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“A tiger decked out as an Amazon”: Hysteria, Primitive Violence, and Creativity in Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus

If I created a new depravity, I would be a priestess, while my imitators would flounder, after my reign, in abominable mud.

– Rachilde, Monsieur Vénus (1884)

By Elizabeth McCormick.

Rachilde’s 1884 novel Monsieur Vénus opened up uncharted and particularly strange spaces for conversations about female creativity and its relation to women’s social roles, biology, sexuality, and psychosis. Yet, most notably, it was at first a scandal. How could it not have been? While the characters in this precocious young author’s novel play out heteronormative courtship storylines derived from eighteenth- and earlier nineteenth-century popular fiction, they do so in ways richly infused with other pathologised sexual narratives of the era, ranging from effeminacy to necrophilia. 1 The relation of gender to creativity is destabilised as the novel’s two main characters, Raoule de Vénérande and Jacques Silvert, move fluidly between gender identities and sexual orientations. Upon its publication in Brussels in 1884, Rachilde’s novel was immediately banned, seized, and prosecuted amidst a general outpouring of “outrage, astonishment and admiration” for the work and its “sometimes shocking and nearly always problematic author” (English 212; 211). 2 The story’s remarkably high caliber, combined with its “trashy” thrills, made the twenty-four-year-old Rachilde a celebrity, or, at least, notorious.

In many ways, Raoule, the novel’s protagonist, can be read as a fantastic version of her author. 3 As Gantz notes, Raoule is “the very embodiment of Rachilde’s love of the marginal” (114). Like her author, Raoule de Vénérande’s “strangeness and fervent disdain for conformity make her at once aversive and bewitching” (114). She is not merely masculine since she revels in the same multivalent-gendered ambivalence of her maker. The art of ironic androgyny was perfected by the novel’s young and beautiful author, a woman so infamous for her transgressive nature and cross-dressing that Maurice Barrès, her lover and literary champion, dubbed her “Madame Baudelaire.” 4  Rachel Mesch suggests that Rachilde became the first celebrated female decadent precisely because she managed to align her scintillating persona and her scandalous fiction and plays with the dominant discourses of the era – namely, the misogynist one of medicine with its particular focus on hysteria – while manipulating them to create “images of powerful, if disturbing, figures of female creativity during a period in which intellectual authority was linked  - seemingly inextricably – to virility” (119).  Rachilde’s radical images of female creativity in Monsieur Vénus exist because she bases them in the era’s worst fears about women’s psychology and sexuality. Her characters represent a wide range of female stereotypes from the quiet craftsperson, to the free-loving and emancipated New Woman, to the dissolute and onanistic hysteric, to the ritually sadistic maenad.  

Of course, one of the strongest of Rachilde’s related creations was her own public image.  Born Marguerite Vallete, she quite self-consciously seemed to incorporate many incompatible gendered clichés into her self-presentation. She dressed in male apparel, wore short hair, and passed out name cards reading “Rachilde homme de lettres” (Vynckier 376). Yet, she was clearly a beautiful girl in what Bram Dijkstra calls the “consumptive sublime” model (71). Daniel Gerould describes her “pallor, and grave expression” and quotes the Symbolist poet and novelist Jean Lorrain who celebrated the fact that she was “very pale … rather thin, frail” (118). The “wild” activity of her mind and her “animal” nature were frequently contrasted to this physical weakness. Her “greenish, cat-like eyes” and their “wide, wide” animation were the subject of her contemporaries’ sonnets and reveries (Gerould 118). Rachilde was widely known as a hysteric with a long history of psychosomatic paralyses and dream states. Nonetheless, though the medical community at the time almost universally “pathologised the source of her imagination,” she publicly reveled in what she called her “hallucinatory” muse (Finn, “Doctors” 138).

A decade later, Rachilde herself would contribute to the medical literature by allowing Paul Chabaneix to “survey” her, alongside many other notable writers including Remy de Gourmont, for a book-length scientific investigation into the artistic subconscious. Her responses, presented as long direct quotations, articulate the connections between her creativity and the psychological “doubleness” with which she lived: namely her “personnalité vivante,” or living personality, and her “personnalité rêvante,” or dreaming personality (49). She claimed these living and dreaming selves flowed uncontrollably into one another. She speaks of her incapacity to discern between the two: “Je m'imaginais que la vie véritable était mes songes” (I imagined that my dreams were my true life) (49).  Most important, Rachilde makes it explicitly clear that it was her dreaming, second self who “provided the initial creative impetus” for her work (Finn, “Doctors” 138).

Rachilde’s nearly ornamental display of received ideas about female psychology and their relation to creativity made her “a perfect fin-de-siècle persona” (Gerould 118). Even more, it gave her a unique vision into the nature of gender and productive imagination. Rachilde’s double-edged personal strategy – to enact and to validate existing misogynous ideas about female creativity while simultaneously destabilising categories of gender – translated seamlessly to her early writing. The same “sheer accumulation of cliché locutions or topoi” about gender that found its way into Rachilde’s constructed persona is everywhere in the densely layered textures of Monsieur Vénus (Beizer 246).

They also emerge – and are made far more explicit - in Maurice Barrès’s biographical introduction, curiously titled “Preface: The Complications of Love,” which opened the novel’s second edition. At every point, Barrès’s text moves in two directions: elevating and mythologising Rachilde’s talent and text as unique and superlative, while simultaneously linking every aspect of it to the prevalent general pseudo-scientific frameworks of female madness, hysteria, sexual depravity, and atavism. Rachilde becomes a strange case of contradictory influences. The very existence of this odd addendum speaks to the impossibility of Rachilde being taken seriously on literary terms, and participates in supporting Rachilde’s wild self-imaging and aesthetic strategies.

