Monsters, new women and lady professors: a centenary look back at Gabrielle Reval.
In the first years of the twentieth century, Gabrielle Reval (pseudonym of Gabrielle Logerot, class of 1890) wrote a series of semi-autobiographical best-sellers about the first Sevriennes, the challenges of their training years in Paris and the trials of their teaching debuts. While these pioneering teachers participated in a major shift in educational institutions and middle-class images of femininity, their lives were a constant struggle for acceptance in a society that generally feared and abhorred them. They also had to contend with the Third Republic's desires to contain the many unintended consequences resulting from this educational innovation. Reval's novels, with all their impassioned and irreverent inside-views of the tensions informing the private and professional lives of these "new women," throw a stark light on the paradoxes and contradictions upon which the Third Republic's experiment in women's education was founded.
True, the first Sevriennes broke the gender barrier that divided male professeurs in the lycees from women institutrices at the elementary level. It was clear, however, that the women were not to be carbon copies of male lycee-professors, but rather a novel replication of reassuring images of bourgeois femininity (Margadant 3). From a good distance the school at Sevres might have looked like the twin of the ecole normale superieure in Paris. Yet it was certainly no mirror of that prestigious male institution. Here, as in the nineteenth-century home, sisters were not reared like their brothers. There was no equivalence between the degrees and the curricula of the two schools. The normaliens were, of course, all bacheliers. The first Sevriennes usually did not have the baccalaureat, as public schools did not begin preparing girls for this diploma until 1924. (3) While the normaliens prepared the licence and one of five highly specialized agregations within the traditional university system, the Sevriennes worked toward diplomas designed exclusively for women, the certificat and one of just two agregations fiminines, in the humanities or the sciences. (4) The objective here was clear: women professors would be generalists; unlike their masculine counterparts, they would not have the specialist's capacity either to understand their fields fully or to speculate beyond them. Women professors were to be primarily teachers, not scholars. Sevres also required proficiency in skills widely expected of cultivated bourgeois women, yet incongruous with what they would ever be expected to teach in the classroom; for example, civil law, needlework, and mastery of English or German (which they would never teach, as all foreign language was taught only by holders of the masculine agregation in that field [Margadant 83-84]).
After having received dissimilar educations in separate institutions, the teachers formed at the normal schools in Paris and at Sevres conducted their careers under the sign of difference. While the men went off to train boys for the baccalaureat, a standard national exam, the first university degree in the French system and the stepping-stone to all professional life, the women would spend their lives preparing their pupils for the diplome, an in-house examination which took place at the end of a short five-year course of study of modern languages (but no Latin, that proud badge of the bachelier), French literary classics, history, home economics, music, needlework and a smattering of elementary science. Indeed, the 1890s curriculum in the lycees de jeunes filles was not much different from that offered by convents and pensions in the 1840s. The most striking innovation was that now moral instruction replaced catechism. Yet this new course, whose purpose was to teach girls their social duties as females, for the family and for the nation, was taught like catechism, in order to avoid any hint of speculation. Unlike the boys' baccalaureat, the girls' diplome granted no university qualifications whatsoever. It was designed as a terminal and almost entirely non-professional degree. In the 1890s, graduation from a lycee de jeunes filles signaled the end of a girl's formal education and a permanent retreat back into the home while awaiting marriage (Margadant 33-35).
As in their intellectual training, there were strong contrasts between the social training and future expectations of Sevriennes and normaliens. While both institutions fostered in their students a sense of belonging to an intellectual elite, clear differences stand out. By the 1890s the men's school had definitively thrown off the monastic model of the scholarly life. On the other hand, the anti-clerical republicans who founded the women's school at Sevres deliberately modeled this school on the cloister. Likewise, the men's school formed its articulate and self-assertive students for an active public life. The school at Sevres, however, remained a closed community, something between a convent and a bourgeois home, where behind high walls virginal surrogate-mothers prepared to rear the well-heeled daughters of France. For the normaliens, the agregation marked their passage into manhood, the last big step toward the rewarding possibilities of a respected profession, marriage and family. The successful Sevrienne faced a starkly different set of circumstances. For her, the agregation opened the possibility of earning for herself the financial security that her family had been unable to provide her in the form of a dowry, but at the same time the degree locked her into the hard, lonely life of a misfit condemned to live on the margins of a society suspicious of her brains and morbidly curious about her sexual life.
