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French Literature: Nineteenth Century  
 
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The nineteenth century in France witnessed a dramatic increase in literary representations of same-sex eroticism, a development that can be traced both to literary trends and to historical change.

Although the first half of the century is relatively poor in such depictions, after 1850, with the birth of literary movements such as symbolism, decadence, realism, and naturalism, gay and lesbian sexuality becomes a significant subject in the national literature. One might say that, constituting more than simply a new "theme," these new representations changed the course of literary history.

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In 1791, revolutionary penal codes did away with laws that had criminalized homosexuality, a reform that was maintained in the Napoleonic Code of 1804. Yet it was not until the 1830s, at the height of romanticism, that lesbian and gay male characters began to appear in French literature in significant numbers.

Most romantic writers were largely silent about nonheterosexual relationships, but others, in their first flirtations with , turned their attentions to the fluidity of sexuality, to a whole gamut of sexual deviance, rather than to "homosexuality" per se.

This period witnessed an interest in ambiguous gender and mobile sexuality that included , transvestism, and hermaphroditism. The most significant contributions to this literature came from the authors Théophile Gautier, George Sand, and Honoré de Balzac.

Transvestism, Androgyny, and Hermaphrodism

Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), by Gautier (1811-1872), gave birth to a heroine whose transvestism makes possible several transgressions of the heterosexual imperative. Mlle de Maupin, who dresses as a man and calls herself Théodore in order to move freely in male social spheres, combines delicate features with a masculine attire and seduces both the male narrator, Albert, and his mistress, Rosette.

Albert confesses his love for the consummately androgynous, and therefore irresistible, Théodore: "What I feel for this young man is truly incredible; never has a woman troubled me in this way." At the same time, Rosette manages to lure Theodore into her bed, and the discovery she makes there does nothing to cool her passions.

Mademoiselle de Maupin, then, is less about lesbianism or gay male sexuality than about a questioning of gender boundaries (through dress and social interaction) that permits the exploration of unconventional sexualities.

Although Mademoiselle de Maupin is the most striking example of literary interest in indeterminate gender and sexuality, it is by no means the only one during this period.

Balzac's short story, "Sarrasine" (1830), turns on the protagonist's attraction to a beautiful singer who is not a woman, as he believes, but a cross-dressing castrato.

Somewhat later, Gautier's poem, "Contralto" (in Emaux et camées, 1852), compares the indeterminately sexed beauty of a Greek statue to that of a singer with a contralto voice.

Similarly, Theodore de Banville's "Hermaphrodite" (in Les Exilés, 1867), relishes the uncertainty of a "beautiful being" whose torso resembles that of a heroic young man and whose breasts are like those of a pale virgin.

The androgyne, the transvestite, and the hermaphrodite are all figures who represent not the effacement of sexuality, but its doubling.

George Sand and Her Influence

In George Sand's literary circle, her transvestism did not hide her gender, but allowed her to avoid contemporary obstacles confining women. Moving in both social worlds like Gautier's Maupin, Sand was also notorious for moving in both sexual worlds: Her affairs with Alfred de Musset, Frederic Chopin, and other men, were no less talked about than her liaison with the actress Marie Dorval.

Sand challenged traditional gender roles in several of her early works, but only in her third novel, Lélia (1833), does she allude, briefly, to a lesbian attraction with overtones of incest. At a masked ball the courtesan Pulcherie confesses to her cross-dressing sister, Lélia, that she first learned of desire while asleep in her arms.

The historical woman Aurore Dudevant (1804-1876), who fashioned herself into the writer and personality George Sand, influenced her contemporaries as much with her own life as with her writing.

"Gamiani" (1833), an anonymous pornographic short story attributed to Musset, is said to be modeled after Sand. The countess Gamiani suffers from "the sad condition of having divorced with nature," and yet her sexuality is less defined in terms of a preferred object than of an insatiability of desire and a multiplication of partners--including, among others, Alcide, who participates as narrator and voyeur; depraved monks, countless nuns, and a particularly perverse mother superior; an innocent virgin and even a well-endowed donkey.

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Emile Zola represented lesbian sexuality in several novels, but he deliberately avoided a literary study of male homosexuality when offered the opportunity to explore it.
  
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