4 July 2015

Victor Margueritte: La Garçonne | The Bachelor Girl (1922; repr. by PBP 2013)

Victor Margueritte's La Garçonne – translated perhaps a little inaccurately as The Bachelor Girl – is a fascinating and intelligent novel as well as a kind of historical document. It was published in 1922, shortly after the First World War had radically reduced the population of males, inevitably creating a surplus of nubile females. As a result, in the 1920s not only was abortion in France strongly outlawed but any advertising of contraception was forbidden, and maternity leave was introduced, along with a mother's day: the family ruled.

Margueritte was a feminist and recognised as such by women feminists, but La Garçonne was viewed by many as an attack on the mores of the haute bourgeoisie of the time: which it certainly was, although it wasn't a roman à clef representing living (or dead) people under pseudonyms. But for his 'social crime', Margueritte was stripped of his Légion d'honneur title: a first in its history.

Margueritte had published Les Prostituées in 1907 without exactly the same reactions: he was writing about marginals, not women from 'respectable' society. And it is the hypocrisy and self-interest of this society that the author is attacking.

Monique Lerbier comes from a wealthy family in Paris and is engaged to Lucien Vigneret, whom she loves, although Monique will discover that he doesn't love her and that Lucien and her father see the marriage more as a business arrangement. She is anonymously warned – it transpires by a later lover – that Lucien is being unfaithful to her and is seeing a woman named Cléo every day, but Monique burns the letter in disbelief. It is only during the new year celebrations that she sees the truth of these allegations, has sex with an unknown man out of spite, and begins the process of liberating herself from the tyranny of her parents and her class.

But liberation comes at a price. The new Monique, the garçonne of the title, cuts her hair and establishes herself as a play set designer, experiments with various lovers, including women, and part of her new home becomes an opium den. She sees politicians as peddlars of poison, too frightened due to commercial exigencies to ban alcohol but ever-ready to ban 'la neige' (snow, or cocaine). She nevertheless despises what she has become, while at the same time shes is obviously unable to forsake her new knowledge of the age-old sexual double stardards and of how gender is conventionally perceived.

Monique starts to settle down and disbands the opium den when she thinks that she has found happiness with the novelist Régis Bousselot. Unfortunately he turns out to be consumed by almost psychotic jealousy and possessiveness: Monique feels like a prisoner, that Régis wants to own her. She escapes from him and goes to join her friend Mme Ambrat, but while she is at her friend's house Régis appears with a gun: Georges Blanchet, the philosophy teacher and writer is there at the time and acts as a human shield to defend her, and the shot injures both of them. Fortunately Blanchet is not seriously wounded and Monique only grazed: it is by the same bullet, which unites them.

La Garçonne is a fascinating post-First World War novel about female emancipation, bourgeois hypocrisy and gender statement. If its conclusion seems a little prosaic, artificial and predictable, it nonetheless makes some very bold statements considering it is almost one hundred years old.

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