All in all, the educational reforms ushered in by Camille See in the early years of the Third Republic set up a gender-specific, two-track system with different degrees, curricula and social objectives. While the republican reformers championed the educated "new woman" against the accusations of monstrosity coming from the Catholic opposition, they certainly intended no major change in the traditional gendered roles of men and women. In this regard, their thought was largely a variation on well-known themes from Rousseau and Michelet. The republican reformers were very eager, moreover, to make sure that their "new woman" was neither too new nor too independent. They wanted teachers for their new lycees dejeunes filles, but still more ardent apostles for the Republic. Despite all the public antagonism between republicans and Catholics in the Third Republic, both factions basically agreed about the proper place of women in society, as wives and mothers under a husband's tutelage in the home. If the Republicans were now validating a worldly role for women as teachers in the new lycees, this was only because they felt they had no other choice. Throughout the nineteenth-century Catholic nuns had maintained a near monopoly on girls' education. In order to compete with the Catholic church for the hearts and minds of French girls, the Republic had to imitate the convents--in teaching staff, curricula and institutional ethos--as far as possible.
"Egalite dans la difference." This motto, coined by Ernest Legouve, an early defender of girls' secondary studies and Sevres' first Inspector General, became emblematic of the spirit of this segregated, two-track system. But what did this paradox entail, in its concrete applications? Although Camille See clearly intended that women teachers would enjoy the same rights, privileges, salaries and conditions of employment as the male teachers, the Ministry of Education soon put an end to that. Because the women entered the school at Sevres without the baccalaureat and then went on to earn different degrees from those of male lycee professors, the women would also be treated differently (Margadant 4042). What did that difference mean? In a conversation with a thinly disguised Legouve, Berthe Passy, one of Reval's out-spoken Sevriennes, brutally sums it up: "nous sommes les chemineaux de l'Universite" (Sevriennes 301).
How does Gabrielle Reval portray her experience as one of the first Sevriennes? "Ni nonnes, ni etudiantes," these sixty young women lived for three years at the school at Sevres, which she describes as a "gynecee liberal" (vi), an extraordinary site of intellectual challenge, growth and transformation. The school's recruitment was composed almost exclusively of young women who, for lack of a dowry, were forced to consider a career in teaching, all the while aware that this professional identity would further compromise their prospects for marriage. Though no one doubted the primarily economic motivation of these future Sevriennes, the school did its best to pour them into sublime molds. The director Mme Ferron (Mme Jules Fabre in real life) urged them to devote their lives to her austere stoic ideal so that they, having become "des etres virils et in&pendants" (179), would be ready to cope with the hardships that awaited them once they left the "paradis" (77) of Sevres for the "enfer" of the provinces, where society had no role for educated women. At the same time they were expected to conform to Sevres' non-threatening ideal of the learned woman, clearly devised to ward off the barbs of molieresque satire: "ni savante, ni pedante; un esprit juste, cultive qui cherche dans la science, non pas une parure, mais un appui" (76).
Exhorted to be simultaneously virile in thought and womanly in demeanor, the students at Sevres were, above all, girls whose minds would reach the crisis of puberty (vi) within this walled community of women and whose lives would require a virginal sacrifice of the body in order to carry out their professional calling. The problem looms large for Reval and many of her characters. How could these girls, at such a young age, renounce the hope of love, children and domestic happiness in order to embrace a life of chastity, stripped even of the nun's consolations of faith, communal life and social acceptance? Berthe Passy, the bold Bohemian of this promotion, does not mince words in this matter. In her opinion,
la femme professeur, telle qu'elle existe aujourd'hui, est un monstre, un monstre malheureux.... Le plus cruel de notre vie, ... c'est l'antinomie entre notre independance d'esprit et notre esclavage de corps. L'instruction nous a affranchies de tous les prejuges. Par le pensee, notre vie vaut celle des hommes. Dans la realite, a chaque instant, nous sommes victimes des potins, de la mefiance, de la calomnie. (185)
Hence, in the gap between Sevres's official high-mindedness and the students' deep qualms about their futures, Reval studies the struggling underside of the school: fierce competition, dirty tricks and spying that shatter the cozy family model, devious plots to seduce male professors and escape Sevres through marriage as well as pathetic lesbian drama.
In Les Siwriennes, Reval focuses on Marguerite Triel, whose development furnishes the plot-line of the novel. She enters Sevres as a bookish Madonna, dreaming only of "une vie si chaste, si laborieuse" (10) and earnestly desiring to live up to the high ideals of her alma mater. During the course of her studies at Sevres, Marguerite turns away from Catholicism, also rejecting the director's icy stoicism which she sees as part and parcel of an entire educational system that goes "contre la nature" (29). For Marguerite, an exception among her comrades, the life of the mind means much more than polishing essays and cramming for exams. Striving to become something more than a walking, talking Manuel de l'Ecole de Sevres, she aims for authenticity, by which she means full development of the mind and self through study, an intellectual as well as sensuous response to the texts among which she lives. Although the Protestant spirit of Sevres also extols the value of authenticity, Marguerite learns that the school abides by a highly censured sense of the term, in strict conformity with the conventional codes of feminine decorum.
