Mephistophela by Catulle Mendès
This book was really a doozy! I read Brian Stableford’s translation, published by Snuggly Books (the only English translation available), but it was originally serialized in the newspaper, L’Écho de Paris, an extremely conservative, traditionalist paper, in 1890. Stableford’s preface suggests that Mendès, who was actually quite liberal as shown by his other works, likely hated the readers of L’Écho de Paris, and just wrote for it to make money / possibly to get readers to reconsider their prejudices.
The basic plot is about a wealthy woman, Sophie, who is passionately in love with her childhood friend, Emmeline, who grew up in the house next door. She could not stand being separated from Emmeline for longer than a night, and even that seemed too long. Everything is fine until, one day, Sophie is married off to Emmeline’s brother, who raped and beat her on the night of their wedding. This led Sophie to escape with Emmeline to a nearby island resort. They have a great time and even become intimate, but… Sophie doesn’t actually know what to do. Emmeline leaves, disappointed, and her brother moves her to an unknown location.
Sophie is subsequently taught all the wonders of sapphic love making by a female tourist named Magalo, who she starts dating. This knowledge sets her off into multiple crazy lesbian love affairs. But, still, she feels empty inside – all she can think about is Emmeline. She eventually manages to track down where she lives, but finds that she has since settled down with a husband and children of her own. This revelation devastated her – the book ends with her in an eternal depression, allegedly unable to escape, even through death.
That summary doesn’t actually mention the major theme of the story, though: namely that Sophie is said to (allegedly) be born from a demonic or cursed family. It historically has been and, unfortunately, still is fairly common to believe “homosexuality is caused by demons or witchcraft.” Even as recent as 2020, a sermon was released on the White House’s official Youtube page, where a bishop claims just that (1). There are still attempts to “exorcize” homosexuality out of people.
What’s interesting here, though, is that the narrative isn’t particularly clear and often doubles back on itself. Like, it tries to call itself a story about demonic possession (the title literally harkening to Mephistopheles), but it can’t quite decide whether demons are real or not. Parallels are drawn between the roles of doctors & mages and the diagnosis of “hysteria” / intoxication & “demonic possession” in the prologue, but, later, similar comparisons are drawn between doctors and priests:
A prescription is a penance imposed; a pill is now swallowed as an ave was once recited; “You are cured” is an absolution; and there is a paradise: morphine. (Mendès 161)
Another example is the whole chapter devoted to Sophie (now, embracing her “demonicness” / homosexuality and therefore going by the name, Sophor) going to a demonic feast, sacrificing baskets of freshly slaughtered male newborns to, and finally accepting the spirit of a “sort of God which, for being female, was a Devil” into her body. Then the next chapter immediately explains: oh, yeah, she was just extremely drunk and had strange dreams all night.
Remember, this was published in L’Écho de Paris, an extremely conservative, Catholic, Nationalist newspaper, in a time (the Third French Republic), where the separation of Church and State was only just now being drawn, with extreme controversy. It seems surprising that something like this – which not only apparently questions the reality of religious teachings, but also literally compares priests and mages, as doing basically the same job; which apparently tries to pose Sophie (and therefore homosexuals and all other “sinners,” in general) as being “already guilty” from the womb and unable to lead “normal,” happy lives, but we see Sophie’s mother and daughter coming along just fine; in which we are told the sole, guaranteed way to have a happy, fulfilling life is to settle down and have a (heteronormative, nuclear) family, but we know instinctively that that isn’t true, at all, because anyone can develop depression – would have been published at all.
I mean, modern day über conservatives are against even things like Harry Potter or Pokémon for “allegedly” pushing demonic messages onto the youth. Meanwhile, this is, all things considered, a fairly sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian woman in unrequited love, that drives her into a deep depression. Movies today are banned and protested for simply showing a same-sex kiss, while this goes much more in depth… Genuinely, I wonder what the original, intended audience thought of this story.
The reason I found this book in the first place was because I was reading a biography of lesbian author / poet, Renée Vivien, which mentioned her reading this book and it having a big influence on how she viewed herself and her sexuality. Stableford’s preface elaborates that, while it “informed her of the possibility and reality of lesbian amour… she hated the ‘bourgeois’ attitude to that possibility and reality adopted by ‘the author’” (Mendès 9).
Another topic that really got me while reading this was how it talked about masculinity and “virile” women.
This was still a time where they really didn’t have a concept of homosexuality at all. Men are meant to love and dominate women, and women are meant to love and submit to men. There certainly must be wrong with someone who steps out of these roles and tries to emulate the opposite sex!
