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Prosper Merimee's improvisatrice: the voice of Corsican lament in Colomba.

Prosper Merimee's novel Colomba (1840) was one of the nineteenth century's first and most influential literary depictions of the Mediterranean island of Corsica and its inhabitants. Corsica had become a French possession in 1768 (just one year before Napoleon Bonaparte was born in its capital city, Ajaccio) but remained largely unfamiliar and inaccessible to outsiders until the 1830s. Once steamship service was introduced, Merimee was among the first wave of intrepid French travelers who began to explore and write travelogues about this mysterious "montagne dans la mer."

In Colomba, the author purported to offer an ethnographically informed view of a society that he positioned at the margins of "civilized" Europe, and which he portrayed as operating outside its modern laws and values. The plot concerns the infamous "Corsican vendetta"--the entrenched custom of blood feuding and revenge-code violence practiced by islanders before (and well beyond) Corsica was taken over by the French. Merimee's evocative descriptions of the islanders' archaic codes of honor and colorful customs fueled curiosity about Corsica in France over the course of the nineteenth century.

In this article I explore how the depiction in Colomba of Corsica as an anachronistic, primitive, and undisciplined society relied significantly on Merimee's evocation of one of Corsica's oldest musico-poetic practices--the improvisation of laments for the dead performed by female singers in Corsican villages. Intimately connected to the system of vendetta on the island, this distinctly feminine medium of mourning is given voice by Merimee's heroine, Colomba, whose spontaneous lamentations are admired by native Corsicans but condemned by French authorities as well as her Europeanized brother. My discussion will show how Merimee's Colomba sets the oral and vocal practice of women's lamentation in fatal conflict with a French post-Enlightenment culture dominated by the written word, depicting the female voice (and the character of Colomba, an allegory for the island) as a subversive force. To understand what is at stake in this competition between orality and literacy, I draw out similarities between Colomba and Germaine de Stael's Corinne, or Italy (1807), which, certain readings suggest, similarly highlights the tension between feminized, oral forms of expression and the written word. My reading aims both to challenge the common view of Colomba as one of Merimee's most "benign, pleasant, and apolitical" novels as well as to contribute to a growing body of scholarship on the political and social commentary found in his work (Cropper, "Merimee's Colomba" 35). (1)


When Colomba was published in 1840, Prosper Merimee counted among few Frenchmen with first-hand experience of Corsica. His trip to the island was one of several regional tours within France that the young author undertook between 1834 and 1852, while he was serving as Inspector General of Historic Monuments under the July Monarchy. It was the last of these journeys that sent him to Corsica (the setting of his earlier story, Mateo Falcone), where he spent a great deal of time recording impressions about local culture for the novel he planned to set on the island. (2) Many details of Colomba derive directly from Merimee's experiences and encounters traveling on the island. (3) Although he wrote home that the historical sites and natural landscapes of Corsica bored him, Merimee found other aspects fascinating: "Je parle de la pure nature de l'HOMME. Ce mammifere est vraiment curieux ici" (Raitt 169, original emphasis).

While in Corsica, Merimee pursued information about its legendary blood feuding, which persisted despite the efforts of French authorities to criminalize such acts of private justice. (4) He made a special visit to the southern village of Fozzano, site of a longstanding feud and home to a woman named Colomba Bartoli, who was infamous in Corsica for losing numerous male relatives in violent conflicts with a rival clan. Merimee was impressed by the woman and enamored of her attractive daughter. When Merimee returned home to write Colomba he made his female protagonist a composite of these two women; his Colomba is fierce and vengeful like the elder Bartoli, with the erotic appeal of her daughter. In short, Merimee's character Colomba embodies all that was intimidating and alluring about her native land.

The plot of Colomba centers on a feud between two families in a small village in the south of the island called Pietranera. Orso Antonio della Rebbia, a Corsican soldier who has been away from home serving in the Napoleonic wars, returns to his native island and finds himself in the midst of a conflict with the neighboring Barricini family, who recently murdered Orso's father. Orso makes the acquaintance of English tourists Colonel Sir Thomas Nevil and his daughter Lydia, who are traveling to Corsica on vacation. Aware of the Corsican reputation for vengeance, Lydia suspects that Orso might be returning in order to carry out a vendetta and vows to prevent it. But Orso, fully assimilated to the ways of the continent, has no such intention, and instead plans to settle in and find a husband for his orphaned sister, Colomba.

