Lucy O’Meara interviews Kathryn Bryan, winner of the inaugural Modern Language Review Article Prize. This prize was awarded for the best article published in volume 118 of MLR.

cover of Modern Language Review 118.4

Kathryn’s article appeared in MLR 118.4 (October 2023) and is entitled ‘Fantine in the Belle Époque: Representation of the Fille-Mère in L'Assiette au beurre (1902) and Marcelle Tinayre's La Rebelle (1905)’. The article is available to read as Open Access here.

The jury’s Editorial Commendation prize was awarded to Margarita Vaysman for her article ‘The Trouble with Queer Celebrity: Aleksandr Aleksandrov (Nadezhda Durova)'s A Year of Life in St Petersburg (1838)’, published in MLR 118.1 (January 2023). That’s also available Open Access here.


Kathryn Bryan

LOM. Kathryn, the whole jury was very impressed by your winning article and the way it brings to life the experience of ‘filles-mères’ in France at the turn of the 20th century. How would you explain to a non-specialist what the term ‘fille-mère’ means?

KB. The term ‘fille-mère’ was throughout the nineteenth century the common expression in French for an unmarried mother but it means so much more than just that. I was careful in how I used it throughout the article as it is a pejorative term, which has since been replaced with the more neutral ‘mère célibataire’, and I was keen not to proliferate any negative connotations in my own study. It literally translates to ‘girl-mother’, with the implication that women who become pregnant out of wedlock take on this interstitial stage of female development, skipping the essential wife level. Without going on too much of a feminist rant, I have always found the linguistic conflation of woman and wife – ‘femme’ is the word for both – a really fascinating and frustrating element of the French language. It’s the same with girl and daughter – the same word, ‘fille’, is used for both. The same linguistic conflation doesn’t happen for men/husbands and boys/sons! There is a dearth of French words to describe the different roles and stages of the female experience. Even the ‘mère’ of ‘fille-mère’ is complicated, as the term could be used to describe unmarried women at any stage in their pregnancy, whether or not it resulted in the birth of a child. It was a fate to be avoided, a label that would drastically impact a woman’s reputation and opportunities.

LOM. So, looking at representations of unmarried mothers tells us a lot about French society and culture at this time?

KB. Absolutely. I find representations of maternity generally a really enlightening way to explore wider attitudes towards gender in any society. The beginning of the twentieth century was a particularly key moment in France for this, as there was growing panic over the decline in population that hit France before the rest of Western Europe. Many nationalists were keen to increase the birthrate, and so the plight of the unmarried mother, shunned by society, became an issue of national importance. She is also an important figure in the wider so-called ‘Woman Debate’ of this time, during which early French feminists attempted to raise the profile of mothers, as the bearers of the next generation, in their fight to improve women’s rights.

LOM. Can you tell us about how you became drawn to this period of French history?

KB. I sort of fell into this period of history, really. My plan was to work on the nineteenth century, as I have always loved the big, hefty realist and naturalist novels from this time (in English and Russian too). It just so happened that as I was defining my corpus for my PhD thesis, I discovered this spike in books about abortion from the first decade of the twentieth century, or Belle Époque. Of course, I still class myself as a nineteenth centuryist, thanks to the long nineteenth century (1789-1914), but I do find this transitional period really fascinating, particularly as a key moment in women’s history.

Despite the curious American overprinting about copyright, this is an original 1906 Paris printing of La Rebelle in French: two different librarians have written in dates and shelfmarks, and it was then embossed with the seal of the University of Toronto library. And it was this physical copy, of all those circulated, which was scanned for the Internet: here it is in full text at Wikisource.

LOM. In your article, you give us close readings of two very different kinds of text: an issue of a weekly newspaper from 1902, and a novel from 1905. Why did you want to put these two texts together?

KB. These were two texts I encountered towards the beginning of my PhD research. Marcelle Tinayre’s novel La Rebelle was recommended to me as a somewhat-known feminist novel of the Belle Époque and I found it to be such a rich text, with many more layers that I was not able to get into in this article. Likewise, L’Assiette au Beurre came up in some of my initial archival research on Gallica, the digitized archive service of the Bibliothèque nationale française. I found the format of the illustrated satirical newspaper very intriguing. I had planned initially to include a third text in the article, La Grappe (1903) by Maurice Landay, but I found that there was so much to say on these two that I chose the depth of close reading that was only possible with two texts. I found ‘reading’ the illustrations from the newspaper a very different experience to my other work, which has focused on the novel. It was a bit of a gamble moving outside of my comfort zone for the article, and I am so thankful for the feedback from the peer reviewers, who directed me towards sources on the illustrated press which proved to be invaluable.

It’s hard to translate ‘assiette au beurre’. Literally a deli plate of crudités, or a small smorgasbord, the title sounds a little like the contemporary British tabloid ‘Tit-Bits’: an assortment of amusing odds and ends. It capitalized on new printing technology to include nearly 10,000 drawings, sketches and cartoons, some in colour, which only twenty years earlier would have been too expensive to engrave for a mass market. But just as the magazine was also a political platform, so ‘assiette au beurre’ was also slang: something like a bribe, a perk, a stolen advantage. (Cover image: Gallica.)

