La destruction des genres : Jane Austen, Madame d'Epinay ou l'echec de la transgression

Abstract : In her six novels Jane Austen has constantly revisited the same and only story of a heroine eventually acceding to marriage. In Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant Madame d?Épinay has described the failure of married life and more generally the impossibility for a woman to give meaning to her disenchanted life. At first glance nothing could be farther removed than those two ways of relating a woman?s existence. Yet the works of both writers prove quite close from the moment that some cracks appear in the picture painted by Jane Austen : far from depicting the fulfilment of a lifetime, she keeps bringing out in her novels the many disappointments and setbacks suffered by women tangled up in submission and mediocrity. But do the authors only deal with women?s lives after all ? Through their heroines, and through an écriture where fluidity is abandoned and leaves the field clear for cutting and slashing and the uncovering of all kinds of weaknesses, the two women-writers wonder about the means left to women to win a voice of their own ? because the authority of past centuries has imprinted too heavy a mark on woman?s voice, would it then not be irrevocably doomed to repeat codes which it has no hold on ? The works of Jane Austen and Madame d?Épinay fit in with a new literary movement that appeared in the second half of the 18th century and which was characterized by a blossoming of novels written by women and the re-using of the same stereotypes novel after novel. Those stereotypes, mostly inspired by Samuel Richardson, dealt with the respect of tradition, an invariable diegetic pattern, the unfailing authority of the narrative voice and focalization on the heroine. The recurrence of these dominant features in 18th century fiction has led us to distinguish the novels that shared the same characteristics as novels of the immutable. If the two women-writers have made no frontal attack upon this literary movement and have even used for themselves most of its relevant features, they have nevertheless based their writing on the contestation of it, stressed its weaknesses and emphasized its inadequacy to reality. As a consequence their writing is overloaded with references that are denounced one after the other as unsuitable to the contemporary world : the heroine has lost her particular radiance, the dramatic pattern is shown as artificial and the narrator is deprived of her omnipotence (if Jane Austen makes use of irony to dispute this figure, Madame d?Épinay uses all of the narrative voices that belong to the epistolary novel). The clichés of the immutable novel are thus vigorously questioned but they are maintained in the fictional space like as many scars in an écriture that could not get rid of them. Does that mean that both authors are powerless to do away with precepts dubbed by tradition and intended to permeate their works ? Or do Austen and Madame d?Épinay have systematically recourse to denouncement as a prerequisite, should it be at the expense of absolute purity of writing freed from all previous constraints ? The impossibility for Jane Austen and Madame d?Épinay to get rid of an overpowering past actually conceals their questioning about the means ? explored through their heroines as well as other female characters ? for feminine expression to exist. Austen and Madame d?Épinay focus their attention on the very moment when expression is revealed rather than on the accomplished parole, on birth rather than achievement. And it is a fact that all these characters born out of fiction fail to construct a common language, with the result that the strategies used to bring speech into existence are invariably driven out or bypassed by their masculine counterparts who thus secure their hold on dialogue. The failure of feminine discourse does not only belong to the characters but is also due to the authors who are unable to do away with the influences that weigh heavy on their manner of writing, and who are compelled to show their impotence to the core of their novels. We are thus faced with novels of denouncement in which the stigmatae have to be displayed for denouncement to be brought to light. No peace then after full achievement for our two women-writers but the restlessness of an expression forced to admit its dependance and always threatened to be faced with its uselessness ? the female characters, and the narrators as well, keep proclaiming their inability to account for reality and never-endingly fear to fall into the ineffable. Yet, an ambition has been born of that defeat : Jane Austen and Madame d?Épinay have set the requirements for new writing. Feminine expression has to be built while the two writers are being aware of its original shackles and have to bring out the power as well as the limits of it. So much so that we can observe a kind of restless écriture, unhappy with itself but an écriture that refuses naïvety and turns the novel into a new complex space where a new viewpoint has been made possible. The two authors no longer write in the main thread of former writings and authorities which they dispute and set against their dead ends and impossibilities, and if they have proposed no really new way, they have nonetheless turned the novel into a locus for new scepticism. Old certainties have been done away with and have left the room for a new expression, unhappy with itself but self-aware, as a possible prelude to the rise of another écriture that the two women-writers have refused or failed to consider.
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Jérémie Grangé. La destruction des genres : Jane Austen, Madame d'Epinay ou l'echec de la transgression. Littératures. Université Nancy 2, 2008. Français. ⟨NNT : 2008NAN21007⟩. ⟨tel-01777314⟩

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