Once in Corsica, Orso and Lydia's romance blossoms, though she jokes he is "un sauvage trop civilise" for her (94). Her excitement is renewed, however, when his sister Colomba arrives at their inn dressed in traditional mourning clothes and armed with a stiletto. Unlike Orso, Colomba adheres to Corsican custom and is keen for revenge against the Barricini, who were never held responsible for the crime. As the novel progresses, Colomba tries by both overt and underhanded means to persuade her brother to carry out what she sees as an honorable act of a dutiful son. Orso does ultimately kill his rivals (in an act of self-defense). The novel ends with the principal characters happily leaving Corsica for the continent, with Colomba outwardly transformed in Lydia's image. Scholars of Merimee's fiction often remark how Colomba's seemingly conventional "happy" ending is rather unusual for his oeuvre (Cropper, "Merimee's Colomba" 35).

Early in the novel, Merimee identifies Colomba as a renowned voceratrice --an improviser of oral poetry and, specifically, funeral lamentations for the dead. In Corsican villages this was a traditional role exclusively taken up by women, who would intone laments (voceri) over the body of the deceased as part of the domestic funeral rite. (5) A custom rooted in the ancient Mediterranean world, lamentation was denounced by Church authorities and members of the higher classes in Corsica in part because of its connection to the practice of vendetta; when a man had been murdered by an enemy, it was common for a voceratrice's song to express not just sorrow but also a desire for revenge. Sources describe how funeral songs could perpetuate feuds by inciting male relatives to commit violent acts to protect their family's honor (Wilson 222).

The prominent place Merimee gave to the Corsican lament tradition in Colomba reflects his predilection for the titillating and morbid as well as his longstanding academic interest in the oral traditions and folksongs of the Mediterranean world. Schooled in the subject of folk poetry by Claude Fauriel (among others), Merimee published, earlier in his career, an anonymous book entitled La Guzla, ou Choix de poesies illyriques recueillies dans la Dalmatie, la Bosnie, la Croatie et l'Herzegowine (1827). The oral poetry of La Guzla was supposedly transcribed and translated from Illyrian verse into French prose by an unnamed scribe who had heard the ballads sung by a Slavic bard (guzlar). (In fact, the poetry and commentary in La Guzla was the work of Merimee himself). (6) Merimee's later writings would continue to demonstrate a fascination with folksong; he included a Scottish ballad in Theatre de Clara Gazul (1827), "Romani" proverbs in Carmen (1845), and a Lithuanian ballad in Lokis (1868). With regard to Corsican poetry and songs, Merimee included translations of several voceri in an appendix of "poesies populaires" in his nonfiction travelogue Notes dun voyage en Corse, which was published a few months before Colomba. While other folklorists would publish several more comprehensive volumes of Corsican laments later in the century, Merimee's travelogue was the first time this particular body of Corsican verse was presented to a French readership. (7) Merimee borrowed from the themes and poetic imagery of these lament texts to create songs for his young improvisatrice to sing in Colomba.


Merimee was just one among many French writers in the early nineteenth century with a voracious, Romantic appetite for songs and poetry attributed to a collective and anonymous rural peasantry. This fascination with forms of "unspoiled," natural poetry and song was driven by a number of factors, not least among them the sense that such oral traditions were gradually disappearing in favor of cultivated, written poetry and literature. Indeed, as Michel de Certeau has remarked, the literary valorization of oral expression (most often identified as a discourse of "others") was coterminous with the rise of the literacy and the written word in post-Enlightenment European metropoles. "Orality is displaced, as if excluded from writing," Certeau observes, only to be "found again" by nineteenth-century travelers and writers in the oral cultures of marginalized communities such as peasants, colonial subjects, and women (183).

