In August of 1922, an advertisement appeared in the daily newspaper L’Oeuvre for a recently published book entitled La Garçonne. « Le succès de ce magnifique chef-d’œuvre va sans cesse grandissant », the publicity announced. A discernable controversy seemed to engulf the novel, which the advertisement coated in scandal and popular hype: « Tout le monde veut connaître ce livre dont l’intrigue est captivante, les idées nouvelles. La Garçonne est le roman le plus audacieux qu’on ait jamais écrit ».1 Published in France in July of 1922, Victor Margueritte’s La Garçonne proved itself one of the most popular yet highly controversial novels of the era. The novel tells the story of an emerging modern French woman who, after rejecting the conservative constraints and self-indulgent artificiality of bourgeois society, pursues an independent lifestyle of liberated, promiscuous female in bohemian Paris. The novel’s potential to incite extreme popular response rested in its brutally honest portrait of a changing society. Its visual depictions of women’s fashion in the twenties, its critical portrayal of a morally anarchic bourgeoisie, its defense of emerging unconventional views on marriage, and its conviction in the reality of a revolution in gender politics stimulated exceptional chatter among the press.
It is difficult to categorize the reaction of the press along partisan lines, as newspapers across the political spectrum differed in their acclaim for and critique of La Garçonne. Nevertheless, an examination of the right-wing L’Action Française, the central Le Temps, the moderately-leftist L’Oeuvre, and the radically left-wing Le Canard Enchaînée reveals that Margueritte’s novel stimulated French men and women, whether out of support for or disgust of La Garçonne, to confront, reevaluate, and respond to the state of France’s moral social order during the critical interwar period.
The publication of a novel like La Garçonne must be situated in the context of changing, conflicting depictions of women in literature beginning in the First World War. WWI split France along gender lines. While the male French population served in the trenches, women operated the home front. Never before had any nation witnessed such a division of sexes. The inevitable result was a profound psychological, emotional, and moral chasm between French men and women, which began to manifest in wartime literature. Novels and memoirs published during WWI depicted two conflicting images of women, one “good” and one “bad”: the virtuous mother and the contemptible prostitute.2 The former genre illustrated a female patriotism that served to buttress the male war effort. These women overcame their private, womanly grief and instead united in face of national danger. By defining her civic identity in terms of her loyalty to the men in her life serving on the front, the woman affirmed the dignity, courage, and individual identity of the man at war. His manhood, therefore, was rooted in the woman’s adhering to traditional female behavior.3 It is in the other current of wartime literature that Margueritte’s novel finds its origins. The ignorant, frivolous woman, by contrast, flouted convention. In her indifference, she betrayed both the individual man and the war effort, spending money on clothes and luxury items, undeterred by her husband’s or son’s deprivations and suffering on the battlefront. Defying the limits of the female domestic sphere, she insulted the soldier’s sense of manhood. 4
Gender and morality had become intricately linked. While the loyal mother or wife symbolized patriotic duty and civilian morality, the independent working woman, seemingly indifferent to the war endeavor, was equated with a moral abandonment of the war and its principles. 5 As gender lines blurred and the moral crisis of gender conflation magnified, issues of female sexual infidelity emerged during the war and made its way into wartime literature. Scorning traditional female values of purity, discipline, self-denial, and morality, the female adulterer had betrayed the fighting soldier. Female infidelity was doubly threatening because it entailed a sort of reversal of gender roles: while women at home could be free and promiscuous, men on the front were imprisoned in the army and the trenches. The new, liberated woman would remain a permanent fixture of French society upon man’s return from the front, and she would symbolize to him the loss of everything familiar.6 During the twenties, the crisis of gender came to signify the cultural crisis afflicting French bourgeois society. Margueritte’s La Garçonne was able to exert such a momentous impact on French society in its revolutionary, explicit rewriting of gender boundaries. Margueritte creates the modern woman out of Monique Lerbier, the garçonne, whose promiscuous lifestyle in the dancing halls and opium of Paris stirred the discomfiting, disorienting cultural anxieties that characterized post-war France.7
As evidenced by the outcry it solicited, the novel was much more than mere innocent entertainment. While many critics argued that the novel exaggerated the moral corruption and deprivation of bourgeois society, and the promiscuity of the bourgeois “jeune fille,” La Garçonne illuminated veritable features of post-war France and palpable characteristics of a changing society. The novel sheds light on the new physical appearance of the French woman. During the war, unfamiliar fashions took the form of low-cut dresses, short skirts, pyjamas, and the abandonment of the corset.8 Throughout the novel, Margueritte sensualizes his depiction of the newly fashioned woman, thus coating the new vogue in eroticism intrinsic in female liberation. Even before Monique splits from her bourgeois roots, she is implicated in the female physical revolution. Preparing for a charity gala toward the beginning of the novel, Monique sports a loose-fitting evening dress, one of those « amples tuniques qui se drapent d’elles-mêmes, en plis souples, sur la ligne du corps ».9 Monique, even in her pre-disillusioned chastity, has been shaped by the new fashions of the time. Though Monique has not yet embraced the identity of the modern, liberated woman, twenties culture and fashion have shaped the contours of her future independent self that stands firmly in control of her fate:
« Maintenant, les bras levés, sur lesquels la manche longue avait glissé, découvrant l’aisselle dorée, Monique refaisait son chignon. Elle semblait, avec sa jeune poitrine aux seins dressés, une statuette de Victoire, à la proue de son destine ». 10
New loose-fitting clothing, the result of a dropped waist-line and the elimination of the corset, would allow emancipated women to lead more mobile, athletic, and independent lifestyles than they had before the war.