Bit by bit, the death of a beloved fellow Sevrienne from overwork, reports of general despair and even suicide from anciennes eleves teaching in the provinces, and her ever richer response--in mind, body and heart--to books contribute to a growing conflict between her desires for love and sexual fulfillment and the demands of her future profession. The crisis comes to a head in her third and final year when she falls in love with a man who returns her love but cannot marry her. Undaunted, she opts for union libre, strengthened in this resolve by the director's course on the Civil Code. In this course Mme Ferron clearly aimed to inspire voluntary, reflective obedience on the part of her students. On the other hand, Mme Ferron's critical discussions of various articles of the code left the door open to transgression and revolt in the name of conscience. After the seed of this teaching germinates in Marguerite, she earns first place at the agregation, then immediately resigns in order to follow her love, eagerly thanking Sevres from having freed her from small-minded convention and prejudice. Obviously, her spiritual itinerary--from Madonna to number one at the agregation to shameless concubine--confirmed the worst fears, among Catholics and republicans alike, about the grave dangers of educating women, for whom knowledge always risked becoming bold self-fashioning, even rank subversion.
In Un lycee dejeunes filles: professeurs femmes the scene shifts to Baume-les-Belles, a fictional town located in conservative western France, and thereby to a whole new set of problems. Here Reval focuses upon two young professors at the local girls' lycee, Berthe Passy and Marie Fleuret. Already in Les Sevriennes Berthe, the free-wheeling daughter of a bohemian poet of Montmartre, played a prominent role as Marguerite Triel's best friend and confidante. Now at the age of twenty-seven, this feisty agregee, known to her colleagues as "la Guepe" for her ironic, forthright speech, has lost none of her pluck (lycee 57). This seasoned veteran will initiate Marie Fleuret, a fervently dedicated yet defenseless twenty-three year-old who has just come down from Sevres, into the rigors of her new life as woman professor in provincial France. Imbued with the ideals of her training years at Sevres, Marie could not possibily be less prepared for the hostility, suspicion and prurient curiosity that generally surround the lycee George-Sand in Baume-les-Belles.
Aside from a tiny group of Protestants and radical Republicans, the town of Baume-les-Belles casts a scandalized eye on women professors. It seems perfectly clear to the townspeople that learned women are necessarily immoral women, given to all kinds of unspeakable sensual and sexual excess, among themselves as well as with the opposite sex: "des rilles qui en savent tant, ca leur trouble la tete et le reste!" (10). Such views are, of course, entirely consistent with the reputation that la France bien-pensante attached to the lycee's namesake. Indeed, these were times in which the name of George Sand was often invoked as a telling example of the dreadful things that could be expected of educated women. (5) In order to counter prevailing opinion, the women professors of the lycee George-Sand, nearly all young, unmarried and living alone, are required to respect severe rules in the conduct of their personal lives--they must, for example, be nearly invisible in town, never attending a concert or a play without a chaperon (19), never venturing near a hotel (24) nor riding a bicycle, a new sport fit only for "cocottes" (47). Yet there is nothing that they can do to escape their reputation as gallivanting wenches. (6)
Various other concerns contributed to the townspeople's hostility toward the girls' lycee. In nineteenth-century France the educational system was not meant to effect changes in the social status of its students. On the contrary, in accord with the strong conservative spirit of the ruling classes, schooling was supposed to reinforce the class-system and firmly anchor each individual to his or her place in it. Social mobility by means of education was generally condamned as "declassement." Likewise, the possibility that students of various classes might mix in public schools aroused fears of "social contamination," considered especially dangerous in the case of tender young girls. (7) Although the daughters of the haute-bourgeoisie were the intended clientele of the girls' lycees, les gens bien generally shunned the state-system with its Godless instruction. Thus, particularly in the early years, the lycees had to resign themselves to educating girls of more modest social station, which made the new schools all the more vulnerable to the charge of disrupting society. Abhorred by Catholics and the upper classes, the girls' lycees also encountered fierce oppostion from representatives of the working classes. French socialists were deadset against the idea of educating girls. They also denounced state-funding for the girls' lycees as a monstrously unjust abuse of tax revenues for the main benefit of the "le bourgeois, l'inutile, l'accapareur" (172). (8) Clearly, the directrice commits no exaggeration when she declares that her lycee is "en plein etat de guerre" (18) in the town of Baume-les-Belles.