A symbol of Corsica's anachronism and primitivism, the voice of lament in Merimee's novel is also distinctly feminine, unlike the songs of the apocryphal guzlars of La Guzla. Suggestive of the grandeur of laments found in Sophocles, and, at the same time, the crude naivete of provincial custom, Colomba's gift for spontaneous poetic expression is one way in which Merimee draws out the central conflict of his novel, which is the choice that Orso must make between Corsican values and those of modern Europe. Merimee does this by repeatedly calling attention to the tension between the primarily oral culture of Corsica (represented by Colomba) and the primarily literate, book-centered culture of modern Europe (represented by Lydia).

A few examples will illustrate how Merimee emphasizes that Colomba's improvisatory skill is an innate gift, and thus separate from the world of formal education and written literature. For instance, when Orso mistakenly assumes that she composes her verses in advance, Colomba explains that her laments are, instead, spontaneous creations: "Les larmes me viennent aux yeux, et alors je chante ce qui me vient A l'esprit" (141-42). Moreover, when she improvises, Colomba is less a poet or author than a medium; Merimee describes how, while improvising, she enters an ecstatic state and takes on "une expression sublime" (144). Similarly, although she has no knowledge of classic literature, when she hears her brother reading from the Inferno she enters a sort of involuntary poetic swoon: "ses prunelles dilatees brillaient d'un feu extraordinaire; elle rougissait et palissait tour A tour, elle s'agitait convulsivement sur sa chaise" (72).

Despite Colomba's intuitive appreciation of Dante's poetry, Merimee emphasizes how her own improvisations are incommensurate with written literature. After Colomba improvises a song for Lydia, for instance, the Englishwoman asks her to write it down in her album so she may take it with her as a souvenir. Though a fluent speaker of French, Corsican, and Italian, Colomba struggles to copy her song into Lydia's journal. She is unfamiliar with how stanzas should be organized, and so spills her verses chaotically and unevenly in Lydia's book. Lydia, by contrast, mentally recalls a picayune quote from a grammar book about how poetry should look on the page: "Des petites lignes, d'inegale longueur, avec une marge de chaque cote" (74). Colomba's spelling, also, is "un peu capricieuse," which mortifies her brother (75).

If Colomba seems uninitiated to the culture of the book, Lydia, on the other hand, seems to embody its values. She is constantly accompanied by her sentimental little journal, which she fills with sketches and musings. In the evenings, she reads, writes letters home, and plays the Corsican inn's ramshackle piano while Orso, smitten, "tournait les feuillets de son cahier de musique et regardait les epaules et les cheveux blonds de la virtuose" (75). When Orso returns home to Pietranera with Colomba and begins to fall under her spell, Lydia writes him letters that urge him to resist. In one such letter Merimee symbolically evokes the incommensurability of Colomba's world and the world of the printed word when Lydia writes to Orso that she has used Colomba's stiletto to cut the pages of a new novel she is reading, but the weapon "s'indigne de cet usage et me dechire mon livre d'une facon pitoyable" (157).

As the destruction of Lydia's book might suggest, the competition that Merimee sets up between orality and the written word in some ways seems to favor the former: the seemingly ephemeral art of improvisation and song proves to be an unusually powerful and pervasive presence in Corsican society. Although Colomba's songs resist being collected via transcription into Lydia's journal, her lamenting "voice" is heard at key moments of the narrative, even in the singer's absence. When Orso at one point flees from Colomba's entreaties so that he might gather his thoughts, for example, he finds his ears filled with the sorrowful melody that his sister had performed for him earlier--nearby a little girl from the village is singing Colomba's song. In fact, the "sound" of Colomba's lament appears in the book even before her character is introduced, when Lydia, en route to the island, hears a sailor singing a mournful song at the tiller. It turns out to be the same lament that Colomba sang at her father's funeral. As Lydia struggles to understand the song's meaning, the (otherwise unobtrusive) narrator interrupts to say he will "try" to help translate the Corsican verses for the reader. This moment of narrative and authorial faltering suggests how acts of writing and translating are compromised when confronted with feminized song. (8)