Having abandoned her bourgeois milieu for the liberal, bohemian life of jazz halls and Montmartre, Monique cuts off her hair. By the early 1920s, the fashion of short hair, although met with extreme opposition and outrage, was nevertheless becoming increasingly popular.11 Margueritte presents the bob-cut trend in the language of total reversal of female power politics: « Aujourd’hui, pour la femme, c’est le symbole de l’indépendance, sinon de la force. Jadis Delila émasculait Samson, en lui coupant les cheveux. Aujourd’hui, elle croit se viriliser, en raccourcissant les siens ! »12 Whereas biblical mythology portrayed the empowerment of the woman in her cutting off man’s hair, the woman of the twenties cuts her own hair in an effort of self-masculinization. Manipulating the biblical account of Samson and Delilah to create a revolutionary metaphor for the new woman of the twenties, Margueritte unreservedly perverts western convention to endow his depiction of the trend toward short hair an unsettling potency.
Une analyse textuelle plus approfondie
The novel solicited particular uproar among the middle class, for central to the novel is its depiction of postwar bourgeois society as morally degenerate and therefore ultimately accountable for the debasement of societal values. In the preface to his work, Margueritte explains his decision to situate his garçonne in a « milieu de débauche et d’affaires qu’on voit à Paris, parce que ce microcosme est le plus représentatif de l’amoralité ou…de la pourriture contemporaine ».13 It is within this setting that Monique’s latent sexual liberty can be brought to the surface. That the garçonne was the product of a middle-class background, and that such a milieu should be revealed in the most critical and denunciatory terms, launched immense outcry from the novel’s bourgeois readership. Monique was not merely a sexually active girl from the street, but rather from a “respectable” middle-class family.14 The claim that such morally inadmissible behavior could find its roots in bourgeois society was not only slanderous but also threatening to the class’s dignity and self-respect.
Several scenes in the novel allow Margueritte to depict the hypocrisy of a superficial, decadent bourgeoisie. The novel opens with a parody of bourgeois charity, the symbol of a morally degenerate culture. The text contrasts the opulence of the charity bazaar’s patrons and the sacrifices of the war veterans that it serves to benefit. 15 The agonizing contrast between the mutilation of the war and the luxury of the home front colors bourgeois society in unethical self-indulgence. Paralleling the transactions that occur at the charity bazaar, Monique’s marriage to Lucien is arranged by her father as a sort of business deal.16 Bourgeois views of marriage manifest in purely mercenary terms, so as to exploit the woman in a sort of marriage market. It is interesting to note that the novel, which cost seven francs, was relatively expensive and could be afforded only by the middle classes.17 The novel, ironically, was priced such as to target the very class it deprecates.
Despite the novel’s radical depiction of emancipated female behavior in a sexualized world, the novel does indeed comprise a rather morally conventional undertone. 18 Monique’s radical sexual ideals and practices become problematic both for herself and therefore for French society. She immediately confronts “solitude” and “stérilité,” the two qualities that ultimately come to define her existence as a garçonne.19 She finds herself sterile, incapable of producing a child once she has attained her sexual liberation. Monique’s sterility is the inevitable outcome of her renunciation of conventional female behavior. Her adoption of a masculine lifestyle characterized by sexual independence and pleasure necessitates that Monique relinquish the privileges of female reproductive power. It appears, therefore, that the novel ultimately asserts motherhood as the highest value in a woman’s life. Thus rather than finding fulfillment as a garçonne, Monique suffers from depression and melancholy; she turns to drugs to escape the emptiness of her existence, only to find less fulfillment and greater vacancy.20 Though Margueritte seems to conclude his work in a compromise, Monique’s ultimate embrace of bourgeois femininity gets overlooked in the press’s reaction to the novel. She leads the life of a garçon before marrying an accepting, forgiving husband; that the novel was so shocking and risqué despite its moderate resolution reveals that Margueritte’s scandalous depiction of la garçonne was so radical as to overshadow any bourgeois undertone.
