Dear friends and readers,
As part of my project (reading around) a review of Mary Trouille’s Wife Abuse in 18th Century France, I’m reading through (half-skimming) Suzanne Desasn’s important The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France. Dezan’s is yet another superb book based on these popular judicial memoirs, secret correspondences, and memoirs so popular in the 18th century (others are Maza’s Private Lives and Public Affairs, and Robert Darnton’s books). Dezans’s takes us through the new liberal legislation of the 1790s with regard to marriage, inheritance, divorce law, property. Some so sweeping you are startled and some so liberal that it was not until the 1970s that laws in France and the UK matched what was first promulgated in the assemblies of the French in the first three years of the French revolution.
Laws influence the way we act: we go to court and use them to argue points of view, and when new norms are put in places, people can speak of what they didn’t before. Alas in the US we are going in the opposite direction, viz, the attempt to redefine rape is truly frightening — I’m told the legislation has been withdrawn so strong were the protests. a law was to redefine rape whereby a woman would not be considered raped if she did not produce broken bones and bruises. Until the end of the 19th century a woman had to prove her life in danger from her husband’s beatings to get a divorce. Wife-beating was allowed; until 1891 in the UK no judge had said that a woman need not return to her husband if he demanded it.
There’ve been threads on this on both my other women’s lists (women’s studies, women’s poetry). This from women’s enews shows the state of things now. I’ve had two girl students tell me that when they were raped (and it happens) and went to a police stations, they were laughed at. They were told to go home and forget about it; they’d be better off.
I realize the congressional initiative is a political ploy to stop abortion, that the women concerned are poor women who would apply to the government for money for their abortions. But the symbolic effect matters, and in law it could be made further reaching: for example, it can be applied to government tax credits being given to businesses offering insurance plans that cover abortions …
Moreover, what is put on law books is important in re-defining public perceptions and thus values and judgements. Well this is just the central perspective of Trouille and Dezan’s books on wife abuse in 18th century France. In 1792 the most liberal divorce law ever promulgated in France was passed; the present one (2011) is not so liberal. While it was gradually turned back, the 11 years these new laws (which allowed divorce for incompatibility) were on the records, they encouraged people who had thought in enlightened ways before to come out and speak and act on it and that changed what was seen as reality.
Anyway like Maza, Darnton and Trouille Dezan uses novels to back her argument — to show that in the population readers were reading and writers writing out some of these usually hitherto unspoken assumptions and desires (except in treatises and radical works). One she cited was a French novel whose subtitle was The Necessity of Divorce. I looked at it and translated the French, Emilie de Varmont, ou le divorce necessaire into Emily de Varmont as the first half of the title, and lo and behold I found this novel in ECCO. It was written by Jean-Baptiste, Louvet de Couvray the first president of the assembly. So you thought well-known public statemen never wrote novels — in this era lawyers wrote novel-like radical memoirs based on life-writing and their court cases. Emilie de Varmont was almost immediately translated (perhaps by a woman) and is a lively epistolary novel. I downloaded it and will be reading it in the next week or so.
You can find this English version online and buy it through Google:
There is a pretty modern facsimile whose cover testifies to the story occurring in Switzerland like any good partly Rousseau-inspired 18th century novel:
and there is a modern French paperback with what looks like an introduction by , Geneviève Goubier-Robert and Pierre Hartmann:
Perhaps I should have called this blog “Fun from or with ECCO.”
Not all that was so praised and presented was so great: republican motherhood re-put women in a Rousseau-rooted captivity and urged women to teach their sons militarism and unthinking patriotisms. But this too is important to see.
A larger point to conclude with: perhaps after all the French revolution provided some long-term profit or coming change for women. Even if the clock was turned back to severe repression of women and subjective techniques of terror (like wife beating), for decades to come, the liberal legislation that had been put into effect was remembered; while there it made a liberating impact on those women’s lives who could avail themselves of it and many did.