Spectacles of Unusual Perversity: Barrès’s on Rachilde’s Creativity and Creation

In response to the novel’s popularity and legal precarity, and reflecting the era’s growing fascination with the darker and perverse regions of the mind, the Belgian publisher Auguste Brancart issued a second edition in 1889. 5 This Monsieur Vénus included as its preface a psychological analysis of Rachilde, written by Barrès, her sometimes lover from 1884-1889. 6 Fin-de-siècle tropes about artists, such as their split personalities or neuro-pathological symptomology, pervade Barrès's text. However, as a study of a female artist, the preface responds to a very different and intensely gendered set of ideas about women’s creative ability. The biography Barrès writes is a tour de force of metaphorical manipulation, reifying here, subverting there prevailing notions about female creativity.

Barrès primarily presents “a very interesting case for those who study the connection, always so difficult to seize on, between a work of art and the brain that has conceived it” (274). He narrates Rachilde’s creative process in an attempt to circumvent the banning of her book. This was a necessary and brilliant marketing move for a novel that features an epic catalogue of sexual vices. By making the writer’s unusual psychology the book’s main attraction, Barrès offers, ostensibly, a socially redemptive purpose for the text. Of course, as one of Rachilde’s greatest supporters, his double motive to advertise the novel’s most scintillating content, while providing a pseudo-scientific context for its readership, did not hurt sales.

In beginning with the overwrought paradox that Monsieur Vénus, “with all its tender and wicked passions and with all its forms of love which smell of death, is the work of a child,” Barrès cleverly positions his introduction as a mediating force between two seemingly irreconcilable poles:  corrupt experience and moral value. Throughout, his argument is refracted by suggestive contradictions: Rachilde’s virtue is the source of the tale’s vice; her innocence drives the text’s perversions. Barrès argues in favour of the publication and study of this “abominable” and “shocking” book specifically because it is the work of “the sweetest and most retiring child!”  The dialectic of the novel’s “spectacle of unusual perversity” and the spectacle of its bourgeois “virgin” writer serves as a hall of mirrors for many fin-de-siècle assumptions about female creativity, atavism, and sexuality (269). Hysteria, like the imagination, was variously (or simultaneously) theorised as resulting from women’s biological and mental atavism, their hyper or hypo-sexual instincts, and autoerotic behaviors. Though this was not the only way late-nineteenth-century science approached the topic of female creativity, it is the master explanation which colours the biographical preface and the novel in the broadest of strokes. 7

Rachilde’s hysterical imagination is very much on display in this preface.  For while Barrès claims that she “has done nothing but tell her own story,” he makes it clear that the novel is not so much a record of actual life experience than of the author’s psychology. In calling Monsieur Vénus an “autobiography,” Barrès emphasises the ascendant power of the imagination of a “twenty-year old’s brain” and its “romantic exaggerations” rather than any “authentic” experience the story might contain (270). 8

As an “autobiography” of the imagination, Monsieur Vénus becomes a subject for scientific study. Barrès admits, “were [the text] only a dream, it would reveal a very peculiar state of mind” (272). Equating the author’s assumed lack of sexual experience unequivocally with a hermetically-sealed epistemological purity, Barrès precludes any referent from the material world of actual erotic perversion as an influence. Those disturbing portions of Rachilde’s story are clearly the work of the imagination – but how? Unlike the more commonly degenerate dyads found in the works of psychological alarmists like Max Nordau, in which a writer’s vices are reflected in those of his characters, Rachilde’s is presented as a unique case. What Barrès claims as her actual innocence makes any inquiry into her “cerebral ecstasy” and her “symptoms” valuable and compelling terra incognita to “the psychologist, the moralist and the artist” (273). Barrès case, resting on the tenuous juxtaposition of perverse-text with innocent-author, suggests that the benefit in reading this work of literature is that it provides the public with an unusual and fascinating psychological case study of its author.

Barrès himself notes that this is a popular reading strategy as “modern criticism willingly substitutes pathological curiosity for literary curiosity” (273).  Beizer explains that in Barrès’s introduction, “by intervention of the new godhead, pathology – the marriage of feminine innocence and ignorance engenders (by Immaculate Conception) vicious knowledge” (243). This paradoxical equation, symptomatic of fin-de-siècle ideas about women, demanded exegesis. Fortunately, the period offered two potent mechanisms for the transformation of female innocence into experience especially attributed to women:  powerful atavistic instincts and the masturbatory rumination linked to hysteria.

In Barrès’s essay, Rachilde’s creative genius is treated as less of an accomplishment and more the expression of a vestigial urge. In possession of only “bad instincts,” Rachilde lacks both a specific aesthetic sensibility and intellectual ambition. Rather, she “wrote easily, following her instincts,” the only possible method for female genius, especially among the young who are “governed only” by nature (270). This longstanding means of depicting female creative output, a formulation for women’s writing, is merely the “spontaneous flow of feminine instinct, a tearfulness raining onto the page” (Leighton 28). 9 Rachilde does not operate from the higher echelons of serious art; her creativity is only intuitive and atavistic because women artists are “small animals, tricky, selfish and passionate” (Barrès 270).

However, the mantle of instinctual creativity Barrès provides for his protégé is of specifically late-century cut and colour. Rachilde’s imagination has a supernatural element that connects her with her “bestial” and primitive traits. Despite her “wide” eyes (the subject of a prose rapture in Barrès’s preface), Rachilde has second sight through “other [eyes] at the back of her head, with the aid of which she peppers her work” (270). She casts these eyes backwards for a reason: Barrès explains they see far back into pre-historic time and convey genderqueer and unnatural “ancestral desire.” As he states,

According to laws that are beyond our comprehension, strange and dormant ancestral desires sometimes arise, to the surface of our souls. Raoule de Vénérande, that pale, thin-lipped, demented woman, who bathes the ambiguous body of Jacques Silvert, recalls, despite all the differences of climate, civilization [sic] and epoch, the Phrygian vertigo, when the women lamented Attis, the small, pink, too-fat male. These obscure complications of love are not made up of enervation alone, for with them is mixed a kind of disturbing mysticism (272).