The novel’s final words ultimately implicate French post-war society as the breeding ground for the state of the modern woman: « C’est que pour un être jeune qui n’a pas été contamine, entièrement, par la vie sociale, les mœurs actuelles sont un terrible bouillon de culture ! »21
Margueritte recognizes Monique’s progress toward a freer female. The garçonnes of the new era
…portent en elles une force bienfaisante, en puissance…Puissance de paix, de justice, et de bonté. Force qui s’épanouira !… Comptons pour cela, ma chère amie, sur celles qui ont fait et qui continueront à faire, de plus en plus, leur part de travail, en équivalentes. Peut-on blâmer Monique d’être allée de l’avant, a sa manière ?… Un faux pas, oui ! Mais tout de même un pas ! 22
This “tout de même un pas” places La Garçonne in the formula of feminist progress toward greater gender equality. It accords with the evolution feminist struggle: the woman recognizes her enslavement; she revolts; she wins the rights for which she has fought; and such action contributes to social progress.23 Margueritte ultimately proposes two paths toward female emancipation. The first, with which the author finds fault, is Monique’s “faux pas” toward liberation that presupposed her sterility and loneliness. The author nevertheless denounces the traditional image of the woman of bourgeois society.
Réactions sociétales à travers la culture populaire
The novel incited shock from all levels of society. Newspapers at every end of the spectrum were spurred to react. Margueritte’s incrimination of the middle class had political consequences, and discourse about the novel in l’Oeuvre also centered on Margueritte himself. La Garçonne saw phenomenal publishing successes. It sold over two thousand copies during the first four days after its release in July 1922. By the end of the year, over three hundred thousand copies had been sold. If between three and five individuals read each copy of the novel sold, then between twelve and twenty-five percent of France read the novel during the 1920s.24 Writers such as Gustave Téry, editor of L’Oeuvre, who took issue with La Garçonne resented the exceptional success of the novel that resulted from the scandal surrounding its author. At the time of La Garçonne’s publication, Margueritte was a member of the Légion d’Honneur, the President of La Société Victor Hugo, and Honorary President of La Société des gens de lettres. 25 He had received the “cordon de Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur.”26 By December of 1922, the Légion d’Honneur commissioned an investigation to evaluate the complaints charged against the novel, and by the 31st of the month, Margueritte was officially stripped of his cordon.27 For French men and women who took umbrage at the story of Monique, La Garçonne threatened the health and purity of the French nation; the author of such a novel could not deserve the honor of the French nation.
Particularly controversial was the novel’s questioning of marriage convention. At an early moment in the novel, before she has emancipated herself from the boundaries of bourgeois society, Monique pays a visit to the office of Professor Vignabos, a historian at the Collège de France. In « ce milieu de saine idéologie et de libre examen », Monique witnesses a discussion on the conflict between conventions of bourgeois marriage and the movement toward greater sexual freedom for women.28 In the character of Blanchet, whom Monique will eventually marry at the end of the novel, Margueritte puts forth the argument of progressive, post-war thinkers, including most noticeably those of socialist Léon Blum, that women’s sexual needs, being equal to men’s, entitled women to equal sexual freedoms. He writes of men and women as being equally polygamous in nature and thus equally deserving of sexual freedom: « l’instinct qui fait à l’homme rechercher, ensemble ou successivement, plusieurs femmes, de même qu’à la femme plusieurs hommes, avant de trouver, chacun, l’être d’élection sélective ».29 For Margueritte, sexual anarchy is the inevitable course of modern French society. The result of female emancipation, Blanchet postulates, is « la garçonne de demain » who « fera comme le garçon ».30
Margueritte’s discourse on marriage is inevitably linked to pressing concern about a low French birthrate. Natalist propagandists, politicians, and doctors had long expressed a growing concern that the French woman’s unwillingness to have children was contributing to population decline. The twenties saw anxiety surrounding the ostensible “crise du devoir maternel.”31 The first point Blanchet makes about the new sort of woman is her undeniable association with the crisis of France’s low birthrate. The bachelor girl, he writes with an ironic tone,
« ira un peu plus à l’école de Malthus…La natalité baisse…On ne verra bientôt plus, pour avoir des enfants quand elles n’en voudront pas, que les idiotes… »32
The lifestyle of the garçonne stirred anxieties concerning the French birthrate, and this discourse became central in the press’s reaction to the novel.