That women professors very nearly constitute a caste of untouchables is powerfully brought home to Marie when Berthe tries to help her new colleague find lodgings in town. This task is so arduous that REval devotes to it the entire third chapter of Un Lycee dejeunes filles. Berthe lets Marie know that no pension de famille in Baume-les-Belles would ever consider accepting a woman professor, for the mere presence of such a dubious creature would tarnish the reputation of the entire establishment. For the same reason Berthe has even been refused service in restaurants. Women professors are so grudgingly tolerated in town that Berthe jokes that they should all be relieved "qu'on ne nous impose pas la crecelle des lepreux" (25). After receiving several humiliating refusals from prospective landladies, Marie finally finds a room at the house of one of Berthe's friends, a widow who entertains both the Catholic bishop and professors from the girls' lycee, though never at the same time.
When Marie candidly wonders why the town shows such contempt for women professors, Berthe's unequivocal reply points up the political goals that the republicans hoped to achieve through the institution of secondary education for girls:
parce que nous sommes la Nouveaute et l'Inconnu! parce que nous sommes antipathiques a ces gens-la, parce que notre enseignement est antireligieux et revolutionnaire, parce que nous honorons ce qu'on decrie, nous liberons ce qu'on enchaine, parce qu'enfin nous sommes des jacobines dans ce pays de chouans, qui n'a rien oublie rien pardonne des horreurs de 93! (30)
Berthe's analysis of the perceived role of the girls' lycees in French society is altogether confirmed by the views of several other characters in the novel, especially Marie's new landlady, who is firmly convinced that the true motive of the republican reformers is to turn placid French girls into fierce Jacobin women (82).
Berthe, who embodies both the strength of the oak and the flexibility of the reed (23), has cheerfully accepted the many constraints bearing down upon her life as a woman professor in Baume-les-Belles. Unlike her schoolmate Marguerite Triel, whom she ardently defends, she renounced love and marriage long ago, in part because of Balzac's influence upon her, but mainly because of her exceptional family situation: she lives with her father, a wild and woolly poet and herbalist, of whom she is the sole financial support. Her fond, comradely relations with him stand quite outside the traditional filial pattern--she is, as she says, "la petite maman d'un vieux papa que j'adore" (24)--and these relations entirely fulfill her emotional needs. Although she entered the teaching profession strictly out of reasons of economic necessity, her years of experience as a woman and as a professor in Baume-les-Belles have honed her innate generosity and clear-sightedness into a keen political sensibility that embraces both feminism and socialism. Her students love her, particularly for her sense of justice and determination to unshackle their minds so that they may redefine themselves outside of the bounds of conventional, domestic femininity: "il importait, lui semblait-il, de debarbouiller le cerveau des femmes, ou la poussiere de l'atavisme et de la crainte, s'inscrustant depuis des siecles, paralyse les rouages de la penske et de la volonte" (201).
In a chapter entitled "Un Peu de Feminisme" Berthe enters into debate with a few male opponents of the girls' lycee and expounds her vision of the liberating role that education can and ought to play in women's lives. True to herself, Berthe flies squarely in the face of the republican reformers who wanted women professors to be secular nuns. Her subversive ideal yearns to break free of the mortifying constraints of bourgeois femininity in order to embrace the body with all its desires. Here she finds inspiration in the ancient Greeks who lived close to nature, who found the idea of chastity so barbaric that they viewed Diana as a cruel goddess. Life is inconceivable without love, she staunchly declares. It is striking, moreover, that Berthe does not lay claim to this fulfillment of mind, body and heart merely in behalf of her colleagues. In her opinion, it is the fundamental goal of the lycees de jeunes filles to instill this emancipating spirit in the minds of all, especially the pupils: "il s'agit de preparer un etre qui tient a la vie animale et a la vie divine, un etre qui veut, par la force de son sang, s'epanouir, et par le reve se modeler sur une image heroique. Il faut que l'education fasse un etre complet, qu'elle prepare la jeune fille a cette vie physiologique et a cette morale" (161). From here she goes on to enumerate the manifold repercussions of her philosophy. Because innocence must no longer mean ignorance, young women must not be systematically blinded to the realities of marriage and motherhood. They must receive the same education as the young men who may become their husbands. They must also choose their mates themselves. Yet Berthe recognizes that not all young women will marry, for demography as well as the dowry-system work against that possibility. Although there may be nothing much that can be done about population statistics, she views the dowry-system as quite another matter: "nous voudrions les mettre a meme de se marier toutes, en nivelant par le travail l'obstacle qui leur defend le mariage: l'Argent"(162). She aims to make all girls eligible for marriage. Those lacking a dowry can make up for it by the salaries they'll earn as educated professionals. This, of course, means stamping out the prejudice stigmatizing women's work outside the home. There can be no doubt that Berthe anticipates a new place in the world for women, far beyond the republican reformers' timid plans for them, and a revolutionized world because of the new roles that women will play in it. Now the individual rebellion carried out by Marguerite Triel in Les Sevriennes has grown into a project of emancipation for entire generations of women.
