Wife Abuse in eighteenth-century France

Illustration for a text by Retif de Bretonne: The misfortune of familes: The unworthy husband

This review appeared in The Intelligencer, N.S. 25:3 (October 2011): 11-15.

Mary Trouille. Wife Abuse in eighteenth-century France, SVEC 2009:01. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation. xiv+378pp. US$110. ISBN 978-0-7294-0955-1

Mary Trouille's Wife Abuse in eighteenth-century France demonstrates that the capacity to enforce and end a marriage must be as much in a woman's as in a man's, any family member or judicial authority's power if a decent safe life for all be the goal to be achieved in society. Trouille argues that partial recognition of the real risk of putting a wife into the unqualified power of her husband made visible in eighteenth-century judicial memoirs and novels focusing on marital mieery exerted a salutary influence on enough law-makers in the French assembly to pass the liberating 1792 divorce law (e.g., 69-77). Her book consists of a richly-detailed analysis of a thicket of texts: judicial memoirs and court documents, non-fiction Causes celebres, “secret correspondences” (62-63) and life-writing, gothic and novels of sensibility, philosophical and revolutionary tracts; psychoanalytic and sociological studies of spouse and parental behavior, together with records of law, custom, and political battles showing the results of the power allowed a husband over his wife and children from the eighteenth to the twentieth century in France and the UK. Written in a studiously neutral style, grave in tone, Wife Abuse is nonetheless painful to read as these texts reveal what life is like for a woman in societies where men are not just allowed but made automatically justified in punishing them. Trouille proves that physical and emotional abuse of women was pervasive in all classes in marriage (26-37). The effect of her book is to transform our understanding of the era's “virtue in distress,” gothic and semi-pornographic novels: while they may be sentimental and exploitative fantasies, they also mirror a perceived defencelessness of women in the face of spousal abuse (e.g, 244-55) and their lack of status and disesteem (42-43, 143).

Trouille takes us (Chapter One) through laws, customs, and attitudes towards marital distress, and specific changes in French divorce law (51-55), from 1792 when a law was enacted which, with some barriers (e.g., having to convene newyly-invented family councils for advice) allowed either spouse inexpensively to obtain a divorce on a basis of incompatibility and/or mutual consent. We move through successive stages of renewed restriction. In 1803, the wife again had to prove severe abuse by her husband, and endure unilateral rules about adultery: a husband could be fined if he brought his mistress into the house, while a wife proved guilty of adultery could be imprisoned. In 1816 divorce was for most people abolished entirely; for a wife to obtain a separation from her husband she had to prove him guilty of criminal behavior and/or severe beating (that she was afraid for her life). Trouille demonstrates that from the later seventeenth well into the twentieth century, wife-beating and other abuses (deprivation of shelter, food, money, and children; forms of imprisonment; and behaviors causing emotional distress) have been ubiquitous in all classes of French society and, abetted by religiously-worded exhortation, treated leniently in English and French courts (26-56). For a brief eleven years (1792 to 1803) the divorce rate soared, with “wives initiat[ing] the procedures in two-thirds to three-quarters of unilateral divorces in the regions studied so far” (53). The reader is offered factual specifics about people, cases, attitudes, and shown the importance and rhetorical excellence of, French legal and literary texts that emerged from court cases across the century and were meant to sway judges, juries and the reading public. The central non-fiction text of Trouille's book, Des Essarts's Causes celebres, a widely disseminated compendium written and compiled over many years (1744-1810) is described; adapted, abridged, reprinted, translated, it was a goldmine for novelists (4-6).

Six marital court cases, accompanied by briefer descriptions of analogous comparative cases, put before the reader what mores counted, what realities (e.g., the syphilis epidemic, 59-63, 71-73) and how the agendas and lives of specific lawyers created the content left to us (Chapters Two through Six). The specifics of these, who argued and what are thus central to its merits. Madame Ble was able to obtain a divorce and return of her property because Linguet (an influential advocate using effective progressive reasoning, 61-63, 78-80) persuaded the court that her husband married her knowing he was infected with syphilis, and proceeded to infect her; the child she gave birth to was born sick and died within a couple of years. This case swirls about the sex act: the wife was said not to want to have sex with her husband since once she discovered he had syphilis, she assumed he would re-infect her and any children they would conceive (63-66, 74).  Since a woman was supposed never to refuse her husband and there was no recognition that forcing her would be rape, she needed to separate herself from him quickly in order to avoid beating. Mme Ble sued in 1757 and within 16 days won a separation of persons and property and her husband was instructed to return her dowry. Trouille thinks the court acted quickly because it cared about the production of healthy children (65, 87-88). By contrast, it took Mme de Mezieres six years to get a separation on grounds of financial mismanagement as much as physical abuse (116-17). Mme de Mezieres's experience shows us how an older woman who was depressed (lost) after her first husband died, married a younger man, was subject to shame and therefore vulnerable to mistreatment (96-98, 122-23). The aggressive and financially astute M. Collet outmaneuvered an older suitor, and frightened and duped her into marrying him using methods reminiscent of Richardson's Lovelace (97-99). We witness the wife's excessive abjection before his shocking violence (103-7). Mme de Mezieres had to resort to a lettre de cachet to find safety in a convent first. We are in the terrain of the gothic novel (107).

