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A French response to the Wilde affair.

WHILE THE TWO YEARS he served in prison for having engaged in homosexual acts were very hard on Oscar Wilde, the greatest sorrow he experienced as a result of England's stepped-up persecution of gay men in the 1890's was the loss of his two young sons. As he wrote to Alfred Douglas in the text that came to be known as De Profundis:
 But my two children are taken from me by legal procedure. That is and
 will remain to me a source of infinite distress, of infinite pain, of
 grief without end or limit. That the law should decide, and take upon
 itself to decide, that I am one unfit to be with my own children is
 something quite horrible to me. The disgrace of prison is as nothing
 compared to it. I envy the other men who tread the yard along with me.
 I am sure that their children wait for them, look for their coming,
 will be sweet to them.

After his release from prison in 1897, Wilde moved to France. Since homosexual acts were not criminal there, he was able to spend time with Douglas without fear of further legal proceedings; but he never saw his sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, again.

But France in 1897 was not a gay man's utopia either. Although homosexual acts had not been illegal there since 1791, the atmosphere was getting more homo-hostile. Following the publication of Ambroise Tardieu's Medical-Legal Study on Threats to Morality in 1857, French medical science had taken to turning very negative attention to male homosexuality. By the end of the century it was producing works read outside the medical profession that depicted homosexual men as physically and morally degenerate, incapable of "manly" behavior. France's humiliating defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1870 played into these pronouncements. Since physicians and politicians repeatedly explained the loss, not as a result of inferior military leadership, but instead as confirmation that Frenchmen were losing their masculinity, some began to decry male homosexuality as a threat to France's political security.

In 1887, two years after England passed the Labouchere Amendment under which Wilde would later be prosecuted, a former chief of Paris police, Francois Carlier, published a book, The Two Prostitutions: A study in social pathology, in which he argued that France needed to recriminalize homosexual behavior. A proposal to that effect was brought before the Chamber of Deputies the same year. Though it was finally voted down, by 1894 there was a brigade in the Paris police department keeping dossiers on homosexual members of "le Tout-Paris." This homophobia became yet more public in 1895 when the French press began to cover the Wilde trials. Even some of the writers who defended Wilde as an artist nonetheless condemned homosexuality, sometimes quite vehemently, and distanced themselves from it. In his study of Proust and homosexuality, J. E. Rivers wrote that "the Wilde affair cast a pall of paranoia over the subject of homosexuality [in France]."

It was against this backdrop that a French writer penned a play about the loss of one's young children because of a government move to rescind a policy of tolerance toward minorities. Since the writer was a man with young children who was suspected of homosexual acts, the similarities to the Wilde case bear a closer look. The playwright, Pierre Loti (1850-1923), was one of France's best known and most admired novelists of the late 19th century. By May 1897, when Wilde was back in the French press because of his arrival on its shores, Loti had two young sons, Samuel and Raymond, and was expecting the birth of a third, Edmond.

Shortly after Wilde's arrival in France, Loti contacted the innovative French theatre producer Andre Antoine and informed him that he had just found in some old family letters material that he wanted to turn into a play. Over the next year he wrote and rewrote Judith Renaudin, which shows how Louis XIV's Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 forced some of his Protestant ancestors to choose between leaving France or converting to Catholicism. (Louis' grandfather, Henri IV, had promulgated the Edict in 1598, granting freedom from persecution to France's Protestant minority.) The play had a triumphant premiere in November 1898 and ran for 27 performances.

Scholars have wondered why, for the first and only time in his life, Loti turned to a historical subject. The answer would seem to lie in the fact that, despite what he told Antoine and what he wrote in his Avant propos to the play, Judith Renaudin has virtually nothing to do with history. The Revocation decreed that young Protestant children be taken from their families and turned over to Catholic clergy for indoctrination. In the play, French troops arrive on Oleron Island in southeastern France to announce the Revocation and demand that the Renaudin family, along with the rest of the community's Protestants, convert to Catholicism or face imprisonment and possible death. The younger members of the family decide to flee to Protestant Holland, leaving behind the patriarch, Samuel, who is too old to make the trip. In reality, most of the Renaudin family converted, at least outwardly, and did not leave for Holland until some fifteen years later, under far less dramatic circumstances. Why, one might ask, did Loti, himself by then an agnostic, bother to invent this story and then pass it off as historical truth?

The reactions to the Revocation proclamation at the opening of the drama provide a clue to this, particularly since their perspective on the issue is the one repeated throughout the five acts that follow. The second Protestant peasant, having listened to the proclamation as read by the local curate, Baudry, asks: "And what about our children, Monsieur? Is what they have been announcing about our children true?" Like all the other Protestant characters in the play, the peasant's concern is not with the Revocation's effect on religious freedom but with the potential loss of his children.

The importance of this issue in the play is underscored by the fact that even the Catholic figures empathize with their sorrow at being deprived of their children. Act III focuses on the efforts of curate Baudry to hide the Protestant children until their families can escape with them by sea to Holland. It ends with an unsuccessful escape attempt, during which one of the young children, Jean, is killed by the dragoons sent to enforce the Revocation. This incites Baudry's devoutly Catholic housekeeper, Benoite, who had previously been outspoken in her dislike of Huguenots, to cry out at the soldiers: "I'm Catholic! And a curate's servant on top of it! And I tell you that you are beggars worthy of being hanged!... Look at what you did to that little one!"