Following a shift in the administration at the lycee, Berthe is secretly denounced and summoned to an interview with the inspecteur d'academie, portrayed as a grimy, pretentious, and mediocre specimen of a man. He immediately attacks what he calls her anarchism and revolutionary opinions, which he finds perfectly evident in her looks, language, and unconventional life with her father. Such a denunciation risks shattering her career, especially since women professors had not been granted a professional statute like that enjoyed by their male counterparts (Margadant 103). Berthe's reply is nonetheless sharp and uncompromising. She refuses to be a cringing slave to the system, insisting on her rights as well as those of all her professional sisters. She, as a teacher, will obey her conscience alone, in order to help build the new world of thinking women that the lycees are bringing forth. At this point the inspector retorts that her sole function is make her young charges love the Republic. After quoting Moliere's Arnolphe, he condemns feminism as a dangerous project of petroleuses and gives clear orders to the defiant Berthe: "vous etes de celles qu'on ne convertit point. Dans l'interet de votre carriEre, lachez ces utopies, feminisme et le reste! Suivez le chemin qu'on indique, et surtout respectez les prejuges des meres de familes, c'est encore le meilleur garant de la vertu des rilles!" Otherwise, "c'est la mise a pied ... et la faire" (289). Nearly unable to contain her anger, Berthe itches to smack him, then intones the name of Jules Valles, which she brandishes in anticipation of future revolution. (9)
This showdown ends in a stalemate, and surprisingly a reprieve for Berthe, who fully expected to be summarily fired. She is spared this time, but only because the inspector was too ashamed of the paltry role he played in this interview to pursue the case. Yet this confrontation between the male inspector and the woman he strives to hold under his thumb points up an intractable conflict regarding the goals that the republican reformers hoped to achieve with their experiment in women's education and the aims and ambitions that educated women might set for themselves. Though Berthe has risked everything in her steadfast refusal to yield to the inspector's demands, she is fully aware both of her vulnerability within the state-system of education and of her moral solitude even among her colleagues, "new women" in name only who are generally brutally ambitious or worn-down, indifferent functionaries: "ces femmes nouvelles vivaient, pensaient, revaient comme le vieux monde.... La haine du mai etait-elle donc sterile?" (293).
Endowed with extraordinary strength of mind and character, both Marguerite Triel and Berthe Passy stand out as rebels in the works of Gabrielle Reval. These larger-than-life characters are undoubtedly modeled on Reval herself, who, under her real name of Gabrielle Logerot, was forced to resign her position as a professor in the girls' lycee of Niort after refusing to break off her "scandalous" liaison with a widowed military officer who could not marry her because he had promised his first wife not to remarry (Margadant 169). Yet Margadant, in her careful review of the case-histories of the first generation of women professors, presents overwhelming evidence that Reval's uncompromising stance was far from the norm. Despite the hardships of their lives, the vast majority of Sevriennes had internalized the inflated rhetoric of service, stoic sacrifice and even martyrdom that pervaded their training years and embraced their profession in a spirit of self-abnegation (Margadant 174-75). Of all the characters in Reval's works, it is probably Marie Fleuret, "une apotre qui exerce ardemment, peniblement son sacerdoce," (xi) who best represents the ethos--as well as the pathos--of the first generation of Sevriennes. Reval depicts her life and fate as a complex exercise in tragedy.
