The French Decadents, many of them, most of them, were gleeful public misogynists. These attitudes are part of what make some of the stories in French Decadent Tales period pieces. The writer is unable to escape the ordinary prejudice of his class and time. What looked original to him is revealed, at a distance, as a cliché.
I am just going by the texts of their fiction. In real life, they could have been better, or even more vile.
Back when I was writing about the Journals of the Goncourt brothers, I began but abandoned a post about the Goncourts terrible attitude towards women. The Goncourts, when young, at least, seemed to think that all women were in one way or another prostitutes. The few exceptions they knew, like George Sand, were baffling puzzles. Yes, the few exceptions, because, in fact, almost all of the women the Goncourts knew were prostitutes of some kind. It never occurred to them that this was the result of choices they had made in their associates rather than an insight into the nature of women.
Jules de Goncourt died young and Edmond de Goncourt eventually grew up. If nothing else, he encountered a greater variety of women – for example, the wives of his friends like Mme Zola and Mme Daudet – and as a result relaxed his misogyny. There are some passages in the Journals that curl the toes; fortunately they become infrequent as time passes.
As a Decadent example, I’m looking at “The Man Who Loved Consumptives” (1891), for example, by Jean Lorrain, an author about whom I know nothing, which is about a man who only takes as lovers women with fatal illnesses, not just so he never has to break up with them, although that is part of it (“there are no disagreeable scenes”), but because the sex is better:
‘The doomed woman is exactly the same; dying, she abandons herself frenziedly to pleasures that fill her with burning life even as they hasten her death; her time is running out; her thirst for love, her need to suffer burns and flames within her, and she clings to love with the final convulsions of the drowning; and desiring still, she redoubles the force behind her last kiss. Twisted under the hand of Death, she would kill the object of her desperate adoration, were she not expiring herself; and his long, crushing, and furious embrace makes her swoon, and die.’ (146)
The man, of course, does not die from frenzied pleasures but just finds another sick woman at the sanitarium.
Lorrain is perhaps the worst of the lot, although now I notice that two of his four stories are about predatory homosexual men, the only pieces in the book that have explicitly homosexual themes. Stephen Romer, the translator, says the Decadents write as if they had a “kind of allergic reaction” to “female sexual power” (p. xx), but Lorrain writes in something more like a fit of hysterics. He could use not just a Freudian literary critic, but a Freudian psychotherapist.
What seems like the cruelest, most outrageous story in the book is Jean Richepin’s “Pft! Pft!” (1892), the sound the heroine makes to show indifference, mostly to the nightmarish manipulations of her lover, who eventually murders her:
But with her dying breath, exhaled like a final answer, came an almost perceptible sigh:
‘Pft! Pft!’ (104)
The lover had one more manipulation, really awful, an avert-your-eyes kind of scene, yet he still loses the contest. I had realized – the other Richepin stories in the collection had clued me in – that this author was actually a satirist of the Decadents, in this case of their misogyny. Talk about a Strong Female Character! And all the man in the story can think to do is try to at first conquer her and then destroy her.