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literature

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French Literature: Nineteenth Century  
 
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Similarly, Balzac's Séraphîta (1835) is said to be based on the Sand legend. This mystical novel, indebted to the Swedish philosopher Swedenborg's notion of divine androgyny, tells the story of the idealized double-sexed creature, Séraphîta, who also appears in masculine clothing as Séraphîtüs.

Sand would later echo Séraphîta with her play Gabriel (1843), whose title character is raised and educated as a boy in order to preserve the family inheritance, only to be informed of her "true" sex when she reaches the threshold of adulthood.

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Tormented by this revelation, Gabriel flees to find the rightful heir, her cousin Astolphe. In the intrigue that follows, Astolphe falls in love with "Gabriel" whose secret is eventually revealed, to Astolphe's great relief.

The protagonist passes back and forth between male and female personae, alternately called Gabriel and Gabrielle, but her search for happiness is frustrated in both guises by societal expectations of gender roles.

Balzac

Balzac (1799-1850), whose voluminous Comédie humaine (1842-1848), a network of more than a hundred novels with recurring characters and intertwining plots, turned his gift for description and character analysis toward questions of sexuality and gender with greater insistence than his contemporaries.

He created Vautrin, perhaps the first gay male literary figure of the modern period. A master criminal nicknamed "Trompe-la-mort," Vautrin finds himself in the masculine world of prison in Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838-1847). His character also appears in Le père Goriot (1833) and Illusions perdues (1837-1845), among other novels.

A few of Balzac's texts include lesbian characters, most notably La fille aux yeux d'or (1835), where the young and beautiful Paquita is kept cloistered by her lesbian lover, a rich marquise.

Paquita deceives her with a man, the marquise's own brother, Henri de Marsay, but not before he accedes to Paquita's wishes by donning female attire. Paquita addresses him as Mariquita in a moment of passion, and the novella ends in a blood bath when the marquise learns of Paquita's betrayal.

Latent lesbian themes also appear in Béatrix (1839) and La cousine Bette (1846).

The Formation of Lesbian and Gay Male Identities

The work of Balzac marks a moment of transition when representations of indeterminate gender coexisted with newly forming literary identities that separated the lesbian from the gay male character.

French literature of the period seems to confirm historian Michel Foucault's assertion in History of Sexuality that homosexuality as a specific identity emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. He attributed the "discovery" of the homosexual to the medical community.

Defined largely in terms of perversion or degeneration, often allied with criminality and prostitution by sexologists, gay male and lesbian sexuality came of age in literature at a time when the European medical profession was subjecting it to close and largely unsympathetic scrutiny.

Sexologists also helped to establish a new vocabulary--including such terms as "homosexuality," "," "inversion," "lesbian" as a noun, and "the third sex," all of which entered the French language during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Lesbian Sexuality

After Balzac's death, a literary tradition that highlighted lesbian sexuality developed. In 1850, two plays were published that marked the birth of a literary fad focusing on the figure of Sappho: Arsène Houssaye's Sapho, drame antique and Philoxène Boyer's very popular Sapho.

Although these Sapphos were heterosexual, they were among the first in a tradition that sexualized the Greek poet and identified her as the prototypic lesbian. But the sapphic literary craze was not limited to depictions of the ancient poet; indeed, the modern lesbian who flourished in symbolist poetry ranged from the virginal schoolgirl to the depraved nymphomaniac.

Lesbian Texts by Male Authors

In the late 1840s, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) publicized a collection called Les Lesbiennes that never appeared. In 1857, however, he published Les Fleurs du mal (1857) in which the lesbian is a central figure, represented above all in three poems entitled "Femmes damnées: Delphine et Hippolyte," "Femmes damnées" and "Lesbos."

On publication, "Femmes damnées: Delphine et Hippolyte" and "Lesbos" (along with four other poems), were condemned as immoral by the Second Empire court and censored from the work; they were not restored until 1949.

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