The play's final focus also concerns the anguish caused by separation from one's young children. The small Renaudin children say goodbye to their grandfather Samuel before their flight to Holland. Portrayed as a strong, almost stoical man throughout the play, Renaudin "strikes his head against the wall and weeps, sobbing." As it stands in the final version of the play, which was published in book form after 1898, this powerful tableau drives home one last time the point introduced by the opening lines: Judith Renaudin is not about religion, it is about the anguish experienced by men who are separated from their children, and in particular young children, by a government's persecution of minorities. In an earlier version, however, published right after the play opened, Samuel's grief-stricken final comments are attributed not to S. Renaudin, like all his other lines in the play, but simply to "The Father," even though he is not the father but the grandfather of those young children. This makes it that much clearer that Loti saw his play very specifically as the story of any father's grief at the loss of his children as a result of his government's move to intolerance.

Of course, any parent not blinded by homophobia would have been moved by Wilde's personal loss. In the case of Loti, however, such natural empathy would have been considerably intensified by the fact that after the 1883 publication of his novel My Brother Yves, the story of a naval officer's love for a sailor that would influence Jean Genet's Querelle of Brest, the popular press had decided that Loti himself was gay. Various satirical publications in Paris linked him to notoriously gay Frenchmen like Jean Lorrain and Robert de Montesquiou, the latter a model for Proust's Baron de Charlus. In its April 25, 1903, issue, for example, L'Assiette au Beurre published a cartoon in which a woman holding a copy of My Brother IV, by Pierlo To, addresses a flower-sniffing, heavily-bejeweled man with the line: "Come now, my dear!... You don't even have the excuse of being in the navy!" That same issue also featured a cartoon in which a fashionably dressed woman out for a stroll with her husband asks some unseen third party, "You're coming for dinner this evening, aren't you?... We're having Pierre Loti and his new Brother Yves."

Such rumors had been circulated since well before Judith Renaudin. In the 21 September, 1890, entry of his diary, novelist and gossip Edmond de Goncourt, himself evidently a closeted gay man, wrote: "Is it true? Princess Mathilde announced that an admiral and a rear-admiral had assured her that Loti had been caught having sex with a man and that an investigation had been started, but then abandoned for I know not what reason." Loti therefore had good reason to believe that, if anti-homosexual legislation was enacted in France, he--like Wilde a celebrity very much in the public eye--would be among its first targets.

One might ask how much of his audience Loti expected to see the parallels between 17th-century France's move to prosecute Protestants and his own era's move to prosecute homosexuals. The case of Oscar Wilde was still fresh in their minds, certainly, since the poet had come to France upon his release from prison in 1897 and was in Paris on November 2, 1898, when the play opened. Andre Antoine, the innovative director who produced Judith Renaudin, had built his reputation on presenting serious literary drama, often with a social conscience. He had just produced the French premiere of German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann's The Weavers a few months before, for example--to which he had sent tickets to Oscar Wilde. Loti's choice of guests for the dress rehearsal must make one wonder whether he broached the topic with them. To Antoine's box he invited Sarah Bernhardt, for whom Wilde had written his French play Salome, and de Montesquiou, who also knew Wilde and was rumored in the press to be gay.

In the end, Judith and the other younger Renaudins do escape to Holland, in part thanks to the help of d'Estelan, the officer in charge of the dragoons sent to enforce the Revocation. When she went to plead for protection, Judith had given him a copy of the Bible in French. Father Baudry informs the Renaudin family that, "while reading the Bible, a sudden light came to him on the horror of the mission that he had too lightly accepted." While some have found this sudden change of heart improbable, it fits with an idea that Loti had already put forth in works such as The Story of a Child (1890) several years before: that literature has the power to make readers empathize even with those who are different. Just as the Bible wins d'Estelan over to tolerance for the Huguenots, so Loti may have hoped that his play would win some of his audience over to tolerance for other minorities.

The last line of the play seems to support this idea. As the little children leave to join their parents for the voyage to Holland, Baudry makes the sign of the cross and calls out: "Yes, Lord, and you, Mary, have pity on them! Guide them, protect them! And, Lord, fill their souls with your holy light!" The first part certainly refers to the fleeing Renaudins. But the last part, "fill their souls with your light," does not reflect Baudry's respect throughout the play for his Protestant neighbors' religious convictions. Instead, it seems to be a prayer to God and the Virgin to fill their persecutors' souls with understanding and tolerance such as d'Estelan had found reading Judith's Bible.

After Judith Renaudin, Loti wrote no more original plays and only one more novel, devoting himself instead to narratives of his travels and, especially during World War I, journalism. He did not forget the technique he'd developed in Judith Renaudin, however. In that last novel, The Disenchanted (1906), he told the story of three contemporary Turkish women who were forced to marry against their will. Once again he suggested parallels with similarly pressured gay men, and once again he used the power in a well-known source of sorrow--the harem--to heighten the power of his presentation.

It would be decades before even French literature could openly portray homosexuality in a positive light, but in his novels and in Judith Renaudin, Loti found a way to present gay issues in mainstream literature. It is not surprising, then, that his contemporary E. M. Forster read Loti as part of his search for a homosexual literary tradition. A generation later, Willa Cather developed what John P. Anders termed an appreciation for "the erotic subtleties of Loti's male romances" to the point that she wrote a friend that "she would swoon with joy if anyone saw traces of Loti in her work." A recent drama like Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde can deal with Wilde's suffering much more directly, but in his far more homophobic day Loti was able to move at least those disposed to be moved by the suffering of gay men by linking it to issues that already resonated in the contemporary consciousness.


Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (New York: Harper and Row, 1989).

See Nancy Erber, "The French Trials of Oscar Wilde," Journal of the History of Sexuality 6:4 (1996): 549-88, especially pp. 562-88.

J. E. Rivers, Proust and the Art of Love (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980) 110.

Richard Berrong, professor of French literature at Kent State University, is the author of In Love with a Handsome Sailor (Univ. of Toronto Press), a study of gay themes in Loti's novels.
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Title Annotation:ESSAY
Author:Berrong, Richard
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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