Merimee always claimed that the title character of Colomba was inspired by the women from the Corsican village of Fozzano who had "bewitched" him in the course of his official duties on the island (Correspondance generale 2: 289). But there is little reason to think he would have had to travel so far to find her. A more obvious model for the character can be found throughout nineteenth-century European fiction: she is the singing woman, the poetess, the cantatrice, the improvisatrice--a figure of wide, distinctly erotic appeal in literature, opera, and the visual arts of this period (Deneys-Tunney 56). The figure of the improvisatrice was exemplified by the heroine of Germaine de Stael's novel Corinne, or Italy, published in 1807. Stael's Corinne is a young "poetess" who achieves fame for her verbal improvisations in her adopted homeland of Italy. An inspired artist and brilliant intellect, Corinne's eloquence and rhetorical skill earn her a respected place in public life, although her unconventional lifestyle attracts censure and leads to tragedy.

Stael's novel, written while she was in exile from Napoleons empire, was in part a critique of how revolutionary ideals had failed to deliver women their promised degree of freedom. Despite Corinne's public success as a poet, she is unable to share a life with the man she loves, Lord Oswald Nelvil. He wishes to honor the memory of his father by pursuing an honorable and conventional life, and Corinne, an ambitious and autonomous woman of uncertain parentage and nationality, is unsuited to (and unsuitable for) this path. She relinquishes her lover so that he may pursue the duties of husband and father with another woman--her fairer, northern half-sister Lucile. In the end Corinne turns to religion, falls ill, and dies after orchestrating a final, spectacular performance of her own elegy.

Corinne was enormously influential in the first decades of the nineteenth century, generating literary homages in many forms (particularly from women writers). George Sand based the heroine of Consuelo (1842) in part on Stael's character, as did Letitia Landon in her popular poem "The Improvisatrice" (1824). The fictional Corinne became a model for actual female poets throughout Europe, who adopted her mysterious persona and imitated her elegiac style in order, scholars have recently argued, to assert a "sympathetic politics" that was distinctly feminine (Vincent 28). (9)

There are several reasons to suggest that Merimee, too, took inspiration from Stael's Corinne for Colomba. Broadly, both are detailed travel novels that explore cultural differences and personal identity within the "framework of a mythical geography of 'North' and 'South'" (Thompson 31). Indeed, both texts were initially received as much as travelogues as novels. Corinne was long classified as travel writing by the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (Thompson 17), and the amount of ethnographic detail in Merimee's book is so copious that some critics and readers received it as a "fictionalized Baedeker" (Raitt 191). Aside from style, both works have female protagonists who are allegories for foreign (southern) lands. There are also more specific similarities, including a striking congruence between the names of the major characters in Colomba and those of Corinne. (10)

Of course, most significant to my purposes here, both Colomba and Corinne have heroines who are improvisatrices recognized for their inspired verbal performances, and both characters "specialize" in elegies and laments. I discussed above how Merimee's Colomba emphasizes the conflict between orality and literacy; similar readings have been made of Corinne. Specifically, historian Carla Hesse highlights how Corinne reflects the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century struggle for cultural hegemony between the printed word, associated with the masculine rhetorical domain, and various forms of oral expression, which became increasingly coded as feminine. In Hesse's reading, Corinne is Stael's elegy to a culture that tolerated (and even valued) female contributions to public discourse, contributions that, prior to the Revolution, often took the form of vocal expression. (11) With the death of the poet Corinne, Stael predicted an era in which female intellectuals would no longer be able to gain fame and influence as "virtuosi of the spoken word" but would instead be limited to the domestic sphere (29).

The parallels between Colomba and Corinne give us cause to look more closely at the way in which Merimee's story of the improvisatrice differs from Stael's. If Stael's Corinne depicts a culture and a society that is ultimately inhospitable to the figure of the improvisatrice and dismissive of forms of orality coded as feminine, Merimee's Colomba, by contrast, depicts Corsica as a place in which feminine eloquence does have a central--and influential--role to play, specifically in the figure of the voceratrice. However, Merimee would seem to subvert Stael's critique of post-Revolutionary gender politics in that his depiction of female eloquence reinforces the very anxieties about feminized orality that Stael envisioned as the downfall of Corinne.