Differing class allegiances in the case of M. and Mme Rouches formed part of lawyers' shaping of their story as about a woman who had aspired to an independent social life and been pressured into marrying a much older narrow-minded rich merchant. Mme Rouches complained that her husband allowed his heir by a previous wife to kick and hit her during her pregnancies: her children threatened this son's primogeniture. She also cited inescapable brutal violence when she attempted to avoid sex that in her case would cause further of these pregnancies irritating to father and son. Both behaviors are commonplace in abuse cases: the woman who is pregnant is even more a target of physical abuse; she is subject to violence during, or if she refuses to have, full sexual intercourse. M. Rouches counter-accused her of adultery to which his conservative lawyer, Desazars linked Mme Rouches's supposed squandering of M. Rouches's hard-earned money to buy luxurious goods above their station. Desazars also maintained their plebian origin precluded any privileged complaints about severe beatings (this is in accordance with assumptions about what lower class must endure as opposed to upper class women, 143-44). Given Des Essarts's biased narrative on M. Rouches's behalf whose materialistic resentments Trouille seems to credit (she labels the case “battered wife or clever opportunist”), it surprises Trouille that the court granted Mme Rouches a quick separation, with the husband paying court costs (125, 150-52). I take it that Mme Rouches's progressive and high-ranking barrister lawyer Bastoulh's dramatic presentation, his sympathy for the young woman (he blamed the husband for choosing such a young wife), and his explanation for Mme Rouches's having waited eight years was that just then her stepson had become old enough to endanger her life were all heard by the court (131-38).

The lawyers' arguments in the second three cases reveal how the transformation of the law in 1792 enabled much more to come out in public that was understood to count with the complainants but hitherto had not, and how this new material conflicted with the continuation of traditional attitudes. The case of Mme de La Berge brings before us a man who married a woman solely for her money and when she ran out or refused him, beat her mercilessly and terrifyingly: he may have meant to kill her in order to get control over her money (165-68). He also humiliated her by keeping his mistress in the house and taking his mistress to public occasions (169-70). Trouille presents the case as a direct challenge to male violence and the double standard in courts; the case remains relevant because it was held against the wife that she stayed and, according to Trouille's retelling, even supported him, e.g., she worked to get him a safe conduct against creditors to allow him to return home; when he arrived, he took a knife to her (172-75). Mme Mandonnet did not want to have sex with her husband after the birth of the first child; he beat her ferociously. Again the husband is much older than the wife, and she was forced into the marriage by her parents, but here the parents then sided with the daughter, enabled her to leave him, and sought return of (their) property. The conservative lawyer Bellarts's text consists of a first-person narrative attributed to a husband in order to persuade M. Mandonnet's listeners that he was not so bad (196): M. Mandonnet is presented as finding himself driven to tell further humiliating realities (e.g., his father left the property to his sister, 183-84). Trouille suggests Mandonnet's use of the first person is tantamount to confessing his need and (for a male) socially unacceptable vulnerability (192-97). Mme de l'Orme had instituted divorce proceedings in 1802 only to find in 1803 these were no longer valid. Now Bellarts, the very lawyer who argued against Mme Mandonnet argued for Mme de l'Orme on grounds of incompatibility, and says that a lack of companionship is a centrally valid reason for seeking an end to a marriage, “odious hypocrisy,” “vindictiveness” and “vulgarity” are worse to endure than sexual misconduct or violence (quite a turnround), and she must not be allowed to go back, for M. de l'Orme will retaliate and keep her property (204-8). All three cases show that the 1792 law at once unveiled and denied an age-old assumption that a man owns the woman he marries and it is his right to punish her when she asserts her independence from him as part of his “understandable” need to retaliate at the world's not valuing him.

Unfortunately, Trouille's text in all these cases (especially Mezieres and Berg, 107, 175) is bedeviled by an all too frequent recourse to her persuasion that “female masochism,” sometimes simply cited, sometimes supported by references to psychoanalytical and literary studies (e.g., Masse's In the Name of Love: women, masochism and the gothic [Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992]), are valid explanations for female endurance of suffering. She describes as insightful Bellart's belief in "the dynamics of violent marriage" (204) as a creditable viable relationship and then quotes as “a similar insight” an inane passage in Montesquieu's Lettres persanes which presents as amusing how Moscow wives want to be beaten daily (205; see also her citation of a similar comment by Retif de la Bretonne, 280). Trouille herself cited in her valuable extensive bibliography, J.P. Martin (ed. Violence and the Family [New York: John Wiley, 1978), Lenore Walker and Elizabeth Waites (“Battered Women and Learned Helplessness” and “Female Masochism and the Enforced Restriction of Choice,” Victimology, 2 [1977-78]:525-44) whose work demonstrates how this explanation (which partly absolves society) is maintained by not looking at the social arrangements and circumstances of a case. The girl is offered a highly restricted set of choices and is trained early on to see that none of her actions have any effect on what is done to her. She is shown doing anything to try to free herself is not just useless, but will bring more punishment. This kind of thing done early creates a passivity in individuals difficult to break out of. I have room to cite but one exemplifying incident which segues us into the third part of Trouille's book: in Retif de la Bretonne's Ingenue Saxancour, ou La femme séparée, when one night, the husband, Moresquin (whose real life counterpart was Retif's daughter, Agnes's husband, Auge) beats Ingenue (Agnes's surrogate) cruelly, and abuses her sexually (sodomizing her by force, soiling her, demanding irrumation), a naked Ingenue flees her house to a nearby stairwell, and is told by the neighbor who appears seemingly to urge her to return back to her husband as it's her duty to obey him, i.e., to do what he wants (Ingenue Saxancour, 92-105). Trouille's cases say little about the involved children whose presence and needs strongly influence a wife's decision to return or put up with a husband to whom in the eighteenth century she had to abandon their child.

