). He made her serve bullying jeering servants. He made her have sex with him in front of his friends. The last straw happened when she began to try to get away from him (flee) and he had her imprisoned for prostitution. A man could do that. It was then she finally demanded asylum from her father.
The book is a work of psychological genius. We also see how women can let themselves become abused. Yes Ingenue doesn't have shelters and laws to protect her but the psychology of terror abjection, acceptance, and the deep sense of shame and self-despising that emerges after say 2 years is what women today in such a position feel. She does not at first get herself to tell her father when she first goes to him for help - so at first his not doing anything is understandable.. She cannot find the strength. Trouille says that (like today) people at the time attacked Retif for publishing this book. How dare he shame his family by telling this truth?
It's hiding these truths that enable them to carry on with impunity.
Women then (as they still do now) professed to despise Agnes. She accepted it so she deserves it. At the time Retif was attacked for shaming his wife and daughter, the daughter-wife in the story was openly despised. What I know can happen today to abused women who tell. If they murder the man, they are at risk for long periods of prison.
The value of this book is it shows why a woman comes to accept this. Once she does leave Moresquin, shee is ever after terrified of this husband -- twice he attempts to snatch her back, once Retif himself (himself so to speak) gets into a violent encounter with this man.
She is shown to have taken on his values of her (that is probably the perspective provided by Retif) but the actual details of the daily life read like a diary. It reminds me of what Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery showed in her book on what happens to hostages. It is a counterpart to Diderot's La Religieuse (the story of a girl coerced into becoming a nun and for years abused, stigmatized, punished, who nonetheless heroically holds out -- as did in fact Agnes. She did not die like her predecessor. Astonishingly (to me) after Retif divorced his wife (and she him in effect) and Agnes Moresquin very quickly after 1792, she did eventually form another relationship with a man, had a baby by him and married -- a number of years later but before Retif's death.
[A brief summary of the divorce laws during the revolution:
1) in 1792 a radical and astonishingly modern divorce law was passed by the French parliament. Either spouse could obtain a divorce on grounds of incompatibility; the process for doing so was made much less arduous, expensive and it was no longer to be humiliating.
2) in 1803 this law was turned back so that in 1803 the divorce law was made more restrictive again: unilateral grounds were reduced to adultery, abuse or severe injury, and criminal condemnation of a spouse. Divorce by mutual consent required the consent of family members. Women could be divorced by simple adultery; men were only subject if the husband brought the mistress into the home; then he would be fined; a wife guilty of adultery could be imprisoned for different amounts of time. No divorce on grounds of incompatibility, and it was made more expensive and difficult procedurally.
3) in 1816, it was turned back to what it had been before 1792, in effect abolished entirely ,well almost: if you were rich, and again the wife could show severe beating, fear of her life, she could get a separation. If you could pay for it adultery as well as criminal behavior on the part of the husband could result in judicial separation.
Much of worst legislative backlash and turn back may be attributed to the power of the church.]
Ingenue Saxancour peters off oddly -- for it's not a work of careful art. Early in the novella we are told upfront Moresquin will be a horror, is a liar, and there is no suspense, and at the end Retif tells a story about a love affair between Moresquin's husband's father and a very pretty and much much younger woman, someone Ingenue's age. The primary male lover is Ingenue's father-in-law who does help her now and again and testifies on her behalf against his monster-son who has threatened him.. The father just called M. Saxancour gets involved with this (beautiful it's claimed) young woman -- whom he shares with Retif. Ingenue likes her too and finds this just fine. We can see here some evidence for Retif's wife's anger at her husband's behavior in their home. The closing coda-story reveals male power and female complicity.
One of Retif's autobiographical, free-writing books, available in English; another tells of "his revolution" -- what he saw between 1790 and 1794.
There is evidence that Retif and his daughter were for a time lovers themselves, physically -- this is recorded in his diary and journals. It seems to have occurred after she freed herself of this husband -- but this is not clear; perhaps it occurred before. Her mother hated her. I wondered if Retif and Agnes fell into this out of grief, loss and need; they had been congenial as father and daughter; he had been inadequate. it is still troubling material. When a parent has sexual congress with a child, he (or she) is an an all-powerful position. It makes Retif far from an impeccable father crossed by a bad mother-wife who married his daughter off for spite. Retif's part in the original marriage is over-excused. It was his responsibility to find out the truth about Moresquin. He should have paid attention to his daughter after the marriage. After he finally realized what was happening, he still cited his illness as a barrier to helping her, he still tried to say she would pay heavily for leaving and it was she who demanded to be helped.
In online and in popular publications in English, Retif de la Bretonne is presented in a distorting way. He's identified as a pornographer. He did write a book called Le Pornographe (prostitution); it's about as well as containing pornography, He wrote an Anti-Justine (an attack on Sade's famous novel) and he is frank. He has a misogynistic book which shows insight into women's novels and memoirs at the time, Les Gynographes. Basically he was a kind of flaneur avant la lettre. Much of his writing is semi-life writing, autobiographical. He disliked hypocrisy, and his La Paysanne Pervertie is intended to show up the ludicrous impossibility of Marivaux's La Vie de Marianne: far from ending up a countess, she would have ended up woman of the streets.
In the 1920s there was a kind of small revival of Retif and from that Jim and I have in our house editions (we found in used book stores when there were still cement-and-mortar ones), a selection of La Nuits de Paris in translation (it might be said to be a blog before the Net), and an abridgement of Retif's fictional autobiography, Monsieur Nicholas, one which reinforces the distortion. It omits a long section on Agnes' marriage; it includes all that is sexy and titillating and removes the intelligent matter and serious reflection. There is an affectionate and non-distorting portrait of Retif in La Nuit de Varennes, but it's a playful semi-fantasy movie and not intended to teach you about its protagonists.
Jean-Louis Barrault as the remarkable radical novelist, and streetwalker, the film’s central protagonist (storyteller almost) Retif de la Bretonne, perfect to stand for the movie’s erasures of hierarchies (there’s even a scene with his daughter as his comfortable mistress -- the film makes a joke of this!)
Books on Retif in English, of which I have a copy: David Coward, The Philosophy of Retif de La Bretonne and Charles Porter, Restif's Novels, or an Autobiography in search of an Author
Ingenue Saxancour, or la femme separee belongs to the type of book Nancy Miller discuses her in The Heroine's Text: a first-person narrative fiction in the person of his daughter or a woman. This is another heroine's text where we have a male in drag -- from Defoe's Moll Flanders to Richardson's Pamela to Clarissa, from Marivaux's La Vie de Marianne to Rousseau's Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, to Sade's Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue. Ironically (considering Retif's attack on women's novels in Gynographs), Retif's is more like the woman's books (say Riccoboni or Cottin), as it's not long. His is one of males in drag (which carried on in the 19th century say in Henry James) where the writer enters into an unqualified story that is real on women's behalf, and it does read like l'ecriture-femme. But then perhaps it's a collaboration.
It cries out for English translation in a good edition.