There are several episodes in Merimee's novel in which Colomba's persuasive power and nearly juridical authority represent a threat to male reason (her brother's conscience), to institutions of governance and authority (the mayor and prefect of her village), and to the very lives of her rivals. The most dramatic of these moments occurs when Colomba and Orso return to their natal village. Colomba is asked to sing a lament for a neighbor who has recently died. Orso ridicules the custom and tries to prevent her from improvising. Colomba performs despite her brother's objections, and Orso is able to see the reverence that the villagers have for his sister:
   A sa vue le cercle s'ouvrit, et un faible murmure de curiosite
   annonca l'attente de l'assemblee excitee par la presence de la
   voceratrice. Colomba embrassa la veuve, prit une de ses mains et
   demeura quelques minutes recueillies et les yeux baisses. Puis elle
   rejeta son mezzaro en arriere, regarda fixement le mort, et,
   penchee sur ce cadavre, presque aussi pale que lui, elle commenca
   de la sorte ... Sauf quelques soupirs, quelques sanglots etouffes,
   on n'eut pas entendu le plus leger murmure dans la foule qui se
   pressait autour d'elle. (143-44)

Colomba's verses reduce everyone in her audience to tears, including, Merimee emphasizes, male listeners: "Deux ou trois hommes qui, dans l'occasion, auraient tire sur des chretiens avec autant de sang-froid que sur des perdrix, se mirent A essuyer de grosses larmes sur leurs joues basanees" (144). Even Orso, though "moins accessible qu'un autre A cette poesie sauvage," also retreats to a corner and cries (145). Throughout the book Orso's moral fortitude is shown to depend on his emotional restraint, and Merimee links Colomba's gradual subversion of Orso's intentions directly to her vocation as an improviser. Lydia makes this clear when she writes to Orso from the city: "Quand vous etes parti avec la belle voceratrice, le fusil A la main, le regard sombre, vous m'avez paru plus corse qu'A l'ordinaire ... trop corse meme" (157).

But Colomba's powers go beyond mere emotional manipulation. In the special realm of the Corsican funeral ritual gender roles are reversed, and the eloquent female lamenter holds forth while men can only listen. Therefore, when the prefect and the mayor of Pietranera arrive, accompanied by Orso's rivals, while Colomba is improvising "par respect pour la ballata, personne ne leur adressa la parole" (145). However, their appearance reveals the defiant and unpredictable side of Colomba's poetic gift. In the course of her improvisation Colomba launches an attack on her father's killers, accusing them of being cowards and promising that the village of Pietranera will soon be soaked in their blood. Her enemies retreat in the face of her accusations--and in fear of the feelings of vengeance that Colomba's eloquence will likely provoke in Orso. Following this excitement the prefect makes it clear to Orso and Colomba that he objects to the tradition of lamentation (149).

Presenting Corsica as a society in which women have a public forum for female eloquence, Merimee also suggests that the improvisatrice is difficult to discipline and suggests her influence might be malignant. This is the essence, I would argue, of the novel's subversion of Stael's character of the suffering female poet. Compounding Colomba's threat to Orso and the French authorities is the implication that her challenge to them goes beyond individual willfulness. Merimee implies that there is something uncanny, perhaps diabolical, about Colomba's eloquence. Upon finishing her improvisation, Colomba collapses into a chair: breathless, shaking, and weak. Merimee compares her to the Pythia of the oracle of Delphi; the implication that Colomba's voice originates from a supernatural realm is reinforced later when Orso, try as he might, cannot banish its sound from his ears. It is what Sainte-Beuve, in his review of the book, called "la voix fanatique du sang," and it is eerily inescapable.


In light of the very different manner in which Stael and Merimee present the figure of the improvisatrice we can approach afresh the "happy" ending of Merimee's novel to ask how it ultimately deals with the character of Colomba. Near the end of the novel, Orso, fearing that he will be taken over by Colomba's rage and commit a crime, instead challenges his rivals to a duel. Forced to kill his enemies in self-defense, Orso then puts himself in the hands of the French justice system and is exonerated. In essence, Orso is able to satisfy the code of the vendetta (and his sister) without becoming an assassin in the eyes of French law. Because he has resisted his Corsican instincts and won the battle against nature, Orso earns Lydia's love. Because he has achieved what she wanted all along, he earns Colomba's acquiescence.