Trouille provides lengthy close-readings of Sade's Marquise de Gange, Stephanie de Genlis's Histoire de la duchesse de C***** (from Adele et Theodore), along with Ingénue Saxancour, novellas based on real life events like those in Des Essarts. (Chapters Seven through Nine), and concludes her book with a brief exegeses of four semi-autobiographical novels by women: Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Women; or Maria; Graffigny's Lettres d'une Peruvienne, Riccoboni's Lettres d'Adelaide de Dammartin, comtesse de Sancerre and d'Epinay's Histoire de Madame Montbrilliant (321-28). The method is similar to her approach to her many texts in her magisterial Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment: Women Read Rousseau: she uses a wide variety of critical perspectives to create a rich digest of biography, literary history, and women's political battles and recent studies. She offers a comparative treatment of Sade's novella with at least eight other versions of the story from the later seventeenth to early twentieth century to explore what happens when matter written in one genre is reformed in another. Sade's book is a “parodic gothic novel superimposed on a historical chronicle” with abrupt changes in style and wild shifts, from tongue-in-cheek gothic-like episodes (comic kidnapping), to grave Comus-like philosophical debates, novelistic characters, and a tragic narration of the Marquise's terrible end and pious death (214-36). I found Sade's misanthropic lesson parodically appropriate: we are offered a poetic justice which did not occur in life and not told that the three brothers escaped with impunity because it's “si consolant pour la vertu, que ceux qui l’ont persecutee doivent infailliblement l’etre a leur tour” [“so consoling for virtue to know that those who have been persecuted infallibly persecute in turn,” my translation, Gange 15)]. Trouille does justice to the relentlessly realistic texts both Genlis and Retif achieve. In Genlis we experience (to use modern terms) the story of a wife as hostage berated by a captor whom she has been taught to respect, and tortured by solitude, darkness, and helpless dependence on him. Trouille's analysis allows the reader to see how Genlis transcends her conscious understanding to dramatize the adversarial as well as supportive nature of parent-child relationships, the unnameable and unthinkable acts that do happen, and thoughts and feelings that can lead to “une transformation des structures sociales et culturelles" (268-71). Trouille has just published an English translation of Adele et Theodore,; and we may now hope the emergence of serious Restivian studies in the last two decades will bring with it an English translation of Ingenue Saxancour, for Trouille's discussion shows it to be what my reading confirms: one of the most powerful depictions of spousal abuse ever written, a probing analysis, presentation of the psychology of an inveterate abuser of other people, and full explanation of the complexities that can lead a woman to endure sordid debasement and hard physical punishment. Retif's seriousness and success may be seen in the increasingly common argument the novel represents a collaboration with his daughter (297-306).

Trouille's section based on women's texts is shaped to suggest their writing about their lives was “a courageous act of self-affirmation” in an era when women's texts were dismissed, a “form of therapy” and a “protest against the condition of women” (327-28). She suggests that by substituting stories for argument you teach what laws mean (315). Hers is a book whose importance goes well beyond a study of eighteenth century texts because her stories intersect with real lives then – and now. She says violence towards women by men is still tolerated. I have one text to add to hers by women: the screenplay writer and film director and producer, Nadine Trintignant's Ma fille, Marie (2004). In 2003 Nadine's daughter, the French actress, Marie Trintignant, then 41, a mother of four children, was beaten to death by Bertrand Cantat, the man Marie was then living with. Marie's mother also writes from motives like Retif's: she braves a taboo to bring private matter into the open to expose the killer whose behavior she has had to hear justified (in court); to testify accurately to the full reality of what had happened; and to assuage a parent's guilt. Trouille's project is just that of Nadine Trintignant: “d'aider les femmes anonymes, dont certaines, comme toi [like Marie suffered and ], meurent sous les coups . . . Il faut les secourir, (Ma fille, Marie 171; cf. Trouille 329). Ellen Moody George Mason University

Summaries of the Book: Reveries Under the Sign of Austen: A blog

  1. Part One
  2. Part Two
  3. Part Three
  4. Conclusion
Print from Greuze: "He even sold their bed!"

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