Barrès concocts a strange metaphorical algorithm that mixes the animal urges assumed to be active in a creative woman with a “disturbing” and clearly primitive “mysticism,” which results in perversions of the love instinct.  He uses the romanticising and dramatic language found in the writing of the era’s first ethnographers and anthropologists, such as Edmond de Pressencé and Sir James George Frazer, and their fiction-writing contemporaries, such as Rider Haggard. In 1885, de Pressencé articulates this cultural compunction to unmask the primitive within modern man. 10

We have to ascertain whether our civilization, with all its intellectual and artistic development, moral and religious, is really only a brilliant disguise, beneath which it would be easy to discover the anthropoid, but little removed from his rude primeval state. (467)

Barrès expands the equation by depicting Rachilde who, via her “self-loving” private practices, participates in primitive rituals. “To what mysterious cults,” he asks,

are the men and women, whom self-love keeps apart, to devote themselves?  In what particular practices shall they seek caresses, they who often complicate their moral susceptibilities with an extreme nervous tension? (273)

These few sentences align three signature fin-de-siècle models for female creativity: the masturbating hysteric, the religious maniac and the primal woman. Rachilde writes her “sincere pages” with autoerotic intentions to “excite and intensify her own sensations” (272). Her “feverishly written” reveries are only the solitary ruminations of a frenzied virgin (270). In this way, Monsieur Vénus is no longer a sophisticated work of literature, but simply the graphical residue of Rachilde’s lonely and pathological fantasy life. Her creative product is a psychological curio, a sideshow in the literary marketplace, as Barrès characterises her text as the record of her agonising devotion, emerging from the beating biological drum of ancestral passions rather than from her art or intellect (273).

The biography inverts the familiar schematic found in common portrayals of fin-de-siècle male artists that represent the artistic vision coming from a pure self quite removed from any actual decadent experience. Rather, Barrès explained this innocent girl’s art arises from the corrupt and second self lodged within her imagination. Rachilde is a sexual dissident, yet her deviations are entirely autoerotic. Her aberrations are not volitional, as it is her biology, in league with her pathological hysteria, that flips the switch between the two contrasting portions of her psyche.

And with that flipped switch, Rachilde dreams and Raoule de Vénérande is born into art, into Monsieur Vénus.

Monsieur Vénus and Female Creativity

The novel’s protagonist, Raoule de Vénérande, is a young aristocratic woman who has adopted a masculine persona. She takes on the effeminate and impoverished male artificial flower and dress designer, Jacques, as her “mistress.” As the story progresses, several pre-existing gendered scripts about identity, romance, and power are played out and reified.  However, these predictable scenarios are performed across gender and sexual identities.  The almost campy appropriation reveals Rachilde’s distinct irony and subversive intent. Since both “creative” characters, Raoule and Jacques, exist along fluid gender lines, their “male” or “female” participation in creative plots as models, objects of beauty, craftspeople, artists, and connoisseurs complicateess the shifting relations of these roles to biological sex.

This volatile gender play embeds many fascinating ideas about the amorphous nature of female imagination, creativity, and art production. The fair and feminine man, Jacques, ceases his own active artistic endeavors and becomes an art object himself. His body is transformed first into an aesthetic object by the masculinised gaze, and then appropriated as a textual surface that is marked with increasing violence. While Raoule is the primary agent of Jacques’s transformation, there is another key actor. Rachilde triangulates the stages in Jacques’s transformation with the Baron de Raittolbe, Raoule’s confidante and former suitor. Raittolbe is the tale’s explicitly “truly virile” male counterpoint (322) who both competes with Jacques for Raoule and, like Raoule, desires the feminine man.  Jacques’s body enchants both and receives increasingly violent physical injury in its back and forth exchanges between Raoule and Raittolbe.  This aggression emerges from the former’s sadistic sexual territorialism and the latter’s violent homosexual panic at the surprise of his queer desire. Yet, Raoule’s wounding marks, as I will discuss later, are explicitly a part of her perverse art, while Raittolbe’s are sloppy artifacts of his passion. The distinction is clear in the apotheosis: when Jacques is killed “accidentally” Raittolbe, his body is transubstantiated by Raoule into a hybrid corpse and artwork.

Jacques’s movement from an active independent self to an objectified artwork follows a conventional narrative pattern associated with the nineteenth-century novel’s stock female characters.  However, the story’s masculine heroine, Raoule, does not simply undergo the reverse movement from stereotypical passive female object into active male artist. Although Monsieur Vénus’s main gender inversion trope would suggest that the novel’s two major characters would simply exchange places in their representations of formulaic male and female roles in creativity, this is not the case. As Maryline Lukacher has claimed, Rachilde may be “adopting gender stereotypes in order to demonstrate their absurdity,” but she is primarily interested in the female half of this equation (151). Raoule and Jacques do not so much represent male and female characters in a creative plot as they suggest two distinct possibilities for women within the collective action of art production. Perhaps this is why Rachilde includes a supporting cast of male characters - such as Raittolbe, a chorus of “rakes,” the self-proclaimed “fashionable architect” (337) Martin Durand, and even a German technician who makes wax effigies to order - as necessary foils to ensure that Raoule is not read reductively as the novel’s de facto male character. While Jacques has become a formulaic aestheticised object of female beauty, Raoule’s trajectory plays out several other possible personae for a female artist, all intimately linked to Rachilde’s own self-definition as an artist.