Despite the ambiguity of Orso's act of "revenge," Merimee's novel ends with Colomba's brother definitively rejecting the "old" ways of the Corsican vendetta in favor of the conventions of the modern French state. (12) The Colonel gives Orso permission to marry Lydia on one condition--that they leave Corsica, this "diable de pays!" In a final symbolic renunciation of traditional Corsican society, Orso makes a point of giving away his gun before he leaves. The endless cycle of violence of the vendetta is halted.

The triumph of Orso's continental values over those of Corsica is most obvious in the final transformation of Colomba, who embodies the violence and anachronism of a society that her brother ultimately rejects. Her bloodlust satisfied by the death of her enemies, she is now eager to see her brother pursue his own future. In the book's final scene, the woman who had once ridden horseback armed with a stiletto now strolls in Pisa with Colonel Nevil, marveling at her own transformation: "N'est-ce pas que je me forme? Je prends le bras, je mets des chapeaux, des robes A la mode; j'ai des bijoux; j'apprends je ne sais combien de belles choses; je ne suis plus du tout une sauvagesse" (241).

With this conclusion, Merimee seems to portray the simultaneous destruction and domestication of the female improviser as necessary and inevitable and not, as Stael did in Corinne, as a tragedy. Stael had, furthermore, made a point to not "reform" her heroine to meet bourgeois standards--Corinne prefers to die on her own terms than live in a world that rejected her. Some of Merimee's audience clearly thought death would be more fitting for Colomba too; when the novel was adapted as an opera in 1883, Colomba was shot and killed in the end. As she was understood to be the hidden architect of the murders committed by her brother, critics approved of this adjustment for the sake of poetic justice.

It would appear that at the end of the novel the voice of Corsican lament has been silenced. But Colomba's transformation, in a final twist, is revealed to be yet another performance. In the last moments of the narrative, the "new" Colomba notices an ailing old Corsican man nearby and is encouraged to say a few words to him in their native tongue. Colomba recognizes him as the father of Barricinis. On seeing her, the stunned old man begins to sob for the loss of his two sons: "N'es-tu pas satisfaite?" he asks Colomba. She replies in Corsican, so that no one else may understand, "Les rameaux sont coupes; et si la souche n'etait pas pourrie, je l'eusse arrachee." As the man collapses, Colomba walks away, singing a lament under her breath.

This deliciously chilling, overtly emasculating scene reveals that Colomba has not, in fact, been rehabilitated. She is the exception, as all the other Corsican characters in the novel are ultimately redeemed: Orso is pardoned, the various bandits d'honneur of Corsica emerge as virtual heroes in the end of the book, and one cannot help but feel compassion even for the old Barricini, who cries for his sons while Colomba smiles wickedly at him. Although she has relinquished her power (or lost it, by leaving Corsica behind), the improvisatrice clearly cannot be rehabilitated. Despite her outward appearance, her voice (hidden in the body) persists as a destructive, unseen force incommensurate with European modernity. If Corsica's siren song cannot be banished entirely, Merimee suggests, we should take care it falls on deaf ears.

School of Theatre & Music

University of Illinois at Chicago


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of The Society for Ethnomusicology in Los Angeles in 2010. I am grateful to Norman L. Rosenberg, Daniel Party, Christopher M. Thomas, and the reviewers from Nineteenth-Century French Studies for their contributions to the development of this article.


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(1.) Scholars such as Scott Carpenter and Corry Cropper have demonstrated how Merimee's fictions contain a much greater degree of (often subversive) political commentary than previously thought. Cropper's 2000 article on Colomba argues that the seemingly conventional tale in fact comments on the political and social tensions in France under the July Monarchy. Although my reading attends, obviously, to different aspects of the text than Cropper's does, the spirit of my interpretation is in line with his aim, which is to explore how Colomba engages the cultural and social debates of its historical moment.