Normally, I’m so drawn to “masculine” women and there are certain “masculine” traits that I really romanticize, honestly. But, this book violently tore that all down. Like, don’t get me wrong, I’m a man-hating lesbian and all, but the way that this pointed out every little flaw and despicable act men, average or even “good” men commit (like priests molesting women and children, and Sophie’s husband, being an honorable soldier who everyone likes, brutally raping her)…
But even more than that, it made me realize even more how our societal systems were made specifically for oppressing women. Like, I mentioned Magalo above, who was dating Sophie. Magalo absolutely loved Sophie, thought so highly of her, was grateful that she’d stay around and, so, would cook and clean and serve Sophie’s every little whim. But:
Did Sophie love Magalo? No, or doubtless very little, even though she showed herself jealous to the point of wanting to hit her or insult her, if, in the street or the theater, the little slut looked at someone too attentively; the jealousy of a miser rather than a lover. Certainly, there was no resemblance between the sentiment that she felt now and that she had known with Emmeline. But now she was cheered by that frivolity, incessantly awake, moved by that tenderness, always ready for caresses, infatuated with that submission, which, for being so feminine, made her, Sophor, more masculine. (Mendès 184)
And when they find out that Emmeline is engaged, Magalo literally offers herself as a punching bag because:
maltreating someone relieves a person who is angry; it is even better than breaking furniture or smashing porcelain. (Mendès 191)
It’s like a direct port of the worst aspects of hetero relationships! They really do exist just to oppress women and uplift men, by doing their work for them, letting them blow off stress, housekeeping, etc! And the way that the narrative romanticizes this! I cannot stress how much better Magalo deserves, she’s such a little angel!
After Sophie leaves Magalo (because she realized she was pregnant with her rapist’s baby and it freaked her the hell out), she meets a number of other women, including Marfa Petrowna. It’s discovered that she’s been dressing up like her non-existent brother and getting drunk and starting fights throughout town. Again, normally, this sort of archetype would really excite me (!), but, here, it’s also talking about how she sexually harasses all the women she meets and pulls up their skirts… It seems everything involving “masculinity” also inherently involves the abuse of women! (Ignoring that, though, I guess, Marfa is a fun character. She’s only around for a couple pages, but she and Sophie have an explosive relationship, where both refuse to submit [and, therefore, “be the woman”].)
On that note, the book talks extensively about the subjugation of women. I already mentioned the marital rape and how wives were treated, but prostitutes and prostitution are also prominently featured. While talking about the underbelly of Paris, Mendès describes:
daughters sold by the father and mother – people practicing, admittedly, good housekeeping – destined for prostitution since the first rock of the cradle, which nevertheless resembles a refusal, methodically, with the patience implied by the choice of a career, as if after a resolution made in family council; the breasts of décolleté duchesses becoming sticky in brothels with the kisses reeking of sherry or port of drunken foreigners; more detestable, those virgin givers of their mouth and throat and their entire naked body who, for the pride of an unwrinkled belly or to spare themselves the bother of a fetus cut into pieces and then thrown to the latrines, remain virgin in their obscene beds; and, in the offices of matrimonial notaries who are about to depart for Brussels or are returning from the Mazas, the name exchanged for money – not much money – misallied at a discount, as if the extreme descendants of illustrious families, peddlers of immemorial glory, were howling on the boulevards: “Get it while it’s hot! Buy Rosbecque! Rocroy! Fontenoy! Latest edition!” (24)
Also, later on, in an attempt to deal with her soul crushing depression, Sophie visits a few horrific, sadistic brothels... She even gets one installed in her house where she’d pay women to do trapeze acts over a floor of spikes?? Seriously, you think in the internet age, you’ve heard it all, nothing can surprise you. And then you read some old French book describing horrors you couldn’t even imagine… I would typically do some fact checking here, but honestly, even the fictional implication that this might be real or even vaguely based on reality is too much for me!
Another thing that Stableford mentions in his preface is how, circa 1889 in France, it was illegal to discuss (in speech or print) how to achieve the female orgasm. That’s why Sophie didn’t know how what to do that night with Emmeline. In fact, apparently, le Marquis de Sade himself wrote extensively about how do it, which was also banned, along with all his other works. I really don't get how these things could be related, at all...
In terms of writing style, I think it's also important to mention, it can be a bit weird at times and difficult to understand. Some of this results from very dense writing that was pretty common in the 1800's, some of it comes from what I think is too literal of a translation that seems to try to retain French grammatical structures in English where that just doesn't work, and some of it likely comes from me just not being particularly familiar with culture standards and customs (especially with Catholic things).
Also, some sections are very detailed and beautifully elaborated, but others seem more just brushed over and summarized. That's not necessarily a problem, but I just thought Marfa was an interesting character and their dynamic was fun, and I would've liked to have seen a bit more of it in depth, y'know? They spent a year together, but she was only relevant for ten pages out of 359...
In summary, it’s not a particularly happy or positive book, in regards to the treatment of lesbians and homosexuality, but, frankly, you wouldn’t really expect it to be – 1890’s France just wasn’t a good place for women or homosexuals or anyone who wasn’t a French straight wealthy Catholic man, really. But I would definitely say that it’s thought provoking, at least; if the length of this review says anything. I do think it ends up saying more about men than women, though, overall.
Still, the book, apparently, influenced more authors to write about lesbianism in much more favorable ways. Stableford notes that in the thirty or so years between Baudelaire’s Les fleurs de mal and Mendès’ Méphistophéla, there was nothing relevant to lesbians published, but, immediately following it, many more works appeared in rapid succession, including Pierre Louÿs’ Les chansons de Bilitis (in 1894) and Renée Vivien’s poetry (in the early 1900’s). I think the greatest goal for a book is to convince readers to read or write or want to learn more (whether it's out of genuine curiousity, inspiration, or spite), so I think this book succeeded, in that regard.
Mendès, Catulle. Mephistophela. Trans: Brian Stableford. Snuggly Books, 2019.