Modern readers schooled in queer and feminist theory may find in Rachilde’s apparent gender reversals a point-for-point feminist subversion, but, as Beizer has noted, for its time, Monsieur Vénus’s manipulation of idées reçues was not an act of rebellion per se but, rather, a general literary trend. Gantz explains, “Rachilde’s propensity for subverted myths (biblical stories, fairy tales, etc.) is far from unique in her era” (115). Monsieur Vénus revisits aspects of major literature and art from Genesis to Botticelli, a trend with ideas and tropes familiar to readers of both nineteenth-century popular and commercial fiction and of classical texts in the Western canon.  For much of its structural masterplot, Monsieur Vénus recasts the stock trope of the amour fou of a wealthy bachelor and his long-suffering, impoverished mistress. Beizer lists those tropes Rachilde directly imports from this fictional formula: the poor flower-maker who becomes a secretly kept woman; the lower-class mistress’s introduction into society; and her abandonment when the bachelor lover finds a wife appropriate to his social class (246-47). However, there is no doubt that what Rachilde does by inverting and scrambling received narratives about gender and art is indeed to radically destabilize ways of seeing and understanding women’s creativity.

The story opens in Marie Silvert’s artificial flower and gown design studio, as Raoule has entered in search of a commissioned dress. There we see Jacques, immersed in “painstaking” sewing work for his ill sister, the proprietor of the shop. He is already feminised, draped in “a garland of roses, very big roses of flesh-coloured satin with deep red, velvety tracings” (274). The studio itself is an artificial Eden, replete with dozens of artificial roses and the choking “smell of apples” (274). Rachilde extends the evocative fruit metaphor shortly afterward when  Jacques’s nipple, which accidentally peeks out from his robe when the garment opens, is described as an “apple” Raoule thinks she might eat “without too great disgust” (277).

Western civilisation’s ur-text of heterosexual marriage and strictly delineated gender identity becomes one in which gender is manipulated and undermined.  Rachilde’s erotic paradise found is a perverse version of the original. In Rachilde’s Eden, Adam begins to clothe Eve in elaborate flora (as Jacques has been commissioned by Raoule to make her a floral costume) even as his own clothing begins to fall off.  In this decadent garden, the temptations of gender-bending and identity-loss are forms of salvation. It is only much later, with the plot’s more traditionally male characters and its push toward conventional bourgeois heterosexual marriage for Raoule and Jacques, that the two must leave an ironised paradise. To emphasize their subsequent fallen state the narrator will refer to them as the “damned of the Garden of Eden” (354).

However, Rachilde’s contribution to fin-de-siècle textual history was not only to modulate the existing male literary canon, but also to influence its concepts about creativity, power, and gender. Rachilde’s specific narrative and referential strategies in her 1884 novel were important sources for Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel, Dorian Gray (Lawler and Knott ff. 389). Certainly, Wilde’s text casts a similarly blond androgynous male beauty for its titular role and even relies on the same palette of specific references, such as Edenic iconography, in its central images of androgynous-but-male beauty and bodies. Wilde echoes Rachilde when he opens with Dorian moving back and forth between an artist’s studio and an adjoining blossomy and verdant garden. Furthermore, like Jacques, Dorian fascinates artist and spectators alike as he is transformed into an artwork. However, the passive and powerless Jacques is no homme fatale like Dorian. Rather than celebrate an active (even lethal) power in the objectified beautiful male, Rachilde relentlessly reveals the vulnerability and passivity required of a human objet d’art.

Rachilde’s dark tale of human-to-artwork transubstantiation occurs in a narrative house of mirrors structured to emphasize the different creative and gender trajectories of her main characters. As mentioned above, the novel opens on the “very painstaking work” of the male craftsman, Jacques, intent on dressing the female Raoule de Vénérande in a costume of artificial flowers and, in so doing, turn her into his “masterpiece” (274). This poly-gendered garment has both hyper-phallic Sagittaria with “long arrowlike pistols” and “very pink” and (very vaginal) “nympheas” (276) as its decorative details. Following this initial scene, the roles of costumer and costumed will begin to reverse as Raoule takes an increasingly active role crafting Jacques’s image. She dresses him in luxuriant and more and more feminine clothes until the final scene that finds her engaged “in a very difficult task” of extracting ephemera from his corpse to appliqué onto a mechanised rubber and wax dummy of him, a figure called a “masterpiece,” albeit an “anatomical” one (366). Jacques, who began by transforming Raoule into art via his own fashion designs, ends up fashioned, and violently, into an artwork himself.

Although Rachilde leaves no question that Jacques is biologically male, she portrays him as a kind of feminine grotesque – he is pink, chubby and wide-hipped, yet has dainty ankles. His eyes are “stupid” and “pathetic.”  Indeed, the only attributes that “reveal” his biological gender are his voice, his hands, and his otherwise undefined “low-growing hair” (276). Raoule initially wants to play female patron to this male artist. However, Rachilde makes it clear that Raoule’s desire is not so much to enable him to make beautiful art products, but, rather, to compel him to be the pleasing object. After establishing him with his own fine art “studio,” she immediately starts objectifying a particular mage of Jacques as an artist.  On a first visit to the studio, Raoule sneaks into the new work space hoping to “catch the artist full of admiration before a statue” (286). In this mirror-in-a-mirror kind of world, she wants to watch her creation watching his creation; her anticipatory voyeurism wrecks his artistic autonomy.

This early scene of objectification begins an easy transition and Raoule sets up Jacques as a mistress to her “bachelor gentleman” alter ego. Though Jacques is a disappointment as a kept artist as he has little talent, he makes an ideal kept woman. Raoule, whose initial fantasy to watch him at his work has not materialised, begins to aesthetisize Jacques since she now watches  as he changes and bathes. This shift begins what Beizer calls the “hystericization” of Jacques’s body, a process she describes as “the reduction of a person to the body, and of the body to its sexuality, the pathologising of this sexuality, and its conversion into a semiotic force” (254). As Jacques becomes more feminised, he undergoes an “aesthetic apotheosis” as his body begins to traverse “a semiotic spectrum” (254). Rather than creating artwork, he himself becomes a wide range of aesthetic productions. Rachilde’s prose alternatively describes him as “a poem, a text, a painting, a sculpture: in short, a semiotic object to be read, deciphered, interpreted, viewed, written, painted and molded” (254).

