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Desire, Fantasy, and the Writing of Lesbos-sur-Seine, 1880-1939


My dissertation challenges a commonly accepted view that literary representations of lesbianism were merely a momentary fashion, linked to Symbolist and Decadent movements in literature. More than a trope for artistic sterility, the explosion of Sapphic representation emblematized the social fractures prevalent during the Third Republic. This dissertation illustrates that "Sapphism"--in literature and beyond--became a type of shorthand to discuss everything from declining natality to changing gender roles, from military fears to urban space to the nature of artistic production. Using legal, racial and other social discourses to provide different kinds of contextualization, my readings of such canonical authors as Zola, Proust, and Colette reveal how lesbian depictions were not merely about sexuality or art but addressed a host of social and political anxieties. Beginning with an analysis of censorship of lesbian themed novels between 1885 and 1895, I demonstrate the randomness of censorship and its failure to stem the growing number of lesbian depictions. This chapter is followed by an investigation of the role of racial and ethnic othering of the lesbian in French literature as a means to discuss French fears of contamination from its colonies and perceived threats from other world powers. Lesbian characterizations not only gestured to concerns about "Frenchness" and the health of the State, but they also linked sexuality with space. The literary accounts linking lesbian circulation with certain public spaces helped to reconfigure urban landscapes in Paris. The last chapter discusses ways in which both literature and the public lives of bisexual and lesbian authors challenged preconceived notions about marriage and its privileged status as the nec plus ultra of social relationships. Ultimately, I contend that lesbian history in France was not as invisible or non-existent as previously believed, but that in fact, the lesbian representation played an important role in the French imaginary as a means of discussing contemporary social anxieties.

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