Having It All in the Belle Epoque
by Rachel Mesch

Reviewed by Emily Hershman


Published by Stanford University Press, 2013   |   256 pages

The nineteenth-century marked a period of considerable transition and upheaval in France, as elsewhere in the world.  Beginning with the convening of the National Assembly in June 1789 and the storming of the Bastille the following month, the French Revolution remade the political fabric of the state, and over the following two and a half decades Napoleon attempted to remake Europe by conquest.  After Napoleon’s fall from power, the political situation in France remained unstable, the faction in charge alternating regularly between republics and monarchies.  Despite governmental instability, by midcentury the scientific revolution and modern laissez-faire economics remade the French city landscape, as urbanization saw unprecedented numbers of the population relocate from the country to the city.  In the service of public hygiene and safety, Georges-Eugène Haussman transformed Paris, razing medieval neighborhoods and constructing wide boulevards.  By the end of the century, a period auspiciously termed the Belle Epoque, Paris had become a modern metropolis; it was also the epicenter of social, cultural, and economic debates regarding the nation’s future.

Often invoked with nostalgia by those who suffered through the First World War, the European Belle Epoque was in fact a precarious time of conflicting ideologies.  The mass execution and imprisonment of socialist Paris Commune revolutionaries by the Third Republic in 1871, for example, would hardly seem an auspicious environment for furthering the aims of social equality. And yet, social upheaval was at hand.  Despite the conservatism of the French monarchy, the Enlightenment legacy of the Philosophes (Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot) could not be suppressed.  Notions of identity and justice that were previously taken for granted were heatedly debated.  The famous scandal of the Dreyfus Affair, for example, illuminated anti-Semitism that previously went unchallenged.

Rachel Mesch’s Having It All in the Belle Epoque is an investigation into the role of the print culture of the period’s women’s magazines, in particular their role in advocating for the proto-feminism of the New Woman ideal. Mesch’s main contention is that the fashion periodical, in generating the femme moderne – “an alternative model of femininity” – was no mere technology for domestication; it occupied a more ambiguous function in the gender discourse of the time, situating the femme moderne as “both progressive in her pursuit of equality and conservative in her embrace of conventional gender differences.”

Drawing evidence from photographs and articles in Femina and La Vie Heureuse magazines, Mesch meticulously recreates that bygone world. She delineates, for example, the personalities who peer from the heady features of Femina and La Vie Heureuse: poet and novelist Countess Anna de Noailles; acclaimed writer Daniel Lesueur; Legion of Honor contender Marcelle Tinayre; world traveler Lucie Delarue-Mardus.  In helping to establish literary prizes such as Les Prix Femina and the Prix Vie Heureuse, judged exclusively by women, these figures promoted women’s centrality in literary culture.  Showcasing exemplars of various lifestyles and livelihoods, these publications foregrounded the ideal off “having it all,” which came to include roles and privileges previously afforded exclusively to men.  Mesch does simultaneously acknowledge the role women’s magazines played in fostering a nascent consumer culture.  The women’s fashion magazine, it seems, preached power and obedience in the same breath.

Both Femina and La Vie Heureuse, it is important to note, were careful to moderate their discussions of gender equality.  The femme moderne was always situated within a context of family and domesticity.  With the invention of the automobile, for example, the issue of female drivers arose.  Within the women’s magazines, Mesch suggests, female drivers were consciously framed within “a family-friendly expansion of the woman’s traditional private sphere.”  When initiating the Prix Femina prize, Femina editors asserted, for example, that “no one values domestic virtues more than us” and even went so far as to say “any ‘feminism’. . .is strictly repudiated” within its pages.  Such qualifications reveal the magazines’ cautious and deliberate self-fashioning: progressive actions accompanied by assurances of traditional conservativism.

As is befitting any treatment of clothing, décor, and print media, Mesch’s analysis does not rely on the written word alone.  A major strength of this work is its inclusion of many illustrations and careful consideration of the function of various editorial layouts and portrait strategies.  It places the images of Femina and La Vie Heureuse within the context of Dornac’s (Paul François Arnold Cardon; 1859–1941) “At Home” photography technique, an approach that “focused entirely on the individual at close range, often with a few strategically placed symbolic objects.”  Such props, Mesch argues, proved critical in shaping the femme moderne’s persona, and served conflicting ideologies, foregrounding the domestic setting in one photo and a work desk in another. Mesch notes how even figures who might be considered militant outsiders of the moderate agendas of Femina and La Vie Heureuse could be normalized by this technique.  For instance, “left-leaning journalist” Séverine is pictured in Femina “as one with the home,” seated near the hearth in her dining room.

Despite the impressive scope of its research, Having It All in the Belle Epoque does at times fall short in its examination of politics and class.  Mesch describes her initial encounter with the magazines as “love at first sight,” a position which perhaps prevents her from exploring the darker aspects of the femme moderne.  Though she does acknowledge that La Vie Heureuse’s decision to feature “select, elite women” functioned as “an aristocratic model” that gave no voice to the vast majority, Mesch offers little beyond an anecdote about female phone operators and stenographers to account for why this is not a significant concern.  In addition, a clear assessment of the magazines’ readership would seem to be prerequisite to any final understanding of whether the magazine was “effacing class lines” or pandering to an elite demographic, and yet Mesch provides none.  Furthermore, Mesch depicts “Orientalist” editorials and layouts (those featuring Asian props and dress) as an attempt at empowerment, a dynamic in which “oriental [sic] adornments indirectly applaud women’s more powerful roles in Western civilization.”  As with the maintenance of a hierarchical status quo, however, one could just as easily (or quite possibly more easily) argue that showcasing Eastern and North African locales at the height of French imperialism was a reactionary political statement.

In Having It All in the Belle Epoque, Mesch sheds new light on the gender mores of 19th century Europe.  As she warns, the modern woman becomes a “bundle of contradictions” for whom “there are no easy answers.”  A feature on French writer Colette in La Vie Heureuse shows these discrepant paradigms.  Surrounded by “books strewn about” and “leafed-through magazines,” her living space reflects both “the severity of intellect” and “the lightness of feminine ornaments and flowers.”  By featuring controversial women within the safety zones of traditional femininity, French women’s magazines reveal the struggles that would define the women’s rights movements throughout the twentieth century, including work-life balance.  Mesch’s study raises powerful new questions about the place of fashion periodicals in campaigns for women’s equality.

Emily Hershman is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Notre Dame.  She recently served as managing editor of Nineteenth-Century Contexts.  She is currently at work on a dissertation examining the relationships between gender and internationalism in Irish Modernist literature.

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