Raoule is not a conventionally cool and detached spectator of female beauty. She remains inseparable from her very own hypersexual and hysterical female body that is frequently and dramatically affected by the images of beauty she sees, and especially by those she imagines. Her “violent passion” for Jacques is “couched in the all-too-familiar fin-de-siècle trope of hysteria” (Gantz 118). Later in this chapter, Rachilde provides an etiology for her heroine’s perversions.  As an adolescent, Raoule once “discovered a book” that forged a “revolution” in her: “Her expression changed, her words became brief, her eyes became fevering, she laughed and cried at the same time” (282). Rachilde has doctors identify Raoule as a particularly sexual hysteric with the capacity to “invent” vices she does not “know” (282),  a claim that echoes in Barrès’s words about Rachilde in his preface.  Raoule’s doctors warn her guardian that this “special case” will “know as many men as there are beads on her aunt’s rosary” if she is not placed in a convent.  And as the text wittily follows up, “That was ten years ago […] and Raoule was not a nun” (282).

Though no fragile virginal type, indeed, as one even “an orgy leaves cold,” Raoule suffers from a “nervous tremor” she assumes is the beginning of a fever within moments of her first meeting with Jacques (289; 277).  After a second, more brazen moment when Jacques’s robes hang open to reveal his torso’s “golden curls” and “naked flesh,” Raoule touches his bare chest with a “mad sensuality.” He flirtatiously teases her that he has golden curled body hair “everywhere” (278).  After parting from Jacques, the image of his androgynous beauty pursues Raoule “cruelly” during the journey home (279).  She becomes somatically and psychologically overwhelmed, but, fortunately, Rachilde does not let Raoule suffer long.  As Gantz discusses, the author relies on her unique and “peculiar trick of allowing the female protagonist to achieve orgasm by thought alone” (119). Rachilde gives Raoule a hysterical imagination so powerful that the narrator describes it as substituting “mental activity” for the “positive action” of an actual physical engagement with the object of desire (279).

Indifferent to the workman’s low birth while abandoning herself to an imaginary affair, Raoule was dreaming of the flesh her fingertips had touched, and, with half-closed eyes, this descendant of the Vénérandes was drowning in a delightful languor. Her memory no longer provided the means of arousing her conscience. The shame she had felt before the man she had had the audacity to provoke to coarseness was succeeded by a mad admiration for the instrument of pleasure she longed for. She was already enjoying this man ... Raoule, rocked by the quick trot of her carriage, was biting her furs, her head thrown back, her breasts heaving, her arms clasped. From time to time she gave a sigh of lassitude. (279)

Raoule specifically “admires” Jacques’s “instrument of pleasure,” even though her description of him otherwise centers more on his feminine appeal, his image “fresh and rosy as a girl” (279). Rachilde portrays Raoule as a pheromone-crazed beast in heat, “[biting] her furs,” and writhing madly until relieved.

This scene’s erotic pattern - observation, rumination, mental masturbation - is repeated later after she observes Jacques bathing.  Raoule watches Jacques and aestheticizes his “feminine” body as one “worthy of the Venus Callipyge” (Fig. 1) with features “round enough to make his sex uncertain” (288). Here too, Rachilde’s prose alludes to his male genitalia, identified only as the real “proof of his virility” in addition to his golden hairs, amidst the narrative’s celebration of his more feminine parts. Raoule, again overwhelmed by this vision, swoons and falls into an onanistic reverie, again presented as an atavistic trance. This time, she growls, “as panthers do” as “her nervous hands clutch the sheets,” and nothing else, on the bed on which she lies (289).

Raoule’s erotic ferocity is not so much a mark of masculinity as it is of her vestigial bestiality. Jacques is her “prey” (279). The first injuries he suffers at her hands are actual scratches from the “lions’ claws” on her “almost masculine” ring, sustained when she went to grab his hand (287). Her “growling” is not only that of the hunter, but also the indignation of the subjugated. Though she is a “panther,” the noise she makes is of one who has been hit by its master (289). This fatal combination, the wild animal and the aggressive woman, is summed up in her former lover and confidante Raittolbe’s description of Raoule as a “tiger decked out as an Amazon” (294).  The characterization gives her raw energy and power, yet makes clear she is still lower on the proverbial chain of being than a civilized man like him: her role is to be “hunted,” studied, and, perhaps, subdued (294).

If Raoule is an atavistic predator, Rachilde constructs the hunt as an elaborate and nuanced one. In her first seduction of Jacques, Raoule works to modulate her protégé’s psychological gender. Before they make love for the first time, Raoule drugs her “mistress” and explains that she will be taking him to a “strange country,” a psychotropic Neverland where “dreams are the only life.” In this phantasmagoric blur, Jacques will lose his pedestrian sense of reality, those “vulgar senses,” and receive “more refined” ones. Indeed, he will begin to assimilate much of his maker’s personality. As she tells him, in his dazed state, “You shall see with my eyes, taste with my lips” (298).  This loss of self and his absorption into the maker’s identity gives the feminised man the “ultimate pleasure,” not of exclusively female experience, but of “the songs of a strange sexless love” (299). His lover’s “frightening passion” and “exquisite science” make the transformation so effective that Jacques even experiences multiple orgasms in which “joy was born again just when it seemed ready to disappear” (299). Raoule makes Jacques into the woman she has been. Indeed, she looks at him and, in explicitly biblical language, wonders “with a kind of superstitious terror whether she, godlike, had not created a human being in her own image” (314; emphasis added).