LOM. You’re currently working on your PhD thesis on the representation of abortion in French novels from the first decade of the twentieth century. Has this topic tended to be neglected in scholarship?

KB. From a literary perspective, yes. I was able to find these novels in the first place thanks to historical studies of abortion, including the work of Fabrice Cahen, Jean-Yves le Naour and Catherine Valenti, and, of course, Rachel Fuchs. Her book, Poor and Pregnant in Paris: Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century (Rutgers University Press, 1992), is a foundational study in this field. It was one of the first sources my supervisor, Professor Nicholas White, recommended to me at the beginning of my doctoral research. It had a profound impact on me and has informed my work ever since – hence my framing of the MLR article as a response to her hypothesis about how Victor Hugo’s character Fantine (from Les Misérables) would have fared, had she lived in the Belle Époque. In the historical scholarship, the novels themselves tended to be used as evidence of a wider interest in abortion at the time, with the titles given in lists of abortion novels, with a small plot synopsis if I was lucky. Some of my novels do feature in literary studies: scholarship by Leonard Koos, Yvonne Knibiehler and Martine Sagaert has been hugely foundational to my research, but none of the novels have been the focus of an extended literary analysis. I was struck by how, as the historians note, the medical, legal and political discourses on abortion are reflected in these novels, but I wanted to explore the impact of these novels, by recognising the power of literature to influence its readers.

LOM. You’re studying five novels for your thesis. Can you tell us a bit about them?

KB. My five novels are: La Grappe (1903) by Maurice Landay, L’Ensemencée (1904) by Jeanne Caruchet, Le Droit à l’avortement (1906) by Jean Darricarrère, La Fabrique d’anges (1907) by Gaston Tournier and L’Autel (1907) by Camille Pert. I explore to what extent each of these novels can be classed as ‘romans à thèse’, or as, Susan Suleiman calls them, ideological novels, with a clear message on abortion within the plot. They range from depressing (Landay), to gory (Tournier), to melodramatic (Darricarrère), to surprisingly modern explorations of the female experience (Caruchet and Pert).

LOM. Do you have a favourite among the five novels?

KB. I don’t even have to think twice about this – L’Autel by Camille Pert. It is one of my two female-authored novels, alongside Caruchet’s L’Ensemencée, and it’s so important to me to raise awareness of these talented but forgotten women. L’Autel is an incredible book! It’s like a twisted bildungsroman where we follow the male protagonist’s sexual exploits and resultant pregnancies, abortions and deaths alongside his rise in the Parisian literati. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away as it really is worth a read, but I will just say that Pert masterfully plays with the reader’s expectations of hysteria to expose the sacrifice of female flesh behind many ‘great men’.

José Engel-Garry’s portrait of Camille Pert, c. 1900

LOM. The topic of abortion is polemical to this day, and I’m sure that there are continuities between the material you’re studying, from over 100 years ago, and contemporary questions. Is it important to you to trace these continuities?

KB. As I work part-time, I started my research in 2018, before the recent changes to abortion laws across the world, including the overturning of Roe v Wade and regulatory changes across Europe during the coronavirus pandemic. The fact that it is still debated to this extent, and can elicit such strong reactions over a century later, tells me that these novels deserve to be recovered and reread today. I am currently working on another article that explores the ‘invisible chain’ of female experience of abortion from Caruchet’s L’Ensemencée, to two versions of L’événement: Annie Ernaux’s memoir about the illegal abortion she had in 1963, published in 2000, and Audrey Diwan’s film adaptation of the book from 2021. What interests me most in these three works is the depiction of homosocial female support networks in works that span almost 120 years, and the role of the reader/viewer in this network.

LOM. Alongside your doctoral research, you also teach languages to primary school children. How do you see these two roles as complementing each other?

KB. It isn’t necessarily the most obvious combination, that’s for sure. I did my training in secondary teaching, and taught French and Spanish full-time to pupils aged 11-16 for two years before returning to academia. I saw, firsthand, the decline in pupils choosing languages, particularly after changes to the GCSE and A Level exams. Making the move to primary language teaching has been invigorating! I get to work with children as young as two and a half years old, introducing a curiosity and interest in other languages and cultures from the very beginning of their school journey. I see what is happening to our field in the UK and it saddens me immensely. I worry about the future of languages in higher education and the prospects for myself and other early career researchers. But then I get to spend two days a week sowing the seeds for the next generation of linguists, introducing them to music, dance, art, film and (of course) literature from the francophone and hispanophone worlds. The future for languages in this country will come from educators at all levels working together to create a cohesive journey from nursery to university. At the University of Cambridge, I have taken part in conferences on MFL education and produced resources as part of the Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistic faculty’s outreach programme for A Level students. We need to extend these projects to include younger language learners, in order to get them choosing our subject for the GCSE and A Level options in the first place! We must work together to provide the support, training and resources for engaging language teaching, from primary school onwards, to reinvigorate our field and make language learning flourish.


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