Marie Fleuret came out of humbler circumstances than most of the Sevriennes. The eldest of six children born to a working-class couple, she followed an exceptional itinerary which steered her out of the grim future to which her parents destined their offspring:
De son enfance il ne lui restait qu'un mauvais souvenir, l'oppression des jours de misere, qui furent sans nombre. Ses parents, abrutis a la peine, ne revaient point pour leur fille un avenir meilleur; elle serait ouvriere comme eux, tisseuse dans une filature de Montbeliard, ou brunisseuse dans une horlogerie. Elle s'en tirerait comme les autres, avec ou sans le secours d'un marl. Mais les dispositions surprenantes que la fillette montrait pour l'etude changerent brusquement l'orientation de sa vie. (40)
Having earned high marks at the local primary school, she qualified for a full scholarship to the lycee of Besancon and finally entered Sevres at the age of twenty, where unstinting labor and an austere life-style seriously compromised her health. Relieved to have gained, by means of her learning, distance from the hard, brutal life of the working-class, she is nonetheless tormented by the thought of her parents and siblings back in Montbeliard and determined to pay back her "dette filiale" (3), no matter the hardship, for the long years of study during which she contributed nothing to the household. Because she failed her first attempt at the agregation, she will earn an annual salary of just 2,400 francs, not the usual 3,000. Even this does not diminish her resolve to send nearly half of her earnings back home. (10)
Upon her arrival in Baume-les-Belles Marie dreams that the Lycee will become her new family. After all, nearly all the professors at the girls' Lycee have come down from Sevres; and they will be united in their aspirations to become the spiritual mothers of their pupils: "Elle concevait un Lycee qui serait, a la facon moderne, et toute virginale, une docte cour d'amour" (5). These hopes are brutally quashed in the course of her first interview with Mile Gripou, the dry, tyrannical and repulsively ugly directrice of the Lycee George-Sand. While dictating Marie's heavy teaching responsibilities and stipulating in a few mortifying words that the new teacher will retain her post only if she succeeds in earning her agregation at the next session, Mile Gripou orders Marie to trust no one, to model herself as a gendarme in order to finger any espionnes or other enemy infiltrators within the Lycee. Suddenly the "asile de travail et de reve" (20) that Marie had imagined has turned into a prison-camp. In the following weeks and months she also makes the sad discovery, which Margadant confirms as the general rule (121), that the sisterly camaraderie of Sevres withers outside of those walls only to become mutual estrangement and individual ambition. Despite this disillusioning welcome to the Lycee, Marie refuses to compromise her personal idealism and devotes herself whole-heartedly to her teaching. Although she has no formal faith, her teaching mission is consistently described in the sublime language of religious vocation as an "apostolat" (43, 144, 267) and a virgin's "mystiques epousailles" (6).
Her remarkable success in the classroom transforms the Lycee and helps consolidate its position in the town. From day one Marie, taking the stance of a loving older sister eager to initiate her pupils into a higher realm, inspires the lazy and tames the rebels by offering them Antigone as a model of honor, duty and readiness to sacrifice herself for her ideals. Marie, who, like Berthe, considers herself a herald of "l'esprit nouveau" (249), wants to transform the lives of her students: "faire de ces petites rilles autre chose que des etres inertes, peureux ou revoltes" (152). Yet, while Berthe is particularly motivated by a hard-headed quest for justice, Marie defines the cultivation of love and moral elevation as the central mission of the girls' lycees, even the very condition of their existence; for she worries that learning, outside of this ethical framework, may prove a danger to the pupils (248-49). Marie's teaching earns her Mile Gripou's approval and the highest praise from the Inspector. Her greatest satisfaction is achieving with her students "la communion intime" (207) to which she has always aspired, possessing their hearts as well as their minds. Yet the very qualities that make her such a beloved and influential teacher disable her in other important ways. Indeed, Marie's spirit of abnegation inclines her supervisors to indulgence with regard to the subversive opinions she shares with her friend Berthe Passy: "La propagande feministe de Mile Fleuret n'avait rien de dangereux, on lui passa cette innocente manie de precher la justice, l'amour, l'egalite les gamines n'etant pas a l'age des passions qui transfigurent une Berthe Passy" (295).
Having expressed concern about the impact of learning upon her students, Marie Fleuret is herself a clear example of the dangers that this new intellectual culture can present to certain kinds of women. While education, as in the case of Marguerite Triel, opened up many avenues for self-fashioning and emancipation, those possibilities were sharply curtailed by the austere demands of the institutional framework in which the first generation of women professors had to lead their professional lives. It is for this reason, moreover, that the protagonist of Les Sevriennes spurned the career awaiting her. Generally impervious to the high-minded ethos of Sevres, Berthe Passy achieved a modus vivendi with the exigencies of her career while at the same time retaining a critical margin of independence. On the other hand, Marie Fleuret, whose character developed in perfect obedience to the letter and spirit of the creed of Sevres, exemplifies the extreme vulnerability of a generation of women who were ill-equipped in life for little else than a rarefied exercise of the mind in a sequestered setting.
Both excess and lack define Marie Fleuret, whom the text characterizes as "une nonne dans la vie laique" (43). Virginal in heart, mind and body (43), she is repeatedly judged by others as too candid (10), too innocent (31), too ignorant of reality (154). Several descriptions of Marie stress the fundamental deprivation of "cette time incomplete" (221): she is "deracinee de sa famille" (43), "detachee" from nature (44) and generally cut off from life around her. In a moment of revealing word-play, Marie, longing for completion, implicates Sevres, the training-ground for the agregation, as the primary reason for her desagregation: "C'est etrange, au sortir de l'ecole de Sevres, apres avoir recu cette culture cerebrale qui fait de nous des isolees, des etres `desagreges', comme on le dit, je me sens reprise ... par la nature" (144). The problem here is clear. Although Berthe has vehemently argued that the aim of women's education is to form individuals fully realized in body and spirit (161), Marie's school-years have developed her mind at the expense of her other faculties, effectively breaking the requisite "harmonie entre le spirituel et le sensuel," and as she herself warned, "c'est faute d'en tenir compte que journellement l'education peut devenir une erreur dangereuse" (157).