Raoule, like Jacques, has dabbled before in making art.  Her room contains an easel and a piano, as well as several crudely executed paintings and drawings “rather free in their subjects” (281). Yet in the godlike action of making her self-portrait from Jacques through the medium of sex, Raoule finds her first true creative calling. She will not merely reenact the world’s existing sins; she will concoct an entirely “new depravity” (303).  She scoffs at the idea that hers is an all too prosaic lesbian interest, for she holds herself above the “crime of boarding-school girls and the faults of prostitutes” (302). Against an aesthetic tradition that assumed women could only copy and not originate, Raoule intends to perform the masculine work of ex nihilo invention – she will be the priest, priestess, and pioneer of entirely new realms of erotic sin and hybridized gender.

Though Rachilde provides Jacques with his own subjective experiences along the way, often by positioning Raoule as the intentional catalyst for these moments, Jacques’s transformation from adored artist to beloved artwork is always in play.  In many ways, the process is a shared rite of passage for both characters. After all, in her earlier life, Raoule underwent the same process of becoming objectified as art. Her “full-length portrait,” now morbidly located in a mortuary chamber, is fetishised by one of her former suitors, Prince Otto, who lies “sighing” beneath it morning to night (292), an image that prefigures Jacques’s ultimate role since the novel closes with the suggestion that Raoule will moon over the simulacra of his dead body (366). Raoule has even attempted to aestheticize herself by commissioning a painting in her own image, cross-dressed in a “Louis XV costume,” to hang above her bed (351). In the portrait, a “reddish greyhound” is evocatively “licking the handle of the whip she held in her hand” (351). 11 The Baron de Raittolbe, outside any aesthetic capacity, draws on the period’s medical discourse and attitudes as objectifying forces.  He decrees Raoule a hysteric for not “following ordinary rules” and expresses his interest in “studying” her, since she is an “agreeable monster” (293-4).

In addition, although both Raoule and Raittolbe turn to violence in their responses to the beloved, they do not do so in the same manner.  Jacques is not simply painted; he is loved, viewed, injured, and, finally, killed. Raoule and Raittolbe each make aggressive appropriations of Jacques’s flesh. When Raoule first introduces Jacques to Raittolbe, her friend, former suitor, and now confidante, it is fitting that “the introduction took place in front of an easel,” for Jacques has become an observed object of desire.  That the picture on Jacques’s easel is “a sketch of a large bouquet of forget-me-nots” indicates that the Edenic early phase of the strange love affair between Raoule and Jacques is ending (306). 12 This duo’s exile from the genderqueer bliss of their “Eden” begins with this introduction to Raittolbe and the other cis-male minor characters, like Martin Durand.

When Raittolbe goes to see Jacques privately, catching a glimpse of him in bed, he is overwhelmed by a “strange hallucination” due to the power of the boy’s beauty. Jacques has “fallen naked and exhausted on the crushed bedspread,” with a leg “twitching as a nervous woman’s does, after a too-prolonged excitation of her senses” (322). Rachilde employs the image of over-sexed female lassitude and clearly signals she understands the era’s motif of the “collapsing woman” who contentedly reclines in post-onanistic or post-coital bliss. 13 Seeing  Jacques “fallen naked and exhausted” on his bed, Raittolbe undergoes hysterical somaticisations not unlike those Raoule experienced. Raittolbe’s “mustache stood on end, his teeth clenched, a shudder convulsed his body, and he broke out with cold perspiration” (322). That his violence emerges from his attempt to “shake off his admirations” and desire for the boy he calls “Eros himself,” is clear. He goes to get “his riding whip” (324). When the youth forbids him to touch his arm, Raittolbe, “seized by a blind anger,” snaps a piece of the easel and beats Jacques “till the stick was broken in pieces” (324; 325).  Raittolbe shows him “what a real man is like” and he escalates the element of intentional violence that will be the dark fate attached to the boy’s appropriation of female beauty (325).

Rachilde describes Raittolbe’s vicious attack as a mode of flesh-painting that leaves marks. Jacques’s skin becomes a canvas “streaked from top to bottom with long, bluish scars” (328). When Jacques goes to Raoule for comfort and she discovers this marking, she first attempts the maternal erasure of rubbing “out every scar” with kisses (329).  Yet, the smell of fresh blood brings out the bacchante in her. She becomes overwhelmed with jealousy and gives into the “sadistic pleasure” of re-marking his flesh with fresh wound-writing of her own: “Violently she tore off the linen bandages she had placed around the sacred body of her idol, she bit his bruised flesh, grasping him tightly, and scratched him with her pointed nails” (330). This scene conflates sexuality, violence, and art production. Raoule’s act of reinscribing the “sacred body of her idol” is both a perverse form of “defloration” and a creative form of erotic “butchery” (330). The atavistic strain of primal cruelty “which she had tried to repress” through her “metamorphosed being,” Rachilde’s phrase for the heroine’s masculine persona, is suddenly and violently roused.  Sadistic and vampiric drives supplant the sexual: “now the thirst for blood that flowed from the convulsed limbs replaced all the pleasure of her ferocious love” (330). Yet art-making is always central, even in this frenzy: Raoule describes the wounds she has left on Jacques’s body as a collective creative project, telling him that his marked flesh “is our work of art” (335).

