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literature

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French Literature: Nineteenth Century  
 
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"Lesbos," originally published in a literary review in 1850, was one of the first works identifying with lesbianism. An apologia for the ancient homeland of Sappho, the poem celebrates the isle of Lesbos as a sensual feminine world and a place of poetic creation. On the island, kisses are "languid or joyous, warm as suns and fresh as watermelons"; judgments disparaging lesbianism are repudiated.

The two poems entitled "Femmes damnées" place lesbians in a modern setting. As their titles suggest, these poems have a more condemnatory tone than "Lesbos."

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"Femmes damnées: Delphine et Hippolyte" begins with portraits of two women embarking on a sexual relationship and has at its center the attempt of the self-assured Delphine to comfort and sway the uncertain and fearful Hippolyte. The poem ends with a biting condemnation of these "damned women" and their "bitter sterility."

Similarly, the more anonymous, shorter "Femmes damnées" describes a nameless group of lesbians as a miserable lot doomed to exile. Still, both poems betray more than a hint of admiration for these social outcasts.

Théodore de Banville (1823-1891) contributed to the Sapphic tradition by including "Erinna" in his collection, Les Exilés (1867). Dedicated to Boyer, this poem contrasts with Baudelaire's torrid representation of Lesbos. Banville has Erinna, both Sappho's student and her successor, address a group of chaste young women poets, admonishing them to remain virginal in the pursuit of poetic perfection.

Paul Verlaine's sonnet series, Amies (first published in 1867, in Belgium to avoid the censorship of the Second Empire), offers six erotic poems depicting lesbian sexuality. Although the final sonnet, "Sappho," is named after the Greek poet, the first five represent the sexual initiation of modern adolescent girls in a number of settings.

Pierre Louÿs also wrote numerous poems focusing on lesbian coupling, seemingly directed to a male audience. Although authored by Louÿs himself, Les Chansons de Bilitis (1894) was presented as Louÿs's translations of recently found ancient Greek texts. His Chansons secrètes de Bilitis, a more explicitly erotic collection of poems, followed four years later.

Louÿs was one of the most prolific pornographic writers of the period; his work, including both poems and fiction (such as Les aventures du Roi Pausole, 1901), explicitly depicts both heterosexual and lesbian lovemaking.

In the realm of prose fiction, popular novelists and avant-garde writers alike followed the poets' lead by creating lesbian characters.

Adolphe Belot's novel, Mademoiselle Giraud, ma femme (1870), though practically unknown today, was a best-seller; in it, the protagonist discovers his wife to be involved with another woman.

Emile Zola (1840-1902), one of the founders of the naturalist movement, represents lesbianism in several novels, most notably in La Curée (1871) and Nana (1879). A lesbian couple, the marquise d'Espanet and Suzanne Haffner, appears in the former, whereas Nana experiences several sapphic adventures in the latter.

In "La Femme de Paul" (1881) by Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), Paul, the devoted and rather effeminate lover of Madeleine, loses sight of his mistress during a boating excursion when a raucous band of lesbians arrives. When he discovers Madeleine in the embrace of the mannish Pauline, he drowns himself in the river, moved by despair.

During the 1880s and 1890s, several more novels explored "degenerate" female sexuality.

For example, Catulle Mendès's Méphistophéla (1890) traces the life of la baronne Sophor d'Hermelinge, who grows from an innocent young virgin into an obsessed, evil lesbian. Her degeneracy is attributed to a family curse, passed down from the father she never knew who was "raped" by her conniving and indecent mother in order to secure an inheritance. The plot of the novel, like its language, is ornate, and the tone hesitates between fascination and disapproval.

These and other texts of the period focusing on lesbians were authored nearly exclusively by men who betrayed no interest in gay male sexuality, either in their lives or their works. The tone and characterization of their writings varied widely. The works were often condemnatory or moralizing, but this did not prevent them from also being titillating, even pornographic.

Whether ancient or modern, lesbian love was sometimes depicted as naively innocent, sometimes as lasciviously excessive. Some authors, like Baudelaire, turned the lesbian into a highly aestheticized figure who mirrored the artist's outcast and misunderstood existence.

What these disparate representations had in common was their objectification of lesbianism. Written for a male audience, the works tended to be voyeuristic. Given the considerable number of allusions that these texts make to one another, one has the impression that they were often written in a spirit of rivalry, with other male writers specifically in mind.

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