The central drama of Marie's two years in Baume-les-Belles occurs when she falls in love with Robert Mauvage, her landlady's cynical godson. Despite his public scorn for the new girls' lycees and his dismissal of women professors as "brebis galeuses" (87), Marie represents a novel attraction for this provincial philanderer: "Tattrait pimente de quelque hermaphrodite: femme par la chair, homme par le cerveau" (154). Four days before she is due to make her second bid for the agregation, Marie and her landlady attend la fete des Rosieres, a midsummer peasant festival of youth, fertility and love whose pagan ritual has been only thinly christianized. After the traditional high-point of the gathering, the coronation and marriage of the Rosiere, Robert puts on a "pastorale de [s]a facon," (213), a performance of his play Melusine, in which he and his current mistress take the starring roles. When the character Lusignan breaks with an ardent kiss the spell which has kept his beloved Melusine imprisoned in the form of a serpent, Marie is stunned to find herself overwhelmed with jealousy, then comes to understand her repressed passions and falls under the spell of her desire for Robert: "Un autre etre, ardent, jaloux, a surgi de cet etre charmant qui s'effacait devant l'amour, comme un pauvre devant le roi.... Elle n'est plus rien qu'une pauvre ame perdue, cherchant l'amour de l'homme, comme sainte Therese cherchait l'amour divin" (221-22). Some hours later Marie, "du pas d'une hallucinee" (222), follows Robert to an isolated hillock where he attempts to seduce her. Sucking out her life like a vampire bleeding his chosen victim, he nearly has his way with her when Marie, in a sudden flash of lucidity, foresees the destruction of her past and the annihiliation of her future, all for the sake of a man who holds her in contempt. No longer willing to sacrifice her identity as a dedicated professional to her desperate longing for love, she pushes him away. Outraged that a homely lady professor should be the first woman ever to resist his advances, Robert storms off. While bonfires encircle the scene of the festivities like the "anneau nuptial [qui] ne luirait jamais a son doigt nu," mists envelop Marie's swooning, solitary body, tracing "un halo mystique autour de celle qui reposait la, immaculee" (227).
This shattering confrontation with Robert Mauvage and her own desires leaves Marie a hollow shell, stripped of inner resources, save the meager reserves of the stoicism and self-abnegation she learned at Sevres. Reflecting back on the "jour maudit" with Robert Mauvage, Marie regrets that she hadn't understood that the mission of a woman-professor, "comme celle du pretre, exige le sacrifice de tous les attachements terrestres" (230). Yet the price of this renunciation is high, leaving Marie broken, resigned, and longing for death's release into nothingness (266-67). When classes begin again in the fall, her pupils are struck by the change in her appearance, now pale, thin and feverish. Her opening remarks whose purpose was to inspire her pupils reveal a deep irony of which Marie may have been only dimly aware. She affirms that education leads to happiness, even though it brings her to despair. She argues that education is not dangerous, while her life illustrates its perilous effects. She professes that the lycees prepare their pupils to live, and she will wither and die as a result of her incorporation into the system.
Thus, she stands ill-equipped for dealing with the other crises she must face in rapid succession: her second failure at the agregation, which renders her position at the lycee precarious; her star pupil's infatuation with her, proving the dangers of la toquade against which Berthe warned her in vain; the subsequent death of that pupil, which strips her of the hope to know at least the joys of"la maternite morale" (208); her landlady's sudden bankruptcy and departure, which forces Marie out of a comfortable home with a companion and into a lonely furnished room; and finally, her declining health and deteriorating vision. The onset of her blindness was clearly prefigured in the scene with Robert Mauvage, when her conscious self was invaded by recognition of her overwhelming need to know the love of a man: "Un voile s'est dechire devant ses yeux distraits, elle sait ce qu'elle souffre, qu'une vie sans amour est une vie de tenebres" (221). Now the metaphor of the "tenebres" is becoming the very stuff of her stunted existence.