L’Oeuvre seemed to find problematic the implications of the new social mores for the national birthrate. Georges de la Fouchardière, in an article entitled “La vieille morale bourgeoise,” expresses concern for the need to check societal child-rearing practices. Fouchardière observes that society has slackened its control and discipline over its young women, and such liberation of female behavior threatens the integrity of public morality. He ironically concludes the piece, « J’ai beaucoup d’estime pour un pays qui a au conserver quelques pucelles jusqu’à leur majorité ». 33 He expresses nostalgia for the France where girls younger than twenty years of age still held their virginity. There is certainly a moral undertone, aversion to the perversion of social norms, permeating the column. La Garçonne suggests that, in a changing France where the inclination toward free unions as opposed to marriage begins to emerge in national discourse, child protection laws would have to change with the times: « Changez vos lois, puisque le calcul au compte-gouttes des individus est en raison inverse de celui de l’Etat. Le plus d’enfants possible, naturellement !… Pour la prochaine guerre ».34 The liberated woman, seeking to break from the mold of bourgeois marriage, would procreate in the context free unions. Yet, though intensely concerned with French international prestige linked to a thriving birthrate, those driven by right wing, orthodox, bourgeois values would be reluctant to change the laws in such a way as to sanction the corruption of French moral order.
Le Temps was one of several newspapers that took a more middle-of-the-road position. Paul Souday reviewed La Garçonne as « trop croustilleux » : « Pour mieux flétrir les mauvaises mœurs, M Victor Margueritte les dépeint avec les audaces d’un satirique latin, qui font paraître timides celles de nos romanciers naturalistes ordinaires ». ((Paul Souday, “Les Livres,” Le Temps, 20 July 1922. (May – August, 1922): Reel 80, Film An T24. )) Though he does not pass moral judgment on the novel’s indecency, he does suggest its potential to exert a negative influence on young women. The novel about young women, he writes, « n’est certes pas fait pour être lu par elles ». (Souday, “Les Livres.”)) Nevertheless, Souday recognizes the veritable social reality of the new woman, whom Margueritte presents in the most vivid and explicit terms:
« M Victor Margueritte rapporte tout, actes et paroles, et ne recule devant rien. Il prétend démontrer, suivant une idée lancée par M. Léon Blum, que les jeunes filles devraient, elles aussi, avant le mariage, mener quelque temps la vie de garçon ».
Souday situates the novel’s proposed view of marriage in a context greater than that of its author’s ideology, linking it to the discourse to which Blum contributes in his work Du Mariage. Placing La Garçonne in a larger social current mitigates the degree to which the novel was considered radical by the newspaper.
Though certainly in the minority, some leftist newspapers like Le Canard Enchaînée unconditionally supported the novel, defending both the liberty of the author to publish such a novel and the freedom of women to pursue the lifestyle it offers. Its writers, men of the left, were critical of reactionary politics and the conventions of the bourgeois elites that opposed La Garçonne. The newspaper published prolifically on the subject, always in support of the novel, « une œuvre forte, évocatrice, synthétique », and its author. Though the paper reviewed La Garçonne as a « livre cochon » in its form, it wholly supported the novel’s revolutionary thesis that served to « briser des chaines ». 35 The paper evidently supported with Margueritte’s depiction of « un milieu de corruption et de décadence » whose bourgeois elite « a fait son temps et dont l’hypocrisie est encore le plus grand vice ».36
In its first issue of the year 1923, Le Canard Enchaîné ran a front page story attacking the Légion d’Honneur of having acted solely with self-serving intentions at the cost of the free press. The article derides the initiative as « de nature à rendre à la Légion d’Honneur le prestige essentiellement militaire dont certaines décorations civiles risquaient de la priver justement ».37 The paper goes one step farther, launching a vicious attack against the literary, intellectual community for not having come to Margueritte’s defense. The article sarcastically denounces the timidity of the French literary world in the face of censorship:
Démentons, à ce propos, le bruit qui s’est répandu, selon lequel quelques écrivains avaient écrit à la Chancellerie pour rendre leurs décorations. Nous sommes autorisés à affirmer qu’il n’en est rien, heureusement. Aujourd’hui plus qu’hier on peut compter sur l’esprit de solidarité qui anime tous les écrivains de notre génération.38
Georges de la Fouchardière launches an even more vehement attack on the elitism and conformism of the Légion d’Honneur. He declares, « À la place de Margueritte je serais plutôt fier de n’avoir plus a recevoir d’ordres de la Légion d’honneur, qui se compose principalement de vieux militaires hors d’usage et de fonctionnaires en activité de service ». 9 He urges Margueritte, having been stripped of his « cravate » from the Légion, « d’aller s’en acheter une autre aux Galeries Farfouillette », altogether mocking the very value of the elitist society. La Fouchardière attributes the outcry from right-wing reactionaries to Monique’s roots in bourgeois society, whose corruption and vice Margueritte exposed with no reservations. While Monique’s behavior would have been « normal chez la fille du peuple », Margueritte had implicated in the garçonne’s indecorous lifestyle « la jeune fille du monde, qu’est la Française distinguée et virginale ». 40
Regardless of whether he or she was ready to accept the evolving social reality, « la Française distinguée et virginale » would soon cut her hair short, wear low-cut dresses, sit in the driver’s seat of an automobile, and feel free to walk the streets by herself. The vehemence with which the press condemned Margueritte and his work reflects the latent acknowledgement of changing social norms that characterized France of the twenties. Margueritte’s portrayal of a morally degenerate middle class was an acute commentary on the shifting socio-political power dynamics of bourgeois society that would ultimately give rise to greater gender equality. With a social skeleton weakened by the disruption of total war, French men and women seized the opportunity to challenge conventional notions of marriage and traditional dynamics of gender politics, thereby enabling the rise of a new breed of women encapsulated by Monique.
- “La Garconne, par Victor Margueritte,” Advertisement. L’Oeuvre, 3 August 1922. (July – September, 1922): Reel 3, Film An Oe8
- Mary Louise Roberts, Civilization without sexes: reconstructing gender in postwar France, 1917-1927 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan Library, 31 October, 2010, p. 31.
- Roberts, Civilization without Sexes, p. 33.
- Roberts, Civilization without Sexes, p. 35.
- Roberts, Civilization without Sexes, p. 36.
- Roberts, Civilization without Sexes, p. 41.
- Roberts, Civilization without Sexes, p. 47.
- Roberts, Civilization without Sexes, p. 50.
- Victor Margueritte, La Garçonne (Paris: Flammarion, 1978), p. 44.
- Margueritte, p. 45.
- Mary Louise Roberts, “Samson and Delilah Revisited: The Politics of Women’s Fashion in 1920s France,” The American Historical Review, June 1993, JSTOR, Yale University Library, 4 October 2010, p. 657.
- Margueritte, p. 110.
- Victor Margueritte, “Note de l’auteur,” La Garçonne (Paris: Flammarion, 1978), p. 6.
- Roberts, Civilization Without Sexes, p. 49.
- Roberts, Civilization Without Sexes, p. 49.
- Margueritte, p. 49.
- “En Vente à la Librairie du Canard,” Advertisement, Le Canard Enchaînée, 3 January 1923. (1923 – 25): Film S703
- Mary Louise Roberts, “‘This Civilization No Longer Has Sexes’: La Garçonne and Cultural Crisis in France After World War I,” Gender & History, Spring 1992, Wiley Online Library, Yale University Library, 11 November 2010, p. 59.
- Margueritte, p. 135.
- Margueritte, p. 161.
- Margueritte, p. 268.
- Margueritte, p. 268.
- Anne-Marie Sohn, “‘La Garçonne’ face à l’opinion publique: type litteraire ou type social des années 20?” Le Mouvement social, July – September 1972, JSTOR, Yale University Library, 11 November 2010, p. 4.
- Sohn, p. 8.
- Roberts, Civilization Without Sexes, p. 55.
- Roberts, Civilization Without Sexes, p. 48.
- Sohn, p. 10.
- Margueritte, p. 56.
- Margueritte, p. 57.
- Margueritte, p. 57.
- Roberts, Civilization Without Sexes, p.124.
- Margueritte, p. 62.
- Georges de la Fouchardière, “La vieille morale bourgeoise,” L’Oeuvre, 4 August 1922. (July – September, 1922): Reel 3, Film An Oe8.
- Margueritte, p. 61.
- “Librairie: La Garçonne,” Le Canard Enchaînée, 6 September 1922, (1920 – 22): Film S703.
- “Librairie: La Garçonne.”
- “M. Victor Margueritte et la Légion d’honneur,” Le Canard Enchaînée, 3 January 1923. (1923 – 25): Film S703.
- “M. Victor Margueritte et la Légion d’honneur.”
- Georges de la Fouchardière, “L’affaire Margueritte,” Le Canard Enchaînée, 3 January 1923. (1923 – 25): Film S703.
- Fouchardière, “L’affaire Margueritte.”