Friday, September 26, 2014

The strong Women of French Pulp Fiction, and their unexpected authors

http://z13.invisionfree.com/The_Shadowmen_Lounge/index.php?showtopic=54
The struggle to gain better female representation in Genre fiction is an interesting and complicated one. Recent years have seen a lot of progress with the success of movies  like The Hunger Games, and Divergent and Frozen  and Wonder Woman finally coming to the big screen (First in Batman Vs Superman, then finally a solo movie). But also lots of developments that demonstrate how much more work needs to be done, like the recent controversy with the latest Assassins Creed game announcing it won’t have any female playable characters.

What continually interests me is how surprisingly ahead of their time many older authors were. Both the frequently revered classics, and the more obscure ones, both English and French. In this post I’ll be discussing mainly what I see as an interesting observation about 4 of the major feuilletonists, but I’ll be making more posts on other characters.

I want to point out something interesting I've observed about the four major feuilletonists of the Golden age of the Romans-Feuilletin. Alexandre Dumas, Eugene Sue, Paul Feval and Ponson Du-Terril.

Stableford spends a good deal of  time in the Introduction and Afterward material for the Feval and Ponson translations he’s done for BlackCoatPress talking about the political alignments of those four authors. What I find curious is that the two who were the “Conservatives” in the contexts of post Revolutionary France (in being devout Catholics and Royalists) Feval and Ponson. Seem to me to have over all been more inclined to write surprisingly strong independent women.

Dumas arguably invented the modern Femme Fatale, between both writing the Le Tour de Nesle play and the character of Milady d’Winter in The Three Musketeers, but like many firsts I feel they pale in comparison to their more fleshed out literary descendants (both the well known and less well known). And I of course love the heavily implied Lesbian characters of The Count of Monte-Cristo, Eugenie Danglars and Louise d'Armilly. And I find Ziska from his Le Vampire play fascinating. But beyond those examples, Dumas’s women conform to the stereotypes you expect, still well written characters because Dumas was a great writer of Melodrama, but not too innovative.

Sue is admittedly the one I’m currently least familiar with. But still, plenty of what I've heard about what transpires over the course of Les Mysteries du People wouldn't sit well with Feminists.  And I've read the stage play he himself made of The Mysteries of Paris (Translated by Frank Morlock).  And the two main female characters are a typical Ingenue (clearly part of the inspiration for Cossete in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables), and Countess Sarah who's a fallen woman desperately seeking redemption (I think the play makes her ending happier then the original Novel based on what I read in Shadowmen).  I feel for the character, she's not horribly written, but also not subversive like I'd expect from France's top Socialist writer.  The character of La Chouette (The Owl) is only mentioned in the play and doesn't appear directly.  She at any rate was an ugly evil old crone.

Ponson was seemingly more inclined then Feval to let his political-religious views influence his writing in a very obvious and, intentionally or not, preachy way.  I've often found myself thinking “really? that’s what’s honorable to you Ponson?”.

But none the less, in what would become known as the Rocambole saga, Bacarat proves to be a very formidable woman. In the first novel she’s an important but minor role, however in the second and third novels she proves to be the real Hero of the story. And Torquise proves to be a very mesmerizing Femme Fatale in the second Novel. The two Ponson Vampire novels Stableford has translated for BlackCoatPress both have compelling women as the title Vampires. In his introduction-afterward material for The Vampire and The Devil’s Son Stableford discuses how Ponson kind of innovated a lot of the tropes common in modern Romance Novels. (Update: more on Rocombole here)

Paul Feval’s characters are endlessly fascinating.  Plenty fit the norms you’d expect of the time, but many do not. I personally think two of the greatest Femme Fatales ever written are Countess Marcian Gregory of The Vampire Countess and Marguerite Sadoulas of The Blackcoats saga. But Sarah O’Neil of John Devil is also an interesting early experimentation with that archetype. The saga of the Habits Noirs also has some strong heroic women. Rose de Malvoy is the real hero of The Heart of Steel, Valentine (Fleurette) and Maman Leo are the core protagonists of The Invisible Weapon. Regina from Bel Demonio is bound to gain conflicting responses from a modern feminist reader, I’d dare say she’d fit in as an Anime character quite well. Susannah gets an opportunity to show some impressive courage in Les Mysteries de Londres.

In Le Bossu our young female lead is allowed to actually save herself from an attempted Rape, something Stableford suspects Feval might have originally intended to do again in The Sword Swallower. Vampire City has both Anna Ward (Anne Radcliffe) and Polly Bird, (warning though, the desire of some modern reviewers to describe Polly Bird as transgender is very misleading).

And there are still so many Feval works not available to me yet. Among them La Louve (The She Wolf) the prequel to Le Loup le Blanc (The White Wolf), and quite possibly the first depiction of a masked female vigilante.  The novel it prequels was the first depiction of a Masked Vigilante period, well before Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel.

I want to go back a bit now.  Stableford describes The Heart of Steel as "Unintentionally Proto-Feminist".  I've suggested elsewhere it may not be as unintentional as you'd think.  But by no means do I think Feval would be a cheerleader of modern Feminism.

In the case of the Invisible Weapon.  I'm not sure, but I think it may very well pass the Bechel Test.  Considering how rare passing that still is, I think it's really fascinating to consider that a forgotten work of 19th century literature (a sequel to a prequel) by a man fighting the tides of a change could be capable of passing it.  (Update 12/23/2015, since I've seen it argued The Force Awakens passes, The Invisible Weapon certainly would by that standard).

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