When Marie is nearly blind, Berthe convinces her to ask for a leave with pay, in order to seek medical treatment. Although women professors at this time did not benefit from the sick-leave policy that their male counterparts enjoyed (Margadant 156), Berthe is initially convinced that the ministry will feel morally compelled to grant this request: "vous etes malade d'infirmites contractees au service, l'Etat vous indemnise, c'est de la stricte justice.... Aujourd'hui, vous etes comme le soldat qui tombe au champ d'honneur; resposez-vous sans crainte, l'alma mater va payer sa dette" (321). Yet, after having made a vague promise for a six-week sick-leave with pay, the ministry ultimately decides to give Marie an unlimited leave without pay, effectively throwing the ailing, resourceless young woman out onto the street. Berthe is outraged to see that the alma mater, instead of assisting Marie, has prepared to give her le coup degrace: "tu reves encore d'apostolat, et tu ne vois pas que tu es une martyre: on a suce ton sang, ton ame, ta chair, tes yeux, et maintenant que tu n'as plus rien a donner, on t'abandonne" (336). In order to save her friend from l'Assistance publique, Berthe will take Marie into the house she shares with her father. Thus, Un Lycee dejeunes filles, having begun with Marie's "mystiques epousailles" (6) with the ideals of her profession ends with Berthe's denunciation of the "tristes epousailles de la science et de la conscience" (337) which gave shape to the lives of too many of the first Sevriennes. Her sense of revolt sounds loud and clear:
Le bonheur ici-bas, c'est de vivre libres, d'appartenir a qui vous aime, de defendre, de proteger, de travailler aussi pour qui vous aime. Vivre seules! domestiquees, comme on veut que nous vivions! trembler pour demain, maudire bier, cela ne s'appelle vivre ni pour le bonheur, ni pour le devoir. (336)
In her prefaces Gabrielle Reval vigorously maintains that her books, despite the outrage they aroused in many quarters, are neither a satire, nor a Catholic reaction, nor an anti-republican attack upon women's higher education. Out of her painful experience as one of the first Sevriennes, she fashioned testimonials of sincerity, passion and hope for a new world: "L'instruction immense qu'on donne dans nos Lycees est le pain riche en froment qui nourrit ces femmes, et determine cette plethore de forces intellectuelles, inutilisables dans l'ossuaire du vieux monde. C'est une neessite pour vivre, de donner le coup de grace a ce qui survit dans une tremblante agonie" (Lycee ix). Her criticism is always double-edged, pointing up the liberating potential of these new opportunities for women, as well as their darker side, which the official idealism of Sevres wanted to keep carefully veiled. Reflecting back upon her experience some thirty-five years later, Reval portrayed herself as a born guerriere locked up in a prison of books, then saved by love, which put a flaming sword back in her hand, as an exuberant Clorinde or Bradamante transported into a strait-laced century and determined to recast the cramped forms of women's lives in an heroic mold (Grande Parade 298-99). Born of the hiatus between the liberating challenge of the years at Sevres and the cold, mutilated life that the republican reformers expected the woman-professor to lead, Reval's memoirs insistently require that women be educated not only for ends that others deem useful to society, but also for themselves, for the sake of their full and autonomous development in their political, professional and private lives.
(1) Baron d'Emond Dufaur de Gavardie, as quoted by Jo Burr Margadant, 14. This work will be referred to as Margadant in all subsequent references.
(2) Berthe Israel-Wahl, "Mes Debuts dans l'enseignement en 1888" as quoted by Margadant, 175.
(3) See Karen Often, "The Second Sex and the Baccalaureat in Republican France, 1880-1924," especially 269-81.
(4) In 1894 the Ministry of Education reluctantly increased the number of women's agregations from two to four; see Margadant, 94.
(5)See Margadant, 16 as well as Francoise Mayeur, 49.
(6) See also Margadant, 105-07.
(7) See Offen, 264-65.
(8) For more information regarding the socialists' hostility regarding the girls' lycees, see Margadant, 100.
(9) This entire scene is translated in Feminisms of the Belle Epoque, eds. Jennifer Waelti-Walters and Steven C. Hause, 87-92.
(10) Many, if not most early Sevriennes gave financial assistance to their families; see Margadant, 134.
Margadant, Jo Burr. Madame le Professeur: Women Educators in the Third Republic. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.
Mayeur, Francoise. L`Education des rilles en France au XIXeme siecle. Paris: Hachette, 1979.
Often, Karen. "The Second Sex and the Baccalaureat in Republican France, 1880-1924." French Historical Studies 13 (1983): 252-86.
Reval, Gabrielle. La Grande Parade des Sevriennes, Confidences et Souvenirs (1900). Les
Euvres Libres, vol. CLXV. Paris: Fayard, 1935.
--. Un Lycee de jeunes rilles: professeurs femmes. Quatorzieme edition. Paris: Ollendorf, 1905 [first published in 1901].
--. Les Seriennes. Vingt-deuxieme edition revue et corrigee par l'auteur. Paris: Ollendorf, n.d. [first published in 1901].
Waelti-Walters, Jennifer, and Steven C. Hause, eds. Feminisms of the Belle Epoque. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994.
GRETCHEN VAN SLYKE Department of Romance Languages University of Vermont Burlington, VT 05405-0160
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|Author:||Van Slyke, Gretchen|
|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2002|
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