(2.) Written prior to his visit to the island, Mateo Falcone's depiction of Corsica was based solely on secondary sources available to Merimee. The story lacks the local nuances of Colomba, but is nevertheless rich in allegory, according to Cropper's article "Prosper Merimee and the Subversive 'Historical' Short Story," which argues that the story is a veiled critique of the Restoration government and its deliberate historical amnesia vis-A-vis the Revolution and Empire.

(3.) Older travelogues also provided some of his source material. According to Marcaggi, Merimee became aware of Colomba Bartoli from a travelogue written by Valery (1837). The complicated subject of Merimee's source material for Colomba has been treated most recently by Poydenot.

(4.) From the beginning of their rule over the island, the French administration in Corsica sought to eradicate feuding and criminalize acts of "private justice." Police reported that the rate of serious crime in Corsica far exceeded that of other French departments, due mostly to violence related to the vendetta. In the 1820s, Corsica recorded nearly ten times as many murders than the rest of France (Wilson 15).

(5.) The term voceru derives from the Latin verb vociferare. In southern Corsica the terms ballata, baddata, or abbaddata indicate the link between such funeral laments and a funeral dance once performed in the same context. Women's funeral laments were commonly referred to by Italian and French writers as vocero (an adaptation from the Corsican verb bucerA), but in Colomba Merimee uses the term ballata. For a historical introduction to the ritual, musical, and poetic elements of the tradition see Fernand Ettori. My own article in Current Musicology looks at the poetic conventions and cultural efficacy of women's lamentations in Corsica.

(6.) La Guzla purported to be a collection of folk ballads from the "Illyrian provinces" of the north and east Adriatic coasts. The literary ruse proved successful--La Guzla was widely received as an authentic compendium of Slavic folklore. Several prominent literary figures, including Pushkin and Mickiewicz, retranslated the ballads before Goethe unmasked Merimee as the author (Abramson 102-04).

(7.) Merimee notes of the laments, "Le theme ordinaire de ces chants est la vengeance; et il n'est pas rare qu'un celebre buceratrice [voceratrice] fasse prendre les armes A tout un village par la verve sauvage de ses improvisations" (Notes 723).

(8.) Throughout the novel, the orality with which Colomba and her island are associated proves to be more reliable and legitimate than the written documents related to French law and justice, which prove fallible. For instance, Colomba and Orso's father results directly from a case of forgery, and the Barricini manage to escape justice by means of more forgery and tampering with written evidence that Orso's father left on his deathbed.

(9.) Vincent observes that despite this early craze, by the middle of the nineteenth-century women writers in Europe increasingly turned away from the Corinne figure, whose melancholy voice had lost some of its relevance for being imitated so often and whose fate suggested a tragic submission to patriarchy (22-23).

(10.) "Corinne" becomes "Colomba," most obviously. In Stael's novel, Corinne's rival for Oswald's affection is her half-sister--a blond northerner named "Lucile," a name very close to "Lydia," who is the foil but eventual sister-in-law of Colomba in Merimee's book. In both novels, the blond, bourgeois, northern characteristics of Lucile and Lydia are contrasted with the dark, southern, attributes of Corinne and Colomba. Corinne/Colomba and Lucile/Lydia vie for the attentions of Oswald or Orso--both male characters have recently lost their father and are driven by a sense of duty to his memory. Finally, there is an obvious similarity in the surname given to the representatives of modern, bourgeois virtues in both novels--Oswald and Lucile "Nelvil" and the Colonel and Lydia "Nevil."

(11.) Stael was in particular concerned about the disappearance of the semi-public venues where female eloquence and conversation had enjoyed audience and influence, such as the female-led salons of the eighteenth century. Her elegy for the salon was premature, of course, as it persisted throughout the nineteenth century (Hesse 28-29).

(12.) In his article "Merimee's Colomba" Cropper suggests that Corsica is a symbol of France's revolutionary period, the ideals of which are symbolically reconciled with those of the July monarchy in the narrative. Whether Corsica represents the revolutionary period, as Cropper argues, or the struggle within Corsica itself, as I suspect, the ending of the novel still relies for this conclusion on the acquiescence of the figure of the improvisatrice, thus suggesting a direct engagement with the themes of Corinne.
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Author:Rosenberg, Ruth E.
Publication:Nineteenth-Century French Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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