Harkness, Nigel, Lisa Downing, Sonya Stephens and Timothy Unwin, eds.Birth and Death in Nineteenth-Century French Culture. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. Pp. 260. ISBN 978-90-420-2260-7
Lucy Stone, University of Manchester
This is a wide-ranging volume of sixteen essays that were first presented at the conference of the Society of Dix-Neuviémistes in 2005. The volume is divided thematically into four parts, which deal with “Textual Genesis, Translation and Resurrection,” “Narratives of Birth and Death,” “Problematizing Maternity and Femininity” and “Æstheticizing Bodily Death.” It incorporates work on novels, short fiction, poetry, drama and visual art, and spans the nineteenth century. The essays grouped under the “Maternity and Femininity” heading, for example, include Catherine Dubeau’s essay on Madame de Staël’s Delphine (1802) and Carmen K. Mayer-Robin’s analysis of Zola’s Fécondité (1899). While some essays focus on a single text (Larry Duffy’s analysis of the relationships between death and cross-cultural communication in Mérimée’s Carmen), others range over an entire œuvre (Isabelle Michelot’s analysis of the artist in La Comédie humaine, Isabelle Droit’s discussion of death in the work of Alphonse Daudet and Stephen Goddard’s analysis of the use of classical intertexts in Flaubert).
Despite the broad scope, a number of recurrent concerns emerge. For example, the struggle between religious and scientific doctrines over the meaning of bodily death is a concern for both Barbara Giraud and Philippe Berthier, writing, respectively, about the Goncourts’ Sœur Philomène and Huysmans’s Sainte Lydwine de Schiedam. Giraud argues that Sœur Philomène, published in 1861, attests to the changing roles of religion and medicine in the hospital environment under the Second Empire. Both religion and medical science are presented as in some sense deficient in the encounter with death; while religion has been divested of its capacity to explain death, medicine, which treats death as an enemy, is as yet unable to defeat it. Berthier, meanwhile, views Huysmans’s text as a critique of positivist science; in depicting Lydwine’s willing acceptance of her numerous bodily afflictions, Huysmans exposes the powerlessness of science when confronted with religious faith. Nonetheless, for Berthier, the meticulous cataloguing of Lydwine’s symptoms is distinctly scientific, the text constituting “une sorte d’indépassable encyclopédie nosographique” (201).
In keeping with the theme of birth, a number of the contributors are also concerned with aspects of the creative process. Claudine Grossir, for example, discusses George Sand’s writing practice, tracing the relationship between Sand’s approach to composition and the endings of her texts; Claire Moran notes the painter James Ensor’s experimentation with drypoint and photography; David Evans charts the ways in which Mallarmé and Banville struggled to work with existing poetic forms.
A number of the contributors set out to challenge existing critical views on their chosen subject matter. Kiera Vaclavik’s essay on katabatic narratives for young people refutes the notion that the evocation of death in nineteenth-century children’s literature had a solely threatening, moralizing purpose. Peter Cogman, meanwhile, undertakes a close analysis of a monologue from Wilde’s Salomé, challenging earlier studies which read the play in narrow biographical terms. Finally, Maria Scott seeks to overturn an existing critical consensus surrounding the idealization of the self-sacrificing mother figure in the work of Stendhal.
As the editors remark in their introduction to the volume, the themes of birth and death point to a key tension in perceptions of nineteenth-century French culture: a period characterized by new life and progress, it is also marked by anxieties concerning loss, degeneration and decay. The twin themes, interpreted and explored in multiple ways by the contributors, generate a diverse and stimulating collection of essays.