Others also see in him the stuff of transformative art. Raittolbe calls him the “Antinoüs of the Boulevard Montparnasse” and the otherwise undefined “rakes” at the art salon ask salaciously and simultaneously, hoping for “some unwholesome story,” from whence “that new Antinoüs” comes (335; 342). Rachilde emphasises Jacques’s homosexual appeal and his fascinating beauty through recurring references to Antinoüs, young lover to the Roman Emperor Hadrian who deified the boy when he died (“Antinoüs” Encyclopedia). This places Jacques in a long line of androgynous and beautiful males who are not only ripe to be aestheticised, but also unlikely to survive such a transformation. 14  

Jacques has become the powerful art object he was impotent to produce. He embodies the ideal of feminine beauty and is a surface for the appreciative gaze of others. Rachilde’s narrator makes this alteration  – and Jacques’s awareness of it — from active art maker to passive work explicit: “Jacques, whose body was a poem, knew his poem would always be read more attentively than any letter from such a vulgar writer as he” (327). No sooner than he is reminded that “healthy flesh” is “the sovereign power of the world,” then that ersatz Greek chorus of “rakes” also become seduced by Jacques’s beauty, and, “in one movement,” suffer a synchronized wave of erotic overheating (342-43). The one legitimate artist in the story, Martin Durand, also overwhelmed by Jacques’s image, finds the boy “the most superb type of professional model I have ever met.”  He is inspired to revise the limited eroticized image, to “make something of him,” although his exact plan remains unclear (337).

Though Jacques’s beauty can momentarily throw his admirers into hysterical fugue states, it also can drive them to want to territorialise it with artistic or violent inscriptions. Raittolbe reminds Jacques that he is “a man, not a statue,” yet it is too late. Jacques has become more artwork than man (343) and the story delivers him a gruesome end. Raoule, now married to Jacques and known as Madame Silvert, has discovered her “wife” in Raittolbe’s chambers. Raittolbe has put a gun to his own head in his suicidal shame over his strange passion for Jacques. A duel is arranged to right this scandalous affair, though Jacques, since it is he and not Raoule who will have to fight,  is no skilled swordsman. Raoule and Raittolbe arrange that the fight will be a sham, though Raoule whispers one “to the death” (362).  During the duel, Raittolbe turns away and pushes his sword into Jacques’s temple.  The act performs a strange disembodiment: “It seemed to [Raittolbe] as if his sword had penetrated into the flesh of a newborn” (365).  After he strikes the final blow, Raittolbe exclaims that he “loved him” and appears as pained as a “father who has accidentally killed his son” (365). He tries to suck Jacques’s wound, though Rachilde provides no reason for his action, simply stating that Raittolbe “put his lips to the wound and was trying to draw the blood, which was very slow in coming” not once, but twice “because the blood was still not coming,” (365).

During the entire scene of the duel and, then, of Jacques’s death, Raoule is silent and, then, absent. However, “on the evening of that mournful day” she springs into action (366). Operating within a secret interior space of art making, a trope later seen in Lorrain’s and Wilde’s tales, Raoule has finally become a fully “productive” artist. Her “studio,” an insular shrine to her “idol,” is a “temple of love.” This “walled chamber” has closed shutters and can only be entered through a secret “hidden door” (366). Rachilde describes Raoule’s, or, rather, Mme. Silvert’s, creative construction in language that violently juxtaposes the hyper-masculine work of surgery with the hyper-feminine act of needlework.

Mme. Silvert bent over the bed in the temple of love and, armed with pincers, a velvet covered hammer, and a silver scalpel, engaged in a very difficult task…. Occasionally she dried her tapering fingers with a lace handkerchief. (366)

The “difficult task” we learn is in pulling teeth, hair, and nails out of a corpse for later use. Its surgical precision contrasts with how Raoule uses the lace cloth to dry the blood dripping from her hands while she disfigures her lover’s corpse in the service of making a simulated version of him. Just as the story opens on Jacques making artificial roses, it closes on Raoule making an artificial Jacques by embellishing a mechanised copy of his body with parts of his corpse.  The “natural” components are clearly itemised: they include Jacques’s “red hair, the fair eyelashes, the gold hair of the chest” as well as “the teeth that are in the mouth, and the nails on the hands and feet.”  The narrative makes explicit the origin of these fragments, declaring they “have been torn from a corpse” (366). With these grotesque acts, Raoule parodies Baudelaire’s contention in Fusees III, that “l’amour resemblait fort a une torture ou une operation churirgicale” for her consummate love act begins with torture and ends in surgery. It is, in many ways, the ultimate dark and decadent inside joke.

However, Raoule does not work alone. The last sentence of the story matter-of-factly acknowledges the anonymous German manufacturing agent who has “fabricated” the “anatomical masterpiece,” the “wax figure covered with transparent rubber” (366). Appropriate for a novel which is, in so many ways a perverse mix of citations, Rachilde’s heroine has made the beautiful male body into a figure that comments on one of the great fixtures in the canon of Western painting. Rachilde’s “Venus” ultimately is neither Raoule nor Jacques, but, rather, her conclusion’s monstrous hybrid image of Jacques posed as the iconic goddess of love in Sandro Botticelli’s late fifteenth-century masterpiece, The Birth of Venus.

Figure 2. Sandro Botticelli Birth of Venus (ca. 1480)

Rachilde has carefully aligned her final image with Botticelli’s.  Jacques’s new “body” is arranged in a room “as blue as a cloudless sky” and on a bed “shaped like a shell” (366). Botticelli’s goddess stands on her oversized scallop before a flat blue plane of sky (Fig. 2).  Jacques’s luxuriant hair, his eyelashes, and his body’s golden-red curly hairs iterate the tresses and glance of the goddess. With this final image, Raoule, and Rachilde, take an active stance as decadent female artists who reclaim by perverting the central mimetic icon of ideal femininity.

Only now can the venal Raoule de Vénérande adore her new Venus whose “enameled eyes have an adorable look” (366); those eyes originally described as “strange, yet stupid” (276) have been altered and the new ones become mirror surfaces for Raoule’s wishes. 15  Her earlier failed attempts at visual art production, especially the crudely drawn male nude “with no shading along the thighs” (281), are superseded by an aesthetic and erotic substitution of her own creation, assisted by the German-engineered “hidden spring, installed at the inside of the hips” which “connects with the mouth and brings it to life” (366), suggesting a rudimentary mechanics that simulates a sexual responsiveness is built into the corpse-doll. Raoule venerates this hybrid-gender image. Her aesthetic approach to worship, in which she “kneels at the foot of the bed, and, after contemplating at length the marvelous lines of the wax statue,” is followed by an erotic one in which she “embraces it and kisses it on the mouth” (366). This grotesque artwork is the culmination of Jacques and Raoule’s “common” mission: “the destruction of their sex” (313).

While Monsieur Vénus, the wax simulacra, is a pastiche of parts, biological and otherwise, Monsieur Vénus, the novel, is a collage of referents.  Rachilde was the alchemist for this grand feat.  She leveraged her brilliant ability to absorb multiple literary and medical narratives and weave them into a dark and singular tale about desire, creativity, and violence.  Monsieur Vénus celebrates powerful creative energies, including the radical art of self-transformation between genders, something that presages our modern time. Genderqueer and female characters revel in the creative potential of their imagination, hallucination, craft making, lovemaking, and yet, also their violence. The tale creates ample dialectical energy to consider women’s artistic agency in new ways, and artistic agency in general, while all along couching it in the stereotypical frameworks of hysteria and perversion. Yet, it also does something else as radical: it offers a place for that very hysteria and perversion to be fecund sources of artistic inspiration and practice.  Monsieur Venus is important because it reveals a unique decadent female philosophy of creativity, as revolutionary today as it was in the 1880’s.

Elizabeth Harris McCormick is an Assistant Professor of English at Suffolk County Community College, where she also coordinates the Writing Center. Her scholarship explores the ways fictional, poetic and biographical narratives of artistic creation during the late-nineteenth century challenged turn-of-the-century British psychological theories of the creative imagination and science’s new paradigms for understanding creative processes. She is particularly interested in the ways lesser-known female authors engage with the supernatural to interrogate the era’s psychological theories. Her work has been presented at national and international conferences, collected in The Fantastic of the Fin De Siècle (2016) and appeared in the Henry James e-Journal, Nineteenth Century Gender Studies, and The Worcester Review. She is currently working on a volume of collected essays, The Female Fantastic: Gendering the Supernatural in the 1890s and 1920s. 


1 Rachilde’s appropriation of a stock male narrative is a rhetorical move not uncommon among fin-de-siècle women writers. They were writing against a male intellectual and aesthetic tradition that at best patronised and, at worst, pathologised the creative potential of the female brain. Women wrote “against” these ideas in that their writing variously eschewed, emulated, parodied, or perpetrated these traditions and gender-specific ideas about creativity.
2 Hawthorne notes that the publication of such a scandalous text was treated as a serious offence: “copies of the book were seized and Rachilde was condemned to two years in prison and a fine of two thousand francs” (xi). Rachilde stayed in France to avoid arrest and payment of her fine.
3 For those interested in exploring the author and her work – and their frequent correspondences – I suggest several full-length studies on Rachilde’s life and work, including Michael R. Finn’s Hysteria, Hypnotism, the Spirits, and Pornography: Fin-de- Siècle Cultural Discourses in the Decadent Rachilde (2009), Melanie C. Hawthorne’s Rachilde and French Women's Authorship: From Decadence to Modernism (2001),and Diana Holmes’s Rachilde: Decadence, Gender and the Woman Writer (2001).
4 See Hawthorne, “Introduction.”
5 As this article includes discussion of Barrès’s biographical sketch which prefaced the 1889 edition, that is the edition my article uses throughout. Readers interested in the 1884 first edition can find it reproduced and translated from the French by Melanie Hawthorne
6 Michael R. Finn elaborates on this relationship - and its ironic impact on the preface - in “Rachilde, Maurice Barrès and the Preface to Monsieur Vénus.”
7 An extensive and well-established scholarship has discussed how Charcot, Janet, Breuer, Krafft-Ebbing, and Freud each theorised hysteria as dependent on the imaginative capacity of those who suffered from it. Later, Hall and Ellis would explicitly link hysteria to autoeroticism. For a cogent and brilliant synthesis of this line of thought, see Laura Marcus’s excellent article, “Staging the ‘Private Theater’: Gender and the Auto-Erotics of Reverie.”
8 Barrès substitution of psychic history for aesthetic or intellectual genius plays with the long-standing notion that women’s writing was basically a glorified form of biography, as later seen in William L. Courtney’s 1904 The Feminine Note in Fiction.
9 As a note of clarification, Leighton is discussing women’s poetry, not their fiction. However, her point, and, thus, her phrasing, work well for my argument.
10 I have discussed this point about atavistic genius in an earlier study. See my article “A ‘Bright-Eyed Animal’: Atavistic Genius in Roderick Hudson.”
11 See Dijkstra who discusses the pictorial trope of the society woman and dog, and the “male fantasy of what women did with these dogs” in private (299).
12 Folklore explains that the flower got its name by calling “forget-me-not” out to the newly exiled Adam and Eve as they left Eden.
13 See Dijkstra’s chapter on “Collapsing Women and Solitary Vice,” 64-82.
14 See the entry for Antinoüs in Britannica. As I have noted elsewhere, it was “only after the love of his life went overboard that the historical emperor began to have his image obsessively replicated by artists across his empire. These corpse-copies of the beautiful Greek boy relied on his corporeal demise [In The Picture of Dorian Grey] when Basil announces that ‘the face of Dorian Gray will someday be to me’ what ‘the face of Antinoüs was to late Greek sculpture,’ he not only registers his homosexual desire for the boy, but also his sense that artwork in the image of young male beauty is always tied to death, that his portrait will always be a signifier of the absence or depletion of the original (9). The violence and deviant, visual eroticism associated with creativity are collapsed into this reference” (McCormick, Proteus 171-72).
15 See Dijkstra on the pictorial trope of the woman with “extinguished eyes” (175-185).

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